Category Archives: History

Books History

Notes from Back to the Garden: Nature and the Mediterranean World from Prehistory to the Present by James H.S. McGregor

p. 25 “In recent decades new research into agricultural history has overturned paradigms that many of us learnt at school. We were taught that large-scale farming began in the Fertile Crescent when Mesopotamian chieftains consolidated their hold over multiple towns and create bureaucracies that coordinated the work of irrigating grain fields. … The theory had its roots in 19th-century concerns … the narrative of state-formation, which was the major political preoccupation of post-Napoleonic Europe, was further linked with the origins of the coercive power of the community – that is to say, the origins of war…. What prehistorians now believe is quite different. The agricultural revolution came about in fits and starts; it was by no means the creation of a single culture. Its great effect was achieved by the combination of scattered discoveries into a readily adaptable package of seeds herds and techniques of cultivation…. Researchers in other fields began to revise long-accepted views of the nutritional soundness of cultivated crops. What for generations had seemed to be a positive, progressive emergence from the dark uncertainties of the Paleolithic period was turned on its head. A utopian view of the Paleolithic is now far more common, along with a nagging sense that a lot of today’s proglems can be traced to the Neolithic Revolution, the beginning of today’s problems.”
p. 17
Jericho … when excavators reached the earliest levels,.. what they found contradicted everything they believed. Pottery had always been seen as a necessary part of the agricultural revolution. Theorists believed that it was re required to store grain and oil and carry water to houses and fields. Yet there was no pottery in the earliest levels at Jericho. The people of Jericho were sedentary and lived in houses surrounded by a high wall, but much of their diet cam from hunting and foraging. … The third feature of Jericho that confounded theory was the importance of trade to a society with no obvious social hierarchy.” Argument that grain at this time rare and precious – being grown on silt deposited by spring floods in an area with little rainfall – so a luxury commodity rather than a staple. They also had naturally occurring bitumen to trade.
p. 18 Catalhoyuk – in the earliest phases of city life the meat of wild aurochs was the mainstay… evidence of widespread and diverse trade. The quantity and quality of the imported goods that the city could afford poses the question of what they had to offer in exchange. Noting that the skulls and bones of aurochs became smaller over time, Sherratt and others have suggested that Catalhoyuk may have been the first place wild aurochs were domesticated. … less robust and less aggressive. … When domestication of cattle became a widespread practice, the city lost its commercial edge and simply vanished.
p. 53 Home ground for the matriarchal view of early societies is a group of farming communities that began to spread through the Danube Valley 7,000 years ago. … recognition of a culture of ‘Old Europe’. This culture flourished in much of the Danube basin from the western coat of the Black Sea eastward into the rich soils of Hungary. The culture was precocious and longlasting. It rested on a Neolithic package that originated in the Levant and reached the region through Greece. Between 5,000 and 3,500 BC the civilization of the Danube valley was one of the largest and most technically proficient in the world… the earth was moist, deep and easy to cultivate… the Danube floodplain covered hundreds of square miles… large expanses of rich soil encouraged housing clusters and the villages of Old Europe could be quite large, certainly bigger than any housing concentrations that had existed before this time….houses were relatively uniform… though plenty of pottery and skilled metalwork have been found in burials throughout the region, the villages had no potters’ or metalworkers quarters, nor any evidence of social hierarchy. There were no obvious headmen’s houses and certainly no palaces. There is no evidence of a priestly caste, and there are no distinct shrines or temples. Religion appears to have been a matter of household practice. … the most common art objects are small, portable figures… by far the greatest number are of women … one obvious characteristic of the figurines is their obesity. Whether that represents an ideal of beauty or even of fecundity, the figurines clearly show the effects of plentiful nourishment. … Female dominance in one sphere did not carry over into another, and contemporary specialists believe that these communities were not strictly matriarchal. Men seem to have controlled external relations involving trade and negotiations with neighbouring chiefs, while the rituals represented by the female figurines seem to have emphasized the dominant role of women inside the house, and perhaps were connected with ancestor cults centred on their mothers and aunts.”
read more »

Books History Politics Women's history

From Our Hidden Lives: The Everyday Diaries of a Forgotten Britain 1945-48 (ed) Simon Garfield

p. 74 Thursday 9 August, 1945, Edie Rutherford, (43 at the end of the war, a proud and sometimes sanctimonious housewife in Sheffield, married to a timber merchant and football fanatic, eager for news from her native South Africa,… delighted with the Labour government despite everything).
“Japan gets her second atomic bomb. How many more before she wakens? I brought up the subject of the new bomb at work yesterday. Horror of its power if definitely the chief reaction …All at work commented on the cost of this atomic bomb research and remembered the howl that always goes up if 2/6d weekly is suggested for adding to old-age pensions. We live in a mad world.”

p. 375 Wednesday 2 April , Maggie Joy Blunt, 1947 (a lyrical and talented writer in her mid-30s living in a cottage by Burnham Beeches, near Slough, eager to leave her job as a publicity assistant in a metals company, frustrated that she can’t put her public school and university training to better use) – she’ through the diaries trying to write an 18th-century biography, she eventually died as a retired bookseller, no book recorded).
“Sarah, of tolerant, liberal outlook, living in a very conservative, well-to do-country district where everyone grumbles as they do here, obtained via her MP a ticket for the House one evening and sat in the Members’ Gallery. Heard Eden and Shinwell and said it was very interesting, but thought they wasted too much time talking for the sake of it and on schoolboy backchat.”

p. 443 Tuesday, 2 September 1947 Maggie Joy Blunt
“We none of use really understand what it’s all about, what the Government is doing for the future. They are criticised for being in too much of a hurry, trying to impose their ideals too rapidly, yet future generations may bless their little hour of power.
Smallness of plaice. Fishmonger explained that young shoals were being netted instead of thrown back. “Soon the North Sea will be dry of fish – that’s what will happen.”

p. 455 Monday 6 October Maggie Joy Blunt
Last week, an article by Easterbrook in the Northern Chronicle on ‘Britain is Being Poisoned’ – our rivers polluted and creatures in it killed off by man’s carelessness. Now an RU book on man-eating tigers (by Jim Corbett) in which the author says that this magnificent beast is being threatened by extermination.; Man is a slovenly, careless, greedy creature allowed to live in a miraculously wonderful world, which he won’t appreciate.”

Books Environmental politics History

Notes from An Environmental History of Medieval Europe, by Richard C. Hoffman

p. 32 “… particulars had to be learned by human users, sometimes through processes of trial and error. Early Neolithic clearances of fields in upland Britain became moorland and peat bog under later wetter conditions. Bronze Age clearances for pasture in Denmark strained local wood supplies to the point that some pasture was left to grow back as trees.”

p. 34 Mediterranean Europe acquired its Neolithic agriculture complex from southwestern Asia during the sixth and fifth millennium BCE. At first this comprised cereal grasses, legumes, and ovicaprida… intensive hand labour by humans maintained the system until draught animals (oxen, donkey) and a simple plough arrived by the early Bronze Age…. Crops had to be adapted to the rainy cool winter and the hot dry summer: annual cereals seeded in autumn grow throughout the winter and spring to mature before the summer drought; perennial grasses, vines, olives and other plants go dormant or otherwise adapt to the heat. .. Grain, olives and vines have formed the ruling trinity of Med crops since pre-classical times, providing the ancient staple diet of bread, oil and wine. Less stereotyped legumes from field or garden could provide important supplements. Grain crops, wheat and barley, … were reared on ploughed fields (ager) on a two-year cycle, alternating crop and fallow. Resting the field one year in two and ploughing the weeds under hoarded two years of previous water for the grain. Bare fallow leaves the soil surface open during the winter rains, both absorbing water and risking erosion. … Olive trees, … sensitive to frost … on the north they tidily mark a natural boundary of Mediterranean agriculture, which mostly coincided with that of the Roman world. .. Wines and olives might be grown beside vegetables in gardens, but especially when raised for family subsistence were often interplanted in grain fields as cultura mixta. … Livestock played a secondary role … a major technical problem inhibited livestock rearing in the Med, as summer forage was sparse in agricultural areas long cleared of most woodlands and subject to summer drought. The typical response even before good written records was vertical transhumance; a semi-annual movement of livestock and their keepers … to summer pastures in the mountains. The practice moved the animals to forage at the price of depriving the arable land of their manure and the risk of overgrazing upland woodlands and turning them to grass, maquis or garrigue. Transhumance componmuded the problem of fertility maintenance in Med dry farming, an issue that much worried Roman agricultural writers.”

p. 52-54 During and after Roman fall “a long series of epidemics and losses of regional populations caused inhabitants of the western provinces to decline steadily in numbers from the 15-20 million range of the second century to 8-10 million about 600. The economy lost its urban focus… environmental forces of both natural and anthropogenic origins had some significance in this evolution, while even more can be attributed to the environmental impacts of the cultural changes themselves. … [the end of ] the relatively warm and dry Roman Optimum… by the third century, falling general sea levels reveal, and traces of volcanic activity in ice cores help explain, a general cooling that continued into the fourth century, although some regions then became drier. In the Alps, the glaciers were advancing and the tree line creeping downwards. In winter 406, the lower Rhine surprisingly froze solid, giving Germanic invaders easy passage to plunder in Gaul. The ensuing fifth century, in Europe at least, was cooler still, and in the north up to c.450 wetter, but aridity in the southern Med is blamed for abandoned North African farmland. If, as some writers now estimate, mean annual temperatures declined by 1-1.5C from the second century to the sixth, Europe outside the Med basin was becoming less amenable to the favoured crops of Med agrosystems….
Severe pandemics ravaged the Empire during the late second century and again in the mid-third, killing as much as a third of its inhabitants. Some may rather have succumbed to ensuing food shortages and famines… most modern authorities now think these were smallpox, measles or influenza rather than plague. .. most famous is the ‘Justinian plague’, named retrospectively for East Roman Emperor Justinian (527-65)… Most late 20th-century scholars accepted this as the first pandemic of bubonic plaque … less tendentious label for the entire episode is Late Medieval Pandemic. Whatever the pathogenic agent, it was new or long unfamiliar in the region, entered from Africa, probably by way of Egypt, and caused many deaths. … a possibly new endemic presence of malaria… whose several varieties had colonized the Med since at least the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. … the form most common in the western Med debilitated rather than immediately killed, leaving victims with weakened immune systems and life spans shortened by other diseases, and persuading survivors to abandon marshy areas. …
read more »

Books History Women's history

Notes from ‘The Gardens of the British Working Class’

With a focus on the women, who are more prominent in the early period and less so in the later …

From Thomas Tusser, in 1562, talks about the work of housewifery, which is much focused on the garden …
“In Marche, and in Aprill, from morning to night;
in sowing and setting, good huswives delight.
To have in their garden, or some other plot;
to trim up their house, and to furnish their plot.

Have millons (melons) at Milhelmas, parsnips in lent;
in June buttered beans, saveth fish to be spent.
With these, and good pottagethrough having than;
thou winnest the heart of thy labouring man.’

He also house the housewife planting raspberries and roses together, and keeping bees. p. 14

Samuel Hartlib reports the rise of market gardening in the UK, (although Cochester had a vegetable market by 1529, and one is reported outside St Paul’s in London in the 13th century) in the early 1600s, helped by the arrival of Dutch refugees and their skills from the late 1560s. Through the dearth of the 1590s they helped keep London fed, “One of the factors that made the Dutch and Flemish so successful was their intensive use of manure … these gardeners would dig through the gravel deposits that ringed London, selling the stone for ballast in ships and street repairs. The holes were then filled with ‘the filth of the city… as rich and black as thick ink’.” p. 29

But some Londoners “thought the intensive cultivation would ruin the soil, so were reluctant to rent out their land to Hugenot gardeners”. p. 31

“One hundred years earlier, vegetables were regarded as food for peasants, with the wealthy eating meat and fish dressed with rich sauces, followed by dishes of sweetmeats.By the early 17th century, new vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus were beginning to feature in the fashionable diet.”

“Goodwife Cantrey makes a tantalisingly fleeting appearance in the mid-17th century. The wife of a Northamptonshire yeoman farmer, she planted a herb plot with fennel for an infusion to ease weak eyes, camomile for headaches and goat’s rue as an antidote to the plague. An idea of some of the flowers and fruit that she cultivated in her garden has also survived in the form of a receipt for plants supplied on 28 July 1658 to the Harton family of Kirby Hall. The list inclused lupins, larkspurs, sabious, sweet wiliams, honeysuckle and ‘double hollioake’, along with four sorts of gooseberries – white, green, red and yellow – double currants and ‘violette plumbe’….

An elderly lady from Essex, interviewed in the 1990s, recalled her grandmother using bottles of different tinctures on a sunny windowsil: one with marigold flowers in alcohol for sprains and sores, another of Madonna lily infused in oil to ease burns. A traditional recipe was to pick the flowers of St John’s wort on 24 June, the saint’s day, and put them on a windowsill in water until the sun turned the liquid red. The so-called blood of St John could then be used to treat skin complaints, as well as a balm against evil and the plague.” p. 37

In London … “Given that many physicians and apothecaries could not grow their own medicinal herbs, they had to turn to women gardeners. Early 17th-century records show that the physicians of St Thomas’s hospital in London employed a herb woman to provide the raw materials for the medicines and ointments that the chief medical officer, the apothecary, prescribed for his patients .. In 1629 it as noted that the apothecary was paid £60 per annum … the herb woman a mere £4. The apothecary was expected to pay for his ingredients out of his salary, so the herb woman may have received additional money.” p. 39

“By the end of the 17th century an increasing number of herbwomen were acquiring more respected social status, especially those able to rent stalls in London’s markets, where they sold not only medicinal plants but also herbs for stewing and cooking. .. The records for the Fleet Market for the years 1737-38 for instance, identify Mary Leech and Judith Vardey as specialists in ‘Physick Hrebs’. The records for the following years, 1739-40, go further, specifying the location of the hardens from which the herbs were gathered. Some herb women were located near the City, such as Hannah Smith from Grub Street in Finsbury, but most came from neighbouring suburbs such as Bethnal Green and stepney Green, Bermondsey, Camberwell and Vauxhall. … As well as selling planst at the herb market in Covent Garden, the women were employed toe strew halls in the hall in Southwark. One woman who held a long tenure as a regular supplier of herbs to Bridge House was Mary Earle, who died in 1758, leaving bequests to £20 to each of her granddaughters, £30 to her grandson, and her remaining estate to her daughter-in-law, a substantial estate for a woman.” pp. 42-3

For Michelmas 1698 John Risdall or Risden is recorded as the head gardener at Arbury, at an annual salary of £20 …. the Arbury records are particularly interesting in showing the range, albeit repetitive, of the tasks assigned to the women. Ann Suffolk and a woman named as Elizabeth were recorded working in the harden in April 1699, weeding and sweeping the grass. These two tasks took up a large proportion of their time throughout the summer, but they are also noted gathering herbs for the stillroom, carrying gravel, gathering strawberries and herbs for the kitchen, cutting rot out of apples, husking walnuts and cutting shreds. The last task refers to the lengths of cloth or leather that were cut into thin strips for fixing espaliers and climbers on walls. The women are recorded in February 2701 “straighting nails” for Risdall to use in tghe kitchen garden. During harvest time, they are often noted as absent, but appear in other account books for the estate, paid for bringing in the hay.” p. 75

Books Environmental politics History

Agricultural notes

Notes from Martin Empson’s, Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology and Human History

p. 144
“The census of 1851 shows that year was the peak of rural employment in Britain… Twenty years later there were more people working in domestic service than in farming. By 1880 the number working in agriculture had fallen to approximately one in eight of the working population; by the start of the Second World War the corresponding figure was one in 20.”

p. 147 On the sewing of turnip seed (lost skills!) from a contemporary account: “The sower had a small seed bowl on his chest; this was secured by a leather band which went around his neck. He took the small seed between his finger and thumb and sowed in step; that is, as his left foot came up his left hand dipped into the seed-bowl and scattered the seed. It was a skilled job to sow with both hands and keep in step as the rhythm could very easily be broken. If this happened, the sower would have to stop and start again, as a break in the rhythm meant a blank patch in the sowing. Few men, too, could judge the amount of seed to sow at each pinch of the thumb and forefinger; turnip seed was sown at the rate of half a pint an acre.. not more than one or two men on each farm could sow at the necessary rate with two hands. Most men were only able to sew with one hand.”
(quoting from George Ewart Evans, Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay, 1965)

p. 167
“after 1941 rationing levels meant that the average diet was better than before the war. AT the end of the war there were still 545,000 farm horses, but the 56,000 tractors on British farms had mushroomed to 230,000 by January 1946 and the number of milking machines increased by 60% between 1942 and 1946.”

p. 171
Government protection for farmers was virtually removed in India in 1991. “Before 1991 there were ‘no mass peasant suicides owing to debt’ but between 1998 and December 2008 there were 198,000 suicides and ‘specifically debt-driven suicides have claimed over 60,000 peasant lives over the last decade’. (ref: Parnaik and Moyo The Agrarian Question in the New-Liberal Era, 2011.)

p. 174 In the US 160 litres of oil are used to produce a tonne of maize. In Mexico it is less than five litres.

p. 184 One of the consequences of the Green REvolution was a tendency towards monoculture of staple crops such as grain or rice… ‘Countries with vegetable consumption of more than 100 grams of vegetables per day do not have vitamin A deficiency as a major problem… it only takes two tablespoonfuls of yellow sweet potatoes, half a cup of dark green leafy vegetables or two thirds of a medium-sized mango a day to meet the vitamin A requirements of a pre-school child. … Vitamin A deficiency in adults and children is unlikely to occur without other nutitional deficiencies”

p. 185 A 2007 estimated the lowest cost of a daily diet to meet the nutritional needs of a family of two adults and three children, one under two, in Bangladesh, Burma, Ethiopia and Tanzania … ranged from 72US cents in Tanzania to $1.17 in Ethiopia… 79% of households in Bangladesh, all households in Ethiopia and the very poor in Burma and Tanzania could not meet it. In Ethiopia a day’s unskilled work only covered 69% – in Burma it was 50%.

p. 225 “As early as 1963 one US state, Vermont, enacted legislation banning the sale of disposable bottles, driven by farmers who found their cows eating containers that had been thrown into their fields. But the packaging industry fought back. Within a few months of the Vermont legislation, the American Can Company and the Owens-Illionis Glass Company (inventors, respectively, of the disposable can and bottle) formed Keep America Beautiful (KAB). With other corporations such as Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company who had similar concerns, they initiated a well-funded campaign to persuade Americans there was a new problem in society – litter, caused by litterbugs, a term invented by KAB. KAB rapidly became a major organisation with a membership of 70 million. It produced books for schools about the problem of litter, funded anti-litter campaigns, and welcomed ‘any legislation that cracked down on individuals who carelessly tossed their trash’. … Four years after it was passed, the Vermont law banning the sale of disposable bottles was defeated.”

Books History Women's history

An interesting character in a period of change

From Venantius Fortunatus: A Latin Poet in Merovingian Gaul by Judith George

p.2 “This period was one of cultural transition, the Gallo-Romans clinging their traditional Romanitas, the Franks assimilating it with verve and enthusiasm. The impact of a poet of Fortunatus’ calibre and pedigree, an embodiment of the literary tradition they revered, on so susceptible an audience was bound to be strong. Even two generations later, the grandson of Dynamius, a Provencal noble and patron of the poet, composed an epitaph for his grandparents, with pride in their association wjth Fortunatus… his influence can be seen in writers not only in Gaul, but also in Anglo-Saxon England and in Ireland, well into the Middle Ages.”

p. 13 “The nuns of Radegund’s community in Poitiers adopted the Rule of Caesarius, which specified they should learn to read, and spend two hours a day doing so. Caesaria, abbess of the convent of St Jean in Arles, advised them: ‘COnstantly read and listen to the holy writings … gather from them previous pearls to hand on your ears, make from them rings and bracelets’… one of the biographies of their founder was written by a nun, Baudonivia, confirms the general practice of more than basic literacy.”

p. 163 “Baudonivia records of Radegund that: “She was always anxious for peace, always concerned with the wellbeing of her country. When there was tension between the kingdoms, since she loved all the kings, she prayed for the life of all and taught us to pray without ceasing for their settled state. When she heard there was any ill feeling between them, she feared with all her being and sent letters to both sides alike, so they would not resort to arms or war between themselves, but should establish peace, and thus the country not come to disaster. Likewise, she directed requests to their chief men that they should give peaceable advice to the high kings, so that, under their government, the wellbeing of the people and country should be improved.”

p. 35 “Panegyric was one of the most important literary genres in public and ceremonial life in the classical world, a vital tool of political communication and negotiation, especially between a ruler and his people. .. the fourth-century panegyrists under the Tetrarchy and the Gallic rhetorical schools that this genre reached a peak in its popularity, its recognized part in cultural life, its wide use as a subtle and influential political tool and in the full exploration of its literary potential.”

p. 59 “the address to Chilperic … was given in a tense political situation, where Fortunatus was playing an active and interventionist role. The formal structure of the genre brought to bear on Chilperic the full prestigious weight of Roman panegyric, playing on the king’s cultural aspirations, and holding up to him a mirror of the ideal statesman, the Christian ruler.”