How Asian Food Got Spicy, and European Food Bland


, , , , , , , ,

The other day, cruising around the internet led me to some interesting, coincidentally related articles.

The first–the one I was actually looking for–was about how chiles got to India. I’ve talked here about how chile peppers became central to the cuisine of Sichuan, China, via the Spanish Philippines in the late 1500s. But the Spanish never really did significant trade in India. Did the chile get there overland from Sichuan, or perhaps via Southeast Asians trading in the Philippines and then on West? Nope. Score one for the Portuguese, it turns out.

According a Time Magazine article,

Portuguese traders carried it to settlements and nascent colonies in West Africa, in India and around East Asia. Within 30 years of Columbus’ first journey, at least three different types of chili plants were growing in the Portuguese enclave of Goa, on India’s west coast.

The Portugese had gotten a non-interference agreement for West Africa and the coast of Brazil as a result of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. They conquered Goa in 1510 and established a presence in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, in modern Thailand, in the same timeframe. The Portuguese presence in Thailand mainly served as a jumping-off point for Portugese conquest of the Spice Islands, the source of cinnamon and cloves, but it also had a very clear effect on the future of Thai cuisine.

This article, which is also more accurate than the Time article about where all the different species of chile peppers originated, goes a bit deeper on the history of chiles in China as well. They actually arrived in China before the Spanish took control of Manila, though who took them there from where is unclear. However, it’s clear enough from Chinese sources that the chile, along with other New World plants, was a significant portion of Chinese trade with the Philippines in the early-to-mid 1600s, and the new foods formed part of Qing imperial policy for recolonizing Sichuan.

So given that Spain and Portugal were so instrumental in spreading chiles all over the Eastern Hemisphere in very short order, why are they relatively rare in European cuisine? They would certainly have been cheaper than black pepper, which at the time had to be obtained at great expense from the Far East.

This NPR article posits that that was the problem: that the increasing availability of spices from both Southeast Asia and the New World actually made highly seasoned food less appealing as a marker of status to the upper classes. In Roman and medieval times, combinations of sweet and savory, and sweet and sour, were common at least in upper class cooking. Black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves were expensive flavorings that feature in a number of high class medieval recipes. One book I’ve read indicates that records of saffron purchases show up in English royal expense rolls in the 11th century. But outside of Spain, which shares several culinary techniques with Moroccan cuisine, most of those pairings went by the wayside in the high Renaissance. To me, the NPR article doesn’t satisfactorily explain why the chile pepper didn’t catch on with the less well-to-do the way the potato and the tomato did. But it’s an interesting article in other ways about changing tastes–not to mention philosophies of medicine–in the Imperial age.

And finally, I came across a very interesting podcast on Tudor England’s ties with the main Islamic powers of the day–the Ottoman and Persian empires, and the Kingdom of Morocco. It seems it was an explicit diplomatic policy under Elizabeth I, meant to be used as a hedge against the Catholic powers of southern Europe. The diplomatic relations fell apart under her successor, James I, but the commerce established as part of the diplomatic initiative simply gained steam as England began to acquire its own colonies abroad.




On Dictionaries


, , , ,

I’m currently reading a book on translation called Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. It’s really about philosophies of language, although it’s a fun and fairly accessible book, so don’t let that put you off.

At any rate, he points out a rather key difference in the way Europeans and Chinese have approached the making of dictionaries, and by extension, the purpose of language and whole lot of much bigger cultural implications.

In the West (including in the Fertile Crescent in ancient times), the first dictionaries were bi- or multilingual. There was, however, a glossary written in Greece by Philitas of Cos in the 4th century BCE that gave definitions for ancient terms from Homer and other literary works. Otherwise, other than a 9th c. AD etymological dictionary of Irish (written in a mix of Irish and Latin), dictionaries existed in the West for two reasons: maintaining the accessibility of Latin as vernacular languages became increasingly distant from it, and to support trade. Truth be told, even the Latin dictionaries were really as much to support trade and inter-European diplomatic relations as anything more literary or metaphysical, since Latin was the language in which most contracts, treaties and other official documents were written until the Renaissance.

The bilingual vernacular dictionaries are interesting time capsules in their own right. There’s a fascinating commercial phrasebook from the late 1400’s in the British Library. From memory–I was 14 when I saw it, which says something about the impression it made–it contains various phrases useful for traveling merchants, with the English on the left, and then corresponding columns for Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic (written using the Latin alphabet, following English phonetic conventions). Most are the same phrases you’d find in any tourist phrasebook today (numbers, please, thank you, where is the bank of….), while others have to do with negotiating customs and particular types of financial instruments in use at the time.

Meanwhile, Chinese dictionaries reveal entirely different preoccupations. The Chinese like to say they have 5000 years of recorded history. The first 1000 might be questionable as factual history, but linguistically, Chinese is probably the oldest unbroken written tradition in the world. While meanings have evolved and a modern person needs some training to read classical Chinese easily, the actual writing system, including the ancient “seal” script, was standardized in the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), and has remained in continual usage. Calligraphy, including the seal-script style, is still a fairly popular art form, and seal script is also a commonly available choice for modern name chops.

Chinese script evolution

The reason for this is the longstanding Chinese reverence for ancient texts, and the earliest dictionaries, from at least the 3rd century BCE, are lists of still older forms of Chinese characters with their then-modern equivalents. Confucius, living in the same period, makes multiple references to earlier histories as illustrative examples, and the civil service exam system started in the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220AD) was based on knowledge and analysis of Confucian and earlier classics.

There are actually two words for “dictionary” in Chinese: zìdiǎn and cídiǎn. Zì specifically means a written character, while cí refers more generally to oral language. Most modern Chinese dictionaries are cídiǎn, but traditionally they were zìdiǎn, because the purpose was maintaining access and continuity of the classical written tradition for people seeking to gain access to the civil service. There are some similarities with the medieval Latin dictionaries in terms of purpose, but the Chinese works are not so much about translating meaning–the same character is used for a given word across all Chinese languages–as they are about documenting changes in the graphical form.

Chinese has an extremely rich vocabulary, with a multiplicity of similar words providing very fine shades of meaning. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the first Chinese dictionaries were organized semantically: that is, they’re about elucidating the differences between similar words relating to a given topic (“On Trees”, for example). The second type, beginnning in the 2nd c. AD, provides a means of looking up a word based on how it’s written, usually with characters using the smallest number of brush strokes coming first. This is somewhat similar to the Western scheme of organizing by alphabetical order, except that stroke count has nothing to do with how a word sounds. In the 7th c AD, some books were organized by rhyming schemes–but these were to support the writing of poetry, a highly valued talent in literati circles; they presumed you already knew the meanings of the words. In short, for most of Chinese history, dictionaries were by and for educated people expanding their knowledge of an already ancient written language, not for explaining the meanings of words. (Side note: early Arabic dictionaries also used the latter two systems, despite it being a basically alphabetic script.)

There’s a profound nationalism about language inherent in the traditional Chinese approach–one that the West only caught up with in the Renaissance. This is when the first monolingual dictionaries appeared in Europe. The first monolingual dictionary was published in Italy in 1502–in Latin. The first vernacular dictionary was Spanish, published in 1611. Curiously, since Italy was then not a unified country nor one with a truly common language, an Italian vocabulary followed in 1612. French and English dictionaries followed. These all were symptoms of the consolidating nation-states of Europe–ones that used newly standardizing languages as markers of nationality, and as a means of creating a sense of national unity.

 *     *     *     *     *

In case you’re curious how modern Chinese dictionaries are organized: they generally follow a hybrid system of stroke count (which is how you look up a word if you don’t know how it sounds) and alphabetization using whatever romanization system has been adopted by the place printing the dictionary (Wade-Giles in Taiwan, pinyin in mainland China). But because of the synonym-richness I alluded to earlier, there are also conceptually organized dictionaries that are more or less etymologically based. I have a bilingual one, which works like this:


The basic element, or radical, is defined–here it’s bao, to envelop something. Put it together with other radicals, and you start to see how different characters came to mean different things. For example, the bao radical with a sitting person means embryo, or metaphorically, something encased inside something else. Put that character together with the radical for food (middle of the left column of the right page), and you get the word for full, as in “stuffed with food”. With the radical for water (middle column), you get something surrounded by water, or soaked. And so on.



A Brief History of Cheese


, , , ,

The other night I was leafing through my Science of Cheese (Tunick) book in preparation for some cheesemaking. I was planning to make two different cheeses, but buy raw milk for only one of them (it costs 4 times as much as ordinary pasteurized milk where I live!). In trying to figure out why the USDA came up with the magic number of 60 days of aging for raw-milk cheese, I came across a number of other interesting factoids:

Pliny mentions blue-vein cheeses. A blue cheese may have been on the menu in Charlemagne’s palace in 778. Gorgonzola is mentioned by name in 879, Roquefort in 1070. Brie was recorded in the 8th century. These are all soft cheeses that are aged only a few weeks. But outside of mountain regions, the larger, long-aging cheeses such as Goudas generally appear in the records only in the 1100-1200s. And of course, there are a variety of other types of cheeses across most of Eurasia as well as central and eastern Africa.

The story begins, as with many of the West’s favorite foods, in central/west Asia. Or maybe not. The classic origin myth has a lone Middle Eastern shepherd discovering cheese after carrying around milk in a sheep stomach for a day. This is fairly improbable for a number of reasons. The first, that a single guy would have been the first to carry liquid in an animal’s stomach at a time when herding was common, and therefore would have been the sole discoverer of the process of rennet-based coagulation. Second, animal rennet, the natural coagulant found in mammalian stomachs used to digest milk, is rare in cheesemaking outside of Europe. Most other cheese-making traditions make use of the naturally occurring bacteria found in raw milk, heat and sometimes additional acid, to make variations on cultured cream, yogurt, and fresh cheeses, such as cottage cheese, ricotta, etc.

In fact, according to a guest on this Gastropod podcast, dairying precedes the emergence of the lactase-persistence gene in humans by about 1000 years. There’s evidence that points to the emergence of the gene in Central Europe 7-10 thousand years ago or more. Not only did the genes show up in that timeframe, so did cheesemaking: ceramic sieves with cheese residue found in Poland have been dated to the 6th millennium BCE. Some people bearing this gene–in extremely high concentrations in northwestern Europe–may have wandered back towards the Middle East, with further migrations into East Africa. The gene may also have evolved in Central Asia and spread west…and then back east. Or it may have evolved independently in both regions as a result of pastoral practices in both regions. (Kazakhs have a relatively high percentage of the gene, but very little European heritage.) Almost certainly, the Indo-European diaspora, running from 4000-1000 BCE, took the practice of dairying and yogurt-making into northern India, though paneer (a word of Persian origin) appears to have arrived much later. The world’s oldest preserved cheese, found in the Taklamakan desert in what is now the far northwest of China, has been dated to c. 1600 BCE.

The Indo-European expansion (Source: Wikipedia)

In any case, rennet-based cheesemaking, including hard, aged cheeses in the mountains, was well-established in Europe by the time of Homer, and was a major commodity in the Roman era, to the point of being subject to price controls under Diocletian. Smoked cheeses were also known. Smoking may have been a common preservation method for home-made cheeses, since it was cheap (salt was expensive). The Romans evidently preferred softer cheeses, and there’s speculation that cheesemaking in Gaul largely evolved in accordance with Roman cheesemaking techniques and Roman market demand.

It may seem odd that warm-weather regions tend to produce fresh cheeses that need to be eaten within a few days while colder ones produce cheeses that age for months–wouldn’t you have wanted it to be the other way around, in the days before refrigeration? But in colder regions, forage becomes scarce in the winter months. In particularly lean winters, cows product little to no milk. In order to have dairy nutrients readily available in winter, long-lived cheeses are a necessity. Conversely, in many warm regions, there is little or no rain during the summer, so although spring and summer are peak milk-producing times for dairy animals, who generally give birth in the spring, pasturage actually becomes richer in the fall and winter, which extends the quality milking season.

Aging a large cheese is also something that must be done slowly to allow the interior of the cheese to ripen to the same degree as the exterior. Warmer temperatures speed up the aging process, making it difficult to produce a large, evenly ripened cheese wheel. Salt is often used in cheese-making to retard aging, but the salt flavor becomes more concentrated as a cheese ages, becoming actively bitter at a certain point.

I’ve mentioned a few times so far that hard, aged cheeses were largely a mountain phenomenon until the high middle ages. This goes back to the need for cool climates for controlled aging. You can get this naturally at high altitudes and latitudes, but in more temperate lowlands, such as the northwestern European plain, you typically need specialized real estate: caves and cellars. It so happens that the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe saw the rise of large abbeys and monasteries–with real estate, stable workforces, and a habit of record-making, all of which facilitated systematic development and consistent execution of new cheese types. Moreover, since these cheeses formed part of the abbeys’ income as opposed to being for local consumption, they needed to be transportable over long distances within the European interior. There was, therefore, a clear economic incentive for individual abbeys to develop their own distinctive, firm, long-lived cheeses that could travel.

Meanwhile, the rest of central-west Eurasia continued to use cultured dairy products, yogurts, and dried curds. China and southeast Asia–then under Chinese influence–were exceptions. China has been one of the most densely populated regions of the world for centuries, and the Chinese put virtually all arable land under crop cultivation from very early on in their history, which left relatively little land for pasturage. Pigs and chickens, which eat almost anything available around a farm, are the dominant domestic animals. The Chinese word for “cow” (niu) is as likely to refer to a water buffalo–a beast of burden–as to what a Westerner would think of as a domestic animal. Sheep and goats are both called yang, and counted as quintessentially foreign. Horses and cows require roughly the same amount of pasture area, and the Chinese were far more preoccupied with using their limited pasturage for obtaining and raising horses for military purposes than with a low-ROI animal like cows.

So going back to Europe and its exceptional diversity of cheese types…was that 8th century Brie or 9th century Gorgonzola similar to today’s cheeses of the same name? In most cases it’s hard to say–detailed descriptions of food were certainly a thing in Epicurus‘ day and through the Roman empire, but not again until the Renaissance (when cheese fell out of favor for a while as “unhealthy”, for reasons I haven’t yet tracked down). It’s quite possible that they were broadly in the same category of cheeses as they occupy today, given that the latitude and topography haven’t changed. But there are many other variables that give cheese its flavor and texture.

  • The amount of fat in the milk contributes to how soft or hard the cheese will be. Higher-fat cheeses are typically soft (think double and triple-creams). Milks from different animal breeds have different fat content; as new breeds were developed or introduced from other regions, fat content could have changed, and therefore the texture of the cheese would have been different.
  • The availability of salt. The salt industry was one of many that collapsed after the fall of Rome, due to the increasing uncertainty of transport within Europe. Would Dark Ages cheeses have used as much of the precious commodity as later times, when it again became more readily available?
  • The 8th and 9th centuries were colder than today; the 12th and 13th centuries were warmer. This would have had effects on several things: the amount and type of feed available to animals at various times of year; how carefully aging needed to be controlled; and not least, the types of bacteria living in a given region. Bacteria don’t exist in a vacuum: they’re part and parcel of the entire biome, highly subject to variations of temperature, humidity, local plant and animal species, etc. All of these things likely varied over the centuries, and therefore the bacteria which give a cheese its character did as well. This was probably a gradual process as far as cheesemaking was concerned: wooden cheesemaking equipment such as vats and spoons, impregnated with local cultures, were handed down from one generation to the next, but new bacterial additions to the biome would have mingled continually with the existing ones.

Cheese development in Europe rebounded after Renaissance prejudices died down. A whole flurry of new cheeses, including Camembert, came into being in the 18th and 19th centuries, aided by increased ease of transport and idea exchanges as well as increasing scientific knowledge.

The era of European imperialism also took cheese to places it had never before been seen: Australia and the Americas. Africa already had some cheeses of its own, especially in the north and east: either of the Middle Eastern yogurt/cultured curd varieties, or heavily salted, hard-pressed cheeses. The French introduced their own cheesemaking traditions in West Africa in the 19th century, a few of which survive in pockets. Australia naturally inherited cheddar-type English cheeses. The cheese situation in the Americas is actually a direct result of two things: climate and degree of native extermination. Most of Mesoamerica is simply too hot for aged cheeses, so Spanish fresh cheeses such as queso fresco and queso blanco are common. North and South America are more temperate, but cheese varieties are similarly limited in the Andean nations; these countries still have populations that are heavily native or mestizo, and native Americans are uniformly lactase-nonpersistent, since there were no dairy animals in the Americas prior to Spanish conquest. But in places like Argentina and North America, where the native population was effectively replaced by European immigrants, a variety of European-style cheeses can be found.

Animal rennet began to be mass-produced in the U.S. in the 1860s, which led increasingly to mass-production of cheese itself. Without strongly established local cheese traditions, mass-produced cheeses quickly took over in the U.S. Fortunately, there’s only so much “cheese food” a nation can take. As of 2013, per capita consumption of processed cheese products was the lowest since 1974, declining 3.9 percent from 2012.

Reflections on Armistice Day

I wrote this a year ago.

The Borg Queen

I’m just off the plane from France, where I combined the OpenStack Summit with a family vacation. As we landed, the American flight attendant explained to the plane that it was Veteran’s Day in the U.S., which means that we thank our veterans for their service. I was bitterly amused.


In Europe November 11th is Armistice Day. It celebrates the day peace was made at the end of the “War To End All Wars”–WWI. When I lived in the Pas de Calais, where most of it was fought, it was still living memory for old folks, a somber day of wearing black and visiting graves, and remembering the horrors of that time, and being thankful for peace. I found it horribly ironic that this woman, who clearly had no notion of the history of this particular date, felt she was positioned to teach half the plane about it.

View original post 491 more words

So Basically, It Was All the Fault of the Germans


, , , , , , , , , ,

That title was how I breezily summed up a 10-minute whirlwind history of the south of France for my son last fall. We were having a dinner of mussels (him) and brandade (me) in a cafe next to the arena in Nîmes, the first stop on a visit that would take us from the Roman sites of Provence to medieval Carcassonne and Cathar country.

Languedoc-Rousillon-map-france       Languedoc-Rousillon

We had spent the afternoon basking in romanitas, or at least the version put out by Nîmes tourist bureau: the noble Roman virtues of legalism, stoic integrity and civic-mindedness–and therefore their famous civil engineering, as exemplified by the local arena and aqueduct. We had also learned that “arena” comes from the Roman word for sand, as in what you throw on the ground to soak up the blood of the various wild animals, criminals and gladiators being maimed and killed for the enjoyment of the public. Romanitas.

Now I explained how as the Roman Empire crumbled due to decadence and demographic pressures in the east, the Visigoths (Romanized Germans) moved in to southern Gaul and took over/married for farmlands from the local Gallo-Roman gentry. And then the Franks (less-Romanized Germans) spent several centuries trying to establish control of the area. The Capetians (descendants of the Salian Franks, now speaking middle French with lots of German mixed in) spent decades massacring the population of the Languedoc in the 1200s, ultimately replacing the region’s leaders with northerners with direct personal allegiance to the French king. This largely ended the south’s de facto independence from the Frankish north. And then the Nazis (the Germanest of Germans, and despite Third Empire rhetoric, definitely not Roman) occupied the whole place during WWII.

The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. – Voltaire

“What about the English?” my sister later asked. After all, the English have been hating the French for centuries, and the French have happily responded with arch contempt. But the English were really just a problem for about three centuries in the western part of France, until they finally realized that their continental empire had in fact been lost with the death of Richard the Lionheart in 1199. (There were some further frictions between the two countries in the 18th and 19th centuries as they tried to carve up the rest of the world between them, but here we’re discussing things happening on French soil.) The people of the Languedoc never bothered about the English much; in fact, given the centuries-long rivalry between the dukes of Aquitaine and the counts of Toulouse, having the westerners tied up with the irksome English was very much to the southerners’ advantage. No, for the southerners, it was always the Germans. Nearly 2,000 years of Germans.

The Angevin Empire. Notice that the Languedoc region is a separate entity. (Credit:

The Angevin Empire. Notice that the Languedoc/Toulouse region is a separate entity. (Credit: “France 1154-en” by Reigen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

To be fair, it was the original Germans, the Visigoths, who put their stamp on the local character. So let’s go back a bit:

Visigothic kingdomSource:

You can see from the map that Visigoths had conquered both the area of Languedoc-Roussillon as well as Aquitaine and most of Iberia by the time of their formal recognition as a Roman tributary state in the 470s. Their capital was at Toulouse. The Franks, allied with the Burgundians, took most of Aquitaine and then some in 507, leaving only the province of Septimania–which corresponds almost exactly to the modern Languedoc-Roussillon–as the only bit of Visigothia north of the Pyrenees. The Visigothic capital moved to Toledo, and Septimania became a political backwater, though still a wealthy and relatively stable one, owing to its long Roman heritage and web of commercial relationships throughout the Mediterranean. After the Spanish king converted from Arian to Catholic Christianity in the 580s, the Church became increasingly powerful in the political sphere, making things very difficult for Spanish Jews. Forced conversions and later an expulsion edict were instituted in the 600s, leading large numbers of Jews to flee to Septimania. There they stayed, with relatively tolerant laws, including a number governing intermarriage with Christians, allowing them to live according to their own lights. In fact in Carolingian times, according to Riche, Languedocian church officials started agitating for changes to intermarriage and conversion laws, as they felt they were losing too many parishioners to Judaism.

The southerners so thoroughly disliked the Franks that the siege of Narbonne (752-759) even saw the Septimanian nobility allying themselves with the Umayyad Moslems who had conquered Spain and were invading southern Gaul. (After all, they’d been trading profitably with North Africa for centuries.) They lost, and the Languedoc region officially became part of the Frankish Empire in 759. Even so, the local nobility in Languedoc continued to marry into Spain, particularly the kingdoms of Navarro, Aragon and Catalonia, until the 1200s. They shared a common language–the various dialects of Occitan–and degrees of religious fervor aside, a fairly similar culture that was clearly distinct from that of the Frankish kingdoms: less martial, more commercial, with a cosmopolitanism that tends to come along with international trade.

This general disposition to tolerance and a fondness for the good life would get the region in trouble in the 1200s, when the Pope was persuaded to preach a Crusade–the first on European soil–against a group of heretics called the Cathars who were rapidly winning converts all across the Languedoc. The Catholics in the region were guilty by association, since they didn’t make much of a fuss about it. (When asked about their shockingly laissez-faire attitude by a contemporary outsider, the answer was simply that everyone had friends and family members who were Cathars, and they were manifestly good people, so what was the harm?) The ensuing wars, which lasted from 1209 to 1255, ended with millions killed, the Languedoc economy in ruins, the invention of the Office of the Inquisition (1234), and the Count of Toulouse effectively ceding his lands, via his daughter Jeanne, directly to the French king.

Some still seem a little bitter about it.

173Tourist brochure from the cathedral of Carcassonne

The Inquisition continued its work in the south into the 1300s, even after military actions had ceased. The Wars of Religion of the 1500s–which killed and sent into exile millions more heretics (this time Protestant Huguenots)–probably didn’t help improve lingering hard feelings much either.

Some Background Reading on the European Dark Ages


, , , , , , , , ,

With the current popularity of the Vikings, there seems to be a growing interest in Dark Ages history in general. Here are several books I’ve read on the period–though none of them particularly focus on the Vikings. =)

I’ll make a plug instead for the British History Podcast, which has extensively covered the English Dark Ages…and by extension the Vikings. If you like fiction Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles are a great romp.

For more general reading…

The Making of the Middle Ages (Southern) is a classic survey of how what we think of as the key features of Middle Ages developed. Published in 1953, it was still sufficently current to be used as the introductory text in my 12th century lit class in the 1990s. Southern focuses on three areas: the lingering influence of Roman culture and legal institutions, especially in southern Europe, and how they got re-implanted in areas further north; the institution of serfdom; and the development of the Church, both as a political force and as a source of education and knowledge dissemination. Southern mostly focuses on France, and leaves the influence of both the Germanic tribes (the Goths, the Franks et al) and the Moslems on the periphery of his discussion, but overall it remains a good introduction to the period. The writing style is formal but not overly academic. The full text is available online here.

Europe After Rome (Smith) is perhaps the worst example of clunky academic prose I’ve ever read. BUT, if you can get past the writing, the content is actually very interesting. Smith covers a slightly earlier time period than Southern’s book, and focuses more heavily on the northern parts of Europe, particularly Germany. Like Southern, Smith relies primarily on written documents, as opposed to archaeological research, in her analysis. But in keeping with modern scholarship (the book was published in 2007), she spends less time on official records from the elite circles of royalty and the Church, and more on village tax and census rolls and the like, presenting a much more complete picture of life as experienced by everyday Europeans. Her focus on northern Europe also presents a somewhat more quiet take on the Dark Ages than books that focus on the areas that experienced various “barbarian” (Germanic, Hunnic, and later Moslem and Viking) attacks and invasions.

Life in the Middle Ages (Delort) starts with a very affecting portrait of the physical environment of the medieval Europeans, with discussions of climate shifts over the period, how much of Europe was forested quasi-wilderness, and how very hard it was to scratch out a living given the climate, available agricultural technology and food options. Having established that, he draws a direct line to the psychology of ordinary Europeans, who viewed Nature as something to be feared and as much as possible, tamed. Delort then depicts how the challenges of daily living informed popular religious views, especially about the afterlife and then goes on to other daily customs in various parts of Europe. This is the book that took me furthest towards having a personal understanding of what for many modern people is a very alien worldview. NB. It was originally published in French as La Vie au Moyen Age. I have this edition, and can say it’s well-written in French; I don’t know the quality of the English translation.

Moving to smaller geographic segments and time periods…

The Story of the Goths (Bradley) is something I picked up because it was $.99 on Kindle. It turned out to be a wonderfully engaging read. Bradley is none other than the original author of the Oxford English Dictionary, and was one of those late Victorian scholars who knew his Greek and Latin texts like you or I would know a classic novel. (He evidently also knew Old Teutonic, Gothic, and Anglo-Saxon.) He published Goths in 1887, when archaeology was very much in its infancy–Schliemann was excavating “Troy” with dynamite a mere 15 years earlier–and excitedly relates the latest (mid-19th century) discoveries that shed light on his topic as part of his narrative. The earliest origins and history of the Goths–still a matter of hot dispute today–are therefore the parts of the book with the least detail, but Bradley is careful to point out what was known with a fair degree of certainty–via Latin, Greek and the handful of Gothic texts in existence–and what was “current best guesses”. The Visigothic kingdoms of southern France and Spain get neatly summarized in a couple of chapters. He provides a great deal of detail on the story of the Ostrogoths in Italy, drawing on firsthand accounts from Roman writers who both served with and fought against them. Interestingly, he spends a certain amount of time exploring how the Jews were treated under both groups; the tale in Spain is particularly enlightening given later events. Bradley’s writing is conversational–he really was telling a favorite story, with great enthusiasm, not presenting a dry scholarly work for other specialists. I read it in a couple of evenings, and learned quite a lot in the process.

Before France and Germany (Geary) covers much of the same time period as Bradley (from the late Roman Empire to the late 700s), but focuses on the Merovingian Franks instead of the Goths. A relatively recent book (1988), it draws on both textual and archaeological evidence, and does a good job of explaining the mutual influences between the Germanic peoples and the Romans. It does assume a fair amount of general background knowledge–for example, that the reader would know who Alaric or Gregory of Tours were, or the typical social structures and obligations in Roman and post-Roman times, or what “pre-migration times” would mean with regard to the Franks. On the other hand, the multiple uniting and breakups of the various regions of France and Germany has always been a mystery to me, and this book helped me get a better handle on a very confusing time.

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne (Riche) covers similar ground to the first three books I’ve mentioned (though I would read those first)–just a couple of clicks down in terms of level of (interesting) detail. It was originally published as La vie quotidienne dans l’empire carolingien. I read this one in English–the translation has a few “Frenchisms” (“the rulers could not have been insensible to” vs “unaware of”) that make the writing seem a bit formal, but it’s reasonably accessible.

Before the Normans: Southern Italy in the 9th & 10th Centuries (Kreutz) has turned out to be one of the books I keep thinking back to since I read it. I picked it up because I was curious how the Normans wound up in Sicily. This book covers that in about two paragraphs at the very end, but otherwise presents a fascinating–and very unusual–picture of a part of Europe one typically reads little about in English. The south of Italy had been conquered by the Lombards after the fall of the Ostrogoths, but on the “heel” side of the peninsula, there was a well-established Greek culture going back centuries, and a corresponding friendliness to the Byzantines and to the Greek church. I learned that there were ongoing attempts by the Byzantines to recapture Italy, with help from the “heel” people. And in the same period, there were regular raids by North African Muslims, though whether as individual pirate groups or attempts at actual conquest following the conquest of Spain is unclear. Meanwhile, the Lombard nobility running the various cities as their personal fiefdoms married, fought with and assassinated each other at every turn, periodically bringing in the Byzantine Greeks and/or the Arabs as allies against their local enemies. The Normans were just one more group of mercenaries brought into the mix. In other words, it was all a gloriously bloody mess, and although Kreutz’s book is a scholarly one, it’s clear that the period would make as compelling a TV series as “The Vikings”.

Potatoes, Cotton and Maize–The OTHER Neolithic Revolutions


, , , , , , , , , ,

10-12,000 years ago, the eastern hemisphere did its first major rounds of domestication: of cereal plants (rice in China, wheat and barley in West Asia), and certain animals–dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs then later horses and cattle. The standard theory goes that agriculture–especially of cereals–led to the rise of large, sedentary, cooperative, and increasingly hierarchical societies.

That sort of happened in the Americas, too, although in rather different ways. Plant domestication occurred in two different regions, also about 9-10,000 years ago. But where the Old World cereals grew in warm, low-elevation plains, and through human experimentation developed strains that could withstand a wider range of temperatures and latitudes, in the Americas, the reverse happened: Potatoes and cotton in the Andes, and maize in Mexico, were developed in the cool highlands, and then introduced to the lower elevations.

What happened in the Andes is especially interesting. The Norte Chico culture (active c 3000-1800 BC, though one site has been dated to ~3500 BC) was roughly contemporaneous with Sumer and later the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and in fact they were building small pyramids during the same years as the Egyptians were building large ones. They’re known to have eaten squash and beans, but most of their crop acreage–on intensely dry, inland plains irrigated from streams coming out of the mountains–was dedicated to cotton.

Norte Chico homeland

There’s argument about whether the civilization arose first on the coast and then moved inland, or vice versa, although it appears that some of the oldest sites are inland, each large enough to support several thousand people. But in any case there was a significant amount of seafood in the diet even at the inland sites. And conversely, cotton was used to make fishing nets as well as clothes for the coastal people. Anthropologists have called this a “vertical economy”, in which groups living at different elevations formed economic and cultural units to provide each other with all of the goods needed to sustain a complex society and offset climate anomalies such as droughts and El Nino events in different regions when needed. (Where do potatoes fit in? They can be grown at elevations up to 14,000 ft.) This practice continued in the Andean region through the rise of various other cultures, including the Inca. The Norte Chico had a hierarchical culture, with a priesthood at or near the top, but it appears to have been based not on control of food surpluses, as in most other places, but on the control of cotton.

The Norte Chico also had maize. Now, it’s worth noticing that these people lived 1000-2000 years before the rise of the Olmec, the first major complex civilization known in Mexico. Cultivation of maize was, in fact, happening throughout Central and South America, without entailing the rise of complex polities. Empire-building was still centuries away. And the Americans were clearly trading over very long distances–whether overland or by boats following the coast, or perhaps both.

But here’s the funny thing: maize only went south initially. Mexicans independently domesticated their own species of cotton. Potatoes didn’t really go north; in fact, as far I’ve been able to find, they were introduced into North America by Europeans. Maize didn’t make it into North America until 700-800 AD, only reaching New England ~1000 AD.  Chile peppers, domesticated independently in Central and South America, got taken first to Africa, and then to North America by African slaves.

Agriculture in North America had an entirely different character than anywhere else in the world until the introduction of maize. First, large swathes of the continent were cleared by regular, controlled fires. Clearing out the underbrush made it easier for both large game and humans to move around, and clearings made it easier to herd and surround a group of animals for slaughter. Some types of animals, such as moose and bison, were herded in groups from their native grounds on the plains to areas further east. Later, selectively clearing and planting of specific plants and trees within forest “plots” provided regular supplies of known and preferred foods within a quasi-hunter-gatherer context. In effect, North American tribal groups were engaged in animal husbandry and plant harvests within human-defined habitats–without actually domesticating anything.

“Unfarming” also provided as varied a diet as people living at similar latitudes had available to them at the time. In the Eastern hemisphere between 30-40 degrees North, the Moslem invasions had, by 1000 AD, brought many of our favorite domesticated fruits and vegetables (including sweet oranges, peaches, almonds, rice and eggplant) from Domestication Central (Persia) to North Africa and Moorish Spain, and to a lesser extent, to the central and eastern Mediterranean via Byzantium and the Balkans. Most of these foods only trickled into the rest of Europe at this time (mostly dried, always pricey)–the rest of Europe largely lived on wheat, barley, rye, peas and cabbage, with the occasional fish, dairy products, and in the fall, pork for the more fortunate. (By 1000 AD, wild game had been made off limits to all but the nobility, and was “managed” within forest preserves much as the North Americans did their game.)

global latitudes

   *     *     *     *     *

Have you ever wondered why it is that the Sichuan cuisine of China is full of American plants, while the same foods are rare to nonexistent elsewhere in China? Chile peppers are the most obvious ones, but peanuts are also common, as are beans (fermented, salted, black beans). Corn and tomato paste play roles as well. Waxy potatoes are also grown in the Chinese southwest, which also includes Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, and the majority of Chinese tobacco is grown there as well. (By the way, China is now the world’s largest single producer of tobacco, responsible for 40% of the global crop in recent years.)

At the feet of the Himalayas, Sichuan is very hilly, with iron-red soil that has been heavily terraced for centuries. The western portion is a high, very dry plateau, while the eastern part, at the head of the Yangzi River, is subject to monsoons and flooding. Yunnan, to the east of the Himalayan Plateau, has a more mild climate, but again is mountainous and forested.

The last years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) saw all manner of peasant revolts, but one was severe enough in its repercussions–a large portion of the population massacred–that the successor dynasty, the Qing, consolidated Sichuan with the neighboring ones and undertook a policy of aggressive repopulation of the region. Sichuan was also the frontier with Tibet, then an independent country with a warlike history, which further increased official interest in strengthening the local population and economy.

Conveniently enough, the Spanish took over Manila in 1571. The Philippines already had a large Chinese merchant population, which was further augmented by formerly well-to-do officials after the fall of the Ming dynasty. The Spanish began shipping all manner of New World goods, including food and gold, to their Manilan entrepot, and traded there for Indonesian spices as well as Chinese silk and porcelain. And it so happened that New World plants–domesticated at similar latitudes and elevations–were especially well-suited to the climate and soil of the Sichuan basin. Those became part of the Qing’s Sichuan redevelopment policy.

Pre-Columbian America and Esteban the Moor


, , , , ,

I did the unthinkable over the last couple of days and bought three books all at once.

I had been thinking about one of my favorite characters in American history, Esteban the Moor. He’s been prowling restlessly around the back of my mind for some weeks, and it seems that in Master William, the French goldsmith of Karakorum I introduced in my last post, Esteban found a man like himself–forcibly taken far from his home, yet adapting, finding purpose, aiding others, and it might be said, eventually thriving.

Except that Esteban’s name was not really Esteban. He was born in North Africa, probably Muslim, and lost his original name and identity when he was sold as a slave in Spain. Then he lost his religion as well when his owner took him along to the Americas in 1527: the Spanish authorities were concerned about uppity formerly Jewish conversos snagging land for themselves in the New World and formally barred all non-Catholics from transatlantic trips, so Esteban got converted before boarding ship. (BTW, the ban was not terribly effective anyway–there’s a good overview of all that here.)

Esteban, with his master, was part of an ill-fated expedition to Florida. The long and the short of it was that the majority of their crew was lost in a storm at sea, and over a period of several years, Esteban, his master, and two other Spaniards eventually walked across North America and down into Mexico, undergoing several bouts of enslavement at the hands of various tribes along the route.

It’s a fantastic tale of survival and perseverance all by itself, but what is even more interesting is how it shaped the four men for the rest of their lives. The accounts given by the three Spaniards were published in Europe, and read widely (as you might expect of such an extraordinary tale). One of the Spaniards went back to Spain and spent the many of his remaining years at court, arguing for humane treatment of the Native Americans, losing his reputation and fortune in the process. Esteban, the slave, was never asked for his testimony, but his actions peep out in the accounts of the others, even with their agendas of individual self-promotion. He stayed healthy when the others got sick, and nursed them during their illnesses. He consistently acquired a reputation for healing among the tribes they encountered. A man from a land of several ethnicities, languages and faiths who had already had to adapt to still others, Esteban was typically the first to figure out how to communicate with each new tribe the travelers came across.

When I first came across the story of The Four, I found myself wondering about Esteban right away: how ironic to be doubly enslaved, alongside his master. It might have been materially worse for him in the Americas–he was back to staving off starvation, for starters–but was it better for him in other ways? Was there satisfaction in seeing his owner at the same level as himself? Why did he stay with the Spaniards, even help them return to Mexico City, rather than staying among the tribes? How tired must he have been, at times, having to start over and over and over again, learning yet another new language, another new set of customs, in order to survive?

Some years ago, I happened across a book specifically focused on Esteban, Crossing the Continent, in a bookstore in the process of closing down. It’s a flawed book in many ways, but the scholarship is very interesting, and I can mostly recommend it. Somewhere along the way I misplaced the book, and in looking it up on Amazon came across recommendations for another one, A Land So Strange. So I bought it. And then a novel of the same story, as the wonderful writing of the first chapter seems very promising.

Thanks to the wonders of recommendation algorithms, I also came across 1491. Over the years, I’ve come across various articles which give the lie to the too-neat tale of a few small bands of Siberians crossing a glacial land bridge and peopling two large continents (always in small bands) 13,000 years ago: various, much older sites, especially in Chile, some of which may have been inhabited by Polynesians coming up the coast along with the oceanic current. Major earthworks emerging into view in the Amazon basin as the rainforests are cut down. A skull in Brazil, dated to about 18,000 years old, with African or Australian characteristics. And so on. 1491 appears to pull much of that more recent research together with some structure.

I’m starting with 1491. More soon!

     *      *     *     *     *

Update — Quickie reviews of the three books listed here:

A Land So Strange: Probably a good intro to the story of Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow travelers, if the tale is a totally unfamiliar one. You’ll get much the same information from reading a well-annotated edition of the Relacion, de Vaca’s own memoir. The author of A Land So Strange mostly takes de Vaca’s account face value. If you want a broader view that covers all four travelers more inclusively, a more critical review of the relevant documents that takes into account the various motivations de Vaca and the others had in how they presented their tale, and/or more context for their journey, I’d recommend Goodwin’s Crossing the Continent instead.

The Moor’s Account, the novel from Esteban’s point of view, is both well-written and a quick read. The author, a native of Morocco, brings a stronger Islamic flavor to Esteban’s character than I’ve found elsewhere. The other characters are captured memorably as well.

1491: Strongly recommended. Ignore the sensationalist marketing on the cover: the author is a science journalist who has been covering the pre-Columbian archaeology beat for quite some time. He captures the excitement of the newest finds on both continents in the last few and summarizes the debates within the archaeological community in a very even-handed and readable way, incorporating his interviews with the various parties. If the subject area is totally new to you, it probably will be “revelatory”; even if not, this is a very good survey of a very broad range of material that brings together a lot of different threads and themes to provide an unusually holistic view of pre-Columbian America.

A Catholic Priest, an Armenian Monk, and a Bunch of Nestorians Walk Into a Yurt


, , ,

This is my final post about William of Rubruck’s trip to Mongolia. You can read the first part here, and the post about his predecessor John of Plano Carpini is here.

The title of this post sounds like the start of a joke, and in many places, William’s narrative inadvertently comes across that way.

The Europeans had learned a few things since John of Plano Carpini’s trip. There was another embassy conducted between John and William’s trips by a Dominican friar, Andre de Longjumeau. Andre, who evidently spoke some Persian, had gone on behalf of both the Pope and Louis IX of France (two separate trips), reaching the Mongol capital of Karakorum sometime in 1250, two or three years after John’s visit. Andre had the brief from Louis to seek a military alliance against the Syrians, following an invitation by a pair of Mongol envoys/spies. Instead, the khan who had invited him was dead (possibly of foul play) by the time Andre arrived, and the queen regent reiterated the previous Mongol position of expecting Europe to submit and pay tribute as other nations were doing.

William seems to have met Andre upon the latter’s return to the Levant, and gotten instructions as to the route to follow from him. Louis IX permitted William to go provided that he did so in a purely religious capacity, not wanting the Mongols to make further assumptions about his acquiescence to their rule. And indeed, William comes across as devout and relatively learned about theology, but a bit naive about more worldly matters.

Upon his arrival in the new Great Khan (Mongke)’s camp, William encountered an Armenian monk, Sergius, wearing a hair shirt with chains bound around him. Sergius told William that he had been a hermit in Armenia before being charged (by God) with a mission to the Mongols. Sergius had already learned Mongolian and made some connections with Mongke and his family. William wound up being “assigned” to Sergius in a subordinate role.

William and Sergius proved to be a classic odd couple. Sergius was unkempt, didn’t observe no-meat days and cheated during fasts, and had a great fondness for alcohol. He was also very happy to take money and gifts offered him by the Mongols. He also claimed healing powers, which in his case meant giving the sick minced rhubarb in water, calling it holy water–which primarily gave them terrible stomach cramps. He may even have deliberately poisoned a Nestorian rival. William later found out that Sergius was illiterate, and moreover, was a clothmaker in Armenia with no religious training.

William himself was perhaps excessively fastidious for his day. He noted with distaste that the Mongols washed neither their dishes nor their clothes; the former were dipped in boiling broth, and the latter never. He was decidedly non-plussed by the copious drinking he was surrounded by in Mongolia. He constantly struggled with conflicts between Franciscan rules designed for European living and the necessities of survival on the steppe. He very often went without food, since frequently the only option was meat (no fish in a land with so little water). At one point he tried to go barefoot as at home, only to be laughed at for such obvious foolishness. Soon, it was simply too cold to sustain this affectation, and he sheepishly returned to wearing shoes. Bound by vows of poverty, he kept declining the gifts offered him, typically giving them instead to his Moslem Syrian interpreter to the bemusement of the Mongols. There was no shortage, however, of Hungarian captives among the Mongols, who were familiar with Franciscans and who took it upon themselves to explain William’s more baffling quirks to the Mongols.

The interpreter is almost a stock comedic character: first, it turns out he knows too little Mongolian to be of much use. He’s particularly deficient in theological vocabulary, it seems–he either makes things up or simply goes silent whenever William tries to engage in religious dialogue with anyone. However, he gets drunk at every opportunity (even causing a scene in the Great Khan’s tent at one point), and builds up quite a stash of goods from William with which to make his own fortune upon his return home.

Meanwhile, William and Sergius found themselves frequently at odds with the plethora of Nestorian priests who were well entrenched at the Mongol court. Several of the queens were Nestorian, and some of their priests occupied senior positions in the court bureaucracy. William’s account spends pages deploring all manner of Nestorian practices, from declaring all male children priests regardless of age, to illiteracy to bigamy to simony and on and on. He describes regular attempts to “correct” Nestorian theological errors (and Sergius’ as well–the Armenian mostly proved to be more receptive), being, in his mind, the only learned Christian theologian in Mongolia.

William had recognized early on that the khans in fact had no great interest in any particular religion, and found it useful to play them off against each other. Nonetheless, he still made efforts, since he was there, to instruct the Mongols in the “proper” way to perform Christianity when opportunities arose, and to minister to the European captives he encountered. The efforts at Mongol instruction wound up ensnaring William in Sergius’ battle for influence against the Nestorians. In the end, shortly before he was to head back to Europe, the khan decreed that there should be a theological debate, between the Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. William, with Scholastic training, took the lead for the Christians. He won the first round against the Buddhists. Then the Nestorians took over and challenged the Muslims, who pointed out that they shared the same foundational beliefs, and declined to debate. So the Nestorians explained their views to a Uighur priest in the audience. And no one was convinced of anything new.

When this was finished, the Nestorians and Saracens alike sang loudly while the Buddhists kept silence, and afterwards they all drank their fill.

In William’s final interview with the khan the next day, the khan observed, “God has given you Scriptures and you do not keep them; to us, on the other hand, He has given shamans, and we do what they tell us, and live in peace.” And as with William’s predecessor John, the khan requested he take along a Mongol envoy in his return, and William declined. Instead, the khan sent a letter to Louis that largely echoed the one sent a decade earlier to the Pope: in essence, send your envoys to us Mongols offering your submission, or we will declare war against you.

*     *     *     *     *

My favorite character in William’s account is a quiet, dignified man on the periphery of the story: another William, surnamed Buchier, a French goldsmith captured in Hungary. One internet source claims he had gone there to work on a cathedral, though Friar William provides no backstory other than that the smith’s father and brother were also goldsmiths, working on the Grand Pont in Paris. Master William the smith had an adoptive son who apparently was fluent in both French and Mongolian; after a while he became Friar William’s more usual interpreter, given the shortcomings of the Syrian one.

At the time of the two Williams’ meeting, the smith was just putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece, a fountain in the shape of a tree, all made of silver and gold, with an angel with a trumpet on top. The tree provided channels and basins for four different kinds of drink, and stood in the center of the (seldom used) palace in Karakorum. Master William received 1000 marks from the khan for this project–a very significant sum of money (approximately 500 lbs of silver) and no doubt far more than a craftsman in France would ever have seen.

The two men evidently became very good friends, the friar spending much of the winter in the smith’s house in Karakorum. The smith had had some education in France, which meant he could not only read and write, but also knew some scripture. He had made a crucifix and pyx, and some vestments, and had served the small community of captive Europeans as priest prior to Friar William’s arrival. Yet whatever Friar William may have learned of the smith’s life (or his unnamed son’s) prior to capture is never mentioned.

Reading between the lines, one gleans that the smith may have initially been thrilled to hear news from home and to pass over his religious efforts to a genuine priest. But in truth, Master William seemed to be well-established in Karakorum and almost as much a part of the Mongolian landscape as the rest of the court. At several times in the narrative, Master William or his son quietly arrange for the priest’s needs, school him with regard to the undercurrents at court, and advise him on how much he can push and when to stay silent. When Friar William departs, the smith gives him a Mongolian souvenir for his former king, Louis, but there’s no mention of the smith longing to be released, nor any message for the smith’s family in Paris.

I kept picturing the smith warmly bidding goodbye to this talkative, well-meaning priest, watching him ride out of town, and then turning back into his house and going on with his life. And why not? Despite being technically a slave, he had a comfortable home of his own, away from the crowding, stench and pollution of medieval Paris, and a lord who paid lavishly in ready cash instead of IOUs. More, he had a certain standing in a small but probably tight community of fellow captives with whom he had a significant shared experience. What more does one really need in life?

India, Indenture and Mongolian Shipwrecks – Interesting Bits of Internet, July 12


, , , , ,

East Indians in the North American colonies

While looking up some background information about indentured servants for my last post, I came across a one-line reference to South Asians as indentured servants in the English colonies as early as the 17th century. I was intrigued, all the more so because a favorite novel of mine, The Holder of the World by Bharati Mukherjee, has a 17th century Massachusetts woman travel to India and back again, by way of marriage to a rakish English trader.

The British East India Company was only one of several competing European factions in India at the time, but a significant one, and upon further research, it appears that Mukherjee’s fictional Hannah Easton may not have been the only person making the trip from India to the English Atlantic colonies at the time. Unfortunately, I can’t trace any of the claims in the following article back to an original source (not even the academic paper mentioned), but it’s certainly an interesting read. Indian Slaves in Colonial America 

On the other hand, Virtual Jamestown does document a freedom suit as follows:

16 November 1713

To all to whom these Presents shall come Now know ye that Whereas an East India Indian woman named Moll (imported into this Colony by Joseph Walker Gent in ye Year One Thousand seven hundred & by him sold to Jno: Tullitt) being desirous of freedom hath for some time besought us ye above named Joseph Walker & Jno: Tullitt to give her her liberty & to discharge her out of ye Cond: of slavery, therefore we ye sd. Jos: Walker & Jno. Tullitt for divers good causes & considerations us thereunto moving hath acquitted & by these Presents & for our selves, our heirs, Execrs: & Adminrs: acquitt ye sd Moll from being a Slave & do also by these Presents for ever hereafter declare her to be a free woman.

East Indians were imported in large numbers as indentured servants or slaves to the Caribbean in the early 19th century. They began being transported to work on the sugar cane plantations as soon as the British abolished African slavery in 1833. This article provides an overview.

It should be no surprise that the many of the major figures of early Victorian England derived their wealth from the Caribbean sugar and slave trades. But it seems that there were quite a lot of middle-class absentee slave owners residing in England who rented out their human property to Caribbean planters without ever seeing their faces.

And here’s what happened after 1833:

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans who were then the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. What is less well known is that the same act contained a provision for the financial compensation of the owners of those slaves, by the British taxpayer, for the loss of their “property”. The compensation commission was the government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners and administer the distribution of the £20m the government had set aside to pay them off. That sum represented 40% of the total government expenditure for 1834. It is the modern equivalent of between £16bn and £17bn.

The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.

Read more here.

Finally–Mongols were never noted for their seafaring prowess. They twice tried to invade Japan, only to lose their fleets in storms. Recent underwater explorations have identified a vessel from one of those invasions.