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Europe, honey, Asia’s just not that into you

The letter from the Great Khan to Pope Innocent III I quoted in my last post reminded me of a rather famous letter from the Qianlong Emperor of China (1711-1799) to George III of England, in which he rejects Britain’s request for trading privileges with the comment, “As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

In searching for the full text of the letter (here), I came across this interpretation of the letter:

Emperor Qianlong’s letter strategic, not arrogant

China was doing just fine economically in the 18th century, thanks in no small part to the extensive commercial networks built by overseas Chinese throughout the Pacific Rim. If it missed out on the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, that was still in the future at the time of Qianlong’s letter. Britain, on the other hand, was hungry for cotton and for tea, as well as Chinese porcelain, and therefore had a lot more interest in trading than China did at the time. However, the larger military context that the article above considers is something I was less aware of, and definitely sheds new light on the letter.

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Forks — the plot thickens

Having finished Carpine’s account of his visit with the Mongols shortly after their incursion into Central Europe, I’m now on the slightly more famous account of William of Rubruck. I’ll devote a separate post to that later, but he makes a mention of forks which caught my eye, mostly because I’d read that they came into Europe via Venice from Byzantium following the Crusades, but didn’t really make it over the Alps until Catherine dei Medici brought them to France with her marriage to Henri II in 1533.

But William, a Fleming working for Louis IX of France (later St. Louis) wrote to his patron after his trip to the east in the 1250s that the Mongols used forks to spear pieces of meat out of broth and then ate off of them “much like we use for eating apples or pears cooked in wine.” Evidently forks of some sort, perhaps long-handled ones, were in regular usage for at least the upper classes already at the time.

Persian forks from the 8-9th century (Wikimedia)

This article claims table forks (vs large two-prong specimens used for cooking) existed in ancient Egypt and China. Online references to ancient Chinese bone forks (not necessarily used as table forks) all seem to be copying one another (same wording) without reference to an original citation. Wikipedia claims that table forks were “in common usage” in Byzantium by the 4th century. As far as getting forks into Europe, the linked article cites the scandalized words of St Peter Damian (1007-1072) with regard to using metal forks (instead of your God-given fingers!) for eating. They were brought to Venice by a Byzantine princess, but before the First Crusade.

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Notre Dame de Paris: The building process

An art historian has used lasers to make minute measurements of the Notre Dame structure, and from that has derived a history of the adjustments the builders made during the course of its construction. Among other things, the main portal had shifted a foot out of plumb due to settling early in the building process.

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