The Declaration of July, 1676


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My family has been on the American continent for over 350 years. On my mother’s side, they had settled in Connecticut before 1650, probably moving there from Massachusetts, though we don’t know much for certain. On my father’s side, the male line is better documented: the first Cawood (named after the city in Yorkshire, England) arrived in Maryland as an indentured servant in 1660.

Little is taught about indentured servitude in American history classes, but the majority of European immigrants to North America in the 17th century came as indentured servants.

Europe was a mess in the 17th century, largely owing to the Catholic-Protestant schism. The French Wars of Religion (1562-98) led to the deaths of 2-4 million people. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) reduced the population in the Germanic states by somewhere between 25 to 40%, and eventually involved Denmark, Sweden and France as well as the principalities of the former Holy Roman Empire. (It also set off a fashion for witch-hunting and witch-burning.) The English Civil War (1642-51) completely destroyed the economy of the mostly Catholic north of England, which sent my own ancestor’s family down to Bristol to try to eke out a living, and eventually into servitude.

Meanwhile, in the colonies of Virginia and Maryland, there had been rapid expansion of the tobacco industry, and a corresponding need for cheap labor. African slavery had been brought to America with the first Spanish ships, and was firmly entrenched in the Caribbean and Latin American in the 17th century, but was a novelty in the North American English colonies in the first half of the 1600s. In fact, there were no laws differentiating slaves from indentured servants until 1641 (thanks, Massachusetts), and Africans in the earliest years of the colonies were sometimes freed after a period of service like European indentured servants were.

Impoverished Europeans, following the age-old traditions of serfdom, sold themselves into temporary bondage in order to pay passage to the New World. For those with skills, the term was typically 4-7 years, at the end of which the master was to provide tools, sometimes extra clothes, and land with which to start an independent life. Unskilled laborers, having less negotiating power, often had longer terms and generally less favorable post-indenture provisions.

There were obvious economic incentives for masters to prevent their servants from reaching the end of their indenture. Indentures could be extended as punishment for a range of crimes–including, for female servants, becoming pregnant. Mortality in the colonies was high for everybody, but in some counties, clergymen documented mortality rates of indentured servants in their final years of servitude approaching 90%: masters would begin withholding blankets, medicine and food. Oh, and forcibly impregnating their female servants.

Two things happened in the latter half of the 17th century: one is that European economies–after the plague year of 1660–began getting back on their feet, leading to a fall-off in voluntary indenture. The second is that Catholic Charles II, upon his restoration to the English throne in 1660, set up the Royal African Company as a monopoly on English trade with West Africa, creating a new incentive to import African slaves in place of European servants.

So: by the 1670’s, we have a fair number of former indentured servants who have been moving inland to acquire land for themselves, setting off new conflicts with the Native Americans whose lands they were acquiring. And we have large, established planters along the Atlantic coast getting concerned about the growing imbalance between themselves and their labor, leading them to create a number of new laws explicitly defining the non-rights of slaves in order to eliminate shared interests between slaves and indentured servants. As the Virginia governor noted, “six parts of Seven at least are Poore, Indebted, Discontented and Armed.” There is a longer article on the hardening of race-based slavery after 1660 here, which is a very good read.

In Virginia, the governor had a policy of accommodation with the Natives–not exactly out the goodness of his heart, however. On the one hand, friction between Natives and poor new inland planters kept the planters too busy to stir up trouble in the more settled areas; and on the other, he happened to personally have a very profitable fur trade with the Natives.

In July 1676, an inland planter and former indentured servant named Nathaniel Bacon organized a revolt against the Governor, which got support from landless whites as well as indentured servants of various races. He got this broad support because he defined the “commons” of Virginia to include all bondspeople, and demanded return of voting rights to freedmen without land. He also demanded (and got) a contingent of soldiers and a commission to go deal with the “Indian problem” on the frontier, but in other concerns, the rebels continued to see the government dragging its feet.

On July 30, 1676, Bacon and his followers issued a “Declaration of the People of Virginia”, which enumerates the failings of the governor, not least being his actions “without and even against the consent of the people”. In form, it looks remarkably similar to the Declaration of Independence penned 100 years later by Virginian Thomas Jefferson:

1. For having, upon specious pretenses of public works, raised great unjust taxes upon the commonalty for the advancement of private favorites and other sinister ends, but no visible effects in any measure adequate; for not having, during this long time of his government, in any measure advanced this hopeful colony either by fortifications, towns, or trade.

2. For having abused and rendered contemptible the magistrates of justice by advancing to places of judicature scandalous and ignorant favorites.

3. For having wronged his Majesty’s prerogative and interest by assuming monopoly of the beaver trade and for having in it unjust gain betrayed and sold his Majesty’s country and the lives of his loyal subjects to the barbarous heathen….

The complete text of this first Declaration is here.

Frederick Douglass, asked to speak on Independence Day, 1852, had his own take on the principles embedded in both Declarations, which is also worth reading.


800+ Years of Cultural Continuity


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It’s fun, when reading about something that happened hundreds of years ago, to recognize gestures your relatives make. My husband’s family is Kalmyk, a tribe of Mongols who fled what is now Qinghai province in western China when their old enemies the Manchus took over in 1644. They now have an autonomous province in Russia, on the north side of the Caspian Sea.

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I’m reading the account of William of Rubruck, another Franciscan monk like our friend Giovanni from my post on June 28th. William was a Fleming in the service of Louis IX of France, who left Constantinople on a mission to Batu Khan on Louis’ orders in 1253. His account has been translated and digitized here.

William was considerably younger than Giovanni, in his 30s or early 40s when he left. He also possessed a more anthropological eye, and apparently a bit more of an ear for languages. By the time of his trip, the Europeans had learned that a number of west Asians had some familiarity with the Mongol language, so one of the people in his train was a Muslim translator, possibly Syrian. Later, William comments that after he himself had learned some of the Mongol language, he realized that what he said and what the translator told the Mongols were often two very different things.

As an aside, William also had with him a slave boy named Nicholas, “whom I had bought at Constantinople by means of [Louis IX’s] charity”. This is odd, not because slavery was unheard of (it was common throughout the world at the time), but because Nicholas is a Christian name, and the Catholic Church had already decreed, some 200 years earlier, that Christians should not keep other Christians–whether western or eastern–as slaves. (Enslaving anyone else was still completely cool, but if the slave converted to Christianity, they were supposed to be freed. This tradition was obviously not observed in the Protestant American South, but neither was it observed by the Spanish conquistadors, who took theoretically Christianized African slaves with them to the Americas.) There’s a well-written, if depressing, Wikipedia article on old-world slavery in medieval times which is well worth reading. Tl;dr, everybody was enslaving everyone else, quite profitably–just not their co-religionists.

Back to cultural continuity:

William remarks on the practice of making food offerings before beginning a meal: each house had images of the spiritual “brother” and “sister” of the master and mistress of the house as well as other minor deities. At the time, most Mongols were still shamanistic (even if they also personally accepted other religions to some degree). These days, most Mongols follow Tibetan Buddhism, and the shamanistic icons are replaced by a cabinet containing mandalas, statues of Buddha, and sometimes pictures of ancestors. In my husband’s family, offerings aren’t made before every meal, but at celebrations, the first slice of cake cut gets put in the borchen (altar cabinet).

William also comments on the Mongols’ great fondness for drinking and drinking games, still very much in evidence at any Mongol wedding. Drinking is also a ritual part of more solemn occasions, such as blessings said at New Year’s.

When they have come together to drink, they first sprinkle with liquor this image which is over the master’s head, then the other images in order. Then an attendant goes out of the dwelling with a cup and liquor, and sprinkles three times to the south, each time bending the knee, and that to do reverence to the fire; then to the east, and that to do reverence to the air; then to the west to do reverence to the water; to the north they sprinkle for the dead. When the master takes the cup in hand and is about to drink, he first pours a portion on the ground. If he were to drink seated on a horse, he first before he drinks pours a little on the neck or the mane of the horse.

In modern times, and lacking servants, the more abbreviated form is for the master of the house, and then in turn the mistress, to dip a finger into the alcohol and then flick it to either side before pronouncing their blessings and then drinking the shot.

Like Giovanni, William was rather scandalized by widows being married off to brothers-in-law or other wives’ sons when the man of a house dies. I was somewhat skeptical about this claim when I first read it in Giovanni’s account, since I’d been told that Mongols forbid consanguinity within seven degrees. (Interestingly, the Catholic Church also forbade marriage within seven degrees from the 9th century until 1215 — it had just been changed to a mere four degrees less than 40 years before William’s trip. Perhaps the Mongols would have been equally scandalized by such incestuous behavior among Europeans, had they known.)

My mother-in-law confirms that the seven-degree barrier is still in effect, but that it only recognizes blood kinship, not kinship by marriage. She also told me that the obligation for brothers and sons to look after a man’s wives and children after his death–by reformalizing the familial relationship with marriage–is still somewhat in effect: a priest she knew, living in the U.S., left the priesthood and returned to Mongolia when his brother died in order to assume the brother’s family obligations. And a distant relative–an old woman who was the voice of the Star Wars Ewoks (yes, the Ewoks speak Kalmyk!)*–had around 14 children by two brothers for the same reason. Fortunately for me, my husband has no brothers. 😉

*Despite the claims in the linked Ewok article that a Star Wars staffer “invented” a language “based on” Kalmyk, my mother-in-law is able to translate what the Ewoks say quite directly into English. In fact, they mostly repeat the same phrases over and over again, although the general gist of what they say is more or less correctly translated by C3PO.

Lead Ewok, with the type of head-covering worn daily by the woman who gave him his language.

Lead Ewok, with the type of head-covering worn daily by the woman who gave him his language.

The foods that William describes–with the exception of koumiss–are also entirely familiar. The salted broth with bits of lamb that the Mongols speared with forks is called hernamuchen (literally, sheep meat) soup. If you’re lucky, they’ll add chopped onions and salt to the broth, but very often it’s just boiled mutton. Butter is also a major part of the culture–blocks of butter are given as part of the traditional New Year’s offering to a hostess when you make the holiday rounds…along with sweets and alcohol. And finally, millet and dried curds. When in Inner Mongolia some 20 years ago, my group visited a family who served both with milk tea (black tea boiled to lye, then mixed with milk, butter, and salt…my in-laws sometimes add bay leaves). You could eat the millet and curds on the side, or just dunk them directly into the tea to soften and have a one-dish snack.

I’m not a fan of milk tea, but I can attest that it does stick to your ribs on cold, damp days on the steppe.

Nei menggu_yurt

Interesting Bits of Internet, July 1


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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.

How Not to Talk to Mongols


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I have completed the narrative I mentioned in my last post about the much-put-upon John of Plano Carpini (Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, really), a high-ranking Franciscan sent by the Pope (with a couple of colleagues and an entourage of servants and baggage train) in 1245 to open diplomatic relations with the Mongols who had terrorized Europe a mere four years earlier.

I’m not really being entirely fair to Giovanni. His account contains much complaining about the difficulties of travel–the shakedowns by corrupt local officials, the inhabitual climate and cuisine, the soreness from riding for hours without a break–pretty much the complaints of every traveler ever. He also recounts, with no apparent skepticism, tales of people with heads of dogs and others with a single large foot who lived along the route. However, he was also 65 years old when he started the journey, and he traveled 3000 miles over a few months in 1245, lived in the Mongol camp on the Volga through the Russian winter, and then rode another 3000 miles in 106 days the following spring. A bit of querulousness might be expected, really.

More: Giovanni was holding office in Cologne, Germany in 1241, the year that the Mongols largely wiped out the knighthood of Germany, Poland and Hungary, including much of the Teutonic order, in the space of TWO DAYS. As a senior church official, he probably knew personally many of the leaders who were killed. Being sent off into the heart of unknown enemy lands with only a few servants and the paltry protection of letters in a language unknown to said enemy, from an official (the Pope) whose authority they had no reason to respect, Giovanni had every reason to think that he might never come back, even if he survived the physical challenges of the trip.

Despite that, somewhat to my surprise, Giovanni doesn’t spend much time on expressions of disgust at the other side’s perceived depravity and barbarism–far less than you find in average Victorian-era travelogue. He mostly attempts to be straightforward and accurate in his descriptions of Mongol life, since he was trying to gain useful knowledge of the enemy to take back to Europe. His moral outrage is limited to two things: the swiftness and finality of punishments for what he sees as minor etiquette faux pas (though people are disposed of with much less creativity with regard to advance suffering than was typical in Europe at the same time). And the tendency for widows to be promptly married off to brothers-in-law, which violated Catholic law, but was a means of providing for the women and their families by Mongol lights.

When not being miserable due to lack of food (millet broth being their only sustenance for days at a time), cold and hard riding, Giovanni did manage to gain some sense–if occasionally garbled or at least suspect–of Mongol customs, and more importantly for his mission, of the political undercurrents within the Mongol empire both between Mongol leaders, and with regard to the Mongols’ Russian client princes. It seems there were a number of Russians, both envoys and slaves, in the Mongol camps, with whom he and his few companions were able to communicate, and since the Russians had already been dealing or unwillingly living with the Mongols for as much as a generation, they were able to fill the Europeans in on much.

The mission itself was a general failure. After all, the only reason the Mongols hadn’t proceeded with conquering the rest of Europe in 1241 was because Ogodai, then the Great Khan, had died and the generals were obligated to head back to Mongolia for the election of the new Khan. So they were not especially impressed with the Europeans. It also didn’t help that the Pope had taken it upon himself to speak on behalf of all Europeans, and being a religious leader rather than a secular/military one, focused on entirely the wrong things in his letter to the Khan. Instead of offering military alliances or discussions of commerce, the Pope demanded that they stop invading Christian countries and become Christian themselves, and moreover, Christian in the European fashion, to which the Khan replied, “You men of the West believe that you alone are Christians and despise others. But how can you know to whom God deigns to confer his grace?” (You might think that the Europeans, who had largely been failing to do much against their Muslim neighbors for 150 years and just missed wholesale invasion by pure luck, would have a more realistic grasp of their power and position in the world…but no.)

The Khan, in his reply, pointed out that “we worshipping God have destroyed the whole earth from East to West in the power of God. And if this were not the power of God, what could men have done?” And concluded that Europe should send tribute like everybody else. The Khan also appears to have understood the European kings to be directly subordinate to the Pope, since he was speaking for them, which may have made him think even less of the Europeans’ military strength.

He wouldn’t have been wrong…As Giovanni and his colleague were finally leaving Mongolia to return home, it was conveyed to them that the Great Khan wanted them to invite Mongol envoys to accompany them back to Europe. Giovanni didn’t dare to directly refuse being accompanied by envoys, but he also avoided inviting them:

We were afraid lest, seeing the dissensions and wars which are rife among us, they might be all the more encouraged to attack us…[and] we feared that their real purpose might be to spy out the land. We were apprehensive that they might be killed, for our people are for the most part arrogant and proud. When at the request of the Cardinal who is legate in Germany, the servants with us who went to him wearing Tartar costume, they were very nearly stoned by the Germans on the way and obliged to take off the costume. Now it is the custom of the Tartars never to make peace with men who kill their envoys, until they have taken vengeance on them.

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I had thought that velvet and brocade were Renaissance fabrics, invented in Italy. However, Giovanni makes several references to both being given as tribute and official gifts both by and to the representatives of conquered peoples.

The Googles give many different possible sources of velvet origins. At least two agree that it’s documented in Persia in the late 700s. Wikipedia claims that it was brought by Kashmiri merchants; a couple of other sources claim it originated in China, although velvet hasn’t been a Chinese thing at all in modern historical times. In any case, like many other things, production then spread via the Islamic trade network to the Balkans, Andalusia and Cyprus, the last of which became a major velvet-producing center until it was opportunistically conquered by Richard the Lionheart on his way to the Holy Land. Genoese, Pisan and Venetian traders all had their colonies on Cyprus, and many of the Cypriot weavers fled to those cities, so that Venice and Pisa/Lucca became major velvet producers. It turns out that after the Mamluks–many of Balkan origin–took over Egypt in 1250, Cairo also became a major global producer of velvets.

Brocade is very likely of Chinese origin, though when China fell apart in the late 800s and the eastern portion of Silk Road trade fell off, the Byzantines and Persians largely took over global brocade production.

Mongols, Trade and the West


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I’ve lately been reading up on the Mongols again. First it was Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Weatherford). This is a very readable popular history, although the author plays a bit loose with a number of facts in his zest for improving the Great Khan’s reputation in the West. For example, a number of the innovations, especially in warfare, that he strongly suggests were Mongolian in fact originated with the Chinese.

Weatherford also implies that the Mongols single-handedly connected East Asia with the West, as if they had been entirely incommunicado before. (Western historians tend to write as if Europeans suddenly took it into their heads to go “discover” a route to China in the 1400s–it all depends on who your heroes are, I suppose.) In actuality, the Silk Road was at its peak in the 7th-9th centuries, which roughly correspond with the Tang Dynasty in China, a time of immense wealth and cosmopolitanism, and a high point of classical Chinese culture.

The Silk Road was actually several routes with multiple branches: south, through the Himalayas and into India (this was the route by which Buddhism came into China); more or less directly west through Persia to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean; and some northerly routes through Russia, in many cases following rivers, down to the Black Sea.

There were certainly a number of disruptions after the 9th century: both China and Tibet dissolved into civil war and spent a few hundred years as feuding principalities. Central Asia was conquered by Arab armies, and then by Turks.  On the other hand, Byzantium managed, in between the Arab and Turkish invasions, to convert most of eastern Europe and Russia to Orthodox Christianity while maintaining trade with the assorted Muslim powers to the East, making Byzantium, in the 10th and 11th centuries, very rich. Though Carolingians kept trying to forge alliances with the Byzantines for both political and religious reasons, very little of the trade traversing Asia in that period made it into Europe via the middle East–it mostly came by way of North Africa into Spain via Islamic trade networks. It was the entirely too successful Turkish push from Central Asia west, in the late 11th century, that realigned Byzantine and European interests sufficiently to start the Crusades.

So, back to the Mongols. Until reading Weatherford’s book, I was completely unaware of just how much contact they actually had with the West. For example:

  • Matthew Paris (c. 1200-1259), took time out from chronicling Henry III of England’s reign to write wild and panicked screeds about mysterious invaders from the east who wiped out most of the knights of Germany and Hungary in the space of a few days in 1241.
  • No one in Europe had any clue where they came from. Word came from Russia that the invaders were Tartars, which the Europeans first associated with the name of one of the Three Kings, and then subsequently they decided the Mongols must be one of the lost tribes of Israel. The Albigensian Crusade was in its final stages, there were still bubblings of other heresies in southern Europe, “Saint” Louis IX was holding the Disputation of Paris (which led him to burn a pile of Talmuds in the center of Paris), and Europe had failed at all of its Crusades that century, all of which left Europe, and especially the Church feeling very defensive. So they concocted the Mongol-Jewish plot of 1241, which provided an excuse for slaughtering thousands of Jews in various European cities.
  • Even so, Innocent IV sent a couple of Franciscans off to go treat with them and find out if they could be converted. Latin-rite missionaries continued to be welcomed at the Mongol court for another century. The Mongols were open to any and all forms of religion, and explicitly guaranteed freedom of conscience within their empire.
  • Many of the wives of the early khans between Genghis (animist) and Kublai (Confucian/Buddhist) were Syrian-rite or Nestorian Christians. (The wives were typically from allied/conquered tribes.) In fact, Nestorianism had quite a moment in the late 1200s, and played a rather interesting role in Mongol-European diplomacy.
  • While the men were off aconquering, the aforementioned chief wives ran the empire. And like their counterparts further west, they also spent a lot of time and money building monasteries and commissioning religious works.
  • The Mongols were much more effective than the Byzantines or Europeans against the Muslim world: they took Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus and the Assassin stronghold in a few years. They then made alliances with the Europeans to take the rest of Palestine and hold off the Egyptians. Both Louis IX of France and Edward I (“Longshanks”) of England corresponded with them. Their envoy, a Nestorian Mongol priest born in China, later spent a year visiting them (and the Pope) in Europe, where he gave Communion to Edward and took it from the Pope. Quite a change from 20 years earlier!
  • When the Black Death finally and in all senses fatally disrupted the trade routes between the 4 quarters of the Mongol Empires in the early 1300s, the respective rulers converted/married into the local aristocracy to preserve their power. Thus the southern and western Mongols became Muslim, and those in East Asia either returned to animism or converted to Tibetan Buddhism.

I’m now reading Mission to Asia, which contains the texts of several of the medieval European missionaries to the Mongol court. So far, John of Plano Carpini has done a great deal of complaining about the miserable food and difficult material conditions of getting to, and living in the Mongol court…

Tall Tales and Conquistadors


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It’s rather a remarkable thing: in just about every line of work, the leading lights of any given time are all personally acquainted. They share ideas, adult beverages, occasionally their lovers, and a deadly rivalry here and there. The famous painters of the Italian Renaissance had regular confabs. Scientists all over Europe exchanged letters for centuries. You can trace an almost unbroken line of teachers and friendships from the Dutch polyphonic composers of the 1300s to the Romantics of assorted nationalities who congregated in Paris in the mid-19th century. The great poets of the Tang and Song dynasties of China–who were mostly government bureaucrats by day–exchanged paintings and poems when far away from one another, and shared endless pots of tea (and sometimes plum wine) when together.

It turns out the Spanish conquistadors were no different. A great many of them were from the Extremadura, a hot, dry province in the west of Spain, prone to drought. Some were second or illegitimate sons of minor nobility–which is to say they had some training in arms and horsemanship, a respectable name to recommend them for an officer’s post…and beyond that, they had to make their own way in the world. Others didn’t even have that much to start with. But they gave each other advice. Before Pizarro (conqueror of Peru) set off for the Caribbean, he sought out Cortes (his second cousin, by the way), who had just conquered Mexico, and who told him where new conquest opportunities might be. Pizarro also worked at various times with Balboa, apprenticed with a small officialdom in Panama, had De Soto working for him at one point, and so on.

The stories of the Spanish conquest could easily be transformed into Cecil B DeMille epics: greed, plague, a couple of hundred soldiers facing down thousands (sometimes the outnumbered were Spanish, sometimes they were indigenous people), triumph, tragedy, betrayal, and on and on. One of my favorite characters in the improbable tales I’ve read from the period–for sheer chutzpah, not personal likeability–was one Rodrigo Orgóñez, who at various times fought both for and against Pizarro.

Orgóñez was actually named Mendez when he was born, and his family were converted Jews, allegedly shoemakers. He enlisted in the army and was personally involved in the capture of Francis I of France, but was denied advancement due to his origins. So he changed his last name to that of the local lord and set off for the New World, where it would presumably be harder for anyone to call his bluff. Some years later, having made a small fortune in Peru and wanting a governorship, he sent a large amount of gold and a letter to Sir Orgóñez back in Spain, asking to be legitimized as his son!

Apparently the gold was enough to remind the elder man of a previously unknown kinship, though the governship remained elusive.

Interesting Bits of Internet, June 7: On Food and Celts



Here’s a rather glorious rant about the realities of food acquisition and consumption over the past couple of millennia, which aggressively disposes of the more romantic stories that some “foodies” have taken to telling themselves and each other over the last few years:

A Plea for Culinary Modernism

The fact is, up until very recently, it was a daily struggle for most people to get enough calories to survive. Food choices were utterly monotonous in most parts of the world.

A while back, I was reading about southern Italy in the Dark Ages (Before the Normans, by Barbara Kreutz) and was struck by the frequent mention of chestnuts as a food staple. I got curious about the attributes of chestnuts, having never worked with chestnuts or chestnut flour myself. Google quickly brought me the following information:

Wheat v chestnutsBasically, chestnuts deliver only about one-third the calories of wheat, 1/7th the protein, and half of most other nutrients. Nutritionally, it’s an extremely poor substitute for wheat, but chestnut trees will grow in more mountainous regions where wheat won’t (you also find chestnuts in the cuisine of southwest France, especially near the Pyrenees), so it’s better than nothing if you’re trying to survive on marginal land. Something to consider next time you eye some extravagantly expensive little package of chestnut flour in a gourmet food shop, while reading about the fabulous health benefits of chestnuts compared to that nasty, glutenous wheat…

And from the Where Did They Come From department: here’s an article summarizing arguments for Celtic peoples arising along the Atlantic coast and spreading themselves and/or their culture inland, vs the traditional model of culture arising in the Alpine highlands (La Tene, Hallstatt) and spreading north and west.

The Celtic Origin Revised: the Atlantic View and the Nordwestblock Blues

Why Seams of History?

The History that gets taught in school is typically your country’s greatest hits. If your country has any kind of colonial past, you probably also learned a bit about the colonizing country as well.

Over a decade ago, I realized I had almost no idea what happened in Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. About 1000 years of absolute blankness. So I started reading. And then I wondered where the Goths came from and why they suddenly started invading the Roman Empire in the first place. And whatever happened to the Mongols after Genghis Khan died? And how did African (and why African?) slavery get its start in the Western Hemisphere? And so on.

Unfortunately, peoples that get absorbed or annihilated don’t get written about much. Yet many were fascinating in their own right, and have a shadowy but undeniable effect on the shape of our world today. So do a lot of non-human factors. I spend a lot of my free time exploring these lesser-known veins of human history and figuring out how they come together. So you can interpret “seams” in either the mining or the sewing sense.

This blog is mostly my notebook for keeping track of the connection points I come across, along with various Fun Facts. My historical interests are geographically broad, but mostly pre-Modern–let’s say pre-18th century.

I welcome you to follow along, and to provide additional information or color commentary of your own.