How the Victorians cleaned house 

Like so many other things, how you cleaned house in Victorian England depended on how much money you had. Money decided how much time you had, how much stuff you owned that demanded to be cleaned, and whether you cleaned it yourself or had other people do it for you. It decided how sooty your neighborhood was and how far you had to go to get water. But what people cleaned with didn’t vary that much.

It was heavy work, and all or almost all of it was done by women.

 

Baking soda

The Victorian era ran from 1837 to 1901, and baking soda was introduced in 1846. It was–well, the phrase I grew up with was that it was the aspirin of the its dayera, meaning you used it for just about anything, but aspirin isn’t the aspirin of our time anymore, so let’s say baking soda was the reboot of the age. It was the first thing you’d try, and it fixed a surprising number of problems..

Baking soda’s primary purpose was to raise your cakes, your quickbreads, and your scones, and it revolutionized baking   But it also cleaned your oven and your silverware.

True, most of us  wouldn’t have had silverware if we’d lived back then, but never mind that. It was so new and so amazing that it cleaned your imaginary silverware. All you had to do was set your imaginary silver in a mixture of baking soda and water and it would bubble away like some magic potion. You could also use it to clean copper pans or add it to dishwater, possibly because it made dishes easier to clean and possibly and possibly because everyone agreed that it did. What the hell. It was new, it was exciting, and so you’d toss it in..

How many times have you rebooted not because you knew it would work but because everyone knows it’s the place to start?

Irrelevant photo: This is Fast Eddie, Senior Cat of the Houeshold, who did not consent to bringing in a kitten and is not amused.

Vinegar and other acids

You could clean windows with white vinegar and rub them with newspaper. You could get burned food out of pans by soaking it in cider vinegar and boiling water. (I expect any vinegar would’ve worked, but I’m parroting what I read.)

You could also, bizarrely, get a stain out of an enamel pan by putting a stick of rhubarb and water in it and simmering it for ten minutes, then leaving it to cool for an hour or so. 

You could crush eggshells, mix them with lemon, and use them to scour pans. 

 

Tea

You could also clean your windows with weak tea that you’d left sitting around for a few days. (I have no idea why the sitting around mattered. Sorry. You’re on your own there.) You could also sprinkle the rug with tea leaves that you’d squeezed almost dry, then take it outside and beat the hell out of it. The tea leaves, according to one source, helped get rid of the smell of tobacco smoke.

Yes, of course anyone who smoked did it indoors back then. 

You could also sprinkle an ordinary hard floor with tea leaves before you swept it. The theory was that it would “lay the dust.”

 

The yucky stuff 

What would you do when you needed a heavy-duty degreaser for carpets and woolens? Well, you’d use stale urine–and yes, it does actually matter that it’s stale. It has ammonia, which neutralizes dirt and grease, which are slightly acidic. 

I asked Lord Google for more information on that and his top offering read, “Shop stale urine as a degreaser.” 

I didn’t bother. I can make my own and it’s free.

But let’s not stop there. The Victorians had more fun ways to clean  Got bed bugs? Mix four egg whites with an ounce of quicksilver–that’s mercury and it’s extremely fucking poisonous–and brush it onto the mattress. It’s as damaging to humans as it is to bed bugs, but we tend to be larger so it takes longer. The World Health Organization says:

“Neurological and behavioural disorders may be observed after inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure of different mercury compounds. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Mild, subclinical signs of central nervous system toxicity can be seen in workers exposed to an elemental mercury level in the air of 20 μg/m3 or more for several years. Kidney effects have been reported, ranging from increased protein in the urine to kidney failure.”

You prefer the bed bugs? It’s your choice. The bites do itch.

 

Water

I can’t give you a solid date for the point when indoor plumbing was introduced–it’s not that simple–but it’s safe to say that almost no one had it. So unless you were wildly rich, you wouldn’t use any more water than you had to. In Ironbridge, Shropshire, some people had to walk a third of a mile for water–and then haul it back, preferably without spilling it. 

 

Feather dusters and cheaper alternatives

As the Victorian era rolled on, people further down the economic scale were able to afford some soft furnishings, some books, some knicknacks–little non-useful things that could be set on a shelf and admired. And they all of them collected dust. 

So you dusted. Feather dusters were best–they were made from ostrich feathers, which had barbs that caught the dust–but they were also too expensive for ordinary households. So you might use a soft cloth. 

You could also squidge white bread into any crevices that you couldn’t reach with a cloth or a fingernail.

 

Floors

I’m shifting categories here, from things people used to clean to the things they cleaned with them. Somewhere out there lurks a way to avoid that, but I can’t be bothered to hunt it. It’s a sly old beast, and I’m simply an old one. So pretend you don’t notice.

In working class homes, the floor would be a hard surface–tile, wood, stone–and you’d sprinkle it with tea leaves, sweep it, then get down on your hands and knees and scrub the beast, using soapy water or water and soda–but this isn’t baking soda, it’s something both stronger and harder on the hands. 

Let’s take Ironbridge as an example, because its museums have a good website. It was at the heart of the industrial revolution, a town full of factories, furnaces, and dirt, soot, and smoke (they went together). People heated with coal, which kicked out some more soot. So everyday cleaning was a battle. And the streets–at least in working class neighborhoods–weren’t paved, so when you came in your shoes would be muddy. 

This is Britain, remember.

One Ironbridge resident said, “I’ve seen my mother scrub ours twice a day, year in, year out sort of thing.  Because she used to do it in the morning.  Well then we used to come home from school, we used to be pittering and pattering, in and out, because there was no tarmac roads, you carried a lot of rubbish on your shoes.  And I’ve seen my mother set to and scrub the floor before my father come home from work.  And that was twice a day, and that was regular.” 

 

Laundry

This was one of the heaviest jobs and not technically housecleaning but if you were a housewife (and having gone through what housekeeping was about I begin to think women did marry the house) it was part of the deal.

First you’d collect your water (wherever it was–up to a third of a mile away, remember) and heat it on the stove, then add some soap flakes and toss in your first load of laundry, which you’d agitate by hand, using something called a dolly or a posser. (These days, you can buy a dolly tub online for £170 and use it as a lawn ornament. It’s good to know that irony isn’t dead.) 

You’d do that for, oh, say, half an hour. Then you’d run everything between the rollers of a mangle to force the soapy water out and put the laundry into fresh water to rinse.

Then you’d run it through the mangle again and rinse it again. And again. Then you’d add some blue dye to make everything look brighter. 

Then you’d run it through the mangle one last time and hang it out to dry, hoping to hell it wasn’t raining. If it was (this is Britain, remember), you’d have to hang it indoors.

Then you’d go back and do it all over again with the next load. And the one after that. And the one after that.

When everything was dry, you had to iron it, using a flat iron that you heated on the kitchen stove. 

If you wonder why mothers yelled at their kids about getting their clothes dirty, that’s why.

 

Spring Cleaning

But everyday cleaning wasn’t enough. You had to do spring cleaning as well.

You’d start, I expect, by getting the chimneys cleaned, because that knocked dirt from the chimney into the house. You wouldn’t want to do that after you’d cleaned, and you would want to skip  this step. You could burn the house down. 

After that, you’d get to work.

According to the Ironbridge Gorge Museums website, you’d start this at the top of the house and work down, moving all the furniture out of a room, taking the curtains down to wash, repainting the walls or cleaning the wallpaper, cleaning the floors and woodwork, cleaning and polishing the furniture.

This applies, of course, to people whose houses had multiple stories and multiple rooms, and all the stuff that went into them. Adapt it according to your circumstances.

You’d take your carpets outside and whack the hell out of them. Lighting fixtures? These would’ve been gas, oil, or candles and all involved open flames, which brought the gift of dirt as well as light. The fumes from oil lighting tarnished metal. Candles smoked. So clean all your lighting fixtures.

Be sure to polish all the wooden furniture. If you iron your polishing cloth, it will leave a better shine than an unironed one.

Have I missed anything? Take that out and clean it too.

Move everything back in and start on the next room.

 

What works and what doesn’t?

English Heritage–an organization that maintains historic buildings for the public to troop through and gawk at and charms money out of their pockets in the process–has been trying out Victorian cleaning methods. Here’s what they can tell us.

Cleaning tricks that work

  • Using white bread to clean wallpaper. Remember to clean up the crumbs.
  • Using milk to clean flagstone floors. Skim milk’s best,and you’ll need to get down on the floor and attack it with a scrub brush. They recommend trying it on a small corner first to make sure, because stone isn’t all alike.
  • Polishing waxed wood floors with a mix of beeswax and turpentine.
  • Dusting furniture and figurines (of course you have figurines) with a pony hair brush. (Of course you have a pony hair brush. And of course you know why this is different from a horse hair brush.)
  • Using chamois leather to polish your mirrors.

Clearing tricks to avoid

  • Sprinkling the carpet with damp tea leaves before sweeping. They don’t say why this isn’t recommended, but I’d guess it has something to do with the combination of carpets and brooms.
  • Cleaning oil paintings with a wet slice of potato, sponging it with lukewarm water, and drying it with an old silk handkerchief. 
  • Cleaning wallpaper by covering it with oatmeal, then sweeping it off with a feather duster or a soft broom.
  • Shining silver with salt and Worcestershire sauce.
  • Washing wooden floors with beer.
  • Cleaning copper pans with lemon and salt.

If they tried stale urine on anything, they haven’t mentioned it. 

 

A final word on Victorian cleaning

It seems only right to leave you with an abbreviated part of the lyrics to a traditional song, “The Housewife’s Lament.” Apologies for the formatting. I haven’t figured out how to set it as a poem.

One day I was walking, I heard a complaining

And saw an old woman the picture of gloom

She gazed at the mud on her doorstep (’twas raining)

And this was her song as she wielded her broom

Chorus

Oh, life is a toil and love is a trouble

Beauty will fade and riches will flee

Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double

And nothing is as I would wish it to be

In March it is mud, it is slush in December

The midsummer breezes are loaded with dust

In fall the leaves litter, in muddy September

The wall paper rots and the candlesticks rust

Chorus

With grease and with grime from corner to center

Forever at war and forever alert

No rest for a day lest the enemy enter

I spend my whole life in struggle with dirt.

You can listen to it here

How MI5 keeps Britain’s secrets safe-ish, and other news from Britain

MI5 has warned LinkedIn users that they’re at risk of spilling the nation’s secrets. 

Let’s take that apart, okay? What’s MI5? 

It’s the British domestic security service. MI6 does the overseas spookery. To quote its own website, “MI5’s mission is to keep the country safe. For more than a century we have worked to protect our people from danger whether it be from terrorism or damaging espionage by hostile states.” 

Some other agency gets to deal with non-damaging espionage. 

MI5 is also dedicated to keeping the nation safe from commas, both the necessary kind and, the, unnecessary, sort. 

Irrelevant photo: It’s red berry season. I have no idea what these are. They’re not edible, though, at least as far as I know.

Linguistic problems aside, though, they’re spies. Or counter-spies, but countering spies can involve doing a bit of spying, because otherwise how do you know what your presumed spies are up to? Every country has some, although it’s bad manners to say so. When Lord Google directed me to MI5’s website, I got a brief message saying the site wasn’t available and thought, Ooh, that really is secretive. Then, disappointingly, it loaded. 

Maybe they used the pause to snip out the commas.

Next question: What kind of secret is the great British public at risk of spilling? 

The sad truth is that not many of us hold secrets anyone cares about. The people MI5’s worried about work in government and key industries, and MI5 says some10,000 UK nationals have been approached by hostile states on LinkedIn (which they don’t mention by name–they’re good at keeping secrets) over the past five years.

How does that work? Your average hostile state sets up a non-hostile fake profile, connects with likely users, and offers them speaking gigs, travel, business deals, lollipops, whatever sounds enticing. It all looks legit, not to mention flattering and lucrative. Presumably, these lure the targets into flapping their gums about whatever they’re supposed to be keeping secret. 

People who’ve been working from home since the start of the pandemic are said to be more vulnerable to these approaches, possibly because they’re working on less secure home computers, but possibly because they’re bored out of their skulls and lonely. 

Or possibly not. Maybe MI5 just threw the pandemic into the explanation to make it newsworthy.

 

Meanwhile, in other countries

In the US–you may well know this–Texas passed a law making abortions illegal if you’ve been pregnant for more than six weeks. Even if the preganancy’s the result of rape or incest. Even if you didn’t know you were pregnant until you were 6.1 weeks along. It’s also now illegal to help anyone get an outlawed abortion, and the law creates an odd, and potentially threatening, situation where individuals, not the state, are supposed to enforce it. So an antiabortion group set up a whistleblower website, and TikTokers promptly flooded it with Shrek memes, pornography,, and fake reports. 

My favorite report is an accusation against the State of Texas for maintaining the highways people use to reach abortion centers, although the 742 accusations against Texas’s governor run a close second.All 742 were all sent by one woman. Anyone who was even vaguely interested could find information online about how to convince a computer to submit mass reports.

Shortly after that started, the site’s host, the ironically named GoDaddy, kicked the site off its platform. It’s not considered nice to collect private information about third parties. The site moved to another platform, Epik, which (I’ve read but not confirmed) hosts assorted ultra-right and outright fascist sites. Then Epik kicked them off for pretty much the same reason. 

It was kicked off a couple of other platforms and last I heard had dropped out of sight..

The law, however, has not.

*

A Spanish bishop, Xavier Novell, resigned after falling in love not just with another human being but with a divorced one who writes erotic fiction with satanic themes, Silvia Caballol. The blurb on one of her books describes it as a journey into sadism, madness, and lust. The plot, it says, will shake the reader’s values and religious beliefs.

Well, either the plot or something else seems to have shaken the ex-bishop’s. He was known for for carrying out exorcisms, as well as for backing “conversion therapy” for gay people.

I can’t help hoping that he falls in love with a man next, although I probably should wish this gem on anyone.

 

An important report from a non-existent department 

The Department of Reasonable Caution isn’t concerned with LinkedIn. Instead it urges us to be more careful than the Mid-Kent Planning Support Team was when it tested an online system.

The team took five real planning applications from the town of Swale, inserted assorted wise-assery where bland responses normally land, and then–oops–put them online. After that, Swale discovered that not only was the incident embarrassing, it was legally binding. They can’t just say, “Sorry. Now we’ll publish the real response.” Instead the phony ones have to be overturned in the courts, which will take two or three months at an expected cost of £8,000.

And that’s only if the process isn’t challenged.

The blame’s landing on the head of some junior officer. I’m not sure what junior officer means in this context, but I can’t help feeling for him or her. This is some ill-advised soul who was trying to stay awake (not to mention amused) at work one day. And, briefly, succeeded.

In fairness, a bit of blame may land on the heads of the people who made the test documents public.

What did the docs that shouldn’t have gone live say? One application was turned down because “your proposal is whack.” Another was approved with the comment, “The incy, wincy spider.” A third was approved with the comment, “Why am I doing this, am I the chosen one?”

Yes, dear, you are: the one chosen to catch 96.3% of the flak.

Some of the place names sound like they were made up by the incy, wincy spider author, but they’re real: Bobbing, near Sittingbourne, home to the Happy Pants animal sanctuary. 

Pants, in British, are underwear. What kind of animal sanctuary does that make it? Sorry, you’re on your own there. *

 

And a yet another caution warning

This past week, Britain’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, demonstrated that he couldn’t tell one Black public figure from another by confusing Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje. He told an interviewer he’d had a pleasant Zoom meeting with Rashford. He’d been talking to Itoje.

When it all blew up in his face, he explained that he’d made “a genuine mistake.”

And here we’d thought he was faking the mistake to fool us into thinking he’s the kind of clueless racist who can’t tell one Black person for another and doesn’t think that’s a problem. And I say that as someone who can’t tell most people apart–Black, White, or Anyone Else. But my problem is with faces. The difference between the names Rashford and Itoje might give me a clue that they’re different people. And if I had to invest enough time in one of them to hold a meeting, I might take the time to find out who he actually is. 

Williamson also got Itoje’s first name wrong. It’s Maro, not Mario.

 

 

How smart does a prime minister have to be?

One of the non-burning questions in British politics is whether the prime minister is, contrary to all appearances, intelligent or whether he’s the kind of dope whose overpriced education taught him to say dumb things in Latin. 

Why isn’t that a burning question? Because if he is smart, it’s his dumb act that’s leading the country, so the impact is pretty much the same.

Still, it’s something people talk about, and the only argument I’ve heard in favor of him being smarter than he acts is that he wrote a biography of Churchill. No one mentions his novels. Presumably any idiot can write one, although as a novelist I’d like to think that  depends on how low your standards are.

If the Churchill biography is our key evidence, then it matters, in a non-burning sort of way, that a few months ago an eminent (and unnamed) Shakespeare scholar was asked to help Johnson write a biography of Shakespeare

Why is a prime minister messing around with a project that’s even less burning than establishing whether he’s clever enough to be allowed out alone? Because in 2015 Johnson signed a £500,000 deal with the publisher Hodder & Staughton. How much of the advance has been paid is anyone’s guess. I’d assume not all, and the publisher will be glad of that because he hasn’t finished it. Possibly hasn’t started it–he’s been distracted by this silly country he’s supposed to be running–although for all I know all the ands and thes are in place and only the connecting words are missing. 

The scholar was contacted by an agent and asked if he or she would “supply Mr Johnson (and a dictaphone) with answers to questions about Shakespeare. . . . The originality and brilliance, his agent assured me, would lie in Mr Johnson’s choice of questions to ask and in the inimitable way in which he would write up the expert answers he received,” 

The expert was told Johnson wrote his Churchill biography using the same method. S/he told the agent to take a hike. And then, apparently, called the press.

That leaves the nation still debating the prime minister’s intelligence. I’m not sure anyone’s arguing about his character.

 

Talking ducks

A musk duck in Australia has been recorded saying, “You bloody fool.” It’s the first documented instance of a duck imitating human speech. You have to watch the video a few times before you catch the words, but once you do, yes, it really does sound like the duck’s saying, “You bloody fool.” Maybe it’s talking about the ways we waste our time on this planet.

I found it disconcerting to hear a creature talk when its lips aren’t moving. And disconcerting that something that talks doesn’t have lips.

The duck was–or so the article I read told me–hatched from an egg, which I would’ve thought was common enough not to need mentioning, but since we’re talking about a talking duck I don’t suppose we should take anything for granted. The duck was also hand reared. 

Whether any of that is relevant to its ability to insult the world at large is up for grabs, but I’m thinking the duck–he’s called Ripper–wouldn’t make a bad prime minister. I don’t know what Britain’s unwritten constitution has to say about non-citizens becoming prime ministers, but ducks aren’t specifically ruled out.

Even with an unwritten constitution, I’m sure of that.

*

  • My thanks to Bear Humphries for the tip about Swale. I’d have missed it without him. The link is to his photo blog, which is well worth a look.

What British swear word is going out of style? 

Britain’s internationally famous swear word, bloody, has dropped by 80% in the popularity rankings, landing in third place, behind fuck and shit.

Or as the Independent so delicately puts it, behind “the f-word” and “s***.”

No, I don’t know why they can’t use the same form to mask both words  They did spell out bloody, though, which helps those of us who aren’t British sort out how high it ranks on the forbiddenness list: Far enough down that all of its letters were left in plain view.

Having said that, the survey says that both bloody and fuck are being used less in casual conversation. 

How would you measure that? Do you ask people, “How many times in the past week did you use the following words?” Do you tap their phones or install a nanochip in the Covid vaccines that notifies Bill Gates every time you swear? 

Does Bill Gates care?

None of the above. Dr. Robbie Love trawled through twenty years of transcripts in the British National Corpus of Conversation, looking at how usage changed over time. That meant looking through 15 million words for mentions of 16 swear words.

It’s amazing what humans will do. 

Irrelevant photo: hydrangea with butterfly

What’s the British National Corpus of Conversation? It’s 100 million words of written and spoken language from the “later part of the 20th century”–90% of them written (“newspapers, academic books, essays, etc.”) and 10% informal conversations and radio shows.

Which surely means it underestimates people’s swearing. I used to host a radio show, all by my foul-mouthed self, and I didn’t swear once when I was on the air. Still, if he found a decline over twenty years, at least he’s comparing twenty-year-old apples to more modern apples.

Love thinks the word shit gets a boost from the handy way it can be tacked onto other words, like -head and -eating. And fuck? It gets a boost from the number of places it can be dropped into a sentence: 

I fuckin’ hate work days.

I hate fuckin’ work days.

I hate work fuckin’ days. 

I’m stretching it with that last one, but it’s not completely out of the question. If I’d given myself some longer words to work with, I could also have dropped it in mid-fuckin’-word. Count that as an opportunity lost.

Linguists (I’ve read) call this the fucking insertion. I asked Lord Google if he’d confirm that for me, but he thought I was interested in porn. I’ll pay for my intellectual curiosity by wading through an assortment of gross-out ads. In the meantime, you’ll have to take my unsupported word on the subject unless one of the linguists hidden hereabouts cares to wade in. 

I know you’re out there. 

Men still swear more than women, the survey reports, but the gap is narrowing, striking another blow for equality.

 

And since we’re in polite company

The Cerne Giant–one of Britain’s best-known chalk figures–has at long last been reliably dated

And when I say dated, I don’t mean romantically. I mention that because he’s clearly available. He’s naked, he’s anatomically correct (in an exaggerated way that I guess makes him overcorrect), and he’s visibly interested. But no, that’s not what we’re talking about. Cernie’s still single. We’re talking about dating the era when he was carved into the hillside. Experts have spent years debating that. He was Roman. He was Celtic. He was Cromwellian. 

Sorry, everyone, but none of those are right. The National Trust has brought in some high-tech equipment and pronounced him Anglo-Saxon, probably from the tenth century. That’s based on microscopic snails in the sediment.

No, I didn’t know microscopic snails existed either.

For whatever reasons, local documents have been no help in figuring out his origins. He’s not mentioned in the tenth century, in the sixteenth century, or in the seventeenth century. There he is, dominating the hillside, and no one mentioned him.

The best explanation for the figure belongs to Gordon Bishop, of the Cerne Historical Society. Asked if he had a theory, he said, “I don’t have one. . . . You can make up all sorts of stories. I don’t know why he is on the hill, . . . I can’t work it out. “

 

 

Who’s best at spotting fake news?

According to a US survey, people who are the most certain that they can spot fake news are the most likely to be taken in by it.

I’m still trying to figure out if that’s sobering or hysterically funny. You would think anything could hit both notes at once.

Nine out of ten people in the survey ranked themselves above average in their ability to tell the difference, which reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s line about Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, where all the children are above average. 

Two out of ten put themselves fifty or more percentiles higher than their actual scores. 

Americans do agree, for the most part, that fake news is everywhere. It’s the one thing uniting the country just now. Take that away and it all gets even worse.

The study’s author, Ben Lyons, said, “No matter what domain [I think he’s talking about countries and cultures here], people on average are overconfident. . . . But over 70% of people displaying overconfidence is just such a huge number.” 

Men–both in this study and in general–are more overconfident than women, and more vulnerable to false news. Another blow struck for feminism. The minute men stop undermining us and we stop undermining ourselves, we can be as vulnerable to fake news as they are.

Can I hear a few cheers for human progress, please?

 

And speaking of misinformation . . .

Somebody out there (including the Republican senator Rand Paul) is promoting ivermectin, an animal dewormer, as a treatment for Covid. In fact, a judge in Cincinnati ordered a hospital to treat a patient with it because his doctor ordered it.

Why doesn’t the hospital want to? Because the drug’s approved for humans only in limited ways–to treat head lice, scabies, river blindness, and assorted other problems caused by parasites. It has nothing to do with treating a virus. Clinical trials haven’t turned up enough evidence to use it against Covid. 

The patient’s doctor, though, says federal authorities and the media are in a conspiracy to cover up the drug’s effectiveness. He calls it genocride. Or he says we’d call it that if another country did it, which allows him to call it genocide without actually calling it genocide.

What does the US Food and Drug Administration say? 

I don’t think it’s commented on the specific case, but on the subject of ivermectin in general it tweeted, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it,” 

In a more sober mood, it also said, “Even the levels of ivermectin for approved uses can interact with other medications, like blood-thinners. You can also overdose on ivermectin, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hypotension (low blood pressure), allergic reactions (itching and hives), dizziness, ataxia (problems with balance), seizures, coma and even death.”

Seriously, y’all. Stop it.

 

An orchid comes back from extinction

An orchid that was thought to be extinct since 2009, the serapias parviflora, has turned up in (or should that be on?) a roof garden in London. And not just one orchid: fifteen of them, blooming away as happily as if the roof of an investment bank was its natural habitat.

Can I interrupt myself for a moment? I’ve just been handed a note from the Department of Small Print. It says the flower turns out to be extinct in the UK, not on the entire planet. It’s just that–well,  you know how countries are. They have a habit of thinking they are the entire planet. Or at least ones that have or used to have power do. 

How’d the flower get onto a bank’s roof? According to one theory, seedlings could’ve blown there with dust from the Sahara. The seedlings do travel that way. According to another, the seeds could’ve been in the soil when it was brought there, ten years ago, and have just now germinated.

The garden also has London’s biggest colony of green-winged orchids.

 

Your ten-minute history of the English courts

We can trace the history of English courts back to–well, it depends on who you read: the Anglo-Saxon moot courts, the medieval manor courts, Henry II, Richard I, a few other people with numbers after their names. Take your pick. Toss in a few others if you want to. And by way of truth in advertising, I haven’t timed the article. I have no idea how long it takes to read. But let’s start with the Anglo-Saxons, since they’re first in line.

 

The Anglo-Saxons

Since Anglo-Saxon England started life as a series of smallish kingdoms, it had a scattered mass of laws and customs, meaning that law and its enforcement depended on where you found yourself in its clutches, as well as when. 

Cases that directly involved the king went to the king’s court.  

And cases that didn’t? Well, below the king’s court were, on the basement level, the hundred courts. A hundred was an administrative, military, and judicial category. It was made up of enough land to sustain a hundred families. Above the hundred courts, on the ground floor, were  the shire courts, over which a sheriff presided.

We’ll leave it there, before the picture gets messy, but if you’re in need of serious Anglo-Saxon complications you can find a bit more on the subject in an earlier post.

Irrelevant photo: Li’l Red Cat

 

The Normans

Then the Normans invaded and complicated the picture in a different way, and I desperately hope that I’ve attached the right courts to the right time periods to the right kings.

That’s the problem with history: The pieces move around all the damn time. 

The king’s court continued, hearing important pleas and appeals. Below that, a mass of other courts sprang up, each one handling different issues: In Devon and Cornwall, anything involving mining went to the stannary courts. Anything involving the royal forests went someplace else that wasn’t named in the articles I read and I’m exhausted this week so we’ll pretend we don’t need to know. 

Then there were the manor courts, where tenants were judged by the feudal lords’ stand-ins. Since many of the offenses would’ve been against the lords’ rules and the fines imposed went into the lords’ pockets–

Why, of course a peasant could expect impartial judgement. 

The manor courts also had a more neutral function as places to register land transactions between tenants (the transactions first had to be allowed by the lord), or to surrender or take up holdings under the lord.

Above the manor courts were the honour courts (what the hell, I’ll spell them the English way, with that stray U, since after all they were English). They each covered a complex of estates. 

On top of all that, the church ran its own courts to deal with clerics. 

Clerics, though, even if they couldn’t be judged in a secular court, took on much of the business of secular law. They were an important part of the king’s circle, after all. And they were literate, they knew Latin–the common language of Europe and the language of education and government–and boy could they play politics. At the time, it would’ve seemed natural enough. 

 

Henry II

With Henry, we leave the Normans behind and–if you keep track of these things–are into the Plantagenets. It’s not the 12th century. 

Henry II set up a unified court system that was common to the whole country and that gives us the phrase common law.  It took local custom to the national level, ending local control, and according to a paper posted at OpenLearn, ended arbitrary remedies. 

It also, not so incidentally, centralized power in the king’s hands. In every hundred, twelve “lawful” men–and in every village, four of them–were to declare whether any local man (or presumably, woman) was a murderer or robber. So basically, they had the power to make an accusation, and Henry had a network of prisons built to hold the accused for trial. 

To deal with them,  Henry sent judges traveling on circuits called eyres, and if you heard a piece click into place as the former English majors and other book lovers read that, I heard it too. The judges were to base their judgments on the laws made in Westminster, which is where OpenLearn’s end to arbitrary remedies comes from.

The judges had no local roots, which at least in theory made them less susceptible to corruption. 

All this meant it was now the king’s right to deal with crime and disorder, not the local lords’.

A different set of courts dealt with usurpation–who had a right to what land and whose ancestor had a better claim to it, since damn near everything hinged on who your ancestors were. Disputes were settled, vendettas and violence were avoided, and (ever so incidentally) fees were collected and the treasury was enriched.

It took a while, but eventually the courts’ decisions were written down and published, setting precedents that could be cited in future cases.

The law was becoming professionalized. 

What else did Henry do? He set up a jury of twelve knights to settle land disputes, plus five members of his household–two from the clergy and three from the, um, non-clergy–“to hear all the complaints of the realm and to do right.” They were to be supervised by the king himself, in all his kingliness, and the “wise men” of the realm.

This involved the royal court in disputes between people who weren’t the king. (An awful lot of people, even then, weren’t the king.) In other words, these were cases where the crown wasn’t a party and cared only in the somewhat abstract interest of justice, power, and a peaceful kingdom.

That evolved eventually into the Court of Common Pleas, which was the middle ages’ most active court, for which it won a large plastic trophy. The court continued until the 19th century looked at the overlapping and competing jurisdictions of what was by then three common law courts and replaced them all.

And confiscated the trophy.

Sic transit gloria mundi, which is Latin for Plastic was rare and valuable back then.

One more word about common law: It’s marked by a reliance not just on statute but also on precedent. How anyone ever found their way through the snaking mass of precedents before the age of computers I can’t imagine, but they did. 

 

Richard I

A bit later  in the 12th century, Richard I commissioned a set of knights (it was cheaper to buy the full set than to buy them individually) to preserve the “king’s peace” in “unruly” areas. They were called keepers of the peace and were responsible to the king. By the 14th century, the phrase had evolved into justices of the peace, who are sometimes these days called magistrates.

If Richard contributed anything more than that, I haven’t figured out what it is. 

 

Justice incorruptible

At some point, judges began interpreting the 13th century Statute of Gloucester in a way that funneled cases involving more than 40 shillings to the royal courts. That increased their fees, since they were paid (a bit like cab drivers back in the days when I was one) on the basis of the business they did. 

Cab drivers are also incorruptible.

The site judiciary.uk says the justices in eyre were seen locally as tools of oppression.

An act from 1361 (that’s under Edward III) gave justices of the peace the power to “bind over unruly persons.” It’s still usable today, although these days they’re called magistrates.

Until the 19th century, magistrates were not just judges but local administrators. They set wages, built roads and bridges (not with their own hands, mind you; they were too important to get their hands dirty), and supervised local services. 

Manorial courts declined in the 17th century and were pretty much obsolete in the 18th century. But magistrates, on the other hand, were members of the landed gentry in the 18th century, which is one reason England was so hard on poachers. Poachers were people who hunted illegally on the gentry’s land. So with the end of manor courts the power hadn’t exactly shifted, it had just poured itself into a different form.

The first paid, professional magistrate was appointed in 1813.

 

Magistrates’ courts today

As the judiciary.uk puts it, “It’s doubtful that anyone asked to design a justice system would choose to copy the English and Welsh model. It’s contradictory in places, and rather confusing.”

Did you want an example of English understatement? See above: “rather confusing.” 

Most criminal cases start in a magistrates’ court, and some 95% will end there. Only the most serious ones get bumped up a level, to the crown court, where they get a judge and a jury and a full set of wigs. Magistrates’ courts function without any of those. 

They also function (for the most part) without a paid judge. Magistrates are “mostly unpaid, largely untrained volunteers,” according to Stig Abell in How Britain Really Works

Who’s trained and who’s untrained depends on how you want to define training. Magistrates do get some training before they’re thrown onto the bench, but they’re not lawyers and they are part timers. When they need advice on law and procedure they have to rely on clerks, who are their legal advisors. 

A small majority of the magistrates–56%–are women. You can read that as a victory for feminism if you like, but I’m inclined to think it’s a reminder that the job’s mostly unpaid.

 

Capital punishment

But let’s digress. I always do. It allows us to tackle the important questions, which are always off to one side. Do we capitalize magistrates’ court and crown court? The judiciary.uk website goes with Magistrates’ court, and so do some other sites. That’s moderately insane but looks worse when you zip around the website a bit and see that the more important court gets two capital letters instead of one: Crown Court. A couple of dictionaries go with magistrates’ court.

So what’s a frazzled blogger to do? Since the British have a habit of Capitalizing anything they think is Important, especially Nouns, I’ve sent the whole self-important lot of them packing and gone with lower-case letters. 

What does it mean that a Covid vaccine is, say, 70% effective?

Let’s start by talking about what it doesn’t mean. If a vaccine is 70% effective against a virus it doesn’t mean that 30% of the people who’ve been vaccinated will get infected. That’s an assumption that only people whose math is as bad as mine would make. The kind of people who juggle the numbers 70, 30, and 100 and come up with an answer that’s as likely looking as it is meaningless.

It turns out that the number doesn’t compare the vaccinated people who stay well to the  vaccinated people who get sick. Nay, verily, it compares the vaccinated people who get sick (or who stay well) to the unvaccinated people who get sick (or who stay well). To put that a different way (because I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling with this), it compares the risk vaccinated people run in the presence of Covid to the risk unvaccinated people run.

This matters because it leaves us with a much smaller pool of people who are vulnerable.

If you’d care to read about that with actual numbers and sensible writers, follow the link. I have a severe allergy to math and I know better than to attempt a full explanation. 

Irrelevant photo: Red clover. I’ll come back with more kitten photos soon.

 

Who gets sick with the Delta variant and can the vaccinated spread it?

In the US, 95% to 98% of the people hospitalized with Covid are unvaccinated, and 99.5% of the deaths are of the unvaccinated. Even with the Delta variant circulating, that seems to be holding true.

But some numbers have changed since the initial vaccine studies, and they have to do with what Dr. Robert Schooley, from the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, calls “the asymptomatic shedding rate among vaccinated individuals,” which in human speech means how much of the virus is spread by vaccinated people who get infected but don’t get sick.

Or to push that one step further, how dangerous they are to the unvaccinated.

When the vaccines were tested, the Delta variant wasn’t around yet. They were dealing with a less infectious beast. On top of which, no one thought to investigate the odd sniffles and colds that people in the study cooked up. They were allergies. They were colds. They were flu. 

Remember the old days, when people caught colds? 

So the study didn’t track them.

Now, though, they’re realizing that those mild symptoms could be nearly asymptomatic Covid, and what’s known so far is that some fully vaccinated people who get infected carry enough of the virus to spread it, even though it’s not making them sick.

How do they compare with unvaccinated people as far as spreading the thing goes? The numbers aren’t in yet. I mean, they’re out there. Numbers always are. But nobody’s assembled them yet. On average, though, Schooley says the infected vaccinated person will shed less virus for a shorter time. And the odds that they’ll become infected are lower, so whatever the eventual picture turns out to be, vaccinating people does slow the spread of the disease.

 

Are the vaccines losing their effectiveness? 

As has become usual since the pandemic started, we’re not likely to find a definitive answer yet, but it does look like the number of breakthrough cases in vaccinated people is growing.

What’s a breakthrough case? A Covid case in someone who’s vaccinated. Getting one doesn’t mean you’re dead, hospitalized, or even necessarily sick. It just means you’re carrying the infection, when if the vaccines were 100% effective (very few are and no one expected these to be), you wouldn’t be. 

So if you’re fully vaccinated, it’s not time to panic yet. You can always do that later. 

Why’s this happening? The experts are still debating that, but it doesn’t look like the Delta variant is evading either the vaccines or immunity from earlier infections. 

That’s another reason to wait before you panic.

If Delta hasn’t broken through the vaccines’ protective lines, that leaves us with two possibilities. One, the vaccines’ effectiveness is fading, or two, Delta’s high transmissibility is responsible.

Several studies show what could be a waning in vaccine effectiveness, but it’s hard to know if the numbers really mean that. They could also mean that vaccinated people are taking more risks–going to bars or gyms or other Covid exchange sites–and giving themselves more chances to meet the virus.

And protection against getting so sick that you need to be hospitalized, though, is holding steady, which may mean effectiveness isn’t waning. All this will be perfectly clear in hindsight, but for now we have to make do with what we can see from where we are.

So do booster shots make sense? 

On the side of saying no are the many countries that the vaccines have barely reached. How can rich countries be talking about booster shots when initial doses are desperately needed elsewhere?

On the side of saying yes is that in people with weakened immune systems, because of either age or disease, they can make a difference, although the evidence on that is still preliminary.

 

Testing news

A new study shows that testing saliva for Covid is as reliable as testing nasal swabs. So at some point we may be able to stop puncturing our brain pans with sticks that are allegedly softened with cotton wool–or something that looks vaguely like cotton wool.

If Covid tests shift to using saliva, they won’t have to rely on patents’ willingness to make themselves uncomfortable, which will make them more reliable. And we won’t have to worry about a shortage of swabs.

If, in fact, worrying about that is one of the things that’s keeping you up at night.

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Several times now, I’ve sworn off writing about newer, faster, cheaper Covid tests because although I keep reading about them, they never seem to be adopted–at least not anywhere I read about, and certainly not where I live. But you know how it is when you swear off something multiple times: It’s a sign that you keep breaking your word. So here we go again:

A newer, faster, cheaper Covid test has been developed. And it uses the same stuff that pencil lead is made from, which isn’t lead at all, it’s graphite. It cuts the cost to $1.50 per test, takes six and a half minutes, and is 100% accurate using a saliva sample and 88% using one of those evil nasal thingies.

The system can be adapted to test for other transmissible diseases. Now all we have to do is wait and see whether we hear of it again.

Law in Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxon law isn’t a still life, it’s more like a movie. Between the time between the Roman withdrawal and the Norman invasion, Ango-Saxon England changed from a tribal society to a centralized kingdom. The laws changed. The kings changed. Towns and cities appeared in what had been a rural landscape. Kingdoms swallowed kingdoms swallowed yet more kingdoms until only one was left.

And to complicate the picture, Christianity became the dominant religion, and the Christian church wasn’t shy about throwing its weight around in law, politics, and pretty much any other aspect of society. 

We’ll ignore the Viking invasions and the Viking settlements. We’ve got enough moving parts to oil about sparing them any. But even without oiling any Vikings, what’s true in one year and in one kingdom won’t be true in another year and in another kingdom. So even though I’ve smoothed out the edges for the sake of coherence, incoherence may be a truer picture.

 

Murder and money

By way of an overview, let’s borrow from a BBC article, which says (more or less) that crime starts out as an offense against an individual and his or her family but under King Alfred (a.k.a. Alfred the Great, 871–899) it becomes an offense against society as a whole. Which now that someone mentions it is a huge change.

Anglo-Saxon law grows out of Germanic traditions, not Roman ones, and when it gets written down it’s not written in Latin but in Old English (known at the time simply as English–they think it’ll age better than it turns out to).

Irrelevant photo: mallow

In contrast, most of the European continent lean Romeward in their legal traditions. That’s not entirely relevant, but it is interesting.

Until the 10th century, most injuries to another person are measured in money. You just killed someone? Sit over there by the wall while we figure out if it was your fault and what your victim’s worth. First, how important were they? Did you declare the killing openly or try to hide it? What sort of reason did you have? Were you drunk or sober? 

Now we’ll call together a court made up of your neighbors (that’s your free neighbors, not your enslaved ones), who’ll base their judgement on what they know of your character and history and your victim’s character and history, as well as on the witnesses that you and your victim’s family bring. 

The witnesses are there to testify about your character, not necessarily about what happened. They didn’t necessarily witness the killing itself.  

Okay, they just found you guilty–sorry; these things do happen–and they’ve figured out the dead person’s wergild. That’s the money you’ll have to pay to compensate their family for their death. After you pay up–well, the event won’t be forgotten, but legally you can put it behind you.

But death’s an extreme example and most people hate sad endings anyway, so you don’t have to have killed anyone, okay? We’ll let you try out some other crime, because you make restitution in money for almost all of them. If, say, you injure someone ( this is under Aethelbert’s and Alfred’s laws; remember, it all keeps changing) the fine is higher if you injure someone in a visible way, probably because that injures their honor: They now have to walk around looking like someone who’s not powerful enough to defend themselves. That damages their standing in the community. (Tuck that thought away somewhere. We’ll come back to it.)

 

Feuds and physical punishment

Not everyone who commits a crime has the money to pay a fine, and the alternative is physical punishment–anything from whipping to maiming to execution. Since slaves (who own nothing or almost nothing) and coerls (who are the lowest level of free people and own damn little) are the least likely to pay a fine, they’re the most likely to face physical punishment, although in the later Anglo-Saxon period physical punishment spread up the social ladder. Athelstan’s Second Code of Laws (we’re in the early tenth century here) says that if a moneyer–the person who mints coins–is found guilty making them too light or mixing in cheaper metals, “the hand shall be cut off with which he committed the crime, and fastened up on the mint.” (That’s from Rober Lacey and Danny Danzier’s The Year 1000.)

On the other hand, let’s say you’re convicted of killing someone and can afford the fine but refuse to. Or you can’t come up with the money but you have enough status that somehow no one discusses executing or maiming you.

Well, you may have just set off a feud involving your family and the dead person’s family, and at least for part of the Anglo-Saxon period that’s a perfectly legitimate way to handle the problem. Because this is a tribal–or if you like, communal or familial–society. You’re not just you, you’re a member of your family, and whether you like it or not, a representative of it. Your honor is their honor. Your crime is their crime, and so’s your battle. 

Neither family can afford to be seen as weak. 

This can get messy easily, and assorted kings try to put a lid on it. Edmund tries to limit revenge to the perpetrator alone, leaving the family out of it. Alfred (among other things) insists that the wronged family has to wait twelve months to see if the other family will pay up. He bans secret attacks. He insists that you ask for your payment before you attack.

None of this eliminates feuds, it just limits them.

 

Closed communities and strangers

Now let’s go back to that court of your free neighbors. Both accused and accuser bring witnesses to their character, and at least at the beginning of the era, this will be happening in a small community, so the neighbors already know who they’re dealing with. They come with all their loyalties and long standing grievances and biases. And let’s not kid ourselves that family status doesn’t weigh heavily as well. This is a hierarchical society. Fear of a powerful family will factor in heavily.

Thou shalt not convict the local lord’s darling, even if he is a little psychopath.

The closeness of a small community means that some crimes we take for granted don’t happen–or don’t happen often. Breaking into someone’s house and stealing their stuff? Unlikely. Everyone not only knows you but knows your stuff. It’s kind of like being eight years old and coming home with a phone. Your mother takes one look as it and says, “Where’d you get that?” 

“Um–”

“Right. Get your jacket. We’re taking it back.”

So no, you can’t take that fancy knife your neighbor had made. Because he didn’t just show it to you, he showed it to everyone else too. 

There’s no evidence (says Sally Crawford in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England) that people had locks on their doors in the early Anglo-Saxon settlements, although some people did have locked chests.

What about someone from out of town stealing your stuff? Strangers aren’t common, and to be an outsider is to be suspected of–well, either something that already happened or something that might. 

If you’re the stranger, the best thing you can do is ask for the protection of someone local–and preferably someone both local and powerful. But once you’ve done that, any crime you commit will reflect on your patron, who won’t be pleased with you. 

 

Women in Anglo-Saxon law

If you’re going to be a woman in medieval Europe, you might as well get yourself born into Anglo-Saxon England, because relatively speaking women’s status isn’t bad, although the emphasis is on relatively. In general, it wasn’t a good time to be born a woman.

Women can inherit property and control it. As surely as every man has a wergild–a value for every kind of injury against him–so does every woman, and any offense against her will be settled with reference to it. If she’s high enough up the social scale, the money will be paid to her, not her husband. If she’s too low on the social scale to collect the money, that stems not from her sex but her status. The same is true of men.

She can take a case to court the same way a man can. She can leave a marriage, and if she takes the children and supports them, half the property goes with her. (You notice how this leans heavily toward people who have property?) Marriage is a secular arrangement, although a couple might stop at the church for a blessing–and breaking up a marriage is equally secular. 

 

Outlawry

In a society based on family, the worst thing (other than execution, of course) that you can do to someone is to outlaw them. The outlaw has no family, no protection, no one to fight for them or with them, and no one to avenge them. That’s one reason people are suspicious of strangers: Who can tell that they’re not outlaws?

Anyone can be outlawed, even a king. The Anglo-Saxons don’t believe in the divine right of kings (at least until late in the game) or in a king’s eldest son automatically taking the throne when the father dies. The king’s chosen and can be unchosen, as King Cyneheard of the West Saxons was when he pissed off his witan–that’s the group of aristocrats who counseled him. 

King C. was killed by a swineherd, Since he was an outlaw, he was fair game. Or so the story goes. 

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This is part of a series of posts on English law and courts. I haven’t a clue where it’ll go next, but stick around and we’ll all find out.

 

Younger, sicker, quicker: does the Delta variant target young people?

An article in the New York Times considers why the Covid Delta variant is hospitalizing more young people than the beginning-of-the-alphabet variants did. The answers are still a bit iffy, since the numbers involved haven’t had the time or money to hold a convention yet, but the phrase front-line doctors are whispering to each other, at least in the US, is younger, sicker, quicker: The patients are younger and sicker and they’re deteriorating faster. Or quicker. Or more quickly. Or possibly in a greater hurry.

The article’s talking about patients in their twenties and thirties. And these aren’t people with risk factors like diabetes or obesity. What they are is unvaccinated.

Some doctors think the Delta variant is what’s making the difference. It’s suspected of causing more severe disease, although that’s still educated guesswork. See above about the numbers. It may also be hitting an age group that was thought to have a Get out of Covid Free card. But as the Times puts it, “There is no definitive data showing that the new variant is somehow worse for young adults.”

I don’t often get to correct the Times, but technically that should be “definitive data…are.” It sounds awful, but it’s right.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

So we don’t have solid data. It could be that the high percentage of younger patients is a result of older people being vaccinated in higher numbers than younger people. Take, say, 90% of old people out of your hospital emergency rooms and your patients’ average age falls dramatically. 

It’s also possible that the numbers are a result of people mixing more just when a more contagious variant is circulating, a significant pool of people remain unvaccinated, and many people aren’t wearing masks.

However.

According to an internal Centers for Disease Control document that somehow wandered into the Times newsroom with a sign saying, “Read me,” the Delta variant is as contagious as chicken pox and “may cause more severe disease than Alpha or ancestral strains.” If that turns out to be true, it would account for those hospitalized patients who are sicker and deteriorating more quickly.

According to  Dr. Catherine O’Neal, of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, “Something about this virus is different in this age group. We always saw some people who we just said, ‘Why the heck did this get them?’ But that was rare. Now we’re seeing it more commonly.

“I think it is a new Covid.”

Dr. Cam Patterson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said, “Our sense is that younger, healthier people are more susceptible to the Delta variant than those that were circulating earlier. . . .

“The transition we saw toward younger patients and toward people getting sick more quickly coincided almost precisely with the emergence of Delta here in Arkansas. This to us feels like an entirely different disease.”

 

Meanwhile back in Downing Street 

Boris Johnson, Britain’s alleged prime minister, was exposed to Covid last week. Or else he wasn’t exposed. Either way, he’s not going to go into isolation because, basically, he doesn’t want to. He went into isolation before (under protest) and he’s bored with it.

Besides, what’s the point of being the prime minister if you have to follow the same rules as everyone else?

The exposure happened when one of his aides tested positive on a political visit to Scotland. The aide dutifully went into isolation. A Downing Street spokesperson informed us, with a straight face, that he and Johnson weren’t in close contact. Yes, they were in a plane together, but Johnson didn’t inhale. And neither did anyone else on the plane.

The rules on isolation are set to change on August 16. After that, vaccinated people will be exempt. Before Johnson was exposed himself, he’d resisted calls to move the date forward, saying it was important that everyone follow the rules.

Unless they happen to be him. 

 

Vaccine news

Of the 100 Covid vaccines now in development, 7 of them are nasal sprays, and nasal sprays have advantages and disadvantages.

On the plus side, they act more quickly and if you’re twitchy about needles they won’t make you twitch. Since Covid tends to enter the body through the nose, nasal sprays deliver the vaccine to the site of the infection. They act faster than injected vaccines. And “ they can elicit mucosal immunity in the lungs.”

You might want to notice that, for fear of screwing it up, I’m not rewording that. I think I understand it but I don’t want to find out I’m wrong. You’re on your own.

On the down side, the immunity created by nasal spray vaccines doesn’t last as long. And they use live viruses that have had the hell kicked out of them so that they won’t make most people sick, but with a very, very few they will.

Using both forms of vaccine isn’t out of the question–one for its fast action, the other for its long life.

One trial gave infected animals the AstraZeneca vaccine as a nasal spray, and it decreased their viral load, which doesn’t prove–but does suggest–that it decreases the amount of virus they shed.

To translate that, they might be less likely to infect anyone else. 

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Let’s end on a hopeful note. Scientists are working on a vaccine that targets a huge category of coronaviruses known for jumping from animals to humans. They’re called sarbecoviruses, and Covid’s one of them. The idea is that this would work not just against whatever variant Covid can cook up but against whatever coronavirus the world might throw at us next. 

So far, the vaccine’s been effective in mice. The hope is that after more animal testing it’ll be tried in humans next year.

Medieval justice in England: trial by ordeal, by jury, and by combat

England’s medieval system of justice has a bad reputation, and it came by it honestly. Come, let’s be horrified together.

Medieval courts came in two flavors: Local courts were presided over by the lord or his steward, and we’ll skip those for now. The King’s Court was initially presided over by the king personally but the work was eventually hived off to people whose clothing wasn’t quite as fancy. Even so, this was for the serious cases.

We’re not going to do a full roundup of medieval justice. It shifted over time. It’s complicated and I don’t have enough space in a single post. I’m tired. Let’s focus on a few high–or low–points involving serious crimes.

Irrelevant photo: hydrangea

 

Trial by ordeal

I had a sneaking suspicion that trial by ordeal might turn out to be an urban myth or a tale told to kids to demonstrate that the past was brutal and ignorant but the present was enlightened and moving toward perfection. But no, trial by ordeal was a real way to resolve important cases. So yes, the past was brutal, but you could make a good case that the present is too, and that perfection thing is still eluding us.

Here’s how trial by ordeal worked: Let’s say you’re in medieval England and you’re accused of a felony-level crime–murder, maybe, or theft, arson, or witchcraft. A priest holds a religious service and invokes god, who has nothing better to do than prove your innocence or guilt. 

In ordeal A, you’re tied up and tossed in the water to see if you sink (look, you’re innocent: the water accepts you) or float (oh, bad choice, you’re guilty: the water doesn’t want you). 

Opinion is divided on whether you’ll be fished out if you sink. One website says people are tied in a way that traps air and makes it impossible to sink. But basically, the information that’s come down to us is thin. 

In ordeal B, the priest heats a piece of metal, you take hold of it and carry it some set number of paces before you’re allowed to let it go. Then your hand’s bandaged. If three days later the hand’s getting infected, god doesn’t like you: You’re guilty. If it’s healing, god’s happy with you: You’re innocent. 

At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, though, the Catholic Church pulled its priests out of the trial by ordeal business, which pretty much put an end to it. (It also banned them from acting as barbers and surgeons, thereby eliminating the holy haircut, Batman.)  

One reason for the shift was that big-name theologians had stopped trusting the process. Peter the Chanter (no, I never heard of him either, but then I theologians aren’t one of my interests in life) told the tale of an Englishman who’d gone on pilgrimage with a companion but returned alone. He was accused of murder, failed his ordeal, and was executed.

Then his companion came wandering back to town. 

It was embarrassing.

Other theologians opposed it because, basically, it was wrong to bother god with this stuff.

So England shifted to a jury system and god, if he existed, got time to sit back with a cup of coffee and a jelly donut. Neither of which was available within the reach of the Catholic Church at the time, but surely that’s one of the perks of being god–or a god. If there turn out to be such things.

Another website tells us that even before the Lateran Council William II had banned trial by ordeal, supposedly because fifty men had been accused of killing his deer but passed the test. 

We weren’t there, the information’s thin, and we don’t know. At this point, I wouldn’t put a lot of money on our odds of untangling the true story. Either way, trial by ordeal dropped out of use.

 

The jury system

England’s jury system overlapped with trial by ordeal: Initially, it was the job of twelve men to decide whether the accused should undergo the trial, so when trial by ordeal ended it was simple enough to look at them and say, “Hey, you’ll play god here, okay?”

Records from earliest trials present them as pretty bare bones. The defendant had no lawyer. In fact, the word lawyer didn’t come into the language until the 14th century, so let’s say the defendant had no counsel.  

The members of the jury might know the defendant. They might also know the victim. They came fully stocked with all the loves, hates, loyalties, and prejudices that a relatively small community can harbor.

No one seem to have had a problem with that.

Defendants faced one punishment, death, usually by hanging, so people were playing for keeps here. On the other hand, most people who were tried were found innocent. And of the people who were found guilty, many were pardoned. 

For all that we’re talking about the royal courts here, justice seems to have been a highly localized affair, because several sources say that an accused person could flee: Leave town and you could consider yourself (fairly) safe. Or they could take sanctuary in a church, which gave them the possibility of confessing then leaving the country for good. 

Finally, anyone who could read could claim benefit of clergy and if the church claimed them as one of its own that moved their case to the church courts, where if nothing else the death penalty wasn’t a possiblity. 

But no defendant could face a jury trial unless they agreed to it. For a few decades, it someone refused, a jury might meet anyway, and if the defendant was found guilty a second jury would meet to confirm the verdict of the first jury. 

Then the royal courts introduced the enlightened system of peine forte et dure. Let’s say you won’t agree to a jury trial. Fine, that’s your right, only they slam you in prison on a diet of bread and water. Then they put weights on you until you either agree to a jury trial or die. Which makes the bread and water diet somewhat irrelevant.

Why would you let yourself die that way when a faster (and less certain) death was available? Because if you were convicted your property would be forfeit and your heirs would be skunked. But if you died without a trial or a conviction, your family inherited your property.

 

Trial by combat

The theory behind trial by combat is that the winner wasn’t just stronger or a better fighter but that god had put his heavenly thumb on one side of the scales, tipping them toward the good and upright and against the slimy, evil, and, um, any other adjective you’d like to pile onto the losing side. Adjectives, in spite of the noise they make, don’t carry much weight, so pile them on if you like, because they won’t tip the balance.

From 1066 (the date of the Norman invasion) to 1179, this was the primary way of settling land disputes, although it wasn’t limited to land disputes. The process not only settled messy cases, it provided the neighborhood with entertainment. There’s nothing like seeing two people fight until one of them yields or dies. 

The courts did expect some minimal documentation of a claim before a case proceeded to combat, but once they’d filtered out a few screamingly bogus ones, the battle was on.

If you want a rational underpinning for this–and who doesn’t?–look at it this way: Documentation in land claims was in short supply. Witnesses could be gathered up for either side. It looks bad when judges flounce off saying, “This is pointless. Settle it yourselves, will you?” But if you have a system of trial by combat, you may be thinking that but you ask god to settle it, which sounds a lot better.

A person could either fight their own battle or choose a champion, and you could argue (as one paper does) that the system was economically efficient. Better fighters cost more money, so the battle went to the side that valued the land more. 

And, although the writer does say this, the one that had deeper pockets.

The champion who lost paid a £3 fine (that was a shitload of money back then) for perjury and was declared infamous. He couldn’t bear witness in any future cases. As far as I can tell, that was the fighter, not the person on either side of the case, but take that with several grains of salt. And I £3 fine if I’m wrong.

Trial by battle had its absurdities, some of them unpredictable ones. If a combatant died before the combat, his corpse had to be carried to the fight, and one corpse managed to win because his body was too heavy for his opponent to carry to the fight, so the corpse was declared the winner. 

Trial by battle fizzled out gradually.. Isolated cases surfaced in the reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles I, although the actual battles never took place. It’s not clear when the last battle to the death happened, but the last fully documented was in 1597 (Liz took the throne in 1558–I just checked, and if you see the comment below about me getting the date wrong, I originally changed it to 1598; don’t listen to me, ever). One of the combatants was accused of murder and was killed in the fight. So we can safely assume he was guilty. Because like trial by ordeal, trial by combat gave the appearance of certainty. And we all like certainty.

Parliament tried and failed to abolish trial by combat in 1641, 1770, and 1774. During one of those attempts, someone–no doubt with a straight face–defended it as a “great pillar of the constitution.” In 1817, when the brother of a murder victim appealed the  accused’s acquittal, the accused offered to settle it by combat. No one had suggested that for a couple of hundred years, but the law was still on the books and the judges had to allow it.

The accused was a big sumbitch and the brother was young, scrawny, and sensible enough to say no. The accused walked free. 

In 1819, Parliament finally abolished trial by combat.

Which didn’t stop a man from challenging the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to pick a champion who’d fight him to the death over a £25 fine. He offered a choice of samurai swords, heavy hammers, or gurkha knives. I’d love to have been around when someone opened that email.

The court ordered him to pay £200 plus £100 in costs.

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This started out as a post about contemporary magistrates’ courts, which are at interesting corner of the English legal system, but I got lost in the history. I expect to come back to a few more odd corners of the system and its history in the coming weeks.

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Finally, a note about the bizarre pop-up that I added to the blog a little while back. It invites/asks/wheedles you to sign up to my email list, and a friend tells me that if you sign up it promises that I’ll send recipes. (It takes a good friend to tell you that.) 

It lies. I will not send you recipes. I will not send you anything except an announcement–or maybe two if I can’t stop myself–when my forthcoming novel forthcomes. 

Why am I doing this? The theory is that email lists sell books. I haven’t a clue if they do, but I’m being a good girl and following the advice. It’s an interesting experience but I doubt I’ll do it often. 

So do sign up. It’s safe. It’s free. I won’t bury your inbox in trivia. Or recipes. I have a novel coming out in March or April and I’d love to let you know about it–although I’ll post something on the blog as well.

As soon as I figure out how, I’m going to fix that damn pop-up. In the meantime, have a laugh at my expense. 

By the numbers: how to help Covid outrun the vaccines

In Europe, a group of experts who model disease spread plugged as assortment of variables into their computers–things like vaccination, transmission, and mutation rates–and asked about the odds, under various conditions, of the virus mutating into something that would escape the vaccines.

It turns out that that highest risk comes when a large proportion of the population has been vaccinated but when it’s still not a high enough proportion to create herd immunity. In other words, exactly the situation in Europe right now. And in the US. 

Britain has a higher percentage of vaccinated adults, but I think I could safely add “and Britain” to that paragraph.

This sounds counter-intuitive, but when a large proportion of the population’s been vaccinated, a vaccine-resistant strain of the virus will have an advantage. So what countries need to do at that stage is control the spread.

Irrelevant photo: The north Cornish coast

“Of course we hope that vaccine-resistance does not evolve over the course of this pandemic, but we urge caution,” one of the study’s co-authors said. “Evolution is a very powerful force and maintaining some reasonable precautions throughout the whole vaccination period may actually be a good tool to control this evolution.”

I mention that just in case anybody’s listening. In Britain, they’re  not. Masks are now optional in most situations, although many people are still wearing them. (Thanks, folks. You’re wonderful.) Nightclubs are reopening. (Thanks, Boris. You’re a fool.) Vaccinated people wearing blue, who say please and thank you, and who come into the country from Covid-safe countries or from countries that might or might not be Covid-safe no longer have to go into isolation, never mind quarantine. 

Why? Because the government’s thrown up its hands and said, “This is making us confused and we’re not going to bother anymore.”

So yes, we’re being perfectly sensible here. Wish us luck.

Thank you.

 

Breakthrough infections and the Delta variant

When vaccinated people get infected with the Delta variant, as some small percentage of them will inevitably, they’re very likely to get mild or asymptomatic cases of Covid, but that doesn’t tell us whether they’ll be as infectious as an unvaccinated person who gets infected. 

Stop the presses, though. For the first time, we have a gesture toward a move in the direction of an answer: They will have as high a viral load as an unvaccinated person. That seems to mean that they’re every bit as likely to transmit the virus, although no one seems willing to say that without a plugging in some sort of word that creates wiggle room in the sentence.. 

As the US Centers for Disease Control director put it, they “have the potential to spread the virus to others.”

That’s a large part of the reason that the CDC reversed its throw-away-your-mask-if-you’re-vaccinated policy and now recommends masks for all students, teachers, visitors, and school staff when they’re indoors. And all includes people who’ve been vaccinated. 

The CDC also recommends masks in indoor public places in parts of the country that have had at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week. That’s something like 60% of the counties in the US. 

And it says that vaccinated people should be tested for Covid after they come into contact with an infected person. Even if they don’t develop symptoms. 

In a couple of months, we may get definitive news on just how infectious fully vaccinated people who have mild or symptomless Covid are. In the meantime, we’ll have to go with seems and as high a viral load. Common sense might indicate caution.

 

Covid and public policy

A paper from the Commission for Pandemic Research of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft–a group whose name is almost as long as the paper itself–makes a heroic effort to talk sense to people (and more to the point, governments) who are still recommending hand washing to combat the spread of Covid. 

Okay, that interpretation is strictly my own. What the article I stole this information from says is that they “aim to contribute to establishing a reliable information base that is broadly coordinated among specialists as well as offering concrete advice on how to guard against infection.” 

So to be objective and reliable and not at all snarky about this, they’re aiming to contribute to establishing a coordinated effort to offer the world an extended string of verbs with the intervention of a few nouns. And they’re damn good at it. 

The article’s headline is an even better source of fun: “Prevention of coronavirus infection spread through aerosols.” I spent an unconscionable amount of time wondering how to spread the prevention of infection before I worked out that prevention isn’t being spread; spread has taken a part-time job as a noun.

To be fair, the committee with the long name probably didn’t write the headline.

Are you following any of this? I’ll get to the information any minute now.

For all its oddity, the headline doesn’t approach the genius of a newspaper headline published during the Falklands War that said, “British left waffles on Falkland Islands.” I had a carton of maple syrup all packed up and ready to send to the Falklands before I realized that left was the noun (political leftists, presumably in Parliament) and waffles the verb. 

Maybe this is only funny if you’ve worked as an editor.

But to go back to our article: It breaks infections into two categories, direct and indirect. 

Direct infection happens when one generous soul is close to someone else and passes the virus on to them. That usually happens indoors. 

Indirect infection happens when infectious aerosols accumulate indoors. The first person–the one with the virus–doesn’t have to stay in the room to make sure the second person breathes the germs in. If they’ve spent time in the room, exhaling, when they leave, unless the room’s well ventilated, their germs will not follow them out.They’ll stay there, available for the second person to inhale and take home.

And all of this is free. Just imagine! No one has to pay a red cent for it.

Indirect infections are what make it pretty much pointless when people put on their masks only when another person comes into the room, the shop, the wherever. They’ve been in there breathing. They can’t unbreathe those aerosols. 

Indirect infection is somewhere between hard and impossible to accomplish outdoors, although direct infection is possible if the people are in close enough contact for a longish time. So if you’re spending time in a bus shelter, at a demonstration, at a football game, or in a brawl, you might want to wear a mask, even though you’re outdoors. And you might want to ask the people you’re brawling with to also wear masks. 

In closed rooms, though, they (that’s the experts, not the people in the brawl) suggest using–well, pretty much every breath-related protective measure you can think of: avoiding contact, keeping a distance, wearing masks, using protective panels, and ventilating the hell out of the room.

Yes, “ventilating the hell out of” is a thoroughly scientific term. It means opening windows and using permanent ventilation systems as well as mobile air purifiers.  

“Only regulations that are as consistent and uniform as possible guarantee a high level of safety with as few restrictions as possible,” the article says, paraphrasing the experts, something that becomes necessary when the nouns and verbs grow exhausted from holding down two jobs. 

I’d love to think that the world’s governments will get their heads around the idea that consistent regulation is the way to live (relatively) safely with Covid, and that ventilation and masks are essential parts of that. But then I’d love to think all kinds of things, including that our problematic species will still be around in, oh, say seven generations, and that it will have gained some wisdom. Those aren’t impossible, but I’m unable at this time to issue the money-back guarantee that we inadvertently advertised.