Curse tablets in Roman Britain

Britain enthusiastically adopted the Roman tradition of writing curses on lead (or sometimes pewter) tablets. Maybe that tells us something about the British character. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, because lead doesn’t rust, they left us a record of daily life, or of one odd corner of it anyway, that we can snoop around in.

 

How do you write a curse tablet?

There was a formula, more or less, although it was stretched to the point where some tablets had a name and nothing else. Generally, though, you’d start by appealing to a god, because there’s no point in cursing someone unless you can convince a supernatural power to do the job for you. 

After that, the text (as one article puts it) “identifies itself” as a prayer or a gift or a memorandum. That way the god understands that it isn’t an overdue bill or a note from the school saying, “Your kid hasn’t been in class for the past six weeks.” 

Is the god interested yet? If so, you can go on to the next step.

If you’ve ever sent queries to literary agents, the process isn’t that different. You start by making it clear that this isn’t an overdue bill or a letter from the school, then you find some desperate a way to hook their interest, then–

Never mind. We’re off the topic and most of them won’t respond anyway. I should probably have tried lead tablets. If nothing else, they’d stand out.

Irrelevant photo: From the Department of Useful Road Signs comes this beauty.

If you’ve engaged the god’s interest, you can now ask the god to act for you, and you’ll want to name your intended victim. But you won’t want to use the word victim. You’re the person who’s been wronged here. Remember that. All you’re seeking is–um, no, let’s not call it revenge. Let’s say you’re trying to set the world back into its natural order. 

If you don’t know the person’s name, you’ll want to identify them as best you can. One tablet that’s been found says, “whether man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free.” Another says, “Whether pagan or Christian,” which raises an interesting translation issue, since pagan didn’t start to mean non-Christian until the fourteenth century. 

Once you’ve got your target sketched in, you can talk about the crime, and curse tablets, for whatever reason, lean heavily toward theft. So name what was taken, and possibly the place where it was taken. 

Then you get to the important stuff: What are you offering the god in return? Because even gods have to make a living. One tablet that’s been found offered half the stolen money. Another offered a third. 

Once you’ve made your offer, it’s time to talk about what you want the god to do to your target. Most people asked for the thief to suffer so much that he or she would pay back what was stolen, and a lot of the suffering they requested involved health. One tablet asks for the target’s (as the article I found this in puts it) “bodily functions to cease from working” Another asks that the thief “not eat, drink, sleep, sit, lie, defecate, or urinate.” 

But if you like, you can stop fooling around and ask that they just go ahead and die. It’s your curse tablet. Most of us don’t believe in this stuff anymore, so you don’t need to act responsibly.

Of course, if the thief returns your property to the temple, all this horrible stuff stops and you give the temple whatever you promised the god. Because gods need intermediaries, and temples are good at that.

Not everyone who wrote a curse tablet wanted a happy outcome, though. One tablet said the thief would have to sell 8.6 liters (that would’ve been a modius) of “cloud and smoke” to break the curse. Which isn’t easy in any age. 

A warning: As a general rule, if you’ve asked for the thief to die you won’t get your property back.

 

Once you’ve written your curse, what do you do with it?

First, you’ll want to either roll your curse up or fold it so that only the god can read it. Or archeologists from later centuries–they seem to manage. Which may demonstrate that they’re gods. 

You can also pierce your curse with nails. I’m not sure what that demonstrates, but it’s a nice bit of drama.

Then you can leave your curse at a temple or in a spring or river, or you can bury with some dead person who’ll be happy to deliver it, since they’re headed off to lands where, presumably, the gods have registered their mailing addresses.

Okay, burying tablets with the dead was rare in Britain but it wasn’t uncommon in the Mediterranean. Still, if you really, really want to do it that way, there is a precedent.

You can also bury it in a house or a shop. Or if you want your enemy’s chariot to wreck during a race, you can bury it in the amphitheater. Or since we’re using the present tense here, you can bury it at a busy intersection.

 

What do we learn from curse tablets?

We learn that a lot of stuff got stolen, and that a lot of it was stolen from the public baths. The sample may be skewed, though, by a collection of tablets that were found in Bath. That’s a British city with a hot spring where the Romans built–yes, you guessed it–baths. The local god was a combination of the Roman Minerva and the pre-Roman Sulis, and the spring became a popular place to leave curse tablets.

The Bath tablets leave me thinking that in an age before lockers were invented, people lost a lot of belongings at the baths. 

Admit it: You’d wondered about that, didn’t you? Here’s a place where everyone shucks off their clothes and jumps in the water. And what happens to those clothes while no one’s inside them? Does anyone look after them?

And while we’re wondering, didn’t the victims of those thefts feel a bit naked walking home without them?

But it wasn’t just clothes that got stolen. It was also  jewelry, gemstones, money, and household goods. 

Who brings household goods to the baths? I don’t know. Maybe Sulis’s sacred spring had become known as a place to deal with theft in general, not just theft from the baths. 

We also learn about the languages that were spoken in Roman Britain, because although some of the tablets were written by specialists many were scrawled by ordinary people, using whatever language or mix of languages they spoke, because the Roman conquest didn’t wipe out Britain’s Celtic languages, it just added some new ones: Latin, predictably, but also Greek and the assorted languages of other Roman provinces. From the continent came Germanic and Celtic languages (there were multiples of both); from the Mediterranean came Semitic languages (anyone ever heard of Palmyrene?). 

These all left their traces on curse tablets.

The Bath tablets date from the second to fourth centuries, and most were in British Latin, showing the places where it diverged from Latin Latin–the words it had incorporated from other languages, the places where the grammar and spellings had wandered off in new directions. 

Two tablets that have been found used Latin letters to write in a Celtic language, possibly Brythonic, the language of one of the two Celtic groups that settled in Britain. Brythonic’s believed to have been an unwritten language–except, presumably, for these lone curse tablets. Another tablet used the Greek alphabet to write in Latin, possibly because Greek added a bit of extra magic to the words. 

If you really want a bit of magic spin, though, you can write your tablet back to front, as some people did. It’s no trouble for a god to read that, but it does make the archeologists work for their pay.

The tablets also show that it wasn’t just priests, scribes, and the upper classes who wrote Latin. Or who wrote at all, although a few tablets have been found with scratches that imitate writing–presumably made by people who couldn’t write but spoke the curse as they made the marks

 

Cursive

The scripts that people used on the tablets varied, but most were written in–yup–cursive, an everyday script used for documents and letters, which is–to simplify a bit– the ancestor of modern European handwriting. The words were rarely separated, although breaks between them were sometimes marked with points–and sometimes weren’t. 

Punctuation wasn’t a major issue for either gods or scribes.

To my disappointment, the word cursive has nothing to do with the word curse. It’s from the Latin word for to run: The letters in cursive handwriting run together. The origin of the word curse is uncertain. It’s late Old English, and there’s no similar word in Germanic, Romance, or Celtic languages. 

Can fermented soybeans destroy Covid?

It’s too early to celebrate this, but from Japan comes the news that an extract made from natto–a sticky food involving fermented soybeans–inactivates Covid’s spike protein by digesting the receptor binding domain.

What’s a receptor binding domain? No idea, but Covid’s spike protein needs it, so anything that digests it has got to be good–at least from our point of view.

The extract of natto works on all the existing variants.

The reason it’s not time to celebrate is that so far it’s only worked in a lab. No one’s gotten the natto and the virus together inside the body. Eating natto won’t help. Neither will sending the virus invitations to a party and serving natto hor d’oeuvres. No matter how much it mutates, the virus will continue to be illiterate, so it won’t show up.

Irrelevant photo: a wild orchid.

The next stage is to isolate the molecular mechanism that’s destroying the–what was that called?–the receptor binding domain. Figure that out and you could well have a treatment for Covid. 

Possibly. At some time in the indistinct future. But c’mon, we need all the hope we can find.

 

England’s world-beating experiment in irresponsible government

On July 19, England took what little common sense it had forgotten in the drawers of 10 Downing Street’s desks and set it on fire. It’s been dry lately, but there wasn’t enough common sense to burn for long, so we didn’t get the second Great Fire of London, just another round of Covid stupidity.

To be clearer about this, nightclubs are now open. So are bars, restaurants, and pretty much everything else you can think of. It’s up to you whether to throw your mask away and sit nose to nose, indoors, and sing loudly with six of your favorite strangers and no ventilation. Or with thirty of them if you can get your noses close enough. Crowd limits are out of fashion, along with distancing. 

The first day of that was called Freedom Day. Those of us currently cowering under the covers are free to cower under the covers. Unless of course we have to go to work or in other ways mix with the rest of humanity.

The official justification for this is that vaccination has severed the link between infection and hospitalization. Or weakened it, depending on when you listen to the explanations and who gives it. We have to return to normal life. We have to live with Covid. The economy needs us. And if not now, when? 

Maybe when it’s safe, that’s when. Because the link between infection and hospitalization hasn’t been severed, it’s only been weakened, and that’s not enough. The number of infections is going up, and so is the number of deaths. Not as sharply as it once would have, but more than it would if we kept to a marginally sensible policy.

And the thing about deaths is that once people are dead, they’re gone. It’s kind of irreversible.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group warns that the combination of a large number of vaccinated people and a high number of infections creates the perfect conditions to create a variant that will escape the vaccines. No one can know whether that will happen–vaccines mutate randomly–but the likelihood increases as the number of infections increases.

And while all this is shoving us in one direction, Boris Johnson says vaccine passports will be required for nightclubs etc.–but not until the end of September. Between now and then, let Covid rip.

What are they thinking? One of the government’s scientific advisors, Robert West, says it’s “a decision by the government to get as many people infected as possible as quickly as possible, while using rhetoric about caution as a way of putting the blame on the public for the consequences.” 

That wave of infections would combine with the number of vaccinated people to push the country toward herd immunity and the virus would no longer spread.

What are the problems with the strategy? Well, in addition to opening the doors to a variant that evades the vaccines, no one knows what level of immunity is needed for herd immunity to Covid. The best guess is 85%. And then there’s long Covid–the long-term damage that some people live with for no one knows how long, after even asymptomatic infections. 

The government says that’s not its strategy. You’re welcome to believe it if you like. 

And a unicorn just pranced down the street outside my window. You’re welcome to believe that as well. It was wearing a tutu and singing a Mozart aria.

Not long ago, the Netherlands opened everything up and Covid infections rose sevenfold. They’ve since closed bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.

England’s reopening has caused the Covid tracing app to warn an annoying number of people that they’ve been exposed to Covid and should self-isolate–more than 600,000 last week–and that in turn has led to a lot of people being off work.

So what’s a responsible government to do about that? 

We don’t have one of those, so who cares? Instead of deciding that too many people are being exposed to Covid because we took all our restrictions out and burned them, the government’s decided that too many people are being notified, so it’s created a list of crucial occupations whose employees can ignore the app if they’re double vaccinated–although they will at least have to test themselves. 

Can people who are doubly vaccinated spread Covid? Why look! It must be time to talk about breakthrough infections! Because buried in that segment somewhere is the news that we don’t have a clear answer to that question yet.

 

Breakthrough infections

First we need a definition of a breakthrough infection, even if you already know it: A breakthrough infection happens when a vaccinated person gets Covid–or (it can happen with any matched pair of disease and vaccination) whatever else they were vaccinated against. When that happens, it doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t effective. It means the vaccine isn’t 100% effective, much as we wish the Covid ones were. 

That leaves us–or me anyway–wondering why one person will get a breakthrough infection and another won’t. The definitive answer is that it’s hard to say.

Thanks, Ellen. That was really helpful.

Sorry, but I can only pass on what I find. The direct quote is, “It’s difficult to determine why any particular breakthrough case happens.” 

How large a dose of the virus you’re exposed to might make a difference–with the emphasis on might. Our individual immune systems will make a difference. They can be affected by health problems and by medications that make an immune system respond to the vaccine less enthusiastically.

And new variants can make a difference. The vaccines were developed for the Covid 1.0, or 2.0. We’re now onto–

Hang on a minute. I have to go look up the Greek alphabet and figure out where Delta comes. 

We’re now at Covid 4.0.

It’s also possible for a person to have gotten a vaccine dose that wasn’t administered correctly, although that’s a lot less likely. And no, I’m not sure how you administer a vaccine the wrong way either. Maybe you let the stuff get too warm. Maybe you let it expire. Maybe you miss the arm entirely and inject it into the hat. That last one is the reason they don’t let me do vaccinations anymore.

People who are (fortunately) better than I am at figuring this stuff out are tracking the number of breakthrough infections, looking for evidence that the vaccines’ are wearing thin and booster shots are needed. So far, they haven’t seen it. 

*

We can break breakthrough infections into a few categories, and in order of decreasing likelihood they are: 1, testing positive, 2, having a mild infection, 3, having a serious infection, and 4, dying.

Patients are strongly advised to keep themselves out of category 4. 

If you’ve absorbed that advice–and it is important–we’ll move on to the question of whether fully vaccinated people who’ve been exposed to the virus should have to go into isolation. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control (citing “limited evidence” according to the article I found) says they not only don’t need to go into isolation, they don’t need to get tested unless they develop symptoms. The theory is that they’re less likely to infect other people than unvaccinated people with asymptomatic infections.

Other countries are making different rules.The evidence is limited, the lights are off, and we’re all bumping into the furniture. 

What percentage of fully vaccinated people test positive after being exposed to Covid? If anyone has numbers on that, I haven’t found them.

What does seem to be well established is that breakthrough infections are rare, and we do have statistics (sort of) for categories 3 and 4–the one you want to stay out of and the other one you want to stay out of. In the US, 5,492 vaccinated people were either hospitalized or died and also tested positive for coronavirus. That doesn’t exactly say they were hospitalized for or died of Covid, but it’s as close as we’re going to get. That’s 5,492 out of the 159 million people who’ve been fully vaccinated. I’ll leave someone else to figure out what percent that is and just say it’s small.

Most breakthrough infections are mild, and the number of mild or asymptomatic infections will be larger, but again if numbers are available for that I haven’t found them.

 

A different way to live with Covid

Is it possible to return to normal life in some sane and safe way? A study from Barcelona points us toward a possibility. It followed the 5,000 people who attended a carefully controlled indoor concert. 

People were screened on the way into the concert, using an antigen-detecting rapid diagnostic test (it’s called an Ag-RDT if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about), and the test was done by nurses. At least with other rapid Covid tests, that makes it more reliable than when people do it themselves, probably because they maneuver those nasty swabs into the right spots.

Everyone wore masks–specifically, filtering facepiece 2 masks–the whole time. Presumably over their noses and mouths, not their chins or back pockets. They look like this.  (I’m conducting a one-person boycott of Amazon, but I’m not above using them as a link if I don’t have to give them money.) They’re a kind of mask that offers more protection than your average cloth mask, but they’re disposable, which if everyone used them everywhere would create its own set of problems. Especially since a few of us out there hate throwing things away when they still look usable. 

But enough of that. Let’s move on.

The event’s described as a concert but people danced. People sang (presumably along with the music but it shouldn’t really matter from a medical point of view.) No one was asked to keep 6 feet away from anyone, at least by the organizers, although some predictable number of individuals will have told some predictable other number of individuals to back off. 

I don’t have details on the ventilation except for a passing mention of improved ventilation. Ventilation’s probably the most overlooked way to make work and public spaces safe. 

The event was held in an area that at the time had a moderate rate of Covid and a low number of vaccinated people. 

What happened? The followup found 6 cases of Covid two weeks after the event. Three of those were traced to sources other than the concert. Another person may have been in the incubation stage when she attended the event and could’ve been missed by the test. No one’s figured out where the other two cases came from. 

Which isn’t bad for 5,000 people. So it can be done if we have the will to do it.

 

. . . and in the schools

In the US, the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling for all students, teachers, and staff to wear masks in school, whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. That runs counter to Centers for Disease Control advice, which exempts the vaccinated and says the unvaccinated should wear masks in school to protect themselves.

Even though–apologies, CDC–your average mask is better at protecting people around the wearer than at protecting the person sporting one.

The article I got this from has the first statistics I’ve seen on how many kids get multi-system inflammatory condition (called MIS-C, in case you have any need to address it directly): It’s 1 out of every 600 infected children and teenagers. That’s not the same as 1 out of every 600 kids, only out of the ones who get infected.

MIS-C is seriously serious and more often than not will land a kid in intensive care. It comes several weeks after the primary infection.

Has anything like long Covid happened before?

Well, yes or I wouldn’t ask the question. Let’s start with the Russian flu, which ran from 1889 to 1892, and its after effects.

 

The Russian flu

Geographical names for pandemics have gone out of fashion, since they’re generally wrong and lead people to blame entire countries for things they suffered from themselves, but the Russian flu was at least first spotted in Russia and to date no one seems to have gotten around to renaming it. So, Russian flu it is. 

Извините, Россия.

That doesn’t make the name correct, though. The Russian flu might not have been a flu at all but a coronavirus. And just to confuse the issue a bit more, the flu was also called the grippe at the time. That becomes relevant in a few paragraphs.

Whatever we call it, the Russian flu seems to have been highly infectious. Half the population of St. Petersburg got it, and it (that’s the disease, not half the population of St. Petersburg) moved across Europe, arriving eventually in Britain. Not because it had been watching Downton Abby and wanted to tour the great houses. Diseases don’t have destinations or intentions or TV sets, and Britain wasn’t its final destination anyway, just a stopover. I give Britain special mention because it’s what I allegedly write about here, although the pandemic’s led me off in other, less predictable directions. 

The Russian flu is now considered the first modern pandemic (no, we’re not going to stop and define that), spreading worldwide along the paths so helpfully laid out by train lines, roads, navigable rivers, and steamships, and demonstrating that it was spread by human contact and by the wonderful ways that humans could now travel.

The Black Death was green with envy. 

Irrelevant photo: roses

In a nifty preview of what would happen with Covid, public health officials in the US watched the virus cross Europe and played it down. It was a particularly mild strain of flu, they said. And when it inevitably disembarked, without passport or visa, on American soil, they swore the first cases were either common colds or just a seasonal flu. 

Nothing to worry about, folks. It’s all under control.

The New York Evening World wrote, “It is not deadly, not even necessarily dangerous. . . . But it will afford a grand opportunity for the dealers to work off their surplus of bandanas.” 

Yeah, I’m having flashbacks to the beginning of the Covid pandemic myself.

This wasn’t a mild disease. Worldwide, an estimated 1 million people died. A survivor said, “I felt as if I had been beaten with clubs for about an hour and then plunged into a bath of ice. My teeth chattered like castanets, and I consider myself lucky now to have gotten off with a whole tongue.”

It also had serious after effects and some uncounted but substantial number of people had them. More than three months after having been ill, the English women’s rights campaigner Josephine Butler wrote, “I am so weak that if I read or write for half an hour I become so tired and faint that I have to lie down.” 

If exhaustion wasn’t bad enough, some people had the added insult of insomnia. 

A Victorian doctor, Morell Mackenzie, said the flu seemed to, “run up and down the nervous keyboard stirring up disorder and pain in different parts of the body with what almost seems malicious caprice.” 

That sounds like he’s describing the flu itself, not the after effects, but the Lancet, which is a medical journal and can be assumed to know what it’s talking about, put that quote and the next one inside a discussion of the after effects. 

Another doctor, Julius Althaus, wrote, “There are few disorders or diseases of the nervous system which are not liable to occur as consequences of grip”.

The collection of symptoms went by an assortment of names: neuralgia, neurasthenia, neuritis, nerve exhaustion, grippe catalepsy, post-grippal numbness, psychoses, prostration, inertia, anxiety, and paranoia. The range on offer backs up my theory that when you can’t cure a disease it helps to change its name from time to time. 

We’d be on shaky ground if we tried to sort the after effects of the Russian flu from–well, everything else that might’ve been available, including psychosomatic problems, tight corsets, and zombies, but observers in the mid-1890s blamed it for everything from a high suicide rate to general malaise. According to the Lancet article, the image of England at the time was “of a nation of convalescents, too debilitated to work or return to daily routines.” 

I would have assumed that the description applied only to the upper class, who could afford not to return to work or daily routines, but what happened in Tanzania (called Tanganyika at the time) shows that I’d be underestimating what post-viral syndromes can do to a person.

 

The 1918 flu

Let’s back up briefly. 

The 1918 flu epidemic used to be called the Spanish flu and sometimes still is. It didn’t originate in Spain, it’s just that Spain put up the first Instagram post. But it was at least genuinely influenza.

How serious was it? Worldwide, at least 50 million people died. About half a billion people—that was a third of the world’s population–were infected. So no, this is not the pandemic you’d want to challenge to a wrestling match. 

Like the Russian flu, its after effects were fierce. They included apathy, depression, tremors, restlessness, and sleeplessness. 

A New Zealand book collecting people’s experiences includes references to “loss of muscular energy” and “nervous complications.” Along similar lines, a South African collection includes this: “We were leaden-footed for weeks, to the point where each step meant a determined effort. . . . It also was very difficult to remember any simple thing, even for five minutes.”

But they got off lightly compared to people in Tanzania, where the flu was followed by a wave of exhaustion so severe that in some parts of the country people couldn’t plant when the rains came and in others couldn’t harvest when the crops were ripe. The result was a two-year famine, called the famine of corms, named after a part of the banana plant that people ate in desperation. 

One strand of post-epidemic symptoms was called encephalitis lethargica–EL for short–or sleepy sickness. It left people not fully asleep but not what you’d call awake either. They were aware of their surroundings but not functioning in anything like a normal way. 

Worldwide, an estimated 500,000 people had EL. A third died, a third recovered, and in the final third the symptoms went on.

Unborn children were also affected. A 2009 study looked at people who, based on when they were born, could have been exposed to in the womb to the 1918 flu. Compared to people born either slightly before or slightly after them, they were 25% more likely to have heart disease after the age of 60. They were more likely to have diabetes. They were, on average, shorter. They had less education and their “economic productivity” was lower. I think that means they made less money. I can’t think how else anyone would measure it. 

 

What does that mean for the Covid pandemic?

No one knows yet how many people have long Covid, which is of several names for Covid’s after effects. No one knows how many people will recover and how many will carry at least some of the effects with them through life. 

No one has a clue what the effects will be on children born during or just after the pandemic, or if there’ll be any, and I’d be surprised if many people are worrying about that yet. They’re kind of busy with more immediate problems.

No one’s even agreed on a definition of long Covid.

It is known that people who have mild or even asymptomatic cases can get long Covid, and that children can. 

It is, as one researcher put it, “One of the reasons I worry so much for people with long-Covid is the . . . uncharted aspect of it. . . . It’s one of the reasons why I do worry when I see people being laissez faire, saying ‘Well, if we’ve got [to] the stage where people aren’t dying, and aren’t filling up the intensive care units, do we need to care?’ And the answer is, I think, until we’ve got more data, we don’t know how much we need to care.

 

A recent study identified 203 symptoms in 10 organ systems. After seven months, many people in the study still hadn’t gotten back to their earlier levels of functioning. When the study was conducted, 45% had to work a reduced schedule and 22% weren’t able to work at all. 

And in a peripherally related seam of worries, a study has called attention to the estimated 1.5 million children around the world who’ve lost a parent or a grandparent who was either raising them or lived with them. It’s an overlooked side effect of the pandemic.

We don’t need zombies, folks. This is scary enough.

Are the fully vaccinated likely to get long Covid?

A bit of scientific brooding over Covid’s statistical tea leaves tells us that the chances of getting long Covid if you’re fully vaccinated are probably small. 

But with the emphasis on probably.

Was anyone other than me worried? After all, the statistics tell us that a vaccinated person who does catch Covid will probably have a mild case. Unfortunately, though, mild cases fairly often leave people with long Covid. 

So far, the information that’s coming in is anecdotal, and the experts say that it’s too early to be certain. In six months, it’s possible that a significant number of vaccinated people will start showing up with long Covid. It’s also possible that they won’t. 

So stay tuned. That’s not the reassurance I was hoping for but it’s the best we’ve got. 

Irrelevant photo: traveler’s joy

 

Do young people have Get out of Covid Free cards?

By now, we all know that young people are unlikely to get seriously frightening cases of Covid, at least when compared with old coots. 

But that doesn’t mean they’re immune. Like anyone else, they’re liable to come down with long Covid even after a mild case of the virus, and the small number who are sick enough to be hospitalized are almost as likely to have organ damage as the old coots are–almost 4 out of 10 of them. 

The message here is that Covid is not the flu. And that young people don’t have a free pass on this.

Young, by the way, is defined as anywhere between 19 and 50. Which from where I stand looks younger all the time. 

 

Taking quarantine seriously

Australia and China have decided that the new Covid variants are too contagious for hotel quarantine to be safe. They’re planning special quarantine centers

Compare that with the way Britain’s treated quarantine, which ranges on the strict end from hotel quarantine after sharing air with passengers who won’t be quarantining to, on the loose end, go home and look in the other direction when you pass other people on your way there.

 

The Covid news from Britain

Over twelve hundred scientists from around the world have signed a letter objecting to Boris Johnson’s policy of lifting all Covid restrictions on July 19. It will, they say, help spread the Delta variant around the world.

As professor Christina Pagel put it, “Because of our position as a global travel hub, any variant that becomes dominant in the UK will likely spread to the rest of the world. . . . UK policy doesn’t just affect us–it affects everybody. . . .

“What I’m most worried about is the potential for a new variant to emerge this summer. When you have incredibly high levels of Covid, which we have now in England–and it’s not going to go away any time soon–and a partially vaccinated population, any mutation that can infect vaccinated people better has a big selection advantage and can spread.”

Some of the experts described the policy as “murderous” and “herd immunity by mass infection.” The words unscientific and unethical also came up. If you pay careful attention, you’ll come away with the impression that they’re pretty pissed off. Not to mention scared. 

In the meantime, the number of people hospitalized with Covid in Britain is doubling about every three weeks and could reach what England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, called “quite scary numbers.” Soon.

The government’s been telling us that vaccination has uncoupled the train car of hospitalizations from the accelerating engine of Covid cases. The problem is that they watched too many westerns when they were young, and uncoupling the cars from a runaway engine solved any problem involving railroads. 

Unfortunately, this is a pandemic, not a train. Or a western.

More cautious voices say they’ve weakened the link between Covid cases and hospitalization, but not uncoupled it. 

On Friday of last week, we had 50,000 cases, which is the highest  number since January. And 49 Covid deaths. 

Office for National Statistics data suggests that 1 in 95 people in England had Covid last week. I’m not sure why it only suggests that, but I’ve learned not to mess with the wording of things I don’t understand. 

The health secretary, Sajid Javid, is one of those new cases. He just came down with Covid. After having visited a care home earlier in the week–a visit that I’d guess was more pr and photo op than anything necessary. 

He’s fully vaccinated and says his symptoms are mild. He’s now self-isolating. No word on how things are going at the care home.

 

So what about Britain’s world-beating Covid tracing app?

Well, it’s been pinging a lot of people and telling them they’ve been exposed to Covid. That means they should self-isolate. Which means they should miss work. Which means the places they work, a lot fo which are already short on staff, are shorter on staff.

Which means no one’s in a good mood.

There was talk–quite definite-sounding talk–about dialing down the app’s sensitivity. People were uninstallling it, the government said, so as not to be bothered by its nagging. It was too sensitive, they said. The number of people pinged had grown by almost 50% in a week, to over 500,000. Transportation, trash collection, and health care were being affected, along with meat processing and car manufacturing. 

Then there was talk about not dialing down its sensitivity. It wasn’t too sensitive. The number of cases had grown, so of course the number of people exposed to Covid had grown right along with it.

So, the government mumbled to itself, what if we say that people who’ve had both their vaccinations are exempt from having to isolate themselves? They’ll get pinged, but they’ll be able to work? 

Last I heard, it hadn’t answered the question and was still mumbling. In other words, it’s taken the worst elements of both choices: It’s changed nothing but called the usefulness of the app into question and by saying lots of people are uninstalling it, it’s encouraged people to uninstall it. 

How England became Christian–twice

England converted to Christianity twice. Or if you want to put that in modern terms, you could probably say it was born again again.

You’ll want to keep in mind that England wasn’t England yet. It was the place that would become England when it grew up. 

Pre-England’s first brush with Christianity came when the place was still Roman, and you won’t find a clear event or date to mark its beginning. Sometime in the fourth century, though, Christianity became the trendy thing among the British elite. 

We know that in part because they built churches and started decorating their villas with Christian images, and bits of both have survived. 

The part about decorating the villas makes the shole thing sound frivolous, and some of it surely was–people are bound to be as silly in one century as they are in another, on any given topic and in roughly the same proportions. At a wild guess, I’d say it was probably your usual mix of belief, fashion, and politics. 

Irrelevant photo: nasturtiums

Non-Christian beliefs continued, though. People worshiped both Roman and Celtic gods, and their shrines went right on being used. The tradition of writing curses on lead and nailing them to walls or dropping them into springs and (I think) wells also continued. From our point of view, it was a useful tradition because it lets us drop in on the everyday stories of everyday people.

 

But first, a word or ten about paganism

Before we go on, let’s talk about how we’re going to describe the beliefs of the people who weren’t Christian, because if you do any reading about religion in Britain, you’ll find the word pagan getting tossed around as if it describes a set of beliefs. It doesn’t. Pagan’s a Christian word dating to about the fourteenth century, when it was first used to describe someone who wasn’t Christian. Basically, it means people who aren’t like us. But since an awful lot of religions in the course of human history have been other than Christian, that covers a lot of territory.

It doesn’t include Jews and sometimes it doesn’t include Muslims, although that depends on who’s using the word and what they think it means. But even when it doesn’t include them, neither Jews or Muslims are likely to use the word. It comes out of the wrong box of words. 

As far as I can tell, whether Muslims are in or out of the category rests on the question of whether pagan was being used as an all-purpose term of abuse or whether it was meant to describe people who worshiped more than one god. 

For a brief visit with the mindset of one set of people who took the word seriously–and I promise we won’t stay long–allow me to introduce you to a quote from an 1897 dictionary. This comes with a full-out racism warning:

Pagan and heathen are primarily the same in meaning; but pagan is sometimes distinctively applied to those nations that, although worshiping false gods, are more cultivated, as the Greeks and Romans, and heathen to uncivilized idolaters, as the tribes of Africa. A Mohammedan is not counted a pagan much less a heathen.”

If you’re going to heave, I’d appreciate it if you’d miss the rug. 

Thank you and let’s move on.

Sometime in the last century or so, Britons wanting to connect with earlier religions–at least as they understood them–began describing themselves as pagans. It drives me mildly nuts, since the original followers of those religions would never have called themselves that and I doubt we know enough about their beliefs to follow them, but never mind, the neo-pagans seem happy with it all.

This long meander is to tell you that I’ll do my damnedest to avoid the word pagan. I often use pre-Christian, but that has its own problems, among which is that it makes Christianity sound like history’s central reference point, which–well, history doesn’t work like that. 

It also doesn’t work when in the period we’re talking about a non-Christian king followed a Christian one. That would make the post-Christian king pre-Christian, at which point we’re talking complete nonsense.

If anyone knows a short, recognizable phrase that works better than anything I tossed out, do let me know.

 

Enough of that

Before I so rudely interrupted myself, Christianity was trending among the Romano-Celtic elite. Then the Romano-Romans left, leaving the Romano-Celtic elite to find their own way home from the party. 

There were no cabs. And since this was a party, not a meeting, no one was taking notes. That’s why it’s called the Dark Ages: We don’t know what they got up to after their Roman chaperones left. 

We have two theories to choose from: 

1. Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded what we now call England, slaughtering lots of Romano-Celts and pushing the others to the margins of Britain so they could seize the central part.

2. The Anglo-Saxons who had already settled in eastern England expanded westward, absorbing the existing population. 

Or since we had two choices: 3. Some combination of 1 and 2.

However it worked, Christianity was not trending in early Anglo-Saxon England, and not much is known about the religion the Anglo-Saxons followed. The writings that survive come from Christian sources, and what they describe sounds suspiciously Greco-Roman and probably wasn’t based on anything they actually knew. 

The internet, I remind you, had yet to be invented, which is a shame because they could have consulted Lord Google, who leads people to entirely reliable information 100% of the time. 

So we don’t know much, but perfectly respectable sources like the British Library are happy to tell us that the Anglo-Saxons were pagans.

Thanks, guys. I can’t begin to tell you how helpful that is.

 

The Celtic saints

While the middle of the island became “pagan,” with an emphasis on the quotation marks, Christianity kept its hold at the Celtic margins–Cornwall, Wales, Scotland. And Ireland, which is (you may have noticed) an entirely different island but played a big part in all this. 

Celtic Christianity wasn’t the Roman variety of Christianity. It was decentralized, it wasn’t impressed with the pope, and it was a good fit for cultures organized along  tribal lines, without big urban centers. It leaned heavily toward monasticism, and its monasteries were often isolated and austere, heavy on fasting, broken sleep, standing in cold water, and monks and nuns who generally made themselves uncomfortable.

Ireland and Wales in particular pumped out saints by the hundred. Or maybe that’s by the dozen. They’re hard to count. They wandered, they preached, they set up monastic communities. Some set themselves up as hermits. And although they’re called saints, what that meant was mainly that they were members of Christian orders. Or that they were literate. (Those two things might not have been so different.) Or simply that they were evangelists. 

The Celtic saints were, according to one source, happy to preach to ordinary people, but the key conversions were of the Anglo-Saxon kings, of whom there were still a fair number. Convert yourself a king and before you knew it you’d converted a kingdom. 

For kings, the attraction of Christianity wasn’t entirely (or maybe at all) religious. It brought access to Latin, the common language of Europe, and to writing itself. And once you had writing, you could have law codes, charters, traceable property rights. 

Conversion didn’t move in a straight line, though. A Christian king might be followed by a non-Christian king. A king might build a church but use it to honor both the Christian and a non-Christian god. I’ve heard an archeologist talk about finding a grave in Cornwall that showed evidence of both Christian and pre-Christian burial traditions. 

“They were hedging their bets,” he said.

But for all that, the Celtic Christian church was gradually building an organizational structure in Anglo-Saxon England, consisting of monasteries, bishops, and archbishops. 

Interestingly if somewhat irrelevantly, monasteries at this stage sometimes housed monks, sometimes nuns, and sometimes both. 

 

The Roman strand of Christianity

But the Anglo-Saxons were also evangelized by Roman Catholic missionaries, whose strand of Christianity was hierarchical and recognized the pope as head of the church. The two strands differed on crucial points, including what part of their heads monks should shave and the correct date for Easter–did it have to fall on a Sunday, and would it be a disaster if it fell on the same day as Passover?

The pope made efforts to reconcile the two strands by setting up a couple of meetings. One broke down when the British clerics approached the pope’s representative and he didn’t stand.

So yes, everything was handled in an admirably adult manner. 

Predictably, the doctrinal differences tangled themselves in kingly politics. Consider the Northumbrian King, Oswy, who followed the Celtic traditions but married Eafled, who’d been brought up in the Roman ones. He celebrated Easter on his date. She celebrated it on hers.

They might have lived unhappily ever after, never knowing when to give each other the chocolate rabbits or hide the Easter eggs, but at the Synod of Whitby, he decided his kingdom, Northumbria, would follow the Roman tradition. By one account, it was to foil someone’s political machinations with a few of his own. By others, it was because St. Peter held the keys to heaven. Either way, it was the beginning of the end–or possibly the middle of the end–for the Celtic strand of Christianity. By the 700s the Celtic strand of Christianity was in retreat.

The eventual dominance of the Roman strand explains why Cornwall and Wales have an endless string of saints that the Catholic Church never recognized. The histories of some are well documented, but all that’s left of others is a name, some guesswork, and a bit of befuddlement.

As for King Oswy, ask Lord Google about him up and you’ll find the King Oswy Fish Bar, the King Oswy Tandoori Restaurant, and the King Oswy Spar (that’s a convenience store). So yes, his name lives on.

Bread in medieval England: an update

A quick update for anyone whose imagination was captured by the post on medieval bread making: Aleksandra from the Evendine Sourdough Bakery sent a photo of a trencher loaf she made (and served with pottage) for a medieval event in Evesham. I can only wish I’d been there.

She was working from a recipe in Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering the Cuisine of the Past, by Maria Dembinska.

Trencher loaf, made by Evendine Bakery.

Bread in medieval England

Bread was medieval England’s most important food. So much so that it gave us our words for lord (from the Anglo-Saxon “loaf-guardian,” or hlafward) and lady (“loaf-maker,” or hlaefdige). 

No, I can’t turn those into anything remotely lady- or lordlike, but they do both have an L and a D. Unless a genuine linguist or someone who learned Anglo-Saxon weighs in (and we do have one or two around here somewhere, so it’s not impossible), that’s as close as we’re likely to get. 

In the meantime, by way of proof I don’t have to mispronounce, records from medieval England, France, and Italy show soldiers, workmen, and hospital patients eating two pounds of bread a day. Or two to three pounds according to another source. That’s the same amount the nobility ate. 

So working people ate as well as the nobility? The hell they did. It’s just that aristocrats had access to meat and fish that the lower ranks could only dream of, while working people supplemented their bread with pottage.

What was pottage? If you think of it as anything that’s available, boiled, you won’t go too far wrong. April Munday did an interesting series of blog posts about making pottage from her garden, depending on what was in season and what would have been available in medieval England. The link above will take you to one of them.  

Irrelevant photo: Another of those tall white flowers I can’t identify. In fact, a whole field of them.

But everyone ate bread. Lots of bread. And the kind you ate was still a reliable marker of your class. The darker and heavier your bread, the lower down you stood in the social rankings.

No bread recipes have come down to us from the medieval period. One historian says this is because most bread was baked professionally. Others say it was so common that no recipes were needed. Which brings us to our next section:

 

A warning on sources

I’m using a range of sources here, and a lot of them are books. Remember books? They’re lovely things, but it means I’ll be short on links today. When I’m lucky, a range of sources will fill in blanks that others left, but this time they contradict each other in the most authoritative possible ways. 

We’re covering a long period of time here, from the early Anglo-Saxon era to the end of the Middle Ages, and that could account for some contradictions. Regional differences could account for others. After that, all I can offer you is a reminder that we weren’t there and social history’s a fragmentary thing. It examines things that are often considered too unimportant to document or too obvious to notice. So I’ll just throw this whole contradictory mess your way and leave you as confused as I am.

Don’t you just love being here? You read damn near two thousand words and come away knowing less than when you started.

 

A few kinds of bread

White bread was the good stuff. I’ve seen it called by a range of names, including manchet, wastell, paindemain, even  cake–a word with a Scandinavian origin that meant a small, flat bread roll. 

Paindemain–from the French for “hand bread”–may have been called that to distinguish it from trenchers, which we’ll get to later. 

The best white bread was made with the hardest and best sieved wheat flour, ground on the hardest stones so that it had the least grit in it. (Grit from grinding stones was part of cheaper bread, and some historians say a lifetime of eating it wore people’s teeth down.) It was raised with ale barm–yeast from brewing–which gives the best rise but is also unpredictable and in unskilled hands can go wrong, giving us the word barmy.

Yeast generally came from brewing beer, something that was done at home, or at least in many homes. It wasn’t universally used until the Renaissance, according to one source.

Even the loaf keeper and the loaf maker (that’s the lord and lady, in case you haven’t been taking notes) might not have had white bread every day.

Household bread was for the people a step down in the household. It was made with whole wheat flour, which might have been mixed with rye or barley. It was raised with leaven–a bit of yeasted dough saved from an earlier batch. Some books on bread baking still suggest doing this to improve the bread’s taste, although modern recipes rely on commercial yeast to do the heavy lifting.

Brown bread was made for farm workers and the lowest servants, from a mix of barley, dried peas, malt, and some whole wheat or rye flour. It was what we’d call sourdough: left overnight in a sour trough, where it picked up yeast left from earlier batches of dough. We may worship at the altar of sourdough today, but the taste wasn’t appreciated in the Middle Ages, and according to Pen Vogler in Scoff, the flour was likely to go off and given the bread a rancid taste. (Wheat germ has nutritional value but it goes bad easily. That was another benefit of white bread.)

Horse bread was what it said on the tin, food for horses, but not many people could read and tins hadn’t been invented yet anyway. In the face of famine or less widespread hard times, people ate horse bread, but it was an act of desperation.

According to a paper by Jessica Banks of Penn State University, bread could include not just rye and peas but also chestnuts, acorns, lentils, or rice. 

Rice? Yup. Starting in the eighth century, rice was grown in Spain and then in northern Italy as well. In England, it was an imported luxury and was considered the most nutritious of all grains. This wasn’t something for the poor to add to their bread. It’s not something I’ve added to bread myself and I can’t tell you what effect it has. I’d be surprised if it improves it.

For most of those, though, if you add large amounts to your bread  it won’t rise as well. Barley bread was considered second-best enough that Anglo-Saxon saints could flaunt their humility by eating it. 

According to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, in The Year 1000, the bread of the early Middle Ages would have been round, coarse flatbread, and much of it would have been stale enough that you’d dip it in your pottage in self-defense. Outside the towns and cities, they say, there wouldn’t have been any call for specialized bakers baking fresh bread every day.

On the other hand, Sally Crawford, in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, says bread was cooked on a pan over a fire–a quick and logical way to bake flatbreads–or in the ashes of a fire. I’m inclined to go with Crawford on this. I’ve made flatbread. You don’t need an oven. (They weren’t introduced until the sixth century anyway.)

Another source says it was also cooked in the embers of a fire. As long as you turned it often enough, this worked. 

 

Ovens

The medieval peasant’s home had an open hearth and the fire burned on a flat rock–sometimes for decades, because starting a fire from scratch involved a lot of scratching of flint on iron or wood on wood. 

An oven, though? That would’ve been expensive, and if you could afford one you’d build it outside the house. In a town, you might build it outside the town walls. Fire was a constant threat. The Great Fire of London may have been well after the medieval period, but it started in a bakery all the same.

If you had an oven, though, you’d heat it before the food went in, then rake out the fire and put the food in, leaving the oven to cool slowly. In If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley describes having baked this way. They soaked a wooden door in water to close the oven (that kept it from catching fire) and sealed the gaps with dough. When the seal was cooked, so was the bread inside, and just enough heat was left to bake biscuits–a word that comes from the French for “second cooked.”

Or just possibly for “cooked second.” My French is somewhere between iffy and iffier, but I do know when a phrase sounds better in English.

All of this was a lot of work and not something you’d want to do for a loaf or two. You’d bake either a lot of loaves–a community’s worth of them–or none. On many manors, the lord had a bakehouse and tenants had to pay if they were going to use it. 

Ian Mortimer, in The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, says that the yeoman’s wife (remember, please, that yeo-people ranged from poor to rich) might have had her own oven but might also have taken her ground grain to the village baker every week or so. That seems to say that she wouldn’t mix or shape her own dough, although other writers have people bringing their loaves to the baker.

In towns and cities, though, people bought their bread ready made, and as guilds formed, bakers organized themselves separately into one guild for the bakers of white bread and another for the bakers of brown bread. It wasn’t until Liz the First came along that–at her insistence–they merged into a single guild.

 

Why use wheat?

Vogler makes an interesting point about England’s reliance on bread: It’s complicated to make. You have to not just grow and harvest the grain but thresh it (back-breaking work if it’s done by hand), grind it (by hand in the early Anglo-Saxon period; mostly by water mills by the time of the Norman conquest), sieve it, mix it into dough, raise it, and bake it. All of this in a country that’s not ideal for growing wheat, which wants a long, dry growing season. That rules out the north and west of the country, she says, and it doesn’t sound like the rest of the place is ideal either.

Why didn’t people rely more heavily on rye, as large parts of northern Europe did? Or like the Scots and the northern fringe of England, on oats? 

Maybe it was the allure of that light, white bread that the best wheat could produce. Maybe it was just because. Humans are a strange species.

 

Trenchers

I’ve read several explanations of what trenchers were and how they were used, and everyone at least agrees they were bread used as plates. Some writers say they were a way to use up stale bread. Others say they were thin, unleavened loaves, baked for this purpose. One says they were the blackened bottom of the loaf, because the oven couldn’t ever be cleaned completely. This was cut off and given to lower members of the household, leaving us with the phrase “the upper crust”–the people who got the top half of the loaf. 

Some say the trenchers were fed to pigs after they were used. Some say that if a household was rich enough, they’d give the used trenchers to the poor. Some say they were eaten as part of the meal. I have no evidence for this, but I’d put my money on them usually being eaten, because making bread’s a lot of work and uses a fair bit of fuel. You can feed pigs something a lot less complicated and they’ll still put on weight. Medieval people didn’t waste food.

Giving used trenchers to the poor, though, might have been a way to demonstrate your wealth as well as perform an act of charity.

The most convincing comment on trenchers is from Medieval Cookery, which says about feasts that “the common belief is that after the diners were finished with their food, the used trencher was given to the poor. While there is some documentation supporting this belief, it is somewhat confusing and may be open to question.”

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This post is in response to an email from the baker at Evandine Sourdough Bakery, asking about medieval bread. It’s not a topic I’d thought about. Thanks for suggesting it, Aleksandra. I hope at least some of this is what you were looking for.

Why England’s ditching the face mask

England’s preparing to declare a half-assed victory over Covid (“We have to live with it”) and celebrate with a nationwide germfest. Starting on July 19–or yesterday, if you want to be the first kid on the block–masks will be voluntary. Social distancing will be a memory. Getting drunk and hugging strangers will be an Olympic sport.

No, sorry. England doesn’t get to decide on Olympic sports. I got carried away.

If you want to gather a few thousand of your closest friends in a closet for snacks and drinkies, you’re free to. Sporting events will be back. If you’ve been working from home, you can go back to the office. 

Cases, our alleged prime minister Boris Johnson predicted, will rise to 50,000 a day and “we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid.” But as long as we slip the word sadly in there, who gives a damn? I mean, these are people who’d die sooner or later, wouldn’t they? Of something.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coast

What they’re counting on is that vaccination has–in the phrase that’s being used so often that it’s started sticking to the walls–weakened the link between infection and hospitalization. Or sometimes the phrase is broken the link.

Broken it ain’t, and although the link’s weaker, the number of Covid hospitalizations has risen.

The main regulation that’s left is that you have to self-isolate if you’ve been exposed to the virus. Unless you’re fully vaccinated, in which case you get to collect £200 pounds in Monopoly money and start the game again.

A lot of this is about the economy, although how face masks damage the economy is beyond me and in the long run I expect all this will do more damage than good. The rhetoric on it is particularly brainless. You’re welcome to keep wearing masks, but it’s now a personal choice. Johnson said that we need to “move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus.”

The next logical step is to let people make their own informed decisions on drunk driving. They’re in charge of a heavy chunk of machinery that can kill or maim someone. Other people’s lives are in their inebriated hands. But hey, it’s not for the government to tell them what to do.

Long live the extreme edge of libertarian logic.

 

Do masks actually make a difference?

Well, a study compared counties in Kansas that had face mask mandates with those that didn’t. Mask mandates reduced Covid cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities by 60%.

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And since we’re talking about masks, a new Covid test has been developed that takes the form of a facemask. You wear it for 90 minutes and it either detects Covid or doesn’t, with the same accuracy as the PCR test–those slow, lab-based tests that are the gold standard for Covid testing. 

The team that invented it is looking for a manufacturing partner to mass produce it.

I see articles about new, fast, accurate Covid tests fairly regularly, and for a while I was mentioning them here. But after that, I’d hear nothing more about them and I kind of gave up on the topic. This one, however, has the potential to be tweaked so it detects all sorts of pathogens and toxins. I thought it might be worth a mention.

 

What about wind instruments and Covid?

It turns out that blowing through wind instrument generates fewer aerosols than either singing or talking. In fact, it’s no more than a person generates by breathing.

The amount of aerosols that singers and speakers generate rises with their volume. That holds true for both amateur and professional singers, regardless of their vocal training, their lack of vocal training, and how good or bad they sound. You run as much risk listening to a terrible singer as a good one, and get less back for it.

 

And what did you do with your time in lockdown?

A civil engineer set a new Guinness world record for the tallest stack of M&Ms. It took him hours, but it was raining, he was in lockdown, and he eventually managed to balance five on top of each other.

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On the other hand, a six-year-old, Apollo Premadasa, wrote a string quartet, “Pandemia,”  and at the height of the pandemic emailed a London hospital to tell them about it. 

“I wrote this piece to say thank you to all the doctors, nurses and scientists around in the UK and around the world for all their hard work during the pandemic,” he said. “It’s been a really hard time for them and they have all been heroes.”

He plays the trombone, cello, and timpani, and he composes music. And in case you’ve forgotten, he’s six years old. 

To celebrate the National Health Service’s 73rd birthday, it was performed at the hospital

How kids learned to fake positive Covid tests–and why

TikTok videos have taught kids that they can get out of school by faking positive Covid tests. All they have to do is pour lemon juice or Coke on them. Or apple sauce, or vinegar, or hand sanitiser, or assorted other acidic liquids. Or they can rub a kiwi across them.

And here I thought TikTok was about dancing.

In Britain, at least, if they do that it means other kids in their imaginary school bubbles get sent home for ten days along with them. And their families have to stay home. But hey, if you’ve got a math test coming up–

It’s a short-term strategy, because in Britain a positive lateral flow test has to be followed up with a PCR test, which you can’t take home and use as a stir-stick for your Coke. Still, it’s a strange enough story to earn its word count here.

Irrelevant photo: Another wildflower I can’t identify. [It’s an elderflower. Thanks to DinahMow for identifying it. Somewhere in this strange thing I call my brain, I knew that.]

A spokesperson for the National Education Union suggested that Covid tests be taken in school. But that wasn’t about lemon juice and Coke. Many kids have simply stopped using the ones they’re sent home with. 

A determined spoilsport, it turns out, can override a faked positive. You can pursue that one on your own if you’re interested. The link is here.

But the story doesn’t end there. A claim’s making the rounds that lateral flow tests are useless because if you test a glass or Coke and a kiwi it will register as having Covid. And since any reasonable person knows Coke and kiwis are immune, there must be something wrong with the tests.

Shout, “Conspiracy,” here if you would.

Thank you.

A fact-checking site called, factually enough, Fact Check points to the directions from one test, which say, “This kit has been evaluated for use with human specimen material only.” This goes to the root of the problem, which is that neither the kiwi nor the Coke is human.

You can shout, “Conspiracy,” again if you want, but I won’t orchestrate it this time. I don’t think it takes a conspiracy to prove that claim. 

Alexander Edwards, associate professor in Biomedical Technology and professional spoilsport, puts it another way: “If you completely ignore the manufacturer’s instructions or in fact use the test for something completely different, then you shouldn’t really be surprised if you get a silly result.” 

 

At last: a way that Covid doesn’t spread

A study of Covid samples from hospital surfaces found that they weren’t likely to infect anyone. That lends support to the belief that contaminated surfaces aren’t a major way to spread Covid. I’d love to explain that to you in more depth but the explanation went over my head. You’ll have to follow the link and see where your head is in relation to the information.

Even without understanding the explanation, though, it reassured  me to know that the damn virus has found a way not to spread. 

 

High fashion in the Covid era

With British kids back in school (when they can’t talk their parents into parting with a lemon) and Covid restrictions easing (in spite of a more aggressive form of the virus), colds are coming back into fashion. 

I’m not basing this on personal experience. I haven’t seen anyone with a cold in a year and a half, but then I’ve never been in the front ranks of fashion. When a style starts making sense to me, that’s a signal that it’s on its way out. But I read this in multiple publications, and those of you who care about trends need to go out and get yourselves a cold. 

Parents haven’t quite caught onto this, so they’re dragging their kids into Britain’s A&E departments. (A&E stands for accident and emergency and it’s the equivalent of US emergency room.) They–that’s the panicky parents–have forgotten what it is to have a kid with a fever, a cough, and a runny nose. 

In fairness to everyone, those are also Covid symptoms and I might panic myself.

Britain’s hospitals are already overwhelmed and have been for the past year and a half. Or for the past decade or so–ever since the government started cutting funds and saying, cheerily, “We’ve never given the NHS so much money.” So they’re not in shape to add kids with minor problems to the major-problem mix. Last month, fewer than 1% of children under 15 who went to A&E needed immediate attention and more than 72% weren’t seriously ill.

And 4.36% asked their parents if they couldn’t get a Coke from the vending machine, please.

The US is also seeing a rise in the number of colds as face masks come off. 

 

A petri dish for the world

The British government’s gone sports mad lately. We’re in the midst of the Euro tournament where they play–oh, I don’t know. Some damn thing involving a ball. The game’s not the point; the crowds are, because fans travel here and there to watch the games. They eat out. They drink. For all I know, they get happy and hug.

Then they go home, and so does Covid.

In Scotland, nearly 2,000 cases have now been linked to people gathering in public fanzones, pubs, and house parties to watch the games–not to mention stadiums. Some two-thirds of those are among the 1,300 people who went to London to watch the Scottish team play there. 

For a semifinal game in Wembley, the British government plans to allow the stadium to reach 75% of its capacity–the largest crowd at a sports event in over a year. 

The World Health Organization has warned that tournament crowds (in general, not specifically this one) can act as Covid amplifiers. And the European parliament’s committee on public health warned that such a large crowd at Wembley would be “a recipe for disaster.” But Britain’s left the European Union, so we don’t have to listen to them. The reason we left the EU was so we’d be free to spread our own germs in any way we want.

If the EU passes the law of gravity, we don’t have to follow that either.

The government’s making noises about lifting most of the remaining Covid restrictions in mid-July. When it isn’t saying that we may have to take some precautions. It’s hard to know which Boris Johnson to believe, but my money’s on him lifting most restrictions. I’m basing that on how many decibels are devoted to each side.

It’s not a prospect that makes me happy. As Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology, said, “The UK is in a unique position. We’ve the biggest Delta outbreak in a well-vaccinated country. We are a petri dish for the world.”

The question is whether vaccination breaks the link between infection on the one hand and hospitalization and death on the other. The government seems to be betting that it will. My best guess is that vaccination will weaken the link but that without other controls–masks; an effective contact tracing system; reasonable sick pay for people who are supposed to stay off work–it won’t be enough.

 

Updating the list of Covid symptoms

Assorted experts are calling for the UK to expand its list of Covid symptoms. It currently lists only the Big Three: cough, loss of the senses of smell and taste, and a high fever. 

Europe’s list includes headache, weakness, tiredness, muscle aches, runny nose, loss of appetite, and sore throat–symptoms that often begin before the Big Three and are more common in young, unvaccinated people. 

But hey, we left Europe. We get to enact our own symptoms.

 

Your small dose of hopeful news

A small study showed the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine to be effective against the Delta variant.

Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

Until recently, if you asked who the Anglo-Saxons were the answer would’ve been that they were people from two northern European tribes who invaded England during the fifth and sixth centuries and then put down roots and stayed. They pushed the Britons (mostly Celts who’d been Romanized) to the corners of the island and formed a shifting set of small kingdoms in the island’s middle. 

The kingdomlets eventually became one full-size kingdom, which was in turn overthrown by the Norman invasion in 1066. 

Sic transit gloria mundi, which is Latin from Do whatever you like, in the end it all goes wrong anyway. It’s a run-on sentence, but you can blame the ancient Romans.

 

The Jutes and the complications

To complicate the picture (I can never resist a complication), you can also tell the traditional story so that there were three tribes, the Angles and the Saxons plus the Jutes. But the Jutes are always getting dropped from the discussion because they wouldn’t spend money on a publicity agent. So the Anglo-Saxons are the folks we know about. If you care what posterity thinks of you,  you’ll find a lesson in there somewhere. 

On the other hand, by the time posterity either remembers or forgets you, you won’t be around to care, so the Jutes may have been wise to spend their money on other things. 

Irrelevant photo: I can’t remember the name of this, but if you have one you suddenly find you have a thousand and you’re pulling them up everywhere.

What evidence we have says the Jutes came from Scandinavia–probably from what’s now Jutland–and that the tribal members who didn’t migrate got absorbed by the Danes. 

 

Where does the traditional story come from?

Two of the main sources of information about the period are Gildas and the Venerable Bede, and both wrote about battles between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. But Bede lived in the seventh and eight centuries, so he’s not a contemporary source. And Gildas lived in the sixth century, so although he’s earlier than Bede he’s not a contemporary either. Gildas also considered the Anglo-Saxons God’s punishment for the British leaders’ depravity, and sorry, no, I don’t have any details, but that does kind of mark him as something less than an unbiased narrator.

So grain of salt, please, with both of those. Some archeologists have begun to notice that no one has yet found evidence of those battles, and that calls their version of the story into question.

In addition, the dividing lines between Angles, Saxons, and Jutes may not have been as clear in real life as they were in Bede’s history. Still, their names have been preserved in assorted place names, showing that they were used. The English counties that end in -sex (settle down there in back; we’ve all heard the word sex before or we wouldn’t recognize it) were Saxon. Wessex is from West Saxons; Essex from East Saxons, Middlesex from Middle Saxons. The North Saxons, as was pointed out by someone who has a better grasp of British geography and history than I do, did not leave behind a place called Nosex. 

The Angles, however, left us East Anglia and England. Not to mention the word English

The Jutes (probably) left us Jutland, and it’s in the wrong country. See why they keep getting dropped from the conversation?

The Anglo-Saxons, somewhat irrelevantly, didn’t call themselves Anglo-Saxons. The word turns up for the first time in the eighth century. 

 

The unknowns and the new interpretations

One of the things we don’t know about the period is whether the Anglo-Saxons invaded in hordes or trickled in in small numbers and settled among the existing population. Bede and Gildas make the incomers sound like invading hordes who replaced the Romano-Celts, either killing them or driving them to the corners of the island. Until recently that’s been accepted as fact.

Then–

You’ve heard the complaints that Black Lives Matter protesters are rewriting history? Well, here’s history being rewritten with no political agenda at all. Because history’s constantly getting rewritten. New ideas crop up, and new ways of looking at things, and new technologies (social history, for example, or women’s history), and new information. They change the picture. So here’s how it’s changing at the moment:

Archeologists from Sydney and Vancouver have been rummaging through Anglo-Saxon bones from the fifth through eleventh centuries and they say the Anglo-Saxons weren’t from a genetically unified group of people. They were (much like the inhabitants of modern Britain) a mix of migrants and local people.

What sort of a mix are we talking about? Between 66% and 75% of the early Anglo-Saxons had ancestors from continental Europe. The remainder had local ancestors. And Anglo-Saxon here means people who lived in what archeologists identify as Anglo-Saxon settlements–people who lived a certain way, buried their dead a certain way, and had identifiable types of jewelry or goods buried with them.

For the middle Anglo-Saxon period (that’s several hundred years after the original migrants arrived), 50% to 70% percent had local ancestors and the rest had ancestors from continental Europe. That may mean local people adopted the Anglo-Saxon culture, that the rate of migration changed, or both.“Instead of wholesale population replacement,” they say, “a process of acculturation resulted in Anglo-Saxon language and culture being adopted wholesale by the local population. . . . It could be this new cultural package was attractive, filling a vacuum left at the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. “

The archeologists speculate that “being Anglo-Saxon was more likely a matter of language and culture, not genetics.”

Separate studies of DNA and of tooth enamel back up their findings, with incomers being identifiable only by high-tech scientific study. They were buried the same way as local people and in the same places. 

 

The Anglo-Saxon economy

The established belief has been that when the Romans left the economy went into a sharp decline. Basically, Britain fell apart. But enthusiasts waving metal detectors have added new evidence about the period, and in Building Anglo-Saxon England, John Blair uses it (and other evidence) to argue that the economy was just fine, thanks. It produced goods. It traded with other countries. It didn’t collapse.

Susan Oosthuizen’s The Anglo-Saxon Fenland and The Emergence of the English make a different version of the same argument. The early Anglo-Saxon years weren’t the gang warfare we’ve come to think they were. She looks at the way the land was used and sees continuity. The Roman withdrawal from Britain, she thinks, created stability, not chaos.  

Both households using privately held land and communities using common land continued very much the way they had. A violent transformation, she argues, would’ve overwritten field layouts. A conquering horde wouldn’t have settled into the boundaries, property rights, and land management patterns of the people they’d dispossessed.

Instead, she sees incomers and local people living beside each other, with no evidence that the earlier people became subject to the incomers. She goes as far as arguing that the period shouldn’t be called Anglo-Saxon, because that overlooks both the Britons and the immigrants from North Africa, the Mediterranean, Ireland, and parts of Europe other than where the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came from. They  formed, she says, a common culture with a common language. 

The number of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants was small but may have been culturally or economically significant. But (unsubstantiated theory warning) everything from “may have” is just me speculating.

 

But didn’t Britain collapse when the Romans left?

When the Romans left, Rome’s constant demand for taxes left with them, which may have taken pressure off the local economy. In places, arable land was converted to pasture. That can be taken as a sign of collapse or a sign that, without the need to shovel surpluses to Rome, people could afford to do this.

In 429, the bishop of Auxerre visited Britain and described it as “this very opulent island.” It “enjoyed peace with security on several fronts,” he said. And St. Patrick’s reminiscences apparently also paint a picture of a stable country, not one torn by wars and invasion.

Even Gildas–remember him? one of the sources of the war and chaos tale?–describes early sixth-century Britain as a country with  a functioning legal system, a church hierarchy, monastic houses, and a military command structure and administration that were still organised along Roman lines. 

A review of Oosthuizen’s book says, “What Gildas most disliked was the evidence he saw for new administrative, legal, social, religious, and political structures emerging and diverging from Roman norms, not the lack of such structures.”

The idea that historians should be neutral–or at least try to look neutral–was still centuries away.

 

Yeah, but the language–

But wasn’t Old English brought by the Anglo-Saxons and imposed on the country?

Not necessarily. There’s no evidence that it arrived in Britain as a fully formed language–it would’ve been, at the least, a variety of dialects– or that it was imposed. In eighth-century Britain–that’s well after the Anglo-Saxons first arrived–Bede says people spoke Old English, British Celtic, Irish, Pictish, Church Latin, and vernacular (meaning everyday spoken) Latin. A lot of them would have known two or three languages, and he says almost everyone could speak vernacular Latin.

English might have gobbled down several of those, using both a Germanic and British base for its syntax and a vocabulary that was stolen from everyone within hearing range. 

Linguists–at least some of them–are now calling English a contact language, meaning not that flies stick to it but that it grew out of the interaction of various languages. That’s in contrast to a language that’s imposed by a dominant class, as English was (by way of an example) in Britain’s colonies.

 

The Ikea hypothesis

I can’t leave you without talking about the map of Ikea stores in Oosthuizen’s book. (It’s reproduced in the review. The link’s above.) She argues that future archeologists could mark a map with all the Ikea stores that are close to rivers leading to the North Sea, and from that theorize that Sweden colonized Britain in the late twentieth century. 

They could back up the theory by pointing to the amount of Ikea furniture in people’s homes and decide that the 100,000 Swedes who lived in London in 2018 had moved there to work for Ikea. 

Which is entirely possible.