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

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. 

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. 

*

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.

 

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.

*

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.

*

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. 

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. 

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

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.”

*

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.

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.

A short history of the 1918 flu pandemic

Now that we know at first hand what a pandemic is, this might be a sensible time to learn more about the 1918 flu–that thing most of us know as the Spanish flu. 

Spain’s connection was minimal. The disease first got public recognition there and that’s about it. World War I was still being fought, and newspapers were still censored in Germany, Britain, France, and the US–and possibly in assorted other countries that don’t get a mention. They weren’t allowed to mention the flu. You couldn’t publish anything that might lower morale.

Epidemics, you might have noticed, do lower morale.

Spain, though, sat on the sidelines in World War I. It didn’t censor its papers–at least not for any mention of morale-lowering diseases, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of censorship on other issues. So Spain broke the story and its reward was that the world blamed it for the disease it had mentioned. 

Irrelevant photo: a peony

Recent epidemiological research hints that the virus might have been circulating for two years before reaching pandemic levels, and US troops could have been–well, I don’t know if calling them the source of the epidemic would be correct, but the first known cases were in Fort Riley, Kansas, and they didn’t stop the US from shipping soldiers to fight in Europe. So you could make an argument that the US was the source. 

Alternative theories, on the other hand, point to China, Britain, and France. 

 

Numbers

Although a lot of us learned to call the 1918 flu an epidemic, it was a full-blown international pandemic. (Hands up: How many of us even knew the word before last year?) The only part of the world that didn’t report an outbreak was Marajo, which I never heard of until I started researching this post. It’s an island in Brazil’s Amazon Delta. 

The pandemic ran from 1918 to 1919 and killed over 50 million people worldwide. Or possibly 100 million. No one was keeping count, so we’ll have to settle for guesswork. And to confuse the picture further, even if folks had been counting, the symptoms were easy to confuse with other diseases. 

An estimated 500 million people were infected–a third of the world’s population.

In Britain, 228,000 people died of the flu; 1918 was the first year on record in which deaths outnumbered births. And Britain got off more lightly than many countries.

By way of comparison, worldwide Covid deaths are currently just under 4 million, although that’s generally agreed to be an underestimate. Britain’s had 128,000 Covid deaths.. 

The flu pandemic killed between 10% and 20% of the people who became infected, and more people died of it in a single year than died of the Black Death between 1347 and 1351. I believe that’s in Britain. Or in England. Or somewhere. Who cares? It’s a sobering comparison.

It hit young adults particularly hard–people between 20 and 40, who you’d expect to have the most resistance–but it also hit children under 5 and people over 65. Most of us, though, will have heard about  the 20-to-40 age group because it’s unusual for a disease to zero in on them.

 

Spreading the flu

The flu spread both through the air on droplets–those things that people breathe, sneeze, coughe, or talk into the air. It also spread on surfaces. You’d touch a surface that had germs on it, give them a ride to your face, and have yourself a nice little bout of the flu. 

Soldiers returning home from northern France get a special mention in any discussion of how the virus spread. In France, they’d been coming down with la grippe, which consisted of sore throats, headaches, loss of appetite, and the cramped trenches it circulated merrily. But they tended to recover quickly. Doctors called it a three-day fever. 

From that, though, the disease evolved into something deadly. We’ll come back to that. In the meantime, let’s go back to those British soldiers returning home on cramped troop transports and trains. Following their path, the flu spread from railroad stations to city centers, from city centers to suburbs, and from suburbs to the countryside. 

 

The pandemic’s waves

The first wave of the pandemic hit in the spring of 1918 and was relatively mild. The second came in the winter and was the most deadly. In the past, when I’ve read that the second wave was worse than the first, I assumed that meant only that more people got sick. No such luck. The disease itself had changed. In the second wave, you could be fine at breakfast and dead by nighttime. 

Let’s go to Historic UK for the gory details: “Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of fatigue, fever and headache, some victims would rapidly develop pneumonia and start turning blue, signalling a shortage of oxygen. They would then struggle for air until they suffocated to death.”  

The third wave hit in the early spring of 1919, and was somewhere between the first and third in its virulence. Smaller, localized outbreaks went on into the mid ‘20s. But in August 1918, an observer could reasonably have thought that the disease had ended, and since the government still had a war to fight it kept its attention on that. 

For the most part, pubs stayed open. The Football League and FA Cup had been canceled because of the war, but men’s regional tennis competitions went ahead and so did women’s football, which in the absence of men’s games attracted big crowds.  

Hospitals were overwhelmed, and it didn’t help that medical personnel had been vacuumed up by the war. Medical students were brought in to help fill the gaps. Doctors and nurses worked themselves to the point of exhaustion. 

Graveyards were also overwhelmed. Think of them as the kind of high-end restaurants where you need advance bookings. The draft meant the country had a shortage of grave diggers, of funeral workers, of coffin builders. Horses had been drafted as well, so even getting the dead picked up was a problem. In Sunderland at one point, 200 bodies were left unburied for over a week. 

When the war ended (November 11, 1918, in case anyone asks, at 11 a.m.), crowds turned out to celebrate, helping to spread the disease. There just might be a lesson hidden in there for us.

 

The expert advice

Sir Arthur Newsholme, the chief medical officer of the Local Government Board, wrote a memorandum in July 1918 advising people to stay home if they were sick and to avoid large gatherings. It wasn’t bad advice, and he promptly buried it. Britain had that war to fight.

Looking back on it in 1919, he said it could have saved many lives, but “there are national circumstances in which the major duty is to ‘carry on’, even when risk to health and life is involved.”

Keep smiling. Keep morale up. If you have to die, do it off stage.

The cabinet never discussed the epidemic. No lockdown was imposed, and I’m not sure the concept was available to be discussed. In 1917, it talked about forming a ministry of health to prevent disease and coordinate health care, but it did nothing about it until 1919, leaving localities to respond to the pandemic as well or badly as they could. 

In places, theaters, dance halls, movie theaters, and churches were closed for varying lengths of time, and in some places streets were sprayed with disinfectant. Some people wore masks. Some didn’t. Whatever happened, happened locally.

Public health messages ranged from the vaguely useful to the batty. Some factories relaxed no-smoking rules because cigarettes were known to prevent infection–or at least some people knew about it and probably thought the ones who didn’t were idiots or deliberately suppressing information.

But that’s just a guess.

In a Commons debate, M.P. Claude Lowther asked, “Is it a fact that a sure preventative against influenza is cocoa taken three times a day?”

The News of the World told people to “wash inside nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply. Do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work; eat plenty of porridge.”

Cleaning your teeth was also recommended. It might not keep you alive, but at least you’d die with clean teeth. Brandy and whisky were popular preventatives. So was ventilation, which would have actually helped, along with warm clothes. Worrying about your health, on the other hand, would make you more vulnerable. Besides, it could interfere with the war effort.

Predictably, in the absence of solid information, individuals were often blamed–for catching the disease; for spreading it; for taking risks that no sensible person would take, like passing up that third cup of cocoa.

People rushed to chemists to buy quinine, which was useful against malaria but roughly as helpful against the flu as turkey feathers. 

We can–and we might as well–laugh, but remember that there weren’t any antibiotics yet, which could have been useful against flu’s secondary infections. And there were no antivirals. The first vaccine for the flu wasn’t licensed until 1940. 

Many doctors prescribed what they had available: aspirin. Its patent had expired in 1917, so new companies moved in to produce it–I’d assume cheaply. Patients were told to take up to 30 grams a day, which is now considered a toxic dose. If you take anything above four grams these days, red lights start flashing and sirens go off. 

The symptoms of aspirin poisoning include hyperventilation and pulmonary edema, which is a buildup of fluid in the lungs. Some flu deaths may have been either caused or speeded up by aspirin poisoning.

To be fair, some of the recommended public health measures were useful, including ventilation, disinfection, limiting or banning large gatherings, quarantine, and isolation of patients, but they were applied unevenly. 

 

The pandemic’s legacy

Industrialized countries went into the pandemic with atomized health systems. Doctors worked for themselves or for charities or religious institutions. Public health policies–and this isn’t particularly about Britain–were colored by eugenics, a theory that, to simplify wildly and irresponsibly, managed to show that the people at the top of society were there because they were better genetic specimens and the people at the bottom were degenerate and a mess. So public health policy–or so the Smithsonian tells me–tended to be about protecting the elites from the diseases of the poor. 

When the pandemic died down and they had some space to think, the lesson many countries took from it was that healthcare had to be available to all, and free, although the moves in that direction weren’t universal or, at first, complete. Public health embraced the idea of not just treating disease but preventing it. Epidemiology–the study of diseases’ patterns, causes, and effects–came into its own, and epidemiology demands data, which governments, or some of them anyway, began to gather. One of the problems that article after article mentions about the flu pandemic is that it wasn’t a reportable disease, so doctors weren’t required to report cases to the government and wouldn’t have had a bureau to report them to if they’d been inclined that way. That meant no one knew the size or shape of the crisis.

In 1919, the forerunner of the World Health Organization was founded–an international bureau to fight pandemics.

Food: A quick history of the British curry

Nothing–as Brits are fond of saying with a straight face–is as British as a curry. 

The first time someone said that to me, I had to recover from the mental jolt of curry/India running its voltage through Britain/not India, but after that I could see the truth of it. Go into any small town in Britain (she wrote, as if she’d been to all of them) and you’ll find an Indian restaurant. 

Britain has 12,000 curry houses according to the BBC, which knows all–and probably more–so we’ll take their word for it. By way of comparison, Britain also has 47,000 pubs. That’s not entirely relevant, but with a little work I could make it sound as if it was.

Oh, hell, forget the numbers. Let’s indulge in a little food history.

Irrelevant photo: cistus

 

How did the curry get to Britain?

The first mention of curry in Britain dates back to the end of the sixteenth century: to 1598, if you want to be precise. To anchor that a bit, Queen Liz wasn’t dead yet but her mechanism was winding down and King James hadn’t yet trotted down from Scotland to sit–awkwardly, I’d think–on two thrones simultaneously, because Britain wasn’t Britain yet. England was England and Scotland was Scotland. Even once James owned them both, they had separate thrones and were separate countries.

[Acknowledgement: When I first posted this, I killed Elizabeth off a few years early. Thanks to April Munday, who caught my carelessness.]  

I throw that in partly to fill in the picture and partly because I haven’t been able to find anything more about that first mention of curry, so I’m distracting you from the blank space.

You’ll never notice. 

 

History and food collide 

Why was curry being mentioned in England? Well, the English East India Company (which when England and Scotland became Britain became the British East India Company) started out by trading with India from there moved on to taking it over piece by piece and governing it. 

I really do need to write a post about that. In the meantime, though, by way of a promissory note, we have curry. And the knowledge that England had extensive contact with India.

From the British point of view (which makes considerably more comfortable reading than the Indian one, since it doesn’t focus on the unpleasant stuff), that meant thousands of British men and women had lived and, more to the point, eaten in India. Some of them lived in grand style there, with Indian cooks and servants. Others weren’t as high up the colonialist ladder and would have met Indian food in less grand settings, but it was still Indian food, in all its stunning variety.

Inevitably, some of those Brits did their damnedest to recreate Britain on the dining room tables they sat at in India, but others noticed that Indian food had a range of tastes that pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold hadn’t prepared them for. Their taste buds woke up and understood that they’d been installed on the human tongue for a purpose, which was to taste things. And they wanted to keep doing that. 

It’s an odd thing how the contempt you need if you’re going to take over someone else’s country can coexist with admiration for parts of their culture, or at least for their cooking. But sometimes it does.

And no, the British didn’t really live entirely on pease porridge before they met Indian food. That’s from a nursery rhyme. But by comparison with the range of tastes Indian food offered them [biased writing warning here] they might as well have. So, many of the conquerors were primed to want Indian food after they returned home. British food had somehow become bland and boring.

And a few people did their best to recreate Indian food for them. As early as 1733, people could buy curry in London’s Norris Street Coffee House. 

How Indian was it?

My best guess is, not very, and I’m basing that on the first recipe for curry published in England, in 1747, when it appeared in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse. In the first edition, the only spices were black pepper and coriander seeds. Let’s try not to be snooty about it. Spices were expensive. And Hannah had never been to India, so this was like someone painting a picture of an elephant when they’ve never seen one. (A later edition added turmeric and ginger.) 

It’s probably fair to say that even at this early stage curry had become a British dish, because I’m reasonably sure India would’ve disowned the stuff. Admittedly I’m not Indian and I don’t know Indian cooking in any depth. Comments, especially from people who are and do, are always welcome, as always.

Authentic or not, though, by the 1780s, a few London restaurants were selling curry and rice.

In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomed, who’d served in the East India Company’s army, opened a curry house, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, which tried to recreate India in London, complete with bamboo chairs, paintings of India, and a separate room for people who wanted to smoke hookahs. I get the impression that the food was more authentically Indian than it was in the more general restaurants that served curry. 

The Epicures Almanak described as a place “for the nobility and Gentry,” complete with an inexplicable capital G. 

But Mahomed had to compete with the already established curry houses and he went broke in 1812. https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-British-Curry/

Curry became popular enough that between 1820 and 1840, imports of turmeric (a central spice in curry) increased threefold. By the 1840s, it was popular enough that any damn fool could’ve told you that curry stimulates the stomach and invigorates blood circulation, which would lead to a more vigorous mind.  

Curry was also a good way to use up leftover meat, so whatever you thought of the health claims, it had a good, practical argument in its favor.

Then an 1857 mutiny against British rule soured the British attitude toward all things Indian. Englishmen (no mention of women–or the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish) in India weren’t allowed to wear Indian clothes. “Going native” was an insult–and eating curry was frowned upon. The upper classes abandoned it, although if you weren’t in fashion to start with you’d probably go on eating what you liked. 

That shifted, though, at least in Britain, when Queen Victoria became fascinated by India. What the hell, playing monarch over the place had elevated her from queen to empress, so why not be impressed with it? She lent Indian food some class among anyone who took that sort of thing seriously, thereby reviving the curry’s fortunes. 

In the early twentieth century, some 70,000 people from South Asia moved to Britain. A few high-end-of-the-market Indian restaurants opened in London. How are those two statements linked? I don’t know, but after World War II some of those migrants opened cafes and canteens serving their own communities. And another group of them–Bangladeshis, for the most part–opened restaurants aimed at the British market, selling food at prices working people could afford. Curry went enthusiastically downmarket. Among other things, the restaurants became places to stop and grab a meal when you staggered homeward from the pub. 

In recent years, curry’s been trying to go back upmarket, with expensive wine lists and menus that draw on India’s range of regional cooking.

Some 80% of Britain’s Indian restaurants aren’t owned or run by people from India. The owners are from Bangladesh and their food is from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. 

 

So how Indian is the curry?

You know what happens when a word from one language gets adopted into another, right? The pronunciation changes. Sometimes the meaning changes. After a while, it’s hard for the original language to recognize its offspring.

It happens to food too. People who have to sell it to a new public adapt it to suit their tastes. And to match the ingredients at hand. That happened to Indian food when it got to Britain.

According to a HuffPost writer whose name I couldn’t find on the article, curry isn’t Indian at all.  “ ‘Curry’ is not even a word in India. . . . There are a few specific dishes in India whose names sound like ‘curry.’ One is ‘Kadhi,’ and another is ‘Kari.’ Both of them are sauce-like with a gravy.” 

From one or both of those words, the British generalized and anglicized and used the word curry to mean anything vaguely Indian with a spiced gravy. It’s sort of like calling all noodle dishes spaghetti, our nameless author says. 

And just to prove that no one’s listening, HuffPost follows her article with a link to curry recipes.

Some days you can’t win.

What about curry powder? It takes, the writer says, a bunch of spices used in Indian food and dumps them all together, but no Indian cook would use them all. They’d use some and leave out others, depending on the dish. 

That means that using curry powder to get the flavor of Indian food is sort of like pouring all the words in the dictionary into your document and calling it a novel. The trick that real writers have learned is to select some of the words and leave others out.

I just let you in on the secret of good writing. Are you blown away?

But authenticity be damned, Britain had grabbed hold of the curry and it isn’t letting go.