The Jacobite Rebellion: Who Was Jacob?

Let’s talk about the Jacobite Rebellion. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart tried to grab the British throne back for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart. In other words, the Jacobite Rebellion revolved around two men with a whole string of names, but Jacob is nowhere on the list.

Unless, of course, you switch to Latin, in which case you can call James Jacobus. Or Jake if you’re a close enough friend. 

He didn’t have friends who were that close, so you might want to give it some thought before you call him that. 

Irrelevant photo: This is orange. And a flower. You’re welcome.

The Jacobite uproar started when Elizabeth the virgin queen of England died without an heir. Sorry, you don’t get a prize for guessing that business about her not having an heir. The Stuarts–a line of Scottish kings who were vaguely related to her–became the kings of England as well as Scotland, and England being larger and richer than Scotland, they made it their base. That lasted until one of them, James, outed himself as a (gasp) Catholic and was replaced with his Protestant daughter and her husband, an equally Protestant European prince. 

These two were supposed to create a line of reliably Protestant monarchs, but bringing in replacements had set a precedent: If an individual in the new line died childless, Britain could always borrow another vaguely related Protestant from Europe. Think of Europe as a lending library for vaguely related Protestant monarchs. 

If any genuine historians are reading this, you have my deepest apologies. I’ll be happy to dodge anything you want to throw at me,

But the Stuarts didn’t disappear just because they’d been booted off the throne. They sat in Europe like the last, heavily thumbed book on the library shelves–the one nobody wanted to borrow. 

You can see trouble coming, right? 

Starting in 1708, a couple of bungled rebellions tried and failed to bring James back. Sometimes foreign powers were involved. France is the country to keep your eye on here. Britain (or England if we’re talking about an earlier period–it’s confusing and we’ll get to that in a minute) and France hadn’t gotten along for centuries. 

In 1744, France sent ships to launch a Jacobite invasion of England. France didn’t take the Stuarts seriously, but what the hell, if it lobbed them onto British soil, it could hope to tie to government in knots for a while. But winter storms sank some of the French ships and drove the rest back to port, after which France called off the plan. 

Sorry, Stuarts. 

So Charles–remember him? Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart who wasn’t named Jacob and was going to grab the throne for his dad, who also wasn’t called Jacob? Without asking France if it was okay, Charles consulted his Scottish contacts about a landing in Scotland. 

Why Scotland? It had been bundled into a union with England in 1707, and a lot of Scots weren’t happy about it. Before that, Scotland and England had been two countries that shared a king but not a government. Now they were one united country, dominated by England. Scottish landowners got a few nice presents out of the union, but what most people got were heavy taxes along with forts and soldiers planted by a government that they felt had been imposed on them. So the Jacobites could count on the backing of a Scottish clan leader or three, which would give them a good base in a land full of grievance.

In one of history’s nice little ironies, these clans were largely Protestant. 

Sit down and get comfortable for a minute, because we’re going to take a detour into Scottish (and English, not to mention Irish) religious history. 

When the Church of England was formed, the central issue was that the monarch was going to replace the pope as the head of the church, . All members of the clergy had to swear an oath to him or her. So when James became the king, they swore.

Then James was replaced with William and Mary, leaving a number of clergy members wondering what to do next. James was still alive. So what did their oath mean? Some shrugged their shoulders and swore an oath to the replacement parts that had been fitted into the royal machine. Others, out of principle, refused. They felt that their first oath still held. 

In England, this was largely a matter of religious (as opposed to political) principle, but in Scotland refusing to swear an oath to the replacement parts was highly political, a statement that the country was ruled by the Stuart king, even if he was sitting in France (or Rome) and ruling nothing more than what time lunch was on the table. Cue lots of political and churchly infighting that we won’t get into.  

What matters for us is that this strange bit of history, where elements of a Protestant Church held out for a Catholic king, provided a reservoir of Jacobite support and a bit of religious and intellectual backing for the cause.

The Jacobites also had support in Ireland, where the Stuarts’ Catholicism was crucial. England (which had by now become Britain) had confiscated Catholic-owned land on a massive scale there. The Irish Jacobites wanted their land back in an independent, Catholic Ireland. 

Zip over to England and a fair bit of Jacobite support was Protestant again. It came from people who were against Britain’s involvement in European wars. They wanted that money for the navy, which could protect British trade. Many of them were strongly anti-Catholic and pro-Church of England. English Catholics? Some were Jacobite and some supported the Hanoverians–the replacement parts in the royal machine. 

In other words, the only thing Jacobites agreed on was being Jacobites. The Stuarts were a handy basket into which you could toss any disagreement with the existing government. Think of them as populist politicians running against the government. Try that strategy and you’ll find it can work until you become the government. After that, unless you’re a genuine revolutionary–and few of populist politicians are–it’s a tough act to maintain. You’ll need to find a new enemy, and in the time of the Stuarts, Remainers and the liberal elite hadn’t been invented yet. Immigrants had but–.

Never mind. I’m wandering off topic. The point is that if James had managed to seat his butt on the British throne, he’d have had serious trouble keeping his supporters behind him. 

Lucky him, he never had to face that.

What did the Stuarts themselves stand for? They believed in absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. They were Catholic. Since a fair number of their supporters opposed arbitrary rule, the union, and Catholicism–well, yeah, you can see why they were all drawn together.

Now let’s go back to Bonnie Charlie consulting his Scottish contacts. They said, “Look, guy, nothing personal, but without French support this doesn’t look promising.”

But Charlie, remember, believed in absolute monarchy, and even if he wasn’t an alleged king, only an alleged prince, he still knew best. He set sail, rallied support in the Scottish highlands, and marched on Edinburgh, helped along by the roads and bridges the British government had built after those earlier Jacobite risings in order to make Scotland easier for the military to control. 

History has a bitter sense of humor.

The Jacobites didn’t manage to take Edinburgh castle, just the city, but even so it was all going well. Charlie declared the union of Scotland and England to be over, along with the Act of Settlement, which barred Catholics from the throne. The French–as he’d gambled they would once he’d set himself on Scottish soil–sent money, supplies, and weapons. Everything looked rosy.

Except that Charlie’s autocratic style and Irish advisers had started to worry some of the Scots, and they imposed a council of advisers on him. Everyone argued about whether to invade England or consolidate their position. 

Charlie wanted to invade, though, and invade they did, getting as far as Derby, a couple of hundred miles from the Scottish-English border on the A1, which if it existed wasn’t called that and hadn’t been paved. Then they turned and headed north again for fear of getting cut off by English forces. They had the advantage of speed but that was about it. They were lightly armed and the English Jacobite support they’d counted on turned out to be minimal. As did French support.

We’ll skip over a siege and a battle or two back in Scotland. Winter came and both sides settled down to wait for better weather, which given what both the Scottish and the English think of Scottish weather could easily have meant waiting for decades. 

The Jacobites were also waiting for French supplies, but the British navy was out there waiting for French ships. A few got through, but by spring the Jacobites were short of food, money, and weapons. 

What do you do in that situation? You give the dice a good hard shake, kiss the hand that’s shaking them, and spill those dice on the table. 

They didn’t land the way the Jacobites needed them to. The final battle of the rebellion was at Culloden and it was over in about an hour. Some 1,500 Jacobites were killed and 500 were taken prisoner. Compare that to 50 British soldiers killed and around 250 wounded. 

Charlie ordered his surviving troops to disperse and he fled for France, leaving British troops to search out rebels, confiscate cattle, and burn the meeting houses of religious groups who pissed them off. Of the 3,500 Jacobites who were indicted for treason, 120 were executed, 650 died before trial, 900 were pardoned, and the rest were transported.

Culloden marked the end of the Scottish clan lords’ power–not because of the defeat itself, but because the government set out to break them. Estates were confiscated. Laws were designed to undermine them. By way of making the point symbolically, highland dress was outlawed unless it was worn in the (need I say, British) military and the bagpipes were declared an instrument of war, so playing them was banned, although they continued to be played in secret. 

If anyone knows how to play the bagpipes in secret, do let me know. They’re not a subtle instrument. And yes, I do understand that the highlands weren’t densely settled and that even though the sound carries a long way it can’t circumnavigate the globe. Still. In secret?

The government set about mapping the highlands and building more forts, roads, and bridges to help the military control them. The Jacobite Rebellion was over.

Irish Jacobitism continued but it was focused on independence, not on the Stuarts, and it was eventually absorbed into the Republican movement.

*

My thanks to Sheila Morris for suggesting the topic. I’m always open to suggestions but I don’t promise to follow all of them. Some of them work and some don’t, and I can’t predict what will fall into which category.

Smoke, chimneys, and beds in Tudor times

No part of the past makes sense in isolation. Or it only does when you’re kidding yourself. Take a wider view and it gets messier but more interesting.

I started out wondering where medieval people slept and ended up learning about chimneys, so let’s start with chimneys.

They were introduced to Britain in the twelfth century, but they were only for the super-rich–the kind of people who had a castle or two–or for monasteries. Think of them as the era’s equivalent of a private plane: They weren’t something even your economically well-above-average person would lust after. They were too far out of reach. What most houses had at the beginning of the Tudor era was a central hearth–a nice fireplace on the floor, in the middle of the room. 

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries, stolen from an earlier post but who’ll notice?

The smoke rose from the hearth and worked its way out through the thatch, if the roof was thatch, or through whatever other openings were available if it wasn’t. Don’t worry, because even if the house didn’t have a hole in the roof above the fire, it would’ve been rich in chinks and openings. If it had a window, it would at best have been a wooden shutter but was more to have been likely oiled cloth. Glass was a luxury item. And I’m going to make a reckless guess and say the door wouldn’t have been a tight fit. 

If all that sounds awful, it also had its advantages. A website that quotes re-enactors from a Welsh museum says that on its way out the smoke would have waterproofed the thatch, killed bugs, and smoked meat hanging from the ceiling.

But that’s only the beginning. I’ve been re-reading Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and–well, let’s back up, as I always seem to in these posts, and talk about who Goodman is before we come back to our alleged topic.

Goodman calls herself a historian of social and domestic life in Britain, and as far as I can figure out she more or less invented her field, coming into it before respectable historians showed much interest in how ordinary people lived. But she doesn’t just study social history, she inhabits it, working out how people lived and trying it herself. Want to know how they cleaned their teeth? She can compare the virtues of chalk, salt, and the soot a wax candle leaves on a polished surface, because she’s tried them all. 

She consults for museums and for the BBC and has presented some wonderful programs on daily life in various eras. She’s fascinated by how people did ordinary things. 

As she puts it, “Our day to day routines have a huge cumulative effect on the environment, our shopping habits can sway the world’s patterns of trade, how we organise and run our family life sets the political tone of nations. We matter. Us, the little people, women, children and even men. How our ancestors solved the problems of everyday life made the world what it is today.”

Never mind for a moment that today’s world isn’t great advertising for the wisdom of our ancestors’ choices. How many of us can know where our decisions will lead, and how many of our ancestors had much of a range to choose from? Can we not get snotty about this? Most of them were only trying to cook a meal and stay warm. 

Which takes us, handily, back to fireplaces. 

Central hearths were good at warming a room. No heat disappeared up the chimney–there was no chimney–and they kept the floor of the house level nice and warm. This brought the people down to floor level, not just because it was warm but because the clearest air was down below. Sitting on the floor starts to look appealing when the higher levels are smoky. So does sleeping on the floor. You don’t want furniture that lifts your head up into the smoke.

What was it like to sleep on the floor? Well, having read that medieval floors were strewn with rushes, Goodman tried to figure out what that meant. By trial and a couple of errors, she found that if you make them into bundles and lay them somewhere between two and six inches deep, you get a solid surface that’s comfortable to sleep on–both springy and warm. (If you just strew them around, they get caught in your skirts.)

When she watered them lightly every couple of days, they stayed fresh and didn’t catch fire when a spark fell on them (that’s a plus), and they smelled like cucumber (that’s another plus if you like cucumber). And in spite of people walking, cooking, sitting, eating, sleeping, and spilling on them during a re-creation she participated in (and in spite of a family of chickens that no one had the heart to evict), at the end of six months the surface was still clean and when she cleared the rushes all out there was no mess at the bottom. Also no evidence of mice or insects or mold.

So sleeping on the floor? Not a hardship. Which is lucky, because that’s where lots of people slept, not just in the cottages of the poor but in castles. Have you ever wondered where the many, many servants in big households slept? Beds were for the few (to reverse the Labour Party’s current slogan), not the many. So what did everyone else do? I couldn’t help imagining that they had some sort of mattresses, no matter how basic, and I sometimes wondered where they stashed them all during the day. How much storage space could they devote to them?

But no. The lower orders bedded down on the floor, more or less communally, although separated by sex. Come morning, all they needed to store away were some blankets.

As the Tudor era rolled onward, fireplaces became more common, and with them, beds–or at least platforms that raised people off the floor and some sort of mattress to soften them. Bring in a fireplace and you get rid of the smoke (and can add a second story) but the tradeoff is that you get drafty floors and colder rooms. A huge amount of heat is carried up the chimney. Furniture that lifts you off the floor starts to look pretty good. 

That still leaves us with the storage problem, and I’m not sure how they solved that or if the lowest orders still slept on the floor–which was now drafty.

Mattresses ranged from a heap of straw to bags stuffed with everything from straw to wool to down, and bedsteads from simple platforms to boxes to hugely expensive four-poster beds, which you can think of as yurts set up inside a room. Sleeping in a four-poster was the original glamping. Your bed would be covered on top and on the sides, and inside all that covering you got not only warmth but some kind of privacy.

Privacy was a hard thing to come by at this point. 

That doesn’t tell us how many people slept in some form of bed, whether the ones who were left on the floor got something mattressy to protect them from the drafts, or where the mattresses got stacked in they did. Nobody was tracking people’s welfare and no one was keeping statistics–or not that kind of statistics anyway. 

What we do know is that life moved upward, into the now-clear air. And they all slept happily ever after. 

Or some of them did.

The Gordon Riots: Religion, Poverty, and No Revolution

“How did the American Revolution affect Britain?” an American reader asked me a good long time ago. I didn’t have a clue, so I plugged some version of the question into Google and Lord G.’s answer seemed to imply that no one in Britain much noticed it. Or, since that’s just the slightest exaggeration, that life went on pretty much as it had before.

But getting a decent answer is all about knowing what to ask, so let’s talk about the Gordon Riots of 1780.

What was happening around that time? Britain was losing the war in its thirteen colonies. Gentlemen wore wigs when they dressed formally and powdered their hair when they were being informal. Was there a connection? Don’t jump to conclusions. George Washington may not have worn a wig (the Smithsonian magazine says he didn’t), but he powdered his hair and floofed it out on the sides so it looked wiglike. It was time consuming, but for formal battles it was important to get the look right. 

Absolutely relevant photo, because what’s a riot without a flower or six?

I mention the wigs as a reminder that the upper classes had both time and money that they could afford to piss out the window. London was a city of what Professor Jerry White calls “almost unimaginable inequality. And inequality was underpinned by a deeply-loathed system of ‘justice’, its key component the London prison system”–which among other things imprisoned people for debt. (That link will, if life and the internet are kind, lead you to a pdf of an article on the riots. It’s five pages long and it’s good, but you’ll have to download it.)

The cost of living had gone up and (you’ve heard this about other time periods, right?) wages hadn’t. Funny how that works.

You can think of inequality and a war that was going badly (there’s the American Revolution again) as your standard-issue liquid fuel. The match that ignited it was an act allowing Catholics to join the army and buy land if they took an oath of allegiance. It didn’t go as far as giving them freedom of religion, but this was pretty radical stuff for its time and place. 

The act had come into force in England and Ireland in 1778 without setting off any sparks, but when it was introduced in Scotland in 1779 it was met with anti-Catholic rioting that was so serious that Catholics themselves asked the government to withdraw the bill, which it did. 

Then London’s Protestants looked at their cold fireplace and thought that setting fire to the chimney might just be a good idea. Because there’s nothing like a bit of religious, ethnic, or national intolerance to take your mind off your problems. 

Enter Lord George Gordon. He was twenty-nine, an MP, the third son of a duke, and generally considered a religious nut. “His speeches were wild and unbalanced,” according to Prof. White. His hair was also wild and unbalanced. Or, as White has it, long and lank. Either way, he managed to look like one of the Puritans from a century before his time. 

The Catholic Relief Act, Gordon said in an audience with George III, was “for the diabolical purpose of arming the Papists against the Protestant colonies in America.”

If you strip away the insults and the ranting, that wasn’t an entirely unbalanced belief. The war needed soldiers, and Catholics looked as good in a bright red coat as well as anyone else did.

A quick interruption while I talk about sources. The George Gordon quote comes from a book, The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties, by David Horspool. It’s informative and well written and everyone should rush out and buy six copies or go to the library and borrow one. Among other things, it’s left me thinking about how we define rebellion. And a mob. It’s a rich source of blog fodder. But it’s not online, so no link.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. If you’d stop interrupting, we could get to the point faster.

In a well-organized campaign, the Protestant Association had been handing Parliament petitions against the Catholic Relief Act ever since it passed, and in 1780 some 50,000 to 60,000 people gathered to hand in a petition with 44,000 signatures. They marched from St. George’s Fields into London, flying flags and singing hymns. Outside Parliament, in the usual spirit of hymn-singing, they attacked members of the House of Lords, who were just rolling up in their carriages. 

The Commons were already in session and the mob (the word didn’t carry the same overtones it does today; it meant an excitable crowd–and this one does sound like it was excitable) swirled into the lobby, where Gordon excited them a bit more, reminding them that the Scots hadn’t made progress against the act until they “pulled down the mass-houses.” 

MPs expected the mob to break into the Commons chamber at any moment and White says several were ready to draw their swords and one (who happened to be Gordon’s uncle) announced that he’d put his sword through Gordon if anyone broke through the door. 

I know. Most of us have at least one relative we feel that way about.

What were the MPs doing with swords when a statute from 1313 bans anyone coming armed (or in armor) to Parliament? No idea. Sorry. I’d love to know.

As it turned out, no one broke in and no one ran Gordon through, although it wasn’t for lack of wanting to, I’m sure. But oddly enough, no one stepped in to stop Gordon running out to make sure the mob maintained its level of excitement.

Parliament voted not to receive the petition, with only nine members wanting to accept it.

In the middle of this mayhem, the Duke of Richmond introduced a motion to extend the vote to all men. It was the height of lousy timing. What, give the vote to “the people” when “the people” were just outside, punching lords as they arrived in their carriages? 

The secretary of state argued against universal male suffrage on the grounds that the British constitution was “the wisest that had ever been created.” And no one could prove it wasn’t, since it’s (oh, so wisely) never been written down. It would be like arguing that the Invisible Man wasn’t devastatingly handsome. 

The motion lost.  

That evening, the mob attacked several Catholic chapels, including private ones belonging to Catholic ambassadors. Then things settled down for a while. And then they unsettled. Catholic churches, schools, and homes were attacked. Soldiers were called out but didn’t have clear orders about what to do. Politicians who took unpopular positions had already been attacked, so no one wanted to give the order to shoot. 

The rioting continued. The poet George Crabbe  (no, I never heard of him either, but the opera Peter Grimes is based on his work, so somebody has) wrote, “I met a resolute band of vile-looking fellows, ragged, dirty, and insolent, armed with clubs, going to join their companions. I since learned that there were eight or ten of these bodies in different parts of the City.” 

By now, the nature of the mob had changed–it was poorer and more desperate–and so had its targets. They were attacking the justice system, burning criminal records, freeing prisoners, and destroying prisons. 

Again, George Crabbe, talking to a tavern waiter: “I asked him what could induce him to do all this? He said the cause. I said, do you mean a religious cause? He said no; for he was of no religion. He said, there should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”

White describes the next couple of nights as civil war. 

When the soldiers finally received orders to shoot, the first ones who did were commanded by Gordon’s brother-in-law.

We can, I think, reasonably assume that the family’s Christmas dinners were strained.

The next day, gangs started knocking on doors, demanding money for “the true religion.” Buildings that had already been attacked were systematically looted. The Bank of England and toll houses on Blackfriars Bridge were attacked. A distillery owned by a Catholic was set alight and either the vats of alcohol caught fire or gin was pumped on the fire accidentally, instead of water. The second version sounds unlikely but I prefer it.

It took two days, 210 shot dead, 75 wounded (and, according to one source, later dying in the hospital), and an uncounted number dying or recovering at home before the riots were over. Soldiers, magistrates, and peace officers made their way through poor neighborhoods, arresting people, including criminals, wage earners (journeymen, apprentices, domestic and public house servants) street sellers, assorted other men working marginal jobs, and a few women whose jobs weren’t recorded, although it was recorded that one of them was black.

Ten times more property had been destroyed than was destroyed in Paris during the French Revolution, and far more prisoners were freed than were freed from the Bastille (1,500 compared to 7). But in the end the French had a revolution and Britain had riots.

Horspool points out that the attacks focused on prosperous Catholic institutions, which he takes to mean that it was “the success of the hated group as opposed to their existence that was resented.” He also points out that Catholics had less to fear from the rioters than MPs did, although I doubt they’d have agreed with him. 

And Lord Gordon?

He was indicted for treason but acquitted on the grounds that he hadn’t intended any treason. It helped that he hadn’t taken any direct part in the riots.  According to the Jewish Magazine, which is more sympathetic to Gordon than either Horspool or White, he came out of the trial a more religious man. He was drawn to the Quakers for their pacifism and work to help the poor and to the Jewish community (only recently returned to England after some 400 years of exile) for their efforts to care for the poor. The story is that he was walking through a Jewish neighborhood in Ipswich and saw a sign saying, “All who are hungry enter and eat.” He went in and struck up a lifelong friendship with the householder, Isaac Titterman.

In 1787, Gordon was jailed for libeling Marie Antoinette, the French ambassador, and the English justice system. 

Then, in case you think anything’s simple, this most Protestant of anti-Catholic Protestants converted to Judaism–according to one source when he was in prison and according to another, more detailed one, before. Having converted, he became strictly observant, to the point of refusing to talk with Jewish men who shaved their beards. In court, he refused to remove his kippa. Since the court saw it as a hat, making it a sign of disrespect rather than a religious observance to keep it on, it was pulled off his head and he tied a nightcap on his head with a handkerchief. 

What he was doing with a nightcap in  court is beyond me. I’ve never heard that there’s anything in the many, many (many, many, many) Jewish laws and traditions that involves nightcaps and court appearances. But then, I’m no expert. Never mind. He covered his head. Both sides, presumably, were unhappy with the outcome, although maybe not equally unhappy.

He served out his sentence but couldn’t be freed unless two people guaranteed (apparently with money) his good behavior. But the people who appeared for him were Polish Jews, who the court refused to recognize. Whether that was because they were Jewish or Polish is anyone’s guess, but my money’s on Jewish. His brothers and sister offered to cover his bail but he turned down their offer.

He was returned to prison and died of prison fever–typhoid–at forty-two.

Horspool mentions speculation that his conversion came out of a belief that if the Jews returned to Israel it would bring the second coming of Christ, but his letters from this period, along with his willingness to have religious alterations made to a body part that men are generally pretty sensitive about, make his conversion sound less complicated and more genuine than that.

Oh: The British lost the war.

Britain goes metric. Except where it doesn’t

Britain adopted the metric system in 1965.

Mostly.

How well has it worked? In 2015, 60% of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds didn’t know their weight in kilos; 54% didn’t know their height in centiwhatsits or in a combination of centiwhatsits and full-grown whatsits. For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, the slightly older group, twenty-five- to thirty-nine-year-olds, did better in both categories. After that, it went downhill.

For measuring short distances and for cooking, the number of people who use the metric system goes up. For long distances, though, people measure in miles. Well, why wouldn’t they? British roads are measured in miles,so folks drive in miles, regardless of how they measure walls.

All this–or the data part of it anyway–is from a YouGov poll. No one can say YouGov dodges the important issues. The poll also reports that the middle class is more likely to use metric measurements for short distances and for cooking than the working class is.

From this I gather that the upper class is too good to take surveys.

Irrelevant photo: A rose. By any other name.

Most people you’ll find on hanging around on any random street corner on any random day won’t be frothing at the mouth about this, but you’ll find pro- and anti-metric advocacy groups and they do manage to keep themselves worked up enough to function. One anti- group argues for the inherent logic of feet and inches because the foot divides so neatly into quarters. So let’s take the argument seriously enough to look at how this eminently sensible system developed.

England emerged from the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages with a rich collection of measurements. Here’s a quick and highly incomplete survey. The data’s mostly from the Britannica and the link covers only a few bits of it. I could turn the whole post blue with Britannica links but one will get you into the general vicinity. You can to explore from there if you want it all.

The furlong started out as the length of a plowed furrow–a distance that would have varied from place to place and field to field. 

The rod varied from nine to twenty-eight feet and was sometimes called a perch or a pole.

An acre was the area that a yoke of oxen pulling a wooden plow could plow in one day. Predictably enough, that varied too.

The foot was initially based on the human foot–which you may have noticed isn’t a standard size. That’s why they don’t make one-size-fits-all shoes.

The mile was based on a Roman measurement, the mille passus, which was a thousand paces as measured by your average Roman legionary, who by the Middle Ages wasn’t around to measure it anymore so they had to settle for your average English peasant. Or possibly your average English aristocrat, who would have been better fed and probably taller, with a longer stride.

And here we’ll abandon boldface type so I can rearrange my sentences a bit.

In 1500 (or thereabouts, since we’re using imprescise measures), the old London mile measured eight furlongs, or 5,000 feet. How big was a foot just then? Funny you should ask. They were using the Germanic foot, which was bigger than the foot England adopted a little later, under Elizabeth, which meant the mile changed to 5,280 feet.

I don’t know what went into the decision to change it. Maybe Liz had small feet.

The Irish mile was 6,720 feet and the Scottish mile was 5,952 feet.

Meanwhile, Cornwall was working with a whole different set of measurements. The mile was 16,694.32194 feet, or a bit over three of I’m not sure who else’s miles–probably the ones we use today. The Cornish bushel was three Winchester bushels, or 18 gallons, and used for barley, wheat, and potatoes.

The what bushel? The Winchester bushel was a royal standard, named after the capital of tenth-century England, where Edgar the Peaceable kept a royal bushel to measure other bushels against. It sounds like something out of a fairy tale: If your bushel was too small, you’d have to find your way out of a subterranean labyrinth with only a potato to guide you –and the potato hadn’t made it to England from the Americas yet.

Edgar is also notable for having divorced an Elfleda to marry an Elfrida.

Winchester is not in Cornwall and Cornwall was an independent country in Edgar’s time. The Winchester bushel is just a point of reference–a rare standard measurement in an unstandardized time.

The Cornish apple gallon was seven pounds, although a plain old gallon was ten pounds. The Cornish pound was eighteen ounces but that seems to have applied only if you were measuring butter.

The warp was four fish. The burn was twenty-one fish. The mease was five hundred and five herrings. A knight’s fee was four Cornish acres.

Let’s cross the Tamar–that’s the river that forms Cornwall’s border–before we get too dizzy to find our way.

In 1215, the Magna Carta called for standard measurements with the desperate-sounding phrase “let there be one measure.” It wasn’t one of its more effective clauses. No one was around to enforce it, and over the years various gestures were made in the direction of standardization. Let’s review a random few of them:

In the sixteenth century, the rod was defined as the length of the left feet of sixteen men lined up heel to toe as they emerged from church. That was easiest to measure on a Sunday unless you wanted to assemble and choreograph the crowd yourself.

No, I don’t know why it had to be the left feet. Or leaving a church. Do feet change size during church services? 

That was–I suppose we should have guessed this–meant as a way to memorize the length of the rod, not as a standard for it. I probably shouldn’t include it as a gesture toward standardization, but it’s too good to leave out.

In 1668, John Wilkins, a founder of the Royal Society, was still calling for standardized measurements and added that units should increase by a factor of ten and create some simple relationship between length and volume. He was accused of being a spy for the European Union and since it didn’t exist yet he was banished into the far future, where he went on to lead a pro-metric organization.

In 1707, England celebrated its union with Scotland by imposing the English measuring system on Scotland. If Scotland didn’t vote, then and there, to join the European Union, the Euro, and the metric system, it was only because none of them had been created yet. It’s one of those lost opportunities that history’s so full of.

But enough. Let’s talk about Imperial measures.

The British Imperial System was created by a law passed in 1824 and again in 1878, which may speak to the effectiveness of the first one. Anything before 1824 was an English unit, and anything after was an Imperial unit. The Imperial gallon now held the same amount whether it was full of wine, ale, wheat, or dog sick. The yard and the pound were standardized. The rod and the chaldron (you measured coal with that) were abolished. So was lining up heel to toe after church.

The system was eminently sensible: A pound weighed a pound. A stone weighed fourteen pounds. A hundredweight weighed a hundred and twelve pounds–and still does. Please don’t ask me to explain that.

The U.S., just to be difficult, adopted most of the same measurements but gave them different values, ensuring that no conversation would be understood the same way if the participants came from opposite sides of the Atlantic. This leaves us with not just a ton but a short ton and a long ton, a short hundredweight (which, unfathomably, weighs a hundred pound) and a long hundredweight.

But we’re not done with the Imperial System: It kept the troy pound (240 pennyweight) and the avoirdupois pound (16 ounces or 7,000 grains). And of course, apothecaries’ weights.

The troy pound is used for precious metals and jewels. Apothecaries’ weights are a version of troy weights but not quite the same. Because why should you have one pound when you can have three?

I could go on–grains, drams, scruples, gills, minims–but let’s stop.

The point is that any fool can memorize this between the morning’s first sip of tea and the second one, before the caffeine has even had time to kick in. It’s simple: You have 16 ounces to the pound, 16 drams to the ounce, and 27.344 grains to the dram.

Of course, that’s only for the avoirdupois pound. Troy pounds have 12 ounces to the pound, 20 pennyweight to the ounce, and 24 grains to the pennyweight.

We’ll leave apothecaries’ pounds alone. That’s where you get into scruples. I have a few of those left, but like all apothecaries’ measurements they’re very small.

Skip forward, then, to the twentieth century, when the metric system was sneaking into Britain by way of scientists and businesspeople. One group liked to have measurement-related conversations with colleagues from countries that already used the metric system and the other group exported to those countries. Both thought it’d be simpler if they could use a system any fool could understand. Assorted committees and politicians talked about introducing the metric system but then looked down the barrel of history, heritage, and the tabloid newspapers and lost their nerve.

Until 1965, when the government announced a ten-year program during which the country would shift over voluntarily. Goals were set. Measures were recalibrated. Change was encouraged. Eventually, Britain would shift to the metric system and everyone would be happy.

This wasn’t simple. You had hard metrication, where the size of standard objects changed. You had soft metrication, where the object stayed the same but was measured in a new language. And you had viagra metrication, where the user needed a bit of help to toggle between soft and hard metrication.

Service stations changed over more or less by accident. Petrol (or gas, if you speak American) pumps were built to switch between liters and gallons so they could continue working in gallons for the time being, but that only worked when the price was under £1.999 per gallon. Above that level, they spoke metric and only metric. So when the oil prices went up, the industry threw its hands in the air and asked to be switched over so they wouldn’t have to pay for new pumps.

Many things changed and some didn’t, and no one could have predicted which would fall on which side of the divide: Road distances and speeds are still measured in miles and yards. Land is measured in acres. In pubs, cider and beer on tap (or draught if you speak British) are still sold in imperial units, but wine, whiskey, rum, and all their friends and relations are sold in metric units. Which makes perfect sense to a country that invented the gill, the scruple, and the minim. 

And even though Britain still sells petrol (or gas) by the liter, it measures fuel efficiency in miles per gallon. 

British politics and trade became more deeply integrated into Europe and a deadline was set for Britain to go metric. But by 1979, metrication had stalled. Polls were taken and people didn’t seem happy. Britain asked for a later date for the shift to the metric system. Then it asked for a later date than that.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who was the not-happiest of all? Why, the retail industry was the not-happiest of all, and eventually the postponements came to an end. That’s when a group of market traders got themselves arrested for boycotting the metric system. They weighed their produce on scales that used only the Imperial System and posted their prices only in pounds and ounces. When they were arrested, they called themselves the Metric Martyrs, and they were convicted and lost their appeals all the way to the House of Lords (which didn’t want to hear about it) and the European Court of Human Rights, which didn’t think using the Imperial System was a human right.

The original court case considered precedent all the way back to the Magna Carta, so let’s dredge up the full quote from the M.C. instead of the shortened form I quoted earlier. In true micro-managing form, it said, “Let there be one measure for wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure for ale, and one measure for corn, namely ‘the London quarter’; and one width for cloths whether dyed, russet or halberget, namely two ells within the selvedges. Let it be the same with weights as with measures.”

An ell is a measure used only for cloth. Russet in this context isn’t a color, it’s a kind of cloth–one common people wore. No one knows quite what halberget is, which seems appropriate. Listing the various kinds of cloth gives me the impression that they not only didn’t measure distance the same way they measured cloth, they didn’t measure any two kinds of cloth the same way.

The defeat of the Metric Martyrs brought Britain fully into its current  ideal and semi-metric chaos.

Hats and the House of Commons

When did Members of Parliament stopped wearing hats in the House of Commons? someone asked recently.

The question wasn’t something I was expected to answer but a search engine question, meaning the person who asked isn’t likely to see the answer. Still, it intrigued me. So let’s hack it apart and see what we can learn:

The short answer is 1998.

The answer is also more complicated than that, and more fun. We’ll work more or less backward in time.

Irrelevant photo: I’m reasonably sure these are osteospermum. It sounds like a disease, but it’s not.

The reason 1998 comes up is that it’s a dividing line. Before then, anyone who wanted to raise a point of order during a division (which in the normal world would be called a vote) had to wear a top hat while they were talking. According to some sources, that was because it made them easier for the Speaker to spot. According to others, it was just because. Traditions are like that sometimes. It’s easy to lose track of why they were once done but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing them.

Two collapsible top hats were kept on hand so that they could be passed to whoever wanted to raise a point of order.

Yes, collapsible. For all I know, the point of order might have been invalid if the hat hadn’t been collapsible, although I have read that a women MP was issued a get-out-of-hat-free card: She got got to raise her point of order without putting the hat on her head. Maybe it didn’t work with her hair style. Maybe she (or the speaker, or the god of top hats) felt a top hat was inappropriate for a woman. Or for a lady. But that’s guesswork. If it was considered inappropriate for a lady, I just know I’d have worn the thing, and I like to think I could’ve pulled it off with a certain grand absurdist style. Fortunately–or possibly sadly–we’ll never find out so I can go on believing.

Then in 1998, the Modernisation Select Committee came along and ruined everything. Let me quote:

“In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television.'”

So no more games with top hats and TV cameras and Order Papers. But take heart. They didn’t spoil all the hat-related fun. Before each sitting of Parliament, the Speaker leads a procession from his or her office to the Commons chamber. This involves someone walking behind him or her carrying the train of her or his cloak (which is long enough to look like it was cut for some much taller species) and yet another person walking behind the train-carrier carrying fuck-all but looking very serious about it.

Apologies if the swearing offends anyone. All this ceremonial seriousness will rot your teeth if you don’t counteract it with a carefully calibrated dose of profanity.

Besides, I do swear. I have ever since I was first introduced to the words, which was some time before I understood what they meant. 

The two walkers-behind are–at least in the picture you’ll find if you follow the link a couple of paragraphs back–wearing frothy lace where you might otherwise find a tie. And no hats.

As they process through the members’ lobby, the police (because what’s a procession without police?) shout, “Speaker,” in case anyone hasn’t figured out that this is the Speaker. This allows everyone who isn’t the Speaker or the followers-behind to scuttle out of the way. Then (or possibly first–I have no idea what the route is), in the central lobby, the police inspector (because what’s a procession without a police inspector?) shouts, “Hats off, strangers,” and all the police take off their helmets. Because helmets are hats, sort of.

In the House of Commons, strangers are people who aren’t MPs–a.k.a. Members of Parliament. If any non-police non-MPs are around, they’re expected to take their hats off too. If they don’t, they’ll be turned into June bugs for the remainder of the day. 

Have you ever wondered how J.K. Rowling came up with all the convoluted traditions of the Harry Potter books? I’m not saying it was from Parliament in particular, just that the British culture sets a person’s mind working in certain odd ways.

Now, in the interest of making some marginal sense of all this, let’s slip back a bit further in time, to the days when gentlemen wore top hats or put order papers on their heads. And keep track of the gentle– part of the word gentlemen, because the whole point of a top hat was to prove you were the sort of man who could wear something that was as expensive as it was useless.

MPs were traditionally the sort of men who wore top hats.

So Commons had rules governing the hats. You could wear them inside the chamber but you couldn’t wear them as you were coming in or going out. Or when you were addressing the house. So you had to take your hat off to come in, then you might or might not put it on your head to sit down, but if you did you had to take it off to again stand up and speak, put it back on (if you chose to) to sit down, then take it off again to leave.

Which should be clear enough for anyone to follow.

A parliamentary guide to the traditions and customs of the House says:

“In the late nineteenth century,  the tall hat was de rigeur. It also served as a place reservation in the Chamber for its owner, the  thinking being that the wearer could not leave the Palace without it, and would therefore soon return.

“This system was defeated by some Members bringing two silk hats into the Palace (one Irish Member, it is said, once arrived with a cab full of hats) and so the present device of “prayer cards” was adopted.”

Prayer cards?

The House of Commons–can we agree, for convenience, to call it the H of C? Thanks. I feel comfortable enough to take off my top hat now. The H of C currently has 646 members but only 427 seats. Most days that’s not a problem. Turn on the news and you can often catch slight of MPs orating to a nearly empty expanse of green benches. (Green is the color of the H of C. It reminds them not to get above their station, because red is for the H of Lords.) But when some hot-ticket item is on the agenda, everyone wants to squeeze in and there isn’t room. As the BBC’s Democracy Live explains, “Behind each seat on the green benches is a small, brass frame into which MPs can place a card with their name.

“This card must be put in place before prayers take place each day and the MP must be in that seat during prayers.

“The seat is then reserved for that MP for the rest of the day.”

Now let’s go back to hats, because we need to keep our eyes on the important stuff.

Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s first parliamentary leader, from 1906 to 1908, scandalized many a gentle (in the class-bound sense of the word) soul by showing up in Parliament wearing a cloth cap, which was as much the symbol of the working man as the top hat was the sign of a gentleman. He also wore–oh the horror of it all–a tweed suit.

Hardie was the son of an unmarried servant who later married a carpenter, and he started work as a baker’s delivery boy at the age of eight. He was, for at least part of that time, the family’s only wage earner and he never went to school . By the time he was eleven, he was working as a coal miner. By seventeen, he had taught himself to read and write.

So, no. No top hat on Mr. Hardie’s head, thank you. He was very pointedly not a gentleman and he knew he’d get nothing done if he played by gentlemen’s rules. Not that they’d have accepted him as one anyway.

What he put on his head when he wanted to make a point of order during a division I have no idea. Maybe the question never came up.

Long before him, in the seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell created a flap when he appeared in the H of C wearing a plain cloth suit that was none too clean and none too well made, along with a hat with no hatband.

The funny thing about all this is that to the people who took this stuff seriously, this was serious stuff. A hat with no hatband? Was the man born in a barn?

Mentioning Cromwell lands us conveniently in the period that explains the H of C’s obsession with hats, or at least gives us a some context for it: The whole question of who was superior to who(m, if you like) was–I was going to say more rigid in the seventeenth century but let’s change that to less hidden than it is today. Who–and this is among men, because they colonized all the positions of power, making women irrelevant to the discussion–took his hat off and who kept it on was the kind of issue you could discuss seriously. And take serious offense at. Not to mention cause offense by. Taking your hat off to someone was an acknowledgement that the someone was further up the social hierarchy than you. Or in the terms of the day, was your better. So hats were a handy symbol for all sides and everyone could agree on what they meant.

If you were on the bottom of the ladder–say, a peasant–and didn’t have a hat to take off, you were expected to tug a bit of hair above your forehead to prove you knew your place. What you were supposed to do if you were bald is beyond me.

The H of C devoted considerable brain space to when one of its members should be hatless or hatted in meetings with the Lords–who were considered their social superiors.

MPs were expected to take their hats off to hear a message signed by the king, and ditto during the king’s speech. Which made it all the more pointed–and probably more fun–when some refused, which on occasion they did.

Take that, Kingy. I keep my hat on in the presence of your writing materials.

All this obsession with who takes their hat off to who filters down to us in the H of C’s conviction that it has to regulate hats.

Even without the metal hat that goes with the outfit, though, no one, and I mean no one, is or was allowed to wear armor in the H of C.

You’re welcome.

Medieval sexuality and the Catholic Church

What’s known about sexuality in medieval England is limited enough that I’m not going to mess with the rest of Britain. The picture’s already murky without asking extra figures to wander through the fog. And to complicate the picture, a few bits of information that I found seem to apply generally to Europe, although presumably also to England. 

I’ll focus on Christian England, since religion is central to the discussion, but not everyone in medieval England was Christian. In 1290, when the Jews were banished from England, 16,000 left (they were counted out automatically as they went through the turnstile), so let’s use 16,000 as a rough estimate of the size of the medieval Jewish community. They lived by their own rules, not the Catholic Church’s.

Muslims can first be spotted in England in the sixteenth century, so in the era we’re talking about they were sitting in the sun somewhere and not part of the picture we’re trying to make out in the fog.

Most of what’s known about medieval attitudes toward sex comes from–where else?–written sources: church writers, court records, and literature, all of which had their biases.

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms.

Source One, the Catholic Church, had bet its chips against sex. Or not quite against sex, since in its core document god tells his creations to go forth and multiply, and (spoiler alert) that involves sex. But they had bet, at least, against anyone having fun while doing what they’d been told to do.

Either all or many of the monks and priests who wrote about sex had taken vows of chastity, so at least in theory they had either no first-hand knowledge or only a distant memory to draw on. We can’t know how much their attitudes coincided with what people outside the church thought–or more to the point, did. We can know that they weren’t your average medieval person.

Did you notice how weaselly I was about monks and priests having taken vows of chastity? That’s because it’s hard to date set a date to when that was became an issue. You can find discussions of it in the eleventh century and also the fifth. And the ninth. And if I looked further, I’m sure I could find a few more centuries. Let’s just say that it took hold gradually and didn’t win without a fight.

Source Two, the courts–and there were both church and secular courts–only dealt with people who’d broken a restriction or had been accused of it, so there’s a bias built into the sample. But they leave a good record of–well, not necessarily of what people did, but at least of what someone thought they did. And what the authorities thought they shouldn’t be doing.

Source Three, literature, hadn’t caught the idea that it should reflect real life. A lot of it still hasn’t. I wouldn’t want to base a study of modern sexual practices on a quick troll through a bookstore and far less on a survey of movies.

But there’s a fourth source, medical books, and some were concerned only with the practicalities of medicine, not with the shoulds and shouldn’ts of people’s behavior, although others did a good bit of finger wagging and not all medical writers were good observers of the real world.

A major problem with all these sources is that peasants were illiterate. They not only didn’t read, they didn’t write, so they didn’t leave a record. Their lives went largely undocumented and what documentation we do have came from other people–literate people from the upper classes.

A fifth source is illustrations–tapestries and book illustrations–but they’re hard to interpret. The Bayeux tapestry shows a man with an erection running toward a woman. Is he threatening some random stranger? Is she glad to see him home? We don’t know how to interpret the image and we don’t know how someone of the time would have interpreted it.

We’ll work with what we’ve got. Don’t mistake any of it for the definitive truth.

The going assumption was that women were either either chaste or sexually ravenous–the old virgin / whore thing, but more so. Women were thought of as sexually disruptive. I’ve seen the word predatory used, and men’s fear of women’s sexuality fueled their fear of witchcraft. Hell, a woman could turn a man on by looking at him, because the eye didn’t just take in, it sent out seeing-rays that affected what they saw. 

That last link is the only source I could find for that, but I think it’s legit.

So sex was a danger and the church dealt with it by restricting it–less so at the beginning of the medieval period and more so by the end. Keep that in mind, because I haven’t been able to date any of this.

According to church rules, you weren’t supposed to have sex either before you were married or outside of marriage, but even inside of marriage, you had to be careful. The only approved way to have sex was in the missionary position. Anything else might lead to a deformed child and was a sin anyway. (These restrictions also come from the link above and I haven’t been able to back them up with a second source.)

You also couldn’t have sex on a Sunday. Or a Thursday or Friday. Or during Lent. Or before Christmas. (So what do you want for Christmas, dear?) Or on assorted saints’ days and feast days.

Or during your lifetime or anyone else’s.

Having sex when a woman had her period would produce a child with epilepsy or (or possibly and) leprosy, according to one medical treatise.

In case you weren’t inclined to take all this seriously, a child could be considered a bastard if a couple conceived it when they shouldn’t have had sex. 

How would anyone know what they did in the privacy of their bedroom? Two ways.

Way one, confession was part of the culture. People told their sins to a priest–either all of them or enough to keep up appearances. So everyone had an informer built into their lives.

Did I say their lives? Into their very selves.

Way two, people didn’t have bedrooms. If they had any privacy at all, they didn’t have much. Entire families slept in one room, making sex something people were necessarily open about. 

Partway through the medieval period, the rich began building solars–separate rooms where they slept and could withdraw from the public mayhem of the hall. But even in the houses of the rich, everyone else slept in public spaces. (If you google solars, make sure you ask about the medieval kind, otherwise you’ll be sent weeks’ worth of ads for solar panels.)

One source I found speculates that empty churches might have functioned as the medieval equivalent of the back seat of a car. Two people who weren’t married would want a bit of privacy, not because sex was private but because sin was. Breaking the rules was. A person wanting to masturbate might also want a bit of privacy. And I’m willing to bet that anyone seen to be enjoying a bit of privacy for anything other than prayer and penitence was suspect. 

In all of this, keep in mind that marriage among the upper classes wasn’t about love or attraction, it was about land and money and power. If married people were tempted to look outside their marriages for a bit of joy, it was hardly surprising.

Masturbation was a sin, but no more so than a thousand other things. It was also a sin for a man to have sex with an effeminate man or with another man. (In the source where I found this, these seem to be separate categories, although I’m not sure how much weight to give that.) But homosexuality as we think of it not only wasn’t a sin, it wasn’t a concept. Their categories were different than ours, and their thought patterns were different than ours. The best I can do by way of explaining it to myself is to say that it wasn’t about who you were but what you did.

Rape wasn’t much of a concern for the courts or the church. The assumption was that men took what they wanted. But it would’ve been a concern to the person who was raped and, if it was a woman, to her family, since a family’s honor depended on its women’s sexual–ahem–purity. And among the upper classes, a girl or young woman’s virginity was worth money: finding her a good marriage depended on it, and marriage, I repeat, was a financial arrangement, not just for her but for her family. So her virginity was her family’s concern at least as much as it was hers. That meant the sexual standards for women were stricter than for men. A man’s misbehavior dishonored only himself, and I’d at least consider the possibility that some misbehaviors didn’t dishonor him for long.

Prostitution was a sin but at the same time it was tolerated, and even considered necessary–so much so that brothels were often publicly owned. Yes indeedy, kids, it takes some work to bend our modern minds into the medieval mindset. In court cases where a man was claimed to be impotent–impotence being one of the few reasons a marriage could be dissolved–a prostitute might be brought in to a test the claim. If he wasn’t interested, it would’ve been hard for him to claim he was.

Presumably, if he wasn’t interested in one woman, he was assumed not to be interested in any.  

Although the clothes prostitutes wore marked them as prostitutes, they weren’t necessarily shunned by lower-class communities. Some women worked as part-time prostitutes, adding their earnings to whatever other income they had. The ways a single woman–whether she was unmarried, widowed, or abandoned–could make a living were limited and people did what they had to.

So on the one hand sex was highly restricted and on the other hand people were very open about it. Metal badges–the kind pilgrims brought back from holy sites–have been found with images of flying penises on them. What did they mean? It’s hard to know. Maybe people liked flying penises. Maybe the badges were supposed to restore a man’s ability to make his own penis feel like it was flying. It’s all guesswork after this many years. It seems like a safe bet, though, that a flying penis wasn’t considered offensive. 

Early in the middle ages, couples didn’t have to be married by a priest and marriages didn’t have to be recorded. In villages, I I doubt there’d have been much question about who was married to who–everyone knew everyone else’s story for generations back–but in less cohesive communities that could get messy and courts occasionally saw couples, or non-couples, or semi-couples, where A claimed to be married to B but B claimed not to be married to A.

Medicine, in the absence of anything approaching science, ranged from imaginative to hallucinatory. One writer claimed that if a woman ate sage that a cat had ejaculated on, she’d have kittens.

Don’t try this at home, kids. It might work and you’ll have a hell of a time explaining it to your family and friends and neighbors.

Some medical writers considered sex necessary to balance the humors, and everyone agreed that good health depended on balanced humors. They considered masturbation–or at least wet dreams–inevitable. Some even recommended it to celibate people. Galen (pre-medieval, but much admired in the period) suggested that physicians or midwives could “’place hot poultices on the . . . genitals’ of a celibate woman and ‘cause [her] to experience orgasm, which would release the retained seed.’“

What was in the poultices? Fairy dust, and if I can get a supply, I’m going into business.

So orgasm was okay but it was for medicinal purposes only. If you enjoyed it too much, that would be voluptuousness, and the church said voluptuousness was bad.

Since female virginity mattered so much, some medical writings listed ways to figure out if a woman was a virgin, including “observing a woman’s behavior, urine inspection, and sometimes actual intercourse. Other texts offer not only the tests, but also ways to restore a woman’s virginity.”  

And if that sounds bizarre–and it does–all you have to do is google secondary virginity to find that the idea of restoring virginity is still with us. Some fundamentalist Christians call it born-again virginity or second-generation virginity. You can even get re-hymenized. 

Assuming, of course, that you’re not male.

A quick history of British slang: how to keep the outsiders out

British cops and courts are–no surprise here–having a hard time keeping up with urban slang, which changes fast enough to baffle the people it’s meant to baffle. And cops and courts are, predictably, high on the list of baffle-targets.

So who do they turn to? A linguist who’s compiled a dictionary of what academics call MLE, or multi-ethnic London English, which has jumped the M-25 (that’s a highway that encircles London) and spread to the rest of the country.

The linguist, Tony Thorne, describes himself as an elderly white guy–by age and profession, an outsider–and despite saying that there are gaps in his knowledge he’s on a list of translators hired by the courts. The other people on the list translate from and to languages like, say, Polish or Hindi. He translates from MLE, and he’s done it for defense lawyers, prosecutors, and police.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: a camellia.

Thorne said, “I am trying to help by defending kids who are wrongly accused by their language and go after the people who have committed violent crimes.”

What he does is translate lyrics, messages, and that sort of thing. What he doesn’t do is sit between two people telling each one what the other one said.

MLE mixes (and here I’m quoting not Thorne but the article where I learned about him) “white working-class English with patois, largely from black Caribbean dialect, but with some Arabic and Polish.”

MLE, Thorne said, “has a social and cultural power and is evolving in a way most slangs aren’t. It points up the real diversity of Britain and it is not ghettoised ethnicity. The theorists call it super-diversity.”

To translate that (I can, if highly motivated, which I’m usually not, translate from academese), it’s alive and changing and it’s used by people from a mix of ethnic backgrounds.

Like many–maybe all–slangs, the purpose of MLE is to keep the authorities out while the insiders communicate with each other. Changing quickly keeps the boundaries between the two groups relatively solid.

That follows a rich tradition. Cockney rhyming slang developed an inspired system of keeping the boundaries solid. It rhymes a word–say, feet–with a phrase: platters of meat. Then (most of the time) it drops the rhyming half of the phrase, leaving just platters. If you don’t know what it means, you don’t have a hope in hell of figuring it out.  The Oxford English Dictionary  says it was developed by street traders, beggars, and petty criminals in the first half of the nineteenth century. The website Cockney Rhyming Slang sticks with the more respectable people on the list, mentioning the street traders and leaving everyone else out. Take your pick.

Bits of Cockney rhyming slang have been swept into the more general language and are still in use, so that a neighbor greeted me one winter morning by saying, “It’s parky,” which comes from parky in the mould–cold.

Predictably (and probably satisfyingly) enough, I said, “It’s what?”

Another slang, Polari, was used from the eighteenth century to the 1970s. It was made up of Italian, Occitan, French, Romany, Yiddish, rhyming slang, backslang (where you pronounce words as if they were spelled backwards), and possibly a few other bits and pieces.

It started in pubs near the London docks and was picked up by sailors in the merchant fleet. From the 1930s to the 1970s, it was used primarily in gay pubs, on merchant ships, and in the theater, and if you think that’s an odd mix of people and places, you don’t know your gay history. It was also used by lesbians, circus people, and prostitutes. And–well, different sources will add different groups to the list, but you get the drift.  Marginalized people. People who had reasons to want to talk to each other openly and secretly, both at the same time.

Polari began to die out after homosexuality was partially (and later fully) decriminalized, which is also when gay liberation began championing openness. It wasn’t needed anymore.

An older slang, thieves’ cant, may date back to the 1530s and was used by criminals. Or criminals, beggars, and Gypsies. Or–well, somebody. Outsiders forming an in-group that keeps respectable people out. It all gets a little hazy, though, because the only record we have comes from the kind of respectable people who wrote stuff down and whose writings got preserved. In other words, what we know about  it is second hand and comes from writers who looked down on cant speakers. And were fascinated by them. And may or may not have known what they were talking about.

Enough respectable people were fascinated that canting dictionaries were popular. The language made its way into literature and plays. But a WikiWhatsia entry raises the question of how well the written version of the language matched the language used on the street.

“A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by Gypsies, thieves and beggars. He also said that each of these used distinct vocabularies, which overlapped; the Gypsies having a cant word for everything, and the beggars using a lower style than the thieves.”

It’s a lost bit of history that we can’t reconstruct, but we can know, at least, that it was there. It’s a bit like archeology. You find these bits and pieces. You can make educated guesses, but the world that made them is gone. You can’t be sure you’re right.

How King John (and others) signed a document

In 2015, the Royal Mint released a two-pound coin commemorating the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. It showed King John on a throne, holding a scroll, presumably the Magna Carta but possibly his wife’s birthday card, in one hand and a quill in the other, making a see-what-I’ve-got gesture. It looks like he’s just used the quill to sign the scroll or is just about to.

On either side of him are men, one looking warlike, the other (for lack of a better suggestion) scribelike. Or at least armorless. They have nothing to do with the discussion, but I thought I’d mention them since the artist thought they were worth including.

Irrelevant photo: Sunset from the cliffs near Tintagel.

The coin kicked off a small storm among the limited group of people who care about these things. King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta with a quill, they said. He didn’t sign it at all. What he did was put his seal to it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Royal Mint said (in not so many words), but the picture wasn’t meant to give a “literal account of what actually occurred.”

So, count that as a success, then, because it’s not a literal account. No geese were harmed in the signing of the Magna Carta. It was signed with John’s Great Seal.

Why add the quill then? Because no modern person slotting the coin into a machine to pay for overpriced hospital parking would recognize a seal, but we all know that a quill’s an era-appropriate version of the pen. Plus the seal would be too small to show in the picture anyway. John’s Great Seal wasn’t all that great, no matter what he said when he chatted up women (or men–I wouldn’t know) in the era-appropriate equivalent of the bar.

Not that the modern person slotting the coin into etc. looks at the picture. She or he is too busy looking at the amount of money that privatized hospital parking costs these days. Still, artists like to think their work gets noticed. Why else do people post things on the internet? We suffer from the delusion that someone will notice. And care.

But back to our point: quill, not seal.

As it turns out, the Great Seal wasn’t even affixed by John’s own dainty hands. He had officials who did that for him and they wouldn’t have done it at the time the Magna Carta was agreed. When John and his barons met, they’d have made a verbal agreement, and and it would have been written down later and authenticated by pressing John’s seal into wax. The sealing wouldn’t have been any sort of occasion. 

The pressing of a seal into wax, in case it isn’t obvious, is the origin of the phrase sealing wax. And just for the record, there’s no such thing as ceiling wax, even though floor wax is real.  

How did anyone get an accurate record of the agreement John and the barons came to? Good question. Probably from a scribe or two making notes, but that’s a guess. In the case of the Magna C., it didn’t matter if they got the details right because neither side meant to abide by it. In other cases, though, I can imagine all sorts of disasters getting written into key documents.

That probably says more about my notes than it does about medieval scribes.

But let’s talk about seals and signing. We have nothing better to do with ourselves and it will keep us from hanging out on the street corner.

The first Great Seal in England comes from the reign of Edward the Confessor, the (sort of) last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, who died in 1066. He’s the guy whose death set off a scramble for the throne that ended in William the Conqueror seizing and holding it. The seal carried Edward’s picture and was intended to show that he stood behind whatever document it was pressed into.

When Billy the Conqueror became king, he had his own seal made, with his own picture on it. And so on, with a few exceptions, down through the line of kings.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word signing was first used–or first recorded, anyway–by John’s son Henry III: “sened wiþ vre seel,” which translates to “signed with our seal.”

Not that you needed a translation–you can’t get much clearer than sened wiþ vre seel–but someone out there might be a bit dense.

By the twelfth century, documents were being not just stamped with wax and a seal but closed with them. If you wanted to read them, you had to either break the seal or be sly enough to lift it and put if back down without damaging it.

As the role of government grew, monarchs adopted a Private Seal (which they capitalized because it was Important) for their own use, leaving the Great Seal in the hands of the government, so it could stamp monarchical authority onto papers without monarchical hands (or quite possibly thoughts) ever being involved. 

If a document’s important enough, it still gets a seal. In the U.K., it get the Great Seal of the Realm, which is not to be confused with a very large creature the British throw fish to. It’s a stamp to press into wax.

That may sound hopelessly quaint and British, but other countries have their own seals, including the U.S. That doesn’t make the process any less quaint, but it’s multiculturally quaint. In the U.S., at least, certain papers have to be notarized–certified by a person who will go through the motions of ensuring that the person signing them is actually that person–and the notary will use a seal, either a rubber stamp or a gizmo that leaves a much more impressive imprint on the paper. Britain also has notaries, but they have a different role and you don’t need to know about it.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to that quote about signing with a seal. It tells us that signing didn’t yet mean scrawling ink across an era-appropriate version of paper. The verb to sign comes from Latin by way of Old French by way of Oh Never Mind, and it meant to mark. Or any one of several related acts, including to mark with a sign. The idea that a signature is a person’s name written by her or his own self came later, in the sixteenth century. Before that, what we’d call a signature was called a sign-manual. In other words, the seal was what you’d expect. A signature would do, but it was a different act–related, but not the expected one.

Signatures were common in the Jewish community as early as the second century C.E. and among Muslims in 622. In Europe, they began to be used in the sixth century but became common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when increased literacy meant that written agreements became more common and developing an intricate, illegible signature became a sign of–well, something. A good education. Style. Couth.

The tradition of an illiterate person signing a document with an X may have come from the ninth and tenth century scribes who validated documents with the sign of the cross.

In the seventeenth century, the Statute of Frauds required contracts to be written, dated, and signed–with signatures. And that pretty well sealed it: Signatures were on their way to becoming primary.

The Crimean War: Europe sits down at a wobbly table

The problem with  history is that everything depends on everything else. The 1800s depend on the 1600s, which depend on–oh, hell, my math is terrible–whatever came before them, and so on until you fall off the edge of history and find you’ve been dumped in archeology and geology and anything else that might fill in a few blanks.

And it doesn’t just work backwards. It works sideways. British history depends on Irish history, on Kenyan history, on U.S. history, on Maori history, on French history, and on every other history you can think of. But I’ve been writing about British history here as if we could separate it from everyone else’s. We can’t, and at the same time if we don’t it’ll all get so convoluted that we–or at least I–will end up curled in the corner and gibbering to myself.

Still, let’s pick up a bit of European history, since somewhere along the line we lost track of it. Which bit? The Crimean War, where Britain and bits of Europe collided conveniently. It’s improbable enough to be a nice fit here.

Marginally relevant photo: Re-enactors, out for an evening’s practice. Whatever battle they were re-enacting took place well before the Crimean War. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the guy carrying two genuine Dark Age (I’m guessing at the era) plastic bags. but two bags of whatever for eight people means these folks were better supplied than the soldiers who fought in Crimea.

We’re looking at a moment when Victoria was on the throne. Britain had an empire and was feeling very pleased with itself, thanks. The only problem was that other European countries were out there maneuvering for–well, stuff. Power. Colonies. Raw materials. Markets. Empire, in fact, because running an empire’s a lucrative business. They wanted the same kind of stuff that Britain had, or even the exact same stuff that Britain wanted to keep to itself. Or if possible, get more of.

Europe had already fought a series of wars. One group of countries would fight some other group of countries and a bunch of people would die for, oh, you know, glory and marching tunes and shiny buttons on their uniforms, and then all the countries would get together and sign a treaty and got things settled down into a delicate balance of power for a while.

Until some heavy-elbowed country leaned on the table and all the drinks spilled because one leg was always shorter than the other three, so everyone started fighting again.

The trouble started this time when France and Russia decided they had to defend the rights of Christian minorities in Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Which was Muslim.

Russia took the side of the Orthodox believers and France of the Catholic. Then France got bored but Russia didn’t and in 1853, it marched into a bit of Ottoman territory, the Danubian Principalities, and the Empire Struck Back, declaring war.

At this point we’d probably be safe to forget about the Christian minorities in Palestine, because they weren’t the point anymore–if they ever had been–and taking a different bit of Ottoman territory wasn’t going to do them any good. This wasn’t entirely–or even mostly, or possibly at all–about religion or the people who believed in the various religions. Russia looked at the Ottoman Empire, which had been around for a long time and was past its peak, and thought, Yum, I could have part of that. And Britain and France looked at the Ottoman Empire and thought, Oh, shit, if Russia gets part of that, it’ll control the Dardanelles, which is the passage from the Black Sea (and just incidentally the site of Russia’s only warm water port) to the Mediterranean.

Think of the Ottoman Empire as the cork for the bottle where Russia’s fleet was moored.

Russia did have northern ports, but the thing about the north is that it’s cold up there. Russia’s northern ports iced over all winter. That’s a problem for ships, which are designed for water.

So Britain wanted to keep the Ottoman cork on hand to bottle up Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Plus the Ottoman Empire was a good trading partner. It exported raw materials to Britain and imported manufactured goods from Britain, which was just the kind of relationship Britain had gotten rich on. Or one of the kinds, but let’s keep this simple.

In case that wasn’t enough by way of reasons, if Russia expanded in an Ottoman-ward direction, it could hippity hop through Afghanistan–which we all know is hospitable to invaders–and into British India. Which would not be good for Britain.

So when Russia seized Ottoman territory and the Ottomans declared war, Britain and France came in on the Ottoman side. Before long, Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia were all fighting Russia and everyone was cranking up a patriotic frenzy at home.

France and Sardinia had their own reasons. Never mind them. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

The allied plan was to seize the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, on the (you knew this word would come up eventually) Crimean Peninsula, and be home in three months–long before the good folks there ran out of frenzy.

You know how that sort of prediction works out.

After a glorious first battle, the attack bogged down and the allies laid siege to Sevastopol. On two sides. Or possibly on one side. It depends where you want to draw the line between one and two, since they weren’t working with a square. The allies were to the south. That meant the Russians could come and go from the north and east.

Why couldn’t the Russians come and go from the west? It’s a good question. I’ve looked at maps of the siege and I’m prepared to testify that west was present throughout and located roughly where it is to this very day. Never mind. We don’t do military detail here. What matters is that this was a leaky siege, and even someone who knows nothing more about military strategy than how to spell it–and I offer myself as an excellent example of the species–could have told the allies they’d built a problem into the plan.

So everything bogged down and eventually the Battle of Balaclava took place, which included the Charge of the Light Brigade–a maneuver so disastrous that it’s celebrated in national memory and was awarded capital letters and a Tennyson poem full of thumping repetition and lead-footed rhymes glorifying if not exactly the charge’s stupidity, at least the soldiers’ suicidal obedience:  

Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.

What happened was that the Light Brigade was given an ambiguous order, did what they may or may not have been meant to do even though it was clearly nuts, and got shot at from both sides of a valley as they charged through it. In twenty minutes, forty percent were killed or wounded.

The Russians declared the battle a victory because they’d killed a lot of people and gained positions that seemed to matter. The British claimed a moral victory because they were so damn brave.

Tennyson also wrote a poem about the Heavy Brigade–the Light Brigade’s big brother. It was a flop and their more successful battle is mostly forgotten. I mention that in part because when I was a kid I thought the Light Brigade carried torches. So everybody could see their way, I guess. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but mine not to reason why. I couldn’t quite put a question together. 

So what, other than the fact that it happened and that I wanted to write about something in the nineteenth century, makes the Crimean War worth spending time on?

First, the telegraph was up and running, making it was the first war to receive on-the-spot coverage, notably from W.H. Russell, writing for the Times. At an early stage of the war, he wrote, “The French, though they had tents, had no cavalry; the Turks had neither cavalry nor food; the British had cavalry, but they had neither tents nor transport, nor ambulances nor litters.”

The Turks, by the way, were the Ottomans. You can call them either one and be reasonably right.  

The allies’ planning was stunningly bad. What they did have in plentiful supply was contaminated water. The causes of cholera weren’t yet known for certain, but the planners created perfect conditions for it. Disease–not just cholera, but a basketful of them plus badly treated or untreated wounds and malnutrition–killed four times as many soldiers as battle wounds did. Or ten times. It depends–as it often does–on who you ask, and probably which army or armies they’re counting. Four may be the more reliable number, since it comes up more often. Either way, though, many more soldiers died of illness than in battle.

Russell’s reports, along with the sketches of William Simpson, dragged the brutal reality–as opposed to the patriotic glory–of the war into the news, which pissed off Prince Albert, who didn’t think the general public should be in on this sort of thing. They also brought down a government. 

This is not unconnected to the second reason the war’s worth our time: The government got desperate enough about the public uproar to send women to the Crimea as nurses. The situation they found was beyond grim. In the hospitals, soldiers lay on bare floors and got no more than one meal a day–which is to say, there would have been times when they got less than one. Some were left to die with no medical attention and no painkillers. Others had their wounds bandaged once and were then put aside and forgotten. Sanitation was nonexistent. So were toilets.  

Into this mess waded the celebrated Florence Nightingale, the nurses under her leadership, and the until recently widely forgotten Mary Seacole, bringing order, compassion, medical treatment, and food–not to mention basic sanitation.

They were anything but welcome. The doctors wanted no part of Nightingale and her nurses. Sent by the government or not, they were women, for the love of Mike. What did women know? This was a place for men by men who were out there being men. And if there’s one thing men don’t need it’s sanitation and being fussed over. 

And Seacole? She wasn’t just a woman, she was a black woman. She’d had to pay her own way to the Crimea, because the British government refused to send her, and once she got there she had to elbow her way into a position where she could do essentially the same work as Nightingale but separately, since the sainted Flo didn’t welcome her help either.

Yeah, life’s an ironic s.o.b.

Their lasting legacy was the professionalization of nursing and the introduction of basic sanitation to hospitals.

And the legacy of the war? In 1855, the Russians abandoned Sevastopol. Eventually everyone negotiated yet another treaty and went home. But the table still had one short leg. The countries of Europe (which included Britain, even then) still had heavy elbows. 

World War I spilled even more drinks. And more blood. And prepared the ground for facism and World War II.

Don’t you just love history? It makes a person feel so optimistic.

A quick history of the Royal Mail

People in England have been able to send each other letters since 1635, but the Royal Mail traces its ancestry back further than that, to 1516, when Henry VIII made Brian Tuke Master of the Posts.

Actually, Tuke wasn’t just made Master of the Posts, he was knighted Master of the Posts, which makes it all sound much more important, as if he got to trot around on a white horse, wearing armor.

What Tuke really got to do was set up a network that carried mail for the king and the court and not for nobody else, thanks. What did anybody else matter? If Joe Commoner wanted to tell his granny that he wished she was wherever he was, he’d have to wait more than a hundred years, by which time the message would have been pretty much irrelevant. On top of which, postcards still wouldn’t have been invented. The first one was made in 1861, in Philadelphia, which also hadn’t been invented.

But back to the Royal Mail. In case the restless marrying habits of this particular Henry haven’t engraved him in your memory, he was the son of Henry VII, who became king by defeating not just Richard III (that’s the king Shakespeare didn’t like) but also Richard’s horse and Richard’s horse’s shoe at Bosworth Field, thereby condemning Richard to be buried in a parking lot and putting his–that’s Henry’s–son in a position to send letters around the country in an organized way.

To the victor’s son go the letters. And from the victor’s son come the letters.

Irrelevant and beautiful light painting, “Light Dance,” by Nassima. Used with the artist’s permission and my thanks. You’ll find more of her work by following the link.

That bit of background was as irrelevant as the light painting, but I thought I’d toss it in anyway. And if the references are too culture-bound for outsiders to follow, they’ll stop now, so you can read on safely.

When James VI, the king of Scotland, became James I of England as well, one of his concerns was to keep control of Scotland once he’d moved himself and his court to London. Scotland was a long way from London. There was no telling what his nobles would get up to while he was gone. So one of the first things he did was to set up a royal postal route between London and Edinburgh.

The postal service was opened to the public in 1635 by Charles I, who gets bad press on for a lot of reasons (high handedness, suspicions that he was, gasp, Catholic, conflicts with parliament, a political tin ear, a goatee) so we might as well drop this feather on the positive side of the scales. You’ll probably have figured this out, but he accomplished it well before he was executed.

The deal was that you could mail a letter for free but there was–as there always is–a catch: The person you sent it to had to pay for it. If they didn’t pay, they didn’t get the letter. The cost depended on how far the letter had traveled, so an account had to be kept for each letter.

But junk mail hadn’t been invented and getting a letter was an event, so if someone wrote to you, it meant something. If you had the cash, you’d think twice or thrice, or even fource (no, it’s not a word–after thrice the English language hurls itself on the floor and goes into spasms of regret) before you turned one away.

The letters were carried on horseback and on foot, and the service had six routes, with posts along the way where the person carrying the letters would leave anything for the area and pick up anything that was headed their way. Exactly what happened to the letters once they were left at the posts I haven’t been able to find out. It’s one thing to keep enough footpower to deliver the king and court’s letters anywhere in the kingdom. It’s a whole ‘nother gig to assemble the footpower to make the entire kingdom’s letters deliverable. Even at a time when most people couldn’t write and damn few could afford to pay for a letter that found its way to their door.

The information’s probably out there somewhere but I haven’t figured out the question that will lead me to it. If anyone wants to give me a shove in the right direction, I’d be grateful–for whatever use that is.

Thomas Witherings ran the service at this point and he was charged with making sure a letter could reach Edinburgh and come back to London in six days. He was to build six “Great Roads.”

During the Civil War, Parliament took the service away from him and gave it to Edmund Prideaux, whose politics were a better fit for the time. In other words, Ed wasn’t a royalist. What he was was the second son of a baronet.

What’s a baronet? The lowest rank of British hereditary nobility. They’re (oh, the shame of it) commoners but can use the title sir.

Remember that. I’m sure you’ll find it useful as you wander through life. 

You’d think overthrowing a king would involve dumping the entire tradition of hereditary nobility, but you’d be wrong.

Edmund expanded the service, increased its efficiency, and faced down an assortment of competing carriers that left him stamping his metaphorical feet and complaining to parliament.

In 1653, the contract went to someone else, but Ed had made a tidy piece of change by then and Cromwell made him a baronet, just like his daddy and big brother, for “his voluntary offer for the mainteyning of thirty foot-souldiers in his highnes army in Ireland.” 

You might want to notice that by then Cromwell called himself “his highnes” there. And that he didn’t use apostrophes. Or that whoever wrote that for him did and didn’t.

In 1655, the postal service was put under the direct control of the secretary of state, who was Cromwell’s spymaster, John Thurloe, and he was sweet and helpful enough to deliver letters between conspirators, having made sure to read them first. Before that, the tradition was to keep conspirators from communicating at all–or at least that was the aspiration.

Then in 1660, when Charles II was on the throne, the General Post Office was set up. It was publicly owned. A year later, the post mark was established, showing the place and date a letter was mailed and–okay, it all gets a bit boring after that. In 1771, the service covered England, Scotland, and Wales. It took another century before Ireland was added.

No comment needed.

We’ll skip the years here to keep from drowning in trivia. Coaches were used. The name Royal Mail was used. Uniforms were introduced, and railroads and steam ships. Mail reached throughout the empire and the commonwealth for the first time.

It was 1839 before the sender paid for the letter instead of the recipient. Standard rates were introduced, and in 1840 so was the first adhesive stamp, the penny black. Britain was the first country to introduce a stamp that would stick to paper and is still the only country that doesn’t bother to put its name on its stamps.

The guy who invented the adhesive stamp was knighted. He got to trot around on a white horse and wear armor but was far too understated to do either. As far as I know.

With the penny post, the number of people using the system grew massively.

More trivia: Pillar boxes were introduced (they’re round, freestanding, iconic mailboxes used throughout Britain), but the first ones were green, not red. Wall boxes came later. Those are post boxes but they’re set into walls. Both types have the initials of whoever was on the throne when they were set in place, and people collect them.

What does it mean to collect a box when you can’t pick up and walk away with it? It means you go see it. Maybe you take a picture of it. You know where it is. You feel a personal connection with it–maybe even friendship and communion. Where I come from (the U.S.), one mailbox is just like another mailbox, but people can be very possessive about the British ones. A post box was taken out of our village (long story) and people actually know where it went (to Wales, where it’s in storage). They’re not interchangeable Lego pieces. They’re individual. They have personalities. I don’t know whose initials are on it, but I’ll bet you someone in the village does.

After that, you have to be more and more of a postal geek to care about the milestones. Parcel deliveries were added. Postcodes were introduced. That was gradual and started in 1959. They allow for machine sorting. It’s not until 1968 that first and second class service was introduced. The theory is that second class mail can be thrown under the counter in a crisis while first class is waved through, but I’m told there isn’t much difference in how long it takes them to arrive.

Then in 2011, the whole mess was ninety percent privatized.

*

What was it like to send a message during the Middle Ages–and I’d assume for a while afterward, before the Royal Mail was opened to all users? According to the Short History website, “During the Middle Ages, towns, universities, monasteries and trading companies all had their own messengers, some of whom were protected by royal decree. The Papacy had its own courier system, in order to keep in touch with its clergy and churches across Europe. Bishops were required to send regular messages through to Rome, and in return, received papal messengers from Rome. Only the wealthiest individuals and organizations could afford private courier systems, because of the need for horses, accommodation and travel expenses. This meant that messengers often worked on a ‘freelance’ basis, taking messages from several different sources and competing with other messengers to be the first to deliver important news.

“During particularly sensitive times, such as war, messages were often sent in coded form, or hidden about the person of a messenger who would adopt an innocent disguise, such as that of a pilgrim. Information could be hidden in clothing, a walking staff or even a person’s shoes. Envoys were often required to carry valuable gifts to present to the recipient of their message, and such items again had to be hidden during the journey. Gifts had to be selected carefully, to make sure that they were suitable for the recipient’s rank and status and the messenger would also be presented with gifts to take home on his return journey.”

I don’t know how authoritative that is. It sounds convincing, but I’ll leave it to you to judge.

Medieval messages would often not be written down–most people were illiterate–but messages that were written would have been sealed, and many would have been sent with a passing merchant or pilgrim. The most important ones, from people with money (who are always more important than people without money, she said cynically), would have been sent with a messenger.

No one had addresses, and people didn’t necessarily stay where they were expected to. Monarchs especially traveled. They had multiple palaces. They went on progress, forcing their nobles to feed and water (or more accurately, alcohol) the entire damn court. They went off to fight battles. Messengers had to scurry around looking for them.

Pigeons were also used, but this only worked if the message was going to what the pigeons considered home. You couldn’t whisper a name in a pigeon’s ear and expect it to search the person out.