Saffron in Britain: a quick history

People in fourteenth-century Europe were desperate to get their hands on saffron, which they used, among other things, as a medicine against the plague. Or they were if they could afford it, which most people couldn’t because it was wildly expensive, so let’s add “rich” before “people” in that sentence. It was expensive enough that pirates often preferred saffron to gold–it was worth more and easier to lift.

C’mon, even pirates can get bad backs.

 

How saffron got to England

According to legend, saffron got to England as an illegal immigrant, traveling inside a Crusader’s hollow staff. He picked it up, still according to legend, returning from the Middle East by way of Spain, and if you’re a fan of irony, you might enjoy knowing that it was  the Arabs–the people that hollow-staffed Crusader would’ve been fighting–who brought saffron to Spain so he could steal some.

Why did the Crusader (in a sanitized version of the tale,he was a pilgrim) have to smuggle it? Because he’d stolen it. Places that produced saffron wanted to prevent competition, so for example Basel (which admittedly wasn’t in Spain, even during the Crusades) made it illegal to take a corm out of the city and guards protected the plants when they were growing.

A rare relevant photo: The ones in the foreground are crocuses.

Was that true in Spain? Dunno. It’s a legend. Let’s slip that illegal corm into a pocket and move on before anyone notices the geographical switcheroo.

What’s all this corm business, though? 

Well, kiddies, saffron comes from the crocus plant–the Crocus stativus–which grows from a corm. And a corm is what you and I, in our ignorance, would probably call a bulb. The difference is that a corm is–oh, hell, it’s complicated. A corm is rounder than a bulb and it’s solid. That’s enough to let us pretend we know something. 

You can probably smuggle a corm inside a hollow staff if you don’t pound it around too much and if you just happen to have a hollow staff on hand, but whatever happened took place outside the range of the CCTV cameras, so we’ll never know for sure. 

A different version of saffron’s British history has it landing in Cornwall multiple centuries earlier, not necessarily as a corm but in the form of a spice that could be traded again and again for Cornish tin. As far back as three thousand years ago, Cornwall was trading with the Middle East, so it’s entirely possible that tin was traded for saffron, but the ice is getting thin here and we might want to scuttle back to shore before we break through.  

Before I dump a new subread on you, though, I should explain that the word sativus in Crocus sativus doesn’t mean the saffron crocus is related to Cannabis sativa. Sativa or sativus is Latin for cultivated, not for formerly illegal and still mind bending.

 

How to get from crocus to saffron 

So much for legend. What’s clear is that saffron arrived in England (and by this time Cornwall was part of England), and from the fourteenth century onwards it was an important commodity. It was used in dying, in cooking, and in medicines, and (sorry to repeat myself) it was and is incredibly expensive. These days, it’s the world’s most expensive spice. 

That’s not because it’s rare or hard to grow–make a crocus plant happy and it will spread all on its own–but because you only use a small part of it to make saffron. According to the Britannica“What we use . . . is actually the stigma (plural stigmata)—the pollen-germinating part—at the end of the red pistil, the female sex organ of the plant.” 

Harvesting those tiny little sex organs (try not to think about it; you’ll be happier) involves crawling along the ground and cutting a very low-growing flower, then throwing away most of it. Along the way, you have to separate the stigmata (each plant has three) and their stems (those are the pistils) and dry them. 

Do that with 75,000 plants (or 150,000, depending on your source) and you’ve got yourself a pound of saffron. In 2018, that pound sold for $5,000. 

The next most expensive spice, vanilla, sold for $600.

 

Could we get back to English history, please?

Fine. If we can agree that the stuff’s expensive, we’re ready to go back and look at it as a luxury item.

Starting in the fourteenth century, England became a major producer of saffron, and the chalky soil of Essex and south Cambridgeshire turned out to be well suited to it. Smallholders–people raising crops on small amounts of land–who’d once been subsistence farmers planted it as a cash crop, probably not replacing all the crops they lived on but as an addition. An acre planted in crocuses could bring in £6–a hefty amount of money at the time. Saffron became so important to the local economy that the town of Chipping (or Chepyng–they couldn’t spell for shit back then, but it  meant market) Walden changed its name to Saffron Walden.

According to the historian Rowland Parker, successful cultivation depended heavily on unpaid labor, which was a major part of the farm economy for a couple of the centuries we’re talking about. Serfs owed labor to their lords. Smallholders had families, preferably large ones. 

I relied on WikiWhatsia for that. I avoid it when I can, but I’m tired this week and can’t be bothered. My apologies to the world at large. In general, it’s as reliable as the grown-up encyclopedias, but when it fucks up it can do it spectacularly. And I did confirm a few bits, so the entry looks reliable, at least at the moment.

The Cambridge colleges used saffron heavily. Smallholders who rented land from them could pay their rent in it, and some of the colleges used it to pay their own bills, making it a kind of currency. 

But currency or not, academics also used it in food and as medicine. And they sprinkled it on floors and tossed it into their fires (talk about burning money) as a disinfectant. That was probably just a few academics–the richest ones, making a point of being the richest ones.

 

Nothing lasts forever, though, does it?

Change came in response to several things. As the spice trade grew, other offerings became available, and they weren’t only new and exciting, they were cheaper. The elite could spend their money on vanilla, tea, chocolate, and coffee. All of those were outrageous luxuries for a while.

Saffron? That was so last century.

Synthetic dyes also began to replace natural ones. And as the wage economy grew, people left the countryside and that pool of unpaid labor wasn’t around to dip a seasonal bucket into. Growers replaced saffron with the newly introduced crops: potatoes and corn. 

Corn? Sorry. I’m still basically American. The British call it maize, since they call pretty much any old grain corn

If that list of changes doesn’t sound like enough to explain saffron’s decline, consider the Puritans, who wandered in to disapprove of this saffron-burning culture of excess. They wanted their clothing plain, their food plain, and their fires unbothered by show-off gestures. 

Saffron cultivation and usage declined, but in Cornwall, saffron buns and saffron cakes are a long-standing tradition. 

How long-standing? The sources I’ve found hide behind some vague wording about them being traditional, which means they don’t have to commit themselves on how far back the tradition goes.

 

Saffron Buns

I haven’t posted a recipe in an age, but I do make a mean saffron bun–and if you don’t speak American, mean in this context is a good thing. In spite of my accent, they sell well at bake sales and the local farmer’s market.

Don’t be put off by what I said about the cost of saffron. You won’t be buying it by the pound. All you’ll need is a pinch. 

 

Ingredients

A large pinch of saffron

300 grams of bread flour (or whatever substitutes for that where you live)

65 grams of butter, softened

25 grams of sugar

1 tsp yeast (use fast acting–it’s easier)

90 grams currants (or raisins if need be)

45 grams of candied peel (I never do get around to adding this)

Milk (the recipe I started with calls for 120 milliliters, but I always need more)

 

What to do with the ingredients

Crush the saffron and soak it in just enough boiling water to cover it. Cut the butter into the flour. Mix in the sugar, salt, yeast, and fruit. Add the saffron, in its water, and enough milk to form a dough. Don’t let it get too wet, because the buns have to hold their shape. 

Knead it until it’s silky–about 10 minutes by hand, about 5 in a mixer. Cover and let it rise. How long will depend on the temperature of your kitchen, but if you have to punch it down and let it rise again, it’ll be fine. 

Cut into 8 pieces and form into rolls. Bake them on a cookie sheet–called a baking tray in Britain–and use greaseproof paper or baking parchment if you have it. Otherwise, oil the tray. 

Let them rise half an hour or so, until the dough has a little spring in it.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes at 170 C. (that’s 350 F., give or take a bit). To check if they’re done, turn one over and tap the bottom. It should sound vaguely drumlike.

Cool. Butter. Eat. Toast if that appeals to you.

Why Britain’s days off are called bank holidays

When Britain takes a day off work, it calls the day a bank holiday. England has eight of them, Scotland has nine, and Northern Ireland has ten. Or at least, that was the 2020 count. The queen can add one if the mood takes her, and she’s done exactly that for the 70th anniversary of her queenship. 

Why don’t we get a separate count of holidays for Wales and Cornwall? Because they’re still tucked under England’s wing, and every so often, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear a bit of uncomfortable squawking and rustling under there.

Entirely relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie (in slow mode). He doesn’t have to wait for a bank holiday to take a break.

What do banks have to do with not working? 

I’m so glad you asked. Bank holidays were introduced by the first Baron of Avebury, whose real name was John Lubbock. In 1871 he drafted the Bank Holiday Bill, which true to its name had a limited scope: It was about holidays for banks and financial buildings. 

Buildings? Let’s assume they mean institutions. Buildings go on being buildings even when they’re empty and the doors are locked.

Listen, I only write this shit. I’m not what you’d call responsible for it.

If Lubbock sounds like Santa Claus, handing out days off work, he wasn’t. Bank holidays started before he came along, although I’m not sure they were called that. The Bank of England, the Exchequer, and other public offices took days off for royal events, Christian holidays, and assorted saint’s days (which I’d have lumped into the Christian Holidays category, but see above for me not being responsible). Add them all up and you got around 40 of them. 

In 1830, that was cut back to 18, then cut to 4 in 1834. But a precedent had been established.

 

What did Lubbocks’s act really do?

Read the small print and you discover that the act wasn’t so much about creating holidays as it was about making sure that banks didn’t get penalized for shutting down on a weekday. Any financial wheeling and dealing was postponed till the next day. Bills and promissory notes that were due on bank holidays wouldn’t be due until the next day. But in the process, it standardized the days that were protected that way.

Now can I confuse the picture for a minute? Please? 

Having told you about the many holidays banks used to take, let me quote another source that acknowledges them but also says that before the act banks couldn’t close on a weekday because they’d have been risking bankruptcy. You figure out how to fit those two together. I’m lost.

Over time, shops, schools, other businesses, and the government itself started closing down on bank holidays, but everyone still calls them bank holidays. 

 

A bit of background

The industrial revolution–and the act came along in the middle of it–lent some oomph to the standardization of holidays. It was cheaper for a factory to shut down on a given day, or even for a given week, than to have people wander off wherever they wanted to. 

Not that they could’ve wandered off without getting fired, mind you. But even the great industrialists–those fine folks who kept both adults and children working eighteen-hour days for the most minimal pay–couldn’t keep them working 365 days a year. Among other things, holidays had a religious origin, and theirs was still a religious culture. 

Some things, even the industrialists couldn’t face down. Religious tradition was one of them.

 

Enough about the holidays. Let’s talk about Lubbock

Lubbock’s other claims to fame are that he was a science writer, a banker, and a politician. We can assume it was the collision of those last two claims that led him to think of standardizing bank holidays.

His science writing was more than just a rich man’s hobby. He published books on archeology, entomology, and animal intelligence, and it was in relation to that last subject that, as you’d expect from someone so sober and well connected, he tried to teach his poodle to read flash cards. The Britannica says his book “established him as a pioneer in the field of animal behavior.” 

You can go tell that to my dogs. In spite of his experiments, they remain woefully illiterate.

In his writing on archeology, he introduced the words Paleolithic and Neolithic to the world, and in the spirit of high-minded racism, he titled his book Pre-historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. It was “probably the most influential archeological textbook of the nineteenth century.”

I don’t suppose I need to comment on that.

Having already become a baronet when his father died, he was later made a peer and took the title Lord Avebury, after the stone circle near Stonehenge that he bought in order to protect it from builders.

Okay, he bought the land it stood on. They tossed the stones in for free.

It’s a hell of a stone circle. If you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by.

A note about that newsletter I claimed I was going to send

To those of you who were kind enough to sign up for my alleged newsletter, I have to report that there won’t be one. It’s a complete flop. Or I am. I had an extended wrestling match with MailerLite and although I didn’t break any equipment or murder anyone, I did threaten all of the above. Basically, all I was going to send was an announcement that my next novel was out, and I’ll do that right here, in this very spot, about a week from now. So you didn’t miss anything anyway. 

And to those of you who didn’t sign up, weren’t you clever? 

I don’t know why I thought setting up a newsletter was a good idea anyway. It’s something that the folks who seem to know things advise writers to do. I think the idea is that if you pop up in people’s inboxes, they won’t be able to get away from you until they’ve bought your book, but we all know that’s not true. They–or you, or we–can leave any time they/you/we want. 

Besides, here I am, popping up in your inbox anyway.

Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day: a short history

Britain’s Mothering Sunday looks like the sister holiday to the U.S. Mother’s Day, but its roots (no surprise here) go back further and–I was going to say it’s a stranger story, but they’re both strange. 

Let’s start with Britain’s holiday.

Mothering Sunday

This started out as a church event that some date back to the 16th century and others trace to full-on medieval times. It had nothing to do with honoring mothers. On the fourth Sunday of Lent (March 27 this year), people went to the main church or cathedral near where they lived, which was called their mother church and which had a special service that day. The rest of the year, they went to their nearest church–a daughter church. 

You’re right: Hierarchy was built into everything.

One theory of the tradition’s origins is that it grew out of a Bible passage that was assigned as the reading for that day. (Apparently, the Church had assigned readings for Sundays and holidays. Who knew?) It had to do with Jerusalem, “which is the mother of us all.” And since it’s all in the interpretation, you can get from there to the mother church in three easy steps. Or two if you’re good at the game.

Marginally relevant photo: spring flowers. Actually a little early for either Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday.

The day took on the air of a holiday. One source says domestic servants (that may exclude other categories of underpaid underlings) were given the day off to “go a-mothering” and also to visit their families. That might include their flesh-and-blood mothers, although since having children was a hazardous occupation you couldn’t take it for granted.

Another source doesn’t limit the day off to domestic servants but includes apprentices and reminds us that children as young as ten left home to work away. In this telling, as they walked the country lanes on their way home they picked a few wildflowers as a gift. 

It’s a sweet image and, I suspect, based more on guesswork than documentation. But that in itself is guesswork. Don’t take it too seriously. 

Another source (the link’s somewhere below–don’t bother me when I’m working, sweetheart) says the mother church tradition was medieval and the tradition of visiting family didn’t start until the 16th century–and it had a practical reason: The holiday fell during what was known as the hungry gap, when the winter’s stores were running low or used up and the fields and hedgerows didn’t offer much to eat. So servants and apprentices might go home bringing food or money. 

Let’s hope they had some to bring.

Cake

Since it’s a law that you can’t have a holiday without food (even the holidays where you fast put a big emphasis on what you eat when the fast ends), Mothering Sunday is associated with a cake, called Simnel cake, which for some reason gets a capital S. It’s a fruit cake with two layers of almond paste and eleven layers of religious symbolism.

How’d they get away with cake when it was Lent and people weren’t supposed to eat anything tasty or fun? 

Aha! They did it by reading the small print. The rules of Lent were relaxed for this one day, and so the day was also known as Refreshment Sunday. And that too was linked to a Bible verse, the one about Jesus feeding a multitude with bread and fish. Not with a fruit cake with two layers of marzipan, but it’s all in the interpretation.

The day was also called Mid-Lent Sunday, in case that’s on the test.

A break in the tradition

All of that–with the possible exception of the cake–went out of fashion in the 20th century.

Enter Constance Adelaide Smith, who kicked off a revival, starting with her 1921 book, written under the pseudonym C. Penswick Smith and subtly titled The Revival of Mothering Sunday.

She called for a holiday to honor  many forms of motherhood–the mother church, Mother Earth, mothers of children, the mother of Jesus, and–well, I’m sure she could’ve gone on. And did. The tradition  already existed, she argued, but needed official recognition to kick it into high gear.

She did not say “high gear.”

The medieval idea of motherhood as she saw it–at least according to one source–was rugged and diverse. 

Rugged? Well, the British LIbrary’s blog illustrates this point with a medieval painting of Mary handing off the baby Jesus to an angel (“Here, you, do something useful and hold the kid”) so she can sit on the devil and do a spot of wrestling. While wearing a pristine, floor-length skirt. To the modern eye, it’s an odd picture–especially the freeze-frame wrestling match–but I’ll admit to liking it.

Sort of. But only for its oddity.

Diverse? The medieval holiday wasn’t about honoring your own particular mother but motherhood in many forms. Or at least in one of the forms Smith included in her list: the mother church.

Smith herself had no children, which may be relevant here.

Yet another source, though, mentions that the medieval holiday wasn’t the uplifting event she imagined. Among other things, parishes were likely to get into brawls over who’d go first in the processions.

These things are always neater in hindsight.

Smith had another reason to go back to the medieval period. She’d been inspired by the U.S. creation of Mother’s Day (1914, since you asked) but didn’t want it to displace British traditions.

According to historian Cordelia Moyse, “A lot of people felt that industrialisation and urbanisation were destroying British culture and community.” So Smith took the medieval tradition, knocked off the mud and manure, polished it up a bit, and presented it as home grown, deeply rooted, and coming from a time of greater harmony, when people knew their neighbors and got into fights in church processions.

The idea caught fire at the end of World War I–according to one source because of the country’s many losses in the war. That doesn’t entirely make sense–it was young men who died in the war, not mothers–but grief’s a funny thing and will pour itself into any container it finds.

By 1938–or so it was said–Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and every country in the empire.

Mother’s Day

Now we shift to the United States, where we already know Mother’s Day became an official holiday in 1914.

How’d that happen? Well, kiddies, it started in the previous century (that’s the 19th; you’re welcome) in several smallish ways. Before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis helped start Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, which were to teach local women how to care for their children. Forgive the cynicism, but my guess is that local women had been bringing up children for generations–that’s why some were still available for Ann R. J. to teach–but never mind. I’m sure Ann R. J. knew how to do it better than they did.

Then in 1870, Julia Ward Howe (she wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and was a pacifist and abolitionist) wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which called for mothers to unite and promote world peace. In 1873, she called for a Mother’s Peace Day. 

Juliet Calhoun Blakely, a temperance activist, convinced Albion, Michigan, to celebrate a Mother’s Day in the 1870s.

All of that seemed to go nowhere, as these things so often do. Then in 1907, Anna Jarvis held a memorial service for her mother, Ann R. J. Who was dead at the time. That doesn’t seem entirely relevant, but see above about grief.

In 1908, Jarvis got a Philadelphia department store owner, John Wanamaker, to back a Mother’s Day celebration at a West Virginia church and, ever so coincidentally, to hold a Mother’s Day event at his stores. 

From there she campaigned for the holiday to be added to the national calendar, organizing a letter writing campaign to newspapers and politicians. First towns and cities adopted the holiday, and then it became national. It falls on the second Sunday in May.

After that, it all went wrong. Her idea involved a single white carnation, a visit to Mom, and a church service, but the florists, candy companies, and greeting card companies saw dollar signs and the holiday became a money spinner. (My own mother called it Florist’s Day.)

Jarvis might’ve seen that coming but apparently didn’t. She was cagey enough to enlist both Wanamaker and the florist industry when she was campaigning for the holiday. 

By 1920, she was denouncing the day’s commercialization and urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day flowers, cards, and candy. Eventually, she was launching lawsuits against groups that used the name Mother’s Day. 

In 1948, she denounced the holiday completely and lobbied to have it taken off the U.S. holiday calendar.

It wasn’t.

The lawsuits ate through her money and she died broke. The floral and greetings card companies that she had campaigned against paid her bills.

If anyone’s campaigning to establish National Irony Day, her story’s a perfect fit.

And Father’s Day?

No insult to fathers intended here, but it’s easier to get sentimental about a group that’s ignored or treated badly the rest of the year. Then once a year, you show up with flowers and chocolate and, you know, that makes it all okay. 

Fathers, though? They just don’t have the same appeal. Although you can trace Father’s Day back to the middle ages too, if you want.

Of course you want. European Catholics celebrated Saint Joseph’s Day  on 19 March, and a tradition of celebrating fatherhood in general can be traced back to 1508–which doesn’t say that it began then, only that if it started earlier no one’s found the notes.

In 1966, the U.S. made it a national holiday. It’s also celebrated in the U.K. but not an official holiday.

What does freedom of the city mean?

Not long after Prince Andrew gave up on huffing and puffing until he blew down Virginia Giuffre’s house–in other words, after he settled her lawsuit out of court–the city of York rescinded an honor it had given him back when he looked a bit less sleazy than he does today: the freedom of the city.

This is significant because, um, why?

Well, it’s not, really. Or it is, but only if you take British traditions seriously, which I have some trouble doing but I’m sure Andy doesn’t. No one could run around dressed in those uniforms if they didn’t take it all seriously. 

Still, in the avalanche of bad publicity that’s fallen on him lately, York’s contribution is barely a pebble. But since it’s an intriguing pebble, let’s talk about what this freedom of the city business is.

Irrelevant photo: This was taken during either Storm Dudley or Eunice, although I’m damned if I remember which one. My partner swore they sounded like an aunt and uncle from Oklahoma–ones no one looked forward to seeing. All that white stuff? That’s foam. We had enough wind to whip the ocean into a meringue.

Starting at the beginning

Freedom of the city dates back to the middle ages, when lords were lords and serfs weren’t free and any sensible person would’ve told you this was the natural order of things. 

All that non-freedom is what made the freedom of the city matter.

According to a “purported law” of William the Conqueror’s–he’s the guy, remember, who won England as his very own plaything in 1066–“If serfs reside without challenge for a year and a day in our cities, or in our walled towns, or in our castles, from that day they will effectively be free men and forever free from their bonds of servitude.”

For a law that’s no more than purported, it seems to have had an impressive impact. It was repeated in various ways by various cities and rulers. Henry II gave Lincoln a charter saying, “Should anyone reside in my city of Lincoln for a year and a day without being claimed by any claimant, and he is contributing towards the customary dues of the city, and the citizens can prove (by the customary legal process of the city) that a claimant was present in England but made no claim upon him, thereafter he may remain in my city of Lincoln, undisturbed as before, as my citizen, without legal challenge.”

For claimant, you can substitute lord–someone with a feudal right to claim this person as, effectively, his property.

Elsewhere, you’ll find specific statements about a villein (that’s what you and I would call a serf) being freed of villeinage if he lives “undisturbed for a year and a day in any privileged town, to the point that he is accepted into its community (that is, gild) he is thereby freed from villeinage.”

Gild? That’s what we’d call a guild. Hold onto that word, because we’ll come back to it.

 

Consulting the grownups about this

Notice that bit about privileged towns. This year-and-a-day stuff didn’t work in just any town. You couldn’t hide out for the required time in your local market town and hope to be free. The magic only worked if the spell was written into the town’s charter. 

But not every town or city was welcoming to fugitive serfs.

Do I have details about that? I do not. The best I can tell you is that historians aren’t in universal agreement over how common it was for villeins to free themselves this way, or how welcoming or unwelcoming towns were. And since historians are the grownups in this discussion, we’ll leave this for them to work out while we go upstairs and do whatever they told us not to.

It’s worth knowing that free men didn’t live only in cities. They also lived in the countryside, working the land more or less as serfs did. The difference was that they rented their land, didn’t owe the lord any service in kind, and were free to leave, although they couldn’t necessarily afford to. You could be free and as poor as the neighboring serf–or poorer. 

Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

 

Two footnotes 

  1. Becoming a free man didn’t make you a freeman. That was a different category and we’ll get to it in a minute. What being a free man did do was make you not-a-serf, which was a major change in status,even if it wasn’t the solution to all your problems. 
  2. Almost everything I’ve found talks about free men. Only the Guild of Freemen of the City of London website acknowledges references to women having been guild members. Given the English language’s counterproductive tradition of sometimes insisting that men means both men and women and the rest of the time insisting that men means only men, figuring out what we’re talking about here isn’t easy, but the year-and-a-day thing does seem to have applied to women. As far as I can tell.

 

Guilds, freemen, and free men

It’s not just the men and women who are hard to tell apart. Several websites get woozy about the difference between free men and freemen. So when the city of Birmingham, by way of example, explains what freemen means, it’s hard to know if it applies to both free men and freemen.

Don’t you just love the English language?

What does the Brimingham website say? “The medieval term ‘freeman’ meant someone . . . who had the right to earn money and own their own land. People who were protected by the charter (rules) of their town or city were often ‘free’, hence the term ‘Freedom of the City.’ ”

Are you confused yet? 

Good. Then you’re following the discussion. You could live in a city and be free, but not be a freeman, and therefore (at least as time went by) not someone who had the freedom of the city. To become a freeman of a city or town, you had to be accepted by one of its guilds, and they limited their membership. If too many people have the right to practice as, say, goldsmiths, prices will drop.

The medieval guilds were powerful organizations, made up of merchants or craftspeople (who weren’t always men). They had a monopoly on their corner of the economy and regulated trade, standards,  apprenticeships, and prices. Each one protected its interests, and they often controlled city or town governments.  

If you couldn’t become a member–and unless you had connections, you probably couldn’t–you might well be free and a man, but you were stuck working as a laborer. You weren’t a freeman of the city.

 

More about freemen

The Portsmouth City Council website skips over free men and goes straight for freemen:The institution of freemen or burgesses dates from the early beginnings of municipal corporations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Freemen or burgesses enjoyed considerable political privileges, being entitled to elect the officers of the corporation and its representatives in Parliament, although they were not necessarily resident in the borough of which they were burgesses or freemen.”

In this context, the corporation was the city government.

“In choosing freemen or burgesses, boroughs found it convenient to admit men of national importance who might be able to secure greater economic or political privileges for the area. Prominent local landowners with interests in a borough would reward their supporters by securing their admission as freemen or burgesses–between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries a very high proportion of the known burgesses in Portsmouth were not resident in the borough.”

In other words, freemen were a select group of a city’s residents (or, just to confuse the picture, non-residents). They were people with power and money. That held until 1835, when the Municipal Corporations Act established city councils. After that, they might very well still have held power, but they had to exercise it differently.

 

Can we confuse the issue a bit more?

Of course we can. Let’s go to Texas, where a couple of Freedom of the City certificates are sitting in the Ransom Center, which led the center to write about them.

One certificate was issued in London in 1776 to Michael Dancer at the end of his apprenticeship. It was big–2 feet by 5 inches–and came with a tube so Mick could roll it up and carry it around with him. The Ransom Center swears that people would have carried these the way we might carry a passport or driver’s license today, to prove identity and citizenship. 

I offer you a grain of salt to go with that explanation. They might well have needed the document for one thing and another–only people who’d been granted freedom of the city could exercise a trade within London’t city limits, and that held true until 1835–but I’d guess it was too important to cart around the streets every day like a driver’s license. 

The Ransom Center tells us that along with a freedom of the city certificate, London also presented its new members with “a book titled Rules for the Conduct of Life, which was intended to guide them in their life as freemen. While providing many basic laws and recommended codes of conduct, the book also outlined several interesting freedoms available only to freemen.  For example, the book notes freemen have the right to herd sheep over the London Bridge, go about the city with a drawn sword, and—if convicted of a capital offense—to be hung with a silken rope. Other ascribed privileges are said to include the right to be married in St. Paul’s cathedral, to be buried in the city, and to be drunk and disorderly without fear of arrest.”

I’m not exercised about where I get buried–I hope to be past caring by then–but that silken rope might make freedom of the city worth pursuing. 

 

What does being a freeman of the city get you today?

Not much. Let’s limit ourselves to London: You can’t drive sheep across London Bridge anymore. Capital punishment’s been abolished, so if you want to be hung with a silken rope you’ll have to make your own arrangements. I’m not sure what the law is on drawn swords, but I‘d recommend doing some research before you try it. Folks get twitchy about swords these days, no matter what certificate you’re carrying.

That makes the freedom of the city something you can put on your resume, if you have one, but that’s about it. It’s just a bit of English tradition that you’re welcome to take seriously if you can.

The End of Roman Britain: Instability and the Hoxne Hoard

Whatever shortages Britain’s facing due to Brexit and Covid, it hasn’t run short of archeology. The country entered this strange time of ours rich in buried history and since the stuff in question hasn’t gotten up and walked out of the ground, it’s still rich.

The tale I’m about to tell you comes from before Brexit, though, and before Covid. Never mind the logic of that. I needed an opening paragraph. 

 

The tale

Let’s begin in 1992 with a tenant farmer, Peter Whatling, losing his hammer. And since–well, you know how attached you can get to a hammer, he got hold of a friend, Eric Lawes, who’d taken up metal detecting when he retired, and out they went to the field where Whatling had been when his hammer wandered off.

Before either of them had time to get cold and go home for a nice cup of tea, Lawes picked up a strong signal and started to dig, but instead of the hammer he brought up shovelfuls of silver and gold coins. Lawes was an experienced enough detectorist by then to knew when stop digging. He contacted the police and the local archeological society. 

The next day, archeologists came and dug out the treasure with the earth still around it so they could move it, intact, to a lab and work out both its age and how it had been stored before it was buried. What Lawes had turned up was 60 pounds of silver and gold in the form of 15,234 (or 14,780; take your pick) Roman coins and what’s technically known as a shitload of fancy thingies of one sort and another.

Lawes got £1.75 million for the find, which he split with Whatling, although legally speaking he didn’t have to. 

Whatling also got his hammer back, and it’s now on display along with the older and more expensive stuff, which is called the Hoxne Hoard, after the village where it was found. And because the English language is insane, that’s pronounced Hoxon. 

Try not to think about it. It won’t help.

The hoard is particularly valuable not just for what it contains but because it was excavated whole instead of being scattered by a plow or an over-eager detectorist. 

Irrelevant photo: Once again, I’m not sure what these are. Let’s just call them some of the many red berries that cheer us through the fall and winter.

 

Why people bury treasure

Every time someone digs up a pile of treasure, someone else asks what it was doing in the ground to start with, and it’s a good question. Who buries these things, and when and why? 

In the case of the Hoxne Hoard, the who is easy to answer (sort of), because some spoons included in that shitload of fancy thingies had a name engraved on them: Aurelius Ursincinus. That can give us the illusion that we’ve answered one of the questions, although we haven’t, really. We know he was male and that he had a Latin name. After that, the record’s blank. We don’t even know for sure that he was alive when the hoard was buried.

As for when, the coins give us something more solid to work with: The newest ones were minted between 407 and 408 C.E. So logically speaking, they’d have been buried sometime after that. 

Why someone buried them, though, draws us into the land of speculation, which is a nice place to visit but it’s always foggy, so it’s hard to be sure of what we’re seeing. What we do know is that some clever devil thought to make a graph of all the dates of the treasure hoards in British Isles and found spikes in three time periods: when the Roman legions left Britain, when the Normans invaded, and when England divided up into two teams and fought a civil war. 

In other words, people bury treasure in troubled times, hoping they’ll be around to dig it back up when the danger’s passed. The ones we know about? Those people didn’t come back. The ones we don’t find and that no one will? Someone came back for those.

 

Roman Britain

I’ve read about the Roman legions leaving Britain and always kind of assumed they got a telegram from Rome: “Troops withdrawn Stop. Expect you home soonest Stop.”

Well of course they used telegrams. They didn’t have email yet. The problem is that you paid for telegrams by the word. Or maybe it was by the letter. Either way, no legionnaire would expect an explanation–it would’ve been too expensive. So off the legions toddled, leaving Britain to fend for itself.

Which goes to show what I know. It turns out that they didn’t all pack up and leave at once. But as we usually do around here, let’s take a step back before we go forward: 

In the mid-fourth century Britain was being raided by an assortment of barbarians–a word I use under protest and only because I don’t have a better one. We attach all sorts of judgments to it, thinking it describes people who are hairy and unwashed and brutal. Also uncivilized, as if civilization was a guarantee of good behavior. But all it means here is that they weren’t Roman. 

Mind you, they might also have been unwashed and hairy and brutal, but except for the unwashed part, so were a lot of Romans. And I’m not convinced that modern well-washed brutality is an improvement, but that’s a whole different issue. 

Let’s go back to late Roman Britain: In the barbarian corner and raiding Britain, we’ve got Picts and Scots (with the Scots coming from Ireland, just to mess with our heads) and Attacots, who I’ve never heard of either. It doesn’t look like anyone knows who they were. Also the Saxons, who we recognize from other storybooks. 

Since the small print of Britain’s contract with Rome specified that Britons couldn’t be armed, the country relied on Roman power to protect it. Or at least the part of Britain that Rome had conquered did.They never did hold the whole thing.

In the midst of this, the more central parts of the Roman Empire had troubles of their own by then. Barbarian invasions. Uprisings. Emperors. The deaths of emperors. Battles over who was going to be emperor. 

In 383, in response to an uproar in the empire that we won’t go into, the Roman army in Britain revolted and named its leader, Magnus Maximus, emperor. He could only be the emperor of the west by then, since the east now had its own emperor, but hey, an emperor’s still an emperor, and the title was worth fighting for. So he–and presumably some sizable chunk of his army–invaded Gaul and killed enough people for him to actually be the emperor. Until he was killed, that is, which disqualified him forever after.

What happened to the soldiers who left Britain with him we don’t know. It seems to be a fair assumption that they didn’t go back, so color the Roman army in Britain depleted.

 

Emperors and clipped coins

After 402, the bulk importation of Roman coins into Britain ended, and from that point on the British started clipping coins–shearing bits off of them and using at least some of the metal to make new coins, which were local imitations of the imperial ones. Since the metal itself was what made coins valuable, this meant the coins were worth less and less.

A good 98% of the Hoxne coins had been clipped, with some of them having lost a third of their weight. If you’re trying to get back into your pre-Christmas wardrobe, you should know that this strategy doesn’t work for humans.

In the midst of all this, we can pretty safely assume that the army wasn’t happy, because soldiers don’t like it  when they’re paid in coins that aren’t worth what they used to be. Or when they’re not paid at all. In 406, a rebellion of Roman soldiers in Britain declared someone named Marcus as their emperor. Then he was deposed by someone named Gratian, who was replaced by someone named Constantine, at which point he and his followers toddled off to Gaul–that was in Europe and a far more central piece of the Roman Empire’s jigsaw puzzle–to see if they couldn’t really make him emperor. 

He was beheaded and once again there’s no record of what happened to his followers, but it couldn’t have been nice.

And that telegram still hadn’t arrived. That was the problem with telegrams back then. They had to be carried by guys in sandals. On foot. If you paid extra, they’d jump on a horse or they’d set sail, but it was still slow. And precarious.

 

Not-so-Roman Britain

Soon after Constantine and Co. left, in 408 or thereabouts, Saxons invaded, and sometime after that what was left of Britain’s Roman government faced a rebellion. The Britons armed themselves, ran off the barbarians, and then, for good measure, ran off the Roman magistrates and set up their own government. Or so said the historian Zosimus.

It sounds good, but according to the far more contemporary historian Marc Norris, it was a disaster. Britain’s links with the empire were cut and the archeological record shows a country rapidly moving backward. The economy and social structure collapsed, along with trade and distribution networks. Cities, towns, and villas were abandoned. Norris assumes widespread looting, along with a couple of synonyms–pillaging, robbing, that kind of thing. 

Archeologists can’t find much stuff left in the ground from this period. Good-quality pottery disappears, along with things like iron nails. Entire industries, they conclude, failed.

In the absence of a working government and army, the rich would have privatized security for as long as they could–and buried their wealth, because they couldn’t know when their privatized security squad will notice that it doesn’t actually need them, all it needed was their hoard of coins and expensive goodies. The person who hired them didn’t actually contribute anything.

Norris assumes that barbarian raids increased, although as he points out raiders don’t leave much in the way of hard archeological evidence, so we can’t know for certain. 

According to Bede, writing much later, the Britons of this period were “ignorant of the practice of warfare” after so long under Roman rule. Which is why, fatefully, their leaders seem to have made a deal with the Saxons to defend them from the Picts. Emphasis on seem to. History goes a little hazy during this stretch of time. But the going theory is that they swallowed the spider to catch the fly, and that’s how Anglo-Saxon England came to be: The spider did indeed eat the fly by inviting the Anglo-Saxons in, and that left Romano-Celtic Britain with a Saxon spider that wriggled and jiggled and jiggled insider ‘er.

*

In addition to the two links I’ve tucked in above, I’ve relied heavily on Marc Norris’s The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England. It’s a highly readable and very useful book. I’ve lost track by now of who recommended Norris to me. Sorry, I have a note somewhere but I put it someplace safe and I’ll never see it again. So I apologize for not thanking you by name. But I really do appreciate the recommendation. Let me know who you are and I’ll include a link in my next post.

The north-south divide in English history

If you’re in the mood to break England into bite-size chunks, look no further than the handy north-south divide. It’s scored so deeply into the body of the country that you can treat the place like one of those candy bars you’re meant to share with a friend.

You want north or south? Choose carefully, because your fortune will rise or fall depending on which you take.

The north-south divide is not only recognized by Lord Google, it’s the organizing thesis of The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes, which I’ll be leaning on heavily here. Focusing a history so heavily on a single thesis damn near guarantees oversimplification, but it also gives the story coherence, which makes for a readable book. If you’re looking for a manageable, memorable history of England, this one works well.

And in favor of focusing on the north-south divide, it does tangle itself into England’s history, economics, culture, language, and geography, and it influences Britain’s politics to this date.

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, or rose-of-sharon.

 

What am I talking about? 

The difference between richer southern England and the poorer north, although when we’re talking about southern England, what we really mean is the southeast, which is in turn heavily weighted toward London and the area that surrounds it. 

Where does the country divide? Draw a line along the River Trent, if you can find it, then extend it to the west coast. Next draw a line along the River Tamar to keep Cornwall out of the discussion and another one down the Welsh border to do the same for Wales. The part of Britain on the lower right is southern England. The part at the top is northern England until you get to Scotland, then it’s not England at all. 

I’d have told you to draw a line along the Scottish border, but it moved around over the centuries and I don’t want you starting any wars. 

Let’s trace the divide through a series of colonizers:

The Romans: The Romans held the island’s richest agricultural land, a.k.a. the south. The division may have been a factor before the Roman invasion, but the thing about people without a written language is that they don’t write, so the pre-Roman Britons didn’t leave us much in the way of detailed history. We’ll skip them.

The Anglo-Saxons: In the 8th century, the chronicler Bede, who may be more recognizable if I call him the Venerable Bede, mentions a division between the north Saxons and the south Saxons. I can’t do much more than nod at that, unfortunately, and acknowledge that the division struck him as worth mentioning. The difference could trace back to the island’s geography or to the Romanization of the south or to both. Or it could just seep out of the rocks. 

The Vikings: When the Vikings shifted from raiding to colonizing, the part of England they colonized was the north, both reinforcing the differences and adding layers of cultural and political spice to the sauce. 

The Normans: When Hawes asks why the Normans, with a small fighting force, were able to not just conquer but hold England, one of the reasons he cites is that the English couldn’t mobilize the whole country against them. There was resistance, but it wasn’t the sort of coordinated uprising that might have succeeded. And so the Normans made themselves lords of both northern and southern England, and they kept their own language, Norman French, which not only separated them from the conquered English but at least for a while united the conquerors. 

 

Language

What about the common people–the English? Some small segment of the Anglo-Saxon upper class became Normanized, and the key to that was adopting the French language. Below that level, commoners spoke English, but by the fourteenth century, northern and southern English speakers could barely understand each other. Hawes quotes John of Trevisa on the subject, and we’ll get to the quote in a minute, but first, John of Who? 

John of Trevisa, a contemporary of Chaucer’s and not to be confused with John of Travolta, although Lord Google would be happy to take you down that rabbit hole if you’re interested. The J of T we’re interested in came from Cornwall and was a native speaker of Cornish, but his legacy is a body of scholarly work in English–not in Cornish but more to the point not in Latin and not in French. Choosing English over those last two was a radical act.

Are we ready to go on? Let’s do the quote: “It seemeth a great wonder how English, that is the birth-tongue of English men, and their own language and tongue, is so diverse of sound in this island. . . . All the longage of the Northumbres, and specially at York, ys so sharp, slytting, and frotyng, and vynschape, that we southern men may that longage scarcely understonde.”

Please appreciate that comment, because it hospitalized my spell check program.  

The things I sacrifice for this blog.

Lord Google and I are at a loss over what vynschape means, and we’re not doing any better with frotyng, although for no clear reason I have the illusion that I could understand it if I’d just give it another moment’s thought.

The linguistic divide was still holding in 1490, when a northern merchant was becalmed off the Kent coast, in the south. He went ashore to buy supplies, asking in northern English for meat and eggs, “And the good wife answered that she could speak no French.”

Was the aristocracy as divided as the commoners? By the end of the fourteenth century, court life was shifting from French to English, so the power of French to unite the Normans might–and I’m speculating here–have been on the wane. Either way, heraldry divided the aristocracy into Norroy (the northern realm) and Surroy (the southern one), and the aristocratic families built alliances and power blocs based at least in part on geography.

 

Power

Hawes presents the War of the Roses as a particularly bloody outbreak of the north-south divide and sees Elizabeth I as consolidating the south’s rule over the country. One result of this consolidation was that the southern version of English became the dominant one. The first handbook for English-language writers, from 1589, advised writers not to use “the termes of Northern-men . . . nor in effect any speech used beyond the river of Trent.” (George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesie

England’s class structure did allow people to move up the ladder, but to do that they needed to speak southern English. Economic, cultural, and political power all wrapped around each other, and around language and geography. 

Let’s fast forward to James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland, since after Liz’s death England imported him from Scotland in a desperate effort to keep England Protestant. This meant that, awkwardly, he was ruling two kingdoms, one stacked (at least on a map) on top of the other. He proposed to unite them and make himself the “King of Great Britaine.”

The English elite–for which you can read England’s southern elite–blocked the move. Parliament was by now a force in English politics and inviting Scotland to the party would’ve diluted southern power. 

From there we hit Fast Forward again and stop at the English Civil War, where Hawes sees the geographical divide still at work: The north was resisting rule from the south, and it was ready to make an alliance with the Celts–Cornwall and Wales (I’m leaving Scotland out of the discussion since it pops up on both sides of the war). In this reading, the king and Parliament, along with religious beliefs and demands for equality, aren’t incidental but they were being driven by underlying forces that generally go unacknowledged.

 

Union

When England and Scotland did finally become one country and Daniel Defoe traveled “the whole island of Great Britain,” he treated northern England and Scotland as more or less the same place. England, for him, was effectively the south. 

For a time, the Industrial Revolution changed the calculations. The south still had the richest agricultural land, but the north had coal, and it now fueled industries of all sorts. The northern elite got rich and northern cities got big. The drive to expand the vote was fueled in part by the northern elite’s drive to gain political power that would match to its economic strength. 

The north’s power lasted until finance outweighed manufacturing. 

Hawes talks about the country having two middle classes during at least part of the Industrial Revolution, one in the north and one in the south–and it’s worth mentioning here that the British middle class, especially at the time we’re talking about, sits higher up the social ladder than the American one. The southern middle class made its money in finance and commerce and the northern one in manufacturing. The southern middle class belonged to the Church of England and the northern one tended toward dissenting religions–and since that meant their children wouldn’t be accepted by the elite universities they started their own. 

By the 1850s, though, boarding schools for the middle class were opening. They were modeled on the elite boarding schools and their explicit purpose was to educate the sons of the northern elite to become like the sons of the southern. And it worked. Northern boys picked up the southern accent, learned what clothes would mark them as part of the in crowd, and played all the right sports. Basically, money and the fairy dust of southern culture allowed northerners to move upward. Not to the top rungs of the elite, of course–you had to be born into the right families for that–but to the bottom rungs of the upper rungs.

What the hell, upward is upward, and a lot of people were scrambling for those rungs.

Starting in the 1870s, the southern elite’s accent started to be called Received Pronunciation, or RP, and if you had any sort of ambitions, you damn well needed to sound like it was your natural accent. 

 

RP

In the 1920s, the BBC began broadcasting, and if you couldn’t reproduce RP convincingly, you weren’t one of its broadcasters . At roughly the same time, a report on teaching English in England insisted that all children should learn RP–as a foreign language if necessary.

RP was considered standard English and everything else was a dialect. And in case it’s not clear, dialect was bad. If you wanted to move up the ranks in the armed forces, you needed the right accent. If you wanted to be taken seriously in finance, in business, in education, you needed the right accent. Although as Hawes says, the ordinary English didn’t give a damn, they just wanted to sound like Americans. BBC English was no match for Hollywood films. 

 

Disunion

When Ireland became independent, the arithmetic of north-south power shifted. The Conservative Party’s base was southern England, and although it had opposed Irish independence, once Ireland left the party discovered that it was now easier for it to dominate the House of Commons. Reducing the number of MPs had made its southern base more powerful.

And if Scotland leaves the union–which the Conservatives oppose, at least publicly–they’re likely to find that Parliament becomes even easier to dominate–at least if they can hold onto their southern base. 

How a British town becomes a city

The English language plays tricks when it travels from one country to another, so if you asked me to define a city I’d have to ask you where the city is. Or where you are. 

Some days, I’d have to ask you where I am.

In the US, it’s fairly simple: A city’s a place where a lot of people live. How many? Um, yeah, no one’s drawn a clear line to separate it from a town.

In Britain, though, a town has to do more than get big to become a city. And in some cases, it doesn’t even have to get big.

 

The informal definition

Most people in Britain will tell you that a city has to have a cathedral, although one article I read claims a university will do just as well, and a few people think the town has to gather up a lot of people and convince them to live there.

But in Britain there’s a difference between people thinking of a place as a city and the place formally being one. To really be a city, the place needs the queen or king to wave a magic city-making feather over it.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

Yes, really–except for that business with the magic feather. Because of course the queen or king has the final say over how many cities the country has. If they didn’t, for all we know every cluster of houses would dance around singing, “We’re a city. Look! We’re a city.” Order would break down. Trains would stop running. Long-established recipes would cease to work. 

Imagine Britain without its bakewell tarts and victoria sponges.* 

So yes, of course officialdom wants to put some limits on the number of cities.

Mind you, the king or queen doesn’t actually make the decisions about which town to citify. Officials do the choosing, but it’s the monarch who waves that feather, presumably while looking entirely serious about it.

Just to confuse the issue, though, any number of towns are governed by bodies that call themselves city councils. 

Why do they do that? Possibly because someone has delusions of grandeur and possibly because the language is at war with the country’s endless formalities. 

 

The formal process

Britain’s home to 66 officially recognized cities–50 in England, 6 in Scotland, 5 in Wales, and 5 in Northern Ireland. Not all of them have cathedrals. The belief that they had to comes from a time when building a cathedral really did make you a city. This led to small places like Truro being cities while much bigger industrial centers like Birmingham and Belfast weren’t.

In 1889, Birmingham became the first cathedral-less place to be recognized as a city, and these days you can leave all that stone in the ground and bid for city status through the Ministry of Housing and a Few Other Things. It’s less romantic than building a cathedral, but it’s cheaper and it’s easier on the fingernails.

There’s a catch, though: You can only apply on special occasions, when the Ministry opens up bidding to mark some occasion: the millennium, the golden jubilee, the silver jubilee, the arrival of a new kitten. Outside of those special times, towns have to shut up and wait.

What’s a jubilee? In dictionary terms, a celebration of anything from emancipation to becoming a king or queen, but in this context it has to do with Liz having become a queen some number of decades before. Or more accurately, the queen—something Britain as a whole takes seriously, even if not every single individual who lives here does.

 

How big does a city have to be?

Not always very. The U.K.’s smallest city is St David’s, which has a whopping 1,600  residents–not all that many more than the village I live in. It earned its status in 1995 to mark the queen’s 40th anniversary, and it was chosen because of its role in Christian heritage.

Yeah, the monarchy takes that Christian heritage flap seriously. It has to. If it didn’t, what’s to justify someone being the monarch instead of just one more citizen?

Part of the argument in its favor, though, was that it had a cathedral, so people already thought of it as a city. 

In practice, being big doesn’t guarantee official status as a city, and neither does being thought of as a city. London contains two cities–the City of London (called the City, as if the planet didn’t have any others) and the City of Westminster. But London itself itself isn’t, officially speaking, a city.

If you get dizzy, just sit down and rest a while. We’ll be here when you come back.

 

Mayors and cities

Most city councils (whether they govern cities or towns) will appoint a mayor, who does ceremonial stuff and shows up at special occasions in eye-catching and wildly outdated clothes, including gold chains that outdo anything a celebrity ever turned up in. If the queen (or king, as the case may be) has waved a different magic feather over the locality, the mayor may turn into a lord mayor. This will make no practical difference in his or her ability to climb stairs, lose weight, or push a car out of a snowbank. 

But having a lord mayor doesn’t make a place a city.

Sorry. Like I said, different magic feather, different result.

How do you address a lord mayor? You say, “Lord Mayor.” Or you say, “My Lord Mayor.” Or if appropriate, “Lady Mayoress,” or, “My Lady Mayoress.”

You do not laugh while you’re doing any of that upon pain of being banished from the event and left giggling hysterically on the sidewalk.

In a different category of officialdom, many towns and cities have an elected executive mayor, a title that sounds less impressive but comes with political powers, which ceremonial mayors lack. 

Having an executive mayor also doesn’t make a place into a city. 

 

Can a place stop being a city?

Yup. Rochester accidentally lost its status in 1988, when it reorganized its government structure and–well, you know how sometimes the cat jumps on the keyboard and your entire life disappears and next thing you know you no longer exist? It was like that. 

By way of demonstrating how important it is to have city status, four years rolled past before anyone noticed the city was no longer a city. 

It still hasn’t gotten its status back.

 

What are the benefits of being a city?

None, at least according to Professor John Beckett“There never have been any privileges. It’s always been a status thing, nothing more. There’s nothing to stop places declaring themselves a city–Dunfermline did it.”

The whole system, he says, “makes no sense” and just “gives a bit of patronage to government”.

Dunfermline declared itself a city in 1856. It figured that since it had been Scotland’s capital for 400 years, it had the right. The idea of it as a city never caught on, though, and it’s planning to bid for genuine city status when the queen’s platinum jubilee rolls around, in 2022.

*

* A victoria sponge isn’t something you wipe the kitchen counter with. It’s a cake-ish thing, as is a bakewell tart, although I’m stretching the definition of cake pretty thin in saying that.

The politics and economics of an English abbey

If your image of the monastic life centers on quiet and contemplation, allow me to mess with your head. 

Fountains Abbey is in York–that’s up in the north of England–and it functioned from the 12th century until 1529, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It may well have been a place of contemplation for some people, but it was also deeply involved in politics and the economy. And according to a new archeological find, it was a noisy and industrialized place, at least in the 12th and 13th centuries. 

 

Lay brothers and the social order

Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 by 13 Benedictine monks who decided that their monastery in York was too rowdy. Idleness and guzzling get a mention. They moved some 30 miles away, to land given them by Archbishop Thurstan, and there they de-Benedictiined themselves, becoming Cistercian monks, so that–as the National Trust tells it–they could live a simple and devout life. The Cistercians were known as a more austere order than the Benedictines. 

The Cistercian goal was to be self-sufficient and live “far from the haunts of men,” and monks were expected to study and pray as well as work 30 hours a week. The problem was that 30 hours of work wasn’t enough to keep the fields plowed, the assorted works working, and the livestock–not to mention the people–fed. Since the hours spent in prayer and study were non-negotiable and even monks have to sleep, the small print in the Cistercian contract allowed them to incorporate lay brothers, who were called conversi

Everything that mattered back then happened in Latin.  

Irrelevant photo: I’ll never remember the name of this flower. A friend called it “that tall ethereal thing” and that’s blocked out the name.

The lay brothers were non-monks and they were there to do the heavy lifting. Also the skilled lifting, the stone quarrying, the horse breeding, the sheep shifting, and the–well, you get the drift here: the work that wasn’t suitable for monks. 

Lay brothers were part of the order but they weren’t full monks. Think of them as monklets. They wore a shorter version of the Cistercian habit so it wouldn’t get in their way, and they swore obedience to the abbot and followed the rules about chastity and poverty. Or they didn’t follow them–I wasn’t there and I can’t say for certain–but they were supposed to. Let’s settle for that. 

The division between lay brother and monk transferred the medieval class system directly into the abbey, which shouldn’t surprise us, really. It’s rare for people’s thinking to break the mold their society creates, and the religious groups that did quickly came into conflict with both church and state and developed a habit of getting squashed  Read the history of the Cathars if the topic interests you. I don’t claim to know it in any depth, but what I do know of it is fascinating. 

Lay brothers were from a lower class than the monks–or as a Herefordshire government post puts it, the lay brother was “often from a lower status background.”

Lay brothers lived separately from the monks, prayed a shortened form of the prayers, and were the secret ingredient that allowed the monastery to stay afloat. To the extent that the monks were able to retreat into contemplation and prayer, it was because the lay brothers were contemplating less and working more. They even had shortened prayers they could recite while working. The two groups formed separate communities within the abbey.

The order’s rules didn’t allow a lay brother to become a monk, quoting (what else) the Bible to back up the feudal structure, which was all encompassing and must have seemed inevitable: “Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.” 

Most lay brothers would have been illiterate, but the few that could read weren’t allowed to.  Jocelin of Furness tells a story of  a lay-brother who (as the Digital Humanities Institute tells the tale) “was influenced by the devil to learn to read, but ultimately realised the errors of his ways and repented of his sin.”  And so everyone was locked back into his slot, order was restored, and the devil took up crocheting, which was more satisfying anyway.

 

The monastery’s early years

It was winter when the original 13 monks moved to Fountains, and they brought not much more than some bread–and I’d assume some tools, although they don’t get mentioned. They slept under a tree, covering themselves with straw and anything else they could find that would keep them warm.

I mention tools because they built a chapel (the early buildings were wooden) and dug a garden. Unless you have stone-age skills, you don’t do that without a toolkit. But it makes a better story if they brought nothing but bread.

Have you ever tried felling a tree with nothing but a loaf of bread? 

The community struggled, surviving a famine year when they were driven to adding elm leaves to their pottage, making a bitter soup.

Austere living and vows of poverty are one thing, but this was a bit more poverty and austerity than they’d bargained for, and the abbot was in the process of negotiating a move to France, where they could start over on more promising land, when they were saved by the wealth of a new recruit, who’d been the dean of York Minster. He brought money, books, and furniture to the community.

Two more wealthy recruits, also from York Minster, followed. One of them, Serlo, wrote, “What perfection of life was there at Fountains! What rivalry in virtue! What zeal for the Order! What a pattern of discipline! Our early fathers departed from a wealthy monastery, but they made up for all that abundance of worldly riches by the abundance of their virtues. They became a spectacle to angels and to men and studied from the first to leave that rule of holy religion which by the favour of God remains to this day unimpaired.”

Which is ironic, coming from someone whose wealth helped save the monastery.

Money, gifts, and recruits flowed in and the abbey prospered and set up daughter houses elsewhere. Why a group of celibate males had daughter instead of son houses is anyone’s guess, but never mind. The abbey became an important force in both church and secular politics. Enough so that it got on the wrong side of an archbishop, which led to a mob attacking the monastery and burning everything except the church. 

Yes, friends, it’s a wonderful thing to sit among the powerful and piss people off.

They rebuilt, bigger and better (and in stone), and eventually made peace with the deposed and by then re-posed archbishop, who visited the abbey and died shortly afterward amid rumors of poison having been dropped into his chalice. I repeat how wonderful it is to join the games of the rich and powerful. Eat well, piss people off, and die young.

Before he died, though, the archbishop confirmed the abbey’s possessions, and he didn’t say this, so I will: The vows of poverty applied to individuals, not to the abbey itself. That business with the elm leaves in the pottage hadn’t been fun.

From there on, a lot of the abbey’s history is about more building, more recruits, and more daughter houses. Not to mention more money and more power, with breaks here and there for financial crises that it recovered from. 

When Henry VIII stomped in to dissolve it, it was the richest Cistercian abbey in Britain.

 

The abbey as a business

What was that wealth based on? Wool, which was also the base of much of England’s wealth at the time. Land, of course. The abbey’s land holdings were huge. Also lead mining, much of which was off site, and in the 15th century, the abbey came into an unseemly conflict with an Augustinian priory about mining rights.

At Fountains itself, it had an industrial-sized tannery, which has only recently been found.

The tannery was–necessarily–right on the river that runs through the abbey. Think about water pollution, if you would. Hides were tanned using lime and urine, and tanneries were known as dirty, smelly places. 

After the tannery’s discovery, archaeologist Mark Newman said, “We see now that the tannery was much closer [to the abbey] and a far cry from the idea of a quiet, tranquil abbey community.” 

The number of people working at Fountains would have been unusual for the time, making the monks “the first ones to apply themselves to these industrial scales of living and managing the landscape”.Fountains recruited hundreds of lay brothers. 

Today, Fountains Abbey is a picturesque ruin and its grounds are quiet and beautiful. But Newman said, “It is so easy with a place like Fountains to think this is exactly as the monks saw it. What we are finding is that there is a whole unrecognised history.”

So the Normans invaded England in 1066. What happened next?

Most people who know any English history know about the Norman invasion, that moment when Anglo-Saxon (and, um,yeah, somewhat Norse) England was taken over by French-speaking colonizers, guaranteeing that Frideswide and Aelfgifu no longer top the English list of popular baby names. But what happened after the conquest to make the country cohere?

More than I have space for, but let’s snatch a few stray bits of paper from history’s gale-force winds and see what we can do with them.

And by we, of course, I mean me, since you’re not actually here as I type this.

 

Obviously relevant photo: This is Li’l Red Cat, not William the Conqueror, but you can see why a person might get confused.

The replacement of the ruling class

Ten minutes before the Norman invasion, England’s old ruling class was Anglo-Saxon with a bit of Norse embroidery. By the time the conquerors solidified their hold, most of it had been replaced with Normans. William the Conqueror had followers to reward, and the thing about followers is that if you don’t keep them happy, they’ll turn on you. They’re big, they’re armed, and they can get nasty. And there are always more of them than there are of you. So he needed to hand them goodies, and we all know where goodies come from after a war: the people who lost. 

The land belonging to most of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class was confiscated and given to William’s followers. And since land and wealth were pretty much the same thing, we’re not talking about a new, Norman ruling class.

I’ll come back to that in a minute.

 

The non-replacement of the ruling class

But no story’s ever simple. William made efforts to keep the old ruling class on his side and pretty much limited his confiscations to the nobles who rose against him. So there was an Anglo-Saxon elite that collaborated with the Normans, kept their lands, and adopted the French language and culture. They became Frenchified and separated from the commoners. English was now the language of the peasants and French of the landlords.

 

Why didn’t England rise against the Normans?

The English outnumbered the Normans a hundred to one. So why didn’t they resist?

People who haven’t a clue what’s involved always seem to ask this about the conquered, and if you listen carefully you’ll hear a hint that it might be the conquered people’s own damn fault. They didn’t fight back, did they? They didn’t have the old warrior spirit. Or their weapons were too primitive. Or–well, you know, something.

The thing is, the Anglo-Saxons did rise against the Normans. Multiple times, and some of the uprisings presented serious threats. The thing is, they lost, and for multiple reasons. 

The leaders of all or most of the rebellions were the old aristocracy. At the time, there was an inevitability about that. The aristocrats weren’t just the governing class, they were also the warrior class. We’re still hundreds of years away from ordinary people leading their own rebellions. This was a hierarchical society. Soldiers fought. Peasants peasanted. Maybe their lords drafted them in to carry agricultural tools onto the battlefield and shout threatening slogans in front of the cameras, but they weren’t trained soldiers. So for the time being, the aristocrats are the people to keep your eye on. 

But after the Battle of Hastings, where the native English government was defeated, a big chunk of the aristocracy died. That was inconvenient, not just for them individually but for the chances of a successful rebellion, because there went its leadership. 

According to one theory, so many of them died because the Anglo-Saxons were behind the times militarily. The Normans swept into the Battle of Hastings using a new European tactic, the heavy cavalry charge, with the lances used for charging, not throwing. 

So although people did rise against the Normans, the rebellions were crushed. The leaders who didn’t die fled the country. 

Which was convenient for William, who handed their lands to Normans.

Another factor weighing against the rebels was that England was a country with a history not just of division but of outright warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse

Okay, not just warfare. They threw in a fair few massacres just to demonstrate how serious everyone was about this. So they wouldn’t have been an easy bunch to unite. And for many ordinary people, peace under a brutal leader who spoke a language no one understood might have looked better than more warfare.

The church would’ve been another place ordinary people looked for leadership, but it took the Normans’ side. So no help there.

Landscape may or may not have worked against the rebels. In some accounts,they melted into the woods, Robin Hood-like, emerging to fight a guerrilla war. In other accounts, southern England had no natural hiding places where a rebel army could base itself. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two accounts. It’s possible that the land could hide small bands, but not whole armies, but I wouldn’t take my word for that. It’s a reckless guess. I’ll leave it to you to resolve the contradiction.

Or not.

 

And those defeats led to what?

According to David Horspool, in The English Rebel, the risings against the Normans were persistent and serious, and one outcome was that William the Conqueror abandoned his early efforts to enlist the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy in a Norman government. 

“The top of England’s post-Conquest society, both lay and ecclesiastical, became almost entirely Norman,” he writes.

They also led to a longstanding mythology of English rebellions, which holds that before the Conquest England was a free land. Then the Normans came and all that freedom died. 

That the Normans brought extensive suffering is unquestionable. That Anglo-Saxon England was a land of freedom, though, is at best open to argument. Especially since slavery was deeply woven into the structure.

 

A note on sources and theories

I’m drawing from two books here: The English Rebel, by David Horspool, and The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes. It may not really be the shortest–I found one with a lighter page count, but it may have more words. I confess that I haven’t counted them. They’re both well worth reading. 

Hawes’ argues that intermarriage meant the English elite was more open to new members than any other elite in Europe. All you had to be was rich, fluent in French, and willing to speak it at all social and political occasions. 

Of course, you also had to start as part of an almost-parallel elite. Entry wasn’t open to a serf. Or even, say, a free glove maker.

In the long run, this relative openness had important ramifications, one of which was that the Anglo-Saxon elite separated itself from the Anglo-Saxon commoners, leaving them leaderless. Another was that culture became synonymous with Norman culture. The Anglo-Saxon culture and language were left to people who–in the eyes of their rulers–had no culture.

Hawes says this it was an unusual pattern in Europe until England grew up and visited it on its neighbors when it became their colonizers.

Hawes is the only historian I’ve found who talks about the Normans having a technological edge in battle. Everyone else talks about Harold–the king who lost at Hastings–having just marched from the  north, where he fought off one invasion, to the south coast to fight with exhausted troops. They talk about his decision not to rest before this second fight. 

I have no idea if Hawes is onto something there. Again, I’ll leave it to you to figure out who’s right.

The original Brexit, or when Doggerland sank

Before it sank, a tough neighborhood called Doggerland formed the highway between Europe and Britain. These days, when sea levels are rising and bits of Britain are falling into the sea, some of Doggerland’s secrets are coming to the surface. Not because they’re falling out of British cliffs, but because the Netherlands are (or possibly is*) dredging the seabed to build up artificial beaches as a protection against flooding. 

 

Doggerland 

Doggerland was inhabited for, oh, a million or so years before the lease ran out. Not just by modern humans but by Neanderthals before them and before that by an earlier version of our species that we call Homo antecessor.

Homo antecessor is Latin and translates very (very) loosely to the people who got here first, only since the name’s a carryover from the golden age of brainless sexism, it actually means the men who got here first. Because the folks in charge back then still hadn’t figured out that a species needs female participation if it’s going to last. 

Irrelevant photo: Fall is the season of red berries. I’m not sure what these are, but I’m pretty sure they’re inedible.

Glaciers grew and receded during this period, and as the climate got warmer Doggerland turned to grasslands, and that attracted animals, and later to it added forests and marshlands to its repertoire. 

What animals did it attract? Reindeer mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses, giant red deer, aurochs. And all the animals I had nightmares about as a kid: cave lions, sabre-toothed cats, cave hyenas, wolves. 

I’d have had nightmares about aurochs if only I’d known about them. Count it as a wasted opportunity

So it was a tough neighborhood, but it was also a rich one. The hunting was good and the gathering wasn’t bad, even if the nearest corner store was thousands of years away. 

 

The flood

When the Doggerland lease ran out, the eviction process was brutal: 8,200 years ago, a  tsunami swept over the land. That was on what would otherwise have been a lovely Wednesday afternoon, even though the week as we know it hadn’t been invented yet. 

Or the weekend. Hunter-gatherers, the experts tell us, worked far fewer hours than we do today, so they had no need for a weekend.

The tsunami was caused by the Storegga Slide, an underwater landslide off the coast of what wasn’t yet Norway. It probably killed thousands of people, destroying their settlements, but it didn’t come without warning–at least if you knew how to read the signs. The glaciers were melting, sea levels were rising, and Doggerland had already lost acreage to the sea. 

But, according to Claire Mellett, the chief marine geoarchaeologist for Wessex Archaeology, “The life span of the people at this time was about 30 years, so [even] if sea level was rising, they probably wouldn’t have been able to observe it. But in geological history, it’s one of the fastest-rising sea levels that we’ve ever experienced.”

Try not to be too snobbish about their short sightedness. These days, we’re reading all the signs of climate change and sea level rise, but so far we haven’t impressed anyone with our ability to take action.

In most versions of the tale, Doggerland sank and that was that: Britain had become an island. Brexit had happened, but without the vote, the negotiations, or the headlines.

But some evidence points to Doggerland surviving for a few centuries as a series of islands, where the neolithic settlers who are believed to have brought framing to Britain might have stopped over on their journey. They’d have beached their boats, bought a sandwich and an eccles cake, picked up a booklet of crossword puzzles, and then forgotten where they parked. But once they found their boats again, they felt all the stronger for their stopover and were ready to once more brave the waves and weather.

In a nice little piece of irony, the mapping of Doggerland has been aided by oil companies drilling in the North Sea. I’m reasonably sure they’d prefer it if we didn’t compare the two experiences of rising sea levels. 

The exploration also got some help from a company siting offshore wind farms. 

 

Could we go back to those secrets that are surfacing?

Of course we can. 

The Netherlands’ artificially created beaches have drawn amateur archaeologists, who search them for Doggerland artifacts that spent eons on the seabed, and the amateurs have worked with professionals to piece together a picture of the drowned land and its people. 

“We have a wonderful community of amateur archaeologists who almost daily walk these beaches and look for the fossils and artefacts, and we work with them to analyse and study them,” said Sasja Van der Vaart-Verschoof of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. (That’s the National Museum of Antiquities to most of us.) “It is open to everyone, and anyone could find a hand axe, for example. Pretty much the entire toolkit that would have been used has been found by amateur archaeologists.”

The museum’s in the headlines because it’s hosting an exhibition of Doggerland objects, including fun stuff like petrified hyena droppings and mammoth molars. Also tools made from flint, bone, and antlers, arrowheads made of human bone, decorated animal bones, and jewelry made from amber and from boar tusk.

One find, a 50,000-year-old flint tool with a handle made from birch tar pitch, comes from the era when Neanderthals held the Doggerland lease and demonstrates that they made complex tools, with skill. Forget the pictures you saw when you were a kid that showed the Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging dimwits. We were sold a species-ist myth there. Neanderthals not only made tools, they made art. Some has been found in a cave in Spain and dated to a time when modern humans weren’t on the continent yet. It may not be great art, but it was deliberate, it was either decorative or symbolic, and it demonstrates thought, planning, and intention.

 

The exhibition

You can find the a webpage on the exhibit here.

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* I asked Lord Google if the Netherlands is singular or plural and found definitive answers saying singular and definitive ones saying plural. I could pick through that and consult a genuinely knowledgeable source–I used to be a copyeditor; we do that sort of thing–but it was too much fun to see people be so sure of themselves and in disagreement. I decided that I don’t need to know. You probably don’t either.