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.

______________

* 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. 

How the Victorians cleaned house 

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

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

 

Baking soda

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

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

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

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

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

Vinegar and other acids

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

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

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

 

Tea

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

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

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

 

The yucky stuff 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Water

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

 

Feather dusters and cheaper alternatives

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

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

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

 

Floors

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

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

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

This is Britain, remember.

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

 

Laundry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spring Cleaning

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

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

After that, you’d get to work.

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

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

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

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

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

Move everything back in and start on the next room.

 

What works and what doesn’t?

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

Cleaning tricks that work

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

Clearing tricks to avoid

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

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

 

A final word on Victorian cleaning

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

One day I was walking, I heard a complaining

And saw an old woman the picture of gloom

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

And this was her song as she wielded her broom

Chorus

Oh, life is a toil and love is a trouble

Beauty will fade and riches will flee

Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double

And nothing is as I would wish it to be

In March it is mud, it is slush in December

The midsummer breezes are loaded with dust

In fall the leaves litter, in muddy September

The wall paper rots and the candlesticks rust

Chorus

With grease and with grime from corner to center

Forever at war and forever alert

No rest for a day lest the enemy enter

I spend my whole life in struggle with dirt.

You can listen to it here

Your ten-minute history of the English courts

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

 

The Anglo-Saxons

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: Li’l Red Cat

 

The Normans

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

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

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

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

Why, of course a peasant could expect impartial judgement. 

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

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

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

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

 

Henry II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law was becoming professionalized. 

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

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

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

And confiscated the trophy.

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

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

 

Richard I

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

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

 

Justice incorruptible

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

Cab drivers are also incorruptible.

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

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

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

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

The first paid, professional magistrate was appointed in 1813.

 

Magistrates’ courts today

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Capital punishment

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

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

Law in Anglo-Saxon England

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

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

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

 

Murder and money

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

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

Irrelevant photo: mallow

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Feuds and physical punishment

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

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

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

Neither family can afford to be seen as weak. 

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

None of this eliminates feuds, it just limits them.

 

Closed communities and strangers

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

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

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

“Um–”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Women in Anglo-Saxon law

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

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

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

 

Outlawry

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

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

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

*

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

 

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: hydrangea

 

Trial by ordeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then his companion came wandering back to town. 

It was embarrassing.

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

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

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

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

 

The jury system

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

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

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

No one seem to have had a problem with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trial by combat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 1819, Parliament finally abolished trial by combat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curse tablets in Roman Britain

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

 

How do you write a curse tablet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What do we learn from curse tablets?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These all left their traces on curse tablets.

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

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

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

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

 

Cursive

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

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

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

How England became Christian–twice

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

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: nasturtiums

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

 

But first, a word or ten about paganism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you and let’s move on.

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

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

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

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

 

Enough of that

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

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

We have two theories to choose from: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Celtic saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They were hedging their bets,” he said.

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

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

 

The Roman strand of Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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