How to get to work on time in the 19th century

Question: In an age before alarm clocks (and then in the one before affordable alarm clocks), how did anyone get to work on time? 

Answer, at least in parts of Britain: Starting in the nineteenth century, they got woken up by a knocker-upper. 

Digression: In American, if you’re knocked up, you’re pregnant. (This does not apply to the male of the species.) In British, though, you can knock up some scrambled eggs without anyone giving birth to little baby scrambled eggs. Knocking something up means you’re building it “very quickly, using whatever materials are available.” In the case of our example, we’ll hope that’s eggs, not cement blocks. 

Being knocked up can also–in British–mean being tired. 

But more to the point, you can knock someone up by pounding on their door when they’re asleep. 

Or on their window.

For the sake of clarity, reproduction takes place in the same way in both countries, it’s only the language that changes. Let’s say you’re talking about waking someone up. By knocking. Take two words, knock and up. Now combine them and shake and you’ll get one of those things we call a phrase–a small number of words that, over and over again, spot each other across a crowded room, run into each other’s arms, and form a unit of meaning.

The American meaning? It dates back at least to 1830 and I can’t begin to explain why it means what it does, but all the same it does.

Where were we?

People were going to work. It was the beginning of the nineteenth century, bang-slam in the midst of the industrial revolution. Industry was (and is) a regimented beast. It depended on everyone being in their place at the same time. Keeping your job meant getting up at the right time.

 

A rare relevant photo. This is a knocker-upper from London. She was known for using a peashooter to wake people up.

Enter the knocker-upper

Actually, knocker-uppers didn’t enter. They walked down a street and tapped on windows, or possibly doors, and they kept going. Because they got paid by the head, and if they were going to make a living they had to get a move on. Getting your butt out of bed was up to you. 

Most of them carried a long pole so they could reach an upstairs window. One, Mary Smith, was known for using a pea shooter. Others carried soft hammers or (so I’ve read) rattles. I’m skeptical about the rattles, because they wouldn’t want to wake the neighbors. Not just because they’d complain, but because they’d be waking them up for free. 

We’ll talk about payment in a minute.

As an aside, you might’ve noticed that “upstairs window” is a little vague. In Britain the floor up one flight of stairs is the first floor. In the U.S., it’s the second floor. The two countries put the numbers in the same order, but they start counting in different places.

Knocker-uppers tended to be old men or women. Does that mean the women were old or just that they were women? I’m not sure. The source I stole the information from lists them that way, either because they didn’t notice that the words can be understood two different ways or because they were doing what I am and dodging the issue. I’m just going to duck behind this nice potted begonia over here and pretend it has nothing to do with me. 

Just think of the women as being a kind of upstairs window.

Don’t think about it too hard.

Occasionally cops worked as knocker-uppers while they were on their rounds, earning a bit of extra income since they were up anyway. Robert Paul, who found the body of Jack the Ripper’s first victim, saw a cop and told him about the dead woman but the cop was knocking people up and couldn’t be bothered.

“I saw [a policeman] in Church-row,” Paul said at the inquest, “just at the top of Buck’s-row, who was going round calling people up. And I told him what I had seen, and I asked him to come, but he did not say whether he should come or not. He continued calling the people up, which I thought was a great shame, after I had told him the woman was dead.”

Knocker-uppers were particularly common in northern mill towns and in London, where dock workers’ shifts changed with the tides, although they also worked in smaller cities and towns. The trade went into decline in the 1940s and 1950s, and the last knocker-upper is thought to have retired in 1973.

I’m not sure why anyone was still paying a knocker-upper in 1972. Maybe out of loyalty. Or because they liked the personal touch.

 

Who paid? 

Customers paid by the week. A knocker-upper named Mrs. Waters (from somewhere in the north of England) told a Canadian newspaper in  1878, “All who were knocked up before four o’clock paid … eighteen pence a week; those who had to be awakened . . . after four gave . . . a shilling a week; whilst those who had to be aroused from five to six o’clock paid from sixpence to threepence weekly, according to time and distance.” She said she “never earned less than thirty shillings a week; mostly thirty five; and . . . as high as forty shillings a week.” 

There were twelve pence in a shilling. I’ll leave you to figure out who got a bargain while I hide behind that begonia again.

How much of a person’s pay would that eat? These were low-wage workers, and in 1880 a male laborer’s average pay was £30 a year; a woman’s was £15. A pound was made up of 20 shillings, and a family’s budget would have had next to no give in it. Still, the knocker-upper’s price had to be within a working person’s reach. 

Mrs. Waters also talked about her customers tapping back to let her know they’d heard her–some cheerily and some complaining and swearing the whole time. 

To keep the times and places straight, knockers-up chalked times on sidewalks and buildings, and some may have hung up signs.

Who woke up the knocker-upper? Themselves, for the most part. They were night owls, sleeping during the day. Think of them as people who worked the graveyard shift. 

How did they know what time it was? Nothing I’ve found addresses this, but cities and towns had clocks–they were an important civic show-off item–and even if you couldn’t look at your wrist and know if you were two minutes ahead of schedule, you’d get a nice loud bong every fifteen minutes, and a count on the hour. When I was a kid–we’re going back to the 1950s here–stores still had clocks in their front windows and long before I had a watch I could walk down the street from clock to clock and know the time. 

Britain’s Corn Laws: that bit of history you slept through turns out to be fascinating

Britain’s Corn Laws are a bit of long-repealed legislation whose history is wrapped around the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, Ireland’s potato famine, and the struggle for workers’ rights and universal suffrage. So if (as I assume) you slept through them in some half-forgotten history class, it’s time to catch up.

They not only matter, they’re interesting.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom

 

The Napoleonic Wars and the politics of wheat

Let’s start with the Napoleonic Wars. That’s 1803 to 1815, and I had to look them up too. I don’t actually know anything. I just ask Lord Google questions and arrange the information he gives me, usually in odd patterns and after filtering the sites he suggests, because he does try to slip me some losers. 

I also have a growing stash of books on British history. Some are more useful than others.

Where were we?

The Napoleonic Wars. Before going nose to nose with revolutionary France, Britain was in the habit of importing a lot of its wheat, which was its most important grain. It was also in the habit of using the word corn for any old kind of grain. It still is. What Britain calls corn, the US calls grain. And what the US calls corn, Britain calls maize.

How we understand each other at all is beyond me.

There’d been corn laws since as early as the twelfth century, but they didn’t become a political focus until the nineteenth, and that was because during the Napoleonic Wars Britain couldn’t import wheat from Europe, so British farmers patriotically planted more wheat and filled the gap as best they could. Then came the end of the war and British farming patriotically demanded that its price had to be protected from interloping foreign corn that spoke funny languages and, worse yet, cost less. 

Now that’s what I call patriotism.

In 1812, corn cost 126s. 6d. a quarter. Three years later, it cost 65s. 7d. Forget the complicated math it takes to understand that: What you need to know is that the price dropped. Drastically. https://spartacus-educational.com/PRcorn.htm

Okay, okay, we’ll break the numbers down. Don’t blame me if we can’t get them back together: 

A quarter, an s. and a d. are long-dead measurements that everyone took seriously and knew how to work with at the time. An s. is a shilling and a d. is a penny, because shilling starts with S and penny doesn’t start with d.

You can see how much sense this is going to make, right?

There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, although for reasons I can’t begin to understand no one seems to have shifted from shillings to pounds here when they got to 21, they just kept adding up the shillings. It’s a mystery that only people who’ve lived with the system can explain–maybe–and if we stick around a while it’s possible that one of them will. Friends, I invite you to the comments box.

A quarter is eight bushels. Its full name is quarter-hundredweight and it’s a quarter of a hundredweight. Hang onto that, because it’s the only bit that’ll make sense. A hundredweight doesn’t weigh a hundred of anything: It’s 112 pounds, or 8 stone. In the US, a hundredweight used to mean 100 pounds, but then people stopped using the term. It was too confusing, having a hundredweight weigh a hundred of something.

Try not to think about it too long or your brain will turn to jelly. Which in the US is something you spread on toast but in Britain is a fruit-flavored dessert made with gelatine–that stuff Americans call by the brand name jello, minus the capital letter. We stole the word from the manufacturers.

And how much wheat is 8 bushels? Enough to cover your living room floor nicely, thanks. 

I know. Sometimes it seems like we’ll never get to the point, but here we are.

When wheat prices dropped, British landowners patriotically pushed Parliament to protect their prices (the alliteration’s accidental but fun), and I doubt it took much pushing because the country’s political structure was weighted heavily in favor of landowners. And that last sentence is why the Corn Laws are more than just some ancient bit of legislative history but an entry point to a long battle over the right to vote.

 

Money and power

At the opening of the nineteenth century, women couldn’t not vote, the poor couldn’t vote, and most of the not-so-poor couldn’t vote. The richest industrialists could vote but that wasn’t enough to give them the political power that would’ve made such a fetching match for their money, and they weren’t happy about that. Because what good is one measly vote when you need Parliament to pass the laws that protect your interests and your business? For that, you want some serious clout. 

Parliament made no pretense of representing the country as a whole. The lords of many a constituency were able to appoint its Member of Parliament, who the few people allowed to vote would duly elect. In other constituencies, candidates openly bought votes. Big industrial cities often didn’t have their own Members of Parliament, although what were called rotten boroughs, with next to no population, did. To (atypically) get to the point, the House of Commons was safely under the control of landowners, as was the House of Lords.  

In 1815, to protect the price of wheat, Parliament passed the Corn Law, slapping a hefty import duty on foreign wheat unless the price of domestically grown wheat rose to 80s. per quarter. The duty was steep enough that wheat wasn’t worth importing. This protected not just the farmers producing the wheat but also the landlords who owned the land the farmers farmed. If the price of wheat dropped, farm rents would have to drop. And since landowners held the power–

You can see where I’m going with this, right?

Rioting broke out in London while the bill was being debated and soldiers surrounded Parliament to protect it. What with the war and several years of bad harvests, people had lived with high grain prices long enough. This was a time, remember, when you didn’t take it for granted that you could keep yourself and your family fed. Some huge percentage of the population lived on the edge. 

The bill passed anyway–who thought it wouldn’t?–and that focused a lot of people’s attention on getting the vote. In other words, it fed the demand for political reform.

The 1816 harvest was bad, pushing prices up, and that was followed by food riots and strikes for higher pay. 

Which brings us to our next point: If the Corn Laws were a disaster for people who were just scraping by, but they also pissed off industrialists–those rich people whose political power wasn’t a good match for their money. When the price of grain went up, their workers pushed for higher wages so they could afford to eat. People can be so picky about that. For industrialists, that meant either industrial unrest or less profit. 

They didn’t like either choice.

 

Who gets the profit?

From the 1820s through the 1840s, Conservative and Liberal governments tinkered with the Corn Laws but didn’t repeal them, and landowners argued that manufacturers opposed them only so they could drive down workers’ wages and increase their own profits. This was despicable, since the landowners preferred to have the profits in their own pockets. In an improbable convergence of opinion, the Chartist Movement, which was socialist, agreed, as did Karl Marx. 

From what I can see, there was some truth in the argument. A certain amount of profit was kicking around the country and the question was whose pocket was it going to end up in?

Of course, it could go into workers’ pockets through a combination of lower bread prices and stable or higher wages, but, yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.  

Marx seems (waffle word there; I’m working from second-hand sources instead of reading all 74 volumes of Capital plus his 6,739 assorted pamphlets, letters, and whatever’s left) to have gone a step further and seen the battle as one where the industrialists needed the workers’ help against the landowners, but as far as I can tell many of the struggles against the Corn Laws and for the vote came from the ground up, not the top down. Abolition of the Corn Laws was one of the demands at St. Peters Field, site of the Peterloo massacre, where people also demanded universal suffrage.

By which they meant, of course, universal suffrage for men. But that’s a different tale. You can find it here

The Anti-Corn Law League was founded in 1838 and advocated peacefully for repeal, and in 1844 the Duke of Richmond countered by founding the Central Agricultural Protection Society (called CAPS) to campaign in favor, which makes it sound like he felt that the pressure against the laws was serious. 

Then 1845 combined a bad harvest in Britain with the potato blight in Ireland, which was very much under British control. If Britain was facing scarcity–and it was–Ireland was facing starvation.

The combination convinced the prime minister, Robert Peel, that the Corn Laws had to end, and for a while it looked like Parliament would rescind them, but after some political jockeying, complete with prime ministers resigning, the laws were still in place. CAPS campaigned fiercely against abolishing them, in some places (according to the New World Encyclopedia) it practically supplanted the Conservative party.

One of the arguments offered in the parliamentary debate was that repeal would weaken landowners socially and politically, destroying the “territorial constitution” of Britain by empowering commercial interests.

In 1846, the Corn Laws were finally repealed, but the potato famine had moved well beyond the reach of half measures. It’s a separate story, and a bitter one. Estimates put the number of Irish people who died of hunger and disease at a million, all in the name of letting the problem work itself out through natural means. 

 

The effects of repeal

Repeal did keep the price of corn down in Britain. Between 1850 and 1870, it averaged 52 s. Britain became increasingly dependent on imported corn and British agriculture went into a depression notable enough to have its own name, complete with capital letters: the Great Depression of British Agriculture. Agricultural laborers left the land and migrated to the cities, feeding the Industrial Revolution.

You can chalk all that up to the repeal of the Corn Laws if you like, or you can chalk it up to railroads and steamships making North American grain easier to import. Britain and Belgium were the only corn-growing countries in Europe not put to a tariff on the stuff.

The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 gradually, under pressure and with much gnashing of teeth, expanded the vote. Repeal of the Corn Laws hadn’t destroyed Britain’s territorial constitution–whatever that is or was–but power was shifting.

The Corn Laws are often presented as a battle between free trade and restrictive tariffs, and that’s how my high school history textbook so forgettably explained them, after which it dropped the subject and my entire class sleepily murmured, “Did something just happen there??”

It wasn’t on the test, so the answer was no, nothing happened.

Free trade is, legitimately, a thread you can follow through the debates and battles over the Corn Laws, and it’ll carry you effectively enough into the next couple of centuries, but unless you’re a policy obsessive it may be the least interesting way to understand the story. I’m a fan of the way political power realigned itself to more nearly match economic power, and how people who had neither kind of power battered away at the system until they forced it to make a bit of space for them. 

The Peterloo Massacre, or how the British got the vote

It’s 1819 and we’re in the north of England. At last count–that was in 1780–only 3% of the population of England and Wales was allowed to vote. But that’s guesswork. A later count, in 1831, will estimate it at 1.35%. Voter registration won’t start until 1832, which may be why the numbers are a little hazy.

Can we say that not many people have the right to vote and leave it at that?

With such a thin slice of the population having any semblance of political power, and with wealth highly concentrated, this is a time when you can talk about a ruling class and not have to explain who you mean or argue about whether you’re seeing the world through Marxist-inflected spectacles. So let’s be bold and say that some elements of the ruling class see the value of expanding the vote in order to release a bit of the political pressure that’s been building in the country. Or to put that another way, they think it might help avoid a revolution. 

Irrelevant photo: I have to toss in a photo of holly sometime before Christmas. It grows here. I can’t quite get over that. Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, have a good one.

But reform itself sometimes leads to revolution, and since we’re in the present tense here we–and more to the point, they–have no way of knowing what will happen next. Will reform avoid a revolution or set one off? 

Tough choice. The French Revolution is still too recent, and it was too bloody and too scary, for the ruling class as a whole to take risks. So reform–at least the kind that came from the top down–gets put on hold, leaving it in the hands of scary, bottom-up radicals. 

 

So who can’t vote? 

That’s an easier question than who can. The list includes:

  • The working class
  • The poor in general, in case category one left any of them out
  • Women
  • Catholics
  • All or most or–well, at least much of the middle class

I chased Lord Google all over the internet trying to find some solid explanation of who can vote, and the answer was always murky. I finally found a House of Commons Library paper called “The History of Parliamentary Franchise,” which doesn’t answer the question but does at least explain why Lord G. is so evasive. 

Sorry–using the present tense for the nineteenth century gets awkward when I drag the twenty-first century Lord Google into it, but a commitment’s a commitment. We’ll stay with it if for no better reason than that it’ll give you a chance to watch me tie myself in knots. 

First, who can vote depends on whether you’re talking about England, Wales, Ireland, or Scotland, because they all have their own rules. After that, it depends on where in those four nations you live. In England, at least, the boroughs–in other words, the towns–set their own rules. Or at least the ones that have the right to send an MP to Parliament do. They don’t all have that right. In the counties, the rules seem to be consistent, but I wouldn’t want to put money on that.

What’s important is that no matter where you live, the right to vote depends on wealth, property, and influence. And some MPs aren’t even elected, so even if you have the right to vote it doesn’t necessarily get you much. 

According to the House of Commons Library, “Uncontested elections were common and in some seats an election had not taken place for many years. Parliamentary seats were often considered as property and remained in the control of a family from one generation to the next. This persisted until the beginning of the twentieth century.” 

(Votes won’t be cast by secret ballot until 1872. That’s not strictly relevant, but it’s interesting.) 

If you’re getting a picture of an undemocratic country, let me add another detail to the picture: Voting is only for the House of Commons. The upper house, the Lords, is hereditary.

 

Why does anybody care about the vote?

Nineteenth-century Britain is a country with multiple problems, and the people who suffer most from them don’t have a lot of ways to change their situation. Or if they’re risk-averse, any ways.

Britain’s busy turning itself from a rural country into an industrial one. Huge numbers of people who can’t make a living in the countryside are desperate enough to pour into the cities, hoping to make a living, but the cities aren’t prepared to house them. People are packed in on top of each other and sanitation verges on nonexistent. Wages, hours, and working conditions in the factories (and elsewhere) are terrible, and strikes are illegal: The Combination Acts mean you’re risking three months in prison if you and your co-workers walk off the job in any organized way, or prepare to, although you’re still welcome to quit your job individually and go starve somewhere.

No, I’m not being dramatic. People live close enough to the margin that we’re often talking about eating or not eating. Or ending up in the workhouse, which sets you only a small step above starvation.

The acts won’t be repealed until 1824 and 1825. Union organizing and what the National Archives call labor unrest–a term that takes in everything from riots to organizing a union –won’t break into the open until the 1830s. And here we are, stuck in 1819. 

You notice how subtly I reminded you of the date?

A few years ago, in 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended. This means a lot of former soldiers are now out of work. 

Thanks, guys, you’ve been positively heroic. Hope you find jobs somewhere.

Wages fell in England’s textile towns, and the taxes that were introduced to support the war didn’t, they walked into the peacetime years like zombies. The country entered a postwar depression. 

And if that isn’t enough trouble, the Corn Laws were passed in 1815. During the Napoleonic Wars, the country couldn’t import wheat from Europe and British farmers grew more of it. Then the wars ended and since landowners dominated Parliament they passed laws to protect their wheat market. The Corn Laws banned imports unless the price of domestic wheat went from high to astronomical.

Then the 1816 harvest was bad, leading to a winter of food shortages and riots. 

 

Blanketeers

Several strands of discontent wove themselves together: low pay, the Corn Laws, a political political system that shut out the voices of anyone other than landowners. The north–the center of the industrial revolution–became a center of radicalism among working people.

In 1817, a hunger march was organized, to go from Manchester to London. That’s 209 miles if you take the M40, which hadn’t been built yet. Each marcher carried a petition to the Prince Regent and a blanket to sleep in at night (and to mark them all as textile workers). They were called Blanketeers, and 5,000 of them gathered to start the march on St. Peter’s Field, near Manchester, with a larger crowd to see them off. One estimate puts the crowd at 25,000. The gathering was broken up by the King’s Dragoon Guard, which arrested 27 people, including the leaders, and injured several. One–a bystander–was killed. Several hundred people set off anyway, but the group thinned out, with some dropping out and many getting arrested or being turned back under vagrancy laws. 

Legend has one lone marcher reaching London and handing in his petition, but since he’s named both as Abel Couldwell and as Jonathan Cowgill, he may be mythical. Or I may be doing him a disservice.

Also in 1817, two hundred Derbyshire labourers marched to Nottingham in order, their leader said, to take part in a general insurrection. Three of the leaders were executed for treason. This did not calm the nerves of people in power.

The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry was formed. Its purpose was to put down any insurrection that wandered into view.

 

Are we done with the background yet?

Yup.  Finally. It’s August 16, 1819, and the Manchester Patriotic Union Society has called a massive meeting calling for political reform, once again at St. Peter’s Field.

About 60,000 people turn up. A few years earlier, in 1802, Manchester’s population was 95,000, but people have come from other towns and cities. This is a big deal and a lot of preparation’s gone into it. Their banners call for an end to the Corn Laws, for universal suffrage, and for political reform.

What kind of political reform? 

Several kinds. Not only can’t most of the individuals here vote, the north as a whole is under-represented in the Commons. And in spite of its size, Manchester doesn’t have its own Member of Parliament. So this is about both class and region.

At this point, no one’s calling for women to have the vote. When they say “universal suffrage,” they’re talking about men.

Yeah, I know. History’s a real kick in the head, but we don’t get to rewrite it.

The organization involved is impressive. As Samuel Bamford, a handloom weaver who walks from Middleton, later wrote about the journey, every hundred men have a leader, who wears a sprig of laurel in his hat so you can spot him, and a bugler relays the orders given by the man at the head of the column. Everyone’s warned not to carry sticks or weapons. Only the very old and infirm are allowed walking sticks.

Together with marchers who join them from Rochdale, there are about 6,000 of them.

“At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. A hundred of our handsomest girls, sweethearts to the lads who were with us, danced to the music. Thus accompanied by our friends and our dearest we went slowly towards Manchester.”

And in case you think the emphasis on looks only applies to women, Bamford will also write, “First were selected twelve of the most decent-looking youths, who were placed at the front, each with a branch of laurel held in his hand, as a token of peace; then the colours: a blue one of silk, with inscriptions in golden letters, ‘Unity and Strength’, ‘Liberty and Fraternity’; a green one of silk, with golden letters, ‘Parliaments Annual’, ‘Suffrage Universal.’” 

That “Liberty and Fraternity” is an echo of the French Revolution and may not have helped calm ruling class nerves either, in spite of the emphasis on peaceful, laurel-branched, weaponless demonstrating.

One eyewitness will later describe the gathering at St. Peter’s Field as “large bodies of men and women with bands playing and flags and banners. . . There were crowds of people in all directions, full of humour, laughing and shouting and making fun. It seemed to be a gala day with the country people, who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives.”

The local magistrates, though, are less poetic than Bamford and less happy with the gathering than the second witness. They’ve pulled together four squadrons of cavalry (that’s 600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (another 400), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery (no numbers given), two six-pounder guns, all Manchester’s special constables (again, 400), and 120 men from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry–a kind of amateur cavalry. In other words, a shitload of soldiers and cops and would-be soldiers are on standby.

And their weaponry.

The main speakers arrive and the magistrates decide that Manchester’s “in great danger,” so they order Manchester’s deputy constable to arrest the speakers.

“Can’t do it without the military,” the deputy constable says (although he doesn’t use those words).

“Right,” the magistrates say, “no problem,” although I’m still making up the dialog.

They order in some of the military, and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry are closest and get the order first. Sixty of them ride into the crowd, which links arms to protect the speaker. Later on, eyewitnesses will claim the yeomen were drunk and the officer in charge will swear they moved erratically because the horses were spooked by the crush of people.

Either way, sabers are drawn. The Yeomanry knock down a woman and kill a two-year-old child. The speaker and a few leaders are arrested, along with some nearby newspaper reporters. 

Always go for the reporters.

Someone in authority decides that the Yeomanry need defending and sends in some of the professional soldiers.

Within minutes, the field is clear and 18 people are dead. Somewhere between 400 and 700 men and women are wounded.

One of the organizers (who’s also a publisher), Richard Carlile, avoids being arrested, is hidden by local radicals, and skedaddles on the first coach back to London, where he gets the story into print as fast as he can. By our standards, that’s none too fast but it’s fast enough to piss off the authorities, who raid his print shop and confiscate every bit of paper they can get their hands on.

The Manchester Observer also reports on what happened and is the first to call it the Peterloo Massacre, echoing the Battle of Waterloo. 

Carlile and the Observer’s editor, James Wroe, are arrested and sent to prison, Carlile for blasphemy and seditious libel and Wroe for producing a seditious publication. 

I have no idea where blasphemy comes into it.

 

The massacre’s legacy

The Peterloo Massacre is over, and thank all the gods I don’t believe in we can shift to the past tense to talk about its impact.

The government got busy and passed six acts–known, creatively, as the Six Acts–that were designed to keep anything like Peterloo from happening again. Not the massacre part, mind you. The radicalism. The mass meeting. That pesky damn press, or as Lord Castlereagh described it, “The treasonable, blasphemous, and seditious branch of the press.” 

Which branch was that? The branch that sold papers to “the lower orders.” 

It wasn’t just the ruling class you could talk about without argument back then. The class structure was clear, identifiable, and right in your face. To challenge it was to join the ranks of the treasonable and blasphemous et ceteras. 

It was “utterly impossible for the mind of man long to withstand the torrent of criminal and seductive reasoning which was now incessantly poured out to the lower orders.” Castlereagh said. 

Newspapers were already taxed, and that mattered because the higher the price, the less likely working people were to buy them. But the more radical papers had avoided the tax by, at least officially, publishing opinion instead of news. 

A tax was now slapped on them regardless of what they published. Game over.

The penalties for publishing blasphemous and seditious material and generally making the authorities mad went up. They now included transportation, which is another name for exile. 

Four other acts were aimed at suppressing mass meetings and protesters who used weapons. That makes five acts, so we’re missing one. Let’s say it outlawed pineapple on pizza, and like so many laws that overreach, it didn’t work. We’re still plagued by the stuff.

Of the six acts, Parliament’s website considers five to have been mostly ineffective. The one that had an impact was the newspaper tax, which stayed in place until 1836, when it was reduced from 4p to 1p, before being abolished in 1861. 

Even so, for a while there every significant leader in the parliamentary reform period was jailed and reformist meetings were effectively banned, which doesn’t make the acts sound insignificant to me. 

But that doesn’t mean the game went to the anti-reform forces. Either in spite of the repression or because of it (these things are as likely to backfire as the reforms that are meant to avoid revolution), the massacre fueled the anger that led to the Reform Act of 1832, which didn’t address the deeper issues but smoothed out a few of the worst political inequities and expanded the franchise by an inch or two. 

The deeper issues were left to the people who organized the trade unions, the Labour Party, and the movement for universal suffrage. 

Women’s involvement in the Peterloo gathering was significant. They helped organize it, they marched, and they were targeted by the soldiers. Women’s political groups were starting to form. You can legitimately draw a line from Peterloo to the later struggle for women’s rights in the workplace, within marriage, and in the voting booth.

 

And finally

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy about Peterloo. The last stanza is:

   Rise like Lions after slumber

   In unvanquishable number,

   Shake your chains to earth like dew

   Which in sleep had fallen on you–

   Ye are many–they are few.

No publisher was brave enough to touch it and it didn’t come out until a decade after his death.

*

For a glimpse of today’s Tandle Hill, where marchers from Oldham and Saddleworth gathered to walk to St. Peter’s Field, see the Bloggler.

Many thanks to the assortment of people who’ve been pushing me in the direction of writing about this for some time now. The next chapter in the history of British voting rights is the Chartists, and I’ll get to that before too long. Really I will.

If you want to follow the story more or less from beginning to end–and with apologies for referring you to myself (especially when we already know I’m long winded), you can find more posts on the history of voting rights by following the links: The roots of the English parliament, The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights, Suffragists, Sufragettes, and votes for women.

Quinine, malaria, and empire

Quinine reached Britain (not to mention the rest of Europe) by way of Jesuit missionaries in South America. Browse around the internet and you’ll read that quinine is the dried, powdered bark of a tree that grows in the Andes and that it was discovered in the seventeenth century: The Jesuits, you’ll read, may or may not have used it to treat a Spanish countess’s malaria. Or the countess may or may not have discovered its uses herself. She may or may not have brought it back to Europe with her. 

Had the bark’s uses been discovered long before that by the people who were known as Indians thanks to Columbus having put too much trust in a glitchy SatNav (or GPS, since he was headed for the Americas)? 

Um, yes, according to biologist Nataly Canales. She says the bark was known to the Quechua, Cañari, and Chimú peoples long before any countesses or missionaries barged onto the stage.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

Once it got to Europe the bark was added to a liquid–usually wine–and drunk as a treatment for malaria.

Now let’s put quinine on the shelf and talk about malaria for a few paragraphs.

I don’t know about you, but the random reading I did when I was younger (and I spent a shocking amount of my life being younger) left me with the impression that at least the British and probably Europeans in general were exposed to malaria as a result of empire. In other words, I assumed they caught it when they left their nice, safe home climates and broke into other people’s (warmer, mosquito-prone) countries, taking them over.

Not so. Malaria in Europe predates predates the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, and while we’re at it, the Roman Empire. It was around in the ancient Mediterranean and it was also around in marshy, fenny parts of England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, and in London itself for at least for part of that time.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, it went into decline in England. Lots of causes have been proposed, from swamps being drained to an increase in the number of domestic cattle, which meant mosquitoes could bite creatures that weren’t able to swat them. Any combination of those reasons is possible. I found a perfectly respectable article that told me no one’s sorted the reasons into piles yet or measured which one is larger. 

Was malaria present in England before the fifteenth century? Probably. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” Chaucer writes about tertian fever–a recurring fever that was probably malaria. That takes us back to the fourteenth century and we won’t chase it any further back than that or we’ll never get out of here.

Malaria was also called ague or intermittent fever, and ague appeared in any number of the crumbly old novels I read when I spent all that time being younger. I had no idea what ague meant, I just accepted it as some vague kind of sickness and went on as if I understood more than, in fact, I did.

Those characters had malaria. And although some caught it by breaking and entering in other people’s countries, some caught it right there at home.

In fact, Europeans may have exported the disease to the Americas. That’s not certain, but a second strain of malaria was definitely imported with the slaves Europeans dragged over from Africa.

The long-standing European belief was that malaria came from bad airmal’aria–and that made a kind of sense. Folks had noticed that it was associated with stagnant water, vapors, swampy places. They were missing a piece of the puzzle, but as far as it went, it was good observation.

By the seventeenth century, the English were treating malaria with the latest wonder drug, opium, which both doctors and patients agreed cured pretty much everything: pain, fever, financial embarrassment, although it only cured that last problem if you were selling the stuff, not if you were taking it or buying it.

Opium was also used as an antidote to poison. Like I said, it cured everything.

Then along came quinine and–well, there was a problem. It came from the hands of Jesuits–in fact, it was called the Jesuit powder–and England wasn’t just Protestant, it was aggressively Protestant. Puritan-flavored, Cromwellian Protestant. And Cromwellian Protestants didn’t want a Catholic-flavored drug, even if it would cure a serious problem. 

Cromwell himself is thought to have died of malaria and he might (it’s not certain) have refused to take any of that dread Jesuit powder. Andrew Marvell (another staunch Puritan and a poet; nothing to do with the comic books) also had malaria and might have died from an accidental overdose of opium that he might have taken for it instead of quinine. 

Sorry–lots of mights in there. History’s full of things we don’t know for sure, and one of them is whether anyone dangled Jesuit-inflected quinine in front of them. (“Here, kid, the first one’s free.”) The consensus, though, is that Cromwell, at least, refused it. In a definitely very probably likely kind of way.

Opium wasn’t the only treatment for malaria. I’m not sure when Europeans gave this one up as a lost cause, but at some point the remedies they tried included throwing the patient head-first into a bush. The idea was the patient should get out quickly and leave the fever behind.

Britain’s full of thorny bushes, and I know that because I’ve met every one of them personally, so I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the British gave this remedy up early.

Eventually, England settled down enough to realize that taking quinine for malaria didn’t necessarily turn you into a (gasp) Catholic (and didn’t leave you full of thorns) and it accepted the drug.

All of this mattered because malaria was and is, to varying extents, debilitating. The extent depended on the strain. Some strains killed people and others didn’t. Britain’s version was on the milder end of the spectrum, but many strains were capable of leaving individuals, whole regions, and armies debilitated. Some historians tag malaria in the fall of the Roman Empire. It wanders into discussions of the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, and assorted other historical turning points. The European colonization of Africa was slowed by malaria. Europeans had no immunity to it, while some (although not all) Africans did. If you inherit two copies of a particular genetic mutation, you have sickle cell anemia, but if you inherit only one it protects you against malaria. 

By the nineteenth century, Europe was in the process of eradicating malaria, so the Britons who went abroad to build and serve the empire (not to mention to build their own fortunes and serve themselves) were moving from a relatively low risk of the disease to a higher one. Which explains my impression that malaria was something they got in the hot countries where they practiced breaking and entering. 

In India, the British Empire ran on quinine. In the nineteenth century the active ingredients was isolated and purified, and Britons in the Indian colony mixed it with sugar and soda water, called it tonic, and took a dose of it daily as a preventive. 

In 1858 it was first made commercially, and from the colonies it eventually took over the home market.

At about this same time, gin was overcoming its reputation for dragging people into sin and degradation. It became respectable enough for British colonial officials to pour a bit into their tonic water. Or possibly a bit more than a bit.

For medicinal purposes only, you understand.

In 1880, the malaria bug was finally identified. It was a nearly transparent, crescent-shaped beastie. Then, as the world was falling off the edge of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the anopheles mosquito was identified as its carrier.

Quinine remained the treatment of choice, as it had been for four hundred years, but the stuff had–and has–side effects that range from mild headache, nausea, and hearing problems to severe vertigo, vomiting, marked hearing loss, loss of vision, hypertension, and thrombosis, asthma, and psychosis.

Its use is not recommended if you take a long list of drugs that you can’t pronounce anyway.

All of which explains why other drugs are often used for malaria these days and why so many websites tell you not to use it to treat leg cramps–although a few swallows of tonic water won’t leave you psychotic and vomiting by the side of the road. 

The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest

A man was arrested in October for trying to steal a copy of the Magna Carta. Or–depending on what news source you like–on suspicion of trying to steal it. It happened in Salisbury, where it was on display in the cathedral, so for all we know he may have been a public-spirited citizen who wanted the city to be known for something other than novichok poisonings.

But enough about him. Let’s talk about the thing he was trying to steal.

We’ll start, while we still remember that someone tried to steal it, by saying that only four copies of the 1215 Magna Carta survive. They’re written by hand (as everything was in those days) and in Latin (as everything that mattered was).

In 2015, a version from 1300 was found in the archives in Maidstone, Kent. Stay with me and you’ll see why they have different dates. It had somehow gotten filed inside the pages of a Victorian scrapbook and was (don’t ask me how these two facts can coexist) cuddled up next to a Charter of the Forest. We’ll get to the Charter of the Forest eventually, but in the meantime we can pretend it was in the scrapbook as well.

Irrelevant photo: hemp agrimony–a wildflower.

Part of this newly found version of the Magna Carta is missing, but it was still valued at around £10 million. So stealing one? Yeah, you could make a few bucks that way. Or quid, if you prefer. But put your wallet away, because it’s not for sale. It belongs to the town of Sandwich, which decided to use it as tourist bait. Presumably it’s worth more that way, at least in the long run.

The find supports the belief that the Magna Carta was issued more widely than historians had thought–that it was sent to at least fifty ports and cathedral cities.

So let’s talk about what the Magna Carta is and why it matters.

The story starts, or at least can start, as many stories from this period of English history do, with the English fighting in France, parts of which belonged to England. Or at least the English thought they belonged to England, and so did what passed for international law at the time. We’ll skip the details. What matters is that however many times England won or everyone involved worked out a peace deal, France was still across a big damn chunk of water, England’s French lands were still on the other side of the aforesaid water, and the next thing anyone knew everyone involved was fighting again.

That’s why I feel free to skip the details. Just when you get the kids all settled down to eat a meal in peace, they start the whole thing over again. If it’s not fighting over who said what to who, it’s over who lost the remote and who was the first one to throw food. Besides, we’ve already got a long post here.

All that fighting took money. Lots of money. And that money had to come from somewhere. Keep that in mind while we swerve left to avoid a pothole and explore a bit of church history.

In 1205, the archbishop of Canterbury died. The monks of Canterbury and King John couldn’t agree on the next archbishop, so they appealed to the Pope (if that sounds peaceful and cooperative, it wasn’t), who had a third candidate in mind.

King John did what any sensible adult would do in that situation, he banished the Pope’s candidate, and the Pope did what any pope would do and placed an interdict on the country, which meant that no religious services could be held. Church bells couldn’t be rung. According to one source, people couldn’t be buried, but I seriously doubt they were left lying where they dropped. Let’s agree that for the sake of public health they were put in the ground but without the religious rituals that people of the time considered necessary.

Eventually, the Pope excommunicated John, which meant his subjects were freed from their oaths of allegiance and the French were free to invade, which they did, although not until a sentence and a half from now. John felt free to confiscate church property, which he did. Then he sold it back to the church, making a profit that he used, in part, to create a navy, which he used first to invade Ireland (in case he didn’t have enough trouble) and then to defeat the French invasion that happened at the beginning of the paragraph, which has been in suspension until we got to this point.

John’s  excommunication also gave some of his barons the excuse they needed to start plotting against him. John grew suspicious. Tensions rose.

John accepted the Pope’s candidate for archbishop, humbled himself publicly, and paid 100,000 marks to compensate the church for the trouble he’d caused. That got him re-communicated. Tensions fell. Everyone kissed and made up and buried the dead bodies they’d left lying around, but none of them (that’s the living people, not the dead) liked each other any more than they had before.

Then John invaded France. It didn’t go particularly well and he returned to England trailing a whiff of cowardice, at which point the barons who’d been plotting rose against him, because if there was one thing aristocrats of the era couldn’t stand it was the scent of cowardice. The accusations of cowardice may or may not have been justified, but it didn’t matter. They’d been in conflict with him for a long time and this was a great excuse, so a few of them met with the Pope’s shiny new archbishop (who might just possibly have harbored a resentment or two) at Bury St. Edmunds and swore to fight the king if he didn’t grant them a charter.

Keep the thought of a charter in your mind while we wander off again. The story’s full of potholes. We’ll get to the charter eventually.

Charter, charter, charter, charter.

A few barons put clothespins on their noses to block that whiff and declared for John, but most of them burrowed deep in their beds and waited to see who’d come out ahead, John or the rebels. A few baronial families did even better than that: They split their allegiance, planting family members on both sides. Whatever happened, the family would come out ahead.

The rebels chose Robert FitzWalter was their leader. He’d been tangling with the king for years. But although personalities loom large in the tales that lead up to the Magna Carta, they’re not what matter most. The world’s full of personalities and conflicts between them, and most of the time they’re not much more than a background hum. It’s only occasionally that events give them space to flower. The root of the trouble seems to be what the monk Roger of Wendover described as the king’s “unjust exaction which reduced [the barons of England] to extreme poverty.”

You might want to think of that as relative extreme poverty. They were still barons. Their poverty would’ve been a peasant’s most outrageous dreams of more-than-plenty.

The newly re-communicated King John got the Pope’s backing against the rebel barons, so he had god’s support and could take the field as a crusader. The Pope excommunicated the rebels, but they also had god’s support–they declared themselves the Army of God and the Holy Church, even if the church was backing the other side.

If you believe in the same god they did, you can assume that he was, at best, confused and might understandably have decided to sit this dance out.

The barons sent John a list of demands. He read it and said, “Go fish.”

Okay, he didn’t say, “Go fish.” That’s from a kids’ card game that hadn’t been invented yet. What the kids of that era did to keep themselves out of trouble I can’t imagine. What John actually said was some era-appropriate version of “When I see pigs fly by this arrow slit that I call a window, I’ll put my name to this piece of crap.”

The barons responded by besieging Northampton, where John defeated them, but London opened its gates and FitzWalter and his Army of God marched in. King John, with his own lower case army of god, held onto the Tower of London.

The two sides negotiated and eventually met at Runnymede, a field of no particular distinction at the time but now famous for being the place where they met, where they’d agreed that John would sign the Magna Carta, which wasn’t called that yet and was the same thing John had called an era-appropriate version of “this piece of crap.” It guaranteed the rights of the Church–an interesting provision, given that the rebels were still excommunicated. It also limited some of the ways the king could exploit feudal customs, confirmed people’s rights under Common Law, and protected the barons’ from any repercussions of their rebellion.

One clause said twelve knights would be elected within every county to investigate abuses by sheriffs, foresters, and other royal officials. Another set up a committee of barons to enforce the settlement. In return, the rebels promised to surrender London.

Both sides crossed their fingers behind their backs and John signed.

Neither side kept its side of the bargain, or meant to. The rebels kept London. For his part, John sent out copies of the charter but put the sherriffs in charge of investigating abuses by the sherriffs and their cronies. He also sent a copy to the Pope, who (as John had expected) promptly nullified it. He wasn’t about to have either a king–or by extension, a pope–rule under the supervision of his subjects.

But for all that no one planned to abide by it, the charter bought both sides a short stretch of peace, which was all they’d hoped for. Then the two sides were fighting again. You had the remote last. Yeah, but you threw mashed potatoes at me. With gravy. The rebels offered the English crown to Prince Louis of France. Predictably enough, Louis’ proud father, Philip, sent troops.

Things looked bleak for John. By now, a good two-thirds of his barons had gambled on the French, and John and his troops were being harried through the countryside. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, when his army and, more importantly, his baggage train were crossing some muddy tidal flats of Lincolnshire that are called the Wash, a rising tide swept away his treasury and the crown jewels. The land there is flat and the tide, according to the BBC, which knows these things, can rise faster than a running man. Or, presumably, woman. At the full and new moons, it can outrun a horse without stopping to ask if it’s male or female.

It was all looking pretty grim for John when he played a card that turned a losing hand into a winning one: He caught dysentery and died, the clever devil. His son was crowned Henry III and he reissued the Magna Carta, which left the rebels without much to rally around. Barons changed sides and suddenly the French troops looked more French and less English than they had a few minutes before. The war changed from a civil war to a war of resistance against the French.

Louis was defeated, in a nice bit of balance, at Sandwich, which appeared early in our post, making a sandwich of the intervening potholes, detours, and information. Less helpfully, he was also defeated at Lincoln, which has nothing to do with our tale.

He withdrew in 1217.

And the Magna Carta? It was re-reissued in 1225 and again whenever the king and some element of his country were at odds with each other. In the 1270s, the Church demanded that a copy of Magna Carta be displayed on the door of every major monastery and every cathedral church.

What made the Magna Carta so important? Well, it made the king subject to the rule of law. That was not just new, it was shocking. It established the idea that taxation depended on the consent of the kingdom. A few hundred years later, the American Revolution dropped that thought into the social media of the time and it went either bacterial. Or viral–no one knew the difference then.

It–it being the Magna Carta here–also made taxation all the more necessary because it blocked many other sources of kingly revenue. So the great and powerful (although sub-royal) would now have to be summoned to give their consent to new taxes, and that opened the door, for the first time, to what would become a parliament.

In theory (and I’m borrowing this thought from a British Library video by professors David Carpenter and Nicholas Vincent) it put an end to arbitrary kingship, although in practice kings went right on being arbitary. They continued taxing and tyraninzing. “What mattered about Magna Carta . . . was Magna Carta the idea, not necessarily Magna Carta the political tool. It survived long after the tyranny of any individual king and therefore it became a point of principle rather than of practical politics.” 

Now let’s go back to the Charter of the Forest, which you could be forgiven for having forgotten was found sandwiched in with the Magna Carta in the Sandwich archives.

The Charter of the Forest was issued in 1217, when Henry III issued a new version of the Magna Carta. By then, roughly a third of the country (or of southern England, depending on your source) had become royal forest, and the king made a big honkin’ chunk of money from fining people for various offenses within its bounds. The charter reduced its area by un-foresting everything that had been added since Henry II’s time. It also got rid of capital  punishment and mutilation for poaching (which is basically hunting game that belongs to some aristocrat). People could still be fined or imprisoned for poaching, but hey, they weren’t being killed or mutilated. Progress has a  bleak sense of humor.

It allowed  free men (notice the limitations there) who had woods within the forest to put up buildings and clear land for farming.

How can people have woods within a forest? Forest, as it turns out, didn’t mean forest. Ever since the Normans conquered England, it meant an enclosed area claimed by a king or lord, along with all the huntable animals in it and the vegetation they fed on. A forest could be forest, grassland, wetlands, whatever–blue sky, presumably, if you could enclose it. The royal forest grew big enough to create a hardship for people trying to do frivolous things like farm, fish, gather fuel, pasture animals, and generally feed their families.

Where the Magna Carta was most immediately about the rights of the powerful, the Charter of the Forest was about common people’s rights. Some of its clauses stayed in force until the 1970s.

At the same time that the Charter of the Forest was issued, the Magna Carta was modified so that widows could refuse to remarry and could retain some of their husbands’ land and their rights to the common, which meant they could still make a living–a reduced one, but better than what they’d been able to do before.

It was the Charter of the Forest that established the name of the Magna Carta, which wasn’t called the Great Charter because it was fantastic, wonderful, and better looking than your average charter. It was bigger than the little charter–the Charter of the Forest. Calling it Magna was a way to keep them straight.

The Charter of the Forest isn’t as well known as the Magna Carta, but for hundreds of years every church had to read it out four times a year. It provided a legal basis for commoners–meaning people with a right under feudal law to use a common plot of land–to defend that right for centuries to come.

England has never had another king named John.

*

Someone left me a comment about the Charter of the Forest a good long while ago. I’d never heard of it and without that shove wouldn’t have found it. The information’s easy enough to find, but even so you won’t find it unless you look. My thanks, and my apologies for losing track of who you are. Give me a shout and I’ll post a link to your blog.

Why Britain is called Britain

Every so often someone searches the internet asking why Britain’s called Britain and the question lands them in the surreal territory that makes up Notes from the U.K. It’s a sensible question, and it makes a nice change from the related (and way more common) questions about why Britain’s called great. (Answer: ‘cause it’s bigger than the single-patty, quarter-pounder Britain. And it comes with a slice of pickle. Would you like fries with that?)

I’ve been meaning to research the question but put it off because it promised to be complicated. And it fulfilled that promise. It is complicated. Allow me, please, to make it worse.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, Britain is the “proper name of the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales, c. 1300, Breteyne, from Old French Bretaigne, from Latin Britannia, earlier Brittania, from Brittani “the Britons” (see Briton). The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant “Wales.” If there was a Celtic name for the island, it has not been recorded.”

Are you confused yet? If not, go back and read that again, because you should be.

Good. If you’re now in the right state of mind, we’re take that mess apart, spread the pieces out on the living room floor, and look at them as carefully as if we expected to understand them. I doubt we’ll get all the parts back where they started, but what the hell, we didn’t write the definition so it’s not our problem. We might just figure out how it worked (if, in fact, it did work) before we pulled it all to pieces.

But before we dismantle the thing, I should let you know that I’ve made labels so we can sort the bits into categories. A lot of them could as easily go in one pile as another, but we need some sort of system if we’re going to keep this organized.

Wish me luck.

Marginally relevant photo: This is Britain, or a bit of it anyway. The picture doesn’t explain anything, but it is what we’re talking about.

The Romans and the Britons

What we’ve got so far, if you read between the lines of that not-very-well-organized definition, is that Britain was named by the Romans, who invaded the place in the first century C.E. and claimed naming rights.

Stop. What’s this C.E. business?

Like many of you (that’s a guess, but humor me), I learned to divide history into B.C. and A.D., using a system that take the birth (or is it death?) of Christ as the dividing point for all time everywhere. I was taught that the initials stood for Before Christ and After Death, which seems to leave the period when he was actually alive a blank, but never mind. It was a good way to remember which set of initials was what.

A.D. actually stands for Anno Domini, Latin for the year of our lord—or so I was told by a teacher who was probably as Jewish as I was and am, but the system was so rigidly in place at the time that neither of us commented on the strangeness of claiming a god who wasn’t ours and using him as our marker. Whatever B.C. really stands for, I’m sure it’s Latin as well, but a quick rattle through Dr. Google’s knowledge pills didn’t leave me any wiser and it’s a side point anyway. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, we’ll stagger forward.

Decades after I learned about B.C. and A.D., I was working as a copy editor for a major publishing house. (I’m retired, much to the publishing world’s relief, and any inconsistencies in style that you find here are because I don’t get paid to care anymore. Wheeeeeeeeeee.) Their encyclopedias were sold in many countries and to many cultures. They needed to be inclusive, so they used C.E. (the Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of A.D. and B.C.

C.E. / B.C.E. is an attempt to keep what as far as I know is the dominant dating system but without assuming that the entire world takes Christ as its reference point. But introducing a new system confuses the hell out of people over I’m not sure what age—and possibly under it. I’m sorry about the confusion. It took me a while to get used to it too, but there’s nothing like getting paid to help a person get on top of a new way of thinking. Now that I’ve made the transition, I like system, but I always feel like I need to explain.

At length, unfortunately.

And as another side point, the Muslim world starts its dating system from an entirely different point: the year Muhammad moved from Quba’ to Medina. So I could be wrong about what the dominant system is. Maybe it’s just been the dominant one in my life. Which is easy enough to mistake for the entire world.

The earliest dating systems tended to use rulers as their reference points—something along the lines of “In the third year of the rule of King Idogar the Insignificant…” That meant that different countries used different reference points and any single country used different reference points at different times. It made piecing the quilt of world history together a nightmare, since after a few centuries no one knew when old Idogar reined. So both the Christian and Muslim systems were massive improvements, giving everyone a stabilized way to track time, even if they both assumed their religions were and always would be the center of everything.

Onward. Or possibly backward to what we were talking about before I so rudely interrupted myself.

When the Romans landed in Britain, the place was inhabited by Celtic tribes—the Britons mentioned in the definition—who don’t seem (emphasis on seem; we can’t know) to have called it “Britain.” What did they call it? Dunno. They would’ve called it something more specific than “home.” They traveled to Europe (more about Europe in a minute), and Europeans traveled to Britain, so everyone involved would’ve needed a name for it. When you step outside of a place, you do need a way to talk about it. And Britain’s an island, which makes it distinct enough that it would’ve screamed out for a name of its own.

But what mattered more than the island at the time was what tribe a Briton belonged to or what tribe’s territory an outsider landed in. Britain wasn’t a united country. It wasn’t a country at all. Whatever it was called referred to the geography, not any political grouping.

As (yet another) a side point, no one had a name for Europe back then. They had names for its parts, but they didn’t think of the whole. It’s not a place with clear geographical borders, so naming it would have been like naming half your hand: It’s just not something most of us feel a need to do. Plus it’s big. No one at that time, as far as I know, would’ve traveled completely around it. So—to use a different comparison—naming it would’ve been like naming yourself and six inches of the air around you. This isn’t a territory most of us need a name for.

What people named were the parts—the places where they and people they knew about lived.

So the Romans invaded Britain and claimed naming rights, and in the process of naming the place named its inhabitants. We don’t know if the pre-Roman Britons had a group name for themselves. Until they were invaded, and probably for some time after, they’d have been more likely to see the differences between their tribe and the neighboring tribes than the samenesses.

The tribal names have come down to us from the Romans as the Iceni, the Cornovi, and so on and on and on. But those names use Latin forms. At best, they’d be Roman manglings of what the tribes called themselves and at worst complete impositions. One of the tribes is called the Setantii. I don’t know Latin, but that sounds suspiciously like the Italian word for 70—settanta

Why call a tribe 70? Once again, dunno. We’d have had to be there. Maybe that wasn’t what it meant at all.

But let’s go back to the word Britain, which comes from Brittania (however you want to spell it). It seems to come from an earlier word, Prettanoi or Prittanoi. And now it’s time to move over by the coffee table, because we’re going to put our pieces on a new pile.

The Celts, the Greeks, and the tattoos

One source says the name Prittanoi (however you choose to spell it) came from the Britons’ “Celtic neighbours in Gaul (modern France) and we know that they had a very similar language. Prettanoi was a native [that means Celtic] word meaning ‘painted people’, and the Prettanoi called the island where they lived Albion, ‘the white land’. [I’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, grain of salt here. It’s on the shelf in the kitchen. Thanks.] Later Greek and Roman writers began to call the island Britannia, meaning ‘land of the Britons (Prettanoi).’”

Wikipedia (never mind the link—it will all have changed by now) says (or once said) that the word Prettanoi came to us from the Greek explorer Pytheas, who sailed around the British Isles (quick geography lesson: that includes Ireland) between 330 and 320 B.C.E. and that the word may have come to him from the Gauls.

Another source, and I’ve lost track of it by now—sorry; I’ve looked up too much closely related stuff and it’s all cross-fertilizing—says the word meant “the tattooed people.” The British tribes were known for painting themselves blue, at least when they went into battle, which they allegedly did naked. Spend a winter here and you’ll understand why I say “allegedly.” It’s not Minnesota, but speaking only for myself, I wear clothes and am damn glad to have them.

Some Roman sources claim the tribes didn’t just paint themselves but were tattooed, and a different Wikipedia entry translates Prettanoi as “the painted or tattooed people.” And, for whatever it’s worth, the BBC says that when the Normans invaded, they found the British (I’m not sure which British: the Anglo-Saxons or the Celts or both?) still tattooing themselves, and the Normans took up the habit from them. I’m not sure when they stopped, but I can tell you that they’ve started again, with (as far as I know) no sense that they’re carrying on a longstanding national tradition.

That second Wikipedia entry I mentioned also raises doubts about the word Prettanoi having anything to do with blue paint or tattoos. It links it to the Welsh word pritu (“ Proto-Celtic kwritu,” if that means anything to you), which meant “shape” or “form.” “This leaves us with Pritania,” it says.

Welsh is a descendant of the language spoken by some of the Celtic tribes (we’ll get to why I say “some of” eventually), so looking at Welsh makes sense , but I have no idea why “shape” or “form” would seem like a good name for an island or a people. I admit that both have a shape, but so do most solids.

Okay, when we took that apart, we kind of wrecked it. But what about Albion meaning “the white land”? One source (and again, I’ve lost track of which one; do you honestly care?) says the word’s probably Celtic but related to the Latin albus, meaning white, as in the white cliffs of Dover (presumably), because the land itself is green. That would mean the link to whiteness comes from Latin, not any Celtic language. Celtic and Latin are two very different, very unrelated languages.

I’m willing to believe that a Celtic word sounding roughly like Albion got mixed up with the Latin word meaning “white” and before anyone knew what had happened they were all as confused as I am. Or as you are if you’ve been following me closely.

But let’s not take ourselves too seriously. I have the sense that there’s a lot of guesswork going on here. And that from time to time serious explanation edges over into pure fantasy.

But we’ve wandered. You should know better than to leave me in charge.

If some of the Britons’ neighbors called them the Prittanoi or something vaguely like it, it’s no great surprise that it stuck. Many groups of people have been landed with names (often insulting ones) given to them by their neighbors. The Saami people used to be called Laplanders. The Inuits were called the Eskimo. The Ojibwe were called the Chippewa. They’ve only recently started to insist that the world call them by the names they call themselves.

For the Prittanoi, though, it’s too late. Whatever they called themselves is lost, and so are they.

More about the Celts, a bit about the Greeks, and nothing more about tattoos

While we’re talking about the Celts, let’s back up a bit and ask who they were.

The word describes a group of tribes who ran around Europe before anybody started taking notes. They can be traced back to the upper Danube around 1,400 B.C.E

According to one source, the Celts started arriving in in what’s now Scotland around 900 B.C.E. Which doesn’t mean all the Celts left Europe. One source (I no longer care which one; I’ve lost the will to link) says the Celts were in Austria France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Western Germany, Northern Spain, Turkey, and Hungary in 400 B.C.E. Not that any of those countries existed, but the Celts were in place and absolutely panting for them to be invented.

But another source says the Celts probably arrived in Britain in two waves: the Goidelic-speaking Celts (that means the tribes who spoke one version of a somewhat common language, and I can’t pronounce the word Goidelic either) between 2000 B.C.E. and 1200 B.C.E. and the Brythonic-speaking (that’s the other version) Celts sometime between 500 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E.

Flip a coin. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter. They got here. That’s all we need to know for now.

The Cornish, Welsh, Gaelic, and Breton languages are descendants of what we now call Celtic.

So why do we call it Celtic? Some sources claim the word Celt (it’s pronounced kelt; have I mentioned lately that English is insane?) comes from the ancient Greek keltoi, meaning “barbarian.” I doubted that because I happen to know that the English word barbarian comes from the Greek barbaros, meaning–you guessed it– “barbarian.” To the Greek ear, anyone who didn’t speak Greek must’ve all sounded like they were saying “bar bar bar baar bar bar bar.”

Where does keltoi come into it, then? Possibly nowhere. When I tried to find a translation, I came up with several people writing on the assumption that it did mean barbarian but not actually translating the word. Which made me—cynic that I am—even more suspicious. One site that looked like it was actually going to translate it ended up telling me about yew trees instead. So for a while there, I didn’t think I could find any proof the word even existed.

Ah, but I knew you were waiting, so I pressed on and found some online dictionaries of ancient Greek.

Now, ancient Greek uses—surprise, surprise—the Greek alphabet, and one dictionary offered me an on-screen keyboard. I don’t know Greek (my vocabulary’s made up of a few food words and a few insults, plus the words for and and barbarian), but I can stumble through parts of the alphabet, so I picked out the word κελτοι and hit Search.

A new screen appeared and said my search for κελτοι had come up blank.

Well, yes, I could see why it might’ve. I don’t know what alphabet that is or whether it’s used on this planet, but it ain’t Greek.

Fine. I found a dictionary that would accept transliterated words and typed in “keltoi.”

New Screen. Great excitement, because we were about to have a revelation.

The word means “Celtic.” Or “Gallic,” since that’s what the Romans called the Celts in what the Romans called Gaul, which covered what’s now France and Germany and a bunch of other places that didn’t have any political existence or possibly even separate names yet.

So the word Celtic derives from a Greek word meaning “Celtic,” which for all I know was taken from a Celtic word meaning “Celtic.”

Do you feel like we’re going in circles here?

Fine. We’re lost. But it’s okay, because we’ll just accept that Celt either comes from a word meaning “Celt” or from thin air and we’ll go on to talk about the part of the definition we started with, which says, “The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant ‘Wales.”

Reinforcing that, another source says that around 1200, Briton meant “a Celtic native of the British Isles,” or “a member of the tribe of the Britons.”

The Angles, the Saxons, and the Normans, but still no more tattoos

To make sense of that, we need to talk about a few more invasions.

The Romans, when they were still running Britain, brought in mercenaries who belonged to a couple of Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, and ceded land to them, which they settled. I don’t know if they pushed the Celts out of those lands at this stage or not, but I’m willing to guess that the good land suddenly wasn’t in Celtic hands.

After the Romans withdrew, more Angles and Saxons invaded or migrated—take your pick—into Britain. Between them, the Angles and the Saxons pushed the Celts into the corners of Britain—Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland.

The Angles eventually gave their name to England, which gradually became a country instead of a gaggle of small kingdomlets. That much seems clear. Not to mention shockingly simple.

Then Anglo-Saxon England got invaded by the Normans, who came from France but were originally Norse, which is the origin of their name.

Almost nobody in this tale ever leaves well enough alone. Especially (and I do know this although I don’t do much about it) me.

That brings us to the part of the definition we opened with where it says the word Britain came back into use from the Old French, which had preserved the Roman name. If that’s true, what did the Angles and Saxons call the place?

One of the 607 Wikipedia entries I got lost in says that in Old English—that’s the language of the Anglo-Saxons before and for some time after the Norman conquest—it was called “Bryttania.” Then it goes on to talk about the word Britannia re-entering the language from Old French, which the Normans spoke and which eventually merged with Old English to give us the glorious mess of a language that we have today.

How is Bryttania different from Britannia? Ignore the spelling, because spelling was a liquid back then. Most people couldn’t read and those who could treated spelling as a creative activity. C’mon, they didn’t have TV. They had to do something.

So let’s shove the spelling difference over a cliff. The two words look the same to me. Maybe the talk about the word re-entering from Old French is because French is what the conquerors spoke, so even if they used was the same word, the Norman version was the one that mattered. But you remember how I said things shade over into fantasy pretty quickly? I’m helping the process along here, because although that explanation sounds sensible I have no idea if it’s true.

We’re almost at the end here. Do you feel certain of anything anymore? If so, you haven’t been paying attention. So let’s end with a reminder from the BBC, which at least will take us back to a reliable source:

“Before Roman times, ‘Britain’ was just a geographical entity, and had no political meaning, and no single cultural identity. Arguably this remained generally true until the 17th century, when James I of England and VI of Scotland sought to establish a pan-British monarchy.”

*

Okay, that’s everything I know, and a bit more. If you’d help me get this mess off the living room floor, I’d appreciate it. Just drop it in the trash can as you go out. And have a good Friday the thirteenth. If you want to make corrections, add facts, or subtract facts, I’d welcome it. On the other hand, if you just want to tear your hair and moan, I’ll understand it. And on the third hand, if you want to complain, I’ll understand that as well.

Living with history

Living in Cornwall means living with an awareness of history. It’s one of the things I love about the place. I can leave my house and in less than half an hour drive to (and I’m naming just a few spots) a stone circle, the remains of a medieval field system, the vague hints of a medieval hamlet, the ruin of a 16th century castle, and behind the castle a much older set of foundations that may have been a monastery. At least I think the current theory says it was a monastery.  A more romantic theory holds that King Arthur was conceived in an older castle on the same site and that his final battle was fought a few miles away, at Slaughterbridge.

In November, the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter (just over an hour from here) caught fire, and the news reports said it was the oldest hotel in England. That led the Guardian to run an article on other hotels that are also the oldest in England. It turns out they all have a reasonable claim, because there’s more than one way to define oldest hotel: oldest building now used as a hotel; building used as a hotel for the longest time; oldest building originally used as an inn but now used as a hotel; oldest small piece of a building now used as a hotel but that’s been added on to and changed over the years. The list could go on, I’m sure. Everyplace wants to be the oldest. Because people here value the history. Which, to be crass, means it sells.

Relevant photo: A castle ruin near Edinburgh. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Relevant photo: A castle in the Firth of Forth (don’t you just love saying that?), near Edinburgh. No, it’s not Cornwall, but it’s about as relevant as the pictures here get. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Visiting heritage sites is a national pastime, and in 2015 over 40 million people did exactly that. That’s almost 75% of the adult population of Britain, although some whacking big chunk of the visitors must have been foreign tourists. But never mind, because an even larger chunk weren’t. That’s based on Hawley’s Small and Unscientific survey of the accents I hear when I visit those places myself.

Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey is never wrong.

Heritage sites include castles, stately homes, and archeological sites but doesn’t seem to include the old ships, churches, mills, factories, and small bits of steam railroad dotted around the country. The steam railroads are lovingly refurbished and run by volunteers. A lot of Wild Thing’s family worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and she grew up around steam trains, so I’m particularly conscious of them. We once drove halfway across Minneapolis to figure out why we were hearing one. It turned out to be a beautifully restored Canadian train that had been brought in for who knows what reason.

Add the people who go to those sites to the heritage site numbers and you can probably bump up the number of visitors by some impressive amount. By my calculations, 136% of the British population has visited one of the sites in the past year.

No, I can’t be trusted around numbers. The point, though, is that history isn’t just a high-end obsession here. The article where I found the number of visitors notes that the participation gap between rich and poor and between white and everybody else had narrowed in five or so years.

I used to wonder what it would be like to grow up surrounded so visibly by history, then I met a kid who told me in all seriousness that he was descended from King Arthur. I didn’t ask how that worked, being descended from a king who may well be mythical, I just took it as a tribute to the power of story and to the way history affects the imagination.

But history’s a tricky thing, and when it collides with imagination it gets even trickier. A lot of us like to imagine knights and lords and ladies and King Arthur and all those Druids, whoever the Druids were and whatever they actually did. We look at the stone circles that haunt the landscape, and because they’re silent we can imagine them to mean anything we want. Someone once told me that at one of them she felt a powerfully female energy. I don’t doubt that she felt it. I do doubt her feelings had anything to do with the stones, the place, or the history.

Popular imagination holds that the bowl-shaped rocks on the moor were used for blood sacrifices, but a geologist neighbor says they were formed by the wind spending eons blowing pebbles around in the hollows. Which is a lot less evocative but more convincing.

As easy as it is to edit in a romantic tale or three, it’s also easy to edit out the conflict and misery behind the archeological sites. The gorgeous hill forts that dot Cornwall stand witness to warfare and the expectation of attack. The field system I mentioned in the first paragraph was originally a common, which means it was owned collectively by a group of people who had the right to use it in certain traditional ways, which would have been spelled out. It continued as a common until at least the seventeenth century. In 1844, fourteen owners were recorded. By 2000, the field had one owner.

I’m inclined to mourn the loss of common land. The families who had a right to it depended on it for food at a time when food was scarce and hunger wasn’t. The loss of commons is commemorated by a folk poem that says, “The law locks up the man or woman / Who steals the goose off the common / But leaves the greater villain loose / Who steals the common from the goose.”

I don’t know how that one particular field changed from common land to owned land. If it had followed the usual pattern, the change would have come earlier and the marks of the medieval system would have disappeared by now. But in general, the change was marked by desperation and the destruction of a way of life. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t a good way of life (unless you lived somewhere the top of the class pyramid) or an easy one, but for anyone on the wrong end of the change, what came next was worse.

And the great houses so many visitors admire today? The money to build some of them came from stealing the common from the goose. For others, it came from slave plantations overseas. For the rest, it came from other charming arrangements. But the houses are beautiful. We pay our admission and drift through, admiring whatever we’re inclined to admire—the dishes, the architecture, the clothing, the lush life they housed.

In a great house outside Bodmin, the lady’s parlor is laid out with a permanent afternoon tea and, if I remember right, four chairs. I can’t help imagining myself into one of those chairs, drinking tea, eating scones and little lovely whatevers. Set out food and I’ll imagine myself eating it. Then I imagine doing that every day, and the perfect boredom of a life where that’s pretty much all you can count on to break up the day. Then I remember how many underpaid, overbossed servants it took to keep one lady eating little whatevers at 4 p.m. every day, and the poverty and lack of alternatives that drove them to take those jobs, and  how long the work day was, and how little of that beauty they could claim as their own.

Isn’t it just fun hanging around with me? Don’t you just feel uplifted? I’ll see if I can’t be more fun next week.