Easter bunnies and Killer Hares

Do you know what’s one subject you don’t want to take at GCSE if you’re not very good at it?

Art.

Unfortunately for 15 year old me, all my friends wanted to do art and I wasn’t very good at the alternative option either (Design Technology – I think the exam had something to do with birdhouses, or ashtrays, or ashtrays for birdhouses?) so art it was.

Big mistake. In French I could mumble my way through the verbs I’d spent my weekend not revising. I could play with enough enthusiasm during music lessons that my teachers didn’t mind that most of the notes were wrong. But art? Each week I’d have to pin my feeble attempts at fruit bowls on my easel for all to see. And worse still, everyone else’s attempts (which were also pinned up at the end of each lesson) were always so much better.

“You have a very medieval way of drawing people”, my teacher told me once.

“Is that good?” I asked hopefully.

“It’s certainly… distinctive.”

I dropped art as soon as I could, but my teacher’s comments stayed with me and a couple of years later I applied to study medieval history at university, citing the moment I realised I had a “medieval” style of drawing as the moment I realised I was interested in medieval history.

What has this got to do with Easter?

Today’s post is basically just a way for me to prove my art teacher wrong by making my shoddy drawings the star of the show. But I’ve cunningly disguised that fact by pretending it’s all about the festive topic of the Easter bunny.

The Easter bunny’s origins are a bit vague. A commonly held belief is that as abundantly fertile animals, rabbits represent new life which ties in nicely with the religious message of Easter, but it’s really not as simple as that.

Our modern bunny is a commercial creature with his soft floppy ears and non-threatening, chocolate-loving persona. This creation is, unsurprisingly, thanks to America. When German Lutherans arrived in America during the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought the tradition of the “Osterhase” with them. This tradition stated that children would be judged every Eastertime by a hare. If they had been good, they would be rewarded with a treat. Over time the tradition grew and developed until it became the sugar-fuelled, garden-destroying day we all know now.

Some people argue that the Easter bunny’s origins date back even further to the pagan festival Ēostre which used the hare as a symbol of renewed life. However, this might be wishful thinking; A Dictionary of English Folklore states there’s little evidence of any links between Ēostre and hares – and even if there were, these links would have been unlikely to have survived the subsequent centuries of invasion and Christianisation of Britain.

Despite the ambiguity, it’s likely that hares originally had more to do with Easter than rabbits. In Leicestershire there was an annual hare hunt held every Easter Monday, the first recording of which was in 1668. The 1620 Calendar of State Papers recorded that “…huntsmen say that those who have not had a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.” And in Warwickshire the parson supposedly offered a groat, a calf’s head and one hundred eggs to the man who presented him with a hare before 10:00am on Easter Monday.

A hare hunt featuring either an absolutely massive hare or a couple of ridiculously tiny hunting dogs.

A many-anused beast…

But people were interested in hares long before the 17th century.

“Hares are seldom tamed…”, wrote Pliny the Elder in The Natural History. “In the hare, the number of cavernous receptacles in the body for the excrements always equals that of its years.” Basically, hares were not pets you’d want to keep indoors without protecting your soft furnishings from their many “cavernous receptacles for excrement.”

By the middle ages, hares and rabbits were relatively luxurious commodities. Manorial lords would have an automatic “right to warren” on land they owned and would often grant tenants leases to maintain their warrens for them.

Sometimes the lords would complain about the abundance of rabbits or hares outside their warrens, as in the case at Freckenham in 1551 when rabbits were condemned for “increasing and multiplying on the common land” and the lessee of the warren was ordered to block up all the rabbit holes on the common land.

Hare was also a popular dish for the rich; as far as I can see there are two separate recipes for hare in the 14th century English cookbook Forme of Cury and about seven or eight from the contemporaneous French text Le Menagier de Paris.

In addition to food, rabbits and hares were seen as good gifts and in 1345, the Prior of Ely sent sixty rabbits to Edward III – an enormous display of wealth. In fact, by the 14th century rabbits were seen as such a status symbol that during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the rebels explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt “hares in the field.”

Despite this, hares and rabbits were seen negatively in some circles. In medieval art and literature hares were sometimes seen as symbols of promiscuity. Even more concerningly, some thought hares were linked to the occult; the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German text on witchcraft, commented that witches had the ability to transform themselves into hares.

Malleus Maleficarum. Fun fact: a large amount of this text talks about the many ways witches can steal a man’s penis.

Later, when the witch-crazes swept Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, a Scottish woman called Isobel Gowdie confessed to turning herself into a hare by chanting:
I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.

Having confessed to the crime of witchcraft, the law stated that she be executed, but there’s no firm evidence whether this happened to Isobel or whether she was acquitted. Perhaps she really did turn herself into a hare and hopped away?

Killer hares

Whether witches in disguise or the real deal, you messed with hares at your peril.

The Smithfield Decretals, a mid 14th century manuscript, details some scenes where hares enact their revenge on the humans who blocked up their warrens, skinned them and ate them.

In this highly decorated manuscript there are numerous drolleries – fanciful drawings meant to titillate and amuse the reader.

Often these images depict imaginary mash-ups of animals; snails with human torsos or birds with elephant heads. As well as the more usual ones, the ones in the Smithfield Decretals also depict what can only be described as killer hares enacting revenge on the humans who would destroy them.

In one image two hares flay a bound man alive, starting at his feet. Rather than watching the unfortunate victim, the hares’ unfeeling, bulbous eyes are askew – an artist’s comment on nature’s detachment from human suffering or, (like my own arty shortcomings) an inability to draw perspective? You be the judge.

In another, a hare carries a trussed up man on a stick while another triumphantly blasts a tune on a hunting horn. In yet another, a hare is seen with a ridiculously long sword, beheading a man. It’s probably worth noting that medieval people didn’t do realism in their art (in case you’d not worked it out.) This included realistic facial expressions – so rather than screaming in agony, the man being beheaded is just frowning sadly, as if the whole thing is slightly inconvenient (take a look at the images at the end to see what I mean.)

Rather than being a crafty design to get people to go vegetarian by forcing them to confront the reality of their hare-hunting ways, these images represented the idea of the world turned upside down; the hunted becomes the hunter. Just think on that while you’re searching for your eggs on Easter Sunday.

Who wants a biscuit?

I could have written a post about hot cross buns or tried making another Simnel Cake. But I didn’t fancy any of that. Instead, I wanted to draw some art and I wanted art that celebrated the mighty Easter bunny in all its glory. And I wanted it to be delicious.

So this Easter, in addition to my foil wrapped egg(s), I’ll also be tucking into some very special Easter biscuits depicting the more unusual aspects of the human/Easter bunny relationship. The images are taken from a variety of texts so even though the recipe isn’t medieval the artwork, according to my teacher at least, sure is.

Who’s “not suitable for A Level art” now, Mrs Haworth?

Happy Easter!

Ex

“For God’s sake, ladies, control your vagina”: Advice on motherhood through the ages

When you have a baby everyone gives you advice. Some of this is excellent (to this day the best thing I’ve ever been told in regards to child rearing is “lower your standards. If things are still hard, you didn’t lower them enough” – as a result my carpets rarely get hoovered and we pretend not to see the ‘best before end’ date on food, but my sanity has remained intact.)

Much of the advice is well meaning, but hopeless: “sleep when the baby sleeps” is a lovely phrase but what should I do if she doesn’t – ever?

Most of it, though, is tripe: “enjoy every second”, “don’t complain, it all goes by so fast.”

I just couldn’t understand those who spouted out the tripey advice; what was it I was supposed to enjoy, exactly? My daughter, like all other newborns, was distinctly useless at first and completely unable to help me out in any way. At bathtime I ended up bent over the tub like Quasimodo, one arm frantically scooping water onto her chest and one arm doing the job her neck should have been doing, which was holding up her gigantic, lolling head. I had similar problems getting her into the car, getting her dressed, changing her nappy: limbs flailing madly, none of them in the right direction, and most of them, somehow, covered in poo.

As time went on my daughter’s neck started pulling its weight and I didn’t rely on hours of physio after every bath time so I started to enjoy motherhood. But no sooner had we worked out how this small dictator child worked, then the advice changed again.

“Don’t wean her too soon or she’ll end up with underformed bowels.” “Don’t let her sleep in your room or she’ll never move out.” “Don’t wean her too late or she’ll be a fussy eater.” “Limit TV to only 30 minutes a week and even then only allow her to watch bilingual educational videos.” “Let her sleep in your room until she’s an adult woman – insist that she raise her own children there too.”

It got me thinking about motherhood advice through history. Were there medieval pamphlets on the pros and cons of cloth nappies? Tudor ‘yummy mummies’ on Instagram showing us how to whip up vegan, organic, zero-waste baby-friendly smoothies? Not quite, but almost.

Getting pregnant (AKA the fun bit)

So you’ve decided you don’t need to sleep or shit alone again for the rest of your life.

The 2nd century Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus believed he’d come up with a good indication of female virility so that prospective partners could make the best decisions when picking a mate. According to this highly learned doctor, women “from the ages of fifteen to forty” who were “not mannish, compact, oversturdy or too flabby” had been endowed with a natural virility.

If finding such a woman by physical appearance alone was problematic, Soranus had a solution: an alternative way to check a woman’s fertility was to inspect her uterus. To conceive a child a woman’s uterus should be “neither very moist or dry, not too lax or constricted.” I don’t know how one was supposed to check out a woman’s uterus before committing to her (though I imagine it made for a pretty awkward date night activity) but it clearly struck a chord with those in the medical profession; Soranus’ writings set the precedent in gynaecology and obstetrics for almost 1,500 years.

In contrast, women with small heads and eyes were more likely to struggle to conceive. Likewise, women with protruding foreheads were best avoided if one was hoping to start a family (Rouselle 1988, p. 22).

If Soranus’ ideas haven’t put you off relying on ancient science to conceive then you might also want to consider the work of the Greek physicians Hippocrates (c. 460-c.370 BC) and Galen (129-c.210 CE).

Hippocrates

Though centuries apart, these two men together shaped much of the medical knowledge found in medical textbooks and universities up to the 16th century. Hippocrates – whose influence on medicine remains so great that the now defunct Hippocratic oath was named after (but not attributed to) him – is chiefly known for developing humoral theory. This was the belief that the human body was made up of four key fluids (blood, black bile, phlegm and yellow bile) which, when disrupted or imbalanced, caused mood changes and even illness. This theory would crop up in most Western medical teachings for the next two thousand years or so.

Hippocrates was also preoccupied with female fertility. Out of 1500 or so recipes for medicine in Hippocrates’ work, 80% of them relate to gynaecology (Totelin 2009).

Unfortunately, Hippocrates’ teachings tended to place the burden of conception squarely on the shoulders of women; male infertility was not something he considered a likely issue in problems with conception. Among others, Hippocrates wrote that some of the problems women faced when trying to conceive included:

  1. A too narrow passage between the vagina and cervix which may also have become blocked by the retention of “old” coagulated menstrual blood and thus prevented sperm reaching the uterus.
  2. An “inability” of the uterus to retain the sperm due to its failure to “close” shut once the sperm had entered. 
  3. A humoral imbalance in the woman which led to conditions that were too hot or cold in the uterus, thus “overcooking” or “[drying] out” the sperm (Verskin 2020, 138).

‘For God’s sake, ladies, control your vagina’ was basically Hippocrates’ attitude.

Hippocrates also advocated for a “two seed” theory; that in order to make a baby, ‘male seed’ and ‘female seed’ were necessary. In both cases, the seed could only be produced during arousal. This led physicians who followed the ‘two seed’ theory down some pretty ropey conception theories: husbands were encouraged to ensure their wives enjoyed sex, so as to ensure a fruitful production of ‘female seed’ and therefore increase the chances of making a baby. So far, so sex-positive. The negative aspect to this theory was of course the issue of conception arising from non-consensual sex. Though rape was condemned in most ancient societies, the ‘two seed’ theory allowed some to argue that pregnancy was evidence of a woman’s enjoyment of sex and, therefore, evidence of her willing participation, even if she hadn’t consented.

Writing some five or six hundred years after Hippocrates, Galen sought to add weight to the ‘two seed’ theory by attaching to it the ‘one sex’ theory (stay with me now, I’m almost done.)

The ‘one sex’ theory promoted the belief that women’s reproductive organs were an interior version of a man’s, but that due to an absence of necessary heat while the woman was in her mother’s womb, they failed to turn outside, rendering women a sort of inferior version of men (Schleiner 2000).

I don’t know what the thing on the far right is. Maybe a floating scrotum? Credit here.

It made sense to Galen, then, that women produced semen in much the same way as men did, though the semen was produced inside their bodies which, because of the aforementioned defectiveness of female organs, could lead to problems. Galen believed that menstrual blood was a both a consequence of female defectiveness and also a necessary element of conception as it provided the uterus with texture, without which the “male seed” would slip out before it could mingle with the ‘female seed’. A woman who therefore suffered irregular periods or had gone through menopause, Galen argued, was far less likely to conceive than a woman who “enjoyed” regular periods. Galen was playing quite fast and loose with the word ‘enjoy’ there, I think, but we’ll move on.

But what if both partners enjoyed sex and a baby wasn’t made? Well, for those diagnosed with infertility Hippocrates had a variety of solutions. The most common ones included pessaries of herbs, fumigation or probing of the vagina to remove “blockages” and changing one’s diet. In his empathetically entitled treatise On Barrenness, Hippocrates also advocated eating boiled puppies and/or fumigating one’s vagina with smoke from their burned carcasses. The argument was that puppies supposedly had a laxative effect, which would dislodge any coagulated menstrual blood and allow the passage between the cervix and vagina to open (Verskin 2020, 139). You’re welcome to try it, but the maximum penalty for animal cruelty in Britain is five years; you’ll miss the cute chubby toddler years and be landed with a stroppy school kid by the time you get out.

Pregnancy and childbirth

So let’s assume all your puppy-eating has paid off and you’re with child. Congratulations.

But no sooner does that little red line appear on the pregnancy test then a whole host of other questions and problems come to the fore: what food can I eat or not eat? How much exercise should I do? Was that a twinge of labour or do I just need a big fart (it’s always a big fart – even when you’re actually in labour, it will still be a big fart.)

The Trotula, a 12th century compendium of the medical conditions of women, states that when a woman is just starting out her 9 month journey it’s vitally important that no one mention in front of her the long list of things she is not allowed to eat (Green 2002, 77).

“What is this? Don’t care – can I eat it?”

Trotula argued this was to prevent pregnant women from becoming fixated on out-of-bounds food, not just for their own health, but the sake of their unborn child, which was apparently as risk of miscarriage if they ruminated on smoked salmon or soft cheese for too long.

On the subject of farting, Trotula had a remedy. Taking celery, mint and cowbane and mixing it with a combination of mastic, cloves, watercress, sugar, honey and wine (as well as other herbs) could apparently cure even the guffiest mother.

To reduce the swelling that often accompanies pregnancy, the 15th century manuscript Sloane 2463 recommended making a paste of bean-meal flour, vinegar and oil and anointing it on the areas that were swollen (Rowlands 1981, 153). Some lucky women might have got away with only needing to apply it to their fingers or ankles; for me I’d have needed a full body cast.

The last trimester of pregnancy is often one of the hardest, and women have resorted to all kinds of tricks to induce labour and kick their ever expanding lodger out.

For women in their final month eager to meet their screaming bundles of joy and light, taking a bath with herbs could apparently help speed labour along, especially if the woman drank an ounce of balsam sap in wine afterwards. If she couldn’t afford balsam sap then she could make do with a cocktail of bull’s gall and wine instead, or “the water from a man’s skin after he has washed his hands”. If bull’s gall and bathwater wasn’t her thing she could try a combination of hyssop juice and mercury which would “cast out the child alive or dead”. Well, quite.

Assuming that these drinks worked, what was one supposed to do when the birthday arrived? By the 15th century there were plenty of European manuscripts detailing the medical problems of women, but relatively few that dealt in detail with childbirth itself (Rowlands 1981, 22).

This was probably down to the fact that midwifery was usually the domain of women, and the writers were usually men who either didn’t know how to help women give birth or, more possibly, didn’t care.

Women’s health wasn’t always counted as ‘proper’ medicine worthy of book writing – and in 1421 a petition was put forward to the English parliament banning women from practising as physicians (Green 1989), so chances for women to elevate the status of midwifery remained slim.

In fact, so limited was the information on how to help women give birth that one 14th century treatise recommended that women should be encouraged to sneeze the child out. Similarly, the 15th century work Inventarium also recommended labouring women sniff pepper, which would induce sneezing. It hardly goes without saying that both authors were male. Guy de Chauliac commented “because the matter [of childbirth] requires the attention of women, there is no point in giving much consideration to it.” I bet he wasn’t brave enough to say that to a labouring woman, though.

Anyway, Sloane 2463 does cover what to do when giving birth. Chapter 10, “sickness that women have in childbearing”, covers a great deal of potential problems which it divides into two types: ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’.

With a natural birth the child should “come out in twenty pangs…head first.” So far, so simple. If the child was a stubborn bugger, however, and refused to come out within twenty “pangs” (bless) or headfirst, this was termed an ‘unnatural’ birth. There were apparently 16 ways a child could be born ‘unnaturally’ and, in diagrams that were simultaneously helpful and hilarious, the writer had provided sketches highlighting the ‘unnatural’ ways. The three here are my favourites.

Raising the buggers

Assuming you’ve survived childbirth (research is ongoing but it’s estimated that among the lower classes in England during the 14th – 16th centuries, between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2 women died either giving birth or from complications afterwards), how should you go about raising them to be decent humans?

For this section I’m jumping forward several centuries to the trustiest of Victorian cooks, Mrs Beeton. Her book Household Management wasn’t just a collection of bland restrained recipes, it also contained practical advice on the rearing of children.

Almost immediately I began to suspect that Mrs Beeton’s experience of motherhood was slightly divergent to my own.

“The mistress [of the house]” she began, quoting Proverbs XXXI “eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed…” (Project Gutenberg 2003)

I thought back to this morning when my child had arisen at 5:30 and waddled into my room, calling for the iPad instead.

One piece of advice that might raise a few eyebrows today was the instruction to breastfeeding mothers to drink large quantities of malt liquor. Mrs Beeton believed that the strength of this alcohol had certain reinvigorating qualities which would aid production of milk and help stave off maternal exhaustion. “To the lady accustomed to her Madeira and sherry, [malt liquors] may appear a very vulgar potation for a delicate young mother to take…”

In fact, Mrs Beeton spent rather a lot of time discussing alcohol and motherhood. As any mother will tell you, this isn’t that surprising.

According to Mrs B, brandy was less beneficial than wine for nursing mothers, though would do if there was nothing else in. Be careful of port, though, as that could affect the baby’s bowl movements as it passed through the milk.

But the very best alcoholic beverage a breastfeeding mother could drink was stout, of which mothers were instructed to drink no less than half a pint, three to four times a day.

No photo description available.
As a “delicate young mother”, sitting alone in the babycage playpen, I preferred to drink white wines rather than port.

Her advice on drinking and breastfeeding might have been a bit out of touch with today’s standards, but there were moments where her tips were surprisingly modern. She gave pretty thorough and sympathetic advice to mothers who were bottle feeding their child (“hand rearing”, as she called it) and, as someone who bottle fed her own child, I found much of what she said was less judgemental than 21st century advice: “A child can be brought up as well on a spoon dietary as the best example to be found on those reared on the breast; having more strength, indeed, from the more nutritious food on which it lives.”

As the child grew, Mrs Beeton’s advice changed. She recommended a fairly bland, milk heavy diet for young children. This was common for the time, the belief being that children’s stomachs could only deal with uncomplex flavours and nothing too heavy. One of the few times Beeton strays from the advice to give children milk, however, was when serving a drink called Negus which involved mixing pints of port, sherry or white wine with water and sugar and serving at children’s parties.

Another Victorian book, How I managed my children from infancy to marriage by Eliza Warren stressed the importance of teaching children to obey from a young age. “A babe of three months, when I held up my finger and put on a grave look, knew that such was the language of reproof…” (Warren 1865, 27.) (I have tried this on my child – it does not work.)

The way to achieve this level of obedience was through repetition – Ms Warren stated that children must learn that crying was “useless” and that if they wanted something they should wait patiently, or do without.

But perhaps the most amusing thing from How I managed my children was the account of mealtimes with young children. Like Mrs Beeton, Ms Warren followed a milk heavy, reasonably bland diet for her children, apart from one day of the week when the meal that was served was “always hailed with delight, and always looked forward to.” What was this magical, awe inspiring dinner? Boiled onions.

As if that wasn’t a treat enough, Ms Warren recounted gleefully that the children were also allowed chives on their bread and butter with this meal too. The whole meal combined, she said, was an excellent cure for worms. Nice.

If you’re thinking that there’s really nothing here useful to new parents and that people throughout history have just been muddling along in the dark when it came to childrearing, you’d be right. But before I finish, I’ll leave you with this one final piece of advice from Ms Warren that I know I’ll struggle to accept as my daughter gets older and her world gets bigger, but that I must: “…if we[love] our children we must give up our own selfish feeling of desiring to have them always with us and so place them in positions that we should be enabled to feel life again renewed in their happiness.” (Warren 1865, 57.)

Happy birthday, G.

E x

Bibliography (yes, I actually did one this time but no, it’s not in alphabetical order because if I have to spend any longer on these bloody citations I will actually die of boredom.)

Rousselle, A. 1988. Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Totelin, L. 2009. Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth and Fourth Century Greece. Boston: Brill.

Verskin, S. 2020. Barren Women: Religion and Medicine in the Medieval Middle East. De Gruyter: Berlin.

Schleiner, W., (2000) Early Modern Controversies about the One-Sex Model. Renaissance Quarterly [online]. 53 (1), 180–191. [12.06.2020]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.2307/2901536

Green, M. 2002. The Trotula. Pennslyvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rowlands, B. 1981. Medieval Women’s Guide to Health: The First English Gynecological Handbook Ohio: Kent State University Press.

Green, M. (1989) Women’s Medical Practice and Health Care in Medieval Europe. Signs [online] 14 (2), 434-73. [27.03.2021] Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3174557

Project Gutenberg., (2003) The Book of Household Management [online] Project Gutenberg. [Viewed 27.03.2021] Available from: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10136/pg10136.html

Warren, E. 1865. How I managed my children from infancy to marriage. London: Houlston and Wright.

Breast or thigh?: A history of cannibalism

Last week I wrote about aphrodisiacs, which was a fun pre-Valentine’s date-night foray into the type of food history I don’t usually do. If, however, your ideal date night ends with you deboning something instead, perhaps today’s offering will be more suitable…

(I’m not sure I can get away with that joke. Sorry, mum.)

Cannibalism is a topic that seems to interest a lot of people; there’s a whole Wiki page dedicated to ‘cannibalism in popular culture’. Not to mention an entire horror movie subgenre called ‘cannibal films’. I haven’t seen any of them because I’m still recovering from watching Shaun of the Dead, which puts my tolerance for horror at roughly that of a seven year old child. Nevertheless, I remain very intrigued by this topic.

Is it technically food though? Not to get too Merriam-Webster about it, but the dictionary counts food as “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.” In some circumstances, such as the ones I outline below, I think some forms of cannibalism can be seen through a food lens.

Er, would now be a good time to ask how your husband is?

He’s delicious. Sorry, I meant fine. He’s fine.

The word ‘cannibal’ comes from the Spanish word for an indigenous West Indies tribe called the Carib, who practised it. Incidentally, we also get the word barbeque from the Carib tribe too.

Girolamo Benzoni’s La historia del Mondo Nuovo. Credit here.

And here is where I encountered my first problem with the topic. The practice of eating people without ascribing the term ‘cannibal’ to it is prehistoric – human bones dating to 14,700 years ago bearing butchering marks have been found at Cheddar Gorge in England. And that’s relatively modern, too; some Homo Sapiens bones have been found dating to around 600,000 years old that bear similar marks.

It’s when people begin to slap terms on the practice of eating other people – especially when one civilisation uses the name of another to describe it – that things get messy. Messier.

And that’s because a lot of the earliest accounts of cannibalism are exaggerated. Herodotus wrote about cannibalism being practiced by a tribe called the Androphagi in his 5th century BC work The Histories. He describes them thusly:

The Man-eaters are the most savage of all men in their way of life; they know no justice and obey no law. They are nomads, wearing a costume like the Scythian, but speaking a language of their own; of all these, they are the only people that eat men.

Herodotus 4.106 trans. A. D. Godley.

Not one to hold back his feelings, Herodotus.

He was also not one for telling the truth. Many of his accounts in Histories – especially when concerning other civilisations than Greece – are exaggerated, vilified or just plain made up. So whether or not the Androphagi were truly ‘savage men eaters’ is up for debate.

Well what about later accounts?

Unfortunately it seems hardwired in humans to appreciate a good story over accurate history.

Many early-modern European accounts of cannibalism are also wildly exaggerated. They’re stories travellers brought back to make themselves seem more heroic and to make whatever violent acts they committed seem less serious. Think about it: if you’re a 15th century explorer retelling the story of your travels to your kid what would sound better? “I burned a civilisation to the ground and stole its riches for no other reason than greed and the hope that the queen would bang me” or “I destroyed a monstrous community of cannibals while also furthering our economy in the hope that the queen would bang me.”

Probably neither is appropriate for small children, but you get the picture.

Isabella of Castile patronised Christopher Columbus’ voyage to ‘discover’ America – much to the surprise all the people already living there.

That’s not to say that some civilisations weren’t cannibals, by the way, just that accounts of their desire for human flesh and how often they actually consumed it were misrepresented. Actually, (just to confuse things further) sometimes these civilisations, when they came into contact with Europeans, exaggerated stories of their cannibalistic ways to appear fiercer or just for their own amusement.

My point is, it’s not possible to take every early European account of cannibalism at face value.

No-one expects the Spanish… conquistadors.

Perhaps the most famous civilisation to practice cannibalism was the Aztecs (here referring to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan – now Mexico City.)

The Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo fought alongside Hernán Cortés to destroy the Aztec Empire in Mexico during the 16th century. His account of what he saw there is perhaps one of the biggest pieces of pro-Spanish/anti-Aztec racist propaganda there is, but also shows how gripping these kinds of tales were to people.

Indeed hardly a day passed by that these people did not sacrifice three or four Indians [Aztecs], tearing the hearts out of their bodies to present them to the idols and smear the blood on the wall of the temple. The arms and legs of these unfortunate beings were then cut off and devoured, just the same way we should fetch meat from a butcher’s shop and eat it: indeed I even believe that human flesh is exposed for sale cut up, in their markets.”

The Memoirs of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, trans. John Ingram Lockhart.

Castillo also talks about how the Aztecs cooked people with “the salt, the pepper and the tomatoes.” The idea of Aztecs selling human at meat proto-farmer’s markets alongside artisan cheeses and homemade jam might have been fabricated, but that they ate people definitely wasn’t. Archaeologists have found butcher marks on human bones along with scorch marks to suggest roasting and even staining that shows the meat was cooked with certain spices. Fun fact: Castillo’s gory cannibal recipe is also the first recorded Western recipe that uses tomatoes.

“Human legs! Get your human legs, only £2 per kilo!”

Del Castillo was at least honest about his reasons for being in Mexico; he admitted that it was to “serve God and also to get rich or die trying.” And so he always links cannibalism with heathenism (which must be eradicated) hoping that people will see a connection between the two.

Culture or survival?

Del Castillo’s account of Aztec cannibalism reads as though it was an everyday part of their culture and religion. But was it purely ritualistic?

Well, no.

It’s true that cannibalism was practiced as part of ceremonies and rituals but, according to author and historian Tom Nealon, one other reason for it might come down to a good old fashioned Malthusian threat.

Basically this is the principle that suggests that sudden population growth will eventually lead to disastrous food shortages, ultimately ending in famine and extinction unless something stopped it. Usually this would be something like a war or the development of really tip-top birth control but in this case it might also have been… eating people.

There’s evidence to suggest that this is what happened to the Aztec empire. In Food Fights and Culture Wars, Nealon asserts that by the 16th century, the population had grown so rapidly that food was in short supply. Maize was the staple and most common crop, but the Aztecs didn’t domesticate any animals like pigs or sheep, and most people lived pretty precarious lives in various states of malnourishment.

Combine a nutritionally-unstable diet with a deeply hierarchical and rapidly growing society where no-one questioned the leader (and add in a few vengeful Gods who could only be appeased through human sacrifice) and you have near-perfect conditions for cannibalism.

In the end it boils down to this: if you’re going to sacrifice someone to please the gods, and there was the constant risk of food shortages, you’re kind of going to end up eating people because, well, waste not want not.

If you and your friends were trapped on a desert island, who would you eat first?

It’s a game we’ve all played before (haven’t we?) If you were trapped with your friends and nearing starvation would it be better to eat Toby (whose dedication to the gym could make for some pretty juicy burgers), or Sarah (whose over-enthusiastic use of peach body spray might give a fruity picancy to kebabs)? Choices, choices…

Cannibal survival stories are very common. Distressingly so. I cover the Donner Party with my GCSE groups and we often spend time picking apart the survivor accounts and discussing the perils of the journey to west America in the 19th century. For those that don’t know, the Donner party was a group of American pioneers who travelled westwards to California in 1846. Unfortunately they ended up stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountain range halfway through their journey. In freezing conditions, with winter setting in, they had no option but to stay put in an inhospitable territory and, as the days turned into weeks and months, eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Patrick Breen, a member of the Donner party, wrote in February 1847 “Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would commence on Milt & eat him. I don[‘]t that she has done so yet, it is distressing.”

It’s a theme echoed in the horrific accounts of the 1972 Andes flight disaster, which saw survivors of a plane crash in the Andes resort to the cannibalism of their dead friends and relatives in order to stay alive.

But rather than just retell these well-known events I want to talk about another survival story, one that often gets overlooked.

The case of the hungry sailors and the unfortunate cabin boy

In 1884 the yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton, England to Sydney, Australia. There were four men aboard: Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brook and Richard Parker.

About two months after setting sail disaster struck and a wave partially destroyed the yacht. The captain – Tom Dudley – ordered the crew into the lifeboat.

“That’s it: the more the merrier. We can get a really good stew going now.”

They survived for about two weeks by eating tins of turnips, the carcass of an unfortunate turtle, and by drinking their urine. By the third week 17 year old Richard Parker was slipping in and out of consciousness, possibly due to extreme dehydration.

The other men now faced a choice: die of dehydration themselves or kill Parker and drink his blood. When Stephens protested, Dudley reportedly responded “the boy is dying. You have a wife and five children and I have a wife and three children. Human flesh has been eaten before.” Nice.

Parker was killed on around the 25th July and his blood was caught in a chronometer case and passed between the three men to drink. They (a bit weirdly, I think) then chose to eat his heart and liver straight away, saving bits of his arms and legs for later.

On the 29th July – only 4 days afterwards – they were saved by a German ship. Interestingly this ship was called the Moctezuma, named after a famous Aztec leader who was himself a cannibal. Funny, right? I mean probably not for poor Richard Parker, but he got the last laugh when Yan Martel named the tiger in his novel Life of Pi after him (the novel also touches briefly on the idea of cannibalism.)

The men were pretty honest about their actions and almost as soon as they arrived in England they were put on trial to find out whether or not they had committed an unforgivable murder or whether their need to survive – their need for food – was an acceptable excuse to kill and eat someone.

The case – Regina v Dudley & Stephens, as it was known – was a huge case at the time, despite being a total shambles. 

Firstly, the judge basically instructed the jury to find them guilty saying that the law “could not recognise necessity as justification for killing”.

But the jury wouldn’t find Dudley and Stephens guilty. So the case was moved to a higher court where a panel of 5 judges found the men guilty. The men were sentenced to death but the Home Office intervened and reduced the sentence to six months imprisonment – a pretty huge climb down if ever there was one.

Ultimately though, the verdict wasn’t overturned. The Home Office agreed with the courts that despite the men’s argument, the killing of Richard Parker could not be deemed a defence of necessity. Notice here that it’s not the cannibalism that the judge had the biggest issue with, but the killing of the boy in order to eat him. Had they waited until he was already dead, perhaps the verdict would have been different. But perhaps they would have been dead by then too. Choices, choices indeed…

Is anyone else getting hungry?

And this is where I’ll leave it for today.

I’ll do a future post on cannibalism in mythology because that’s where things get really crazy, but it seemed sensible to start with the stuff that actually happened first.

For now, I seem to be overcome with desire for fried liver with a nice chianti. Or even better: steak tartare with salt, pepper and tomatoes. Bon appétit!

E x

(I promise my husband is fine.)

“Sleeping with the anemone”: Aphrodisiacs through time

Have you ever felt like your love life could do with a little bit of a boost? Like you’re still banging on about that time in year 6 when the popular kid accidentally brushed their hand against yours? (Later, he said my fingers were “sort of wet, like slugs”; I’m still waiting for him to call.)

Well, fear no more you loveless lot! For today I’m delving into the world of aphrodisiacs: foods that can apparently increase a person’s ‘natural abilities’ in the bedroom.

How long did it take you to come up with that title?

A long time, alright?

The word ‘aphrodisiac’ wasn’t invented until the 17th century when people realised they couldn’t keep describing asparagus and chocolate as “sexy time food” because it sounded stupid and lo, the word ‘aphrodisiac’ was invented, named after Aphrodite – Greek goddess of love, lust and all things sensual.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that there’s no evidence to suggest food can actually increase a person’s libido. Some people believe that alcohol might help, but – to quote Shakespeare – alcohol provokes desire but takes away performance. Hardly the sexiest of outcomes.

But a lack of scientific evidence hasn’t done anything as sensible as stop people believing in aphrodisiacs. It might be chocolate covered strawberries now, but people throughout history have tired all kinds of strange and wonderful foods to get them in the mood, and I’m going to look at (but not try, thanks very much) three of them today.

Ancient Greece: Humourous Veg (in more ways than one)

We’re starting with ancient Greece because their goddess Aphrodite so kindly lent her name to the concept of aphrodisiacs. Aphrodite’s origin story could be an entire topic in its own right; it’s got violence, incest and magic – it’s basically Game of Thrones for classicists.

“I swear to God, Brian, if you get that chord wrong one more time…”

Essentially, Aphrodite was created out of sea foam after Cronos, a divine giant with one hell of a grudge, cut off the genitals of his own father Uranus and absolutely booted them into the sea – as you do. In fairness to him, Uranus had eaten all his brothers and sisters in a sort of paranoid frenzy… but still – ouch.

Even detached, Uranus’ bits and bobs were still very powerful and they fizzed around in the ocean for a bit. Eventually from the sea foamy fizz Aphrodite arose – beautiful, divine and somehow completely untraumatized.

People in ancient Greece prayed to her about carnal matters and issues of love. There were many temples and sects dedicated to her and one at Paphos ordered new initiates to give the priest goddess money in exchange for some sea salt, a phallus and instructions “on the art of intercourse.”

I have no idea what was in the instructions, but it’s possible they contained recipes and remedies to help performance. This wasn’t a new concept – ancient civilisations had been experimenting with food in the bedroom for thousands of years and documenting their (presumably quite sticky) findings. One of the first documented records comes from a 2000 year old Hindu system of medicine called The Shushrata Samhita. It suggests taking remedies – called Vajikarana – such as sweet and refreshing fruit to restore a man’s virility.

The Greeks enjoyed a fruity pick me up as much as the next person but they also appreciated vegetables. Specifically onions, garlics and leeks which, when eaten raw, had a pretty potent kick to them but also apparently reminded people of certain body parts.

Just in case you don’t know what an onion looks like

But just being shaped in a funny way wasn’t enough. Bring a leek to bed and it’s a good time for everyone, but try and introduce a cucumber…?

And that’s because Greek aphrodisiacs weren’t just ideas they pulled out of thin air. They were based on the science of the time. Essentially, many Greeks believed in the 4 Humor Theory, a medical idea created by Hippocrates and developed, centuries later, by Galen. The 4 Humors were liquids that everybody had inside them: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. People’s mood and health was, supposedly, affected by how much of each liquid they had and it was believed that blood was especially important for carnal matters.

Any food that got the blood rushing or caused the skin to flush by creating a ‘hot’ feeling was therefore great for the bedroom. Foods that were very cold and wet, no matter how suggestively shaped (like a cucumber) were major party poopers and were tossed out faster than a god’s severed testicles.

Anything less smelly than an onion?

Sure – how about this recipe from the 3rd century Greek writer Metrodora:

Take the womb of a hare fried in a bronze frying pan, add 3 litrai of rose oil then mix with sweet perfume, fat, excrement of crocodile, sap of the plant scorpion, blood red sumach, honey…”

On the Diseases and Cures of Women, Metrodora

Certain herbs and flower were also symbolic of love. The red flower anemone carried significance, for example, because Greek mythology claimed its origins came about when Aphrodite’s lover Adonis died. Distraught, the goddess apparently sprinkled nectar onto Adonis’ blood and from this the flower was born.

So it’s whatever you’d fancy from that, really – onions or some sort of crocodile dung mixture possibly decorated with flowers. Take your pick.

Medieval Europe: Womb for more?

If you know anything about the medieval Church you’ll know they were big on sin. Not committing sins, obviously (although lots of priests did) but getting very high and mighty about what ordinary folk could and couldn’t do. Sex, surely, would be up there on the list of things you weren’t supposed to enjoy?

Well… during a 200 year period up to around 1200, the population of Europe more than doubled. No one can be certain but by 1500 the population of London was around 50,000 having grown from around 25,000 in 1200.

And these babies weren’t just growing on trees were they? Clearly something was causing this increase. Part of the answer, weirdly, could have been down to the Church. Because although the Church liked it if you kept your hands (and other parts) to yourself if you weren’t married, it was fine – no, a duty – for a husband and wife to have children. But the population growth wasn’t just down to married couple alone, non married and extra marital affairs accounted for many new lives too.

Sex seemed something that people were obsessed with in medieval England. There is so much erotic artwork hidden in marginalia, a good smattering of lewd poetry (hello, Chaucer) and dirty jokes that it sometimes feels like medieval people did nothing but, er, bonk?

Medieval aphrodisiacs

Medieval medical texts are where we find most European aphrodisiacs, although they’re not called that.

Remember at this time in Europe anything medical or religious to do with sex tended to focus on the goal of procreation, rather than offering generic advice for a good time – so the description of aphrodisiacs is often pretty to the point, and presented in a way that suggests it will help with conception. The other thing it’s probably good to understand is that during the middle ages, it was believed by many that conception could only happen if both parties enjoyed themselves fully.

What that means is that when a text discusses what food to eat to conceive a baby, it’s partly because it thought these foods would help strengthen sperm, or prep the womb or whatever, but also because it was about getting both partners in the mood; if one of them wasn’t, then no baby.

You’d expect that these foods would be appetising then. Ha.

The 12th century Old English translation of Medicina De Quadrupedibus has a couple of very un-enticing recipes to try, one of which is this:

To arouse a woman for sexual intercourse, take the testicles of a deer, grind them to dust, do a part of this in a drink of wine.”

Medicina De Quadrupedibus

Not quite a chocolate covered strawberry, is it?

Another famous, albeit later, medieval medical text was the Trotula. It’s less explicit in its dealings with aphrodisiacs but follows a similar line of thought to Medicina De Quadrupedibus. According to Trotula, to conceive a boy a man should take the womb and vagina of a hare, dry them, crush them into a power and then drink in wine.

“Take my womb, would you? Bastard.”

I’m going to need some alternatives to rabbit womb, please.

Well if we look outside of Europe, then things get interesting.

Unlike the Europeans, who linked sex with procreation, there are hundreds of medieval Arabic sources which discuss food and herbs to increase desire without linking them to conception. These documents liken these mood boosting foods to medicines which can correct or enhance sexual function.

The 9th century Persian work The Book of Choice Sexual Stimulants and the Sultan’s Mixtures (which sounds both gross and intriguing) was a text dedicated solely to aphrodisiac-style medicine. Likewise, the 11th century Persian physician Avicenna, who wrote the Canon of Medicine, dedicated an entire section to aphrodisiac-like remedies and their uses and suggested medicines made from honey, almonds, fish, dates and herbs.

Avicenna had an enormous influence on European medicine and if you compare Trotula to his Canon you’ll find myriad comparisons. When it came to embracing performance enhancing drugs, though, European literature seems not to have embraced Islamic ideas as readily as they did others.

Avicenna

You know what’s really sexy? 18th century slimy raw fish.

To this day oysters are considered an aphrodisiac. I’ve never understood why. I mean, yes, I get the symbolism and I understand they’re supposed to resemble certain body parts, but I don’t understand why anyone would think having a phlegmy lump of mollusc slide down your throat would do anything but make you vomit on your lover’s pillow.

Yet here we are. Oysters have been written about extensively and in ancient Rome they were seen as luxury items, a little like they are today. There’s not a lot of evidence, however, that the Romans viewed them as aphrodisiacs. Actually, it’s not until the 16th century or so that there was a meaningful shift in how people thought of them.

In 1566 the French poet Alain Chartier wrote that “oysters provoke lechery” – apparently so much so that some brothels began serving them to their clients.

By the 17th century the word oyster had become a slang word for female genitalia and by the 18th century oyster sellers – women who stood on street corners selling baskets of oysters – found their job title had morphed into a byword for sex worker.

So who’s driving up the demand for oysters in the 18th century?

Who else? Casasnova.

Casanova

His name has become synonymous with philanderer, womanizer, seducer. He wasn’t shy about it either. In his memoirs he recounts over 100 encounters – some consensual, others less so – with women and men. But aside from his peacocking, he also mentions food. A lot.

Casanova holds food and women up as two things he celebrates more than all else:

I have always liked highly seasoned food…as for women I have always found the one I was in love with smelled good.”

The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, trans. Arthur Machen.

There you go ladies – ditch the perfume and just douse yourself in peri peri sauce.

Casanova loved many types of food. He wrote a ten stanza poem about macaroni to gain access to some sort of elite poetry society and then, once in, ate so much of the stuff that they nicknamed him the prince of macaroni.

But the thing that Casanova seems to eat more than all else is oysters. He supposedly consumed 50 of them every morning. Oysters weren’t just a food to him, but a means to an end and they often crop up in foreplay.

He plays a game with rich women which he literally calls the “oyster game”. The game consists of him persuading women to let him feed them oysters which he then “accidentally” drops down their tops. Or bodices. Or whatever, I’m not an expert in 18th century clothing. As they say, hilarity (and sex) often ensues.

“LOL so funny Bernard, but if you drop one more of those things down my top I’ll punch your eyes out, OK?”

Casanova never explicitly calls oysters an aphrodisiac. At one point he suggests that a meal of oysters shared between himself and one of his paramours “had their natural effect” and later on he refers to them as “an aid”. Similarly, one woman who attempts to rebuff him says she will “pick up no more oysters” as she fears the effect they’ll have on her.

Unfortunately for Casanova, it may have all been in his head. Not that it seemed to stop him, but though oysters are high in zinc, which has in some studies been shown to boost testosterone, it’s not present in high enough levels to have any sort of meaningful effect on libido.

Does it matter, in the end?

Probably not.

Whether aphrodisiacs work or not almost certainly comes down to your mindset. The action of taking an aphrodisiac, be it a bumper bag of onions, a dried rabbit womb or a plate of oysters could prime a person to expect it to work, which might lead to increased confidence and thus success with any lovers.

What your partner thinks of your breath after eating all that? Well, that’s probably the thing that decides if you get lucky or not.

E x

“The perineum of the year”: A round up of 2020

I didn’t come up with the phrase but it’s one I’ve embraced, much to my husband’s disgust. The perineum of the year: that bit in between Christmas and New Year when you can’t remember the last time you showered (let alone got dressed), when you’re left with only Strawberry Creams in the Quality Street tin, and when the entirety of your fridge/house/body smells of stuffing.

Someone in the household will, at some point in the next day or so, suggest going for a jog to start their January health regime early. Encourage them; you can crack into the Toblerone in peace while they’re gone.

And while you’re dribbling chocolate you might enjoy a round up of my top five best and worst experiments this year…

Top Experiments of 2020

Fanfares at the ready: three, two, one – go!

Number 5: Doucetes

Egg custard. Saffron pastry. Indulgence: medieval style.

These wobbly little gems were from the fifteenth century and were the first thing I’d made that felt like they could compete with modern sweets. They were buttery, creamy and rich and I’ve actually made a couple of batches of them since.

Don’t be alarmed by the appearance: they may look a little cellulite-heavy, but once you eat them they will banish all thoughts of cellulite until you next look in the mirror.

Number 4: Farts of Portingale

Do I really need to explain why this one’s on the list?

Number 3: Fish Banquet

I had no idea fish could taste so good. Someone who did, however, was Athenaeus: a 3rd century rhetorician who loved it so much he advised resorting to any method possible – buying, begging or stealing – to get a taste of premium quality seafood.

This was one of the few meals – and they have been few and far between, believe me – which made my husband actually appreciate this blog. The simplicity of the dish was its secret, but so too was the delightfully Mediterranean cooking method.

I enjoyed wrapping the prawns in fig leaves and burying them in hot coals to roast slowly. I enjoyed slicing the side dish of radishes so thinly they looked like little discs of stained glass in the sunlight. What I enjoyed slightly less was the horror I felt when the lady on the fish counter at Sainsburys told me the price of the tuna steaks she’d just cut for me and social awkwardness made me say “yes, that’s fine” instead of “sorry, are you mad? How much?”

Buy, beg or steal, you say?

Number 2: A Bengali Meal

The most self indulgent thing I’ve written all year, but the one that seems to have resonated with quite a few people. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it made me feel a little bit more connected to my family’s history and was also a great excuse to eat my body weight in ghee.

Number 1: Anglo-Saxon Bread

Bread? Just…bread? At number one?

This was one of the first things I made and it’s probably the thing I’ve made the most since. It never, ever ceases to amaze me how simple and ingenious it is: bread, water and a pinch of salt (if you want to be fancy.) And ta-da! A warm, filling, palm sized disc of bread that tastes good with literally everything I’ve tried so far.

This bread has helped a leftover stew for one stretch to two people as a midweek meal, when we couldn’t be bothered to wait for pasta or rice to cook. I have made cheese sandwiches out of this bread for my daughter’s lunch in the height of lockdown when we’d run out of Hovis but I felt too anxious to go outside and buy more. We’ve eaten this bread smothered in salty butter and dipped in jam at breakfast (admittedly that time it backfired because my daughter thought I was cooking pancakes and was very disappointed when she realised I was not.)

More than anything else, bread is the thing that I think connects us most to our past. Egg tarts are tastier but required more money, time, skill. Fish banquets are more beautiful, but not everyone had access to fresh fish. Farts sound funnier but… actually, I don’t have a comeback to that one.

But bread was eaten by everyone. The only real difference was whether you ate fine white bread made from wheat or some form of ‘lower class’ bread made with barley flour or worse.

The act of making bread – kneading – also hasn’t changed despite centuries of developments. Sure, you can use a bread maker or mixer if you like but you won’t get as good results (and it won’t be as fun) compared to just using your hands and feeling when it’s ready – when the tension in the dough’s just right, when the flour’s been completely combined…

Of course the beauty of this recipe is that it doesn’t require much kneading at all – if any. It was intended to be a quick meal to fuel a tired army, it could act as a reliable form of rent, or just as an easy lunch with a hunk of cheese for a hungry child. Whatever its use, bread was one of the few things that could unify people from across the social classes and it’s the thing that brought me closest to understanding people from the past.

“Just bread”, you say?

Worst experiments of 2020

Because this year has been a disaster in more ways than one…

Number 5: Stuffed Goat

Goat is a widely eaten and much loved meat for millions of people around the world. My own dad counts himself as someone who enjoyed a good goat curry when he was growing up. For this reason I thought I was ready to try it myself: I was not.

This was a top 5 worst experiment not so much because of the recipe itself but because it highlighted how far I still have to go until my cooking skills are anything higher than “mostly haphazard, occasionally decent” (genuine quote, by the way.)

Was it the fact I forgot the tin foil tent and didn’t baste the meat, thus rendering it tougher than leather, that ruined this experiment? Maybe. Perhaps it was the fact that half way through cooking this I decided now would be the perfect time to quickly attempt some minor DIY and remove the cot sides from my toddler’s bed – a task that was ended up being neither minor or quick, but which did mean I missed the timer when it went off.

Either way, this was not a triumph.

Number 4: Stewed Rabbit

Just slightly worse than the goat was the rabbit.

Again, my cooking skills probably didn’t help with the terrible outcome of this but the difference here is that I think the recipe was also, well, terrible.

When I started this blog I knew very little about historical cooking. Like many others, I was mistaken in thinking food of the past was either dishes of bland gruel or over-spiced rotting meat. Also like many others, I was mistaken in thinking that Mrs Beeton was some sort of Victorian culinary goddess, come to pull us out of our uninspired ways and bless us with the knowledge of flavour.

Well let me tell you: Mrs Beeton was the patron saint of bland and uninspired.

Harsh? Perhaps. But this rabbit dish managed to be one of the few that I ended up not serving to my husband out of a genuine fear he would divorce me if I tried.

Number 3: Turkey Twizzlers

Nothing has ever encapsulated the meaning of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ quite like turkey twizzlers.

I’m really loathe to stick this post in my top worst experiments because it’s actually one of my best pieces of writing (I think.) And yet the outcome of that day of cooking was so hideously disgusting, and my kitchen was so covered in fat and grease, that I can’t deny its place on this list.

These are also on the ‘worst of 2020’ list because the day I made these my mother-in-law had popped over for a socially distanced catch up in our garden. I panicked that she – elegant and sophisticated woman she is – would despair at her son’s choice of partner when she saw me making these, so I’m posting them here so she knows that I know they’re dreadful. Okay?

(A week or so after I published the original post, though, Bernard Matthews announced turkey twizzlers were making a come back. Coincidence? I think not…)

Number 2: Nut Custard

Oh God. Just thinking about this makes me want to be sick.

This was my first foray into the ancient desserts of Apicius and I was ill prepared. Nut custard looked like some sort of rotting alien body part. It had eggs in it, it had nuts, it had honey. It also had… fish sauce. The fish sauce was the thing that got me – even once it was baked I still thought I could smell and taste it at the back of my throat.

The editors of the recipe said that Apicius rarely gave measurements or quantities, which meant that “in the hands of an inexperienced operator [the recipe] would result in failure.” At the time I had scoffed and had carried on to failure – just as predicted. Despite being slightly less inexperienced than I was back in February, I have yet to reattempt this one.

Number 1: Egges in Moneshine

When I was seven I ate a spider web by accident. There’s not an interesting backstory, you’re just going to have to accept that it happened and it was an accident. I have no idea if the spider was part of my unexpected snack, but at the time it was the worst thing I’d ever eaten.

When I was at uni I was given a plate of deep fried chicken wings that were still raw and bloody inside. That was then the worst thing I’d ever eaten.

When I was 27 I ate stuffed goat, stewed rabbit, turkey twizzlers and nut custard and all of them were the worst thing I’d ever eaten.

But then I ate egges in moneshine.

And I would eat a thousand spider webs – spiders included – and a thousand raw chicken wings and a thousand nut custards to never, not ever, have to put egges in moneshine in my mouth again. If 2020 was a food, it would be egges in moneshine and God only knows how much we’ve all hated this year.

Thank you and Happy New Year

So that’s it! My first year done.

Thank you very much to everyone who has read, shared, commented and supported me on this blog. It started as an overeager New Year’s resolution and I never thought it would pick up any interest beyond my mum (and to be honest I think both she and I thought one of us would lose interest around February) but it seems a few people quite like it, so thank you.

I hope you have a very happy, warm, healthy New Year and I’ll see you in 2021 for lots more historical triumphs and disasters.

Ellie x

Reading lists (I’m a teacher, what did you expect?)

Below is a list of some of the best food history sites and blogs. No arguments – in fact, why are you still hanging around here?

  • British Food: A History – Dr Neil Buttery’s long running and exceptionally well researched and detailed blog on the the history of British food.
  • Foods of England – Fabulous site of the history of the forgotten foods of England, with recipes.
  • Food timeline – An incredible index of food by late food history librarian Lynne Olver.
  • Medieval Cookery – A huge database of recipes from the medieval period across Europe.
  • Monk’s Modern Medieval Cuisine – Written by Dr Christopher Monk who has an expert knowledge of the recipes in Forme of Cury, and also the etymology of modern and medieval food.
  • Pass the Flamingo – Excellent site on the recipes and history of ancient dishes.
  • Project Gutenberg – immense database of free texts including Apicius, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and Forme of Cury.
  • Silk Road Gourmet by Laura Kelley – a fantastic blog by author Laura Kelley, delving into the ancient texts and recipes of Mesopotamia and other ancient Asian countries and empires.
  • Tasting History – Something for YouTube fans! Brilliant channel bringing history and food to life.
  • Tavola Mediterranea – if there’s anything Farrell Monaco doesn’t know about Roman cuisine it’s not worth knowing – great website with recipes and history-inspired culinary tools to buy.
  • The Regency Cook – Paul Couchman, cook at the Regency Townhouse in Hove, runs a blog with recipes and brilliant cookery courses based on 1830’s techniques and recipes.

“All I want for Christmas is bread sauce”: A brief history.

The day of judgement is almost upon us.

Soon we will be called forth to follow the Christmas commandments of our lord and saviour Delia (or Nigella, whichever you prefer) and begin the rituals: the chopping, the stirring, the basting. We will sing the hymns of Wizzard and share communion of a bucks fizz (or two) well before 9am.

Whether you’re a ‘presents first thing in the morning’ kind of person or a masochist who waits until after lunch, there’s one thing you should know: the day is made or broken by the quality of the bread sauce.

It’s an opinion I haven’t seen too much online and yet it’s one my whole family shared when I was growing up. In fact, so seriously do my family take bread sauce that no one except mum was allowed to make it and the first year I took over my sister insisted mum make a ‘back up’ vat too.

‘Vat’ might seem an odd way to measure bread sauce – after all, it’s a once a year accompaniment, right? Just another sauce to go with the cranberry jelly and the gravy. Surely ‘jug’ would be better?

You might think so, but you’d be wrong; growing up our family of four tripled the recipe. The recipe that, as standard, served 8 people. For us, ‘vat’ is an entirely appropriate measurement – nay, the only appropriate measurement – when it comes to bread sauce.

Someone corrected my mother’s annotation that 3x the recipe was too much. Luckily, 2018 saw the return of my appetite and thus the return of triple portions.

That seems…excessive

Tis the season.

Anyway, I’d done an obligatory mince pie post to celebrate the festivities, but what I was really excited about was delving into the history of my very own reason for the season.

For the uninitiated, proper bread sauce contains nothing but bread, butter, milk and cream, an onion and some spices. It should look a little like porridge and taste creamy and mild and ever so slightly fragrant. Its flavours are best approximately 8-12 hours after lunch when it’s eaten cold from the fridge in gelatinous mounds off a silver spoon, or between two slices of cheap white bread which have been buttered and dotted with leftover stuffing bits. In short, if anything was going to prove the existence of God to me at this time of year, it’d be a perfect bowl of Delia’s bread sauce, not a nativity scene.

Using bread to thicken sauces was an ancient technique, but I was interested to see if there were any old recipes which made bread the central part of the sauce itself and what those recipes tasted like. Were any of them even remotely similar to modern bread sauce? Were they served alongside turkey? Was there any historical precedent for cooking up entire vats of the stuff, or was it just a bonkers tradition unique to my family?

Galentyne: 1390.

Take crustes of brede & grynde hem smale; do þerto poudour of galyngale, of canel, of gynger, and salt it; temper hyt with vyneger & drawe it vp þorow a straynour & messe hit forth.

Take crusts of bread and finely grind them; to this add powder of galangal, cinnamon and ginger, and salt it; temper it with vinegar, and blend it through a strainer, and serve it forth.

Forme of Cury. Text and translation copyright Christopher Monk 2020

Galentyne was the earliest English precursor to bread sauce I could find. Forme of Cury, where this recipe comes from, was compiled around 1390 and was the cook book for Richard II’s master cooks. Being a 14th century recipe, galentyne wasn’t intended to be eaten with turkey, but it also didn’t give any indication what it was an accompaniment to. Knowing how the rich ate in the 14th century it could have been anything: pork, beef, porpoise, swan, seal…

Dr. Christopher Monk, who has written a post about the various galentynes of Forme of Cury, points out that the word ‘galentyne’ is pretty hard to pin down. In some recipes it appears as a sauce, in others a jelly. It can be served hot, or cold. Some versions use vinegar, others use only wine, some both.

The first thing I noticed was a lack of quantities. This was totally standard for the 14th century and just as totally unhelpful as it sounds, especially given the only liquid in this recipe was vinegar.

I blitzed a handful of white bread crusts with the ground spices and added tablespoon after tablespoon of white wine vinegar until I ended up with a fairly thick paste, which I pushed through a sieve before trying.

Perhaps I tried too much at first, because the first taste was like eating a tablespoon of acid. My lips tried to eat themselves as they curled back from the sourness and my eyes began to prickle but once the initial assault was over I began to appreciate the tartness and the aftertaste, which wasn’t too bad: slightly spicy and salty.

I even went back for more, this time a small smear on a bit of ham and it was actually delicious. It reminded me a bit of a pickle, the sort of thing you’d serve with chutneys and mustards and piccalilli; I reckon I’d make this to serve alongside a Christmas ham in future years.

You do not need to triple the recipe for this one.

Was it a good approximation of modern bread sauce, though? No, not even close. It had vaguely the right consistency and colour, but that’s where the similarities ended. I moved onto the next recipe.

Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce: 1594.

Fine Sauce for a roasted Rabbet: used to king Henrie the eight. TAKE a handfull of washed Parcelie, minced small, boil it with butter and vergious upon a chafingdish, season it with Sugar, and a litle pepper grose beaten: when it is readie, put in a few crums of white bread amongst the others let it boile againe til it be thick: then lay it in a platter, like the bredth of three fingers, lay of each side one rosted Cony or more so serue them.

The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, Thomas Dawson.

This seemed more like it; no mention of vinegar and plenty of butter. There was still a worrying lack of cream or milk to give the sauce a decent thick creaminess, but it was moving in the right direction and, as the recipe suggested it had been served to Henry VIII himself, it seemed promising that it’d be rich and filling at least.

I placed the chopped parsley, butter and verjuice in a pan and let it boil together for a minute or two. Verjuice is just the juice of unripe grapes. You can make it yourself, but it’s easier to buy a bottle “just to have in for historical experiments.” Once bought, the bottle will take up cupboard space in your kitchen and your husband will moan that it just adds to the clutter and never gets used.

As soon as the butter had melted I added sugar, pepper and a handful of breadcrumbs and…panicked. The recipe definitely said ‘sauce’, but the breadcrumbs soaked the liquid up like a sponge. It didn’t resemble a sauce at all, no matter how much more verjuice or butter I added, it just stayed a dense mass. I re-read the recipe; it suggested the ‘sauce’ be served “the breadth of three fingers” which suggested some sort of solidity but I was still a bit taken aback, especially as it was easier to cut with a knife rather than spoon onto a plate and looked alarmingly like pork stuffing.

A sausage of bread sauce, sire?

In terms of flavour, however, this was by far the most pleasant. It was rich and buttery, like a good bread sauce should be. Modern bread sauce has a slight sweetness to it, but this was far sweeter than I was used to because of the verjuice and added sugar.

The main flavour was parsley, which unfortunately wasn’t like a good bread sauce at all. Good bread sauce should be stodgy and carbohydrate heavy, with nary a hint of anything as healthy as a green herb in sight. Henry VIII’s nailed the stodginess (perhaps a little too well…) but the overeager abundance of parsley in this one meant it still wasn’t right. I moved on.

Gallendine sauce for a Turkey: 1653

Take some Claret Wine, and some grated Bread, and a sprig of Rosemary, a little beaten Cloves, a little beaten Cinnamon, and some Sugar.

A True Gentlewomans Delight, Elizabeth GreyCountess of Kent

Did I really want to make another version of galentyne again? No, of course not, and besides I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough vinegar left. But what intrigued me about this recipe was that it specified serving it with turkey, just like modern bread sauce.

The first thing that struck me in this recipe was the addition of claret wine. True bread sauce should be white. I began to feel very nervous as I poured wine over my heap of breadcrumbs and watched them turn white to deepest red.

There was no cooking to be done here, so once the herbs and spices had been added I assumed it was done.

Bread would be a good tool for mopping up a murder scene, I think.

This was the most unpleasant of the lot, which surprised me. I think I’d assumed because it was the latest of the three it would somehow be the best – as if time would afford the creator of the recipe some additional skill or appreciation for good bread sauce. Of the three, however, this was the only one we ended up not being able to finish.

Consistency wise it was the closest to modern bread sauce, but appearance wise it was about as far away as you could get: bold and bright and covered in twigs. The taste was also nothing like bread sauce: it was just wine with soggy lumps of bread and the occasional sprig of rosemary poking you in the gums. No, thank you.

The verdict.

The closest taste to modern bread sauce was probably Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce. The addition of butter made it by far the creamiest of the lot but the appearance was more like a log of sausage meat than a sauce. None of them were very good matches – either too acidic, too solid or too alcoholic, which just goes to show that having bread as an ingredient does not a bread sauce make.

Three bowls of bread, none of them sauce.

By this point I was beginning to suspect that Delia had invented the perfect recipe for bread sauce through divine intervention rather than historical evolution… and then I found Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe:

Bread sauce for Roasted Partridge

Bread sauce…made thus: Take about a handful or two of crumbs of bread, put in a pint of milk or more, a small whole onion, a little whole white pepper, a little salt, and a bit of butter, boil it all well up; then take the onion out and beat it with a spoon.

The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse.

Given Delia’s militarily precise and inflexible timings for Christmas day lunch, I don’t know how much she’d approve of Hannah’s somewhat lackadaisical approach to the quantities and measurements here, but I couldn’t fault the foundations of the recipe. Bread? Check. Milk? Check. Butter? Check. Wine, vinegar, verjuice? No, no, no – thank God.

So, were any of the three I made worthy of triple portions? No. But, more importantly, did any of them make the cut for this year’s Christmas Day table? Also no – it’s meant to be a day of unbridled joy and pleasure for God’s sake.

For the day itself I’ll stick to Delia’s bread sauce recipe, but maybe now I’ll pause before dunking my head into the bowl and remind my husband and daughter of the rich history of the stuff – much to their delight, I’m sure. And if there’s one positive to the Christmas lockdown, it’s that my mum – who texted to tell me I had “better not let her down” with this post – wasn’t around to see some of the unfortunate origins of her beloved side dish.

Merry Christmas!

E x

War Widows and the Unknown Warrior: 11th November 1920

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon, The Times, September 1914

No recipe today I’m afraid. Instead let’s talk about a tomb in Westminster Abbey that holds the body of a man with no known identity. Carved on the grave are the words:

“Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land…”

Tomb to the Unknown Warrior – a fallen WW1 soldier – was the idea of Rev. David Railton. Whilst serving as Army Chaplain on the Western Front, he noticed a grave marked with a rough cross on which a pencilled note “An Unknown Soldier of the Black Watch” was written. Using this experience, and taking inspiration from a similar idea that had been proposed in France in late 1916, he suggested that in order to commemorate the thousands who died across the British Empire, an unidentified deceased British soldier should be picked from a battlefield and buried “amongst the kings”. His idea was strongly supported by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and preparations took place.

On 11th November 1920, the casket containing the body of the soldier – picked at random from a selection of 4 possible men from a range of battlefields – was placed on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and made its way through vast and silent crowds lining the streets of Westminster.

At this time of year, every year, I think back to what it must have been like to stand inside Westminster Abbey 100 years ago and watch the grave finally being capped with its black marble stone. I wonder what it must have been like for the servicemen who stood guard – most of whom had also fought in the war that claimed the life of the Unknown Warrior only a few years ago. I wonder what it was like for children who were too young to remember World War One and yet still had their entire childhoods shaped by the collective memory and trauma of it.

But mostly I wonder what it was like for the women. Specifically the wives and mothers who were left behind by a war that took everything from them and – it must have seemed by the end – gave precious little back.

The price of victory?

Sure, talk of triumph, freedom and liberty was all well and good for politicians and historians with distance from the fighting, but for the real people who had to experience the horror of reading the words ‘Regret To Inform You…’, of telling children their fathers wouldn’t be returning home, of folding and putting away clothes that would never be worn again…? Well, I can’t stop thinking about those people.

Perhaps it’s because it’s 100 years to the day that the Unknown Warrior was interred in his tomb, or maybe I’m just getting softer as I get older, but the thought of all those lives shattered into pieces – physically and emotionally – seems especially poignant this year. Because as well as the king and politicians and sombre crowd, the casket was also flanked by approximately 100 guests of honour: women who had suffered the heartbreaking experience of losing their husbands and all their sons in the war – “every woman so bereft, who applied for a place got it“. What must have been going through their heads as they watched the final journey of this casket, which represented so much to so many?

It’s important to note that it’s easy to get overly sentimental here. Interviews with widows, children and mothers, diary extracts and articles all show a deep sense of loss and desperation, but the grief of these women is not my grief; their loss was not my loss. We can’t imagine what emotions they felt at the time, nor imagine that they all experienced the same ones. All we can do is look at the records that history has left us and try to piece together what the short term reality for some may have been.

The life of a war widow.

Most women of the early 20th century, including many among the 100 at the interment of the Unknown Warrior, relied on their husbands to provide an income for the family. When the men went to war, many women began work in the factories and fields to fill the workplace spaces left behind. The number of women in the Civil Service rose from 33,000 in 1911, to 102,000 by 1921, though women’s wages were, on average, half those of their male counterparts.

When the war ended and the men returned back to work many women had to return home to a life of domesticity again. This was fine (except not really) if you had a returning husband who could pull in his pre-war wages, but if you’d lost your main earner and the job you’d been doing for the past 4 years was given back to a man, what were you supposed to do? Many widows had to continue to work, but for some – especially women with young children – that was impossible.

Fights broke out among employed women – some of whom were widowed – over who should be allowed to keep the jobs that were left. In October 1919, Isobel M Pazzey wrote in the Daily Herald: “No decent man would allow his wife to work, and no decent woman would do it if she knew the harm she was doing to the widows and single girls who are looking for work… Put the married women out, send them home to clean their houses and look after the man they married and give a mother’s care to their children. Give the single women and widows the work.” I imagine she wasn’t someone you’d spend too much time chatting with at the water cooler.

Charity…of a sort.

In 1916, Kitty Eckersley‘s husband Percy was killed in the Battle of the Somme. She was seven months pregnant at the time. “I felt I didn’t want to live. I had no wish to live at all because the world had come to an end for me. I had lost all that I loved.”

Women like Kitty were entitled to a state-funded pension and a dependents’ allowance, which helped support children under the age of 16. Charities like the British Legion also helped with further support for families that were really struggling following the wartime death of the man of the house. Pensions for widows were a relatively new concept, first used during the Boer War of 1881, and their use was ramped up during WW1.

There were caveats to the pensions, though. Women who married ex-soldiers who had been discharged and then died afterwards from wounds weren’t entitled to anything. In around 1920, Ellen Bambrough wrote to the government asking for support following her husband’s death the year before. Her husband had served in the war and had left her with two children to raise. The government, however, initially responded that his death was “not attributable” to the war – he had been struck down by the influenza epidemic of 1919 – and that therefore Ellen was not entitled to any financial support.

Similarly, women could have their pension withdrawn if it was felt they weren’t living morally – for example if they were regularly drunk, had an illegitimate child or dared to live out of wedlock with another man following the death of their husband. Neighbours could report widows to local authorities who had to the power to turn up, unannounced, at a woman’s house to investigate accusations of immorality.

In 1915, 25 year old Mabel Beadsworth‘s husband was killed in action, leaving her with two children under 5. Following the birth of an illegitimate child in 1916, her pension was stopped. After her boyfriend left her destitute in 1930, Mabel ended up in a workhouse. Desperate, she petitioned the government to reinstate her pension and her case was reopened (unsuccessfully), with much probing of her private life and public discussion of her “immorality” and “misconduct.” Reports from witnesses described her as a “disgrace to the name of woman” (that particular witness was her charming mother-in-law, by the way.)

The examples above highlight that post war widowhood wasn’t just a box to be ticked on official forms. In echoes of the Victorian notion of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’, the status ‘widow’ was a tool by which the government could monitor and control women who were no longer under the control of men.

“Is the modern woman a hussy?”

In 1917 Rosamund Essex’s teacher told her female students: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess of mine. It is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can. The war has made more openings for women than there were before. But there will still be a lot of prejudice. You will have to fight. You will have to struggle.

Rosamund’s teacher might have been exaggerating a bit, but her point still stood. Fewer men meant fewer marriages and fewer marriages meant that more women would have to fend for themselves in later life. For some this was a good thing, a chance for women to take control of their own lives. For others it signalled the end of society.

By the end of the war there was, if anything, a preoccupation among some conservative thinkers that some women might be moving on a little too fast. The word “flapper” began to be used to describe young women of the 1920’s who drank, danced and generally had fun with or without a husband.

In fact, some people at the time were worried that women were enjoying life without men so much so that in 1919 the Illustrated Sunday Herald ran the headline “Is the Modern Woman a Hussy?”

“Yes!” came the response from Dr. R. Murray-Leslie. Or at least it probably did, going by a lecture he delivered in 1920 criticising “the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations.” I don’t know about you but it sounds to me like he’d just been stood up and was feeling pretty bitter about it all.

Admittedly, most of the accusations of frivolity and “loose morals” were aimed at younger women – though widows of any age who didn’t conform to social mourning expectations of the time were also accused of getting over their husbands a little too quickly. There was a real fear among conservative thinkers of the time that the huge numbers of men who had died in WW1 meant that young women, who previously would have married and had children, would now be allowed to run wild.

Final thoughts.

It’s obvious that only thinking about women who experienced the loss of their husbands in WW1 through a lens of permanent bereavement is dangerous, even if it does fit neatly into a patriotic package of remembrance. For many women who had experienced it, widowhood was a defining feature of their post-war lives and many never fully recovered from the trauma of their earlier loss. However, failing to think of the lives of widows beyond their widowhood threatens to romanticise women’s grief and labels them entirely in relation to the men they lost, even if they then went on to remarry. As seen, the process of applying for a widow’s pension was anything but romantic and women had to fight hard to acquire what was legally theirs.

WW1 heralded the start (and end) of many things. As more women moved into the workforce and women gradually became more and more enfranchised throughout the first half of the 20th century, traditional expectations very slowly ebbed away. Widow’s pensions were blunt instruments that were, in some senses, designed to embrace both changes.

On the one hand, there was a genuine intention behind the pensions issued to widows of WW1 to provide relief and support. This was born of an awareness of the scale of suffering and a sense of duty; as their husbands had died fighting for their country, the least their country could do was take care of the widows.

On the other hand, the pensions were still rooted in old Victorian ideals of morality and social order. At a time when many were worrying about the rise of the flapper, there was limited empathy among traditionalists for people who were seen to fall short of the old standards, and little to no understanding of how some socio-economic factors would impact on certain individuals’ ability to maintain a ‘moral’ lifestyle.

The widows of WW1 deserve to be remembered just as the soldiers do. Their stories are often cut short at the moment of their husband’s death, and yet their own lives didn’t end; they couldn’t end. Not when there was work to be found, children to be fed, letters and petitions to be written. The lives of these women continued for years afterwards and so, as I think about the Unknown Warrior and all he represents, I also think about the 100 women who accompanied him to his tomb, and I wonder what became of them afterwards.

E x

Credit here.

Jollof Rice

October is Black History Month. For today’s recipe I wanted to learn about (and try to make) a dish I’ve never eaten before: Jollof Rice, a hugely popular and quintessentially West African food. I didn’t specifically set out to make Jollof rice when I began researching the history of West African food, but it was impossible to escape it – everywhere I turned, recipes for Jollof rice popped up, each proclaiming to be better than the last. It was too tempting to resist…

Firstly, let me start with a bit of a disclaimer by saying that I am not an expert in any way about the vast and various cuisines of West Africa. All I have done for this post is a bit of research, chatted to a few friends and colleagues who know how to cook Jollof Rice, and given it my best shot. If you want to find more African recipes or know more about the history of Jollof Rice (also here) then please do click on those links to see what people far more knowledgeable than me have to say.

I’ve written a bit about the cuisine of non-European food such as ancient Egypt and Persia, but it feels easier to write about this food when it’s framed in terms of ancient civilisations and the dishes either aren’t made anymore, or have changed significantly from the original.

This is one reason I tend to write mostly about the history of European food; it feels more familiar to me. Similarly, when I wrote about the history of my Indian grandad’s food it felt familiar because I was writing about my family first and foremost. It’s a totally daunting different feeling to be writing about the history of a food that is still loved by millions today. Jollof Rice is so treasured and fiercely defended that there are ongoing bitter online rivalries about which nation makes the best version. Seriously, the scrutiny on any recipe that claims to be for Jollof is fierce and the condemnation, if such a recipe is found lacking, is harsh.

Hence the disclaimer. I can’t pretend to fully understand the nuance and symbolism of Jollof Rice, I didn’t grow up eating it and I don’t have any stakes in the #jollofwars. Instead what I can do this Black History Month is to read, research and listen to others. I hope you’ll spend some time this October (and, to be honest, all year round!) doing the same.

What’s in a name?

When I naively typed ‘Jollof Rice recipe’ into Google I was immediately hit with over 3 million results. This was genuinely a bit terrifying to me; I enjoy variety up to a point, but after a quick look it seemed that each recipe on the first page was different from the last. The second page of hits yielded similarly overwhelming results too. People also had Strong Opinions on these recipes and the only thing I came away knowing for certain was that if I wanted authentic Jollof I should avoid Jamie Oliver’s recipe and Tesco’s ready-meal version at all possible costs.

At its most basic, Jollof Rice is a dish of rice that is cooked slowly in stock and a mixture of blended tomato, onion and pepper. Over time the rice absorbs the liquid and takes on a deep red hue. Many variations of Jollof Rice contain other things, such as peas, carrots, meat or fish – and it’s in these additions that disputes between what is ‘the best’ Jollof often focus their attention.

Sadly, there isn’t an original written Jollof recipe we can point to as the first version of this dish and as far as I could see there are literally hundreds of ways to prepare it. However, the consensus among many West Africans seems to be that Jollof Rice originated from the Wolof people, possibly some time during the Jolof (or Wolof) Empire – a collection of West African states including modern day Senegal and the Gambia, dating from 1350-1549.

Empires of West Africa. Credit here.

In Senegal today the Wolof people are the largest ethnic group, accounting for almost 40% of the country’s population and Wolof is the lingua franca of the country. The history of the Wolof people probably dates to around the 12th century when people migrated west following the collapse of the Empire of Ghana in c.1100, which was situated in present day Mali and Mauritania. In Wolof, Jollof Rice is called ‘benachin’, which translates as ‘one pot’ because everything is cooked in the same pot.

Yet despite the connection between names, Jollof Rice is the national dish of Nigeria, not Senegal. The national dish of Senegal is another rice dish, thiebou dieun. This dish contains more ingredients than the Jollof Rices of other countries and the main similarity seems to be that it is red and also contains rice and tomatoes.

So what are the ingredients of Jollof rice?

Well, rice. Duh. Also stock, onions, tomatoes and peppers. After that it gets…contentious.

Rice had been cultivated in Africa for around 3000 years and was an important part of West African cuisine long before the Jolof Empire existed. Judith A Carney writes that in the mid 15th century, an early Portuguese visitor described the cultivation of wetland rice on floodplains possibly near the Gambia: “They arrived sixty leagues beyond Cape Verde, where they met with a river which was of good width, and into it they entered with their caravels … they found much of the land sown, and many fields sown with rice…”

Onions were also a native crop, grown in North Africa from as far back as 5000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians held a special place for onions, with some arguing that the onions represented symbols of eternity because of the rings-within-rings. When Rameses IV died in c. 1160, onions were placed in his eye sockets. Don’t ask me why.

Detail from the tomb of Rameses IV. The hieroglyphs are actually a shopping list and read: “bread, cheese, onions and cat food.” Credit here.

However tomatoes and peppers, other key ingredients in Jollof Rice, weren’t introduced to Africa until the early 15th century when the Portuguese set up trading posts along the river Gambia. Therefore we can say with some confidence that if Jollof Rice (in its modern day form at least) was a creation of the Jolof Empire it wasn’t part of the cuisine until sometime around 1440, which is when Portuguese traders appear to have arrived in the Jolof Empire.

Initially the Portuguese trading posts were intended to develop trade links between Africa and Europe, though in reality they were more like garrisons and were designed to force West Africans to trade only with Portugal, rather than other European traders. In exchange for manufactured goods such as firearms and new foods, the Portuguese took items such as gold and terracotta. However, these actions later contributed to the beginnings of one of the most brutal and horrific atrocities in history: the transatlantic slave trade.

The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade refers to the enslavement and transport of millions of Africans from their homeland to the Americas during the 16th to 19th centuries by European traders – notably the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. To this day it is one of the worst periods of human history, involving suffering on an unimaginable and harrowing scale.

Map showing the Middle Passage and transatlantic slave trade. Credit here.

The effects of the slave trade echo through history into today’s societies and in his work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the late historian Walter Rodney argued there was a fundamental economic imbalance between some European and African countries as a result of Europe benefiting economically from enslaved human labour while Africa was bled of its citizens.

As well as people, Africa lost parts of its own food identity from the 16th to the 19th centuries as European colonisers took over land and systematically set about destroying the existing culture. According to the food historian Igor Cusack, it is near impossible to overestimate the colonial impact on African national cuisines. The West African dish groundnut stew, for example, came about partly because French colonisers destroyed many of the indigenous crops in Senegal and used almost all of the agricultural land there for groundnuts, which were then exported for profit. Likewise the use of broken rice in the aforementioned thiebou dieun is due to colonial rule where large quantities of poor quality rice were imported from French Indochina to Africa, with the best quality rice to going straight to France.

One more reason it’s challenging trying to gather early evidence of Jollof rice is because there aren’t many sources available. That’s not to say they don’t exist, just that either my research skills aren’t good enough, or that making pre-16th century African sources readily available to the general population of the UK hasn’t been prioritised by archives and libraries. Or it could be a combination of both (probably this one, to be honest.)

Much of West Africa’s history is also oral and told through stories and customs that are passed down through generations in the form of songs or folklore. Griots – akin to ancient Greek bards or epic poets – are one important way the history of West Africa was passed down.

A griot performing. Credit here.

Despite the issues I had with gathering reliable evidence about the history of pre-16th century African food, I did find this OpenEdition journals collection and this British Library article hugely helpful when researching the history of language, writing and food across the African continent.

Back to Jollof

What is clear is that in spite of the distorting influence of the slave trade and colonialism on the history of African food, Jollof Rice is a quintessentially West African dish. Its reach into numerous countries – both in Africa and across the world – under various names and versions, and the joy and love it generates by those who share its culture, is testament to that.

In lieu of a ‘first ever’ Jollof recipe, I settled for something arguably better: a Jollof recipe that had remained largely unchanged for a couple of generations, shared with me from an exceptionally generous colleague. Out of respect for him I am not publishing his family recipe, though I have included links to similar recipes that are already available online at the end of this post.

Full disclosure to anyone following the #jollofwars, though: it is a Nigerian version. This was actually perfect for me as my dad spent quite a bit of his childhood growing up in Lagos, so I felt like if I was going to make any type of Jollof recipe I’d have wanted to try a Nigerian one, just to see if it was similar to the ones he remembered.

Let’s make Jollof (finally.)

Cooking Jollof.

I actually made this Jollof twice because the first time I added an entire un-deseeded scotch bonnet to the tomato/pepper/onion purée and then spent the next 12 hours in the fetal position when I tried a teaspoon of it. I had though I wasn’t too bad with spice, but oh my god.

The second time I made it I avoided all the seeds in the scotch bonnet and added only the tiniest scraping of the flesh to the tomato mixture. This mixture was then added to a stock, which I made by hand following my colleague’s instructions, and then I added the rice.

Nigerian Jollof Rice is rinsed of all its starch, so I had to wash the rice I used multiple times until the water ran totally clear. Following the recipe, I then added the rice to the pot of stock and tomato purée and left it to cook, stirring it frequently to stop it sticking to the pan.

After a while it was done. The liquid had mostly been absorbed by the rice, which had turned a deep red colour. As per my colleague’s instructions, I served the Jollof alongside the chicken which had been used for the stock and which I had baked after removing it from the liquid.

Heaven on a plate.

This. Was. Incredible.

Spicy (but not too much this time) but surprisingly sweet, and with a deep savoury flavour in the background because of the stock used to cook the rice in. I think maaaaybe my Jollof was slightly wetter than it should have been (looking at other versions online they seem less sticky), but even if it was it didn’t seem to affect how good it tasted.

Before I made it I had tried to think of food I’d eaten before that might be similar, and had wondered if paella might fit the bill. After one bite I could see that though these two dishes shared common ingredients, they were clearly distinct from each other. Given that both West Africa and Spain have historical links to Portugal, it’s not surprising that comparisons are sometimes drawn between the two dishes, but the truth is there are clear differences. Paella has a more fishy and saffron-y flavour, whereas Jollof is peppery, more herby and meatier.

Ultimately I’d urge anyone who, like me, has never tried Jollof Rice before to give this a go. Set aside a few hours to really appreciate the process and you won’t be disappointed. Hold back on the scotch bonnet if you don’t enjoy breathing fire, though.

E x

Links

Jollof Rice/Thiebou Dieun Recipes:
Nigerian Jollof
Nigerian Jollof
Ghanaian Jollof
Ghanaian Jollof
Senegalese Thiebou Dieun

Winner winner chicken dinner: Tudor carving habits

I’ve always loved roast dinners. Not to cook – I find that end bit where everything’s bubbling over, the potatoes are turning from ‘golden brown’ to ‘lightly cremated’ and the sink’s full of every pan you ever owned piled high in a dangerously greasy game of Jenga quite stressful. But to eat? Oh yes.

In fact, I would go as far as classifying a good roast dinner an essential health food. Let me explain…

When I was younger I had to spend a few weeks in hospital. Before being admitted I’d been reading one of the Harry Potter books but because of an astounding lack of forward planning on my part I got sick during a weekend trip to my grandpa, who lived over 100 miles away and ended up in a hospital that was too far for my parents to nip back home for one lousy book. I don’t remember much about the first week apart from one event in particular: languishing in bed, I turned to my dad and asked if he could tell me the end of the Harry Potter I’d been reading, you know, “in case I don’t make it.” (Yep – even from a young age I’ve always had a flair for hammy melodrama.)

I remember thinking that my dad was taking a long time to recall the story and almost gave up waiting for him before he suddenly answered. At this point it’s worth saying I was genuinely life threateningly ill, I was a young child and we were a long way from home. All he had to do was come up with something comforting and simple. He cleared his throat…

“Voldemort broke Harry’s wand so Harry couldn’t fight back. He killed Harry and then set fire to Hogwarts. Dumbledore managed to escape but Voldemort cast a spell and he lost all his powers…” his eyes gleamed brightly as he found his rhythm.

“Ron and Hermione were captured by Voldemort’s henchmen and forced to work for Voldemort. They weren’t allowed to talk because Voldemort cast a silencing spell on them so they couldn’t speak ever again. Eventually Voldemort controlled everything and no one could stop him. Dumbledore came back and tried to fight him but he couldn’t cast any spells and he was eaten by Hagrid’s big spider. Or it might have been that big snake that lived in the walls instead. The end.”

I remember asking him if he was sure that was the ending and him glancing at my mum, who had turned very pale and was clenching her fists very hard.

“Er…I might have forgotten some things,” he admitted. “Hang on…oh yes. It turns out that Hagrid was a secret agent for Voldemort all along – him and McGonagall -“

“Could I have a quick word, darling?” I watched as my mum frogmarched my dad out of the ward. She must have cast her own silencing spell on him because when they came back he wasn’t allowed to talk to me for the rest of the visit and just sat grumpily at the end of the bed eating my grapes.

I was pretty upset. I was also convinced he’d got it wrong, but this was in the days where most people had phones without internet so there was no way of checking apart from getting better and getting home to read it for myself. And what was it that lifted my spirits after my father had so callously crushed them, and spurred me on to good health? A roast dinner.

Oh, I know some of you will pipe up with other factors for my survival like the compassion and skill of the doctors and nurses, modern testing, medication, expert surgery and round the clock care. But to those people I say – could you cover any of that in gravy?

Yes, I know it takes a great deal of skill to become a medical professional. I know it’s a vocation that takes years to master and great levels of intellect that an apricot stuffed pork loin can never hope to possess. But what I also know is I’ve never, ever tasted a roast dinner as good as the one I had when I was finally able to eat a proper meal again. It was bliss. It was heaven. Things that I’d previously shunned, like boiled cabbage, I wolfed down like nectar from the gods. Was the meat chicken or pork? Lamb or beef? I couldn’t tell because it had taken on that worrying grey colour and had no discernible flavour from sitting in warm water for so long. Did it matter? Did it hell! The potatoes were soggy round the edges, there were no Yorkshire puddings and the gravy had clots of fat floating on the surface. It was, to this day, the best roast dinner I’ve ever eaten.

Each day after that I got a bit better, until I was allowed to go home. So yes, a roast dinner is a health food. It’s up there with acacia berries, flax seeds, coconut oil and quinoa and I truly believe it will only be a matter of time before Holland and Barrett start selling vacuum packed roast dinners alongside their perplexing array of supplements and protein powders.

You can tell this roast thinks it’s too good for you now.
Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Pexels.com

For many, myself obviously included, a roast dinner would have been the obvious Easter meal last weekend with lamb being a popular and traditional choice. Some, however, may have chosen to shun tradition this year by skimping on certain side dishes now that Aunty Barbara wasn’t coming round to sit on the sofa for three hours lamenting the absence of mashed potato, and certain heathens might have even done away with a roast entirely. Not so in our household. I spent most of Easter morning locked in the kitchen doing Very Important (veg) Prep which involved the veg setting calmly in water and the lamb taking care of itself in the oven. I also spent a lot of time on Twitter. Every so often my husband poked his head in and asked how things were and if I might join him in looking after our toddler, who was rampaging round the living room high on sugar screaming “Egg! Egg! Chocolate Egg!” over and over.

“Sorry, love, I can’t. Need to check on the spuds.” I wiggled a pan of very placid potatoes that had yet to be cooked and shrugged. “I would help if I could, but it’s about to get mad in here.”

And, 45 minutes later, it did.

Have you finished with your anecdotes yet? When does the history start?

Soon.

The point is, when I brought that roast dinner to the table I was really looking forward to it. We assumed the traditional roles – you know, the one where the woman does all the work but the husband steps in at the last second to take the glory of carving it – and I watched through my fingers as he absolutely butchered my beautiful lamb joint.

When he placed a slice of meat on my plate that looked as if it had been carved with all the delicacy and deftness of a wooden spoon I knew it was about time he received a history lesson in the lost art form of meat carving:

The terms of a Carver be as here followeth:
Break that dear –
Slice that brawn –
Rear that goose –
Lift that swan –
Sauce that capon…

Wynkyn de Worde, The Boke of Keruynge 1508

Carving was a big thing at aristocratic Tudor tables. In fact it was such an important aspect of dining that several books were published to instruct squires and other young men aspiring to noble ranks in the correct methods for carving each animal they might come across at the dinner table. It was clear that my husband had read approximately none of them.

Putting aside what books such as the fabulously named Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Keruynge can tell us about Tudor tastes (porpoise, anyone?), the first thing to notice is that Tudor carvers were nothing short of wordsmiths. Where my husband had two main carving techniques (the classic ‘back’n’forth’ and ‘pull the legs off’), Boke of Keruynge contains no fewer than 39 inventively named techniques for different animals, each distinct from the last. Some of them are familiar, if a little graphic for modern day tables – “Dismember that heron”, “Unjoint that bittern” – while others are elegant in their ambiguity – “Frusche that chicken”, “Trassene that eel” – and yet more were clearly just made up when Wynkyn was running out of ideas – “Untache that curlew”, “Splat that pike”.

Only the very rich could afford whole animals, so the purpose of having so many methods of carving wasn’t necessarily down to making the most of the meat (after all, how much difference could there be between carving a swan and carving a goose – other than the legal implications of one of them?) It was about showing off.

In bringing a whole animal to the table the lord was inviting people to gaze upon his wealth. Having a highly trained carver was therefore a necessity – what you didn’t want was someone who would mangle the meat into unrecognisable chunks, but would instead arrange the choicest cuts and present them in as pleasing a way as possible. The role of the carver also wasn’t to cut the meat into tiny bite sized portions, but to slice certain cuts off and possibly de-bone sections which could then be speared onto a diner’s plate and cut up with their own knife (forks weren’t introduced to England until the 17th century.) A carver should therefore be someone who cared, ideally because one day they would be dining on beautifully carved meat themselves and they had to learn how to recognise what it looked like. For this reason carvers of non-royal aristocratic households tended to be young men who were living and serving in the households of lords, perhaps as squires, as part of their training for the ranks of the nobility.

There was also another element to carving: power. As well as following the correct procedure, the carver had to carve the meat according to a rigid hierarchy. The man who owned the land where the animals had been killed had to be given the best cuts so one of the key jobs of the carver was to ensure that once the meat had been carved appropriately, he chose the gristle-free, richest and tastiest morsels for his lord. Once that had been done the platter of carved meat would be passed round the table – on a hierarchical basis, naturally – and diners would spear the cuts they wanted with their own knives. The carver could now breathe a sigh of relief that he had served his lord well and wouldn’t receive his own dismembering or unjointing later.

The role of the carver was so important that it had long been elevated in society. When what you served and how you served it said so much about your status and rank, the wealthy couldn’t afford to take risks with sloppy knifemanship from bog standard kitchen servants. During the 15th century the role of the carver therefore became highly coveted and developed into a special courtly office called the ‘carvership’ which only selected officials could hold. These roles paid well, as Elizabeth of York’s carver William Denton’s wage of £26 13s. and 4d. in 1503 attests.

The people in the background are just as horrified as I am with her lack of safe knife skills.

Knives in Tudor England

Knives were an essential part of life in Tudor England, and not just for preparing food. They were used for everything: cutting rope, whittling wood, stabbing clowns in the arse – you name it. Every man and boy over the age of five carried a knife with them at all times – I mean, I have child locks on all the kitchen drawers to stop my daughter getting at sharp objects, but sure – hand knives out to five year olds; they can definitely be trusted at that age.

But the carving knife was different.

Throughout the Tudor era and subsequent centuries the status of those who crafted carving knives – cutlers – increased. Cutlers who created the tools necessary to carve meat enjoyed a similar status to other master craftsmen such as jewellers and armourers. During the middle ages a cutler’s prestige could be increased according to the intricacies of the designs he created: a handle of polished brass was good, one that was inlaid with gold or silver was better, one set with amethysts and amber was best. And sparkliest.

As the Tudor era took hold, banquets became more elaborate and, what with the falling price of meat, feasts would contain numerous displays of meat carving and exotic animals for guests to sample, all with expensive spices and sauces to show off the king’s wealth and generosity. Such was the abundance of meat at Henry VIII’s court that his courtiers could easily be offered menus containing 5000 calories a day. To complement the richly overflowing tables a carver would be expected to put on a bit of a show and the knives he used were the main star. The accounts of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond (also Henry VIII’s only acknowledged illegitimate child) show that he possessed a pair of carving knives weighing just over 500g (an average modern day one weighs approximately 160g) that were also gilded.

It’s obvious that by now carving knives were more than just shiny tools. Yes, they showed wealth but they also represented a lord’s masculinity (you know, because the Tudor era was in dire need of yet more ways men could peacock around slapping their masculinity onto things.) The carving knife and what it represented became a symbol of how much of a man the lord was. A blunt knife could indicate a weak man who struggled to make an impression on the world. A plain knife could reveal a man’s miserly, simple ways that weren’t worthy of respect. Knives were so tied up in the concept of manliness and good honour that men who swore oaths would sometimes hand over their knives as testimony of good faith. As betrothal gifts young men would send their bride to be (or her family) gifts of knives which probably seemed sexier and a lot less threatening than it would today.

And in all of Tudor England, who should have the biggest, longest, hardest knife of all? Obviously Henry VIII. The inventory of his utensils described his knife case alone as “garnished with sundry emeralds and pearls and rubies about the neck and divers amethysts, jacynths and balases upon the foot thereof furnished with knives having diamonds at the ends.” I’m sure he wasn’t overcompensating for anything.

First the knives, now the codpiece? Henry love, simmer down.

My husband didn’t seem too interested in my history lesson. By now he was done hacking at the lamb and the walls were flecked with bloody juices. Scraps of meat lay strewn across the table and floor as he triumphantly proffered me the first glob.

Wynkyn de Worde hadn’t mentioned lamb in the pages I had come across, but if he had I expect he wouldn’t have called for it to be “Sawn Apart like Something Out of Jaws“. For all intents and purposes it appeared that my husband had adopted de Worde’s advice on how to carve a peacock instead and had thoroughly “disfigured” it.

Still, it tasted nice with or without bejewelled handles and ruby encrusted knife boxes.

E x

The spread of Manichaeism: an ancient conspiracy theory?

Hello fellow lizard overlords – sorry, I meant people. Perfectly ordinary hot blooded, delicious, bipedal people, which is a normal human greeting and Not Suspicious At All.

It’s that time of the week (or is it month, or year? Time has become meaningless) where I substitute some mediocre cooking for some mediocre history and the topic for today is: conspiracy theories.

I know, right? I’m excited too.

I love a good conspiracy theory. Not to believe in, I urgently must add. I’m not sat here thinking there’s any merit to the idea that Australia doesn’t exist or that early noughties pop star Avril Lavigne died and was replaced by a clone called Melissa (for one – loving the fact they’ve called her clone something as ordinary as Melissa and two – surely the bigger news here would be that human cloning exists?)

Without wanting to get too emotional about it all, I love what conspiracy theories tell us about human nature. Last year I ran an on-off history club and one of the topics we looked at was the 1969 moon landings. We analysed the evidence to suggest the landing were real and then looked at the evidence that some people had put forward to suggest the landings were faked. At the end we had a debate and took a vote. Most of the club ended up deciding the moon landings were fake and we had to disband for a couple of weeks while they went away to do more accurate research (and I could have a lie down in a dark room with a lot of calming gin as I ignored emails from parents wanting to know just what the hell I was teaching their kids.) Why did the conspiracy theories about something as well documented and culturally significant as the moon landings trump the reality? What was it about these theories that seemed more appealing or truthful than the weight of all the evidence to the contrary?

To speak in vague terms akin to a conspiracy theorist: The answer lies in the question. It was to do with the appeal of the theories. When they knew they’d be given a platform to argue their findings on, the students instinctively wanted a wow! factor to their arguments. They wanted controversy and something unique or original that would make their voice stand out from the crowd. Arguing against the accepted (logical!) history was a chance for them to argue against the establishment – science and scientists (and, I guess me as their history teacher) – and they wanted to take that opportunity.

Sure, there were some sweethearts who watched as I rocked under my desk after hearing conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory and took pity on me by presenting wholly logical and scientifically sound arguments that the moon landings did happen, but even I have to admit their presentations weren’t the ones I remembered later that evening.

The boy who stood on his desk and chucked paper balls at the rest of us to show the effects of gravity, therefore ‘proving’ (tenuously) that NASA must have slowed down footage of the astronauts jumping around in space to make it look like there was no gravity? Yeah, I remembered him. If not for his terrible argument, at least for his showmanship. Afterwards he admitted he didn’t believe the conspiracy theory, but that it was more fun to argue that side of the debate.

What I’m trying to say is this: the truth is boring and conspiracy theories are exciting and get you noticed. That’s part of their appeal – that some purely hypothetical small time football player in the 70’s who sadly had to give up his dream of making the big league and become a sports presenter for a short amount of time before being fired could still make a name for himself as a ‘professional’ conspiracy theorist which would keep him in the public eye. Hypothetically.

But what makes Sharon on Facebook share clickbait articles like ‘THE SECRETS BEHIND CHEMTRAILS – YOU WON’T BELIEVE NUMBER 6!!!’? She’s not going to get famous from someone else’s theory, is she? All she’s doing is signposting that it’s absolutely fine for the rest of us to go ahead and never take anything she says seriously again.

Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen M Douglas give a good explanation of why people are so drawn to conspiracy theories. They argue that in times of crisis, usually on a large communal scale (and as we’ve seen recently on a global scale), people feel a inherent loss of control. The feelings that this loss of control stimulate, such as fear and confusion, propel people to try and make sense of the crisis so that they can regain some of the control they feel they lost. They begin to look for patterns or explanations in places and things that in ordinary circumstances they wouldn’t and – crucially – listen to people who claim to have the answers and are able to provide cast iron solutions to the problem. In addition to this, because the best theories serve a function, once they gain enough traction they can enter a group’s culture and become embedded in people’s philosophies and beliefs, eventually being passed down generations with little analysis on the part of those who believe it. That’s partly why the Flat Earth Society, founded in 1956, is still going strong today.

For today’s conspiracy theorists, torching 5G towers seems like a solution to coronavirus. During the Black Death of 1348 hounding Jewish communities who were accused of poisoning wells seemed like it would fix the problem (and, to be honest, was just another instance of Antisemitism in an achingly long tradition of using Jewish people as scapegoats for society’s ills.)

There are countless theories from history and as much as I personally love the sound of my own voice I don’t imagine everyone else does, so to narrow it down I’m leaving out the flat earth, JFK assassination and moon landings stuff – you’ve heard it before and nothing I could say (no matter how brilliantly) could offer a viewpoint that’s any more interesting or informative than what’s already been written. What I’m going to focus on is about as close to a conspiracy theory as I could find from ancient Rome – the story of how the emperor Diocletian dealt with the spread of Manichaeism.

Mani-what-chaeism?

On Sundays Manicheans went to their local swimming pools for some holy breaststroke practice.

You mean you don’t know? Ha. What an amateur.

Manichaeism was a Persian religion that focused on an early form of dualism during the 3rd century. To put it in terms so simple as to render it almost totally null (and to maybe hide that I don’t understand all the religious terminology) essentially followers of Manichaeism believed that flawed human nature was a consequence of a power struggle between the forces of good and evil, more often referred to as light and darkness. In a nifty sidestep to Mackie’s inconsistent triad, Manichaens believed that though God – the ‘Father of Greatness’ – was powerful, he wasn’t omnipotent and was therefore locked in a battle with the devil – the ‘King of Darkness. All the world’s suffering, evil and even just things that made people go “ugh”, like a rainy day, were byproducts of this struggle. One more of these byproducts was the potential for humans to do wicked things, since the battle was fought not just in the world, but inside each and every one of us – with good actions acting as triumphs for God and negative actions acting as triumphs for the devil. The whole world was one big battleground. A beautiful blossoming flower might be construed as a victory for God, but it could be neutralised by a victory for the devil when some nob came along to pick it and stick it in a vase, thus killing it instantly. In this way, nothing was inherently good or evil, but rather each thing had the capacity for both good and evil (light and dark) within it and the goal was to do more good things so that when the eventual day of judgement came and light and dark was separated for ever, there would be more light than dark and God would ultimately triumph.

Got it? Good.

By the 290s, Manichaeism had spread far and wide, finding a particularly strong foothold in Egypt, and had arrived in Rome by the 300s. Accounts of Manichaeism in Rome are largely written by anti-Manichaens so it’s hard to get a fully accurate picture but it seems that for a short time Manichaeism rivalled Christianity in its popularity. Saint Augustine of Hippo – part theologian, part Nile creature – had even been a follower of Manichaeism before his conversion to Catholicism in 386.

In 284 Rome got a new emperor: Diocletian. He’s not as famous as Nero (who was also the focus of an ancient Roman conspiracy theory when Rome was burned down in 59AD), or as totally bonkers as Caligula, but was known for being the architect of a fun 10 – 15 year period where Rome attempted a total annihilation of its Christian (and Manichean) population.

Emperor Diocletian. Look how disapproving he is of your Bible.

Losing interest…what has this got to do with conspiracy theories?

I get it: ancient conspiracy theories aren’t as exciting as modern ones. Fewer lizards, no robots and largely centered around mysterious and secretive organisations (actually, that’s one conspiracy theory that hasn’t gone away.)

Hear me out, though.

Diocletian took power following a pretty turbulent period in Roman history. Not the most turbulent by any means, but still a politically stressful time. The emperor before him, Carinus, is alleged to have gone power mad, spent most of Rome’s money on things he didn’t need and lived a generally debauched lifestyle – reportedly marrying and divorcing nine different women in a three year period. The emperor before him had been, er, killed in a mutiny just before Rome was due to fight the Persians – its very longstanding and much hated enemy.

So it was that Diocletian came to power. Rome was a bloated, rapidly waning super power with growing social divisions, increasing political and military corruption and witnessing an influx of religions and cultures which caused some to feel that the true essence of what made Rome great was disappearing. Surely there was a cause to this slow slide into the dung heap of oblivion?

Well, yes, actually. The Manichaens.

The conspiracy theories began: the Manichaens were sent by Persia to destroy Rome. They operated covertly to hide their evil doings. There was no religious element to them at all, rather their motives were purely political. At some point, much later on, Augustine piped up with more information – that Manichaens enjoyed eating sperm and menstrual blood during their quasi-cannibalistic religious ceremonies. Bit of a two faced backstabber, was Augustine; his old Manichaen mates must have felt more than a little betrayed, if only because their rituals were meant to be secret, damn it!

It was the perfect conspiracy theory; one reason for Rome’s decline from its glorious golden age centuries ago could now be attributed to this weird little religious sect. Even better that this so called religion was started in the Persian empire, Rome’s enemy – if anything that just proved it couldn’t be legit. It was all a Persian conspiracy to destroy Rome.

In 302 Diocletian issued his edict on Manichaeism, laying out what a conspiracy it was and paving the way for religious persecution:

As for these people who set up new and unheard of sects contrary to the ancient rites [of Rome], in order that in support of their perverse belief they might drive out those doctrines which had been granted to us in earlier times by divine influence…we have heard that they, namely the Manichaens, have arisen and advanced into this world very recently from among the Persians – our enemies – just like new and unexpected diseases, where they are committing many crimes against our communities…

We should be afraid that they might attempt, as is their wont, to corrupt men of more innocent natures, the modest and tranquil Roman race, and the whole of our empire with the deplorable customs and sinister laws of the Persians as with the poison of a snake…

Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio

I mean, he doesn’t hold back. Poison? Perverse? Corrupt? Diocletian meant business when he set out this conspiracy theory. Woe betide you if you were a Manichaen in Rome after 31 March 302 – you’d probably end up in prison!

We command that the heads of Manichaeism be subjected to the harshest punishment; that is to be consumed by the burning flames along with their condemnable writings.

Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio

Ah. So…not prison then?

While Manichaen leaders were being burnt alive, low status Manichaens were being beheaded and high status Manichaens were being enslaved in quarries and mines to do literally back breaking labour until they died. All Manichaen property was seized and destroyed and all wealth was deposited straight into the imperial treasury.

There were no internet chat rooms and tin foil hats here; it was, as responses to conspiracy theories go, pretty hardcore. And yet, like most conspiracy theories, it was also pretty baseless. Whether or not Diocletian truly thought Manichaeism was a Persian conspiracy or whether he spotted an easy scapegoat is unclear, especially given the anti-Manichaen nature of the surviving sources about Manichaeism in Rome. What is clear, however, is that he certainly wanted the people of Rome to buy into the conspiracy theory.

Sure, there may have been some Persians and Manichaens who hoped for the downfall of Rome. And what religion doesn’t want to ultimately take over other cultures and civilisations? But in the end Rome’s alarm that Manichaeism was a massive Persian conspiracy to overthrow the status quo was unfounded. In subsequent years, Diocletian would go on to persecute other religions, most famously Christians, for many of the same reasons as he gave in the edict of 302. Ultimately, these persecutions were unsuccessful and within 25 years of the start of the Christian persecutions, the emperor Constantine would make Christianity the empire’s religion of choice. Too late for the Manichaens in Rome, though.

So what can we learn from this? Well for a start, the next time you comment on Sharon’s Facebook post asking her why she has to be like this, you can take heart knowing that to an extent humans have always “been like this”. Conspiracy theories are nothing new and in times of turmoil we’ve always sought to make sense of what’s happening, often by pinning blame on those we’re already angry with, or those who we think will be easy targets. Human nature is, in that regard, unfortunately timeless.

But if there’s one thing you should definitely take away it’s this: you can fight them all you want, but what the Illuminati wants, the Illuminati gets.

E x