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


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

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?


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.


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

The Leicester Method: 19th century

I’ve been practising my imaginary teleportation. For the uninitiated, this is a technique I use where I imagine myself transported to another place, or time, as a few seconds of escape from reality. Usually I only have to use it half way through the last lesson on Friday with year 11, but, well, y’know…

Trouble is I’m not amazing at it. I tend to find the thud of scrunched up paper balls bouncing off the whiteboard and the sounds of Ryan’s dulcet tones as he shouts “Miss, have I told you that I’m not doing any revision cos mum says there’s no point to it – she’s written you a letter”, a bit distracting (although who know Ryan’s mum would be right this year?!)

So, I’ve had a bit more time to hone my skills, and I’d like to share the technique with you. Besides, I think we could all do with a break from tending to the sourdough starters we all began back when being stuck indoors with partners was an opportunity to learn new skills together rather than a legitimate reason to consider mariticide.

For one or two minutes we’re going to take a break from the background drone of the TV and the incessant smothering proximity of our nearest (literally) and dearest, and go on a virtual holiday. Somewhere exotic, somewhere exciting. Somewhere so good you’ll forget all about how loudly and annoyingly your partner breathes while you’re trying to work and then if you do remember, it’s only for long enough to send a ‘Wish you Weren’t Here’ postcard. The holiday of a lifetime.

Close your eyes. Let the sounds of your house wash over you, lulling you into a trance like state. Feel your body sink…sink…sink down deeper into the couch and allow your mind float away…

…to Leicester.

(I did tell you I wasn’t very good at this, sorry.)

Okay, but this isn’t just any old Leicester – this is 19th century Leicester! Still not convinced about this holiday? What if I told you that, like many other towns during the second half of the Industrial Revolution, Leicester saw rapid population growth going from a population of just under 20,000 at the start of the century to about 167,000 by the end? Practically metropolitan! This bustling community was made up of many types of people: immigrants from the countryside seeking work, immigrants from other countries seeking new opportunities, long standing families and people just passing through, leading Oscar Wilde to quote: “I can resist everything except Leicester”* and Queen Victoria herself was overheard to complain frequently: “One cannot understand why London is not more like Leicester.”**

I know what those of you who grew up in Leicester are thinking: how would people in this new booming population find each other when they wanted to meet up? And so, to give the people of Leicester somewhere to congregate and listen to the Hari Krishna singers battle it out with the evangelical eschatologists (and also to ease congestion on the site of the former hay and straw market), the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower was created in 1868. Now people could chant to their hearts content as they munched on Big Macs from the McDonald’s adjacent to the clock tower whilst puffing on their inhalers to combat the powerful aromas of the LUSH store (by law there should be one in every town centre). Truly, the whole system was a Victorian marvel.

She is fuming because she agreed to meet a friend at 11:00 but didn’t realise she was waiting for her on the other side of the clock tower.

All this growth and building work expanded the town significantly and as a result Leicester became a county borough in 1889. This brought wealth and prestige (well, wealth at least) to the city and in 1898 the Grand Hotel was opened to accommodate the flocks of (lost?) tourists and traders visiting the city. What would those tourists come to see? Well, in 1862 Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester and began touring in 1884 as “the Elephant Man“. So I suppose if you could quash your conscience you could go along to one of the ‘freak shows’. Those of you preferring gentler methods of entertainment might want to jump to 1880 to enjoy a show of male brutality at the newly formed Leicester Tigers Rugby Union Football Club.

But what I think you’ll really enjoy is the freedom to get out of the house and mingle with people again…if you can find them.

It would appear that for parts of the 19th century, much of the population of Leicester was quarantined. “How strange!”, I hear you cry. “You’ve brought us to a self-isolating town, of all places, in order to escape self-isolating! It’s almost as if you’d engineered it for blogging purposes.”

Would I do that?

Anti-Vaccination in Leicester

The thing about Leicester in the 19th century is that lots of people there held pretty radical views. They held these views very strongly and whilst the stubbornness and sheer force of will were excellent for propelling certain groups forward, such as the Leicester Secular Society (the oldest secular society in the world, founded in 1851 to challenge what it called ‘religious privilege’), sometimes the strength of feeling around certain topics could cause problems for the authorities.

One of these certain topics was vaccination.

In 1853 the government made vaccination against smallpox – a common killer disease of the 18th and 19th century – compulsory in the first three months of a child’s life. This law was known as the New Vaccination Act, because the first Vaccination Act of 1840 had, somewhat naively, only made vaccinations free and hoped that would be enough to compel people to get vaccinated. The New Vaccination Act was followed in 1867 by a decree that stated all children below the age of 14 must receive their smallpox vaccine. For the people of Leicester, many of them working class, being told to fall in line so rigidly by upper class politicians who had up to now shown little to no interest in the plight of the poor was a step too far. In 1869 the Leicester Anti-Vaccination League was founded.

Yeah, why would anyone want to vaccinate against smallpox?!

There were many reasons people in Victorian England opposed vaccination; religious grounds made up a large percentage of reasons (some felt the origins of the smallpox vaccine, which relied on matter from cowpox, mixed humans and animals together in an unchristian way whilst others suggested that smallpox was God’s punishment and to attempt a cure was to defy His will.) A fear of side effects and a mistrust of doctors accounted for other reasons (in 1841 the UK census suggested almost 1/3 of doctors were untrained and vaccines, new as they were back then, had not been tested safely which initially led to a number of deaths.) Along with these reasons, a feeling that vaccination was being forced on the working classes by those in power left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths.

In 1871, angry at being ignored, the government reiterated its position on the compulsory nature of vaccination and threatened fines on anyone who disobeyed. In Leicester the number of prosecutions for flouting the Act grew from 2 in 1869 to 1,154 in 1881 as parents refused to vaccinate their children. Furthermore, for the second half of 1883, only 707 out of 2,281 babies born in that half of the year were vaccinated.

Punishment for the people of Leicester was swift – in 1884, George Bamford was fined 10 shillings (half the average weekly wage) or told to spend a week in prison for refusing to vaccinate his fourth child – even though his mistrust of vaccines had been brought about by the death of one of his previous children following mandatory vaccination.

The Leicester Method

And yet smallpox, deadly and contagious though it was, failed to decimate the city. In 1877, a report by Dr W Johnson, Assistant Medical Officer of Health, showed that smallpox had appeared in Leicester but only caused six deaths.

Dr Johnson suggested that the low mortality rate was down to one main factor, which he termed ‘the Leicester Method’. This method relied on fast acting notification of smallpox to the local authorities and quarantine of those infected before the disease had a chance to spread. Dr Johnson urged parliament to grant Leicester a Local Act recognising the Leicester Method as an alternative to compulsory vaccination. In 1879, this Act was created in the Leicester Corporation Act.

Following the 1879 Act, Leicester became the only town to openly substitute the following measures for infant vaccination:

1. Prompt notification
2. The isolation and segregation of smallpox cases in hospital
3. Quarantine of all persons found to have been in contact with the patient
4. The vigilant inspection and supervision of all contacts during the incubation period of fourteen days
5. Cleansing and disinfection of clothes, bedding and dwellings
6. The burning of clothes, bedding, etc., when necessary

Not exactly unfamiliar to us today.

Despite the steps highlighted above, many authorities rightfully had concerns about the Leicester Method and continued to prosecute those who refused vaccinations. In 1882, 2,274 summonses were issued for people withholding from vaccination and by 1885 tensions between the authorities and people of Leicester were at an all time high (yes – even higher than that year Leicester council faced strong criticism for how it decorated the city’s Christmas tree.)

On 23 March 1885, contemporaries estimated that 100,000 people (although historians suggest it was more like 20,000) gathered in protest in the streets of Leicester, carrying banners with succinct messages such as “The President of the Local Government Board cannot deny that children die under the operation of the Vaccination Acts in a wholesale way” and equally snappy placards of solidarity from other corners of Britain: “Cordial greeting and sympathy to the heroic martyrs of Leicester”, as was sent from St. Pancras.

Children are fed to the disease ridden cow creature, representing vaccination. Images like this one appeared on banners at the 1885 protest.

The demonstration was every official’s worst nightmare: well organised, popular and held on a surprisingly sunny day. More and more people joined the crowds, both as supporters and general onlookers. As well as the marchers, there were movable stunt stalls – a particularly graphic one had rigged up a gallows and every 20 yards or so performed the execution of a dummy Edward Jenner – the man responsible for the smallpox vaccination. We do love a good show in Leicester.

Once the marching and dummy executions had been completed, the crowd met at the Market Place (thank god they’d finished the clock tower) to hear from anti-vaccination guest speakers. The whole event ended with rousing songs and a firm affirmation from the crowd to oppose vaccination in all its forms as much as any individual could. True to form, the following year at the next Guardian elections (think local elections), most of those returned were staunch opponents to compulsory vaccination who continued to petition and nag the governement relentlessly. Finally, in 1898 the people of Leicester achieved some of what they wanted in the 1898 Vaccination Act.

This Act removed some of the penalties imposed for resisting vaccination and included a conscience clause, which allowed parents to get a certificate of exemption if they did not wish to vaccinate their children. Now anyone with a suspicion of vaccination could cite the Leicester Method as a government sanctioned alternative and, as long as they followed the rules rigorously, theoretically couldn’t be sanctioned. Though the Leicester Method was used over 100 years ago when concerns over vaccinations and the manner in which they were carried out were legitimate, some anti-vaxxers still seek to uphold it as a viable alternative to vaccination today.

So, why is this wrong? Why can’t we just use the Leicester Method today? Why bother with a vaccine for coronavirus at all – apart from the fact it would mean staying indoors more often and for longer with those you’ve tried to escape from by reading this for the past 10 minutes?

I asked one of my oldest friends who is currently working as a doctor in New Zealand why the Leicester Method isn’t a reasonable alternative to vaccination. In between rolling her eyes in exasperation and requesting that she be referred to as my oldest ‘and most beautiful and intelligent’ of friends she managed to tell me, before popping off to save some more lives, that there are several reasons.

Firstly, the method relies heavily on everyone doing it properly. Under the Leicester Method, staying indoors means exactly that – staying indoors. No going out for a vague amount of exercise, no trips to the shops for essential bread, milk and M&Ms. You had medicine and provisions left at you door and you did not come out until an approved amount of time had passed. Given that people are still holding house parties it seems unlikely most of us would manage it.

Secondly, the Leicester Method doesn’t actually protect people from catching illness if they’re quarantined with an infected person. It’s a bit of a brutal fact that in quarantining an entire household with a sick member, you’re sort of guaranteeing it will spread within the household. Now, that’s pretty much where we are now because coronavirus is so new – but in the future, if a vaccine is created, you could stop the spread to family members and society wouldn’t have to shut down for an indefinite amount of time.

Thirdly, my beautiful and intelligent friend pointed out that we still don’t know loads about this virus. There are some studies to suggest it can live on some surfaces for three days. But the incubation period is longer than three days, so people could be asymptomatic and be spreading it around like butter on a hot crumpet before realising they have it. If there was a vaccine it wouldn’t matter if your 85 year old great aunt licked every outdoor railing she could find day after day, as long as she’d received the vaccination.

In short, the Leicester Method of the 19th century worked because people seem to have adhered much more strictly to the rules enforced at the time and because it’s easier to control the spread of disease in smaller populations. It’s worth also pointing out that once the Leicester Method had been approved for use, Charles Killick Millard, the Medical Officer of Health for Leicester from 1901 to 1935 advocated for the vaccination of medical and nursing staff who would treat patients, to stop the disease spreading further. This effectively created a bubble around the non-vaccinated citizens of Leicester where the disease was free to ravage as much as it could, but was prevented from escaping the city thanks to the protection of the voluntarily vaccinated.

Probably not the holiday you wanted or needed – a trip to self isolating 19th century Leicester. Sorry. But hey – that model of Edward Jenner getting hanged was good wasn’t it? And did you or did you not forget about how infuriating it is that your partner breathes that way?

Ultimately my friend’s advice is clear: stay indoors and when/if a vaccine is produced, use it if you’re advised to. And if you don’t want to use it then get used to the sound of your partner’s very loud and ever present breathing while you write your work emails from home as your colleagues celebrate their freedom with cake bought during non essential shopping trips and chat at the water cooler at a distance of less than 2 metres.

Oh and remember – I can make fun of Leicester because it’s my town. But if you do? Well. We’ll be ready to march in protest, all 100,000 of us. Meet us at the clock tower.

E x

*Not true.
** Also not true. Come on!

Entertainment: Tudor style

It would appear none of you listened to me last time when I told you to cease and desist emptying the shops of food and loo roll. I understand that some of you might have struggled to take Boris Johnson at his word when he asked people to stop panic buying and exercise more control in their social gatherings but what I find astounding is the number of you who ignored me. I’m very, very disappointed in you all. I want you to go away and think seriously about what you’ve done. You can tell your mum to expect a phone call later – on Mothers’ Day of all days! Do you think she’ll be proud of you?

Obviously, the implications of your actions are clear. Upset and broken by seeing yet more year 7’s arrive to school with apples and (and I can’t believe I’m having to write this), bananas in their lunchboxes instead of chocolate cake and doughnuts because the shelves continue to be emptied of these treats, schools this week have taken the very difficult decision to close. It’s for the best; the kids need time to recover the social humiliation of having no one willing to trade lunches with them, and teachers need therapy after finding cornucopia’s worth of rotting apple cores stuffed down the backs of radiators and mashed banana between the pages of textbooks. Hang your heads in shame, people.

A whole host of people are now going to be stuck indoors, possibly with small children (hopefully their own), for the foreseeable future. I may be one of them, because unfortunately my efforts to escape isolation with my family by hiding behind a big shelf of tinned tomatoes when we were out shopping was thwarted by the fact that people kept stockpiling the bloody things, so my husband and daughter found me pretty quickly.

So, here I am: in the house, awaiting emails from school to see if I’ll be called in to care for those who need support or whose parents are key workers heroes. So far, I’m not rota-d on for next week, which means I’m faced with the alarming prospect of having to do some Actual Mothering.

Fortunately, my child is too little to have a clue what’s going on so I’m spared the difficult conversations of explaining what’s happening or alleviating any fears or anxieties. All she knows is that we can only see grandma and grandpa over the computer and that if she smashes her fists into all the buttons on the keypad at the same time we can’t even do that anymore. Unfortunately, this means that she’s not of an age where she can entertain herself for any reasonable amount of time. Finding activities to fill the hours has therefore become something of a specialty.

The rainbow idea? Lovely! Heartwarming! A true show of community spirit in difficult times. Whose idea was it, and how do I contact them to pay for the dry cleaning to remove 7 different paints out of my carpet and off my walls? What about films? My daughter will snuggle up under a blanket and watch a movie as long as that movie is no longer than 7 minutes, contains only talking tractors and has a jingle she can shout at the top of her voice for several hours after it ends. She’ll clamour to watch it 3 times in row and will then have the mother of all tantrums when asked if she wants to watch it again. Nothing holds her attention apart from everything, immediately, and her skills at tidying up after herself leave much to be desired:

Scenes like this one have been achieved within in 10 minutes. Please, I am not joking: send help.

My husband and I have resorted to hiding under the stairs whenever we hear her coming. It’s the only place we can eat anything without having to share it. It’s not quite big enough to accommodate both of us and the Hoover and ironing board, so there’s always a bit of a Hunger Games tussle between us where one of us ends up sacrificed to the Insatiable and Ever Present Toddler, but today I managed to eat a half an Easter egg, a left over sausage and can of Diet Coke in blissful uninterruption, albeit in the pitch black (the light would give me away.) True, she was waiting for me when I emerged with an accusatory “chocolate?” but it was already gone.

I’m therefore having to temporarily change the focus of this blog. There will still be meals and snacks made of the historical kind however, with a tiny force of nature to care for more often than before, and with fewer and fewer ingredients on the shelves, it’s not possible to research, prepare and cook things that might not be able to be eaten by 1/3 of the household on a regular basis. With that in mind, therefore, I’m switching today’s focus on entertainment in Tudor England. What did people do to keep busy? Can I replicate any of it? Is there a precedent for sending my daughter off with a travelling theatre to tour Europe for several months so she can earn some money for us and ease our childcare woes (probably not, for multiple reasons.)

Before I began to transform all our free time into a plan of Tudor activities (a teacher without a timetable is a rudderless soul), I ran the idea past my husband, who has (mostly) suffered in silence while I’ve fed him dubious meals and cared for him according to pre-NHS standards. He was only too happy to share some of his misfortune with our daughter; “I don’t see why not – if she’s been spared most of what you’ve been up to so far it’s high time she experienced a little of it now”, was his response.

First up was dancing. This was a past time enjoyed by pretty much every strata of Tudor society, from formal choreographed dances enjoyed by the rich, to spontaneous drunken jigs danced by the poor. It seemed a good place to start the Timetable of Tudor “Fun”.

It’s a source of constant amusement to my family that my husband, who has two parents who were both professional dancers for much of their lives, has two left feet. For our first dance when we got married we employed the timeless cling-on-to-each-other-and-sway-aimlessly technique rather than risk choreographing what would just inevitably become an elaborate tumble into the wedding cake. Imagine my husband’s delight when I told him we were going to prepare a dance routine as our first activity.

I took my inspiration from this Key Stage 2 lesson which showed several people, all splendidly dressed up, very seriously glaring at each other as they hopped round in a circle and wagged their fingers to lute music. At one point they did a move that involved throwing their hands up (seemingly in despair), turning round and sort of skipping away a bit. Since this move was reminiscent to one I do whenever I try to reason with my daughter, I thought it would be perfect.

We stood in a circle, but since there was only three of us, it was more of a triangle, and held hands. My husband and I attempted to keep straight faces and my daughter wrestled with us as she sought to free her sweaty palms. At first, I had planned to just play the video on the TV so that we could copy the moves and use the music, but it became very clear that Tudor music wasn’t my daughter’s jam. We had to use Baby Shark instead.

There we were, holding hands, moving in a slow circle, stopping and clapping, while Baby Bloody Shark serenaded us. One of us couldn’t contain herself and broke rank to act out the moves to Baby Shark, whizzing round the room screeching ‘Mummy shark! Daddy shark!” as she did so. I tried to wag my finger at her, but I only ended up copying yet another of the ridiculous dance moves by accident so she didn’t take it seriously. Meanwhile, my husband had slightly twisted his ankle trying to replicate one of the twiddly jumps (or was he trying to run away?) and was demanding a break. It felt a bit silly to continue without her and with one of us injured (and besides, I think the neighbours across the road had spotted us through their window at his point) so we stopped.

Next up was hunting. This was a big thing for the rich in Tudor England, with larger animals such as deer being popular animals to hunt. For Henry VIII, hunting was a way to show his power and sporting prowess. In 1519, the Venetian ambassador commented that Henry VIII “never took that diversion without tiring eight or ten horses” and Henry considered hunting so important an past time to him that he ordered many hunting lodges to be built across England, including one in 1543 at Epping Forest, from which he could see the deer on the chase.

Obviously, hunting was something we couldn’t overlook if we were going to do this Tudor entertainment thing properly. However, we did have just a few teeny tiny ethical qualms – not least of which was the idea that rushing around our local town centre brandishing kitchen knives and catapults made of rubber bands might put the public in more danger than it already was, thus defeating the point of our social distancing. It was decided that a game of hide and seek would have to do instead, and my husband dutifully donned a pair of Rudolph antlers left over from Christmas to get into the mindset of a Tudor deer before going to hide upstairs, in the bed, under the duvet for half an hour.

Whilst rich people could hunt big game, poor people had to make do with fishing in certain areas (not everywhere, as the king still controlled many of the lakes and ponds in England, for which permission had to be sought to fish from.)

It’s a very special type of panic buying, semi-hysterical Tudor themed pet shopping is. The lady in the pet shop remained very calm when I told her I was looking for a goldfish “such as might have been kept in the ponds of Tudor England.” She implied quite heavily that it would be a pretty serious crime to use pet shop fish for fishing and that we couldn’t ‘just build’ a pond in our back garden by the end of the day. What we could have, however, was a starter tank with 6 little fish in and an aquatic plant, so we did that instead. I asked my daughter what they should be called and she just shouted “Bosh!” over and over again for a full minute, so we assumed that’s what she wanted them to be called. All of them. I have since learned that the 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch, who painted at the time of Henry VII and Henry VIII, was famed for his scenes of doom and pestilence. How very fitting, and unnerving of my daughter.

Okay, so maybe the hunting and fishing was just an excuse to have a nap and go and buy some new pets. But that still left one more thing to try: dice.

Dice games were exceptionally popular in Tudor England. I suppose after a day of bashing your ankles together in dancing and getting gored by deer you’d want to do something that was primarily focused on sitting down. Between 1529 and 1532, Henry VIII lost £3,243 5s 10d because of gambling, showing how fond and popular gambling with dice was. By 1604, there were so many legal cases being brought that centred on the issues of loaded and false dice that legislation had to be brought in to prevent their manufacture and sale.

A dice game that could cost us thousands? That had the potential to lead to a law suit? What could go wrong? The High German game Glückhaus, known as Lucky Pig in England during Tudor times, was just the sort of game we needed. Once my daughter was in bed, we drew up the board and began to play.

A Lucky Pig board

We took it in turns to throw a pair of dice. If we threw a 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 or 11, we had to place a coin on the King Space, the empty one with a crown on it. We settled on £1 coins initially, because we didn’t use our maths skills to see that most of the time we’d be placing coins on the King Space, before downgrading the £1s to any old coins, since it was all coming out of our joint piggy bank anyway. We decided that the winner would get to pick the takeaway for the evening. If we threw a 7, the coin was placed on the 7 space. This space was known as the Wedding Space. If we threw a 2, the Pig Space, we got to take all the coins on the board apart from the ones on the Wedding Space. If we threw a 12 then we got to keep all the coins on the board, including the ones in the Wedding Space. So really, this game should have been called ‘Lucky Pig, Greedy King’, but you’d probably have lost your head.

By the end (10 minutes or so) I was the winner with £3.47 to my husband’s £1.15. I picked Chinese.

Times are a bit rough at the moment and I still don’t know how to entertain my daughter any more than I did at the start of the day. Tomorrow my Tudor diary’s suggesting falconry followed by bear baiting, but I’m fairly sure they’ll be cancelled as they always attract a crowd. Back to drawing on the walls and eating lunch under the stairs it is, then.

Stay safe.

E x

Continue reading “Entertainment: Tudor style”

Review: Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘Feast and Fast’ Exhibition

A librarian, a linguist and an historian walk into a bar…

…which immediately empties as people try to escape the inevitable smug but still dull punchline.

In this case, though, the bar is actually a museum which was so totally the opposite of smug and dull that no one was trying to leave. Unfortunately the librarian, linguist and historian were real enough, but they mostly kept to themselves and only diminished the quality of the exhibition a little bit.

As a history lover (can I stop calling myself a historian now? There surely aren’t enough letters after my name to qualify), I have quite a particular set of criteria that I think need to be met in order for a museum or exhibition to be graded ‘awesome’. For those that are wondering – the grading scale goes ‘awesome’, ‘good for a rainy day’, ‘would pass through it to get to the loos’ and ‘would rather be on Friday after school detention duty’.

A museum should be three things to the visitors that go there: academic but also accessible, engaging, and a bit of an indulgence. I want to leave feeling like I’ve learnt something that even if not immediately pub quiz useful to know, still feels good to have learnt it.

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s Feast and Fast: the art of food in Europe 1500-1800 manages to fulfill all those criteria and more. Open over the feast and fast periods of Christmas and Lent (nice touch) its aim is to “present[s] novel approaches to understanding the history and culture of food and eating” which it achieves through a visual smorgasbord of recreated food from history, artefacts, original documents and the obligatory paintings of naked women lounging around bowls of semi peeled fruit.

If you’d like a more comprehensive and slightly less irreverent review of the exhibition then check out this review. If you just want to know what a swan tattoo is and ruminate on whether Adam really needed a fig leaf that reached down to his knees, read on.

The first thing you notice is the 4 foot pineapple installation outside the exhibition by Bompas & Parr, who describe themselves as experts in “multi-sensory experience design.” They sound super cool but I don’t really know what “multi-sensory experience design” means, though that’s probably OK because I doubt I’m the sort of target audience they’re going for. The three of us enjoyed the jarring nature of a giant modern pineapple squatting in the manicured grounds of the museum and did some very uncool selfies in-front of it, shattering all the pineapple’s street cred with each chin-heavy/grimacing shot we took.

The first wow factor hit as soon as we stepped into the main exhibition. A recreation of an early 1600s banquet greeted audiences square on and my first thought as I gazed at it was ‘well, thank God we didn’t bring my daughter’. I didn’t know this, but in 17th century England ‘banquet’ meant a formal dinner but could also mean a sweet course afterwards. The food historian Ivan Day made everything on the table out of sugar paste after the Renaissance custom whereby very, very, very rich (like, so unbelievably rich I could just keep writing the word very over and over again) would get their chefs to deceive guests by disguising food as something else. So on this table the food-stands, plates, walnuts, bacon and eggs and gloves were made out of sugar. This would have confused and delighted guests – the entertainment element of 17th century Come Dine With Me. We did wonder whether, when they were setting all this up, any of them were tempted to just lick a bit of it or eat one of the sugar almonds, and what the penalty might have been if they were caught. Had my daughter been with us no doubt we’d have found out.

Already confused and delighted, we moved on to the swan tattoos. Proper Historians would call them ‘swan registers’, but since there wasn’t a Proper Historian to be found, we continued making fun of a centuries old custom. In the later middle ages swans were bred as status symbols and by 1482 a law was passed that said all unmarked white swans found in common waters were automatically property of the king. Cue swan owners throughout England branding their birds in an effort to stop this very peculiar form of taxation. The bills of the swans were etched according to the symbol of their owners and registers of each symbol were kept track of. In 1570 the Order of Swannes decreed that anyone caught tampering with any of the tattoos, or adding their symbol onto an unmarked swan without permission would be thrown into prison for a year.

Speaking of swans, the second wow factor came in the form of a Baroque Feasting Table where I counted a swan, a pheasant, a peacock and a partridge (stuffed and with gilded eyes and beaks) decorating a table groaning under silverware, fruits and seafood. I can’t really think of anything funny to say about this bit – it was just a truly extraordinary display of decadence and gluttony. If it’s true that throughout history humans have had a very anxious relationship with food – with the poor always questioning ‘where’s the next meal coming from?’ and the wealthy thinking ‘this tastes revolting but shows I’m rich so should I serve it?’ (the answer was always yes) – then whoever prepared this banquet was clearly in the bathroom when humans were getting their food anxiety handed out. Even the tableware – the knives, glasses and tablecloths – screamed wealth. Break a mug at this dinner party and you’ll be repaying the hosts with your annual salary. The curators had lit the whole thing beautifully and it looked exactly like a painting, I found that my eyes couldn’t stay still and kept skipping from one shiny object to the next, which maybe says more about my ability to appreciate art than anything else.

By now it was time for some pictures. Now, I am not a huge fan of art. I firmly fall into the camp of if-I-can-do-it-it’s-not-art. Luckily, most arty things are beyond me, so fans of blobs of primary colour on canvases can rest easy that I won’t be picking a fight with you. At least, not until I’ve done the photo shoot for my own unmade bed. To make the pictures go a bit quicker we played a game of bingo, which if you’re ever stuck in a gallery with people who know about art (and want you to know that they know about art), is a great way to stop yourself from turning yourself inside out from boredom. On our bingo list was: man leering at buxom cook while she dithers, dead pheasant, fruit used as a modesty item, small child with plate of food balanced precariously on their head while adults cavort inappropriately behind them and people gazing at an apple. We also had a bonus round – in honour of the icon that is Mary Beard – called ‘Is it Art or Is It F***ing?’ which I won when I found a Cezanne.

Amazingly, we didn’t find much on the bingo list (apart from the previously mentioned massive fig leaves which indicated Adam needed a doctor, so Eve probably did him a favour getting them out of that garden.) What I did find, however, was a couple of images that fell within the cliched ‘women and food’ category but that really made me laugh. The first depicted an older woman who looked decidedly pissed off, fannying about with some fruit. When I looked closer I found that maybe the reason she looked so cross was that the artist, David Teniers (1610-1690) had entitled it ‘An Old Woman Peeling An Apple’. The second image, by Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), was of a young woman holding out a waffle and was imaginatively called ‘A lady holding a plate with a waffle’. It was apparently meant to be sensuous and seductive, but that was lost on me and it just made me feel hungry instead. I shared a fun moment with one of the exhibition attendants when I reached out to point at the weirdly modern looking waffle and he lunged forward to stop me, thinking I was going to smear my greasy not-a-proper-historian fingers all over it. I mean, it was fun for me, probably less so for him.

Another item of note included the 1510-11 inventory of Margaret Beaufort’s expenses for a feast for the winding up of her estate where over £1000 in today’s money was spent on meat – including our trusty friend the swan. I set a new life goal: get so famous that one day people would pore over my weekly Sainsbury’s receipt, encased in glass and softly lit from above while a little plaque solemnly informed people that in this week alone my household had consumed two boxes of Coco Pops and a crate of sausage rolls (you have to know who to ask…)

So, what did I gain from this visit? Well, firstly I got some brilliant ideas for future cooking experiments – if you need me over the weekend I’ll be waist deep in the river dressed as a swan going ‘quack quack’ in en effort to lure them into my net. As well as this I also got to try the sugariest coffee cake known to man in the museum cafe, it’s been two days and I’m still shaking as I write.

I also got a properly in depth understanding of where a lot of the foods we enjoy fit into history and our culture as well as an appreciation of why some foods have certain elevated statuses while others are seen as being lowly and modest. For example, once you understand that the medieval Catholic Church decreed that no meat was to be consumed on holy days, which accounted for about 40% of the year, you kind of get why banquets where hogs were paraded round with apples in their mouths were such entertainment and reserved for the rich, who wanted to celebrate the occasions where meat was permitted in a way that separated them from the poor.

This exhibition was not only academic and accessible, it was also incredibly entertaining and I definitely felt like I’d had a proper treat by the end of it. Even the librarian, who admitted museums weren’t really her thing, couldn’t stop herself from getting excited over Isaac Newton’s notebook showing a record of all the snacks he had bought while studying as a student at Cambridge. Every little detail was well thought out, from the moody lighting which made you feel quite alone and allowed you to focus despite being surrounded by people, to the exhibition-inspired kid’s paintings at the end (hey, it guaranteed those parents will visit at least!) There really was something for everyone, as long as ‘everyone’ doesn’t include toddlers. Maybe don’t bring them, unless you’re really good at repairing sugar paste castles.

Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800

26th November 2019 – 26th April 2020

Admission: Free

The Fitzwilliam Museum
Trumpington Street


The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

I’ve never actually read The Go-Between but I assume that it exists, like all great novels, to provide a useful quote to showcase my fragile intellect and act as a punny title for my amateurish blog attempts.

This blog is very much a work in progress, born of a desire to do more of the things I’m passionate about (history and eating) whilst not really wanting to commit to any real or meaningful New Year’s resolutions that might actually benefit me. You know, like reading more history books or learning to cook a meal that could be accurately described as something more than just ‘brown’.

Amazingly, my husband did not consider these cakes a healthy alternative to fruit or “a good example to set for our daughter at breakfast time.”

So with that in mind welcome to The Past is a Foreign Pantry – a blog where I’ll be making meals, cakes, breads, snacks and other culinary curiosities from history. I’ll try to stick to as authentic ingredients as far as budget and reality will allow (looking at you, 1665 medicinal recipe for ‘Plague Water’ containing powdered unicorn horn), but won’t be worrying too much about authentic methods, because who has actually got time to hand mill grain when there’s season 2 of You to watch?

Other than that no time period or foodstuff is off limits and I’ll also try all the food myself, just to add in a bit of moderate peril to make it more exciting. Obviously I’ll share the recipes as well so that anyone who wants to can try them out for themselves.

So if you’re a history buff and foodie whose idea of a good time is boring impressing your friends with fancy-pants meals that may or may not give them food poisoning then you’re in the right place. Enjoy!

E x