I watch (or, being ridiculously busy these days, listen to) a lot of YouTube videos and really appreciate some of the historical channels like ‘Shadiversity’, which covers medieval history. They are a great introduction to the subject for the layperson and especially for visual learners, people with limited time and/or interest. The danger of them is exactly that of traditional TV documentaries – that the viewer assumes that the content is 100% factual and authoritative. Just like TV, YouTubers lack the time and often the means (often the motivation, it has to be said) to be academically rigorous about their ‘content’, which is entertainment first and foremost, not to mention a source of income (whether directly from YouTube monetisation or indirectly by crowdsourced funding).
For example, a recent video from Shad (who does normally try hard with his historical accuracy) included two very questionable claims, both from Abbey Medieval Festival organiser Edith Cuffe.
Claim 1: ‘Alms to the poor’ originates with the donation of used trenchers
Cuffe describes the medieval practice of donating the stale bread plates used at the banquet table, known as ‘trenchers’, to the poor, stating ‘…giving alms to the poor…that’s where that saying comes from’.
This is just not true and doesn’t even try to explain the word ‘alms’, what it meant in the wider sense, or where it came from. ‘Alms’ is actually ancient, from ancient Greek via Latin, and from very early on described any charitable gift to the poor, whether money, clothing, food or drink. This is like claiming that the concept of ‘drinking’ originates with alcoholic beverages – the idea of drinking obviously pre-dated that of the alcoholic drink, and the same logical failure applies here. Naturally I wanted to work out where this mistake originated, and as far as I can tell this isn’t something that is widely claimed. I suspect that Ms Cuffe simply misspoke or perhaps has become confused over this point. Trenchers really were given to the poor, although the sources seem to be limited. The main one (and I am no expert here either) seems to be ‘A Fifteenth Century Courtesy Book’ (British Library manuscript ‘Additional’ no. 37969).
This explains that between courses various food and drink including (but not limited to) used trenchers would be collected along with an unused trencher and a whole loaf of bread in the ‘almes dyshe’ and then taken to be given to the poor. However, this was not some special dish just for leftover food – an alms dish was just a receptacle for any charitable donation – money, food, drink, or other. Incidentally, have a go at reading that Middle English source – it’s fascinating and great fun when you get into the swing of it. 15th century English is readily understood with a bit of effort, once you realise that words are spelled how they are pronounced (so this has changed somewhat over time), there’s an additional letter, the *Thorn* (looks like a ‘p’) which was a ‘th’ sound – and of course some of the vocabulary is a bit tricky, but easily Googled. For example, the ‘sure howse’ that the alms dish was taken to was a church, chapel, or other religious building (specifically, ‘church’ was ‘chirche’). There was an actual church job role of ‘almoner’ (mentioned in the same MS), the official receiver and distributor of alms – again, much of which was simply money – it was not just a medieval food bank per se (although it did partly perform that role).
Claim 2: The modern ‘pinky in the air’ was invented for the medieval dinner table
The other piece of ‘Medieval Misconception’ in the video (again given by Cuffe) is the idea that the present-day custom (popularised in the 19th century) of holding one’s little (pinky) finger out to one side/in the air comes from the medieval practice of reserving certain fingers for picking up spices at the dinner table. This seems to originate with Dr Madeleine Pelner Cosman of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, City College of New York, who made the same claim several times in non-academic level publications, e.g. from her 1981 ‘Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations’ (p.7):
‘Even today many people keep a pinky finger extended when holding a tea or coffee cup. Why? Because polite banquet rules imitate the medieval manner of keeping particular fingers free of sauces, the spice fingers.’
All subsequent references seem to come from Cosman’s claims. Unfortunately Cosman seems to assume, without evidence, that the practice of reserving the little finger for tasting spices somehow has a direct line of tradition to the modern table etiquette idea of holding out the little finger. Rather like ‘archer’s salute’, this is a massive leap from a single source that vaguely sounds like something that’s done later on in history; *much* later on in history. Without wishing to be uncharitable, Cosman was definitely not a medieval scholar. None of her degrees were in a history subject, never mind medieval history, and her actual academic career was in comparative and English Literature. Her medieval expertise was essentially that of a re-enactor (not a bad thing in itself of course) running a living history group and being involved in the US ‘Renaissance Fair’ pastime. This makes her logical leap all the more questionable and means that her claims have never been challenged by credentialled medieval scholars.
In all, this is another case of an academic straying out of their area of expertise, and at the same time, of the re-enactment community inventing historical facts and reinforcing them through repetition and also publication. As for where the little finger in the air really comes from, it’s hard to say for sure but the explanation that it arose in the 18th century with the first teacups, which were small and lacked handles. Grasping one of these with thumb and forefinger/middle finger encouraged the little finger to be held out to one side, and this certainly became the fashionable way to do it. The book ‘Forgotten Elegance’ by Wendell and Wes Schollander (2002) refers to an artistic depiction of 1740 (actually earlier, see my image above) that shows different ways of holding a teacup including one with the little finger extended. In any case, by the late Victorian period the extended little finger had become passé and was used by the upper classes to differentiate themselves from lower class tea drinkers who persisted in its use (see for example Frederick Gordon Row, ‘The Victorian Child’, 1959, p.53). The rigorous thing to do would be to say that we don’t really know – it was just a fashion in etiquette. But it almost certainly doesn’t come from 15th century table practicalities.
So, as elsewhere, don’t believe everything you hear on YouTube…
My original plan for this piece was to tackle two history and archaeology-specific aspects of time travel, but in the process of researching it, I’ve ended up writing a basic guide to ‘real’ (i.e. theoretical) time travel, for which, see below. Still, my main focus is to tackle what have become known as ‘Time-Travelling Tourists’ (TTT) and ‘Out-Of-Place-Artefacts’ (OOPArts) such as the c.80 BC Antikythera Mechanism. The former are mostly outside my remit, as such characters are invariably supposed to have originated from our own future, rarely seem to spend much time in our own past, and are coming back to warn of us something or other (the laughably fake ‘John Titor’ is the grandfather of them all). Having said that, we actually do have some strong pieces of evidence against the idea that time travellers have visited us from the future. Famously, theoretical physicists (notably Stephen Hawking) have held parties for time travellers (invitations going out only after the party has happened), and no-one turned up. Obviously there are lots of problems with that sort of stunt; plenty of reasons why people might not break cover. More compellingly, people have actually looked online for time travellers. No, not cranks like ‘John Titor’ (by the way; JOHN TITOR – JOHN connor from the film TermInaTOR, anyone?) but people typing things that they could not possibly have known at that time (using Google Trends and Twitter searches) and also (like Hawking) inviting time travellers to respond to them (from the future, creating anachronistic messages obviously, not just ‘yes, I am a time traveller!’). This had the advantage of only requiring the transmission of information back in time, not people (which would be more difficult). They came up completely empty on both counts (which, by the way, I can’t help being disappointed by). Finally, there’s a real show-stopper for TTTs that I deal with at the end of this article, one which applies to all forms of time travel that we have so far conceived of.
Let’s move on to OOPARTs, which are more firmly within my proverbial wheelhouse. As a jumping-off point, I took this article from Time Travel Nexus (who have some great material on TT fiction, but seem a little credulous when it comes to the ‘real thing’) as a case study of sorts. There is also this recent article at Ancient Origins, but it’s behind a paywall (I can’t be sure that it postulates time travel, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t given the remit of the site and the track record of author Ashley Cowie). The big problem with TT claims surrounding these artefacts is that they are usually unfalsifiable. There’s no way to prove the negative, and the onus should be upon the claimant. However, having spent a LOT of time reading about TT theory, I don’t think people realise just how impossible it really is, despite periodical news headlines to the contrary.
Basically, time travel into the past is impossible. That might sound like a bold statement, but hear me out. There are hypothetical ways to achieve backwards time travel, but they are even less likely to happen than interstellar space travel. You should really watch this fantastic lecture by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and/or read this short article, but to summarise the state of the time travel art, there are only a handful of ways that scientists can even conceive of achieving backwards time travel. These are (each with links to firstly a simple explanation, and then the original academic paper in brackets);
1). Tipler cylinders (Frank Tipler, 1974). Create a 100km+ long 10km wide cylinder of exotic matter, as dense as the sun, rotating extremely rapidly. You’d also have to find a way to even approach it without being killed in order to fly around it in a spacecraft to go back in time. There’s an interesting predecessor of these in Van Stockum’s 1937 version (covered in these Kip Thorne lecture notes) which differed in being made of ‘dust’ and being necessarily of infinite length (and therefore not physically possible). It’s the weakest of the three.
2). Cosmic strings (J. Richard Gott, 1991) – Find and somehow modify/relocate two of these equally hypothetical objects, 10 million billion tons per cm dense and stupidly long (infinitely so, if the universe is indeed infinite in size), and somehow get them moving past each other very, very quickly.
3). Wormholes (Kip Thorne et al, 1988). Find or create a wormhole and somehow stabilise it with more exotic matter (with ‘negative energy’). Move one end near a black hole or neutron star or accelerate near the speed of light for a period of time in order to get one end of the hole effectively into the future (by aging differentially). You’d then be able to go the other way through the wormhole to back in time. This seems to be our best hope, and yet achieving all of this would be no mean feat. Thorne himself lists the many reasons why Stephen Hawking was probably right about his ‘Chronology Protection Conjecture’ in this easy to read article (see here for Hawking’s original, less easy to read one). Spoiler alert – there’s a good chance that even attempting this solution would cause the wormhole to self-destruct; ‘…an explosive flow of gravitating fluctuational energy through the wormhole at precisely the moment when time travel is first possible — at the moment of time machine activation.’
All three of these are theorised to produce ‘Closed Time-Like Curves’, the only agreed upon mechanism in theoretical physics for time travel, but a mechanism that is still not proven to even exist. To quote one paper, ‘it is Aside from this issue, and those already listed above, there are some pretty serious drawbacks to all three.
A quick aside – there’s also another theoretical method that you don’t often come across in fiction, which is just going really, really fast. Although more straightforward than the above three, it’s still very confusing. You can read about it here, along with a good explanation of what ‘tachyons’ actually are (beyond being a go-to SF technobabble word). There is apparently a maximum backward time travel limit of just one year, and that’s if you can achieve a speed of 10 times the speed of light. Unfortunately, it is quite simply impossible to travel faster than light, hence the mental gymnastics that physicists have had to resort to in order to come up with the ‘big three’ above. However, I’d love to see it done in fiction, partly because of the bizarre visual effects that would result in showing multiple (not just present and future versions) of the time machine visible at the same time.
So, back to those ‘big three’. Firstly, none of them has ever been even proven to exist, let alone observed in nature. They would have to be discovered and manipulated or made from scratch, and then exploited. That’s the first hurdle. To do this would then require infinite amounts of energy or ‘negative energy’. Not ‘lots’, not ‘more energy than we’ve ever generated previously’, not ‘energy levels requiring cold fusion’ but literally infinite amounts of energy. In other words, an impossible amount. Physicist Ken Olum says that all known hypothetical methods would require the use of negative matter or matter with negative energy which, if it even/ever existed in sufficient quantities, would blow up the universe.
You’d then have to work out how to safely navigate the wormhole or other gravitic anomaly without being “spaghettified” by the tremendous forces involved. Let’s throw this into the overall unimaginable engineering challenge of finding or making these theoretical features in the first place, manipulating them into position and, in the case of wormholes, enlarging and stabilising them such that they can be traversed. Not to mention engineering and building the spacecraft and equipment to attempt all of this, and of course to convey passengers to the finished ‘time machine’ (also known as ‘the easy bit’).
To quote Carroll;
‘We can imagine making time machines by bending spacetime, but we don’t actually know a foolproof way of doing it.
Nor do we have a proof that it can’t be done.
The smart money would bet that the ultimate laws of nature simply don’t permit travel backwards in time.’
Carroll, Olum, Thorne and Hawking’s pessimistic views are further supported by another proof by Kay, Radzikowski and Wald (1996) that says essentially that the laws of physics will break down as soon as the time machine is activated. Here’s another quote from Kip Thorne, champion of the wormhole time machine;
‘When we physicists have mastered the laws of quantum gravity (Hawking and I agree), we will very likely discover that chronology is protected: the explosion always does destroy any time machine, when it is first activated.’
Hawking himself puts it best when he states his ‘chronology protection conjecture’ at the end of the original article;
‘The laws of physics prevent the appearance of closed time like curves.’
The final kicker is that, even if we can engineer one of these machines, *and* power it, *and* if it actually works, we would only ever be able travel back as far as the moment that the time machine was activated. The movie ‘Primer’ (which is excellent, but rather flawed), gets this right, as does my personal favourite ‘Cronocrimines’, but precious few others do because of the narrative limits that this choice places on events. Ironically perhaps, our single best bet for time travel would be some ‘arbitrarily advanced civilisation’ (as the theoretical physics and philosophy literature tends to call it) having created a time machine for us that we can use. Of course, if they had done so, it would be a long, long way from us, requiring a long, long journey and super-advanced spacecraft of our own to even begin to think about making use of it.
All of this (especially that last point) rules out the Antikythera mechanism as an out-of-place artefact, and in fact all other ‘OOPArts’ and indeed all time-travelling tourists into the bargain. It is all, frankly, bollocks – and makes a mockery of real history. Why is it so hard for us to accept that one person could have achieved something that was within their theoretical ability to produce, and yet so easy to accept something (time travel) that may not even have a theoretical basis? It’s pretty depressing. We even have other evidence for advanced technology of this sort from the period, notably that made by Archimedes. It’s not as though this thing was beyond the ancients either conceptually or technically. Even the superficially modern-looking gears have been shown to be made using hand tools. Although I suppose that wouldn’t rule out a ‘time traveller’ teaching ancient people how to make geared mechanisms, without having access to steam or electrical power. But why not foot or animal-powered machinery? For that matter, why no future metallurgy (the mechanism is wholly copper alloy and wood)? Why no actual (say) 19th century clock buried in some ancient stratigraphy? Why is the mechanism manually operated and not spring-powered? Why not teach them how to make screws? Why are there no out of place personal effects from whoever taught them? There’s no actual evidence of time travel here, just a piece of technology that they COULD, in fact, have made without any future knowledge? To quote from the article linked above; ‘The surviving features of the Antikythera Mechanism, particularly the lunar anomaly mechanism, support the idea that our proposed planetary mechanisms were within the engineering capacity of the makers of the Antikythera Mechanism—but only just.’ That article does a great job of explaining the astronomical/astrological functions of the mechanism, as does this superb lecture from former Science Museum curator Michael Wright (there’s a short explanation from him here, although it’s very low res). See also this Skeptoid podcast. In another blow to the idea that it could only have been made with future knowledge, all of it is also consistent with what we know of ancient Greek knowledge – there is nothing there that we didn’t already know that they knew. The mechanism has been thoroughly studied by actual academics since the 1950s, initially culminating in the article ‘Gears from the Greeks. The Antikythera Mechanism: A Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B. C.’ by Derek de Solla Price (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 64, No. 7 (1974), pp. 1-70). Needless to say, none of the many people who have seriously studied the thing think that it is beyond the capabilities of the ancient Greeks.
Regardless, the mechanism remains an absolutely wonderful feat of engineering and craftsmanship. No doubt something similar will come to light in the future, only to be dismissed by cretins as proof of time travel rather than of the long tradition of human ingenuity.
So there you are – Doc Brown was, unfortunately, a quack.
Myth: the mummies of St Michan’s are a crusader, a thief, and a nun who died aged over 100
Reality: the ‘crusader’ is an anonymous 3-400 year-old Irishman, the thief might have been a murderer but could be neither of those, and there probably was a nun, but we don’t know which body is her – if any!
I have been meaning to write something about the mummies of St Michan’s church for years now, and this recent sad tale of head theft is a good reason to do it now, not least because of the disgustingly racist comments that have sprung up about it. Just as I was going to (word)press, the head and one of the loose skulls from the vault had been recovered, although of course the damage to the corpse where it has been torn/cut off is permanent. by the logic of the rabid internet loons, apparently the only possible culprit for the desecration of a ‘crusader’ must be a Muslim immigrant or a ‘liberal’. The BBC article does a decent job of relating the break-in and desecration of the corpse, but makes no mention of the important fact that the ‘Crusader’ is definitely not one. A crusader I mean. It’s definitely a corpse. The crypt at St Michan’s has been home to unusually well-preserved (naturally mummified) corpses for some time, with particular attention in modern times to three mummies, dubbed ‘the thief’ (the very tall body in the middle, whose right hand and both feet are missing), ‘the nun’ (currently said to be the left of the three in the middle of the vault) and yes, ‘the crusader’ (arranged transversely behind her, against the wall). Don’t ask me why the other exposed mummy on the right doesn’t have a special identity. There’s a weird tradition that visitors should touch the hand of the ‘crusader’ for good luck. I don’t believe in superstition, but I touched him anyway. After all, how often do you get actively encouraged to touch dead people?
‘This chamber contains altogether ten coffins, two on the left, four on the right, and four in the centre without lids. The centre one contains the body of a lady brought here about the year 1790. All these have once been covered with black velvet, some of which still hangs on the sides in strips. It is a popularly received idea that these bodies are several hundred years old, and people go even so far as to say that the body of a man with his legs crossed in the coffin nearest the wall is a crusader. The absurdity of this wild notion is obvious when we look at the coffins, which we have reasons for thinking are the original ones in which the bodies were first placed. They are of the ordinary shape of the present day, of which I believe I am correct in stating one of the earliest examples known is that of Lancelot, Bishop of Winchester, buried in 1626 in S. Saviour’s, Southwark, whose coffin was discovered in 1830 (Gent’s Mag., Aug., 1830, p. 171). Everyone knows now that the cross-legged crusader theory is long since exploded. There is not much to guide one in guessing the date of the coffins in S. Michan’s, but I should scarcely think that there are any prior in date to about the end of the seventeenth century, if indeed so early ; the greater number are much later than that. We were informed by the sexton that in another of the vaults, some years ago, he saw ” E. Rook, 1690,” marked in nails on the lid of a coffin of a child. The lock of this vault being out of order we were unable to visit it, though I have since had this statement corroborated by another ; but whether or not my informants mistook the 1790 for 1690 will, however, never be ascertained, for the coffin in question has since fallen to pieces. I don’t remember, however, having seen any dates on my previous visits. At all events, whatever their dates may be, the coffins must certainly have been here many years, and quite long enough to set people wondering how it is that time and the usual process of decay seem to have had no effect on them.’
Note that the ‘nun’ was, in 1888, claimed as the ‘middle’ corpse, not the one on the left. This must surely be a mistake, because the middle mummy is very clearly extremely tall and physically robust – one of two men out of the four mummies. The present building is no older than perhaps 1750, but the church itself is older. It was founded in 1095, making the crusader story plausible on the face of it, but only assuming that there were older vaults of some kind there previously such that the body could have been disinterred and reinterred in the new vaults. Which seems unlikely. Irish author Leon Ó Broin in his ‘Miss Crookshank agus Coirp Eile’ (1951) came to the conclusion that St Michan’s crypt was first opened in 1686, and that the oldest of the three corpses dated from 1780. My research suggests that interments actually started from 1641 onwards. ‘A story of Dublin: the people and events that shaped the city’ (John McCormack, 2000) mentions the repair and re-use of the vaults below the church circa the arrival of Thomas Wentworth in 1633. The earliest written accounts (there is another, also from 1822, in the New Monthly Magazine) make no mention of a ‘crusader’ or knight, so it seems that particular legend emerged at some point between 1822 and 1888:
‘Among these remnants of humanity, for instance, there is the body of a pious gentlewoman, who, while she continued above ground, shunned the eyes of men in the recesses of a convent. But the veil of death has not been respected. She stands the very first on the sexton’s list of posthumous rarities, and one of the most valuable appendages of his office. She is his buried treasure. Her sapless cheeks yield him a larger rent than some acres of arable land ; and what is worse, now that she cannot repel the imputation, he calls her to her face ” the Old Nun.” In point of fact, I understood that her age was one hundred and eleven, not
including the forty years that have elapsed since her second burial in St. Michan’s. Death, as has been often observed, is a thorough Radical, and levels all distinctions. It is so in this place. Beside the Nun there sleeps, not a venerable abbess, or timid novice, or meek and holy friar, but an athletic young felon of the 17th century, who had shed a brother’s, blood, and was sentenced for the offence to the close custody of St. Michan’s vaults. This was about one hundred and thirty years ago. The offender belonged to a family of some consideration, which accounts for his being found in such respectable society.
-(‘The Vaults of St. Michan’s’ in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal Vol.5, p.395)
This account matches up very well date-wise; the oldest of the displayed bodies (whether or not the ‘felon’ is one of those still displayed) being from c.1710. If we assume that the ‘nun’ was correctly identified as either the left or right hand female body in 1822, this raises the fascinating possibility that the ‘thief’ in the middle may indeed be a criminal; but a murderer, not a thief. In any event, this story was apparently forgotten by 1888, and it’s perhaps less credible that this knowledge would have persisted after 130 years. Still, there’s potential for some consistency around the story here, if indeed the 1888 account is in error – it does seem to be at odds in this respect. The other accounts can be reconciled as the crusader being the one at the back, the criminal in the middle, and the nun next to him (most likely his left). Also mentioned in 1822 are the bodies of John and Henry Sheares, executed for their part in the 1798 Rising (only 16 years earlier than this source). These two were still being shown to visitors in 1888 and, I believe, until shortly before I visited in 2009. They now reside in a different vault, having been moved to the vault nearest the entrance in the 1850s.
The only constant in all of the accounts is the ‘nun’, the titular ‘Miss Crookshanks’ of Ó Broin’s book. Note that I haven’t actually been able to read this, because it’s in Irish, but from comments elsewhere and judiciously translated Google Books snippets, it seems that Ó Broin did in fact debunk the existence of a nun or any woman of this name. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and see what else we can say. One might think that this woman having been interred only 40 years before the anonymous 1822 account above, that we could be sure of her identification as a 111-year-old nun called Crookshank. Wright (1825) reinforces this;
‘In one vault is shown the remains of a nun, who died at the advanced age of 111 : the body has now been 30 years in this mansion of death, and although there is scarcely a remnant of the coffin, is as completely preserved, with the exception of the hair, as if it had been embalmed. In the same vault are to be seen the bodies of two Roman Catholic clergymen, which have been 50 years deposited here, even more perfect than the nun.’
-’An historical guide to the city of Dublin’ by George Newenham Wright (p.62).
This puts the nun/Crookshank’s approximate year of death at 1795. As to the clergymen mentioned, I have no idea whether any of the remains in the current vault might be these men, or even if that ID was correct at the time. Richard Robert Madden’s 1842 account of Miss Crookshank suggests a much older corpse, relocated twice; first from her own tomb (presumably also within the specially preservative vaults, or perhaps another sepulchre on site?) and then in what was then recent times to a different vault (possibly the current one) – shortly before Wright saw her:
‘One of these bodies, “whose antiquity is of an ancient date,” for the tenants of European sepulchres, is still existing in the same vault in which the Sheares’ remains are interred : the remains are those of a person, in former time renowned for her piety — a member of a religious community — of the name of Crookshank. Some sixty or seventy years ago, the wonder-working effects produced by this good lady’s remains, used to bring vast numbers of visitants to her tomb — till the spirit of whiskey unfortunately mingled a little too much with the spirit of veneration for the virtues of the nun, and the rudiments of a fine ” pattern” were spoiled by the intervention of the authorities. Poor Miss Crookshank’s relics, from that period till about the year 1816, when I first saw them, were visited only by curious boys and scientific gentlemen. In the month of February in the present year, after a lapse of twenty-six years, I found the remains of the nun removed from the place where they were originally deposited, as likewise those of John and Henry Sheares, and deposited in what is called the parish vault. Up to the time of the removal, which took place some five or six years ago, the remains continued, I was informed, in the same perfect state in which they have been long known to exist. But the exposure to the air, consequent to the removal of her remains, and those of the Sheares on the same occasion, had proved injurious to them, and to the latter especially.’
That’s a lot of potential for misidentification. I do think that this veneration of the unusually well-preserved nun is interesting in light of the present-day traditional of touching the finger of the ‘crusader’. I’m not aware of this kind of veneration of a corpse that wasn’t some sort of saint, priest, or nun, so I do wonder if the practice has been transferred over the years from one corpse to another. Possibly more than once, even. It’s possible that the age of the corpse beforerelocation got confused with its age at death. An ‘old mummy’ isn’t necessarily old in lifespan terms.
In any case, the broken jumbled corpse currently identified with the ‘nun’ was examined for the TV show ‘Mummy Roadshow’ in 200 (aired 2003) and shown to have been a female no older than 60 years old when she died, and not the over 100 years of age that both 19th century written sources and modern oral tradition hold. The findings are detailed in the book ‘Mummy Dearest’ (2005) by the same guys (Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue). Their theory as to why the ‘nun’ was thought to be so old is interesting, but I found it surprising that within a single generation, local people could have forgotten that this woman was actually half that age when she died. Beckett and Conlogue’s findings on the ‘nun’ were as follows;
‘She had a multitude of bumps on her arm, which sort of gave her the appearance of great age. We were not sure how her legend originated, but from what I saw inside her skull, she was not close to 122 years old. In fact, from the sutures in the skull plates, she appeared to be no older than sixty, and perhaps as young as her thirties. As for being a nun— we weren’t able to determine this. The bumps turned out to be very interesting. When we took a closer look, we noticed the nun had two elbows on her left arm, which suggested this was a mix-n-match mummy. We asked our friend, pathologist Larry Cartmell, about the bumps, and he thought they could be calcium deposits, probably a result of chronic kidney failure. He also added that the arm did not belong to the nun, because its owner would have had these awful bumps all over his or her body. You could see how this condition would have made someone believe this was an incredibly old woman, but the evidence pointed to someone much younger.’
Now, here I note that the fourth mummy, the one with no traditional backstory, turned out to also be female. The book states that they weren’t able to say any more about this one, and given that in 1888, this corpse was the nun/Miss Crookshank, I’m not sure how significant this conclusion actually is. We only know the relative positions of these three bodies, so there’s a reasonable chance that this is actually ‘her’. Interestingly, looking at the photos from 1888, recent times, and sometime in between (early 20th century I think – the poses are very similar and there is still some velvet hanging from the right hand coffin) you can see that the jumbled body on the left has been extensively messed with (broken up, in fact) and its coffin replaced between the first and second photos (and then rearranged between the second and third). This might support the idea that this body was a ‘supporting cast member’ of sorts and not the precious ‘nun’, who looks virtually identical and intact in all three images. Contradicting this however is the 1842 account suggesting that the nun was moved (not so much that she had deteriorated, as it’s fair to say that any of these may well have seen better days by 1822). The female on the right does not look as though she’s moved since her coffin broke apart – but perhaps that began when she was moved to this position, which could have been from elsewhere within this vault, or, if she was ever the ‘nun’, from the other vault mentioned. The fact is that we just don’t know which, if either of these, might originally have been the real-life Miss Crookshank, or if she even existed.
‘Mummy Dearest’ continues on the subject of the ‘thief’:
‘As for his hand, it was definitely severed cleanly, which indicated that he probably lost it after he died. We didn’t think this was done as punishment, which was the story that had long been circulating about this person.’
Note that Vicars in 1888 thought this, the middle of the three then and now, was a female corpse, but also believed it to be a post-mortem injury.
‘Given that his feet were sawed off so that he could fit in the coffin, it is just as likely that his hand was removed and sold to a medical student.
Finally, on the ‘crusader’:
‘Because he was a large individual, we surmised he simply did not fit into the one-size-fits-all coffins of the middle ages [sic]. It was not uncommon back then for a body to be crammed into a coffin too small for it. What we did not expect to find was that the feet and legs were much smaller, proportionally, when compared to his hands. As we looked closer, we also found that he had an extra pair of knees (and no, he didn’t have four legs). When Jerry’s X-ray showed two spines, it was clear that we were dealing with two corpses here – or at least one corpse on top of another partial one. Of course, there was one big question we couldn’t help but ask: Was he (or they) really a crusader? When crusaders returned from the Middle East and died, their legs were crossed when they were buried. This mummies’ legs were crossed, which was probably how the story originated. But we noticed that his pelvis had split apart at some point, and whoever had put the pieces back together had crossed the legs. This did not preclude him from being a crusader, but it didn’t prove anything, either. The definitive answer came courtesy of a fabric sample I found in his chest cavity. I was able to remove it with the endoscope, and then sent it to be carbon-dated, along with a sample of lung tissue. The numbers that came back said he had lived two hundred years after the crusades.
Frankly, I find even this unlikely. Even a date of c.1565 (assuming we call the Sack of Alexandria the latest of the crusades) would be far older than any of the other evidence would support, and would pre-date the present vaults themselves by at least a century. I suspect that the actual C14 dates were older, given that the authors talk about ‘the middle ages’ (a fellow blogger suggests 1364, but this would be less than 100 years after the last proper crusade). Of course this body could have been reburied and might in fact be older, although I think it unlikely. In any case, the only available scientific dating definitely didn’t give a date consistent with the crusades.
The St Michan’s section of the book (I recommend getting hold of it for the many other mummy stories included) closes with the musing ‘I wonder if St. Michan’s would have let us investigate the mummies had they known the the outcome of our study.’ The authors suggest that the custodians of the vaults, relying on the income that it generates, would not change their story, but the leaflet I have from 2009 is very upfront about the age of the vaults and the reality of the crusader (‘…in reality he never lived to see the Crusades!’). Worryingly though, interviews with the clergy following the recent theft show no sign of this sceptical attitude. This enlightenment period Dubliner is back to being misidentified as an ‘800-year old crusader’.
I should note that not everyone shares my scepticism. The article ‘Bodies preserved from the days of the Crusades in St Micham’s Church, Dublin’ (L M McKinley. J Pathol May 1977 (Vol. 122, Issue 1, Pages 27-8). This focuses only on the remarkable preservation in evidence (the author’s area of expertise and interest), not on the age or history of the bodies. Oh, and the author couldn’t spell ‘Michan’. Suffice to say that he didn’t carry out his due diligence on this one.
In passing/closing, I should note that the recent theft is not the first time that a head has been stolen from the vaults. Vicars relates the story ‘many years ago’ (from his 1888 perspective) of the head of John Sheares was stolen ‘for a wager’ but was recovered and replaced. Sadly, I doubt that the same is true this time, but I also find the suggestion that it must be muslims/immigrants/liberals rather unlikely and the outrage misplaced. This poor dead person may not have been a ‘crusader’, but he was a human being deserving of some respect and dignity (and that’s coming from someone who has no real problem with the managed display or even the ritualised touching of the corpse).
My title is inspired by Kaeli Swift‘s Twitter quiz ‘Crow or No?’, in which her followers must guess whether the bird in the image is a Crow or not (you should check out her site and Twitter feed linked above if you, like me, love Corvids. In this context she is being quite specific – the bird must have ‘Crow’ as part of its colloquial English name. So the above Raven would be a ‘no’, even though (unlike some birds that she posts) it is part of the genus Corvus, usually equated with ‘Crow’ in everything from modern specialist literature to everyday speech. Most people that know anything about corvids know that the Raven, the largest of the Corvids and of the genus Corvus, is a type of ‘Crow’. I was so sure of this myself that I have corrected people who’ve said ‘that’s not a Crow’ with ‘yes it is – Ravens ARE Crows’. But as I read into historical usage, I came to the conclusion that this isn’t strictly true, or at least, it didn’t used to be. It should really be the other way around; the Crow (and other members of the genus Corvus) are really types of Raven. Let me explain…
This is not just a question of confused popular usage. People that know their Corvids are pretty consistent about it. For example, Boria Sax’s 2012 book ‘City of Ravens’ tell us that;
‘Ravens (corvus corax) are members of the family corvidae, sometimes known collectively as “crows” or “corvids.”’
In his earlier work ‘Crow’ (2003), Sax is even more inclusive;
‘The word ‘Crow’ is occasionally used broadly for all members of this avian family. It is often used more restrictively for members of the genus Corvus, also known as ‘true crows’, which includes ravens, rooks, and jackdaws. Finally, the term may be used, perhaps a bit unscientifically, for those members of the genus Corvus that do not have any other common name.’
This logic is supported by scientists John M. Marzluff & Tony Angell when they tell us in their ‘In the Company of Crows and Ravens’ that;
‘Corvus is Latin for “a crow”.’
All three of these guys are American English writers by the way, but usage is quite consistent on both sides of the pond. The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) report things the same way on their website, classifying Ravens as just one of eight ‘Crow’ species in the British Isles.
And yet, when we look at things from an historical perspective, things were pretty much the other way around. The original Linnaean classification as it existed in 1756 was as follows (Latin then French, I’ve added the English in square brackets]);
CORVUS. Rostrum convexum- cultratum maxillis subaequalibus: basi fetis tectum.
Corvus – le Corbeau [Raven]
Cornix frugivora – ___ [Rook]
Cornix cinerea – la Corneille [Crow]
Cornix caerulea – ___ [Roller – no longer classified a Corvid]
Monedula – la Chouca [Jackdaw]
Caryocatactes – le Caffenoix [Nutcracker]
Pica glandaria – le Geay [Jay]
Pica caudata – la Pie [Magpie]
Ciffa nigra cirrata, cauda lutea. Barr. 45. [Not sure what these last two were = some sort of Oriole?]
Ciffa nigra, alis caudaque luteis. Barr. 45. B 2
The above shows that the direct French cognate for ‘Corvus’ was ‘Corbeau’. This is where the English dialect name ‘Corby’ comes from, and Corby (or ‘Corbie’, or ‘Croupy’) almost always meant ‘Raven’. In Romance languages the original Latin clarity is preserved to this day; in French Corbeau is Raven, and Corneille is Crow. In Italian (e.g. this 1848 book); ‘i Corvi’ (the Ravens) were (and remain) Corvus corax and ‘le Cornacchie’ (Corvus corone, Corvus cornix)’ were the Crows. Spanish has the analogues Cuervo and Corneja, all following the Latin Corvus/Corvi. Let’s use Spanish as the example, in which the genus ‘Los Cuervos’ were ‘the Ravens’ and, as late as 1837, were distinctfrom Corvus corone and Corvus cornix (both identified with ‘La Corneja’ just as both are ‘Crows’ in English). Convergence and confusion of naming happened here too, but the other way around. ‘Cuervo’ (which actually is from the Latin Corvus for ‘Raven’) is now used to mean both ‘Raven’ and ‘Crow’. In fact, the Raven is now known as ‘El Cuervo Grande’ or ‘the large raven’. This despite the fact that the Spanish derivative of Cornix (‘Corneja’) still exists! ‘Cuervo’ still means ‘Raven’ in Spanish today (see here). Logically enough, all of this originates in ancient Roman Latin, as we’ll see. The definitive form of Linnaeus’ system appeared in 1758, giving us the modern form for the Raven of Corvus corax as well as Corvus corone and Corvus cornix for the Carrion and Hooded Crows. In both incarnations of the system the Raven is listed as the first of its genus, as we’d expect from the largest and most impressive species, and the one after which the genus is named!
‘Coroni en Grec, Cornix en Latin, Corneiulle, en Francoys.’
Here we have a Tudor vintage classification, the common Latin and French forms from which Linnaeus concocted his more scientific system. Renaissance writers obviously took their cue from the ancient Romans and Greeks. This is where things get a little muddy, because the Romans weren’t always clear on which was which. In an article in the Transactions of the Philological Society (Issue 5, 1854, p.107) entitled ‘On the confusion of meaning between Corvus and Cornix’, Hensleigh Wedgewood agrees broadly that the Romans used ‘Corvus’ for Raven and Cornix for Rook, and ‘The Birds of the Latin Poets’ (p.73) claims;
‘CORVUS. Raven….The name corvus was applied also by Roman writers to both the crow and the rook.’
However, having checked the various sources, the identification of the intended bird seems to have been done on the basis of stereotypical behaviour. Wedgewood sees in the following passage Pliny’s description of the Raven’s famous ‘croak’, which given the use of corvorum seems reasonable;
‘Pessima eorum (corvorum) significatio (in auspiciis), quum glutiunt vocem velut strangulati.’
However, he then references Virgil’s use of ‘cornix’ and claims that a solitary corvid ‘inviting’ rain must be a Raven;
‘Tum cornix plena pluviam vocat improba voce
Et sola in sicca secum spatiatur arena’
Meaning something like ‘the Raven with full voice calls down the rain and walks alone along the sand’. Now, I’m no classical scholar, but what about this sentence necessitates a Raven and not a Crow (Cornix)? Both make noise, both were birds of ill omen, and both could be found on their own. I am not convinced, and I’ve found two other translations, neither was both, of which are quite happy to take Cornix at face value. Likewise, Wedgewood is convinced that Virgil was talking of Rooks when he wrote;
‘ete pastu decedens agmine magno Corvorum increpuit densis exercitus alis.’
Again, only one aspect of the intended bird is included here; that we are talking about multiple birds. Sure enough, the Raven is often a solitary bird, but they can also operate in groups; I myself have seen them in the wild in numbers. And although Rooks are very rarely on their own, Carrion and other Crows may be seen in large groups, small ones, or on their own. Here’s another of Virgil’s;
‘Tum liquidas corvi presso ter gutture voces aut quater ingeminant, et saepe cubilibus altis nescio qua praeter solitum dulcedine laeti inter se in foliis strepitant; iuvat imbribus actis progeniem parvam dulcisque revisere nidos’
‘Soft then the voice of rooks from indrawn throat
Thrice, four times, o’er repeated, and full oft
On their high cradles, by some hidden joy
Gladdened beyond their wont, in bustling throngs
Among the leaves they riot; so sweet it is,
When showers are spent, their own loved nests again
And tender brood to visit.’
Fowler in ‘A Year With the Birds’ (1914) confidently (complete with a ‘No True Englishman’ logical fallacy) identifies these birds as Rooks, but again, I just don’t see that this contains enough diagnostic information. The passage works just as well if Corvi are Ravens. In fact I don’t see any of these analyses as definitive. Even assuming that these authors are talking about other birds, the confusion is supposedly with the Rook, not the Carrion or Hooded Crow.
In any case, the Greeks seem to have been consistent, using Korone for the Crow, and sometimes the physically similar and seasonal Rook but not the Raven (Korax). I have not taken this line of enquiry any further than the ‘Glossary of Greek Birds’ however (p.11). There has definitely always been some grey area across the species. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have named their corvids based upon how they sounded, with the result that they were somewhat inconsistent with their terminology. This thesis is a good read on that subject, although I remain unconvinced at (again) the claim that Latin speakers used the different names interchangeably. I have checked all of the sources in footnote 65 (p.44) and none actually support this. The ‘Brussels Glossary’ quote of ‘Corvus hrefne oththe corax’ seems to simply be listing three names (Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Greek) for a Raven, presumably in a play on words (literally ‘Raven ravens other raven’). However, William Brunsdon Yapp’s ‘Birds in Medieval Manuscripts’ (London, 1981, p.57) is also sceptical that pre-Linnaean observers knew the difference, saying;
‘…neither Shakespeare nor Tennyson, nor C. S. Lewis nor Victoria Sackville-West could tell rooks from crows, or even apparently knew that there are two species, it seems unlikely that there was any clear distinction in the Middle Ages’.
This shouldn’t surprise us though. How many people today know or can tell the difference? Then, as now, there will have been people more intimately familiar with the birds and who would surely have known the difference, but pre-scientific method, they aren’t writing it down. Regardless of ‘folk taxonomies’ and historical misidentification, there were nonetheless different names and some level of awareness that the names denoted different creatures. Across the span of history it seems clear that Corvus overwhelmingly meant ‘Raven’ rather than ‘Crow’. Moreover, as I show above, by the time of Linnaeus it was very clear which was which. Under that system, Corvus was simultaneously the first name for the species within the genus, the specific scientific name for the Raven itself (as simply Corvus with no additional name), AND remained the common Latin name for the Raven. The modified form of Linnaean classification combined the Latin and Greek to create a hierarchical system. Thus ‘Corvus corax’ literally meant ‘Raven raven’ like ‘Rattus rattus’, and not ‘Crow raven’. Carrion Crow makes sense as ‘Corvus corone’ or ‘Raven crow’ on the same basis. Indeed, the common German term for the Carrion Crow is exactly that; ‘Rabenkrähe’, and it seems clear to me that the dialect ‘Corby-Crow’ (or ‘Croupy-Crow’), meaning Carrion Crow was the English parallel to this (‘Corby’ meaning Raven as above).
So far, so logical. So what changed? Well, as much as Linnaeus’ system caught on, within a few decades naturalists and zoologists were conflating and confusing terms. By 1800 the ‘American Review’ gave the modern scientific name ‘Corvus corax’ with a reversed English translation ‘Raven crow’; i.e. Roman ‘Corvus’ for ‘Crow’ and Greek ‘Corax’ for Raven. In 1805 Jedidiah Morse in America included the corvids under the label ‘The Crow Kind’ (Corvus), although he still listed the Raven first (as Corvus carnivorous). In 1809/10 the English naturalist George Shaw had;
Black crow about two feet in length, with a blue gloss on the upper parts, and rounded tail.
The Raven. Will. Penn. Lath &c, &c.
Le Corbeau. Briss. Buff &c.
In 1849 we find William Dowling’s ‘A popular natural history of quadrupeds and birds’ saying (p.50);
‘Latin word corvus, which signifies a crow’
This was sustained in ‘Insects Abroad: Being a Popular Account of Foreign Insects (etc)’ by John George Wood (1874);
‘The specific name corvus signifies ” a crow,”’
All of which doesn’t really help much. People have been confusing these names for a very long time, and Linnaeus’ attempt to standardise on the traditional and largely consistent Latin and Greek nomenclature really didn’t catch on. For most intents and purposes, in English at least, Corvus now means ‘Crow’ and not Raven and has done for over 200 years; almost as long as we’ve been scientifically studying these birds. I’m certainly not going to persuade any taxonomists, zoologists, ornithologists or other scientists to revert now. The only really useful conclusion here is the reminder that, historically, Corvus meant Raven, not Crow. Because it now means both, it is possibly to be correct either way around. The Raven may, by convention, have become a type of Crow, but the Crow is also a sort of Raven. This actually sort of fits with the biological reality – not only are Carrion Crows very similar to Ravens, but they can actually sometimes interbreed; ‘Raven Crows’ indeed. As to why this reversal happened, my suspicion lies with the quirk that the two words appear to be closely related; ‘Corv…Crow’ in English. In reality there is no etymological connection between the two, which is presumably why the distinction is preserved in other languages as I covered above.
A colleague (who clearly thought there was something in it) recently told me of a fringe theory regarding supposed high-tech drilling and stone shaping techniques used on the sarcophagus inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. I hadn’t heard this one before, but then the whole ‘Ancient Aliens’ thing has never much appealed to me (unlike Egyptian archaeology itself, which at one stage I was going to study at University). It turns out that he was talking about the work of Christopher Dunn, who is another of these intelligent, qualified people who drinks the Kool-Aid on a subject entirely outwith their own experience and expertise. Among other things (such as the pyramid itself being a power plant!) Dunn believes that the high rate of rotation noted by archaeologist Flinders Petrie (an inch of cutting in half a turn of the drill) requires that the holes must have been drilled using ultrasonic drilling – a 20th century technique. You can read his theories here and here. This kind of detail is great for alt-history types because most of us aren’t engineers, and we aren’t archaeologists either, making this kind of historical/technical explanation superficially quite plausible to the layperson (my colleague is a forensic scientist and certainly not gullible). The problem is that Dunn is not familiar with the actual equipment used, nor how it was used. It’s like an automotive engineer trying to recreate how a chariot was designed, or even an aeronautical engineer professing to understand the biomechanics and evolution of flight in ancient birds – some aspects will map across time and areas of study, but many won’t, and unlike chariots and fossil birds, the evidence for exactly this type of ancient drill system is absent. It makes no sense, in the absence of evidence, to leap to fantastical theories. It’s the old meme from Ancient Aliens; ‘I’m not saying it was aliens. But it was aliens’. Petrie himself inferred that this required simply a heavy load on top of the drill, and that including a suitable abrasive, such a speed of cutting is far from impossible. It’s not helpful to equate these huge hand-powered drills to modern electrically-powered equivalents, and the fact that other engineers that he’s shown or told about this have been equally nonplussed means nothing. I have shown precision hand-made antique firearms with sharp corners and convoluted shapes to modern gunsmiths and makers who have ‘grown up’ using modern tools, and they have been utterly amazed, because although the end result might be similar to what they’ve done in the past, the means of getting there was totally outside their own experience. It’s essentially one big argument from incredulity.
The actual academic literature on the subject (which Dunn has not contributed to, incidentally) is well represented by thesetwo articles, neither of which tackle the ‘Ancient Aliens’ (or time-travel, or whatever fanciful) explanation implied by Dunn, but rather look at the methods available at the time and the microscopic evidence left by whatever method was actually used. Tl;dr is that whilst we don’t know precisely how the Ancient Egyptians did their stone drilling, it involved a hand-powered drill (probably tubular and using a copper bit) and an abrasive compound/slurry. This, not ultrasonic equipment, which by the way, they had no means of powering, designing, or building (and isn’t represented in any artwork, texts, or archaeological find, is how these holes were drilled and what left the characteristic parallel lines. Nothing about the lines being close together necessitates any unreasonably high rate of rotation, and fragments of corundum abrasive in similar drill holes offers direct counter evidence to the ultrasonic claim. As to the precision corners evident in things like stone sarcophagi, I have never understood why this is somehow evidence of super-advanced technology. As this page shows, the Ancient Egyptians had tools with which to judge angles and the cheap labour, artisanal skills, and time necessary to cut angles and radii by hand with simple tools. Again, instead of marvelling at such accomplishments and putting them down to aliens, time travel, parallel dimensions or whatever, we should focus on trying to recreate the ingenuity that was able to pull off such feats. It’s funny – when it comes to outstanding past technology we look for some supernatural explanation, but with other human endeavours like great art, we don’t. This *is*sometimes done in fiction – super creative people in ‘A Discovery of Witches’ are revealed to be ‘daemons’; a totally different species. Strangely, I find that almost as disappointing as this ancient aliens BS.
I recently came across an odd claim in the comments section for a YouTube video (yes, yes, I know) on the subject of the Second World War. Having investigated, the commenter was referring to this story as reported in a 2012 thesis entitled ‘Desertion, Control and Collective Action in Civil Wars’ (p.165-6);
When asked to explain to an American journalist how he had blown up a tank, another militiaman replied, “echando cojones al asunto”—applying courage (literally testicles) to the matter, according to the Left Republican leader Régulo Martínez who set up their interview. Martínez relates, “A week later, I was shown a copy of an American paper in which I read that Madrid militiamen had invented a new anti-tank device called ‘echando cojones al asunto.’”
The furthest back that I could trace this was a 1979 oral history book by Ronald Fraser, which relates the story in the original Spanish (i.e….un periódico americano en el que se decía que los milicianos de Madrid habían inventado un nuevo dispositivo antitanques llamado “echando cojones al asunto”…).
So this may well be a period claim and not something concocted later, although oral history is often unreliable due to the passage of time. However, as the claim relates to an actual US print newspaper, if it’s true then we should be able to locate something in online newspaper archives. Disappointingly (I did rather want this one to be true!) yet unsurprisingly, none of the available archives yielded any result. In fact I couldn’t find a single English language reference. When you think about it though, the very claim itself strains credulity. Why would a foreign journalist who did not speak Spanish simply repeat a phrase in that language for his readers without asking what it meant? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Spanish knows what ‘cojones’ means, and the US was at that time not without its connections to Spain and the Spanish language. It’s also a rather convenient meme/informal propaganda piece that says to fellow Spaniards that ‘the outside world knows nothing of our troubles and isn’t helping’. Bottom line – there’s no evidence for this one and it’s likely to be a piece of Spanish wartime lore. Shame really!
One of my YouTube subscriptions is Trey the Explainer, who does good stuff on history, natural history, evolution, and cryptid creatures, among other things. His latest Cryptid Profile is especially relevant to my interests, because it covers the ‘Beast of Gévaudan’, and I have by coincidence just finished helping with a forthcoming documentary about La Bête. I fully support his conclusion that this was a classic cryptid/social panic case, with anything and everything being identified/misidentified as the beast in question. It was very likely several wolves and/or wolf-dogs, possibly a hyena, possibly a lion or other escaped big cat, and possibly even all of the above. I won’t even rule out the suggestion of a human murderer or two in the mix somewhere. What it wasn’t was a single creature with a supernaturally hard or charmed hide. However, Trey gets a few facts wrong about werewolf and silver bullet mythology. Firstly, there’s no evidence that any of the creatures killed and recovered were actually dispatched with a silver bullet, and some good evidence that they weren’t (such as not being mentioned at all in period sources, notably an autopsy report). Suspected ‘Beasts’ WERE shot at with silver bullets but importantly, they apparently did not work. A Madame de Franquieres wrote to her daughter-in-law on the Beast:
‘The express sent to Aurillac relates that M. de Fontanges has had many encounters with the ferocious beast, of which you have no doubt heard, that traverses the Gevaudan. He has passed places where she often goes; he was forced to stay three days in the snow for fear of meeting her. She crosses, without wetting her feet, a river thirty-six feet wide. He claims that she can cover seven leagues in an hour. The peasants do not dare to go out into the country unless in groups of seven or eight. We can not find anyone to herd the sheep. She does not eat animals, only human flesh; men she eats the head and stomach, and women over the breasts. When she is hungry, she eats it all. We tried to shoot him with bullets of iron, lead, silver. Nothing can penetrate. We must hope that in the end we will overcome it.’
-M.”° de Franquières à M.”° de Bressac, Grenoble, 14 March 1765 – see the French original here (p.138).
This is supported by another source from 1862 (see here): that reports the use of ‘almost point blank’ folded silver coins, also to no apparent avail. Of course it’s possible that some poor wolf did slink away and die, but either wasn’t the Beast or wasn’t the only ‘Beast’ abroad at that time.
Trey is also under the impression that this incident is the source of the belief that silver bullets can kill werewolves. This is true insofar as there are no written accounts of silver bullet use against canids until Gévaudan, despite modern claims that the silver bullet aspect was only introduced in more modern times or even in fictionalised accounts. The source above proves otherwise. The story certainly helped to spread the idea and perpetuate it into the era of mass literacy and supernatural fiction. However, the idea that this is ground zero for silver bullets versus werewolves is untrue in the sense that the belief applied by no means just to werewolves, but rather to a range of supernatural or charmed targets (although as I’ve previously noted, not vampires until 1928). As such, it predates Gévaudan, meaning that there is in fact no source for the slaying of werewolves with silver bullets. For as long as silver bullets were ‘a thing’, they would have been seen as effective against werewolves or wolf-like supernatural beasts. I should note here that nowhere in the historical literature is the Beast of Gévaudan claimed to have been a loup-garou or werewolf. There are no accounts of it shifting shape, no accusations made of any people suspected to be the Beast. However, historians have noted in period reports werewolf traits such as a foul stench, unusually long claws and teeth, ‘haunting’, ‘sparkling’ or glowing eyes, and an erect posture (see Jay Smith’s ‘Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast’, p.21).
So where does the silver bullet myth come from? The oldest references that I’ve found are in Scots and American poems (1801 and 1806 respectively), and relate to yet another class of supernatural being, albeit one with close ties to the werewolf; that of the witch. The very earliest is the 1801 Scots poem ‘A Hunt’ by James Thomson:
The sacred cross on the face of the penny was significant. Other accounts mention that the projectile has actively been blessed. A Swedish story from the Gösta Berlings Saga mentions bullets cast from a church bell. But the silver itself seems to have had a divine and magical significance, one that stretches back to ancient times (notably the Delphic Oracle, see this fantastic collection of references). In the German folk tale ‘The Two Brothers’ for example, the witch is shot at with three ordinary silver buttons.
My next source, ‘The Country Lovers‘ (published by Thomas Green Fessenden in 1804) comes from the United States:
‘And how a witch, in shape of owl,
Did steal her neighbour’s geese, sir,
And turkies too, and other fowl,
When people did not please her.
Yankee doodle, &c.
And how a man, one dismal night,
Shot her, with silver bullet,*
And then she flew straight out of sight,
As fast as she could pull it.
Yankee doodle, &c.
How Widow Wunks was sick next day,
The parson went to view her, And saw the very place, they say,
Where foresaid ball went through her !
Yankee doodle, Sec.
*There is a tale among the ghost-hunters, in New England, that silver bullets will be fatal to witches, when those of lead would not avail.
More Germanic folklore, recorded in 1852 (Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Folklore, Vol.III, p.27), related that a witch, if shot with silver, would receive a wound that would not heal, and would have to resume its human form. Witches were commonly thought to shapeshift into animal form, hence the overlap with the werewolf. The ‘Witch of Schleswig’ was also known as ‘The Werewolf of Husby’,
Beyond witches, silver bullets might help against other entities. One story includes a shot used against the magic itself rather than the offending creature’s body; in this case a group of fairies;
‘In a Norse tale, a man whose bride is about to be carried off by Huldre-folk, rescues her by shooting over her head a pistol loaded with a silver bullet. This has the effect of dissolving the witchery; and he is forthwith enabled to seize her and gallop off, not unpursued.’
Frank C. Brown recorded (from North Carolina) a variety of uses of silver (bullet and otherwise) against black magic of all sorts. Ghosts are also associated with silver bullets, as in Washington Irving’s ‘Tales of a Traveller’, Vol.2 (1825), which references a (fictional) pirate ghost. Collections/indices of American folklore also reference ghosts as well as witches (e.g. ‘Kentucky Superstitions’ (1920).
However, the very oldest written accounts were made in reference to ordinary human beings that have been protected (or have protected themselves) by magical charms. These were known as ‘hardmen’, and were typically powerful or noteworthy men with a literal aura about them. One such was John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, who led the Jacobites at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. As Sir Walter Scott wrote in ‘Tales of My Landlord’ (1816, p.69):
‘Many a whig that day loaded his musket with a dollar cut into slugs, in order that a silver bullet (such was their belief) might bring down the persecutor of the holy kirk, on whom lead had no power.’
The same went for 17th/18th century Bulgarian rebel leader ‘Delyo’, and ‘…an Austrian governor of Greifswald, on whom the Swedes had fired more than twenty balls, could only be shot by the inherited silver button that a soldier carried in his pocket’ (see here). The oldest of all pertains to an alleged 1678 attempt upon the life of English King Charles II.
My point is really that the whole silver bullet myth is misunderstood today. It’s not like the wooden stake that’s specific to vampires or, for that matter, wolfsbane for wolves, conkers for spiders (yes, that’s a genuine belief too). The silver bullet is not specific to werewolves, vampires, or any other target. It is really an apotropaic – it works against magic itself, whether negating the charm of protection around a corporeal enemy, dispelling a ghostly apparition, or breaking fairy magic to free a captive. It’s the ultimate in supernatural self-defence, but it’s only a footnote in the story of the Beast of Gévaudan. It neither originated with the Beast, nor killed it.