Werewolves = Serial Killers?

Beast of Gevaudan (1764). Not to Scale (Wikimedia Commons)

When I last wrote on the Beast of Gévaudan, I said that I couldn’t rule out the involvement of one or more human murderers whose actions could have been conflated with several wolves and possibly other wild animals killing French peasants between 1764 – 1767. I meant that literally; the Beast was a craze, and it’s perfectly possible that one or more victims was in fact the victim of a murder. We have no evidence for that, of course, and certainly not for the claim, sometimes made, that the whole thing was the work of a serial killer. This was recently repeated in this otherwise very good video from YouTube channel ‘Storied’ (part two of two; both parts feature the excellent Kaja Franck, who I was fortunate to meet at a conference some years ago). Meagan Navarro of the horror (fiction) website Bloody Disgusting states the following:

“The Beast of Gevaudan or the Werewolf of Dole, these were based on men that were serial killers and slaughtered, and folklore was a means of exploring and understanding those acts by transforming them into literal monsters.”

The ‘werewolf’ of Dole does indeed appear to be a deluded individual who thought he was able to transform into a wolf and was convicted as such. However, this is not the case for Gévaudan, which is a well-documented piece of history, not some post-hoc rationalisation for a series of murders as she implies. The various attacks that comprise the story were widely reported at the time and in some detail (albeit embellishments were added later). No-one at the time suspected an ordinary person of the actual killings, and the only sightings consistently refer to a large beast, sometimes detailing how the kills were made. The idea of a human being in control of the Beast somehow was mooted at the time, as was the werewolf of folklore, but never a straightforward murderer. Of course, the idea of the serial killer was unknown until the late 19th century, and it wasn’t long after this that a specious connection was made. In 1910 French gynaecologist Dr. Paul Puech published the essay (‘La Bête du Gévaudan’, followed in 1911 by another titled ‘Qu’était la bête du Gévaudan?’). Puech’s thin evidence amounted to;

1) The victims being of the same age and gender as those of Jack the Ripper and Joseph Vacher. In fact, women and children (including boys) were not only the more physically vulnerable to attack generally, but were the members of the shepherding families whose job it was to bring the sheep in at the end of the day. This is merely a coincidence.

2) Decapitation and needless mutilation. The latter is pretty subjective, especially if the animal itself might be rabid (plenty were) and therefore attacking beyond the needs of hunger alone. The relevance of decapitation depends upon whether a) this really happened and b) whether a wolf or wolves would be capable of it. Some victims were found to have been decapitated, something that these claimants assert is impossible for a wolf to achieve. I can’t really speak to how plausible this is, although tearing limbs from sizable prey animals is easily done and if more than one animal were involved I’ve little doubt that they could remove a head if they wished. So, did these decapitations actually take place? Jay Smith’s ‘Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast’ relays plenty of reports of heads being ripped off. However, details of these reports themselves mitigate against the idea of a human killer. Take Catherine Valy, whose skull was recovered some time after her death. Captain of dragoons Jean-Baptiste Duhamel noted that “judging by the teeth marks imprinted [on the skull], this animal must have terrifying jaws and a powerful bite, because this woman’s head was split in two in the way a man’s mouth might crack a nut.” Duhamel, like everyone else involved, believed that he faced a large and powerful creature (whether natural or supernatural), not a mere human. Despite the intense attention of the local and national French authorities, not to mention the population at large, no suggestion was ever made nor any evidence ever found of a human murderer and the panic ended in 1767 after several ordinary wolves were shot.

3) Similar deaths in 1765 in the Soissonnais, which he for some reason puts down to a copycat killer rather than, you know, more wolves. This reminds me of the mindset of many true crime writers; come up with your thesis and then go cherry-picking and misrepresenting the data to fit.At the very least then, this claim is speculative, and should not be bandied about as fact (in fact, the YouTube channel should really have queried the claim). So, if not a serial killer, then what? French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie argues that the Beast was a local legend blown out of proportion to a national level by the rise of print media. Jean-Marc Moriceau reports 181 wolf killings through the 1760s, which puts into context the circa 100 killings over three years in one region of France. That is, statistically remarkable, but within the capability of the country’s wolf population to achieve, especially given the viral and environmental pressures from rabies and the Little Ice Age respectively that Moriceau cites. If we combine these two takes, we get close to the truth, I think. ‘The’ Beast most likely actually consisted of some unusually violent attacks carried out by more than one wolf or packs of wolves that were confabulated and exaggerated as the work of one supernatural beast, before ultimately being pinned by the authorities on several wolves, three shot by François Antoine in 1765 and another supposedly ‘extraordinary’ (yet actually ordinary sized) Jean Chastel in 1767.

Milk in First, or Last Part 2: a Tempest in a Teapot

Poster created by the amazing Geof Banyard (islandofdoctorgeof.co.uk) for a
2016 mock ‘Tea Referendum’

This is Part 2 of a very long article – see here for part 1.

Clearly the majority of modern-day advocates (including all those YouTube commenters that I mentioned last time) aren’t aspiring members of the upper-middle or upper classes or avid followers of etiquette, so why does this schism among tea-drinkers still persist? No doubt the influence of snobs like Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh et al persists, but for most it seems to boil down (ha) to personal preference. This has not calmed the debate any however. Both sides, now mostly comprised of middle class folk such as myself, now argue with equal certainty that their way is the only right way. Is Milk In First (MIF)/Milk In Last (MIL) really now a ‘senseless meme’ (as Professor Markman Ellis believes; see Part 1) – akin to the ‘big-endians’ and ‘little-endians’ of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’? Is there some objective truth to the two positions that underpins all this passion and why the debate has surpassed class differences? Is there a way to reconcile or at least explain it so that we can stop this senseless quibbling? Well, no. We’re British. Quibbling and looking down on each other are two of our chief national pastimes. However, another of those pastimes is stubbornness, so let’s try anyway…

Today’s MILers protest that their method is necessary in order to be able to judge the strength of the tea by its colour. Yet clearly opinions on this differ and, as I showed in the video, sufficiently strong blends – and any amount of experience in making tea – render this moot. If you do ‘under milk’, you can add more to taste (although as I also noted, you might argue that this makes MIL the more expedient method). As we’ve seen with George Orwell vs the Tea & Coffee Trade, the colour/strength argument is highly subjective. Can science help us in terms of which way around is objectively better? Perhaps, although there are no rigorous scientific studies. In the early 2000s the Royal Society of Chemistry and Loughborough University both came out in favour of MIF. The RSC press release gives the actual science:

“Pour milk into the cup FIRST, followed by the tea, aiming to achieve a colour that is rich and attractive…Add fresh chilled milk, not UHT milk which contains denatured proteins and tastes bad. Milk should be added before the tea, because denaturation (degradation) of milk proteins is liable to occur if milk encounters temperatures above 75°C. If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation to occur. This is much less likely to happen if hot water is added to the milk.

It also transpires that an actual international standard (ISO 3103:1980, preceded by several British Standards going back to 1975) was agreed for tea-making way back in 1980, and this too dictated that tea should be added to milk “…in order to avoid scalding the milk”. This would obviously only happen if the tea is particularly hot, and indeed the standard includes a ‘milk last’ protocol in which the tea is kept below 80 degrees celsius. Perhaps those favouring MIL simply like their tea cooler and so don’t run into the scalding problem? This might explain why I do prefer the taste of the same tea, with the same milk, made MIF from a pot, rather than MIL with a teabag in a cup… I like my tea super hot. So, the two methods can indeed taste different; a fact proven by a famous statistical experiment (famous among statisticians; a commenter had to point this out for me) resulted in a lady being able to tell whether a cup of tea had been made MIF or MIL eight times out of eight.

“Already, quite soon after he had come to Rothamstead, his presence had transformed one commonplace tea time to an historic event. It happened one afternoon when he drew a cup of tea from the urn and offered it to the lady beside him, Dr. B. Muriel Bristol, an algologist. She declined it, stating that she preferred a cup into which the milk had been poured first. “Nonsense,” returned Fisher, smiling, “Surely it makes no difference.” But she maintained, with emphasis, that of course it did. From just behind, a voice suggested, “Let’s test her.” It was William Roach who was not long afterward to marry Miss Bristol. Immediately, they embarked on the preliminaries of the experiment, Roach assisting with the cups and exulting that Miss Bristol divined correctly more than enough of those cups into which tea had been poured first to prove her case.

-Fisher-Box, 1978, p. 134.

This of course doesn’t help with which is objectively better, but does suggest that one side may be ‘right’. However, as well as temperature, the strength of the brew may also make a difference here, one that might explain why this debate rumbles on with no clear victor. A commenter on a Guardian article explains the chemistry of a cup of tea;

“IN THE teacup, two chemical reactions take place which alter the protein of the milk: denaturing and tanning. The first, the change that takes place in milk when it is heated, depends only on temperature. ‘Milk-first’ gradually brings the contents of the cup up from fridge-cool. ‘Milk-last’ rapidly heats the first drop of milk almost to the temperature of the teapot, denaturing it to a greater degree and so developing more ‘boiled milk’ flavour. The second reaction is analogous to the tanning of leather. Just as the protein of untanned hide is combined with tannin to form chemically tough collagen/tannin complexes, so in the teacup, the milk’s protein turns into tannin/casein complexes. But there is a difference: in leather every reactive point on the protein molecule is taken up by a tannin molecule, but this need not be so in tea. Unless the brew is strong enough to tan all the casein completely, ‘milk-first’ will react differently from ‘milk-last’ in the way it distributes the tannin through the casein. In ‘milk-first’, all the casein tans uniformly; in ‘milk-last’ the first molecules of casein entering the cup tan more thoroughly than the last ones. If the proportions of tannin to casein are near to chemical equality, ‘which-first’ may determine whether some of the casein escapes tanning entirely. There is no reason why this difference should not alter the taste.

-Dan Lowy, Sutton, Surrey (The Guardian, Notes & Queries, 2011).

Both the scalding and the denaturation/tanning explanations are referenced in the popular science book ‘Riddles in Your Teacup’ (p. 90), the authors having consulted physicists (who favour a temperature explanation) and chemists (who of course take a chemistry-based view) on this question. I also found this interesting explanation, from an 1870 edition of the Boston Journal of Chemistry, of tannins in tea and how milk reacts with them to change the taste of the tea. This supports the idea, as does the tea-tasting lady’s ability to tell the difference, that MIF and MIL can result in a different taste. Needless to say, people have different palates and preferences and it’s likely that some prefer their tannins left unchecked (black tea), fully suppressed (milk in first), or partly mitigated (milk in last). However, if your tea is strong enough, the difference in taste will be small or even non-existent, as the tannins will shine through regardless and you’ll just get the additional flavour of the milk (perhaps tasting slightly boiled?). My preferred blend (Betty’s Tea Room blend) absolutely does retain this astringent taste regardless of which method I use or even how hot the water is (even if I do prefer it hot and MIF!).

So, the available scientific advice does favour MIF, for what it’s worth, which interestingly bears out those early reports of upper class tea aficionados and later ‘below stairs’ types who both preferred it this way. However, the difference isn’t huge and depends what temperature the tea is when you hit it with the milk, how strong the brew is, and what blend you use. It’s a bit like unevenly steamed milk in a latte or cappuccino; it’s fine, but it’s nicer when it has that smooth, foamed texture and hasn’t been scalded by the wand. The bottom line, which is what I was trying to say in my YouTube response, is that it’s basically just fashion/habit and doesn’t much matter either way (despite the amount I’ve said and written about it!) – to which I can now add the taste preference and chemical change aspects. If you pour your tea at a lower temperature, the milk won’t get so denatured/scalded, and even this small difference won’t occur. Even if you pour it hot, you might not mind or notice the difference in taste. As for the historical explanation of cracking cups, it’s probably bollocks, albeit rooted in the fact of substandard British teaware. As readers of this blog will know by now, these neat origin stories generally do turn out to be made up after the fact, and the real history is more nuanced. This story is no different.

To recap; when tea was introduced in the 17th century most people drank it black. By the early 19th century milk became widely used as an option that you added to the poured tea, like sugar. Later that century, some found that they preferred putting the milk in first and were thought particular for doing so (marking the start of the Great Tea Schism). Aside from being a minority individual preference, most upper class hostesses continued to serve MIL (as Hartley recommended) because when hosting numbers of fussy guests, serving the tea first and offering milk, sugar and lemon to add to their own taste was simply more practical and efficient. Guests cannot object to their tea if they are responsible for putting it together, and this way, everyone gets served at the same time. Rather than outline this practical justification, the 1920s snobs chose to frame the debate in terms of class, setting in stone MIL as the only ‘proper’ way. This, probably combined with a residual idea that black tea was the default and milk was something that you added, and also doubtless definitely as a result of the increasing dominance of tea-making using a teabag and mug/cup (where MIL really is the only acceptable method) left a lot of non-upper class people with the idea that MIL was objectively correct. Finally, as the class system broke down, milk first or last became the (mostly) good-natured debate that it is today.

All of this baggage (especially, in my view, the outdated class snobbery aspect) should be irrelevant to how we take our tea today, and should have been even back then. As far back as 1927, J.B. Priestley used his Saturday Review column to mock the snobs who criticised “…those who pour the milk in first…”. The Duke of Bedford’s ‘Book of Snobs’ (1965, p. 42) lamented the ongoing snobbery over ‘milk in first’ as “…stigmatizing millions to hopelessly inferior status…”. Today, upper class views on what is correct or incorrect are roundly ignored by the majority, and most arguing in favour of MIL would not claim that you should do it because the upper class said that you should, and probably don’t even realise that this is where it came from. Even high-end tea-peddlers Fortnum & Mason note that you should “…pour your tea as you please”. Each person’s view on this is a product of family custom and upbringing, social class, and individual preference; a potent mixture that leads to some strong opinions! Alternatively, like me, you drink your tea sufficiently strong that it barely matters (note I said ‘barely’ – I remain a heretical MIF for life). What does matter, of course, in tea as in all things, is knowing what you like and how to achieve it, as this final quote underlines:

…no rules will insure good tea-making. Poeta nascitur non fit,* and it may be said similarly, you are born a tea-maker, but you cannot become one.

-Samuel Kneeland, About Making Tea (1870). *A Latin expression meaning that poets are born and not made.

References (for both Parts):

Bedford, John Robert Russell, George Mikes & Nicholas Bentley. 1965. The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs. London: P. Owen.

Bennett, Arnold. 1912. Helen With the High Hand. London: Chapman and Hall.

Betjeman, John. 1956. ‘How to Get on in Society’ in Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (Nancy Mitford, ed.). London: Hamish Hamilton.

Boston Journal of Chemistry. 1870. ‘Familiar Science – Leather in the Tea-Cup’. Vol. V, No. 3.

Ferguson, Jonathan. 2020. ‘You’re Doing It Wrong: Tea and Milk with Jonathan Ferguson’. Forgotten Weapons. YouTube video. 15 April 2020. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VCRFVMpSc8&gt;.

Ferguson, Jonathan & McCollum, Ian. 2020. ‘Jonathan Reacts to the First Day Kickstarter for his Book’. Forgotten Weapons. YouTube video. 13 April 2020. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XO4VgkC_JE&gt;.

Fisher-Box, Joan. 1978. R.A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist. New York, NY: Wiley.

Fortnum & Mason. ‘How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea.’ The Journal | #Fortnums. <https://www.fortnumandmason.com/fortnums/the-perfect-cup-of-tea&gt;.

Ghose, Partha & Dipankar Home. 1994. Riddles in your Teacup. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Guanghua (光華). 1995. Press Room of the Information Bureau of the Executive Yuan of the Republic of China. Vol. 20, Nos. 7–12.

Hartley, Florence. 1860. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness: A Complete Handbook. Boston, MA: Cottrell.

Johnson, Dorothea. 2002. Tea & Etiquette. Washington, D.C.: Capital.

Kneeland, Markman. 2017. ‘“Milk in First”: a miffy question’. Queen Mary University of London History of Tea Project. 11 May. <https://qmhistoryoftea.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/milk-in-first-a-miffy-question/&gt;.

Kneeland, Samuel. 1870. ‘About Making Tea’. Good Health. Vol. 1, No. 12.

Lowy, Dan. 2011. ‘Notes and Queries’. The Guardian. Digital edition:  <https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,,-1400,00.html>.

Manley, Jeffrey. 2016. ‘Milk in First.’ The Evelyn Waugh Society. 17 November 2016. <https://evelynwaughsociety.org/2016/milk-in-first/&gt;.

Orwell, George. 1946. ‘A Nice Cup of Tea.’ London Evening Standard. Available at <https://orwell.ru/library/articles/tea/english/e_tea&gt;

Rice, Elizabeth Emma. 1884. Domestic Economy. London: Blackie & Son.

Royal Society of Chemistry. 2003. ‘How to Make a Perfect Cup of Tea.’ Press Release. <https://web.archive.org/web/20140811033029/http:/www.rsc.org/pdf/pressoffice/2003/tea.pdf&gt;.

Waugh, Evelyn. 1956. ‘An Open Letter to the Honble Mrs Peter Rodd (Nancy Mitford) On a Very Serious Subject’ in Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (Nancy Mitford, ed.). London: Hamish Hamilton.

Smith, Matthew. ‘Should milk go in a cup of tea first or last?’ YouGov. 30 July 2018. <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/food/articles-reports/2018/07/30/should-milk-go-cup-tea-first-or-last/&gt;

Milk in First, or Last Part 1: a Storm in a Teacup?

Poster created by the amazing Geof Banyard (islandofdoctorgeof.co.uk) for a
2016 mock ‘Tea Referendum’

The Short Version: Pouring tea (from a teapot) with the milk in the cup first was an acceptable, if minority, preference regardless of class until the 1920s, when upper class tea drinkers decided that it was something that only the lower classes did. It does affect the taste but whether in a positive or negative way (or whether you even notice/care) is strictly a matter of preference. So, if we’re to ignore silly class-based snobbery, milk-in-first remains an acceptable alternative method. Unless you are making your tea in a mug or cup with a teabag, in which case, for the love of god, put the milk in last, or you’ll kill the infusion process stone dead.

This article first appeared in a beautifully designed ‘Tea Ration’ booklet designed by Headstamp Publishing for Kickstarter supporters of my book (Ferguson, 2020). Now that these lovely people have had their books (and booklets) for a while, I thought it time to unleash a slightly revised version on anyone else that might care! It’s a long read, so I’ll break it into two parts (references in Part 2, now added here, for those interested)…

Part 1: The History

Like many of my fellow Britons, I drink an enormous amount of tea. By ‘tea’, I mean tea as drunk in Britain, the Republic of Ireland and to a large extent in the Commonwealth. This takes the form of strong blends of black leaves, served hot with (usually) milk and (optionally) sugar. I have long been aware of the debate over whether to put the milk into the cup first or last, and that passions can run pretty high over this (as in all areas of tea preference). For a long time however, I did not grasp just how strong these views were until I read comments made on a video (Ferguson & McCollum, 2020) made to support the launch of my book ‘Thorneycroft to SA80: British Bullpup Firearms 1901 – 2020’. This showed brewed tea being poured into a cup already containing milk, which caused a flurry of mock (and perhaps some genuine) horror in the comments section. Commenters were overwhelmingly in favour of putting milk in last (henceforth ‘MIL’) and not the other way around (‘milk in first’ or ‘MIF’). This is superficially supported by a 2018 survey in which 79% of participants agreed with MIL (Smith, 2018). This survey was seriously flawed in not specifying the use of a teapot or individual mug/cup as the brewing receptacle. Very few British/Irish-style tea drinkers would ever drop a teabag in on top of milk, as this soaks into the bag, preventing most of the leaves from infusing into the hot water. Most of us these days only break out the teapot (and especially the loose-leaf tea, china cups, tea-tray etc) on special occasions, and it takes a conscious effort to try the milk in first.

Regardless, anecdotally at least it does seem that a majority would still argue for MIL even when using a teapot. This might seem only logical; tea is the drink, milk is the additive. The main justifications given were the alleged difficulty of judging the colour and therefore the strength of the mixture, and an interesting historical claim that only working class people in the past had put milk in first, in order to protect their cheap porcelain cups. The practicalities seemed to be secondary to some idea of an objectively ‘right’ way to do it, however, with many expressing mock (perhaps in some cases, genuine) horror at MIF. This vehement reaction drove me to investigate, coming to the tentative conclusion that there was a strong social class influence and releasing a follow-up video in which I acknowledged this received wisdom (Ferguson, 2020). I also demonstrated making a cup of perfectly strong tea using MIF, thus empirically proving the colour/strength argument wrong – given a suitably strong blend and brew of course. The initial source that I found confirmed the modern view on the etiquette of tea making and the colour justification. This was ‘Tea & Etiquette’ (1998, pp. 74-75) written by American Dorothea Johnson. Johnson warns ‘Don’t put the milk in before the tea because then you cannot judge the strength of the tea by its color…’


‘ …don’t be guilty of this faux pas…’

Johnson then lists ‘Good Reasons to Add Milk After the Tea is Poured into a Cup’, as follows:

  • The butler in the popular 1970s television program Upstairs, Downstairs kindly gave the following advice to the household servants who were arguing about the virtues of adding milk before or after the tea is poured: “Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.”
  • Moyra Bremner, author of Enquire Within Upon Modern Etiquette and Successful Behaviour, says, “Milk, strictly speaking, goes in after the tea.”
  • According to the English writer Evelyn Waugh, “All nannies and many governesses… put the milk in first.”
  • And, by the way, Queen Elizabeth II adds the milk in last.

Unlike the video comments, which did not directly reference social class, this assessment practically drips with snobbery, thinly veiled with the practical but subjective justification that one cannot judge the colour (and hence strength) of the final brew as easily. Still, it pointed toward the fact that there really was somehow a broadly acknowledged ‘right’ way, which surprised me. The handful of other etiquette and household books that I found in my quick search seemed to agree, and in a modern context there is no doubt that ‘milk in last’ (MIL) has come to be seen as the ‘proper’ way. However, as I suspected, there is definitely more to it—milk last wasn’t always the prescribed method, and it isn’t necessarily the best way to make your ‘cuppa’ either…

So, to the history books themselves… I spent longer than is healthy perusing ladies’ etiquette books and, as it turns out, only the modern ones assert that milk should go in last or imply that there is any kind of class aspect to be borne in mind. In fact, Elizabeth Emma Rice in her Domestic Economy (1884, p. 139) states confidently that:

“…those who make the best tea generally put the sugar and milk in the cup, and then pour in the hot tea.”

I checked all of the etiquette books that I could find electronically, regardless of time period, and only one other is proscriptive with regards to serving milk with tea. This is The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness: A Complete Handbook, by Florence Hartley (1860, pp. 105–106) which passes no judgement on which is superior, but recommends for convenience that cups of tea are poured and passed around to be milked and sugared to taste. This may provide a practical underpinning to the upper-class preference for MIL; getting someone’s cup of tea wrong would be a real issue at a gathering or party. You either had to ask how the guest liked it and have them ‘say when’ to stop pouring the milk, which would take time and be fraught with difficulty or, more likely, you simply poured a cup for each and let them add milk and sugar to their taste. This also speaks to how tea was originally drunk (as fresh coffee still is)—black, with milk if you wanted it. A working-class household was less likely to host large gatherings or have a need to impress people. There it was more convenient to add roughly the same amount of milk to each cup, and then fill the rest with tea. , you would simply be given a cup made as the host deemed fit, or perhaps be asked how you like it. If thought sufficiently fussy, you might be told to make it yourself! In any case, Hartley was an American writing for Americans, and I found no pre-First World War British guides that actually recommended milk in last. As noted, the only guide that did cover it (Rice) actually favours milk in first.

Much of my research aligns with that presented in a superb article by Professor Markman Ellis of the Queen Mary University History of Tea Project. Ellis agrees that the ‘milk in first or last’ thing was really about the British class system—which helps explain why I found so few pre-Second World War references to the dilemma. His thesis boils down (ha!) to a crisis of identity among the post-First World War upper class. In the 1920s, the wealth gap between the growing middle class and the upper class was narrowing. This is where the expression nouveau riche—the new rich—comes from; they had the money but, as the ‘true’ upper class saw it, not the ‘breeding’. They could pose as upper class, but could never be upper class. Of course, that very middle class would, in its turn, come to look down on aspiring working-class people (think Hyacinth Bucket from British situation comedy Keeping Up Appearances). In any case, if you cared about appearances and reputation among your upper-class peers or felt threatened by social mobility, you had to have a way of setting yourself apart from the ’lower classes’. Arbitrary rulesets that included MIL were a way to do this. Ellis cites several pre-First World War sources (dating back as far as 1846) which comment on how individuals took their tea. These suggest that milk-in-first (MIF) was thought somewhat unusual, but the sources pass no judgement and don’t mention that this is thought to be a working class phenomenon. Adding milk to tea was, logically enough, how it was originally done—black tea came first and milk was an addition. Additions are added, after all. As preferences developed, some would have tried milk first and liked it. This alone explains why those adding milk first might seem eccentric, but not ‘wrong’ per se. In fact, by the first decade of the 20th century, MIF had become downright fashionable, at least among the middle class, as Helen with the High Hand (1910) shows. In this novel, the titular Helen states that an “…authority on China tea…” should know that “…milk ought to be poured in first. Why, it makes quite a different taste!” This presumptuous attitude (how dare the lower classes tell us how to make our tea?!) that influenced the upper-class rejection of the practice in later decades.

This brings us back to Ellis’s explanation of where the practice originated, and also explains the context of Evelyn Waugh’s comments as reported by Johnson. These come from Waugh’s contribution to to Noblesse Oblige—a book that codified the latest habits of the English aristocracy. Ellis dismisses the authors and editor as snobs of the sort that originated and perpetuated the tea/milk meme. However, in fairness to Waugh, he does make clear that he’s talking about the view of some of his peers, not necessarily his own, and even gives credit to MIF ‘tea-fanciers’ for trying to make the tea taste better. His full comments are as follows:

All nannies and many governesses, when pouring out tea, put the milk in first. (It is said by tea-fanciers to produce a richer mixture.) Sharp children notice that this is not normally done in the drawing-room. To some this revelation becomes symbolic. We have a friend you may remember, far from conventional in other ways, who makes it her touchstone. “Rather MIF, darling,” she says in condemnation.

                             -Waugh, 1956.

Incidentally, I erroneously stated that governesses were ‘working class’ in my original video on this topic. In fact, although nannies often were, the governess was typically of the middle class, or even an impoverished upper-middle or upper class woman. Both roles occupied a space between classes, being neither one nor the other but excluded from ever being truly ‘U’. As a result, they were free to make tea as they thought best. Waugh’s view is not the only tea-related one in the book. Poet John Betjeman also alluded to this growing view that MIF was a lower class behaviour in his long list of things that would mark out the speaker as a member of the middle class:

Milk and then just as it comes dear?

I’m afraid the preserve’s full of stones;

Beg pardon I’m soiling the doileys

With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.

                             -Betjeman, 1956.

Returning to the etiquette books, although the early ones were written for those running an upper-class household, the latter-day efforts like Johnson’s are actually aimed at those aspiring to behave like, or at least fascinated by, the British upper class. This is why Johnson invokes famous posh Britons and even the Queen herself to make her point to her American audience. Interestingly though, Johnson takes Samuel Twining’s name in vain. The ninth-generation member of the famous Twining tea company is in fact an advocate of milk first, and he too thought that MIL came from snobbery:

With a wave of his hand, Mr. Twining dismisses this idea as nonsense. “Of course you have to put the milk in first to make a proper cup of tea.” He surmises that upper-class snobbery about pouring the tea first, had its origins in their desire to show that their cups were pure imported Chinese porcelain.

Guanghua (光華) magazine, 1995, Volume 20, Issues 7-12, p. 19.

Twining goes on to explain his hypothesis that the lower classes only had access to poor quality porcelain that could not withstand the thermal shock of hot liquid, and so had to put the milk in first to protect the cup. Plausible enough, but almost certainly wrong. As Ellis explains in his article;

…tea was consumed in Britain for almost two centuries before milk was commonly added, without damaging the cups, and in any case the whole point of porcelain, other than its beauty, was its thermo-resistance.

Food journalist Beverly Dubrin mentions the theory in her book ‘Tea Culture: History, Traditions, Celebrations, Recipes & More’ (2012, p. 24), but identifies it as ‘speculation’. I could find no historical references to the cracking of teacups until after the Second World War. The claim first appears in a 1947 issue of the American-published (but international in scope)‘Tea & Coffee Trade Journal’ (Volumes 92-93, p.11), along with yet another pro-MIF comment:

…MILK FIRST in the TEA, PLEASE! Do you pour the milk in your cup before the tea? Whatever your menfolk might say, it isn’t merely ‘an old wives’ tale : it’s a survival from better times than these, when valuable porcelain cups were commonly in use. The cold milk prevented the boiling liquor cracking the cups. Just plain common sense, of course. But there is more in it than that, as you wives know — tea looks better and tastes better made that way.

The only references to cracking teaware that I’ve found were to the teapot itself, into which you’d be pouring truly boiling water if you wanted the best brewing results. Several books mention the inferiority of British ‘soft’ porcelain in the 18th century, made without “access to the kaolin clay from which hard porcelain was made”, as Paul Monod says in his 2009 book ‘Imperial Island: A History of Britain and Its Empire, 1660-1837’. By the Victorian period this “genuine or true” porcelain was only “occasionally” made in Britain, as this interesting 1845 source relates, and remained expensive (whether British or imported) into the 20th century. This has no doubt contributed to the explanation that the milk was put there to protect the cups, even though the pot was by far the bigger worry and there are plenty of surviving soft-paste porcelain teacups today without cracks (e.g. this Georgian example). Of course, it isn’t actually necessary for cracking to be a realistic concern, only that the perception existed, and so we can’t rule it out as a factor. However, that early ‘Tea & Coffee Trade Journal’ mention is also interesting because it omits any reference to social class and implies that this was something that everyone used to do for practical reasons, and is now done as a matter of preference. Likewise, on the other side of the debate, author and Spanish Civil War veteran George Orwell argued in favour of MIL in a piece for the Evening Standard (January 1946) entitled ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’:

…by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

                             -Orwell, 1946.

This reiterated his earlier advice captured in this wonderful video from the Spanish trenches. However, Orwell acknowledged that the method of adding milk was “…one of the most controversial points of all…” and admitted that “the milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments.” Orwell (who himself hailed from the upper middle class) doesn’t mention class differences or worries over cracking cups.

By the 1960s people were more routinely denouncing MIF as a working class practice, although even at this late stage there was disagreement. Upper class explorer and writer James Maurice Scott in ‘The Tea Story’ (1964, p. 112) commented:

The argument as to which should be put first into the cup, the tea or the milk, is as old and unsolvable as which came first, the chicken or the egg. There is, I think, a vague feeling that it is Non-U to put the milk in first – why, goodness knows.

It’s important to note that ‘U’ and ’Non-U’ were abbreviations used as shorthand for ‘Upper-Class’ and ‘Non-Upper-Class’ invented by Professor Alan Ross in his 1954 linguistic study, and unironically embraced by the likes of Mitford as a way to ‘other’ those that they saw as inferior.

The New Yorker magazine (1965, p. 26) reported a more emphatic advisory (seemingly a trick question!) given to an American visitor to London:

Do you like milk in first or tea in first? You know, putting milk in the cup first is a working-class custom, and tea first is not.

This, then, was the status quo reflected in the British TV programme ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ in the 1970s, which helped to expose new audiences to the idea that MIF was ‘not the done thing’. Lending libraries and affordable paperback editions afforded easy access to books like Noblesse Oblige. The 1980s then saw the modern breed of etiquette books (like ‘Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior’ that rehashed this snobbery for an American audience fascinated with the British upper class. Ironically of course, any American would have been unquestionably ‘Non-U’ to any upper class Brit, just as any working or middle-class Briton would have been. And finally (again covered by Ellis), much like the changing fashion of the extended pinkie finger (which started as an upper class habit and then became ‘common’ when it trickled down to the lower classes – see my article here), the upper class decided that worrying about the milk in your tea was now vulgar. Having caused the fuss in the first place, they retired to their collective drawing room, leaving us common folk to endlessly debate the merits of MIF/MIL…

That’s it for now. Next time: Why does anyone still care about this?

“…few men…would be clever enough to be crows.”

I recently caught up with this Nicola Clayton lecture on corvid intelligence. Well worth a watch, it ends with a very apt quote;

“If men had wings and bore black feathers, Few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”

-Henry Ward Beecher

Unfortunately, as quotes in Powerpoint presentations often are, this is incorrect.

The actual quote is;

“Take off the wings, and put him in breeches, and crows make fair average men. Give men wings, and reduce their smartness a little, and many of them would be almost good enough to be crows.”

Some time into researching the origins of this, I came across this blog post, which correctly identifies that the above is the original wording and that Beecher was indeed its originator. However, taking things a little further, I can confirm that the first appearance of this was NOT ‘Our Dumb Animals’ but rather The New York Ledger. Beecher’s regular (weekly) column in the Ledger was renowned at the time. Unfortunately, I can’t find any 1869 issues of the Ledger online, so I can’t fully pin this one down. Based upon its appearance in the former publication in May of 1870, and various other references from publications that summer (e.g. this one) to “a recent issue of the Ledger”, it appeared in early 1870. From there it was reprinted in various other periodicals and newspapers including ‘Our Dumb Animals’ (even if the latter doesn’t credit the Ledger as other reprints did). 

So how did the incorrect version come about? It was very likely just a misquote or rather, a series of misquotes and paraphrasings. Even some of the early direct quotes got it wrong. One 1873 reprint drops the word ‘almost’, blunting Beecher’s acerbic wit slightly. Saying that many men would be good enough to be crows is kinder than saying that many would be almost good enough. Fairly early on, authors moved to paraphrasing, for example in 1891’s ‘Collected Reports Relating to Agriculture’ we find:

“…Henry Ward Beecher long ago remarked that if men were feathered out and given a pair of wings, a very few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” 

This appeared almost verbatim twenty years later in Coburn’s ‘The Behavior of the Crow’ (1923). Two years later, Glover Morrill Allen’s ‘Birds and Their Attributes’ (1925, p.222) gave us a new version:

“…Henry Ward Beecher was correct when he said that if men could be feathered and provided with wings, very few would be clever enough to be Crows!”

It was this form that was repeated from then on, crucially in some cases (such as Bent’s 1946 ‘Life Histories of North American Birds’) with added quotation marks, making it appear to later readers that these were Beecher’s actual words. Interestingly, the earliest occurrence of the wording ‘very few would prove clever enough’ (my emphasis) seems to emerge later, and is credited to naturalist Henry David Thoreau:

“… once said that if men could be turned into birds, each in accordance with his individual capacity, very few would prove clever enough to be Crows.”

-Bulletin of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1942 (p.11).

I can find no evidence that Thoreau ever said anything like this, and of course it’s also suspiciously similar to the Beecher versions floating about at the same time (here’s another from a 1943 issue of ‘Nature Magazine’, p. 401). Thus, I suspect, the Thoreau attribution is a red herring, probably a straight-up mistake by a lone author. In any case, relatively few (only eight that I could detect via Google Books) have run with that attribution since, and these can likely be traced back to the MA Audubon Society error.

So, we are seeing here a game of literary ‘telephone’ from the original Beecher tract in 1870 via various misquotes in the 1920s – 1950s that solidified the version that’s still floating around today. Pleasingly, although his wording has been thoroughly mangled, the meaning remains intact. The key difference is that Beecher was using the attributes of the crow to disparage human beings based upon the low opinion that his fellow man then held of corvids. Despite this, Beecher very clearly did respect the intelligence of the bird as much as the 20th century birders who referenced him, and those of us today who also love the corvids. I think it’s important to be reminded that, as his version shows, widespread affection for corvids is a very recent thing. We should never forget how badly we have mistreated them and, sadly, continue to do so in many places.

Count Cholera 2: Revenge of the Half-Baked Hypothesis

These two get it.
(from https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/20/21227874/what-we-do-in-the-shadows-season-2-hulu-preview)

As I noted in my first post on Marion McGarry’s Dracula=Cholera hypothesis, I’m always wary of criticising ideas that have been filtered through the media (rather than presented first-hand by the author or proponent), because something is almost always missing, lost in translation or even outright misrepresented. So when a kind commenter directed me to this recording of McGarry’s talk on her theory that Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ was inspired by Stoker’s mother’s experience of the early 19th century Sligo cholera outbreak, I felt that I had to listen to it (I never did receive a reply to my request for her article). Now that I have listened, I can confirm that McGarry is reaching bigtime. The talk adds very little to the news reports that I referenced last time and covers much the same ground, including spurious stuff like the novel having the working title of ‘The Undead’ (‘undead’ already being a word as I noted previously). There is some new material however.

Early on McGarry references recent scholarship regarding the historical figure of Wallachian ruler Vlad III being the inspiration for the Count and the novel that features him. She is right about this; Stoker did indeed only overlay Vlad’s name and (incorrect) snippets of his biography onto his existing Styrian ‘Count Wampyr’. However, needless to say, just because ‘Dracula’ was not inspired by the historical Vlad III, it does not follow that it/he was inspired by cholera. As I noted before, Stoker did not invent the fictional vampire, and had no need of inspiration to create his own vampire villain. The only argument that might hold weight is that he was inspired to tackle vampirism by his family history. McGarry’s main argument for this hinges on the fact that Stoker did research for his novels in libraries. As noted last time, this actually works against her theory, since we have Stoker’s notes and there is no mention of his having read around cholera in preparation for writing ‘Dracula’. Whereas we do have his notes on his actual sources, which were about eastern European folklore; vampires and werewolves. The aspects that Stoker did use, he transplanted almost wholesale; it’s easy to see, for example, which bits he lifted from Emily Gerard. Stoker did not in fact do ‘a great deal’ of reading; he found a couple of suitable books and stopped there. Which is why the only other new bit of information from this talk is also of limited use. McGarry cites this 1897 interview with Stoker, claiming that ‘…the kernel of Dracula was formed by live burials…’ This is not, in fact, what Stoker was asked. He was asked what the origin of the *the vampire myth* was, not the inspiration for his taking on that source material:

“Is there any historical basis for the legend?”

Stoker, who was no better informed on the true origins of the Slavic vampire than any other novelist, answered:

“It rested, I imagine, on some such case as this. A person may have fallen into a death-like trance and been buried before the time. 

Afterwards the body may have been dug up and found alive, and from this a horror seized upon the people, and in their ignorance they imagined that a vampire was about.”

Yes, this has parallels with cholera victims being buried prematurely, but it is by no means clear that Stoker was thinking of this when he made this response. Certainly, he does not mention it. There is every chance that this is purely coincidence; plenty of others at this time lazily supposed, like Stoker, that vampire belief stemmed from encounters with still-living victims of premature burial, or (apocryphal) stories of scratches on the inside of coffin lids. Stoker’s family connection with premature burial is likely a coincidence. Had he included a scene involving premature burial, or even a mention of it in the novel, McGarry might be onto something.

McGarry tries to compare Stoker’s victims of vampirism with descriptions of cholera patients; lethargy, sunken eyes, a blue tinge to the eyes and skin. Unfortunately the first two fit lots of other diseases, notably tuberculosis, and the third symptom doesn’t actually feature in ‘Dracula’ at all. I have literally no idea why she references it. She also tries to link the blue flames of the novel with German folklore in which ’blue flames emerge from the mouths of plague victims’. I have never heard of this, nor can I find any reference to it. I do know, however, that Stoker took his blue flames from Transylvanian folklore about hidden treasure; taken again from Emily Gerard (Transylvanian Superstitions), confirmed once again by Stoker’s notes. If there is folklore about blue flames and cholera, no reference appears in his notes, and it is most likely coincidence.

In an extension of her commentary that storms preceded both outbreaks (cholera and vampirism) McGarry asserts that the first victim of cholera presented on 11 August – the same date as Dracula’s first British victim in the novel, the evidence being William Gregory Wood-Martin’s 1882 book ‘The History of Sligo County and Town’. This is not correct. Lucy, Dracula’s first victim, does indeed receive her vampire bite on 11 August. MEanwhile however, back in the real world, the first case of cholera in Sligo was identified on 29 July 1832. Wood-Martin mentions 11 August only because a special board was created on that day, precisely because the first case had happened some time previously. McGarry does admit that 11 August ‘..may have been randomly chosen by Stoker’, yet still lists this piece of ‘evidence’ in her summing up, which is as follows;

‘It cannot be a coincidence that Bram Stoker had Dracula tread a path very similar to cholera; a devastating contagion travelling from the East by ship that people initially do not know how to fight, a great storm preceding its arrival, the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits, avenging doctors and Catholic imagery, the undead rising from the dead, all culminating in the date of august 11th of the first victim.’

Just to take these in order;

  1. ‘It cannot be a coincidence’ It can absolutely be a coincidence. All of this is literally coincidence without any evidence to support it. This is not how history works. 
  2. ‘…a path very similar…’ Dracula comes from Western Europe. Cholera came from the Far East. Both are east of the British Isles, but the origins of the two contagions are hardly identical. The ship aspect I dealt with last time; this is how people and goods travelled across continents at that time. Not to mention that all of these similarities with cholera are similarities with any disease – and most agree that the idea of the vampire as contagion is a legitimate theme of ‘Dracula’ (indeed, historical belief in vampires has strong ties to disease). There’s nothing special about cholera in this respect. The same goes for idea of people not knowing how to fight these afflictions; all disease outbreaks require learning or relearning of ways to combat them. One could just as easily claim similarity in that cholera had been fought off previously, and that Van Helsing already knows how to defeat vampires; just not necessarily this one… 
  3. ‘…the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits…’ earlier in the talk McGarry claims that Stoker invokes miasma theory in ‘Dracula’. In fact he doesn’t. Bad smells abound, sure, but the only mention of miasma in the novel is metaphorical (‘as of some dry miasma’) and relates to the earthy smell of Dracula’s Transylvanian soil, not to the Count himself. Nowhere is smell cited as a means of transmission, only biting. ‘Dracula’, famously, takes a very modern, pseudoscientific approach to vampirism, even if its counter is good old-fashioned Catholic Christianity. Speaking of which…
  4. ‘…avenging doctors and Catholic imagery…’ as noted, ‘Dracula’ does treat vampirism as a disease, so the doctors follow from that; not bearing any specific relation to cholera in Ireland. As for Catholic imagery, well, Stoker was from that background, and Dracula is very overtly Satanic in the novel. You need religion to defeat evil just as you need medicine to defeat disease. Once again, this is coincidence.
  5. ‘…the undead rising from the dead…’ how else does one get the undead? Seriously though, I’ve dealt with this above and previously. Stoker chose to write about vampires, therefore the undead feature. 
  6. ‘…all culminating in the date of August 11th of the first victim.’ Except it doesn’t, as I’ve shown.

I make that a 0/6. The themes identified by McGarry in Stoker’s book stem from his choice of vampires as the subject matter, and his take is shaped by his knowledge, upbringing, etc etc. Was he in part inspired to choose vampires because of family history with cholera? Maybe; it’s plausible as one of many influences (not, as McGarry implies, the main or sole influence) but there is literally zero evidence for it. 

The Bronze Sword in the Stone?

Not the stone you’re looking for… Molds for bronze swords and other items, from the Nordheimer Hohl, Neckargartach, Stadt Heilbronn, c. 800 BC, Lettenhohl sandstone – Landesmuseum Württemberg – Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia/Daderot


I’ve been catching up on Arthurian legend/history recently, and have twice come across the interesting suggestion that the “sword in the stone” could have originated as an idea from the Bronze Age practice of casting a sword in a stone mould. Interesting, but ridiculous. This idea seems to originate with Francis Pryor, an eminent archaeologist of prehistory (not, in fact, the Migration Period/Dark Ages), who raises it in his ‘Britain A.D.’ series, and again in a Time Team special


The biggest issue here is one of time; 1,200 years (minimum) to be precise. The casting of bronze swords ceased around 600 BCE in Europe. Yet the story of the sword in the stone doesn’t appear until Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin, written circa 1190-1210 CE. This is the relevant section, from a later (C15th) Middle English translation;


“Some of the peple yede oute of the cherche where ther was a voyde place. And whan they com oute of the cherche, thei sawgh it gan dawe and clere, and saugh before the cherche dore a grete ston foure square, and ne knewe of what ston it was — but some seide it was marble. And above, in the myddill place of this ston, ther stode a styth of iren that was largely half a fote of height. And thourgh this stithi was a swerde ficchid into the ston.

Whan the gode man that sange masse herde this, he toke haly water and caste upon the stith. And the archebisshop lowted to the swerde and sawgh letteres of golde in the stiel. And he redde the letteres that seiden, “Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste.”


Before this story there is no prior tradition of swords in stones in folklore or history that would imply any continuity at all between the practice of casting bronze swords and this late 12th/early 13th century story. As the Bronze Age is literally prehistoric, there could be no written tradition of cast bronze or copper swords, and we have no dated examples from the historical era. There is a tangential link to swordmaking insofar as the sword in the poem/story was driven through a blacksmith’s anvil and *then* into a hard stone (a “perron” or mounting block), but anvils (and indeed blacksmithing) have nothing to do with the making of bronze swords. If anything this hurts Pryor’s hypothesis because the sword isn’t just in a stone – it’s in an iron anvil. If de Boron was trying to evoke ancient swordsmithing, why introduce that element?

There is also the point that bronze swords were also cast in sand or clay moulds; it was much easier to press an existing sword into these materials to create a disposable mould than to laboriously chisel the correct shape out of stone. Stone sword moulds (which had the advantage of being reusable) are not common (and of course clay and sand are unlikely to survive), and were used early in the (pre)history of bronze swordmaking (see Wileman, 2014, p.109). So the ‘meme’ of swords emerging from stone moulds is by no means secure, and would have to have to survived even longer than the end of the Bronze Age to the early 12th century. Even if this knowledge had somehow survived (let’s say a mould had been dug up somewhere or found re-used in a wall or something), I also have to question the likelihood of a medieval poet coming across such arcane and ancient knowledge. Stone moulds were used to make metal objects until the 18th century, but never iron or metal swords. At best, for this hypothesis to work we would have to assume that de Boron was inspired to imagine a sword stuck in a stone by the mistaken belief that swords were cast rather than forged, or simply by having seen another metal object being cast. Even then, we have zero evidence of this, and may as well speculate (off the top of my head) that Tony Scott was inspired to direct the film ‘Top Gun’ because he had a toy helicopter as a child. It has a chance of being true, probably isn’t, and adds nothing to our understanding of the story. Pryor’s suggestion might carry more weight if we were talking about an early Welsh folkloric story of Arthur that might reflect some oral tradition, or even the late 1st Century pseudohistories that fleshed out the King Arthur that we know today. But here we know that de Boron came up with the idea in the process of writing a fictional story based upon those prior tales. Perhaps Pryor did not realise that the sword in the stone was part of the French romantic Arthurian tradition and not any kind of traditional British version. Therefore, not only is the idea that a Medieval author somehow possessed knowledge of prehistoric swordmaking implausible, it isn’t even necessary to explain a wholly fictional aspect of the lore.


This sort of retrofitting of the evidence is a constant theme in the never-ending quest by many to historicise Arthur (who very likely never existed by the way – a post for another day perhaps). To quote the brilliant Bad Archaeology blog:


“It starts with an assumption that there was a Camelot to be found and that there was an Arthur to hold court there, then goes out to find the evidence. Without the later stories of ‘King’ Arthur, there is nothing in the archaeology of these places that would lead us to postulate the existence of such a character. We bring our later preconceptions to bear on the interpretation of the data, which is definitely Bad Archaeology.”


In closing, I should point out that there is a much more likely historical inspiration for the medieval sword in the stone. It’s a medieval sword. In a stone. I speak of the sword of Saint Galgano, which actually predates the fictional Arthurian version both as an extant (and genuine) artefact and as an historically attested incident (by which I mean it was known prior to de Boron putting pen to parchment). As this academic article suggests, it’s possible that de Boron heard of this sword and stone and used that as his inspiration. This is still somewhat speculative, but far more likely than Pryor’s bronze sword claim which, as far as I can tell, has never been proposed in a scholarly fashion at all. 

The Raven – Crow or No?

Common Raven (Wikimedia Commons/R. Altenkamp)


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]);


  1. CORVUS.  Rostrum convexum- cultratum maxillis subaequalibus: basi fetis tectum.
  2. Corvus – le Corbeau [Raven]
  3. Cornix frugivora – ___ [Rook]
  4. Cornix cinerea – la Corneille [Crow]
  5. Cornix caerulea – ___ [Roller – no longer classified a Corvid]
  6. Monedula – la Chouca [Jackdaw]
  7. Caryocatactes – le Caffenoix [Nutcracker]
  8. Pica glandaria – le Geay [Jay]
  9. Pica caudata – la Pie [Magpie]
  10. Ciffa nigra cirrata, cauda lutea. Barr. 45. [Not sure what these last two were = some sort of Oriole?]
  11. 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 distinct from 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!

Reaching back further into time we find the 1555 Pierre Belon illustration that I’ve reproduced above. The caption states;

‘Corax, en Grec, Coruus en Latin, Corbeau en Francoys.’

The caption for the Crow has;

‘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;



Corvus Corax.

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.

I wouldn’t fash masel’ about the facts

George Malpas as seaman Swales in the excellent 1977 BBC version of Dracula


[Edit – I was a little hasty in discounting this entirely. Clarification here.]

Like most readers of ‘Dracula’, I had no idea what the old sailor was talking about when he advised Mina ‘I wouldn’t fash masel’ about them, miss’. I later realised it was intended as Yorkshire dialect; a way of saying ‘I wouldn’t fuss myself about them’ i.e. ‘I wouldn’t worry about them’. Yet, according to some, most notably Bram Stoker’s author descendant Dacre, this was a piece of Doric dialect that Bram Stoker picked up whilst staying in Scotland. This despite the fact that the scene is set, and was written, in the coastal town of Whitby in the North Riding of Yorkshire. I was a little taken aback at first, thinking perhaps that I had it wrong, but sure enough, whereas ‘fash masel’ features in Doric, it’s also well-documented Yorkshire dialect. In fact many words and phrases that are said or implied to be uniquely Scottish are also found across broad swathes of northern England, which is unsurprising to those familiar with the history of the two countries and their shared language. Still other Scots words are also archaic English words, which always gives me pause for thought when the debate over the status of Scots arises. That is, whether Scots is a dialect of English or a distinct language. The whole thing is massively political, and really, it shouldn’t matter. English is just as much a Scottish language as it is an English or British one. Anyway, I digress. Suffice to say that Bram Stoker was not silly enough to put Doric in the mouth of a Yorkshireman. He may have first heard it in Scotland, but he must also have known that it was in wider usage. I don’t blame Dacre Stoker, as a North American, for not realising this, but I think it’s worth correcting this error.

Now, as for the claim in the same Scottish Sun article that Slains Castle ‘matches the floorplan of’ Dracula’s castle, that deserves its own post…

Dracula Incarnate as Jack the Ripper?

Everyone knows they actually worked together...(Dracula & Jack' by Gene Colan & Dave Gutierrez, from comicartfans.com)
Pfft: everyone knows they actually worked together…(Dracula & Jack’ by Gene Colan & Dave Gutierrez, from comicartfans.com)


I like to follow the blog ‘Taliesin Meets the Vampires’ for its reviews of vampire literature and film, but I hadn’t expected it to spark my sceptical interests. After all, it’s mostly fiction, with the occasional uncontroversial reference work. But a recent review of ‘Dracula Incarnate: Unearthing the Definitive Dracula’ had me choking on my Count Chocula. The site very kindly gave the book 4 out of 10, despite poor writing (even the blurb contains an instance of ‘wrote’ in place of ‘written’), the shaky and unoriginal argument that ‘Dracula’ was based on Jack the Ripper, and (wait for it….)  the ludicrous premise that Bram Stoker somehow knew the identity of the Ripper and encoded it secretly in his novel. Wow. I barely know where to start with that, and I’m not sure that I can bring myself to actually buy this self-published gibberish, especially not at £17. Instead, I will just list a few observations based upon the review and other publically available claims. In any case, the author claims on Facebook that this ‘press release’ contains ‘massive amounts of information’, so he shouldn’t be able to counter with ‘read the book’. Note that these claims are only part of the book, which does purport to be a definitive work on the character and apparently does contain some valid information.


  1. The Ripper was almost certainly not Francis Tumblety (and if he was, we’ve no way of proving it). No-one knows, or indeed is likely to ever know, who the Ripper was. Tumblety isn’t even an original suspect, in fact he’s one of the most favoured. Which is a bit like saying that I am likely to win the lottery because I’ve bought a ticket: I’m more likely to win than someone who hasn’t entered, but I’m still facing odds of millions to one… In fact I would argue that it’s almost the other way around; we’ve reached ‘Peak Ripper’, a point where each new suspect simply adds to the list of people that the Ripper almost certainly wasn’t. It’s telling that even the Ripperologists (and I don’t mean that as an insult, just that this ought to be right up their dark alley) haven’t bothered commenting on the book despite being contacted by Struthers. These guys will happily spend ages reading and writing about claims that are either demonstrably false or can never be proven; but an Irish author hiding the answer in a vampire novel can be discounted out of hand even by the most rabid Ripper-hunter. If the author wanted to excite Ripper students, he should have come up with a previously unknown suspect that hasn’t already been analysed and talked to death.
  2. The code theory itself is such an obvious stretch. Claiming encoded information in the anagrams allows tremendous leeway to construct the message one wants to exist. Similar unscientific and subjective approaches have given us ‘The Bible Code’ and the myriad wishful-thinking interpretations of Nostradamus. I can’t say it better than the Taliesin Meets the Vampires review; ‘The author takes the phrase “Undertakers Man” and rearranges it to ARDENT UNMASKER, suggesting that Tumbelty could be the undertakers man and he is, therefore, being unmasked. However run the phrase through an anagram app and we also gets “Eastman drunker” and “errant unmasked”. Indeed there are hundreds of possible outcomes (the free software I used only gave you the first 400 outcomes). Nowhere is it suggested that there was a key in the notes to allow decoding and so it appears that the author ran phrases from the notes through an anagram programme and then picked the outcomes that would lend credence to his theorem.’‘ Ardent unmasker’? Really? The other phrase from novel that the blog relates is the phrase ‘Bells at Sea’ somehow meaning SELL A BEAST, which in turn is somehow connected to one of the Ripper’s’ murders. Honestly, you could any published book and apply the same approach to find any number of ‘hidden’ meanings that would be nothing of the sort. It’s the linguistic equivalent of reading tea leaves.
  3. Secrets this well hidden are indistinguishable from nonsense. Assuming for one moment that the above ‘information’ really was encoded by Stoker, who really did know who the Ripper was; why on earth would he risk no-one ever figuring it out? The other claims covered in the review are not even from the published novel ‘Dracula’, but Stoker’s private notes and another bastardised edition (see below). The notes are very much written in note form and were not published until 2008. Stoker had no way of knowing that anyone outside his family would even read them, much less understand the supposed ‘code’ contained therein. He certainly could not have foreseen them being annotated and published more than a century later. If it was his intention to pass on the Ripper’s identity in his notes, why not just write it down and leave it there, for people to discover after his death. A code this obtuse and obscure, even if it were real, would be indistinguishable from gibberish, as the ‘Taliesin’ quote above makes clear. Oh, that’s right, because it was a ‘super secretive “high level” plot’. Yep, this guy has cobbled together the world’s first Ripper/Dracula conspiracy theory.
  4. Jesus Christ, the exclamation marks! The Taliesin blog remarks upon their use within the published book, and the Amazon book preview and linked email to the JTR forums demonstrate it amply! This alone would drive me mad in trying to read the whole book! Also, what’s with the long……………….. lines of periods? (!)
  5. Some basic errors. In his email to the admin of the Casebook.org forums the author states; ‘…it was not a coincidence that Dracula’s arrival at Whitby and the first “Ripper” killing both took place on August 7th‘. He’s right, it is no coincidence. Because the first of the five ‘canonical’ Ripper murders took place in the early hours of 31st of August 1888. His connection of Dracula’s death by knife to the throat and heart is nonsensical in any case, but the real ‘…reason why Dracula was destroyed, [and] not by a wooden stake (as most people believe)…’ is because in 1897 the trope of a wooden stake had yet to take hold. In the excised chunk of ‘Dracula’ later presented in short story form as ‘Dracula’s Guest’ has a vampire staked with an iron stake. Indeed, the folklore is all over the place on this score; nails, ploughshares, knives, swords, and yes, various species of wood. See Paul Barber’s ‘Vampires, Burial & Death’ for the definitive details on this. Whether the ending of the novel is ‘ambiguous’ or not is subjective, but even as a child of seven when I first read an abridged version, I was pretty clear that Drac wasn’t coming back… (the movies notwithstanding).
  6. The total lack of evidence for any conspiracy theory (perhaps it’s all in the book?). The quote ‘…every book must contain some lesson, but I prefer that the readers should find it out for themselves’ is simply a statement about fiction writing. The preface to the 1901 ‘edition’ (Icelandic rewrite as ‘Taliesin’ says) that has got various people before Struthers excited is simply a tongue-in-cheek piece of make believe and an acknowledgement of the debt owed to the real-life Ripper murders as partial inspiration for his novel. The quote ‘..the strange and eerie tragedy which is portrayed here is true, as far as all external circumstances are concerned’ has been taken out of context. Read the whole preface; he is pretending that his own story might be real, a bit like Dan Brown pretending that his novels are based on real events. Don’t believe me? Read the whole preface. For example; ‘Everyone who participated in this remarkable story is well-known and respected. Jonathan Harker and his wife, who is a respectable woman, and Dr. Seward have been my friends for many years…’. He is writing about his own FICTIONAL characters as though they are real. Thus we cannot take the claim that the plot really took place literally. It is an allusion to the real events of 1888 framed as a meta-narrative device.
  7. The author has also made other superficially sensational claims that are also just spins on well known facts. The influence of Baring-Gould’s ‘Book of Werewolves’ is very well understood by just about anyone that knows the novel, and it is only one source used by Stoker. ‘Carmilla’ is very influential indeed, for example. As Dacre Stoker implies, to say that Dracula came from any one source, and especially one one geographical place is nonsense. Good way to get into a local paper to promote one’s unpublished book though…


I noted that the author, Andrew Struthers, claimed to be presenting his research at the 2016 World Dracula Congress, but a check of their website shows that he applied to attend, but apparently ultimately was not invited as either a keynote or ‘workshop’ speaker. Frankly, the guy appears delusional. Take this Facebook exchange with the admin of The Dracula Society:


‘This will come to be known as one of the most important books ever written………it is the story of a terrible nightmare that enveloped Victorian England in 1888. It is Stoker’s TRUE story of MAD DOCTOR JACK…….known the world over as THE RIPPER!!!’


To which the official response was;


‘Sorry to break the news to you, Andy – but Dracula a) isn’t about Jack The Ripper and b) is fiction..’


Challenged by another commenter to provide some evidence that doesn’t require buying and drinking his ‘snake oil’, Struthers goes on to claim that established Dracula scholars (notably Dr Elizabeth Miller, whose book ‘Dracula: Sense and Nonsense’ I heartily recommend) ‘are reading’ the book, but offers no actual endorsement. Incidentally, he also thinks he’s found ‘Dracula’s grave’, by which he clearly means the grave of Francis Tumblety, which has never in fact been lost…


So as yet there is no validation, peer review, or acceptance of his work. I’m not sure there will be either, since his hypothesis really nothing more than an amalgamation of Robert Eighteen-Bisang’s claim that Dracula was primarily based on the Ripper (already a reach), the commonly held preference for Francis Tumblety as a suspect (for which there is no evidence), and Stephen Knight’s mental idea that the Ripper murders were covered up by the authorities in an elaborate conspiracy. Ironically, this book about Dracula is actually a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’(……..!!!!!!!!!).


Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones: The Saga of Shakespeare’s Skull

Is this William Shakespeare's skull? Nah.
Is this William Shakespeare’s skull? Nah.



Tldr for the youngsters; Shakespeare’s skull probably wasn’t stolen, and if it was, the skull in Beoley church almost certainly isn’t it. 


The Tomb

You’ve probably seen the press about a recent UK TV documentary on Shakespeare’s missing noggin. I actually have yet to catch up with the programme itself, but it did pique my interest, just in case there was some BSery afoot. In fact, for the most part, it was pretty responsible, and there’s actually some critical assessment of two claims. Firstly, and this is what’s got most of the press, they test historical claims that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his grave in 1794. These claims were first made in an an anonymous article (actually a story; see below) published in the Argosy magazine in October 1879 (you can read it here thanks to archive.org), and then again in an 1884 pamphlet written by the same man, later determined to be the Rev. C.J. Langston (aka Charles Jones), entitled ‘How Shakespeare’s Skull Was Lost and Found’. No-one seems to have taken these seriously either at the time or later, until recently that is.


The Channel 4 team have produced some interesting evidence that might support that, although it’s far from as conclusive as the show and those involved are making out. As an aside, I have to say that I pretty much agree with the church’s reasons for not opening it; The theft story wasn’t really very plausible at face value (see below), and I really don’t get why the ‘tomb’ was such a mystery to people (as it seems to have been) purely on the basis that the stone with the words on it is much shorter than those of his family next to it. Some even speculated (no doubt with tongue in cheek) that Shakespeare was buried standing up! But anyone that’s spent any time looking at church burials knows that graveslabs are rarely uniform in size, material, shape, engraving etc, unless the family deliberately planned it out ahead of time.


Anyway, to the evidence; the GPR plot (see the image on the The Guardian’s coverage here) shows conclusively that 3 feet down, the Shakespeares are actually buried in a series of individual graves, not a family vault as had been assumed previously. Secondly, it proved that William’s grave is just as long as the others under the slabs (duh!), and that his head isn’t up where the stone is (again, duh – Christian burials typically have the head at the west end of an east-west oriented grave). So far, so good; this is good solid archaeology telling us something new and confirming other things that we probably knew.


However, for some reason the investigators decide that the blank slab over the head end of the grave is somehow significant. Again, I don’t really see why, unless you’re wanting the theft story to be true. A church floor is a very practical structure, and a grave or memorial slab is in some ways just another paving slab. If for whatever reason someone (or their family) decides that they want a small slab with a particular inscription, there still needs to be a paving slab to fill the gap, and I personally think that’s what we’re seeing. It’s obvious that the documentary is in love with the idea of Shakespeare’s skull having been stolen, even as it dismisses most of the same story. It’s pointed out that the original 1879 Argosy story about the alleged theft does correctly talks about lifting a slab and rummaging around in the dirt, rather than descending into a family vault, and takes this to mean that there could be something in the story. I don’t follow the logic here; this could easily just be a correct guess. No-one reading the story could confirm whether this description of the ‘tomb’ was correct, nor would they care.

[Edited to add 3.4.16:] Fellow sceptic Eve Siebert at VirtualSkeptics.com (about 30mins in) is also sceptical of the documentary’s confident conclusion. Though she hasn’t actually seen the documentary itself, the point she makes doesn’t require her to. She makes the convincing case that Langston’s Argosy article was never intended to be factual, and is definitively a fictional short story. She also suspects that this was the origin of what is now (since perhaps the 1940s) local folklore (now of course international folklore thanks to the internet!). I think she’s right. If you look through any issue of the Argosy, it’s pretty clear that every issue is essentially a compilation of short stories and poems. If you read the actual story, it’s really no different, except perhaps for a Da Vinci Code style ‘BASED ON TRUE EVENTS!!!’ tone. It’s likely that he was inspired by recent vocal attempts by those seeking to confirm purported likenesses (and by phrenologists as the documentary says) to exhume the skull. Having attracted some attention, Langston then adapted this story, with an additional section about having rediscovered the skull, into the 1884 pamphlet, where it is more difficult to see the fictional context.

This means that regardless of the geophysical evidence, people are trying to prove a fiction. It would be like astronomers looking for the galaxy ‘Far, Far Away’, or an historian deciding to follow in Robert Langdon’s (Langston, Langdon… spooky!) footsteps to discover the truth of the Da Vinci Code. Now, Eve also notes that Benjamin Radford (also a prominent sceptic) has written a piece on the case. This actually supports the claim by discussing the very real background to celebrity skull theft. However, Radford does not actually support the claim that Shakespeare’s skull has been stolen. Quite frankly, if it has somehow been removed from the grave, it would be coincidental with the yarn spun by Langston, which some allege may actually have been intended to raise money for his church roof (see here).

Back to the geophysics. The disturbance of the ground at the ‘head’ area is interpreted by the geophysicist (Erica Utsi) in the documentary as a box-like brick or stone repair. Archaeologist Kevin Colls goes several steps further – much too far in my view – and takes it as confirmation that the theft happened as described. Even if he’s right though, I should point out that GPR cannot confirm detect the presence of organic materials, so it is not actually possible to confirm whether or not the skull is missing. I think there’s a reasonable chance that the account really was the exercise in Victorian trolling that it reads as (see the original book here), and that some other excavations in the church floor might account for the disturbance. Until and unless the church allows the grave to be opened, this is as close as we’re likely to get, and for many the proof that the head end of Shakespeare’s grave has been monkeyed with will be enough to confirm the myth.


The documentary claims no evidence of works undertaken in this area, despite extensive restoration work in the 1880s. However, this cuts both ways; there’s also no record of any repair to the damage caused by the alleged theft, either! It’s also not true. With just a bit of online research, I’ve identified one episode that would account for this GPR anomaly, recounted in ‘Shakespeare’s Lives’ by Samuel Schoenbaum (p.340 – the primary sources given are Anon. Shakespeariana, Monthly Magazine, 45 (1818), p.2 and the recollections of one James Hare from the Birmingham Weekly Post). In 1796, work on creating an adjacent grave for the rector, Dr Davenport (actually his wife, who died long before him) caused a collapse into Shakespeare’s tomb. More than one observer peered in to see what they could see, which after more than 200 years in the earth under a church floor wasn’t a great deal, though one did claim to have seen the remains, including the skull. These accounts don’t say at which end of the tomb the collapse occurred, but given that we now know one end is basically solid earth (with graves cut into it), and that there’s a brick or stone wall at the head of the graves, this wall was either constructed or at least repaired when the vault was built. This would explain why a box-like support would be needed underneath the grave and floor slabs, as the existing material supporting the blank ‘head’ slab would have collapsed (creating the hole that people were peering into). By the way, as far as I can tell, Stratford church has no crypt per se apart from that left by the demolition of the old charnel-house, so the ‘vault’ (also called a ‘grave’ elsewhere) mentioned was likely just a fancier lined version of Shakespeare’s, rather than the sort of family vault in a crypt that we tend to imagine. Hence workers would have lifted slabs and started digging, inadvertently weakening the earth wall of Shakepeare’s grave, before installing the brick or stone wall to shore up the older interments before finishing the vault for the new ones. Ingleby also claims that the repairs made included a new stone. The area would also have been disturbed to bury Davenport’s son in the same year, his daughter in 1821, and finally Davenport himself (aged 92!) in 1841. That’s apart from any other repairs that might have necessitated disturbing Shakepeare’s grave.


In any case, despite Colls’ wishful thinking, the GPR work is not conclusive evidence of the claimed 1794 break-in. Note that the alleged theft wasn’t actually reported by anyone until the 1879 article, long after those alleged to have committed the crime had died without ever admitting anything. If it really happened, there ought to be some other record of the break-in, unless of course one is looking to cry ‘conspiracy!’. The theft would have been a major undertaking, and one difficult to cover up, even if the culprits had got away with it.


Incidentally, I did appreciate the hypothesis presented that Shakespeare’s ‘curse’ on his grave slab might be based upon a very real post-Reformation fear of being exhumed, disarticulated, and placed in a charnel house. There was even a reference to Romeo & Juliet to support this. Of course, Shakespeare could just have been playing the dramatist.

The Chandos portrait, attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610 (NPG)
The Chandos portrait, attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610 (NPG)

The Skull

The second claim is much more recent, and in my view even less robust. The 1884 book claimed that the skull had been returned; not to Stratford, but to St Leonard’s Church in Beoley (the name of the church isn’t given, but it is clearly indicated). It also stated that the skull had been rediscovered on the basis of a piece that had been cut out by the thief in order to be able to do just that on a return visit. The new claim is that the skull has since been rediscovered by a Richard Peach, who published an article in The Village magazine in October 2009. This seems to have made few waves, but a few years later, actor and author Simon Stirling really went to town on the idea in his 2013 book ‘Who Killed William Shakespeare?’. You may or may not be able to read the relevant chapter in the Google Books preview, but I will summarise the claim here.


Having decided that the 1884 book was accurate in its claims and that the Beoley skull must definitely be the one described, Stirling proceeds to confidently list various features of the skull that prove it. Some appear in an article in a Goldsmiths College student magazine; some are only in the book. The problem is that they don’t prove anything and in many cases aren’t even visible (at least to my eyes). Here they are;


  1. A missing piece from the base. Yes, in the 1879 and 1884 accounts, the Shakespeare skull (if indeed that skull was his, or was anything more than a figment of the author’s imagination) was missing a piece. But as Stirling admits, the original piece was cut from the forehead, not the base!
  2. A ‘darkly discoloured region’ on the right brow that supposedly matches a ‘star-shaped’ scar seen in the death mask (probably a fake in any case!) and which ‘appears as a groove on the Davenant bust’. I’m not seeing this, personally, and in any case the Davenant bust is not from life, or even death, being generally dated to the mid-18th century (one lone scholar claims it to date from Shakespeare’s lifetime, but has been roundly criticised).
  3. A fracture also in this area, apparently also seen on the Davenant bust. This is very clearly a post-mortem fracture (if you think there’s doubt over that, just wait).
  4. Two parallel scratches from this area across the forehead, allegedly also seen on the Davenant bust, as well as Dugdale’s (very rough!) sketch of same, and the Chandos portrait (the likeness with the best authenticity, but still not 100% verified). I can just about see what he means here, but I strongly suspect pareidolia. Even if there’s something there, for these scratches to be visible in soft tissue, there would have to be two fairly massive scars visible on the portrait and bust.
  5. An ‘uneven forehead’ and ‘roughly oval depression, mid-brow’, bizarrely blamed on the thumbs of an over-enthusiastic Elizabethan midwife by Stirling. OK, he’s lost me again. Where??! His composite image comparison can be seen in the Goldsmiths article as figure 18. Apart from anything else, the region he highlights on the skull in the book is NOT the forehead but the crown of the head (he even references the fontanelle in the book. This is very high up on the head).
  6. Indentations/scratches on the left side of the skull (figures 17 & 18 in the article). These he conflates with the ‘uneven forehead’ defect (still not on the forehead by the way!). Like the others, these may well reflect a wound on the skull, if not on Shakespeare’s actual head. Funnily enough, this is the only feature that I think I can see a parallel for on any of the images; the Chandos portrait (see high res image here). Hardly conclusive though.
  7. Another fracture in the left eye socket, supposedly reflected by ‘relaxed skin’ over the eye on the (probably fake) death mask and seen in Droeshout and Chandos portraits. Sorry, not seeing this either.
  8. A broken ‘fissure’ (he means suture) on the right side of the skull (left as we look at it), supposedly also evidence of some traumatic injury and which apparently accounts for ‘the protruding left eye of the death mask and possibly the swollen caruncle visible in the posthumous portraits…’. These separated sutures are incredibly common in old skulls, especially on either side (see the skull pictured here) and are an artefact of the drying out of the bones and damage sustained over time.
  9. Finally, a claim made in the article and not the book; that ‘The outline of the broken maxilla on the left side of the face is reproduced as a jagged grey line running down the cheek’ in the depictions. These breaks on the skull are obviously post-mortem. If Stirling is suggesting a portrait made from the corpse, then such fractures (which would be perimortem according to his murder theory) are not going to be visible through soft tissue.


Stirling clearly has a predilection toward pattern recognition. In the same article he identifies a depiction in a painting of a tied piece of cord as somehow a representation of a dragonfly. Having decided that this must have been the artist’s intent and not his subjective interpretation, he then proceeds to read some dark significance into this secret ‘dragonfly’ symbol. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…


Let’s take stock. In 1884 Langston identified a skull in his own crypt as Shakespeare’s on the basis of an article that he himself had written, claiming (for the first time) that Shakespeare’s skull had been stolen and relocated. There was no corroborating evidence, and it would have been impossible for anyone to check this unless the author (Langston), who also controlled access to the vault (being the vicar) allowed it. No one seems to have done so. At some point local lore identified a skull in that vault as the one in question, despite the fact that it didn’t have the diagnostic piece of bone ‘clipped’ from the forehead (which, by the way, would have been very hard to take  from the skull without massive damage). Over a century on from Langston’s writing, (2009) a local man photographed this skull and published an article under the assumption that it is the same one, Finally, in 2013 someone else (Stirling) lists certain features and defects on this skull that (very) subjectively resemble those on artistic depictions of the man himself, only two of which are confirmed as being authentic and are still only artist’s impressions of a man who was already dead when they were made; almost certainly not from his actual corpse. Even worse, none of these likenesses are confirmed to have been made when Shakespeare was alive (or even from his corpse). That’s a pretty flimsy chain of evidence not only for this being Shakespeare’s skull, but also Stirling’s theory that he was murdered.


This was just my assessment of the book chapter & article. Before having seen the documentary, I rather suspected that as well as confirming the theft (which they sort of did), the makers would also try to perpetuate this claim. I’d also found this article, which lamented that the diocese in question had refused permission to DNA test the skull in question for the documentary. This seemed to suggest that the filmmakers were going to play the old ‘they won’t let us test it, therefore our theory is correct!’ card. So, I decided to start looking at the book’s claims on face value, without being swayed by the documentary. Then I read this summary of the documentary and archaeological team’s findings.


The team were granted access to the crypt to laser scan the skull and carry out a forensic anthropological analysis. The results revealed that this skull belonged to an unknown woman who was in her seventies when she died.


This would definitely torpedo Mr Stirling’s entire book thesis, as the skull seems to be the lynchpin of his broader argument that Shakespeare was murdered. Reading this interview, it appears that Stirling refuses to accept Wilkinson’s findings, and even accuses the makers of the show of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and ‘confirmation bias’ on his blog. Readers familiar with the phenomenon of pareidolia will find these comments somewhat ironic. The onus is surely on the claimant to show that this skull is Shakespeare’s, and not on the TV producer or anyone else to prove that they aren’t. It’s also unfortunate that he goes on call into question the professionalism of the expert involved, Dr Caroline Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moore’s University (whose PhD is in Facial Anthropology). Doubly so because he was happy enough to use evidence produced by the same expert in his book (even if the reconstruction in question was of the dubious death mask). Clearly the conditions imposed on her analysis weren’t ideal. The team weren’t permitted to physically analyse or even touch the skull, and the laser scan itself was therefore incomplete, because the skull could not be touched (pretty ironic given that the skull had clearly been moved in 2009).


Nonetheless, watching the actual documentary, you can see that they got right into the ossuary/vault and were able to closely scan most of the skull. There was easily enough coverage of the salient features, when combined with photography, to make an assessment. The shape of the cranium is clear both in the photos and the 3D render, and it’s a gracile, smooth forehead lacking in brow ridges. Incidentally, if the Davenant bust really is a likeness of Shakespeare, it’s a poor match for the skull, as the profile photo in this article shows. Otherwise, as Wilkinson points out, not only are the teeth missing (not surprising given the damage sustained) but the actual bone of the upper jaw has resorbed. In other words, there are no spaces for the teeth. That’s a pretty definitive indicator of total tooth loss, not something we’d expect on a well-to-do middle-aged playwright.


Now, Wilkinson is a leading academic in her field, and is not likely to allow herself to be misrepresented in a TV documentary (she’s appeared in a number of them). She is clear that the skull appears to be of an elderly female rather than a middle aged male. Like any responsible academic, she did caveat her conclusions (‘I would be somewhat cautious’). So yes, there’s room for doubt that the skull might be a particularly feminine and prematurely aged male. But even then, is that a match for what we know of Shakespeare? I’d say not, but then comparing a partial skull with artistic depictions made after the fact is fraught with difficulty. But again, the onus must be on the claimant. Even if the documentary didn’t 100% prove that the skull wasn’t Shakespeare, Stirling is very far from proving that it wasn’t. Therefore our provisional conclusion has to be that it probably isn’t.
Overall, not a bad documentary with some interesting information, and I do agree that the Beoley skull is almost certainly NOT Shakespeare’s. However, as I’ve explained above, they really haven’t shown, as press reports claim, that ‘Shakespeare’s head appears to be missing’ nor that ‘the skull was probably stolen from what is a shallow grave by trophy hunters’. I think the anomaly they’ve identified is just as likely, if not more so, to reflect some other building work, possibly repairs made following the documented collapse in 1818.


Edit to add:

In researching this article I came across a joke, a version of which I’d heard or read previously, and that is very appropriate here; even more so if another candidate for his skull is ever claimed in the future! In this, a gullible collector is accused of having acquired a fake Shakespeare skull, and is shown another, larger skull also purported to be as Shakespeare’s. He responds that his skull:


‘…is of Shakespeare certainly, but of Shakespeare as a child about twelve or fourteen years old ; whereas this is that of Shakespeare when he had attained a certain age and had become the greatest genius of which England is so justly proud’.

-Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine, Vol.14-15, 1864, p.287 (but also various period newspapers).