Archive for the ‘Post-Medieval History’ Category

Quick BSH – Caynton Caves

March 9, 2017

For some reason the media (and social media) have gone nuts today over ‘Templar’ caves in Shropshire, due to a series of photographs by the talented but historically misinformed photographer Michael Scott. The caves are almost certainly mid-19th century in date. This isn’t just speculation; a local historian was able to find a ‘smoking gun’ source written within 30-odd years of the caves’ construction. They certainly have nothing whatever to do with the Knights Templar. BSH rule of thumb; if someone says something or someone is connected with the KT, it/they almost certainly aren’t.


Wikipedia has it right on this occasion;


‘Claims of a Templar connection are without foundation. There are no records of any Templar holdings in vicinity of the caves and the nearest house of the Order was the preceptory of Lidley some 25 miles to the west. Nor is there anything structurally or in the iconography that points to a Templar association.’
The suggestions of ‘druids and pagans’ using the site ‘later’ may well be correct, but if so they were Neo-Pagans, with no direct connection to their ancient inspiration (and apparently no awareness of their own local history).

Taboo’s Company

January 15, 2017
The 'Pirates' version.

The ‘Pirates’ version of the EIC trademark…

The 'Taboo'...

…and the ‘Taboo’ effort. Art imitating art?


I’ve started watching the BBC’s new period supernatural drama ‘Taboo’, and right away noticed something weird about the depiction of the East India Company in the show. It’s not the setup for them being a sort of Georgian version of OCP from Robocop, although that is historically dubious in itself. No, what I noticed was the bizarre choice of the EIC ‘logo’ from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. As the Radio Times points out, the company trademark (or ‘bale mark’) symbol did change over the decades, but they seem to think that the one used here is a real historical one. It absolutely isn’t, it’s the exact same one from the ‘Pirates’ movies. Given the casting of Jonathan Pryce, I half wondered if this was some sort of weird spinoff/crossover effort, but that seems to be coincidental. The correct bale mark is the heart-shaped one with the ‘4’ shape on top (an old merchant’s symbol), and ‘VEIC’ for ‘United East India Company’. The only real change was a move from curved segments to quarters, see here.

The late-18th century version of the genuine EIC trademark.

The late-18th century version of the genuine EIC trademark.

for 1813 (the year that the programme is set in) would be the one I’ve posted above. This was used on their currency, stock and property in a similar fashion to the Board of Ordnance ‘broad arrow’, though frankly I haven’t seen the ‘heart’ on anything dated post-1808 (anyone that knows the real history here, please do comment). Certainly it was dropped from the Company’s firearms and replaced by a lion rampant from that date onwards. I’m also not sure that it’s appropriate plastered all over their HQ as it is in ‘Taboo’ – I suspect that the coat of arms should be the official ‘logo’ in that context (see this page). I have a nagging feeling that some researcher simply bashed ‘east india company’ into Google Images, which is dominated by the Disney EIC ‘logo’ in screengrabs, merchandise and wiki pages, and assumed that it was one of the real historical variants. If so, how incredibly lazy can you get? If not, what’s the big idea here? Why connect your dark gothic adult historical drama series with a series of light-hearted family movies based on a theme park ride? Yes, I realise most people won’t know or care, but if I thought like that, I’d never write anything here!

I’m not the only one, in fact. Some people on Reddit have also spotted this, and one theory is that they chose the fictional logo to emphasise that this is a fantasy version of the company, but a) what would be the need, and b) why go to the trouble of seeking copyright permission from Disney to use their version, when you could easily design your own. Wait, you did seek permission from Disney, didn’t you, BBC? BBC….?

Hairy Bikers? Hairy BS, more like.

April 18, 2016

I’ve just watched the ‘Hairy Bikers’ new TV series on British pubs, and to my surprise, made it nearly all the way through the episode without any really obvious nonsense. Then, in the last couple of minutes, they mentioned the practice of ‘Ale Conners’ sitting in beer in leather breeches to test how sticky (and therefore sugary) it was.

It took me all of twenty seconds on Google to find something debunking this obvious load of old trousers!

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

April 2, 2016
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, 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 (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).


English Muffins Are English, Damn Your Eyes!

October 21, 2015

Oi, America! The Muffin Man would like a word…

As an Englishman and avid consumer of bread related products, I was shocked to my very core recently to read that ‘English’ muffins were actually invented in the US only 100 years ago! The author of the article (published last year) claims that they were derived from the equally delectable British crumpet goes so far as to say that ‘Until the 1980s, our English muffins were virtually unknown in Great Britain’. As a child of the 1980s myself, I couldn’t personally contradict this, though without sending panicked messages to friends and relatives, I felt sure that they would remember them going further back.

The thing is, having tried the utterly delicious Thomas’ English Muffins on trips to the US, I could almost believe this. They are far, far nicer than even the best of our own, crispy yet chewy, with a strong taste and full of lovely holes. Could it be true, I thought? Could the ‘English’ muffin, like the ‘Scotch’ egg, actually be a foreign interloper? After I’d re-evaluated my very existence, I had a thought. Hang on, I said to myself, why would anyone market a product as ‘English’ to (among others) other British immigrants if it didn’t previously exist? What about ‘The Muffin Man’, a folk song dating to at least 1820? Was it really about American-style muffins? I set to work on my usual first recourse, Google Books, and discovered that there were plenty of references that pre-date Thomas’s efforts to both ‘crumpets’ and ‘muffins’ (notably, one of Dickens’ books). Despite the article’s claims, they were clearly different things, quite far back into the 19th century. Ironically, I couldn’t find mention of the crumpet before about 1800, so if anything, the crumpet and pikelet might actually be derivatives of the muffin (which might explain why we no longer have holes in our muffins – see below).

Digging a bit deeper, I found actual period muffin recipes dating back to the 18th century, the earliest being ‘The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy’ by Hannah Glasse (or, “A Lady” as she appears on the frontispiece!), first published in 1747. This makes very clear that the same basic bread product was being made well over a century before Thomas set foot in the US, and quite possibly before that. The oldest recipe even mentions that they should be ‘like honey-comb’ inside, just like Thomas’. There were a couple of references that described muffins as being a form of oatcake, but it’s obvious that many muffins were made with wheatflour, and the title of the 1750s recipe shows that the type of flour was interchangeable.

Having effectively debunked the offending article, this was a bittersweet moment, because without exception, present-day British English muffins DO NOT have ‘nooks and crannies’. Our crumpets have stolen them all. Which is, frankly, a national disaster. Our English muffins are good America, but yours are even better. It was at this point that I discovered that someone had already written up the history of the English muffin. I couldn’t find a transcript of John Thorne’s self-published pamphlet, but I did find this article, which outlines the contents (and provides a recipe, happily).

Why would the article claim that you couldn’t buy muffins prior to the 1980s in the UK? Either they’re plain wrong, or *supermarkets* weren’t selling them until then. If so, it’s meaningless, because until the 1980s supermarkets were nowhere near as dominant as they are today, and local bakers as well as home cooks would have been making their own muffins. They were a staple snack food that transcended class, being a high-calorie working class convenience food sold in the street that became a dainty teatime treat for the well-to-do.

So the English muffin really was an ENGLISH muffin by 1880 when Thomas started his bakery. By this time the muffin in the Americas had evolved into an oven-baked cake (just as ‘biscuits’ had). So the ‘English’ prefix was added to differentiate the parallel product of the same name.


None of which changes the uncomfortable fact that American English muffins are by far the best!

[Edited to add – a photo of Thomas’ own bakery cart on their website – – and backed up by period trade directories, shows that Thomas advertised both ‘English Muffins’ and ‘London Crumpets’ as separate products. Clearly New Yorkers were not swayed by a bit of crumpet…]

Soldering On: On ‘Americanisms’ and Pronunciation

September 3, 2015

All too commonly I hear fellow Brits carp about divergent American spelling, grammar, and pronunciation. Thing is, that’s exactly what is it; divergent, not aberrant. Outside their respective borders (and arguably even then), neither British English nor American English is ‘right’. Why divergent? Well, many of the differences are actually examples of former, er, ‘English’ English (we’re talking pre-Act of Union here, so ‘British English’ isn’t appropriate). Significant numbers of English-speaking English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish settlers began to populate North America from the early 17th century, a time when these rules of language had yet to be set. There was no ‘Received Pronunciation’, no ‘Queen’s English’. A great example of this is a fairly obscure word to some of us; ‘solder’, as in soldering iron. In Britain today it’s spelled ‘solder’ and pronounced ‘sowelda’. Yet in the States, it’s ‘sawder’. Ignoring issues of differences in accent, there’s a marked difference there; and on the face of it, the Americans are pronouncing the word ‘wrong’, even by their own standards of spelling. Yet in reality, the American pronunciation is not only legitimate, but arguably more correct than the British. The quote that follows below is from ‘Elements of Orthoepy: Containing a Distinct View of the Whole Analogy of the English Language; So Far as it Relates to Pronunciation, Accent, and Quantity‘, a guide to the English of the day written by Robert Nares and published in 1784. This of course is after the American War of Independence, but there is no reference to America or Canada. It tells us something very interesting about broadly agreed conventions in English/British English;

‘Soder rather than solder : souder, French ; soldare, Italian. I think it is sometimes pronounced as if written soder ; but more frequently like sawder or sauder.’

So not only is this particular writer advocating that the ‘correct’ spelling ought to be ‘soder’, which already supports modern US English pronunciation, but he comments that contemporary pronunciation was either ‘soder’ or ‘sowder/sauder’. Quite how we then both standardised the spelling as ‘solder’ with an ‘L’, I’m not sure. But this is no stranger than British English’s ‘plough’ rather than the more logical American ‘plow’ (which also pre-dates Victorian British English spelling conventions).

Who’s ‘right’? Both of us. But ‘sawder’ is the older form; it’s us Brits that have changed our pronunciation in the meantime. So next time you get all high and mighty about ‘color’ or ‘aluminum’, stop and think; who are the real deviants?!

A Fuller Understanding

December 21, 2013


“Ere, Fred, pass me the fuller; I think this ‘un needs a fuller fuller!”

A few weeks ago I received this interesting comment on my article about the so-called ‘blood groove’ on blades. Thank you to Charles for this, and for pointing out that the term derived from the tool used to create it, something that I was aware of but did not comment upon as the thrust (ha) of my article was more the concept of the blood groove than the term itself. However, I want to react by explaining why that fact in itself does not by any means make ‘fuller’ incorrect. It’s an odd quirk of language that the word now refers to both tool and its product, but that’s just the way things have worked out. In fact, it is the dictionary definition of a groove made by the tool of the same name. Standard dictionary definitions aren’t enough, however, as technical language is distinct from colloquial speech. ‘Blood groove’ does appear in dictionaries, but it’s not technically correct. However, technical dictionary entries from 1848, 1855 and 1868 show that ‘fuller’ was in use at least that far back. Importantly, it is also the preferred term used within the relevant field of study; that of arms and armour. Non-academic specialists also favour the term. It’s worth noting also that even the word ‘fuller’ to describe the tool is only attested from 1864. So whilst it must assuredly have come first as Charles suggests, we don’t actually know that ‘fuller’ was a pre-modern term for the type of hammer used to create the groove. Even if it was, it may not have been long before people were describing a fullered blade as possessing a ‘fuller’.

Ideally speaking, technical words would remain fixed in their meaning, but this ignores the reality of language, in which even technical meanings drift. Charles uses the term ‘flat iron’ as an example to show that the tool is not its product, but just because this as a phrase did not lend itself to that adaptation does not mean that other words didn’t drift like ‘fuller’. The very obvious rebuttal is the jigsaw, originally the type of saw used to create it. Yes, its fuller (ha) name is ‘jigsaw puzzle’, but just plain ‘jigsaw’ has been in currency for over a century and makes no more logical sense than ‘fuller’. This example might suggest that we are missing an intermediate stage for ‘fuller’ too, something like ‘fuller groove’, contracted to simply ‘fuller’ just as ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has become simple ‘jigsaw’. Another example is ‘brand’ to refer to both the hot iron tool used to mark cattle, and the distinctive mark that it creates on the animal. There’s also ‘bulino’, a form of Italian punched decoration named directly after the tool used to create it. Similarly, ‘scrimshaw’ was originally the act of carving bone or tooth, but for a long time  now has also described the carved object itself. There’s even an equivalent from the arms & armour world, in the the word ‘rifle’, which was originally the act of cutting grooves into the bore of a gun, resulting weapon being termed a ‘rifle gun’. By at least 1700 however, people were referring to simply ‘rifle’, for short, before the more specific term ‘rifle/rifled musket’ was even in use.

All of this shows that language adapts where there is a gap; a recent example being the adaptation of ‘text/texting/texted’ to describe the act of sending an SMS text message. In Charles’ example, the flat iron flattens the hair, yes, but it does not create a discrete new feature upon it that demands description. It’s enough to say that the hair is ‘flat ironed’. In the case of blades, the fuller fulls the blade, but also creates a distinct groove, a new feature that then begs to be named. ‘Fuller’ has most likely been adapted to fill this gap because it allows precise and efficient description. ‘Blood groove’ serves the same function, with added implication of gory intent. What else would we use? ‘Blade groove’ doesn’t really do it, because there are other grooves that might appear on a blade that are not a fuller (e.g. a decorated blade). ‘Fuller’ also has the advantage of being only one word long. ‘Groove’ is perfectly fine, in fact C19th military textbooks use ‘groove’ for sword and bayonet. It just isn’t very precise unless you qualify it.

Did those who made blades historically use ‘groove’, ‘fuller’, or something else entirely? I have no idea. It would be interesting, though difficult given the limitations of written history, to properly research period usage. Given the rate of change in language (witness arquebus, harquebus, hackbutt etc), correct usage in one period is likely to be out of use in another. Charles doesn’t directly offer an alternative term that he feels is more correct than ‘fuller’, but based on his comments it looks like he favours ‘gutter’. Perhaps ‘old timer’ knifemakers and other blade-smiths did use it, but we’ve no evidence of this. You won’t find it in a dictionary or an arms & armour publication. I’ve no problem with it as a descriptive word, but I feel it’s misleading to the layman. Like ‘blood groove’ or ‘blood gutter’, it clearly implies a function that does not exist; the collection and direction of fluids.

To address the suggestion that ‘fuller’ is wrong because other languages don’t have an analogue, that’s just irrelevant, I’m afraid. Yes, my link above shows that terms like ‘goutierre’ (gutter) and ‘cannelure’ (channel) were preferred European terms. That has no bearing on either correct contemporary, or even period English usage. Some words are shared between languages either intact as loan-words, or adapted as variants, but by no means all. ‘Fuller’ is one of many unique English words.

None of which changes the fact that ‘blood groove’ is (technically) incorrect and ‘fuller’ correct, both in terms of the purpose served by the groove (which was the point of my article) and its lack of favour in academic and specialist circles. But again, there’s colloquial language and technical language, and ‘blood groove’ is both in popular usage and in the bloody dictionary, so I can only get so precious about it!

Peter Dickowitz and the Premature Burial Theory of Vampirism

August 25, 2013

The Premature Burial Antoine Wiertz

The Premature Burial by Antoine Wiertz (1854)

Apologies to those readers who have subscribed to the blog; I know I’ve been very slow with my updates so far this year. I can’t promise regular content, but I can promise that it will keep coming! This latest is about vampires again, I’m afraid!

So, I recently read a piece in BBC History Magazine (Sep 2013, p.36) by Dr Richard Sugg of Durham University, quite rightly pointing out the link between historical reports of vampire or revenant activity and maladies that we now know to be sleep disorders. However, his first cited example raised an eyebrow with me.

The article references an unnamed American journalist, writing in 1870, who describes his own brush with a ‘vampire’ in a Hungarian village called ‘Hodmir’. This presents us with our first problem, as whilst spellings of ‘foreign’ places are frequently all over the place at this time (see ‘Dracula’ itself!), I can’t find reference to any such place. However, I was able to track down the source, a letter to the New York based World newspaper, in an edition dated June 1 1870. Sadly this isn’t available online, only in archive or microfilm form.

Fortunately, aside from the sections quoted by Sugg, the complete thing is available online in a contemporary California paper, the Daily Alta for July 24 the same year. According to contemporary journal The Nation, the author of this letter is a “William St. John”. I’ve had no luck tracking down any such person, either. The letter crops up again nearly twenty years later in the Globe-Democrat and a literature review that references it,  and again in the New York Evening Telegram for June 28 1889.

Now, the account itself reads superficially like a bona fide account of a folkloric case of vampirism, i.e. an educated observer recording the superstitious activities of eastern European peasants who are digging up dead bodies and misinterpreting differential decomposition as vampirism. The man describes a very believable account of his own sleep paralysis, but it his subsequent story about supposed local vampire activity that poses real issues. Have a read.

Vampire fans will recognise many details from the famous story of Arnod Paole, an incident that occurred not in Hungary in the late 19th century, but in Serbia in 1731-2. The original source is ‘Visum et Repertum’, published in January 1732. The Serbian girl ‘Stanoska’ that Sugg refers to was actually a ‘victim’ of Paole’s at this same time (i.e. 1731, rather than the 1738 cited in the article. She appears as ‘Stanacka’ in the English translation.

The name given to the supposed vampire himself, ‘Peter Dickowitz’, is clearly a corruption of ‘Peter Plogojowitz’ (Petar Blagojević), another Serbian case from 1725. This was reported by an official called Frombald who visited the village of Kisiljevo. His report was published in the Austrian newspaper ‘Wienerisches Diarium’ on 21 July that year.

Both of these historical sources are well documented, both appear in the very Paul Barber book (‘Vampires, Burial, and Death’) that Sugg cites in his article, and both owe their fame to Dom Augustin Calmet’s book ‘The Phantom World’, originally published in 1746.

Where this story parts company with its cobbled bits of real folklore is in “St John’s” claim that the ‘vampires’ unearthed by the locals were not the usual differentially decomposed corpses, but victims of premature burial. Not only that, but the poor buggers were apparently murdered right in front of his eyes! At this point alarm bells were ringing in my head, as the idea that vampire folklore originated with live burial is an idea as old as the vampire phenomenon itself, but one that, along with porphoria, was consigned to the wastebin of folklore studies years ago. Live burial did happen, and fear of it was something of a Victorian preoccupation, so it made sense at this time to associate the two. But there’s just no evidence for a connection with vampirism (apart from this suspect account), and as Sugg himself points out, folkloric vampires are now known to be corpses whose signs of decomposition are misinterpreted by their would-be ‘slayers’ to create scapegoats for perceived ills in their community (sleep paralysis no doubt being one of these). Back to the story, what are the chances of not one, but TWO premature burials occurring in the same graveyard? Why the hell didn’t this guy report these murders (not the supposed live burial, the staking, decapitation and burning of the victims) to the authorities? Hungary in 1870 was a civilised European country and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; I don’t care how remote this rural village might have been, opportunities to report these killings would have been plentiful and readily investigated by local law enforcement. The answers to those questions, by the way, are ‘slim’ and ‘because he made the story up’.

So how did genuine 18th century history end up being reported as current affairs in 1870? Well, I have a theory. I mentioned that both source stories appeared in Calmet’s  ‘Phantom World‘ in 1746. Well, this was first published in English in 1850, and like the 1870 story, also places the Plogojowitz/Dickowitz case in Hungary. Chances are that our Victorian letter-writer used this, as well as perhaps his own experience of sleep paralysis, as the inspiration for a sensationalist cock-and-bull story that would appeal to the educated audience as a cautionary tale about the hazards of superstition.

Note that none of this actually undermines Sugg’s argument that sleep paralysis would have reinforced and even originated incidences of ‘vampirism’. But it’s definitely not the best source to use to make that argument. I fired off a letter to BBC History Magazine, so we’ll see if they do anything with it.


Sanity Clause

December 23, 2012

OK, this one actually IS relevant to the season. This is a fascinating piece on the ‘links’ between shamanism, drug-taking, and the modern figure of Santa Claus. Not because of the hypothesis itself, which is pretty tenuous to say the least, but for the fact that it’s actually self-debunking. It starts out making specious connections between the (pre)historic reality of spiritual leaders taking drugs to (amongst other things) experience flight, and the folkloric/fictional activities of St. Nicholas and his derivatives. But the last third or so makes pretty clear that there’s no evidence for any of it, and those who actually work in the relevant historical fields aren’t convinced. Ronald Hutton’s comments should carry particular weight. Even the editor has left a qualifying ‘may’ in the title. Thus, no journalistic standards have been compromised, and yet I wonder whether most readers won’t still come away with the impression that Santa = Shaman.

Whilst part of me wants to rant about this, actually I wonder if this isn’t a clever way for everyone to enjoy this story. My own work on the vampire killing kits ended up being reported in a similar way, and despite my best efforts, many would still have failed to pick up the message I’ve been trying to convey (they’re not ‘real’, but they’re still worthy of interest). But the comments on the above article demonstrate a good deal of incredulity and some actual scepticism, so people are thinking critically about this kind of bold historical claim.



You’ve Got Red On You

December 22, 2012

‘Santa vs Zombies’ by Victor Negreiro

(Nothing to do with my title, which is a ‘Shaun of the Dead’ reference)

Why is Santa Claus’ tunic red? Because of Coca-Cola? S’Nope! To conceal the wounds he sustains in battle, of course! OK, perhaps not. But that explanation really has been offered on many an occasion to explain why the British ‘redcoat’ was so clad, especially in the US. A seamless seasonal link there, I think you’ll agree. The implication being that the British army that fought the American Revolution comprised thousands of scared impressed conscripts who would rout at the drop of a hat, were it not for the tyrannical discipline of their officers. Even the British have made this claim, probably because until relatively recently, soldiers were very much looked down upon in British society, such that a slight against their courage wouldn’t necessarily be a slight against the army or the Empire. Francis Grose, in his  ‘Military Antiquities’, states (though I can’t find the original source he cites online);

‘Julius Ferretus, a writer of the middle of the 16th century, in his Treatife on the Military Science, fays, that foldiers commonly wore a fhort red fagum, or frock, which colour was chofen that they might not be difcouraged by the fight of the blood from their wounds.’
-Grose, Military Antiquities, 1788 (p.6)

So this idea was a contemporary one. Nevertheless, it’s pretty dubious. Military uniforms were bold solid colours because for line infantry (riflemen and light infantry being a special case) there was no tactical need for anything that would blend in. It was also a bonus for officers and general staff to be able to see where their men were on the black powder-filled battlefield, and for the men themselves to be able to tell each other apart in close quarters. More significantly, in an age before chemical dyes, there was also quite a limited colour palette to choose from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for having seen period uniform still bearing obvious blood stains. But I’m just as interested in where these things come from as debunking them. So where does this red herring originate? Well, it’s actually pretty ancient – 1st Century A.D. ancient, in fact:

‘They used to wear red tunics in battle to disguise and hide the blood from their wounds, not that the sight of the wounds would terrify them, but it might make the enemy a little more confident.’
-Valerius Maximus on the Spartans

Of course we have no way of knowing whether the Spartans really did this, but as another practical warfighting race, like the British later on, it seems pretty unlikely. The claim was recycled five hundred years later by an ecclesiastical scholar of the ancient world;

‘The reddened (russata) garment, which the Greeks call Phoenician and we call scarlet, was invented by the Lacedaemonians so as to conceal the blood with a similar color whenever someone was wounded in battle, lest their opponents’ spirits rise at the sight.’
-Isidore of Seville, Origines XIX, xxii, 10

Intriguingly, Isidore also says that Roman soldiers were known as russati because of the similarly red tunics that they wore; a direct foreshadowing of the British ‘redcoats’. I suspect our missing link here is a later writer, perhaps at the height of the British Empire in the Victorian period, deliberately drawing an analogy between the armies of the two empires, just as Valerius had by referencing the Spartans. The russati/redcoat connection would have reinforced this Britain=Rome meme, and might even have inspired the appropriation of the old Spartan/Roman myth. Now, this could be used by both proponents and enemies of a given country/empire, depending how it’s spun. Valerius and Isidore give a positive angle, but perhaps more logical is the negative version in currency by the 19th century, and presumably earlier:

‘English children are, perhaps, still taught that French soldiers wear red trousers in order that the sight of blood may not frighten them in war-time ; and doubtless French children imbibe a similar theory regarding the English red coats.’
-J.A. Farrer in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, 1885**

Farrer’s summary is actually very comprehensive, although I couldn’t find the original source for this claim of his; ‘Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver…chose it, according to Xenophon, because red is most easily taken by cloth and most lasting;’ Which is a shame, because it would predate even Valerius (Xenophon being active c300 BC) Nevertheless, it’s still far closer to the truth than the blood thing, for which there is no evidence and no plausibility. After all, I can’t see this chap being overly worried about a spot of blood on his cloak, can you?



Expanded references; *Wardle, D. Valerius Maximus’ Memorable Deeds and Sayings: Book 1. Oxford University Press (Clarendon Ancient History Series): Oxford and New York, 1998, p57, Ch.6 para.2. **Farrer, J.A. Curiosities of Military Discipline, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol.258-259,1885, p.133.