Let’s take a virtual tour of a beautiful little castle on Lake Thun, here in Switzerland: Spiez Castle is a grand but pocket-sized edifice that sits on a spit of land jutting out into the lake, with the town of Spiez surrounding it. The area has several substantial bronze- and iron-age settlement sites, which shows that the area has been rich in natural resources and populated since time immemorial. The town and its church were first mentioned around AD 762, when Bishop Heddo of Strasbourg disposed of the church and tithes in his will. In AD 933, the King of Burgundy, Rudolph II, had Spiez castle built, and soon the Freiherr of Strättligen settled there. [Freiherr was a rank of nobility within Germanic-speaking areas that would have roughly translated to the English rank of baron.] Sections of the current shield walls and tower were built in the 12th century, and though the town was originally located within the castle walls, by the 13th century it had outgrown the walled enclosures. The small church, which is on the castle grounds, is one of the twelve Lake Thun churches mentioned in the Strättliger Chronicle [a Swiss dynastic and national history of the rulers of Bebenberg and Strättligen and their lands and churches – all within canton Bern, covering from AD 1100 through 1464].
The castle changed hands numerous times, whether through political manoeuvring or through dynastic extinction. Last week, my article touched on the French invasion of Switzerland; After that 1798 French invasion and the creation of the Helvetic Republic, the von Erlach family lost the rights to hold the lands as well as their jurisdiction over the village, but retained ownership of the castle until 1875. In the church is a panel in Latin about the titles of the baron von Erlach and of (who I assume was) his wife, Johanna Graffenried (from another noble family in Berne), with the family crest (see the images below).
This past summer, my husband and I toured the castle and the church; it was an awe-inspiring feeling to know that we were walking where people have walked for well over a thousand years; where nobility and peasants, servants and pilgrims have stood, walked, talked, lived and passed. Here are a few impressions of the castle, church and the views we enjoyed, and I hope you enjoy, too.
This past summer, my husband and I rented a motorhome and travelled around Switzerland; we tend to prefer nature or museums to overly-touristy attractions. One of the places we visited was Spiez Castle. Before I tell you about that, however, a little historical backdrop is necessary, so buckle up and enjoy the ride!
Everyone’s heard of the French Revolution, which began in May 1789: It was a struggle to become free from the heavy yoke of an elitist monarchical regime, quasi out of the frying pan and into the fire of the Reign of Terror – during which many of the original rebels, in a twist of morbid irony, also had their heads removed by Monsieur Guillotine; it ended in November 1799 with the abolition of the Ancien Régime and the creation of constitutional monarchy (not far from where they started) and the French Consulate (which lasted nearly 5 years until the start of the Napoleonic Empire in May 1804).
But what many people might not know is that the French Revolution was internationally both influenced and influential. Modern “small world” effects are not modern at all; even in ancient times, people had international news: Travelling merchants and traders, messengers, signal towers (such as those the Romans used along the British frontiers), and even smoke signals, all conveyed news. When the French Revolution began, there was already a growing political dissent spreading throughout Western Europe; the English “coffeehouse culture” enabled men to gather in small groups and discuss business and politics; this concept travelled to America, and the discontent culminated in the American Revolution, starting in April of 1775. The French people watched and learned. The British government naturally became wary – they were losing the American colonies to the Revolutionary War, which they finally lost in September 1783. The Americans were supported during that time by France and Spain (the two main long-term enemies of Britain), so the British were hemmed in by threats to their own social order from both the east and the west, and they had well-founded fears of the discontent sparking revolt in the dry tinder of their own oppressed ranks.
And now we come to Switzerland: To understand the Swiss backstory in a nutshell, which does no justice to a history that began in the Palaeolithic Age or further back, let me sum it up: The Old Swiss Confederacy was an alliance between independent small states, starting on 1 August 1291 with the “Rütlischwur”(an oath of allegiance between the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden), which date is considered by the Swiss to be the birth of the nation (though history is more complicated). As the French Revolution was beginning to wind down, Napoleon Bonaparte, then a French general, pressed the French Directory (the then-current French governing committee) to invade Switzerland. The atmosphere within the Old Swiss Confederacy was tense, fearing that the French Revolution would spill over with or without direct French military involvement. At the invitation of a French-speaking faction in Vaud (then part of Canton Berne), 12,000 French troops invaded through Vaud on 28 January 1798, and for the next four months, battles were waged between the French and the Swiss “Loyal Legions”. It ended in May with the swift collapse of the Swiss Old Confederacy.
However, the French Directory needed a solid neighbour, a buffer zone along their eastern borders, not a loosely associated collection of small states; they tried to steer toward a re-establishment of national unity with a Paris-drawn constitution, but on April 1798, Swiss cantonal leaders proclaimed the Helvetic Republic, with new legal structures that abolished feudal rights within individual cantons in favour of a national unity. A few battles later, and coalition armies waging war in and around Switzerland against France, eventually left Switzerland as a sovereign, neutral nation; it has remained so ever since, despite two world wars.
An etymological side note on the Latin name of the Swiss Confederation (Switzerland), Confoederatio Helvetica: Helvetia is the female personification of Switzerland, found on nearly every coin, much like Lady Liberty of America. The name derives from Helvetii, a Celtic tribe that inhabited the Swiss Plateau since before the Roman Era. The earliest reference of the name is dated to ca. 300 BC, written in Etruscan on a vessel from Mantua (located in Lombardy, Italy). By the time the Romans arrived, they were well-established tribes governed by noblemen; the Roman historians tended to refer to anyone not Roman as “barbarian”, which tends to skew modern understanding of the peoples they conquered; it was perhaps their way of justifying invasions against peaceful, intact civilisations. Naming no names, but R—– is repeating that same shameful tactic today; there’s nothing new under the sun.
It’s easy to overlook the complexities of historical events or view them from only one nation’s side; after all, as Mark Twain once wrote, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” History’s angle is in the hands of those who wrote it – if they were Roman, everyone else was barbarian; if they were English, the Scottish / Irish / Indians were backwaters in need of a guiding stick, and so on.
So, now that you know a bit more about the history in and around Switzerland, I’ll highlight Spiez Castle next!
I’ve been trying to blog the last few weeks, but to do so, it helps to be logged in to WordPress – and it kept logging me out every time I switched to my site. I finally found the solution this morning, so here I am!
One thing I’ve been ruminating about is the etymology of everyday words; words come from somewhere, and I’ve always wondered what word(s) were used before a word came along. There are famous examples of invented words that never stuck, such as Lewis Carol’s “Jabberwocky“, but what I’m referring to are common words. What did they use before the word “egg” came along? The word itself comes from Old Norse, eggys, eggja, or egge, but before the common spelling was decided on, every English dialect in Britain had at least a couple different spellings of the word!
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is sometimes credited with having created upwards of 1,700 words, but many of those were likely already in circulation – he simply wrote them down in his plays. Some words accredited to him are: dishearten; dislocate; auspicious; obscene; monumental; majestic; accommodation; amazement; dwindle; exposure; bloody; countless; courtship; impartial; gnarled; gloomy; generous; reliance; pious; inauspicious; bump; frugal; submerge; critic; lapse; laughable; lonely, suspicious, and many, many more.
But long before William Shakespeare drew breath, there was another William that influenced English in profound ways, and yet his name is little known today: William Caxton. Born around 1420, he was a merchant, printer and the first English retailer of books; he introduced the printing press to England, set up in Westminster, 1476. Though he published many books, the first book he is known to have published is The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s – 1400); that work alone is credited with influencing both the English language and literature, as it shows a clear correspondence between the rhythm of written English poetry and the cadence of spoken English. Chaucer is also known for having looted the French language, bringing into English such words as governance, paramour, difficult, dishonest, edifice, and ignorant, to name a few. Chaucer was aware of the wide variety of English dialects, which we would never recognize as English today, and he was anxious about the confusion of languages in Britain and that his work would be able to be comprehended in the future. In his poem, Troilus and Criseyde, he bids it a poignant but troubled farewell: “Go, litel bok . . . And for ther is so gret diversite In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge, So prey I God that non miswryte the [thee]. . . . That thow be understonde, God I biseche!”
However, because William Caxton chose to publish Chaucer’s work, we still have it to this day. Caxton was also the first to translate Aesop’s Fablesinto English (1484). Although he was not a great translator and sometimes simply used the French word “Englishified”, his translations were popular; because of that, he inadvertently helped promote Chancery* English as the standard English dialect throughout England. (*Chancery refers to the dialect used by the officials of Henry V’s government). Thanks to men like William Caxton and those who followed, refining and shaping the language we know today, we are able to enjoy a standard English spelling and grammar structure that is understood around the world; there are still regional and national dialect differences, but we can be understood wherever in the world English is used.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, one book I can highly recommend is Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English (The Biography of a Language); it’s available in physical form, e-book, and audiobook.
This week, I did a major shopping at a couple Asian food stores; I stocked up on the ingredients I know, and some I didn’t; I like to get things I’ve never heard of, and do a bit of research on how to use it in cooking; things I picked up in that category are Iranian Kashk, which is a tangy fermented, yoghurt used as a condiment; canned palm hearts, which make a nice topping on desserts; and fermented black beans, which can be used in a variety of Asian dishes, including in a black bean sauce. I also bought several fresh vegetables and herbs to dehydrate and turn into a greens powder for adding flavours to dishes (I have a more usual greens powder with standard greens, like cauliflower leaves, spinach, etc. that I use daily).
One of the herbs I used was acacia leaf: When I opened the package, a pungent, sulphur-like smell hit me, and I wasn’t sure I’d use it. But when I began de-leafing it (much like you would thyme, though carefully as it’s got some vicious thorns!), it began to smell like mint! As I added lemongrass, Thai water spinach and other herbs, you can imagine the cacophony of fragrances in my kitchen – which filled the house as they dehydrated.
So what does this have to do with licorice? Well, one of the fresh herbs I also processed was Thai basil; I’d never used it before, and when I opened the packaging, a wave of anise- or licorice aroma hit me. And as usual, that set my mind off, thinking about the history of licorice!
Licorice is a flowering plant native to parts of Asia and Europe; its scientific name, Glycyrrhiza, comes from Greek and means “sweet root” (the linguistic roots are related to words like glycerine and rhizome); it is the ingredient that gives the signature flavour to black licorice, though today anise oil is often used as a substitute because the Glycyrrhiza can have toxic effects if ingested too much.
In looking into the history of this flavour, I came across a fascinating documentary: Ostensibly, it covers the history of the Switzer Licorice candy company. But in truth, it’s a fascinating historical insight into the history of Irish immigration, social unrest, the Irish famine, Irish revolution and exile, union labour foundations, World War 1 through the eyes of a family, the economic upheavals of war, rations and the company’s creative solutions, the history of sugar, post-war recovery, the Great Depression, the American Dream, candy-making, the rise of a family from Kerry Patch (the Irish ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri) to the suburbs, the history and development of St. Louis, and the demise of a family company resurrected by later generations. All in a 55-minute video!
To watch this fascinating slice of history, click here. To check out the company’s website, click here.
I hope you enjoy this short history, and while you’re at it, enjoy a piece of licorice!
Today we’ve got a variety of ways to make financial transactions: Online payment, cheques (checks), cash (coins or bills), debit cards, giros (UK), credit cards, bitcoins, Twint, and probably a dozen other ways. But when did it all get started? Why are there ridges or texts on the edges of coins? What did people use before coins were widely spread enough to be a viable means of transaction? I’ve written about the history of shillings before, and ancient payments using hack silver, but the complications that arose across the Atlantic between the British crown and the colonies of America, before they won their independence, is as fascinating as any thriller. It’s a tale of laws passed to stranglehold the colonies into submission or to stop an artery bleed of silver across the ocean, and loopholes and nooks and crannies found to carry on with business anyway.
For a fascinating video on the topic by Jon Townsend, an 18th-century reenactor and specialist with a great YouTube channel, just click on the image below. Enjoy travelling back in time!
I might be odd for a woman, but I love history; in particular the history of World War 2. But as much as I’ve read about it, and as many documentaries and films as I’ve watched on the topic, I had never heard about this episode until I read a comment from a YouTube video which told about how that person’s grandfather had served in the only US territory to be occupied by the Japanese during the war: The Aleutian Islands.
Anyone who knows a bit about World War 2 probably knows about Midway– a pivotal point in the Pacific arena. But at the same time Japan was targeting that US island base in the middle of the Pacific, they also had their sites set on the Bering Strait; specifically, the six island groups of the Aleutian Islands. In June 1942, they attacked and occupied the US territory islands of Kiska and Attu. Anyone would be excused for thinking that these inhospitable, frozen, volcanic mountains rising out of the sea were insignificant, but they were a strategic launching point for keeping the Japanese at bay in the Pacific, and as a gateway for supplies to the Allied troops. If the Japanese managed to maintain their hold on those islands, it would strengthen the defence of their northern territories, and it was also feared that they would use the islands as springboards from which to attack the US West coast or invade through Alaska and into Canada and the northwestern mainland territory of the US. The battles there are considered the “forgotten battles” because, although there was public outrage in the US at the time, they were soon largely overshadowed in the press by Midway and by the Guadalcanalcampaigns. But the number of casualties there was comparable to that of Pearl Harbor, and the Attu battle was better known in Japan than in America: It was a major propaganda coup for the Imperial Army.
To watch a 1943 documentary about the Aleutian Islands and their strategic significance, called “Forgotten Battle of the Aleutian Islands“, just click on the link (~45 min.). It not only gives a glimpse into the geography and military aspect, but the human aspect, showing the soldiers in their daily off-duty activities and their duties; it gives you a sense of what they were like, where they came from, and what they did. For a shorter summary (~12 min), click here.
I like to highlight, or “undust” figures or circumstances from history that few may have ever heard about, but that deserve to be remembered. Bessie Coleman is one such figure from history: In her life that was cut short, she made a difference by going against the norms and following her dreams, regardless of the limitations put on her by society because of her race and gender.
Born in January 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, as the tenth of thirteen children in a sharecropper family, she worked in the cotton fields and attended a small, segregated school. She was not only African American but also had Cherokee heritage through her mixed-race father. Despite her humble beginnings, by 18 she’d managed to save enough money to attend one term of college at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Oklahoma, which was probably the closest university that would take a young black woman in the early 1900s. With no funds left, she moved back home, working and saving her money. At 23, she moved in with her brothers in Chicago, Illinois, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop; there, she heard the tales of World War I pilots, and her dream was born.
At the time, American aviation schools had no place for either African Americans or for women, but she was encouraged by Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, to study abroad. He publicized her story in his newspaper, and she received the financial support to pursue her dream from a prominent African American banker, Jesse Binga, and from the Defender.
She took a French language course in Chicago, and in November 1920, she travelled to Paris to earn her pilot licence. On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first African American woman as well as the first Native American to earn a pilot license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She then spent the next two months learning more from a French veteran pilot near Paris. In September 1921, she sailed back to America and became a media sensation.
With civilian commercial flights still a thing of the future, she would have to earn her money as a “barnstorming” stunt pilot. The skills needed to fly dangerous stunts were beyond her scope, and still out of her reach in America, so she again returned to Europe, where she trained in France. From there she went to the Netherlands to meet Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most distinguished aircraft designers. At his company in Germany, she received further training from one of the company’s chief pilots. Returning once again to the US, she finally launched her career in exhibition flying.
“Queen Bess” was a popular draw for the next five years. She used public attention to engage audiences in promoting aviation and battling racism; she refused to take part in any aviation exhibitions that barred African Americans from attending. At one point, she was offered a role in a film, “Shadow and Sunshine.” She accepted, hoping that it would help her raise enough money to open her own aviation school. But when she learned that the first scene would portray her in ragged clothes, she walked off the set – her principles would not allow her to spread the disparaging image most whites had of most blacks.
Her goal was not just flying, but to make a difference in history; unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see just what a great influence she would have: On 30 April 1926, a faulty plane went into a dive and spin at 3,000 feet above ground; on the way down, Bess was thrown from the plane and killed on impact. Later, it was found that a wrench used to service the plane had been forgotten inside and had jammed the controls.
Posthumously, her name is honoured through the renaming of streets (including three in France), of roads near airports (including one at Frankfurt Germany’s international airport), a public library in Chicago, schools, aviation-related companies and wings of airports, scholarships, a US postage stamp (in 1995), a cartoon character, and she has been inducted into several halls of fame for both women as well as aviation; and last but certainly not least, she has a geological feature on the southern hemisphere of Pluto named in her honour, Coleman Mons.
Lieutenant William J. Powell dedicated his book, Black Wings, to her. His sentiment is summed up well in a quote: “We have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” Powell founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut in space, carried a photo of Bessie Coleman with her on her first mission.
What I find most inspiring about her story is not only her unwavering determination to reach her goals, but that throughout her life, she found people willing and able to support her in accomplishing it: Without the idea encouraged by a publisher to look beyond the borders of America and promoted in his newspaper to raise support, without the teachers in Europe investing in her skills (how many inter-war pilots could say they’d been trained by top war ace pilots?), and without the financial support given at a time she needed it, her dreams might have remained unfulfilled, or too long in the making – those parameters needed to make her into a pilot who inspired future generations shifted drastically with the outbreak of the Second World War.
In Esther 4:14, Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, tells her, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” In the brief window of time that Bessie reached for the heavens, she may not have lived to see her legacy, but her life and death were not in vain.
Let’s go on a virtual outing! This time, to a Swiss museum located on my doorstep, in Zürich. I can’t imagine a better place to have a museum on that topic.
Have you ever wondered where coins started, or what the history of money is? Look no further. Have you ever wondered what blockchain technology is, or what cryptocurrencies are (and there are over 8 thousand so far!)?
Included in the tour are 5-minute podcasts exploring the topic of money, as well as visual tours of coins throughout time and regions.
Besides the online presence, this museum is also a library and a forum, where people can gather for lectures and discussion groups around the topic of money, finances, markets, etc.
Coins are just one form of payment, but throughout the centuries, different people have put a value on different objects, and trading them became a type of currency: When the Russian currency nosedived in value, vodka became a currency because, in that culture, vodka was the most stable commodity! In other cultures, beads, shells, water gourds, and many other objects have been currency; in another article, I’ve talked about hack silver – jewellery worn with scoring to allow easy division into pieces to trade for goods.
Here’s a quick question for you: Do you know what your money really looks like? We may have handled it dozens of times in a week, but have we ever really stopped to examine it? I remember back when shillings were still valid coinage in Britain – they were used in lieu of 5p pieces; when the new coins came into circulation, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you what they’d looked like before! The same goes for banknotes here in Switzerland, which changed to the current design back in 1995. Once a new coin or banknote comes into use, it’s hard to remember what the old ones looked like. Interestingly, some Swiss coins have not changed; I once found a 10-rappen coin in my purse from 1899! It went straight into my coin collection. Since then, I always check my loose change. As a matter of fact, the 10-rappen coin holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest original currency in circulation.
The history and scope of money is a fascinating one, once you scratch below the surface. Click hereto take the virtual tour through the world of money, and enjoy!
This month has flown by! Last weekend was our church’s annual advent market, and I was present with tables full of crafts, as well as marble-iced cookies, Spitzbuben, cheese cookies & apple chips (dehydrated). Before it took off, I was preparing, baking, labelling, and doing all the little bits and bobs to get ready; it went off well, considering the limitations of Covid. I also got our own Advent calendar completed – I talk about that more in a previous post. But the whole topic of the market got me wondering where Advent calendars started, so I thought I’d share with you what I’ve discovered:
As you probably know, advent calendars today can take any form you choose; the only common factor is that they usually cover 24 days and begin on 1 December (as opposed to following the 4 Advent Sundays – this year, the first Sunday fell on 28 November).
The first calendars weren’t: In the early 1800s, German protestants began marking chalk lines on a wall or lighting a candle each day of the Advent season; they sometimes accompanied the act with a devotional reading or with an image centered around the advent, or coming, of Jesus (traditionally celebrated on 25 December, though that was hardly his birthday – but that’s another topic). The first actual calendars were made of cardboard in Germany, and appeared in the early 1900s; they often had either a poem or a picture behind each door, and were produced until World War 2, when the Nazis banned their use on the excuse that cardboard was scarce – and then, in 1943, they promptly sent out advent booklets to every mother in the land – but they seem to have missed the point: their versions had images of German soldiers blowing up Russian tanks and sinking allied ships!
After the war, Richard Sellmer, of Stuttgart, was able to get permission from the allied officials to begin printing cardboard Advent calendars once again, and his company still produces them today – click here to visit their website. After the war was over, the American soldiers took the idea back to the States; their popularity took off in the 1950s after a photo appeared in a newspaper of President Eisenhower’s grandchildren with a Sellmer calendar.
I guess you could say that the rest is history! With Advent beginning, I hope yours is ready for Wednesday!
And Christmas is coming soon! If you’re interested in knowing the history behind Santa’s red suit, just click here!