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!
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!
Playing keeps us young. Everyone who’s got a healthy sense of balance has a little kid inside of them that likes to come out to play once in a while. And because it’s something all of us can relate to in one way or another, some clever folks have put together a museum dedicated to having fun! From toys, electronic games, television programmes like Sesame Street, board games, ball games, dolls, card games – you name it, they’ve probably got an exhibit about it! The Strong National Museum of Play also has a large number of online exhibits, so if you don’t live near Rochester, New York, you can still enjoy their collections. So come along on a tour of playing – just click on the image below and enjoy playing around!
Question: What was your favourite game as a child? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
“It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”
Fred Rogers, American television personality, 1928–2003
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.
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!
Aprons have probably been around since the dawn of clothing; up until the Industrial Revolution, most people only had the clothes on their backs, or at most one additional change of clothing – in which case they were considered either very well off or thieves; a large number of the thefts reported in the 17th and 18th centuries had to do with clothing articles; the clothes made the man or woman, and if they could upgrade their wardrobe through “five-finger discounting,” they might have a better chance at finding a good job with better wages. The style of aprons has changed through the years, and while sometimes their function was little more than a fashion statement, such as in the painting below, their main purpose has never become obsolete: To carry out every imaginable chore in and around the home.
My paternal grandparents, the Herrings, were Kansas pioneer farmers; my grandmother (Mary Mae) headed west from Indiana in a covered wagon with her parents (James Allen and Carrie Christine Higbee nee Aaroe) as a baby; she grew up on the prairies of Kansas, met my grandfather, and the rest is history.
Most of my childhood memories are of my paternal grandparents’ farm; we spent many weekends there helping out, and I spent a week or two every summer with them. My grandmother was always in an apron, except for Sunday mornings and special events – and those are the times when photographs were taken, so unfortunately I don’t have a photo of her in an apron. But I have something much better: A hand-sewn quilt, made lovingly by her from around 1920 to the late 1970s. The materials used for that quilt are her old aprons, Sunday dress scraps and other spare cloths; I remember seeing her in several of them.
Being a farmer’s wife, my grandmother’s aprons weren’t as fancy as these vintage patterns shown above; they were plain, simple and hand-made; they did what they were needed for, and no more, no less. But as simple as they might have been, those aprons were worth their weight in gold on a farm: They protected her scanty wardrobe – she didn’t need much, didn’t want much, and was satisfied to take care of what she’d been blessed with. Those aprons carried baby chicks, kittens, flowers, herbs, chicken eggs, apples, firewood and wood chips, baby birds fallen from nests in a wind storm, and the occasional sugar cube for the horses. They wiped away tears, cleaned dirty faces, dusted furniture if guests were walking up the path, took delicious things from the oven, cold things from the freezer, and helped open canning jars. They shaded a cold pie on her lap in the old Chevy truck while we bounced across the fields to bring my grandfather a picnic for lunch break in the summer heat (she could have used an old quilt for the pie, but that was often used to cradle a large mason jar full of ice cold water, the best thirst-quencher I know). Those aprons helped gather grains, and stones to move either from the garden or to the flower bed. They carried chicken feed and broken eggs shells to feed the chickens to make their eggs stronger; they held potatoes, carrots, green beans, corn, sweet peas, strawberries and squash. They were the perfect cradle for a garden watermelon, rolling it into the refrigerator to get it nice and cold on a hot day. They warmed her hands on a cold day as she dug for the last of the potatoes before winter’s freeze, and hid her dirty hands when guests arrived unannounced. They polished cutlery, fanned her face to cool her down on a sweltering hot day, and were the perfect place to hide for shy children. One never knew what that apron would do next.
Little could my paternal grandmother have guessed that the quilt she made from so many scraps of memories would eventually accompany her granddaughter back over the ocean her mother had traversed as a newborn baby from Denmark, and end up within 20 km from where my maternal ancestors have been traced: Zofingen, Aargau, Switzerland. I can’t imagine any other piece of cloth carrying so much history, authority, importance, practicality, humility, common sense and love.
Adapted from an article originally posted on History Undusted, 5 Oct. 2015
I recently heard of an unusual historical connection between a tribe of survivors from the Trail of Tears, and those struggling with survival half a world away during the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1852.
The Choctaws were one of the Native American nations who were forcibly displaced between 1830 and 1850, along with Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), Seminole and the Chickasaw nations. Basically, any land the white insurgents wanted, they took, driving out tribes from their ancestral homes; thousands died of exposure, starvation and disease on the road to their designated reserves.
But in the midst of their own sorrows, the Choctaw people heard about the plight of the Irish famine, and they responded with generosity. They collected $170 (which would be around $5,200 today) and sent it to the Irish in 1847. While gifts flowed to Ireland from various sources, the gift of this native tribe touched the Irish deeply; despite their own tragedies, they reached out and gave the Irish people hope – hope that they weren’t alone and that others cared.
Fast-forward to the Covid-19 challenges facing many Indian reservations: Many people are unemployed and barely scraping by; a lack of running water or electricity is common, so you can imagine how challenging it is for them to keep their hands clean and to be able to meet hygiene requirements – as a result, the Corona Virus has swept through these impoverished communities. A Navajo woman, Ethel Branch, started a GoFundMe, hoping to raise money to help support reservation families; she set the goal at $50,000, thinking it was far too ambitious and expecting only about a thousand dollars to come in. But the Irish heard about it, and they’ve been paying it forward, back to the people they never forgot and who they teach about in their history lessons; so far, over $5 million has been raised.
One tweetmade all the difference in this new chapter of an intercontinental friendship. This story reminds me that when we respond with empathy and generosity, even the smallest acts of kindness can encourage others, and, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep an eye out for those who need an encouraging word or deed – you may change a life.
With everything that hit the fan last year worldwide, I know that many of us have been missing the opportunities to go out and get some stimulation: Restaurants in many places are closed or reduced to take-away; concerts and theatre productions are cancelled until further notice; museums are closed; if shops are open, they may be closing earlier. For many of us, our “third place” has had to close its doors to us.
So I thought I’d take you along on virtual tours: Tours of factories to see how things are made, of museums, of beautiful places around the globe, of interesting architecture, of historical moments, or of quirky bits and bobs that make this world a colourful and interesting place.
To start off our tours, let’s take a walk-through on the Titanic, as it was before it let in the passengers for its maiden voyage. It embarked on that voyage on 10 April 1912, hit an iceberg on 14 April at 23:40, and 2 hours and 40 minutes later, on 15 April, finally sank forever. The final survivor of the sinking, Millvina Dean, aged two months at the time, died in 2009 at the age of 97. What I find interesting about her story is that her parents, from Branscombe, England, were planning to settle in Wichita, Kansas – where I was born and raised. Her father had relatives there, whom they were planning to join. They weren’t supposed to be aboard the Titanic, but due to a coal strike, they were transferred to the ill-fated ship. To read more of her story, please follow her link.
If Covid’s limitations were lifted right now, and if you had a spare £86,000 ($ 105, 030) burning a hole in your pocket, you could take a real tour of the Titanic and take part in diving expeditions. But barring those two factors, I’ve found a few simpler (and FREE!) alternatives (Just click on the images below each description):
This first link is a 22-minute tour; if you are easily seasick, I’d recommend pausing it occasionally.
This second link is for a slower and smoother version, at 116 minutes (1:56).
This third link is a fascinating documentary following the lives of some of the passengers aboard the Titanic, focusing on 14 from the same Irish village. Three survived to tell the tale.
I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did; I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word in such a situation, but I hope it was at least a satisfying, intriguing glimpse into history. I’ve got slews more tours on the agenda, so buckle up!