“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Numismatics is an interesting field, and in doing research for the Northing Trilogy, I wanted to know just what currencies would have been used at the time (1750s, England), and what the value of the currencies were: How much could be purchased or earned? Would a Stirling pound have made a pauper a land owner or not? That brought me to the current book I’m reading, called “The Splendid Shilling” by James O’Donald Mays. Here are a few bits and bobs:
The word shilling most likely comes from a Teutonic word, skel, to resound or ring, or from skel (also skil), meaning to divide. The Anglo-Saxon poem “Widsith” tells us …”þær me Gotena cyninggodedohte; se me beag forgeaf, burgwarenafruma, on þam siexhund wæs smætes goldes, gescyred sceatta scillingrime...” “There the king of the Goths granted me treasure: the king of the city gave me a torc made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence.” Another translation says that the gold was an armlet, “scored” and reckoned in shilling. The “scoring” may refer to an ancient payment method also known as “hack” – they would literally hack off a chunk of silver or gold jewellery to purchase goods, services and land, and the scoring may have been pre-scored gold to make it easier to break in even increments, or “divisions”. From at least the times of the Saxons, shilling was an accounting term, a “benchmark” value to calculate the values of goods, livestock and property, but did not actually become a coin until the reign of Henry VII in the 1500s, then known as a testoon. The testoon’s name and design were most likely inspired by the Duke of Milan’s testone.
Recently, I came across an interesting piece of history: During the Victorian Age, people were fascinated with nature, excursions, and technology. Microscopes were becoming accessible to the rising middle classes of England, and one man, John Quekett, was fascinated by both microscopes and phytoplankton. He wrote a book called Practical Treastise on the Use of the Microscope, which was a hit among the Victorians, and they began discovering a hidden world of tiny creatures known as plankton and diatoms.
Plankton is what makes the ocean waters green, or aqua-blue – the differences are not only the sand or rock colour of a particular region, but also the density of microscopic life in the water. The denser the population, the lower the visibility. A teaspoon of seawater can contain a million living creatures. Regardless of their size, they underpin the marine foodchain, and indeed, all life on earth: Diatoms, which is the most common type of plankton, number in the trillions (there are over 100,000 known species to date), produce more than 20% of all oxygen on earth, and contribute nearly half of the organic life in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can cover the ocean bed as deep as half a mile in places, and they fertilize the Amazon basin to a tune of 27 million tons annually.
The Victorians knew very little of all that; they were at the dawn of discovery, and modern sciences owe a lot to those early intrepid explorers – women and men who braved the weather, cliffs and oceans in (heavy skirts and) leather shoes to discover, explore, and appreciate nature. Not only did they discover it, but they began making beautiful arrangements from the various shapes – they would display their microscopic artwork to friends, much like we might look through someone’s holiday photos today. These were known as Rosette Slides, and there is still one famous artist keeping this art form alive today: Klaus Kemp, known as the Diatomist. Here are just a few of his masterpieces; to see more, just google his name. The two links in this article will take you to two short videos on the topic. Enjoy!
There’s no denying the fact that computers are huge blessings – combined with that little invention called “internet” they’re an unstoppable pair… until they stop, and life comes to a screeching halt.
That happened last week, as our main office computer gave up the ghost, after fighting a long, painful demise. My own laptop, from which I write, has been limping and is in need of repair, but it was our only lifeline to ordering a replacement… done, and three days later, the packages arrived! I’ve spent the better hours of 5 days sorting out things like transfer of emails and contact lists, programmes, updates, software and hardware setups, and patch-jobs to get old programmes to understand the new ones and vice-versa!
Instead of the “old fashioned” desktop computer with a huge processor that either stands on the floor and collects cat hairs and dust bunnies or stands on our desk and collects dust bunnies and cat hairs, we decided to go with a laptop hooked up to a docking station and two screens. Sweet! And yes, I can use both… it’s great when I’ve got research documents open while writing, or doing translations or editing two documents simultaneously. Now, to get my laptop repaired.
It’s amazing how we’ve become so dependent on computers, isn’t’ it? Personal computers didn’t really begin to enter households in any significant way until around 1990; technically, they hit the market in the early ’80’s, but the products were mostly limited to electronics geeks and university libraries. We got our first home computer in 1993, and it had RAM of a whopping 256 MB!! How could anyone ever use THAT much?? Now we’ve passed Gigabytes, and we’re into terabytes (TB, 10004 ), and it won’t be long until we’re into petabytes (PB, 10005), exabytes (EB, 10006 ), zettabytes (ZB, 10007) and yottabytes (YB, 10008). I remember writing business letters in DOS – back before Windows, virtual desktops or virtual wallpaper had even been dreamt of. I remember floppy discs – the latest in technology, now used as drink coasters somewhere in the world, I’m sure. 5-inch floppy discs became passé with the advent of (gasp!) 2-inch version… how could anything that small have so much space on it (1.44 MB). Imagine – back in the advent of computers, there was no Microsoft, no Amazon, no internet, no cloud storage, no dropbox, no websites, no Skype… they were essentially an information processor, with transfer of information only possible through a floppy disc or good ol’ fashioned printouts and photocopies (we won’t even go into the whole issue of the love-hate relationship most secretaries had with the first few generations of photocopiers).
Do you remember cassette tapes? Polaroid cameras? Now music is on a cloud or virtual shelf, and selfies and Instagram have made physical print photos nearly obsolete, except as an art form.
These images show how far we’ve come in less than 40 years. But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Check out these up-and-coming products or concepts that are in the making: Just hover your cursor over each image for more information.
The people of Talkeetna, Alaska sound like my kind of people: No-nonsense and pragmatic with a big dose of humour. If you haven’t heard the sad news, their honorary mayor of twenty years, Mr Stubbs, passed away recently. He was originally elected because they couldn’t find a politician worth voting for; he was merely “honorary” because Talkeetna is only a historical district, and holds no local election. Mr Stubbs was a cat.
Historically, he’s not alone in being a non-human electoral candidate; often, votes for such candidates are a form of protest or political satire. There has been a long line of them: In 1938, Milton, Washington elected a brown mule, Boston Curtis – he won 51 to 0; in the 1968 US Presidential election, Pigasus the Immortal, a boar hog, was nominated as candidate; Sunol, California elected Bosco – a black Labrador-Rottweiler mix – as mayor, 1981-1994; there have been turkeys, monkeys, rhinos, goats, and even non-animate objects such as a fire hydrant, a sock puppet, and a ficus tree that have attempted (and sometimes succeeded in) getting on the ballots.
Did you know that America could have had a much worthier president now? Limberbutt McCubbins, a cat, was officially registered with the Federal Election Commission as a Democratic candidate for the 2016 Presidential elections. His campaign slogan was “Meow Is The Time”. Here is the link for you to peruse the extensive list of historical non-human politicians and candidates.
Go to the list and choose your favourite example; it might give someone inspiration for their own political conundrum! Comments about non-human politicians, only, please…
I don’t know about you, but when we go on holidays, we usually head to cooler climes. We were recently (technically) in Scotland for a fortnight’s holiday, this time on the Shetland Isles: For those of you who don’t know where that’s at, hop on to Google Earth, and have a vicarious look around. Shetland is a subarctic archipelago in the Atlantic; you’re never more than 3 miles away from the sea because, though the total landmass is about 1,470 square kilometres, there are over 2,700 kilometres of coastline.
We stayed at the Lerwick Hotel, making day-trips out from there. In the 2 weeks we were there we managed to see nearly every nook and cranny by rental car. Many of the “towns” are no more than a collection of a house or two; Lerwick is really the only proper town on Shetland. We covered everything from Sumburgh Head in the south to Hermanness on the northern tip of Unst, the northerly-most inhabited island of the UK.
We usually had perfect weather for being out and about; the wind was mild, and only one day of what’s known as a “flying gale”… that’s when the wind actively tries to either rip the car door out of your hands or slam it shut as you’re trying to get in or out of the car; flying gales drive ships ashore. I point that out because great weather is not to be taken for granted on rocks in the middle of the Atlantic that have no naturally-occurring trees, i.e. windbreaks, and everything that happens is scheduled with the contingency of weather permitting. While we were there, it was “Simmer Dim” = NO night; you could easily read a book outside, no matter the time of day or night.
Our hotel window: We could see Breiwick Bay, the traffic of large ships coming and going from the harbour (even this large three-masted sail ship), and the wildlife of Shetland: Otters, both grey and common seals, dive-bombing gannets, arctic terns flitting over the water like butterflies, and a variety of gulls that kept us entertained.
Mousa Isle: We took a “dusk” (midnight) boat trip and hiked ½ a mile across the moors to the Mousa Broch, the most intact broch in the world. In the walls of this ancient tower are around 500 pairs of Storm Petrels – swallow-like sea birds who sound like purring kittens with hiccups as they call for their mates, to be found by them in the crowded darkness. Darkness is relative in the summer; they need to wait until it’s darkest before returning from their time at sea, as they are targets for larger bird’s menus.
Norwick Beach: On northern Unst, this beach is a visual smorgasbord for any geologist, because it’s where an ocean floor was thrust upward to collide with the continent millions of years ago. The stone formations jutting out in the middle of the beach are two distinct colours, dark and light, side by side. That beach is just an example of the stunning geological history and beauty of the islands. They’ve even got an app, “Geopark Shetland”.
Wildlife: Shetland has the highest density of otters of anywhere in Europe, with around 1,000; Shetland ponies (everywhere!); puffins – the darlings of the sea, and one of our favourite birds; gannets, terns, guillemots, razorbills, oyster catchers, great black-backed gulls, great skuas, herring gulls, black-hooded gulls, kittiwakes, and dozens of other seabirds; cliff-dwelling rabbits (puffins are even known to share their burrows with them); Shetland sheep – they’ve got very soft wool, and tend to be brownish with black spots; some of them were adorable, with spotted eyes like pandas.
History: With over 6,000 archaeological sites and dozens of great museums, there was never a dull moment! Clickhimin Broch was a short walk away from our hotel; Mousa Broch was an amazing experience – to sit inside it, as people did 2,000 years ago… you could still see the slats in the walls where wooden beams would have supported upper floors. We spent a lot of time at the Shetland Museum in Lerwick; well laid out, it was informative and inviting, with a great restaurant.
I could go on and on – and perhaps I’ll write an article or two more about some aspect of the Isles in the future, but for now, here are a few photos.
In researching for my novel, “The Cardinal“, I did a lot of research into the Viking Age of Scotland, Norway, and in modern-day Britain. The following is a snippet of the notes and thoughts I percolated over while studying into this amazing time in world history. Some of the speculations, such as the motivations behind the Lindisfarne attack, are my own, based on studies and extrapolation.
I think it’s impossible to do justice to any information about the Vikings; their existence, culture, language, mentality, and the effect of their actions have had repercussions that echo down through the ages. They gave names to countless cities throughout the world, and even entire regions: The Norse kingdom of Dublin (Old Norse for “Black Pool”) was a major centre of the Norse slave trade; Limerick, Wexford and Wicklow were other major ports of trade; Russia gets its name from them, and the list goes on and on. Had they not been so successful in the slave trade and conquest, entire regions of the earth would be populated differently, place names would be vastly different, and English would be a far poorer language than it is today.
“A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pg. 37)
This reference from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the most famous history books available in English, is a reference to what would become known as the beginning of the Viking Age, the attack on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne. Firstly, I’d like to clarify a few points: “Viking” is a term that first came into being, in its present spelling, in 1840; it entered English through the Old Norse term “vikingr” in 1807. The Old Norse term meant “freebooter, pirate, sea-rover, or viking”, and the term “viking” meant “piracy, freebooting voyage.” The armies of what we would call Vikings were referred to by their contemporaries as Danes, and those who settled were known by the area they settled in, or visa-versa. Those who settled in the northeastern regions of Europe were called Rus by their Arabian and Constantinopolitan trading partners, perhaps related to the Indo-European root for “red”, referring to their hair colour, or – more likely – related to the Old Norse word of Roþrslandi, “the land of rowing,” in turn related to Old Norse roðr “steering oar,” from which we get such words as “rudder” and “row”.
Oh, and not a single Norse battle helmet with horns has ever been found.
I’d like to focus on a key point of the Lindisfarne episode, if one could refer so glibly to the slaughter of innocent monks and the beginning of the reign of terror that held the civilized world in constant fear for over two centuries: Yes, the Vikings were violent; their religion of violent gods and bloody sacrifices and rituals encouraged and cultivated it to a fine art. Yes, the Vikings were tradesmen, but they were also skilled pirates and raiders, that skill honed along their own home coasts for generations prior to their debut on the rest of the unsuspecting world. Yes, it was known that monasteries held items sacred to the Christian faith, that just happened to be exquisitely wrought works of art made of gold and jewels.
Gold was one enticement; but their primary trading good was human flesh; slaves. It was by far the most lucrative item, and readily had along any coast they chose; if too many died in the voyage they could always just get more before they docked at Constantinople, Dublin, or any other major trading port. So why did they slaughter the monks so mercilessly at Lindisfarne, when they would have gained more by taking them captive and either selling them as slaves or selling them for ransom? The answer might actually be found in Rome.
Charlemagne (ruled 768-814 AD) took up his father’s reigns and papal policies in 768 AD. From about 772 AD onwards, his primary occupation became the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Saxons along his northeastern frontier. It is very important to make a distinction between the modern expressions of the Christian faith and the institution of power mongers of past centuries; Christianity then had extremely little to do with the teachings of Christ and far more to do with political and military power, coercion, and acquisition of wealth through those powers; it was a political means to their own ends with the blessing of the most powerful politician in the history of the civilized world, the Pope. Without his blessing and benediction, a king had not only very little power, but was exposed to attack from anyone who had “holy permission” to exterminate heathens; joining the ranks of the Christian church took on the all-important definition of survival, and protection from the others in those ranks being free to attack you at their leisure.
In the year 772 AD, Charlemagne’s forces clashed with the Saxons and destroyed Irmensul, the Saxon’s most holy shrine and likely their version of the Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, of Scandinavian mythology. In the Royal Frankish Annals of 775 AD, it was recorded that the king (Charlemagne) was so determined in his quest that he decided to persist until they were either defeated and forced to accept the papal authority (in the guise of “Christian faith”), or be entirely exterminated [Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, trans. Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers (Michigan 1972: 51)]. Charlemagne himself conducted a few mass “baptisms” to underscore the close identification of his military power with the Christian church.
“In 782 the Saxons rebelled again and defeated the Franks in the Süntel hills. Charlemagne’s response was the infamous massacre of Verden on the banks of the river Aller, just south of the neck of the Jutland peninsula. As many as 4,500 unarmed Saxon captives were forcibly baptised into the Church and then executed. Even this failed to end Saxon resistance and had to be followed up by a programme of transportations in 794 in which about 7,000 of them were forcibly resettled. Two further campaigns of forcible resettlement followed, in 797 and in 798…. Heathens were defined as less than fully human so that, under contemporary Frankish canon law, no penance was payable for the killing of one” [Ferguson, Robert (2009-11-05). The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings (Kindle Locations 1048-1051). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.]
The defining of a heathen as less than human was actually not a unique idea; Scandinavians were familiar with that notion from their own cultures, which defined slaves as less than human and therefore tradable goods; and if a freeman announced his intention of killing someone (anyone) it was not considered murder as the victim was given “fair” warning.
The more I learn about Charlemagne’s brutal policies toward what he considered sub-human pagans, the more I understand the reaction of retaliation toward the symbols of that so-called Christian faith, the monasteries and its inhabitants. They slaughtered, trampled, polluted, dug up altars, stole treasures, killed some, enslaved some, drove out others naked while heaping insults on them, and others they drowned in the sea. The latter was perhaps a tit-for-tat for those at Verden who were forcibly baptised and then killed.
Lindisfarne was merely the first major attack in Britain that was highly publicized (as chroniclers of history were usually monks, and those such as Alcuin knew the inhabitants of Lindisfarne personally), in what would become a 250-year reign of terror, violence, slavery, raping, pillaging, plundering and theft either by force or by Danegeld. But as in all good histories, it’s important to remember that hurt people hurt people; the perpetrator was at one time a victim. One might say that what goes around comes around. It’s no excuse or downplay of what happened there, which literally changed the course of the civilised world, but it perhaps gives a wider perspective on the Vikings of the times rather than just the vicious raiders portrayed in so many documentaries. And it is important to remember that Vikings did not equal Norsemen; the majority of Scandinavians were farmers and fishermen, living as peacefully as their times would allow, and even themselves victims to the occasional Viking raid.
I just returned from a long weekend away with my husband in Bilbao, Spain. I say that with trepidation, as, according to many Basque people, it is not Spain, but Basque Country. There are some who are content to remain part of Spain and France, and others who want independence, so when in Basque Country, say it the Basque way.
As a lover of history, linguistics and just about everything else except strenuous exercise, I can say that it was a great weekend (even though a lot of exercise snuck in)! Great weather, great food, great architecture, confusing languages, and interesting sites all round. Here are some highlights:
Guggenheim Museum: The building itself is well worth the visit! The architect, Frank Gehry, literally designed the building on one of his free-form doodles. With only one straight wall that I could see, I can imagine that he was doodling when the phone rang and made his hand jerk, causing the straight line… it’s an engineering feat, to say the least. Just outside the Guggenheim are several sculptures, notably a giant dog made of flowering plants; it was intended to be a temporary display, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with it, and it’s now a permanent landmark. There’s also one for us odd arachnophiles out there, a giant spider. Two sculptures look like they’d float away, even though they weigh tons: “Tulips”, and a tower of balls.
The weather was perfect, so we took a “Bilboat” tour down the waterway; it gave us the chance to see areas of the city which are usually far from the tourist route; areas that are in the throes of rejuvenation and restoration.
Pintxos: You can’t go to Basque Country and eat in a usual restaurant! You need to go (what my husband and I dubbed) “Pintxopping” – like pub crawling but for a Pintxos (“Pinchos”) dinner. They are similar to Spanish tapas but far more elaborate; 5-6 will make a meal. 12 Euro will get you 6 Pintxos and a pint of beer. Any Pintxos bar worth their salt will spread out a wide variety of the treats along the length of their bar, and diners choose a selection of hot and cold delicacies. Bars pride themselves on signature creations; one bar we ate at had a mound of crab meat baked under a layer of squid-ink-tinted cheese, in the shape of a regional mountain. Most are served atop toasted slices of Baguettes, though there are also many on skewers, or served as spring rolls. If you’re now hungry, sorry about that – but you can find recipes all over Pinterest.
Language: The Basque language (Euskara) is a language isolate – in other words, it is unrelated to any other known language. Within language families, one could interpret this or that word based on a known relative language, e.g. between English street and German strasse. But looking at a road sign in Bilbao, you would have NO clue as to which word is the street name, and which is the word for street, road or path. Unless you know Basque, you would have no chance of interpreting anything – even if the context is known. An example sentence from the article on Wikipedia illustrates that point: “Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit” means “Martin buys the newspapers for me”. It is the last remaining descendant of one of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe, with every other language that might have existed in relation to it having gone extinct, so there’s no way to decipher it based on a comparative method, linguistically. It may have been related to the Aquitanian language, which was spoken in the region before the Roman Republic’s conquest in the Pyrenees region, but the exact origins are unknown. It’s a fascinating study, if you’re interested!
One of the images above was taken on my flight home; the Alps were in fine form, and the weather great for flying; Matterhorn can be seen in the centre. I hope you enjoyed my mini-tour, and I would recommend that you get yourself a pintxo or two to tide you over until your next meal…
“The art of pure line engraving is dying out. We live at too fast a rate to allow for the preparation of such plates as our fathers appreciated. If a picture catches the public fancy, the public must have an etched or a photogravure copy of it within a month or two of its appearance. The days when engravers were wont to spend two or three years over a single plate are forever gone.”
Journal of the Institute of Jamaica, Volume 1, 1892