An Ice Core Reveals How Profoundly The Black Death Changed Medieval Society

In the year of the Lord 1347, the Black Death arrived in Europe. Introduced by merchants coming from Asia, the plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread quickly. Following trading routes, in just six years this incurable disease killed 25 million people, one-third of the population on the continent. Entire villages were wiped out, some cities lost 80% of their citizens. The plague was followed by famine. Thomas Basinus (1412-1491), bishop of Èvreux and later historian, notes that ‘many peasants fled or died so that many fields remained uncultivated or there was nobody left to care.’ In the cities, overpopulation and poor hygiene helped to spread the plague, rivers were used to dispose of the many corpses, contaminating the water. Riots of desperate people were common, like in 1323 in Flanders and in 1358 in France. Many believed, as one witness testified, that the end of the world had arrived.

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The Triumph of Death is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted c. 1562 it was inspired by the waves of the Black Death plaguing the 14th century.

The dramatically reduced population had, however, a surprisingly beneficial effect on the environment. The pollution of the air dropped to a historic low.

Analyzing a 236 feet long ice core recovered from a glacier in the Swiss-Italian Alps, a team of scientists from Harvard University was able to reconstruct the concentration of lead in the air over Europe for the last 2,000 years. The research with the title ‘Next-generation ice core technology reveals true minimum natural levels of lead (Pb) in the atmosphere: Insights from the Black Death,’ was published in the open access journal GeoHealth.

Atmospheric circulation transported the lead from the lowlands into the Alps, where it was washed out from the atmosphere by rain and snow. The snow, accumulating mostly during winter, partially melts and changes over the summer into ice, forming single layers, as found in a glacier. By analyzing the concentration of elements in the single layers, it is possible to create an annual record of the atmospheric deposition. One significant spike can be found around 1349-1353 when the measured concentration of lead dropped far below the average value of 10^2 nanogram of lead per liter air. Even today, after the introduction of unleaded fuel in the 1980s, the concentration of lead in the air is still 10 times higher as in 1350.

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Reconstructed lead concentration in the last 2,000 years and most important mining districts. Image Source & Credit MORE et al. 2017. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

In medieval times, lead was used for roofing of large buildings such as cathedrals, water pipes, but especially for dishes and glazed pottery valued by the rich. The most important lead ore is galena. As galena also contains silver, it was widely mined (silver, lead, and copper were the most important metals in medieval Europa). The most productive mines were found on the British island, South Italy, the Harz mountains with Freiberg in Saxony and Kutna Hora in Bohemia. We know of contemporary records of the silver medieval monarchs received as royalties, that the mines of  Freiberg and Kutna Hora alone provided 20 tons of silver and 100 tons of lead per year. To get this amount,  it was necessary to mine and process an almost 2,000 times larger quantity of rocks and ore. The Black Death impacted mining in two ways. The miners and workers died in great number, and many mines were abandoned. As the population died, including the rich people, the demand for lead also dropped.

The Black Death was so deadly, mining for lead virtually stopped and no lead dust, coming from both mining as smelting, was dispersed into the environment. As the atmosphere became cleaner, the concentration of lead deposited in the glaciers of the Alps dropped.

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Entrance to a medieval mine in the Alps, dated around 1530.

The Black Death had a disastrous impact and yet helped to create modern Europe. Plagued previously by overpopulation and poverty, Europe could reinvent itself after the Black Death made the old political system obsolete. Many peasants at the time were virtually slaves, owned by the rich landlords. As the landlords were gone, many people were free to choose where and when to settle. The surviving landlords, in desperate need of somebody to take care of their properties,  agreed to lower the taxes and more privileges were granted to farmers. Wages everywhere increased, as healthy workers were rare, and the land became cheaper. Many previously poor people managed to achieve some wealth. Authorities even tried to forbid the use of fur in clothing, a privilege reserved only to the aristocracy in former times, but now common. Political and social independence was now possible and a new class rose from the ashes of the old society — the free citizen. A new human being for a new epoch, as the Renaissance was later seen by historians. However, even after 1353, the Black Death didn’t completely disappear. Almost once in a decade, a smaller outbreak was reported, but improved hygiene in the cities, quarantine procedures, and an acquired genetic immunity of the survivors reduced the risk of infection significantly.

This societal development can also be seen in the studied ice core. Just some years after the plague of 1347-1353, the concentration of lead significantly increased, approaching values seen before the Black Death. The European mining industry experienced a boom in the 15th and 16th century, testified also by many active mines found now also in the Alps. Only recently the concentration of lead started to drop again, in response to efforts to ban this toxic element from daily use and improved environmental regulations. However, it is still an important metal, mostly used for batteries in the automobile industry.

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How to drink like a Norman

“The English are noted among foreigners for their persistent drinking.” observed John of Salisbury, Bishop of Chartres from 1176-80.

But whatever they thought of the English reputation for drunkenness, the Normans appear to have had no problem with joining in our frolics…

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Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Almost every Anglo-Saxon village had an ale house, also known as a ”Gild-house”. It was the heart of the community, where all important meetings took place, from business transactions to wedding celebrations. An ”ale” was the term used for a social gathering, and just about any event would merit an ale.

These could range from bride-ales (which is where the word “bridal” originates) to lamb-ales. Church festivals in particular were a good excuse for a knees-up. By the 13th century some bishops were so fed up with their parishioners’ bawdy behaviour that they tried to ban ales. Their pleas for decorum fell on deaf ears.

Scot-ales were particularly disliked by the clergy. ‘’Scot’’ means payment, and at a scot-ale that meant contributing a flagon or two of beer (an early form of ‘Bring Your Own’), or its money equivalent. In fact, many scot-ales were a means of raising cash for the host, and a lord of the manor hosting a scot-ale could insist on your attendance. Certain members of society could avoid scot-ales, such as the foresters and beadles who were exempted from compulsion in the Charter of the Forest of 1217.

A toast to your health

A common practice at any ale was to toast your fellow drinkers with a hearty ‘Washeil!’ (health be to you!–which later became ”Wassail” as in some Christmas carols) to which they would reply ‘Drincheil’ and duly drink. After a while the toast became a good excuse to get your drinking buddies to drink even more.

Gerald of Wales, Archdeacon of Brecon (1146–1223) recounts the story of a Cistercian abbot who challenged a weary traveller to a drinking game. Instead of the customary toasts of Washeil and Drincheil, the abbot changed them to ‘Pril’ and ‘Wril’ respectively. The pair continued toasting each other into the small hours of the morning. Unbeknown to the poor abbot, his drinking companion was none other than King Henry II. Fortunately, the king saw the funny side, greeting the abbot with “Pril” the next time he met him.

The staff of life

After bread, beer–or rather ”ale”, since at this time it was made without hops–was the staff of life. Because possibly polluted water was rightly considered too dangerous to drink, everyone drank beer, from small children through to grown men and women. For the common people, this wouldn’t change after the Norman Conquest.

Many different kinds of beer were available, from bright ale (which as the name suggests was clear, because the dregs had been allowed to settle before consumption), through mild ale (or ”small beer”) to extra strong twice-brewed ale. Sometimes herbs like rosemary, yarrow, betony, gale or bog myrtle were used to flavour the beer. Kent was particularly famed for its beer. Even the French were said to admire English ale, reputedly saying it could rival wine in colour and flavour!

An apple a day

Apples had grown in England for countless centuries, but it seems the Normans were chiefly responsible for introducing us to the joys of cider. William the Conqueror may have brought casks of cider with him when he invaded in 1066.

By the middle of the 12th century cider was being made in Kent and Sussex. It was said to rival beer in popularity, with the 12th-century guru of etiquette, Daniel of Beccles, declaring it to be the ‘Englishman’s drink’. If you had a choleric temperament, cider was thought to be good for you as it was cold and moist, and thus counteracted the warm and dry characteristics of a choleric drinker.

However, cider was not a drink embraced by all. In the 16th century, the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot claimed that people in cider-making areas were pale and wrinkled despite being young!

In vino veritas

Wine was considered to be the most prestigious drink during the middle ages, and under the Normans our wine consumption increased. Although Daniel of Beccles would warn “Beware of drinking wine greedily like Bacchus”.

The Normans, and particularly their monasteries, planted vines; by the time of Domesday Book (1086) there were nearly 40 vineyards in southern England. The slopes below the monastery at Ely were even known as the isle des vignes.

Although the Normans had some success with wine production in England, English wine was still considered inferior to French wine. Fortunately, if the grapes were rated as being not ripe enough for wine they could be turned into verjuice, a sharp vinegar which featured heavily in medieval cuisine. The vineyards in Ely were particularly renowned for the production of verjuice. Cheap wine imports from Gascony would eventually cause the English wine industry to go into decline during the reign of Henry II (1154-89)

Medieval wine was considered past its best after a year, irrespective of where the wine had come from or its original quality. Wine travelled in barrels–bottling was a long way in the future–and once these were tapped the wine would begin to decline. ‘Gone-off’ wine could either be sold cheaply or perhaps spiced and sweetened to make it more palatable. One version of the latter concoction was known as Hippocras, which took its name from the bag it was strained through, the ‘Hippocratic sleeve’ reputedly invented by the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates to filter water.

If selling bad wine wasn’t an option, or spicing it failed, you could try the following recipe from Guillaume Tirel ( known as Taillevent), 14th-century chef to Charles V of France:

To Cure Ropy Wine, 
or Wine that has Taken on the Smell of the Cask,
or a Musky or Musty Taste.

Beat two pennyworth of ginger together with two pennyworth of zedoary [white turmeric] and set this powder to boil in two quarts of wine, skimming well, then pour it while it is hot into the vessel and stir it right to the bottom, them stop the vessel up tightly and let the mixture sit until it has settled.

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The Ides of March and The assassination of Julius Caesar

Spurinna was a haruspex. His calling was vital, if a little unusual, requiring him to see the future in the warm entrails of sacrificial animals.

At the great festival of Lupercalia on the 15th of February 44 B.C., he was a worried man. While priests were running around the Palatine Hill hitting women with thongs to make them fertile, Spurinna was chewing over a terrible omen.

The bull that Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, had sacrificed earlier that day had no heart. Spurinna knew it was a terrible sign: a sure portent of death.

The following day, the haruspex oversaw another sacrifice in the hope it would give cause for optimism, but it was just as bad: the animal had a malformed liver. There was nothing for it but to tell Caesar.

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La Mort de César (ca. 1859–1867) by Jean-Léon Gérôme

In grave tones, Spurinna warned the dictator that his life would be in danger for a period of 30 days, which would expire on the 15th of March. Caesar dismissed the concerns. Although in his scramble for political power he had been made the chief priest of Rome (Pontifex Maximus), he was a campaign soldier by trade, and not bothered by the divinatory handwringing of seers like Spurinna.

The Ides of March

As the 30 days passed, nothing whatsoever happened. Yet when the 15th of March dawned, Caesar’s wife awoke distressed after dreaming she held his bloodied body. Fearing for his life, she begged him not to leave the house. His dreams, too, had also been unsettling. He had been flying through the air, and shaken hands with Jupiter. But he pushed any concerns aside. The day was an important annual celebration in Rome’s religious calendar, and he had called a special meeting of the Senate.

His first appointment of the day was a quick sacrifice at a friend’s house. Spurinna the seer was also there. Caesar joked that his prophecies must be off as nothing had happened. Spurinna muttered that the day was not yet over.

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The sacrifices proceeded, but the animals’ innards were blemished and the day was plainly inauspicious. Caesar knew when to call it a day, and agreed to postpone the meeting of the Senate and to go home.

Later that morning, his fellow military politician and protégé Decimus called round, urging him to come to the Senate in case his absence was seen as mocking or insulting. Persuaded by his friend, soldier to soldier, Caesar agreed to go in person to announce the meeting would be postponed.

Shortly after, a slave arrived at Caesar’s house to warn him of the plot against his life. But he was too late: Caesar had left. A short while later, a man named Artemidorus of Cnidus pushed through the jostling crowds and handed Caesar a roll setting out details of the plot. But the crowds were so thick he had no chance to read it.

The conspiracy and assassination

The main Senate House was being rebuilt on Caesar’s orders, so the meeting was instead at the Curia behind the porticoed gardens attached to the great Theatre of Pompey. Another round of animal sacrifices before the start of the session was unfavourable, and Caesar waited outside, troubled. Again Decimus spoke with him. Unaware of his friend’s treachery, Caesar allowed himself to be led towards the chamber by the hand. Decked out in his triumphant general’s reddish-purple toga embroidered in gold, Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, entered the Senate’s meeting room, and ascended his golden throne.

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The end came quickly. A group of Senators approached the dais. Daggers were produced from the capsae document chests the slaves had recently brought in. The metal flashed. In a frenzied attack, the most powerful man in Rome was stabbed 23 times. He fell, still clutching the unread scroll warning him to stay away.

In the English-speaking world, we know a slightly different story, thanks to Shakespeare. He lifted Caesar’s dramatic dying words, “Et tu, Brute?” from an earlier play by Richard Edes, and made them a part of the assassination mythology. In reality, most Roman writers state that Caesar said nothing, but merely pulled his toga up over his face. They do note, however, that some people were spreading the story that Caesar had gasped, “καὶ σὺ, τέκνον?/You too, my child?” to Brutus. (Many Romans of all classes were bilingual, with the more educated frequently preferring to speak Greek.)

Most famously, however, Shakespeare does away with Spurinna, the venerable entrails-gazer, and instead invents a soothsayer in a crowd, who shouts the famous prophetic warning to Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March!” It is, perhaps, one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and, as a direct result, “the Ides” has come to mean a date of doom.

The Roman calendar

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In fact, it implies neither good nor bad. In Rome’s impossibly complicated calendar, every month had an Ides. Although Monty Python spelled out many of the Romans’ achievements, a user-friendly dating system was not among them.

In the mists of time, the early Romans began each month at the new moon. They called that day the Kalends (Kalendae). Two weeks later came the full moon, which they named the Ides (Idus). Midway between the two was the half-moon, which they referred to as the Nones (Nonae). For some inexplicable reason, they then chose to refer to every other day in the month in terms of its relationship to the next one of these coming up. So they would say, “five days before the Kalends of March,” or “three days before the Nones of June”.

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Fragment of an imperial-age consular fasti, Museo Epigrafico, Rome

The Kalends was always the 1st of the month. Over time, the others came to fall on set days. In March, May, July, and October, the Nones was the 7th and the Ides was the 15th. For the remaining months, the Nones was the 5th and the Ides was the 13th. Therefore the 4th of July was IIII Nones July (ie four days before the Nones – the calculation is inclusive, so both the 4th and the 7th are counted).

Although every month had an Ides in the middle, the date chosen by Caesar’s murderers was nevertheless significant. Traditionally, the Roman year started on the 1st of March, meaning the Ides was the first full moon of the year. It was a major celebration, and the festival of Anna Perenna, the goddess of the cycle of the year. Her special gift was to reward people with long life. Caesar’s assassins clearly thought they were giving long life to Rome (and their own political careers) by removing the dictator they believed was blighting it all.

A world changing aftermath

As it happens, the murder of Caesar did turn out to be a key moment in history.

Caesar may have brought Rome glory in his conquest of Gaul. He may have started and won a civil war that eventually vested absolute power in him. He may have begun highly popular social and political reforms, and even had time to abolish the chaotic ever-changing calendar and bring in his “Julian calendar,” which lasted a millennium and a half until tweaked by Pope Gregory in 1582. But in his muscular assumption of power, and his popularity among the citizenry, he threatened the deep vested interests of the patricians, who had run the Republic and the Senate for so long. It was enough to seal his fate.

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Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome.

With Caesar gone, Rome spiralled into another cycle of civil wars, which resulted in one of the most significant constitutional transformations in history. The Eternal City abandoned its trademark republican system of government and became an empire. In place of the Senate electing two consuls each year as joint heads of state, they transferred power to a largely omnipotent emperor. Ever since, people have argued which system was better.

Supporters of the Republic point to how it threw off the tyrannical king Tarquin the Proud and introduced elements of democracy, with power held by the patricians and the plebeians: SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus. They note how it found fame and glory in conquering almost all the Mediterranean basin: Italy, Spain, France, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, spreading its influence far beyond ancient Latium.

Advocates of the Empire, on the other hand, highlight that the Republic was in reality a hereditary oligarchy in the hands of the wealthy patrician families who ran the all-powerful Senate with no genuine voice for the plebeians, women, or slaves. They also point out that the Republic was too weak to govern effectively at home or abroad, instead relying on “bread and circuses” to keep its citizens happy amid endless civil wars. They note that Rome only truly became a great power under the might of the Empire, which lasted even longer than the Republic, and in the East until A.D. 1453.

Caesar himself remains equally as contested a character. He embodies the conflict between Republic and Empire like no one else. He was a military colossus, original thinker, compelling writer, magnetic orator, dynamic reformer, and magnanimous politician. Yet he was also manipulative, narcissistic, egotistical, sexually predatory, shockingly savage in war even by Roman standards, and monomaniacally obsessed with acquiring absolute power for himself.

Little did Spurinna the haruspex know, as he pored over the succession of hot entrails in early 44 B.C., that the man who teased him about his dud prophecies would, within two years, rise from the tomb as “the Divine Julius” (Divus Iulius), Rome’s first resident to be declared a god. Far from heralding doom, the Ides of March, in fact, finally brought Caesar the hallowed immortality he always craved.

Source.

Save Bede’s World

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‘[…] There’s a living-museum up here in the North-East called Bede’s World based on the life of the venerable Saint Bede and Anglo-Saxon history and culture.

The site features a copy of one of the very first Latin bible codices (something which would bring international fame to the site), a living Anglo-Saxon farmstead (yet lacking the national and international status that similar living history museums like Weald And Down in West Sussex possesses), a cast of Bede’s skull (his actual body is buried in Durham cathedral), various Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds, an Anglo Saxon boat-building project (and it is likely that English boat-fishing originated in the North East rivers), a herb garden, and was the home of one of the most important people in history, the venerable Saint Bede. These are things which were never given the wider attention that they deserve.

As the link will add, Bede was a man who was responsible for the very name ‘English’ (Angli, Englisc) and English history, our B.C./A.D. dating system and astronomy, theological commentaries, writings on art and poetry, early scientific measurements for building (fathom, yard etc.) and much, much more. In short he is responsible for a great contribution to not only England and Britain, but to the rest of the world.

Here is a summary by someone of why Bede’s World as a site really matters to them and should for others.

If you could add your signature to this petition towards the South Tyneside council, it would be gladly appreciated. I hope that enough interest in it can help the council to realise that reinvestment in the site and the future it can have under new ownership:

SIGN THE PETITION

Adam Brunn’

The Vandals: victims of a bad press?

British Museum blog

mosaicBarry Ager, curator, British Museum

Copper 42 nummi coin showing a Vandal warrior. Although it does not carry a king’s name, it is possible that this coin was made during the time of Gelimer (AD 530-3), and thus he may be the intended identity of the cloaked figure with a spear. The reverse shows the mark of value in Roman numerals (including the long-tailed L (=50) typical of Latin inscriptions in Vandal Africa, and also seen on Gelimer’s silver coinage). Above is the fine image of a horse’s head, the traditional emblem of Carthage since Punic times. TC,p241.2.Car Copper 42 nummi coin showing a Vandal warrior. Although it does not carry a king’s name, it is possible that this coin was made during the time of Gelimer (AD 530-3), and thus he may be the intended identity of the cloaked figure with a spear. The reverse shows the mark of value in Roman numerals (including the long-tailed L (=50) typical of Latin inscriptions in Vandal Africa, and also seen on Gelimer’s silver coinage). Above is the fine image of a horse’s head, the traditional emblem of Carthage since Punic times. TC,p241.2.Car

The name of the Vandals is synonymous today with wanton violence and destruction. But it seems to me that, just like the Vikings, the Vandals have suffered from a bad press. The surviving accounts of their sack of Rome in AD 455, of their further piratical raids around the Mediterranean, and of…

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