Ask Mike

A selection of answers to questions posed by readers of AskHistorians. Refreshed most weeks, with the latest postings at the top.

Or go here for more answers from Mike.

Short index to questions (the lower the number, the further down the column the answer will be found)

[30] Every once in a while, a website will claim that teeth extracted from dead soldiers at Waterloo supplied dentures across Europe for years. Is this a myth?

[29] In 1765, a chimney sweep was exiled from Edinburgh for five years for assisting in a public hanging. Why?

[28] The medieval legend of the Dry Tree.

[27] Did the NYTimes run the headline “The Apostle of Hate is Dead” in response to Malcolm X’s assassination?

[26] There where many types of guilds in the middle ages. Did any of them focus ONLY on illegal activities (smuggler guilds, thieves guild etc) ? Or does this only happen in fantasy novels?

[25] How did the ancient White Horse, a huge hill-figure carved into a chalky down in the south of England in about 1,000 BCE, survive all the political, social and military changes that took place in the area for thousands of years without growing over?

[24] Is it possible that an Islamic city-state, rather like Venice, might have flourished on the desert coast of Somalia in the medieval period, sent envoys all the way to Beijing, and evolved a stable form of republican government that lasted well into the nineteenth century?

[23] How did the general public in England regard Halley’s Comet in 1066? Was universally seen as an ill portent?

[22] How did the sack of Guangzhou (Canton) in 879, at the end of the Tang dynasty, affect transoceanic trade between the Tang empire and Abbasid caliphate?

[21] I was reading about the history of the stapler and found that the first stapler was made for King Louis XV. “The ornate staples it used were forged from gold, encrusted with precious stones, and bore his Royal Court’s insignia.” Is this true? Does the stapler still exist?

[20] Why can’t I find very much information about the 14th Century Black Death in Asia?

[19] In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo claims that children were kidnapped during the reign of Louis XV, and rumours were whispered of the King’s ‘purple baths’. What is Hugo referring to here, and would the rumours have been common knowledge to a reader at the time?

[18] Do we know of any cases in the Catholic Church when the Advocatus Diaboli (or Devil’s Advocate) successfully argued against someone becoming a saint?

[17] Did Britain fund and direct the 1801 assassination of Tsar Paul?

[16] Did Coca-Cola produce a clear version of Coke for General Zhukov that could be disguised as vodka? If so, for how long was this going on?

[15] Why did Poland have lower rates of Black Death than other European countries during the 1300s?

[14] What is the truth about “getting shanghaied”? Was there such a thing as a bar in 19th-century San Francisco with a chair that dumped drugged people down a trapdoor to kidnap them and force them into the sailing life?

[13] During the New York Draft Riots (1863), supposedly the New York Times defended their office from the mob with 2 Gatling guns. Where did they obtain these guns and ammunition and how did they turn away the mob?

[12] Is it true that Henry VIII feared being attacked so much he had himself bricked into his bedroom every night?

[11] On the giants of Patagonia

[10] Whatever happened to the hotel detective?

[9] At any point between the end of WWI and the end of WWII was there ever a rise of supernatural beliefs in Japan?

[8] Why did Hatshepsut’s successors attempt to proscribe her memory?

[7] What was the murder rate during the medieval period?

[6] I am a hot-blooded young British woman in the Victorian era, hitting the streets of Manchester for a night out with my fellow ladies and I’ve got a shilling burning a hole in my purse. What kind of vice and wanton pleasures are available to me?

[5] Did British criminals in the 1700s and 1800s really worship a deity called the Tawny Prince? If so, what were the origins of this deity?

[4] How bad would it have smelled in a medieval city?

[3] What exactly were the relics on which Harold Godwinson swore his oath to William of Normandy?

[2] What prompted the first emperor of Qin to have hundreds of scholars buried alive and their works burned?

[1] Were the pyramids still kept in repair at the time of Cleopatra?

Aftermath of Waterloo

The aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. About 50,000 men died, leaving a rich haul for looters – including specialists who supplied human teeth to dentists.

Every once in a while a website will claim that teeth extracted from dead soldiers at Waterloo supplied dentures across Europe for years. Is this a myth?

A: Human teeth were very much ‘state of the art’ dental supplies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Dentistry had made some significant advanced during the Georgian period, and it was by this time relatively commonplace for the wealthy to experiment with tooth transplants or to sport dentures. The latter were most often made of either carved from ivory or cast in gold, silver, or porcelain, then bolted into ivory bases that were often sourced from the hippopotamus. Human teeth, however, offered a more naturalistic look, and dentures that made use of them were generally preferred by discerning customers who could afford them. There was, therefore, a significant demand for teeth not only in 1815, but for many years afterwards.

With all this said, however, it is very difficult to find contemporary accounts of teeth that were specifically sourced from the battlefield of Waterloo, and while the evidence suggests that large quantities certainly were removed from the dead after the battle, I can find no evidence that they were sold to customers as such. In fact, while the term “Waterloo teeth” is now applied fairly indiscriminately to all sets of human false teeth made during the first half of the 19th century, it seems extremely unlikely that it was used either at the time or in the decades after the battle took place. The several hundreds of thousands of pages of digitised newspapers available via the British Newspaper Archive contain no references to the phrase throughout the whole of the 19th century, and Google Books yields only a single citation from the same period, which is American and dates to no earlier than 1858.

In short, the phrase “Waterloo teeth” appears to be essentially an invention of the 20th century, and in fact Ngram viewer suggests that it was not popularised until after 1955.

sol;diers teeth

Human incisors on display in one of many images findable online that supposedly show “Waterloo teeth”

This discovery might be taken to suggest that the widely-accepted idea that British (and presumably Belgian) mouths were adorned for decades with “Waterloo teeth” is essentially a myth. In fact, however, the evidence rather strongly suggests that teeth extracted from the Napoleonic Wars dead actually were available and used in some quantity after 1815 – it was just that they were not known by this name, and were not sourced solely from Waterloo.


In order to better understand what happened, let’s start with a look at contemporary dentistry; move on to evidence suggesting that looting and desecration of the bodies of the dead did take place at Waterloo and on other battlefields during the Napoleonic period and afterwards; and conclude with what can actually be said in regard to the evidence that teeth extracted on the battlefield really were used by dentists in Regency England.

Dentistry, at least in Europe, was an innovation of the 18th century. Loss of teeth and poor dental health had been taken largely for granted before that date; Colin Jones’s recent The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris points out that, prior to c.1780, portraits typically show sitters with a “snooty, aggressive, close-mouth smile,” and that this was done to hide the deplorable state of their teeth – studied closely, a portrait of Louis XIV dating to 1701, when the Sun King was in his mid-60s, “reveals a ruler with not a tooth in his head.” The 18th century, in contrast, witnessed the introduction of toothbrushes, toothpicks, mouthwash, tongue-scrapers and lipsticks (the latter first developed to contrast with the whiteness of the teeth). Jones argues that these and other improvements in dentistry helped to make possible a “smile revolution” that made it fashionable to display good teeth.

This development ran in parallel with both an enlightenment-era “culture of sensibility,” which made the display of emotions such as happiness central to a new concept of humanity, and to the popularity of the idea that teeth were also an important indicator of general health; De Chemant, in his Dissertation on Artificial Teeth (1797), lists good teeth among the signs of “perfect beauty” and writes that

If the eyes, commonly called the mirror of the soul, are justly considered holding first rank, the teeth, which may be called the index of health, appear to have a similar prerogative, and to be reckoned among the advantages which more particularly attract notice.

These fashions drove demand for replacement teeth among those no longer blessed with a perfect set of originals, and this demand was supplied in two forms: dentures, composed of artificial or real teeth, and attempts to transplant teeth into a subject’s jaw.

Rowlandson's 1787 cartoon shows a chimney sweep having a tooth extracted for transplantation into a wealthy woman.

Rowlandson’s 1787 cartoon shows a chimney sweep having a tooth extracted for transplantation into a wealthy woman

Perhaps surprisingly, the concept of tooth transplants has quite a long history – Ambroise Paré reported (at second hand) an account of a mid-16th century noblewoman having one of her rotten teeth pulled and replaced with a tooth take from the mouth of one of her maids. The idea really gained ground, however, in the 18th century. Le Chiurgien Dentiste, a French manual published in 1729, refers to the operation, and at least half a dozen dentists are known to have offered such transplants in the middle of the century. The operation was not only advertised by dentists such as the fashionable Pierre Le Mayeur, but also made the subject of satires; a Rowlandson cartoon of this period depicts a chimney sweep having a tooth extracted for use by a lady. (I had cause to note the odd but close contemporary association between chimney sweeps and dental health in an earlier answer, here.) All the evidence, suggests, however, that transplants were never successful, and that some dentists considered it immoral or unethical to offer such services; among other problems, diseases such as syphilis could be transmitted in this way, and the procedure is known to have proved fatal on at least one occasion. Thomas Berdmore, who was Surgeon-Dentist to George III, called it a “dangerous and immoderately expensive” operation in 1768, and it appears that it was very rarely tried after about 1790.

The most common and most cost-effective dentures of this period, meanwhile, were made from porcelain, but these were brittle, too uniformly white, and “made a horrid grating noise,” says Pain. Better-quality dentures were made with teeth carved from hippo, elephant or walrus ivory. Even a single ivory denture was extremely costly – they were priced at around £100 – and because these teeth lacked a protective covering of enamel, they deteriorated relatively quickly and emitted quite offensive smells. For this reason, it was widely considered that the best dentures comprised sets of human teeth. Summarising the literature of the period, we can say that human teeth were priced at about four times the cost of artificial ones, that front teeth were much more commonly taken than the harder-to-extract, less-likely-to be-seen molars that lay behind them, and that a set of dentures made with human teeth could take up to six weeks for a specialist craftsman to construct.

Human teeth implanted into C19th dental plate

Human teeth implanted into a 19th century dental plate

We can say, then, that there was a significant market for teeth. What needs to be added next is that teeth were more often sourced from the dead than from the living, and that the practice of taking teeth from the dead was well known. They were harvested for several reasons – sorcery was one, and Goya’s A Caza de dientes (“Out Hunting for Teeth”) (1799) shows a young woman pulling teeth from the corpse of a hanged criminal. These would have been used for magical purposes – the artist’s gloss on the etching reads: “The teeth of a hanged man are very efficacious for sorceries; without this ingredient there is not much you can do. What a pity the common people should believe such nonsense.” Most, though, do seem to have been removed for use by dentists from at least as early as the second half of the 18th century – George Washington’s dentist, John Greenwood, “was a prolific user of dead teeth,” says Craddock.

We know a fair amount about the dubious means used to obtain supplies. Teeth might be obtained by the resurrection men who exhumed corpses from graveyards on behalf of surgeons who worked at teaching hospitals, from executed criminals, or from bodies on battlefields. There were more teeth available in graveyards than anywhere else, though they might easily be infected or decayed, and the means used to obtain teeth from graves was explained by Bransby Blake Cooper in his biography of his uncle, Astley Cooper, who was one of the most fashionable surgeons and anatomists in early 19th century London. Astley Cooper was a regular customer of the capital’s resurrection men (he paid around £12 for a good quality corpse for dissection), and he encountered several specialist purveyors of teeth via his underworld contacts. Bransby Cooper explains that “every dentist in London would at that time purchase teeth from these men, and the public can have but little idea of the immense sums of money which persons thus occupied could earn.” He gives the example of a resurrection man named Murphy, who bribed his way into a burial vault and

by a few hours’ active exertion, secured possession to himself of the front teeth of all its inmates. By this night’s adventure, Murphy made a clear profit of sixty pounds.

resurrection men

Resurrection Men – body-snatchers – at work in a graveyard. They were the chief sources of supply of bodies for dissection in medical schools, but several had a sideline as suppliers of teeth.

Criminals and soldiers, on the other hand, had the advantage that they mostly died young, and with their mouths in better states, and their teeth were especially prized. This helps to explain the assiduity with which the mouths of dead soldiers were harvested in the aftermath of battles throughout this period, both by the enterprising comrades of the dead and by camp followers who moved in immediately after the fighting ceased to take what they could from the deceased – and, all too often, the still-just-alive as well.

An account by the French nobleman Jean Baptiste de Marbot, who narrowly survived the Battle of Eylau in 1807, gives a good idea of what it was like to be an injured soldier when these men made their appearance:

Stretched on the snow among the piles of dead and dying, unable to move in any way, I gradually and without pain lost consciousness… I judge that my swoon lasted four hours, and when I came to my sense, I found myself in this horrible position: I was completely naked, having nothing on but my hat and my right boot. A man of the transport corps, thinking me dead, had stripped me in the usual fashion, and wishing to pull off the only boot that remained, was dragging me by one leg with his foot against my body. The jerk which the man gave me no doubt had restored me to my senses. I succeeded in sitting up and spitting out the clots of blood from my throat. The shock caused by the wind of the ball had produced such an extravasation of blood, that my face, shoulders, and chest were black, while the rest of my body was stained red by the blood from my wound. My hat and my hair were full of bloodstained snow, and as I rolled my haggard eyes I must have been horrible to see. Anyhow, the transport man looked the other way, and went off with my property without my being able to say a single word to him, so utterly prostrate was I.

Teeth were not, of course, the only or even the principal objects of attention for such looters; they stripped men of their clothes and took jewellery and money where they could find it. “Nothing,” wrote one infantry subaltern of the Napoleonic period, with what may have been some exaggeration,

has ever astonished me more, than the celerity with which these body-strippers execute their task. A man falls by your side and the very next moment, if you chance to look around, he is as naked as he was when he first came into the world, without your being able so much as to guess by whom his garments have been taken.

While work of this sort may sometimes have taken place during a battle, it was certainly underway immediately after the fighting ceased, and was completed later by local peasants, so that by nine in the morning after Waterloo, a civilian arriving on the field “only saw one English officer who had any clothes left on.” Ultimately, and after nature had done its work, looters might even process the bones of the dead. A London paper, whose account was reprinted in Niles’s Weekly Register, 4 January 1823, noted that

It is estimated that more than a million of bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighbourhood of Leipsic, Austerlitz, Waterloo, and of all the places where, during the late bloody war, the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and of the horse which he rode. Thus collected from every quarter, they have been shipped to the port of Hull, and thence forwarded to the Yorkshire bone grinders, who have erected steam-engines and powerful machinery, for the purpose of reducing them to a granulary state. In this condition they are sent chiefly to Doncaster, one of the largest agricultural markets in that part of the country, and are there sold to the farmers to manure their lands. The oily substance, gradually evolving as the bone calcines, makes a more substantial manure than almost any other substance, particularly human bones. It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment upon an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for ought known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread. It is certainly a singular fact, that Great Britain should have sent out such multitudes of soldiers to fight the battles of this country upon the continent of Europe, and should then import their bones as an article of commerce to fatten her soil!

Opportunistic looters, who would take anything and everything from a dead man on a battlefield, were, however, not the only people who might strip a body of its teeth. There was also a small handful of specialists who specialised in supplying dentists at home in Britain. Bransby Blake Cooper, who served during the Peninsular War, met one battlefield looter, a low life by the name of Butler, while on campaign with Wellington. Butler was almost certainly a resurrection man, and he bore a letter of introduction from Astley Cooper himself:

Upon asking this Butler, who appeared to be in a state of great destitution, what might be his object, he said it was to get teeth… When I came to question him upon the means by which he was to obtain these teeth, he said, “Oh Sir, only let there be a battle, and there’ll be no want of teeth. I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.”

Butler subsequently wrote from England to thank Cooper for treating him for a medical complaint, confiding in the same letter that his tooth-hunting trip to Spain “had earned a clear profit of three hundred pounds.” Cooper adds that

Butler was not the first, as I have since ascertained, to make the Peninsula the scene, or the Duke [of Wellington]’s achievements the means, of such lucre; for Crouch and Harnett, two well-known Resurrectionists, had, some time prior to his visit, supplied the wealthier classes of London with teeth from similar sources.

V0001255 Bransby Blake Cooper. Lithograph by J. Bizo.

Bransby Blake Cooper, whose writings provide us with perhaps the best insight into the battlefield tooth collectors of the Napoleonic period

“Crouch and Harnett” were Jack Harnett and Ben Crouch, a pair of London resurrection men who had got their start supplying corpses to the medical students at Guy’s Hospital, and who were quite well known in this period. At some point around 1812 they apparently decided that the trade in human teeth was more lucrative than that in human bodies, and worth the risk of going to war. Working nominally as suttlers – meaning they sold food and drink to the men – they served as camp followers in both Spain and France; Crouch was certainly present in the aftermath of the Battle of Salamanca, where he admitted to Bransby Cooper that he had been following the army “for the purpose of obtaining teeth for the dentists.”

We can learn a good deal more about Harnett and Crouch and their work in a remarkable document called the Diary of a Resurrectionist, 1811-12, a manuscript kept by a London member of this trade which was obtained from its author by another surgeon, Sir Thomas Longmore, Surgeon General to the British Army, and later presented by him to the Royal College of Surgeons. The pair planned “to draw the sound teeth of as many dead men as possible on the night after a battle,” but they made a point of “only drawing them from those soldiers whose youth and health rendered them peculiarly fitted for the purposes to which they were to be employed.” Harnett, who was a “stout, red-haired, ill-looking” Irishman, put the value of the teeth he brought home from the continent at £700, and left an estate worth a total of £6,000 to his family; Crouch made enough to open a hotel in Margate, although he was ruined when his former occupation became known, and eventually died “in great poverty… in the tap-room of a public house near Tower Hill.”

The trade in teeth extracted on the battlefields of Europe was apparently a competitive one – Harnett and Crouch found their profits “much diminished” as a result of competition towards the end of the war – and it was not merely international in character, but actually intercontinental. The American dentist Levi Spear Parmly – celebrated as the inventor of dental floss – boasted in 1818 of having in his possession ”thousands of teeth, extracted from bodies of all ages, that have fallen in battle,” though he used them for an extensive study of dental caries rather than to make dentures. Much of the London end of the trade was – at least according to the unthinkingly anti-Semitic contemporaries who described it – in the hands of “Polish Jews,” and a dentist with a practice in London, remembered as a Polish man nicknamed “Dr Pulltuski,” was noted for his many dealings with this group. This was almost certainly the same “Count Pulltuski, the dentist” with whom Sir Walter Scott’s father-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, dined in Glasgow in 1815 and remembered as a “little, fat, coarse bandy fellow” who carried “personal vanity to the most daring heights I have ever witnessed.”

All in all, the evidence suggests that most battlefields, if not all, were ransacked for teeth in the immediate aftermath of the fighting between about 1800 and at least the 1860s. There are certainly accounts of scavengers at work on the field of Leipzig (1813), and tooth collectors were also commonly encountered throughout the American Civil War. A French dentist, writing later in the 19th century, recalled that Leipzig had yielded

the most precious harvest of all… The German universities turned out many youths in their very bloom, and our conscripts were so young that few of their teeth had been injured by the stain of tobacco.

Similarly, during the Civil War, the British Journal of Dental Sciencereported that

the London dentists, we are told, do not now trouble themselves to make artificial teeth. Taking advantage of the blessings which balance the horrors of war, they furnish you with a set of real ones. Among the enterprising hordes which follow the armies of the North are certain practitioners who, after a battle, may be seen stooping over the prostrate forms of the young soldiers. Veterans they leave to their repose, devoting their attention only to the raw levies… They are rifling their mouths. The teeth, when collected, are packed in boxes and sent over to the London Dentists. So if you have had a new set lately, it is highly probable that some of them were last used by their original owners in biting the dust on the banks of the Rappahannock or the Chattanooga.

The Battle of Waterloo

Tooth ad

A contemporary advert for human teeth, giving some idea of how discerning dentists could be about their sources of supply

Waterloo was not only a battle of the first importance, ending as it did the Napoleonic wars; it was also one of the hardest-fought and bloodiest encounters of the period. It was a byword for enormous casualties throughout the 19th century until its toll was eclipsed by the even more sanguinary battles of the First World War. Estimates of the number of dead range from around 42,000 to 53,000; this was only half the number killed at Leipzig in 1813, but the killing at Waterloo was focused in a very small area of around 5 square miles. It has been calculated that the number of casualties per square mile was about 10 times as many as the British Army experienced on its bloodiest ever day, the First Day on the Somme, 1 July 1916.

Given what we’ve learned so far about the systematic way in which battlefields were looted in this period, it would be amazing if the field of Waterloo was not gone over in this way, and indeed there is evidence to suggest that a large harvest of teeth was reaped from the tens of thousands of dead.  According to a family tradition, Claudius Ash, who was a surgeon at Waterloo, and later became a dentist noted for the significant advances that he made in the production of porcelain teeth in the 1830s, “actually got into dentistry as a battlefield surgeon at Waterloo” by collecting teeth from the battlefield. Similarly, and according to Hobson, Harnett and Crouch made a special visit to the battlefield early in 1816 for the same purpose.

We can conclude, then, that there is ample evidence that human teeth were harvested from battlefields throughout the Napoleonic Wars, that they fetched a good price, and that a small group of specialists actively worked in this trade. There is little to no evidence, on the other hand, that the harvest from Waterloo was especially remarkable, other than in its quantity, or that false teeth were marketed as “Waterloo teeth” at any time in the 19th century. Indeed, although writers on the subject have sometimes argued that this sort of branding would have been especially effective, in that customers would have been assured that the teeth they were buying were young (and hence probably healthy) and, in addition, “heroes’ teeth”, it can equally be argued that making such a provenance clear might have been bad for business – there would have been nothing very glorious or patriotic, for a British customer, in paying to buy the looted teeth of what might well have been a dead British soldier.


James Blake Bailey [ed], The Diary of a Resurrectionist, 1811-12; Bransby Blake Cooper, The Life of Sir Astley Cooper, Bart. (1843);; Paul W Craddock, “Your money where your mouth is: the role of consumerism in eighteenth century transplant surgery, History of Retailing and Consumption  4 (2018); Percy Fitzgerald, Chronicles of the Bow-street Police Office (1888); John South Flint, Memorials of John Flint South. Twice president of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Surgeon to St. Thomas’s Hospital (1884); John Grehan, Voices from the Past: Waterloo 1815 (2015); James Hobson, Dark Days of Georgian Britain: Rethinking the Regency(2017); Colin Jones, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris (2014); Paul Kerley, “The dentures made from the teeth of dead soldiers at Waterloo,” BBC News Magazine, 16 June 2015; Robert Kershaw, 24 Hours at Waterloo (2014); Andrew Lang, The Life and Letters of John Gibson Lockhart (1897); ‘Life of Sir Astley Cooper,’ Quarterly Review, March 1843; Jean-Baptiste de Marbot, The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot (1903); Adrian Miles et al, St Marylebone Church and Burial Ground in the 18th to 19th Centuries (2008); Paul O’Keeffe, Waterloo: The Aftermath (2014); Stephanie Pain, “The great tooth robbery,” New Scientist, 16 June 2001; Levi Spear Parmley, A Practical Guide to the Management of the Teeth (1818); ‘The latest intelligence!’ British Journal of Dental Science 8 (1865)

Edinburgh’s Old Town, showing the castle (left) and the steeple of the Tron Church (right), meeting place of the city’s chimney sweeps, or Tron-men.

Q: In 1765, a chimney sweep was banished from for five years from Edinburgh and expelled from the local chimney sweep organisation for assisting after a hanging went awry. Were chimney sweeps notably anti-death penalty? Why was it a “grievous punishment” to be exiled to Leith?

William Roughead, in his “Classic Crimes” (this specific excerpt is from “Katherine Nairn”) relates how a man slipped through the noose and fell to the ground during a hanging. A local chimney sweep helped drag the man back up the ladder to the scaffolding. “For assisting the law on this occasion, a member of the Society of Tron-men (chimney-sweeps) was expelled from that association and banished to Leith for five years – a grievous punishment for an Edingburgh citizen.” Were Tron-men anti-hanging? Anti-police? Why was it so bad to be exiled to Leith? Was it just because it was incredibly inconvenient, loss of connections, job, etc., or were there other reasons?


A: Edinburgh’s Tron-men were members of an especially powerful society whose privileges included receipt of an annual allowance from the city. This fee was paid in exchange for their services in various demi-official capacities, including occasional assistance at public executions.

The offence committed by Robert Hunter, the Tron-man who suffered the punishment of professional exile to the neighbouring port town of Leith, was to accept an additional payment of five pounds for assisting the public hangman at the execution of a particularly notorious murderer, a gentleman and British Army officer named Patrick Ogilvie, on top of that standard honorarium. By accepting the money, Hunter was judged to have offended against the honour of the society, whose members were expected to freely offer their services whenever stipulated by their agreement with the town.

Two of Edinburgh’s Tron-men, wearing their regulation uniform of bonnet, short coat and buckled shoes. From ‘Kay’s Edinburgh Portraits,’ 1837-38.

To understand why all this was so, we need to know a little bit more about the Tron-men themselves. Their society was formed in 1741 as a result of the passage of Edinburgh’s Burgh Act. One purpose of the Burgh Act was to regularise and professionalise sweeping in order to minimise the risk of a catastrophic fire. The so-called “Lesser Great Fire” that had destroyed large swathes of the city in February 1700 had been blamed on a chimney fire, and by creating an exclusive, uniformed society of chimney sweeps, and granting them a monopoly on work inside the town, Edinburgh’s city council sought to ensure that this vital work was carried out safely.

There were 12 Tron-men, or “Custodians of the Flues,” to do all the chimney sweeping work within Edinburgh’s Old Town (the New Town area to the north was not covered by the Burgh Act). They worked in a rather different way to the sweeps of London, who famously swept from the ground up and used boys to climb up the stacks and dislodge soot. Tron-men scaled the roofs of the houses they were working in and swept from the top down, using bundles of twigs on ropes secured with lead weights. They wore a uniform comprising a bonnet, fitted coat and buckled shoes, and acquired their name from their meeting place at the public weighing beam outside the Tron Kirk in the Old Town. Those who wished to hire their services could meet representatives of the society at that spot and make the necessary arrangements.

Each Tron-man paid a five pound initiation fee and quarterly fees to the society were 3s.8d., which – given the value of money at that time – gives some indication of how lucrative their monopoly was. In exchange for their work in ensuring all sweeping met minimum safety standards, they received a guinea (21s) a year each from the city, together with the right to sell their soot.

A contemporary pamphlet detailing the evidence in the Nairn-Ogilvie trial.

The tasks that the Tron-men performed for the city were not limited to assistance at public executions, which was in fact pretty uncommon for them. Their main additional service was to work as night watchmen, standing in pairs on rooftops to keep an eye out for fires, and raising the alarm where necessary. To mark their association with the city, and give them premises from which to organise their watch-work, they were given a room in Edinburgh’s City Guard House on the High Street.

Hunter’s offence makes more sense, I think, when viewed in the context of the close and mutually beneficial relationship that had grown up between the Tron-men and the city of Edinburgh between 1741 and the time of Lieutenant Ogilvie’s execution in November 1765. In addition, though, we should note that the crime that Ogilvie had committed was an especially disgraceful one, which made Hunter’s willingness to profit, in effect, from it notably dishonourable.

Ogilvie had begun an affair with his sister-in-law, Catherine or Katherine Nairn (spellings differ), who was only 19, the daughter of Sir Robert Nairn, and closely linked to the cream of Sottish society. Their relationship, in Scottish law, counted as incest. Together, the lovers conspired to get Katherine’s inconvenient husband, and Patrick’s brother, Thomas – who was considerably older than either of them, and a semi-invalid as the result of service in India – out of the way by poisoning him.

Ogilvie was sentenced not only to be hanged, but also to the additional disgrace of having his body conveyed to Edinburgh’s surgeons for dissection. Katherine was spared only because she was pregnant with her lover’s child. She was sent off to prison to await the birth, after which sentence of death would be carried out, and her behaviour after the trial was considered absolutely beyond the pale:

On her arrival at Leith in an open boat… her whole bearing betrayed so much levity, and was so different from what was expected by a somewhat pitying crowd, that a storm of just indignation was aroused, and she was with some difficulty rescued from rough treatment by the authorities.

Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth prison, on the city’s Royal Mile.

As it turned out, Katherine Nairn had good reason to be in such high spirits. She subsequently managed to effect an escape from Edinburgh’s Tolbooth prison by conspiring with her midwife, a Mrs Shields. Shields pretended to be afflicted by severe toothache, and took to turning up at the prison groaning loudly, and with her head swathed in a shawl. After establishing this pattern of behaviour over several days, she exchanged clothes with Nairn, who exited the prison with her face concealed and managed (one presumes with the help of her friends and family) to get out of Edinburgh and make it to Dover, and thence, supposedly, eventually to the Americas. There she changed her name and disappeared but, according to James Grant, was rumoured to have “married again and died at an advanced age.”

As for Hunter, exile to Leith meant he was banished from the elite ranks of the Tron-men and deprived of the both prestige associated with them and the security of their monopoly on sweeping work. Chimney sweeping in Leith was far less lucrative, and far less prestigious, as a result.


Newcastle Chronicle 24 August 1765; Benita Cullingford, British Chimney Sweeps: Five Centuries of Chimney Sweeping (Chicago, 2000); James Grant, Old and New Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 6 vols, 1880, vol.1); John Kay, A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings (Edinburgh 1838) vol.1 part ii.

Q: The medieval legend of The Dry Tree

Can someone give me a more in depth explanation of the historical context and significance of the “dry tree”. I was reading The Well At the World’s End and assumed that it was made up by Morris, but there was a brief explanation involving Alexander the Great, Christendom, and Marco Polo. It is a very vague and uninformative entry. It alludes to a whole book that Marco Polo wrote on the subject, but I didn’t see any references to the source material in English.

A: The Dry Tree is a medieval metaphor, drawn originally from a variety of Biblical references to wastelands, withered orchards, and miraculous revivals of dead objects, perhaps most notably that in Ezekiel 17:22:

I the Lord have … dried up the green tree, and caused the dry tree to flourish. I the Lord have spoken and have done it.

A second passage, in the Gospel of Luke 23:30, returns to the same idea, but associates it with the crucifixion, and the loss that the Daughters of Jerusalem will experience when Christ is dead:

They shall begin to say to the mountains: fall upon us. And to the hills: cover us. For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?

So, from a Biblical point of view, dry trees appear as both an illustration of God’s power, and as a metaphor for life without God.

Dry Trees are encountered repeatedly in the literature of the medieval period. At its most straightforward, the term can refer to any tree that is withered, dead, incapable of bearing fruit or bare of leaves – seen in this light, its metaphorical potency is fairly clear, I think, even when it is stripped of its specific religious connotations. It becomes much more potent when directly associated with concepts of the divine, and of loss, as the Bible suggests, so it is not too surprising that we begin to encounter the term during this period as a way of talking about the cross itself – the “dry tree” that Christ carried to his own crucifixion is contrasted to the “green tree”, meaning Mary, a fount of life, in the work of the fourteenth century French poet Guillaume de Digulleville.

Early references sometimes deal with dry trees in the plural. But, by the late middle ages, the term was being used to refer to just one, specific, tree, which was conceived of as located in some particularly distant place – “a destination point towards which a person might travel,” as Rosanne Gasse points out in the only major modern study of the idea. Thus the fifteenth century morality play The Castle of Perseverance discusses a location at very edge of the world which is home to a Dry Tree, while the hero of one manuscript of Piers Plowman, now in the British Library, is prepared to make an enormous effort to reach the tree:

I wole trauayle quoth I this tre to see, twenty hundrid myle [“I will travel, said I, two thousand miles to see this tree”]

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot takes place in an isolated setting sketched by the author’s celebrated opening stage direction: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” The two main characters talk of hanging themselves from it. And the tree is depicted as leafless and barren – until Act II, when it sprouts leaves. Did Beckett intend it as a Dry Tree?

So common is the Dry Tree in medieval literature, in fact, that Gasse terms it “a stock reference in travelogues and romances”. These latter do include histories of Alexander the Great and the works of both Marco Polo and Odoric of Pordenone. (For Odoric, uniquely, it was located not at the very edge of the world, but at its centre, in Jerusalem.) From there the idea was also picked up by more modern writers; the White Tree of Arnor, which crops up in The Lord of the Rings, is a Dry Tree, and so, perhaps, is the tree under which Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot in Beckett’s celebrated play.

To address the specific of your question – what Marco Polo had to say about the Dry Tree – the Travels mention a distant province of Persia which is home to a tree that is fairly clearly a variation on the theme, but which carries with it some historical associations, too. Travellers encounter it, Polo says, in the far northern deserts of Persia, on

an immense plain… in which stands the Solitary Tree, which the Christians call the Dry Tree. Let me describe it to you. It is of great size and girth. Its leaves are green on one side, white on the other. It produces husks like chestnut husks; but there is nothing in them. Its wood is laurel and yellow like box-wood. And there are no trees near for more than 100 miles, except in one direction , where there are trees ten miles away. It is there, according to the people of the country, that the battle was fought between Alexander and Darius

– that is, the decisive Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE), which resulted in the downfall of the Persian empire, and which historians now locate in Iraq. From all this, we can see that – as Gasse points out – the tree Polo describes is not really a Dry Tree at all, merely an unusual, symbolic tree that has had the label applied to it.

There are, then, quite a variety of Dry Trees to think about (Grasse divides her examples into a total of five distinct groups), and these are put to quite a variety of literary uses, too. Dry Trees are often symbols of death; they are associated with suicide by hanging; they are also symbols of winter (but also of the promise of spring, and, hence, the resurrection) and, perhaps most strikingly, they are signals of moral death. Finally, the Dry Tree also appears in a slightly different context in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, in which Sir Bors experiences a vision in which he looks up into a tree he notices is “passing drye” and sees it filled with birds that are “dede for hunger”. One giant bird strikes itself dead with its own beak, and the other birds feed on its blood, and are then able to fly away. Although he himself is insufficiently spiritually advanced to understand this rather entry-level vision, an abbot explains to Bors that the tree is a symbol of the world, “which ys naked and nedy”, the starving birds are representative of humankind, and the great bird which sacrifices itself for its companions is Christ.


Emilie Fréger, ‘Le manuscrit d’Arras (BM, MS.845) dans la tradition des manusctits enluminés du Pèlerinage de l’âme en vers’, in Frédéric Duval and Fabienne Pomel (eds), Guillaume de Digulleville: Les Pèlerinages Allégoriques (2008); Rosanne Gasse, “The Dry Tree legend in medieval literature,” Fifteenth Century Studies 38 (2013); Rose Jeffries Peebles, ‘The Dry Tree: Symbol of Death,’ in C.F. Fiske, Vassar Medieval Studies(1923)

The aftermath of the assassination of Malcolm X by Talmadge Hayer. Two other men, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, were also convicted of the shooting, which took place on 21 February 1965.

Q: Did the NYTimes run the headline “The Apostle of Hate is Dead” in response to Malcolm X’s assassination?

In Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, he writes that “On February 22, 1965, the New York Times banner headline read: ‘The Apostle of Hate is Dead’.” (p. 389) He doesn’t provide a source. I’ve found this claim repeated multiple times, but a primary source is never provided. The NYTimes archive shows the headline “Malcolm X Shot to Death at Rally” for that date.

A: A search of the New York Times archive produces no references to this headline, or indeed the phrase “apostle of hate”, for the period 1965 to 1967.

You are certainly correct in saying, nonetheless, that the headline is attributed to the NYT, and not only by Kendi. The earliest usage I have found is in Peter Goldman’s The Death and Life of Malcolm X, published in 1979, and the same claim appears in Diamond’s Malcolm X: A Voice for Black America (1994).

It seems well worth noting that Goldman does not make the claim that the headline actually appeared himself; he gives it in the form of a piece of recollection by Dan Watts, who was then the editor of the “eclectic black-radical magazine The Liberator” – and in this version, Watts himself does not claim directly that the words were reported in headline form, or even that they were used, explicitly, by the paper at all:

“I remember the Times saying the Apostle of Hate is dead, he only had two or three hundred followers,” Dan Watts said, “and I remember going uptown, and it was fourteen degrees out, and these little old soul sisters were coming out of the subway and getting on line for a last look at Malcolm.” [Goldman p.302]

It would be easy to assume, but difficult to prove, that the repeated references to a newspaper headline in the NYT that you are interested in originated as a result of this claim in Goldman’s book being picked up and misinterpreted by other writers who used Goldman as a reference for their own work on Malcolm X – and that the use of the phrase “apostle of hate” by Watts was originally either a paraphrase, or a piece of misremembering, or even invention, published at a time when it was no simple matter to check a statement about a particular set of words that supposedly appeared in one newspaper on a particular date more than a decade earlier.

Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.

We can certainly pick up what appear to be echoes of this process, and it is very interesting to note that these show the usage becoming increasingly specific and concrete as time goes on, ending with the specific attribution of the phrase to a Times headline published on a particular date. In late March 1994, for example (at least according to a highly partial source), Louis Farrakhan gave a speech at Kean College in which he claimed: “The day Malcolm X was killed, every newspaper blared, ‘The apostle of hate is dead'” [my italics].

It seems very possible that the attribution of the phrase to the Times, specifically, is a product of Watts’s phrasing, but one other possible source – itself perhaps based originally on Goldman’s work – it well worth mentioning. This is the documentary Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X (1994). I note that a review of this documentary, published in the Washington Post on 17 February 1995, explicitly references “the film’s authentic images”, which it notes have an “indelible impact” and include

the New York Times banner headline “The Apostle of Hate Is Dead”; a photo of Malcolm X’s firebombed home; footage of him and Elijah Muhammed before their rift. Excerpts from many FBI memos include an appalling one that refers to “temple-type low-class Negroes.”

This seemed promising, so I tracked a copy of the documentary down. It is available to view on YouTube, but on review I note that while the narrator states (at 13:12), “the New York Times headline reads: “The Apostle of Hate is Dead”, the image shown is not in fact a clip from the newspaper. Instead, the sound effect of a typewriter is used, and the words appear on the screen in type. In other words, and despite the Post‘s incautious claim, the documentary makers had not consulted the Times archive (at least not successfully), but they had apparently picked up the idea that the phrase had appeared in the paper from somewhere else.

On this basis, I feel reasonably happy to conclude that the NYT never used the headline as alleged, and that the idea that it did is most likely based on a misreading of Goldman’s passage by later writers, starting with Diamond, who assumed that Dan Watts was recalling an actual story, rather than paraphrasing – inaccurately – his recollections of the newspaper’s coverage more than a decade after the fact.

All this is not to say, finally, that the Times wrote positively, or even neutrally, of Malcolm X in the immediate aftermath of his assassination. The editorial that the newspaper published that 22 February actually called him “an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose,” and concluded that his life had been “pitifully wasted.” It added that “the world he saw through those horn-rimmed glasses of his was distorted and dark. But he made it darker still with his exaltation of fanaticism.” So the sentiments that Dan Watts recalled in his “apostle of hate” passage were actually there – it’s just that they weren’t phrased so neatly.

Prostitution in an inn on the cusp of the medieval and early modern periods. The sex trade was the only quasi-criminal profession that was licensed and controlled somewhat in the manner of guilds.

Q: There where many types of guilds in the middle ages. Did any of them focus ONLY on illegal activities (smuggler guilds, thieves guild etc) ? Or does this only happen in fantasy novels?

A: Craft, or professional, guilds were formal organisations, formed by groups of people who shared the same occupation, and which – certainly in the period that you are referring to – had the primary purpose of protecting (and where possible extending) the privileges accumulated by their trade over the years. Typically these rights included the establishment of monopolies in given cities (that is, only members of a guild were permitted to practise a specific trade within the city walls), and they were recorded, in writing, in letters patent that were issued by the ruler of the state. Once issued, the relevant privileges were then enforced with the help of the secular authorities in the town in question.

A medieval baker with his apprentice.

In addition, and increasingly as time went on, guilds also came to have religious and sacramental functions, often expressed via feasting and drinking which marked saints’ days and other festivals.

Given all this, it’s hopefully fairly easy to see that guilds formed and maintained for the express purpose of allowing their members to participate in illegal activities, or activities that were injurious to the local community as a whole, or which would have been considered sinful and irreligious, could hardly have existed alongside those established by legal, socially acceptable trades. Indeed, the guilds that did exist played a significant part in defining the sorts of criminals you’re interested in as “other” and attempting to actively exclude them from town life. As Rosser puts it:

Each society defines its own margins, and the tendency of medieval town dweller with at least basic means was to draw an increasingly firm line which left petty criminals, prostitutes, the handicapped, and the permanently unemployed beyond the edge. In this harshly unglamorous world on the edge – symbolically, it was often concentrated on the urban fringes, in the suburbs – few, if any, forms of association appear to have moderated the grim realities of poverty and disease. Modern writers have sometimes sought, by drawing on the poetry of Villon and the Franciscan tradition, to romanticize this world of the outcast, but the imagined kingdoms of thieves and sororities of prostitutes lack justification from the sources.

All this is not to say that what we might now term “organised crime” did not exist in the middle ages, and that criminals did not sometimes form informal, underground fraternities that allowed them to make contact with each other in professionally useful ways. I wrote, for instance, on the “Banu Sasen”, a (very) loose grouping of marginal figures and out-and-out criminals that existed in Islamic territories in the period that you are interested in here. There are also (very scanty) references to a “guild of the handicapped” in Venice, and several towns do retain records of “guilds of poor men”, but in all these cases, it would seem, such organisations were formed in the explicit hope that they would help to differentiate the honest, worthy and legitimate seekers after charity or work from the mass of “sturdy beggars” who (in popular belief at least) actively rejected work, chose a life on the margins, and caused frequent moral panics in the late medieval and early modern periods. As such, those involved in founding and attempt to promote such groups very much ranged their guilds of the poor alongside the more official, mainstream companies, and against criminality.

Stephen Gardiner, the last Bishop of Winchester to control the south London sex trade, was in office in 1546 when his diocese’s centuries-old purview over the licensed brothels of Southwark was finally ended.

It’s also true that attempts were made to regulate some aspects of the underworld from time to time in a few places. Most obviously, some towns did make efforts to regulate the sex trade by licensing brothels. This happened in England in Southwark (the borough on the south bank of the River Thames, which was, notoriously, just outside the jurisdiction of the City of London and hence a lively haven for all manner of semi-legal and illegal activities), where the sex trade was controlled by the Bishop of Winchester. To a lesser extent, licensed brothels also existed in Southampton, and in the Cinque Ports town of Sandwich. In these circumstances, approved “stewmongers” would have had some local standing and some reason to band together with the local authorities to take action against their unlicensed competitors. Unfortunately, however, surviving records from the relevant period say almost nothing about this aspect of the sex trade.

Q: So was the Bishop of Winchester a pimp? Or does it appear to be a genuine attempt to legitimize and tax prostitution?

A: The bishop was hardly a pimp in the common meaning of the term – he did not receive money direct from “common bawds” that he personally controlled. However, he absolutely did receive money from the Southwark sex trade, in the form of license payments made by approved stews, rents on the premises themselves (which were typically extremely high by contemporary standards), and fines levied on unlicensed premises. These payments, in turn, were made by stewmongers who were receiving cash direct from the prostitutes who worked in their brothels.

Moreover the trade itself – which peaked, so far as we can tell, around 1500, when there were 18 licensed brothels in the bishop’s liberty – was finally ended not by the bishop, but by the actions of central government, which outlawed the old arrangements in 1546. The only concession that successive bishops seem to have made to contemporary religious sensibilities was to ban prostitutes from working or being on the streets of Southwark during major religious festivals.

In addition, the bishop ran a local court that adjudicated on cases involving the Southwark sex trade and was sometimes used by brothel-keepers to keep the women they controlled in check. In one especially egregious case, dating to the 1470s, this court allowed a stewmonger by the name of Thomas Bowde, who had attempted to coerce a young woman, Ellen Butler, into a life of prostitution, to bring a case against her that was clearly designed to force her to work for him:

He took her to his house on the Stews side of the river and “would have compelled her to do such service as his other servants do there.” When she refused, he brought an action against her in the court of the bishop of Winchester in Southwark to get a judgement for a sum she would never be able to pay, so that she would have to remain in prison unless she agreed to work for him as a prostitute.

We don’t know, unfortunately, how the Butler case was resolved, but similar cases did occur elsewhere; the Bishop of Mainz also licensed brothels on his lands.


Christopher F. Black, Italian Cofraternities in the Sixteenth Century (1989); Bronislaw Geremek, The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris (1987); Ruth Mazo Karras, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (1996); Ruth Mazo Karras, “The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England,” Signs 14 (1989); Gervase Rosser, The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England 1250-1550 (2015)

The White Horse as it appears today, seen from the air. The chalk figure is remarkable for its age, its abstract form, and (perhaps most of all) for its survival. But it has not lasted the centuries absolutely unchanged.

Q: How did the ancient White Horse, a huge hill-figure carved into a chalky down in the south of England in about 1,000 BCE, survive all the political, social and military changes that took place in the area for thousands of years without growing over?

A: The survival of the magnificent White Horse is, frankly, a considerable mystery.

The Long Man of Wilmington – often thought to be ancient, but actually dating probably only to the 17th century – is located on a hillside in Sussex. The figure is outlined today in painted concrete blocks. Click to view in higher resolution.

Although it is only one of a number of hillside chalk figures found across southern England (among which the priapic Cerne Abbas Giant [NSFW] and the Long Man of Wilmington are also reasonably well known), records of these figures that date to before the early 1700s are pretty patchy, and the White Horse is the only one that can incontestably be given a prehistoric date. This dating was done as a result of a 1990s survey that showed that the horse is a much more substantial monument than had been appreciated hitherto – “not simply scraped into the chalk of the hillside,” Schwyzer notes, but rather consisting of substantial “trenches filled with loose chalk” which are up to 10 feet wide and three feet deep. This discovery suggested that a luminescent silt analysis could be done at the site. This technique establishes how long ago buried soil was last exposed to sunlight, and it ascribed the figure to the Bronze Age and gave it a date of around 1400-600 BCE.

This means that the horse, which needs to be regularly cleaned or repaired to prevent it simply growing over and disappearing, has survived for around 3,000 years, getting, according to the latest surveys, only slightly thinner across all that time – although there are early references to the horse having once had a saddle, and artists’ impressions of the horse made in 1813 and 1835 show that it had no eye, much less distinct mouthparts, and one significantly different (longer and straighter) foreleg at the earlier date. Similarly, we know that the Long Man of Wilmington was largely obscured – the outline being visible only “in certain light conditions, or after a light fall of snow” – until it was restored in the 1870s by being marked out with bricks.

The sometimes-changing shape of the White Horse is shown in these two depictions from the early 19th century, which coincide with a period in which the figure was cleaned and – it seems – sometimes recut in irregularly-organised “scourings”.

How the White Horse contrived to survive for so many years is simply not known, even though we have more information about its history than we have for the other main chalk figures – the first mention of it is (probably) in De Mirabilibus Britanniae (c.1100), a catalogue of the wonders of Britain that lists, in fifth place,

the White Horse and its foal. It is wondrous that it was so made in the figure of a horse that, while the whole place where that image of a horse is is grassy beyond measure, grass never grows over the shape of the horse, but the ground to the extent of the horse is always exposed.

If this actually is a reference to the Uffington figure, it’s hard to know what to make of it. No trace has ever been found of a second figure – the foal – and no mention of it is made in any other document; nor is there any reason to suppose that grass would not have quickly covered the horse in the 12th century, as it would do today. Whatever the truth, what is incontestably a reference to the White Horse also crops up in a legal document dating to the mid 12th century, which notes it as a landmark.

After that, we have absolutely nothing about the horse or its condition until 1677. This is quite a distinct contrast to the position with some other noted monuments, such as Stonehenge or the Avebury Circle, which tend to crop up in antiquarian works from the 1500s, and the absence of the White Horse from these and similar records is quite unexplained. William Camden, who did write about such marvels, seems to have heard something of the horse, but apparently never visited it and in fact doubted it existed:

I wote [know] not from what shape of a white horse imagined to appeere in a whitish chalky hill, they term The vale of Whitehorse.

In 1677, in any case, a local man named Thomas Baskerville recorded that “some that dwell herabout have an obligation upon their lands to repair and cleanse this landmark, or else in time it may turn green,” and this is the first, and in some ways the most useful, reference that survives to tell us how the figure was maintained – as a legal requirement incumbent upon local tenants, it appears, and hence as something that was presumably at some point mandated by a major local landowner who controlled the land in question. (It’s worth noting this is not the only possible way in which chalk figures were maintained during the early modern period. There’s also a contemporary reference from Dorset, site of the Cerne Abbas giant, which notes that the local parish paid out three shillings in the autumn of 1694 “for repairing ye Giant.”) Then we have John Aubrey, who discussed its provenance in his Monumenta Britannica during the 1680s, suggesting it was either the work of pre-Roman Britons (whose coins, he noted, sometimes featured horse-figures), or of the (semi-mythical) first Saxon chiefs to land in England, Hengist and Horsa.

The great antiquarian John Aubrey, whose interest in ancient monuments prompted him to take a special interest in the important stone circle at nearby Avebury.

Thomas Cox, in Britannia (1720), mentions that the horse was then weeded annually, accompanied by “feasting and merriment,” and the Oxford librarian Francis Wise, writing in 1738, describes “scourings” of the figure as an old custom in his time.

Cox’s reference is especially interesting because we also have records, dating in this instance back to the 1750s, of a septennial “scouring” of the horse, which certainly became a major local festival that involved a fair, wrestling matches and all manner of other celebrations. Some records of this appear in a mid Victorian novel by Thomas Hughes (well known as the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays), The Scouring of the White Horse, and all in all we have references to scourings that took place in 1755, 1776, 1780, 1785, 1803, 1808, 1813, 1825, 1838, 1843 and 1857 – but, as will be noted, either records even from this comparatively recent period are very incomplete, or the scourings of the horse were nowhere near as regular or as systematically organised as all this would imply; in fact, a newspaper article dating to 1922 noted that in that year the outline of the horse was “scarce to be seen”. This was, perhaps, the product of the massive dislocation of the local community caused by the First World War. It’s also very much unknown how, when and why the annual mandatory “cleaning” that took place around 1677 morphed into a less frequent, but much larger, public jamboree.

The 1857 scouring of the White Horse, from Thomas Hughes’s novel of 1859.

Now, all of this does not really help to explain how the figure can possibly have survived the period from c.1000 BCE to 1677, and all the changes that occurred during those 2,600 or so years. Schywzer contends that its survival means that it cannot possibly have been cleaned less than “once a generation” throughout that period, and he speculates about tribal “curatorships” as well as noting that the Saxons, when they eventually arrived, “may have recognized in the Horse a comfortingly familiar religious symbol” – which, it’s implied, may have encouraged them to preserve it. But he admits that “the significance the Horse and the practice of scouring held for most of these people is forever lost,” and hazards no guess at all as to what impact the advent of Christianity may have had on its fortunes. My own view, for what little it is worth, is that the fact that the horse sits on a hillside above White Horse Vale, which houses a relatively isolated and distinct community – one which now, and apparently since the 18th century at least, closely identifies with the figure – may plausibly have helped to ensure its maintenance, and so its survival.

Extract from Thomas Baskerville’s 1677 pamphlet, the earliest detailed description we have of the ways in which the figure has been preserved. Click to read.

Ultimately, however, the puzzle of how the horse survived for so long, in what appears to be its original form (something that can’t be said of other hill figures such as the one at Cerne Abbas) remains unsolved, and is perhaps unsolvable.


Thomas Baskerville, The Description of Towns, on the Road from Faringdon to Bristow and Other Places, 1681; Jacqueline Simpson & Stephen Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (2000); Philip Schwyzer, “The Scouring of the White Horse: Archaeology, Identity, and “Heritage”,” Representations 1999: Ralph Whitlock, The Folklore of Wiltshire (1976)

The modern town of Barawa, on the Somali coast, has a history that dates back almost 2,000 years.

Q: Is it possible that an Islamic city-state, rather like Venice, might have flourished on the desert coast of Somalia in the medieval period, sent envoys all the way to Beijing, and evolved a stable form of republican government that lasted well into the nineteenth century?

A: This turns out to be an extremely fascinating problem, and – having made a start on it – I uncovered so many layers of assumptions, misperceptions and casual thinking that two or three days of research were needed to get to the bottom of it.

The root problem is that Barawa has never been the subject of a detailed work of history; pretty much everything that has ever been written about it comes from books and papers that are actually about something else. It’s taken me quite a while to untangle the mess left by several hundred years’ worth of passing references scribbled by a wide variety of travellers, historians and archaeologists. So, first of all, apologies for this very late response.

It’s going to take some time to lay out the evidence I’ve gathered and place it in some sort of context for you, so I’ll start with the short version of the answer.

  • Barawa – which is also known to historians as Brava, and sometimes as Baraawe – is a small port on the southern coast of what is now Somalia, about 125 miles south of Mogadishu. Both the traditions and the local dialect are rooted in Swahili, and the town still forms a distinct cultural enclave on the desert coast of the Horn of Africa.

  • Barawa was, as you note, one of the string of two dozen or so merchantile city-states that stretched along what’s known as the Swahili Coast: a 2,000 mile stretch of littoral running all the way south to Mozambique. It was, in fact, the northernmost city in the chain.

  • We don’t know when Barawa was founded, but the site was inhabited by the third century CE. The city appears to have been well-established by 1100,1 and it remained a distinct polity (albeit one that enjoyed a very varying degree of independence) until it was ceded to Italy by Zanzibar in 1892.2

  • At its height, Barawa was a significant commercial power in the Indian Ocean – so much so that merchants from the city visited China in the early 15th century. These envoys travelled in the ships of the renowned “treasure fleet” of admiral Zheng He, and they were returned to Africa several years later during another of Zheng He’s voyages. In 1430, Barawa (Pu-la-wa, 不喇哇) was one of only 18 western ports mentioned by name in an imperial decree issued by the Xuande Emperor.3

  • During the period 1100-1892, Barawa certainly was repeatedly described as a republic – the earliest contemporary reference to the city having such an unexpected form of government dates to around 1509,4 and the latest to 1856.5 This was seen as remarkable, and worthy of comment, by a string of visitors to the Swahili Coast, among them sailors from Portugal, France and Britain.

  • However, a careful examination of the evidence shows that the idea that Barawa was ever “a republic” is significantly misleading.

    • The most detailed contemporary references we have were written by a 16th century Portuguese who never visited the east coast of Africa.

    • The only other significant account, which was written by a French naval officer in the mid-19th century, has practically always been taken heavily out of context. The original reference turns out to be playful, and it was extensively qualified.

    • We can also say that both these influential authors would have been familiar with European concepts of “a republic” – the Portuguese writer would have known of Venice, while the Frenchman was not only aware of the earlier reference, but was writing only five years after the collapse of the Second Republic. I conclude that both were drawing on an established, but inappropriate and out of context, political vocabulary to describe a rather unfamiliar form of government.

  • Finally, I note that it is actually highly debatable whether it was even possible for any Muslim state to be a republic at any time before the mid-20th century, since Islamic law recognises only two forms of sovereignty – that of a Caliph, and that of a Sultan. Jumhur, the classical Arabic word that’s commonly used to mean “republic”, does not seem to have been employed in this way until it began to be used by the Ottomans to describe Venice hundreds of years after Barawa emerged as an independent city-state.6

Let’s take a closer look.

The setting

The city-states of the Swahili Coast.

Although the history of the earliest towns along the Swahili coast can be traced back to the period c.300-1000 CE, there is little real evidence of state formation in the region until the tenth century, and the system that then evolved did not really survive its encounter with the Portuguese from 1500. At the height of its wealth and success in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, the coast was home to 20 or 25 maritime city-states – ranging from quite well-known polities such as those of Mombasa and Kilwa down to much smaller towns, including Barawa, which probably never had a population greater than 3,000 throughout this period.7 These statelets exhibited a number of common characteristics:

  • They do meet the basic definitions of city-states, having centralised institutions and defined city centres, often in the form of “stone towns”, like the famous one that still survives in Zanzibar. These housed the elites, and were usually surrounded by walls, outside which the majority of the population lived in mud-built dwellings. The inhabitants of the stone towns had the prestige and hence the power to impose law and order on their people. Finally, the populations of the ports on the Swahili coast practised some division of labour and some specialisation of function.8

  • These cities were never very substantial in size (the largest, Kilwa, was only about 50 acres in extent at its peak), but they contained cosmopolitan populations. By the early 19th century, when these things were first actually studied, these were typically made up of four classes or groups: an ethnically Arab merchant and religious elite; a set of (often manumitted) middle-ranking communities of African artisans, farmers, fishermen and soldiers; “foreigners” and recent immigrants; and a large population of enslaved people.9 There is still considerable controversy as to the extent to which these same groups existed in earlier periods. A significant number of historians of the Swahili coast suggest that, in the period before 1500, a large proportion of the merchant elite was probably ethnically Bantu, and Swahili speaking.10 (Most recently, archaeologists working in the area have preferred to move on altogether from attempts to parse the ethnicity of the Swahili coast.)

  • They were based right on the coast, and in many cases (including those of Barawa, Lamu, Pate, Kilwa and Mombasa) actually on islands just off the coast that offered superior defensive positions.

  • They were increasingly dependent on trade, to the point that well before 1500 most lacked the ability to support their own populations without importing food and other vital goods. This encouraged their participation in the loose but far-reaching peaceful trading networks that characterised the Indian Ocean system, especially in the period before the arrival of Europeans in the region. These networks shared common languages – Persian (for the intra-ocean trade) and various dialects of Swahili – and they had a common material culture, as well as a common religion, Islam, after about 1100.

  • Probably at least in part because of this, the states on the Swahili coast were militarily very weak, certainly in comparison to the forces brought against them by the Portuguese after 1500.

  • The cities of the Swahili coast controlled only rather small hinterlands, but sometimes served as the terminal points for extensive inland trade routes. This was most notably the case for Sofala, the “furthest south” point of the trading zone – which existed to export gold brought to the coast from the mines of Great Zimbabwe, 400 miles or more inland – but other cities further to the north prospered on an extensive trade in ivory. The slave trade was another important economic staple during this period.11

  • Barawa and its sister cities were an important part of the trading world of the Indian Ocean, which also intersected with the Mediterranean and East Asian trades to ship luxury goods from China to Italy and from the East African coast to India, Malaya and China.12

  • The delicate and complex interdependencies of the economies of ports along the Swahili coast are best suggested by the rapid collapse of the old trading system that followed almost immediately on the Portuguese seizure of Sofala, and their diversion of the gold trade into European hands.13

A little history of Barawa

The most remote period of Barawa’s history remains almost entirely obscure,14 and the town has not been the subject of any significant archaeological investigation, either,15 so we are forced to rely on what some significantly later written accounts and traditions tell us to reconstruct the early years of the Swahili coast.

An 1870 MS copy of the Chronicle of the Kings of Kilwa, which dates back to the early 16th century.

Our main source in this regard is the Chronicle of the Kings of Kilwa, or Kilwa Chronicle. This is, essentially, an elaborated pedigree of the rulers of the city-state of Kilwa, which was for some time the wealthiest of the Swahili states and was located off the coast of what is now Tanzania.16 The Kilwa Chronicle is incomplete and exists in two dramatically different versions (one in Arabic and the other in Portuguese), but neither of the texts dates to earlier than the middle of the sixteenth century.17 It can be argued that the Chronicle‘s version of events is backed up by folklore collected along the East African coast and the Comoros Islands,18 but it is far from clear how independent that folklore is of the chronicle itself – and since the written accounts originate somewhere between five and seven centuries after the fact, they really have to be considered dubious. For what it’s worth, however, the Chronicle contains the claim (which most authorities now consider to be no more than a foundation myth)19 that Ali bin al-Hasan, a prince of the Shiraz dynasty of Persia, accompanied by six sons (or brothers) and a number of followers, fled the persecution of a local sultan around 870 CE and set sail for the coast of Africa.

This group, the Kilwa Chronicle continues, successfully made landfall, and each of the brothers, or sons, founded and ruled over a town. The ports that the Chronicle names do not include Barawa, but a variant of the same myth does name the town, and contends that it was one of the first founded by the Shirazi.20 Ali bin al-Husain himself, supposedly, later travelled south to Kilwa, and founded his own dynasty there.21 In one version of events, Barawa was thus one of a number of towns on the Swahili coast to owe its existence to the arrival of the Shirazis, and – Chittick suggests – among the most important, since it was apparently senior to the highly successful city-state of Kilwa.22 The Shirazis brought with them their Shia religion, the tradition of building in stone, the technique of weaving cotton, and distinctive architectural and artistic styles. It was only later that this Persian elite was supplemented by the arrival of Arab traders and, eventually, settlers, along the Swahili coast.23

Modern historical consensus is, to put it mildly, doubtful of such claims. The archaeological evidence we have suggests that every significant trading town that was once part of the Swahili Coast was first established by Africans – except, just possibly, Manda24 – and hence any immigrants who did arrive on the coast, whether Persian or Arabs, more likely established control by ousting existing rulers from existing towns by force.25 The “Shirazi” myth itself has been subjected to fairly withering criticism by Allen and Kirkham, who note that documentary and archaeological evidence for anyspecifically Persian settlement of the African coast is entirely lacking before c.1750; the most we have is a pair of thirteenth century inscriptions from Mogadishu that mention Persian names.26 Since these people could have been visiting merchants, rather than settlers or local rulers, it is fair to say that – while the idea is still quite commonly encountered in the general secondary sources – any suggestion that Barawa was founded by Persian emigrants in the ninth century remains very much unproven, and is highly unlikely.

Arab dhows with hand-sewn, rather than nailed, planking were the staples of the intra-Indian Ocean trade before the arrival of Europeans in the region.

An alternative proposal, made by John Trimingham, is that the groups from the Banadir coast (the desert coastal area of southern Somalia that includes Barawa) that can be found in medieval records from the area, and who identified as “Shirazi” were actually “Swahilised” Bantu, whose claim to Persian origins was sociologically important but at best “suspect in its quasi-historical details”.27 In other words, the medieval leadership of Barawa was predominantly African. This position is supported by the writings of Richard Burton, who was the first westerner to hear stories of the “Shirazi” from Swahili-speaking informants in the late nineteenth century. Burton concluded that the Shirazi came from Africa,28and Allen takes everything a step further by suggesting that the term most probably applied to a status group, rather than one with ethnically or geographically distinct origins.29

All in all, then, it seems most likely that Barawa was originally an African port, which probably came into existence as a fishing village some time before 1000, and that the local elite were of predominantly African origin, albeit with the addition of some Arab merchant families. There is linguistic evidence to back this up, since the people of Barawa still speak a dialect of Swahili that has been shown to have roots in the language spoken by the Bantu peoples.30

I’ve gone into some detail here because it’s important to understand Barawa’s origins if we are to understand its system of government. But, if we move past the mention of the port in the Shirazi origin myth, the next evidence that we have is an inscription dating to c.940, which is the earliest definite reference to its existence.31 Another, funerary, inscription found in the Friday Mosque in the town, commemorates the death of a Muslim resident of Barawa named Hajj Chande in 1104-05.32 We thus do have some evidence that the port existed as more than merely a village, that it was part of a trading network that attracted Arab merchants, and that it probably had an Arab immigrant community by the early twelfth century at the latest.

The Masjid al-Qiblatayn mosque in the Somali town of Zeila dates to the seventh century CE and is one of the oldest mosques in Africa. It gives some idea of what Barawa’s Friday Mosque may have looked like in about 1100.

We now move on to the history of Barawa when the city-state was at the height of its wealth and prestige between roughly 1100 and 1500. The main items of trade in this period were most likely ivory and enslaved men, women and children. Its people also manufactured and exported cloth, hats and wooden furniture and carvings, and the profits from all these trades were sufficient to fund the construction of a stone town in the city – built, as such buildings were during this period along the Swahili coast, of coral rag.33 In the same period, Barawa also became a noted centre of Islamic learning and jurisprudence, attracting scholars and students from along the whole Swahili coast. The city did not remain independent throughout these centuries, however. When the Nahbani dynasty, based in Pate, an island off the coast of what is now northern Kenya, became the dominant regional power from the middle of the fourteenth century, its influence extended as far north as Barawa, where (says Trimingham), Sultan Muhamad II installed a representative in about 1320.34

The city, then, was a significant port of call, and it was rich enough and well enough known to have sent envoys, jointly with Mogadishu, all the way to the emperor of China. Barawa was visited, in return, by units from the fleet of the great Chinese admiral Zheng He, probably in 1421 or 1422, in the course of the seven voyages carried out on orders of the Yongle emperor and his successors between 1405 and 1433. As a result of these exchanges, we have a description of the port as it was in the first half of the 15th century, written by Fei Xin in his Survey of the Star Raft. Hyunhee Park points out that Fei himself never visited Barawa, and that his information must have come at second hand and may be at least partly generic and copied from earlier Chinese sources.35 Nonetheless, while Fei’s account certainly contains details that are incorrect, the Survey is the closest we can get to glimpsing Barawa at the height of its magnificence – though that was scarcely a height that impressed the well-travelled men of Zheng He’s fleet:

The customs are somewhat simple. There is no agriculture of any kind, and the people eke out a living by fishing. Both men and women have hair of knotted fists, and wear short shirts that they sash with strips of cotton. On their ears the women sport gold coins and above their necks they wear fringe pendants.

Onions and garlic they have, but they lack any sort of gourd. Civets, which resemble the musk deer; zebras, which are like the piebald donkey; leopards; antlerless deer; rhinoceroses; myrrh; frankincense; ambergris; elephant tusks; and camels comprise the native produce of this land. In trading with them, we use gold; silver; satins; silks; rice; beans; and porcelain.36

A – probably highly fanciful – reconstruction of one of the huge junks that formed the fabled “treasure fleet” of China’s eunuch admiral, Zheng He.

This prosperous and, apparently, peaceful period of the city’s history came to an end early in the sixteenth century, when Barawa attracted the attentions of the Portuguese. European sailors had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and moved steadily up the coast; between 1505-07, Portuguese ships appeared off Mombasa and Kilwa and sacked both cities. The Barawani also received a visit from a Portuguese flotilla and, having agreed to pay tribute to the formidably-armed westerners, its rulers made the mistake of reneging on their agreement. This resulted in the port’s sack by Tristão da Cunha (the same man who gave his name to the Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha) in 1506.37

Barawa was rebuilt relatively quickly after the Portuguese sack, but it does not appear to have regained much independence. It may well have come under the at least occasional control of the Arjuan sultanate, an inland Somali state, with an hereditary Geledi sultan, which rose and fell between c.1500 and c.1625 and had a major outlet to the sea at Mogadishu.38 The Portuguese apparently considered it a vassal state for most of the period until the 1580s,39 but in 1581 an Ottoman corsair by the name of Mir Ali Beg appeared in the region, and his activities resulted in several attempted local uprisings against the over-stretched Portuguese, during which many of the ports along the Swahili coast attempted to regain their independence.40 From 1585, the town, along with much of the rest of the North-East African littoral, was contested between the Ottomans and the Portuguese until the late seventeenth century.41

By 1600, then, Barawa – in common with the other ports along the Swahili coast – had entered into a period of relative decline, which was probably in large part the product of the diversion of most of the lucrative long distance trade that passed along the Swahili coast into European hands.42 Because the town became relatively insignificant, and was so far from the centres of either Portuguese or Ottoman power, however, it seems likely that the city was never really fully under the control of either empire. This created the conditions in which the rising regional power of Zanzibar – part of a seaborne state that also incorporated Muscat and Oman – was able to lodge its own claims to suzerainty over the port.

The Omani empire in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Two key dates in this regard were 1758, when Barawa first came into the orbit of the sultans of Zanzibar,43 and 1840, when it was sacked by an African army from Bardera – a neighbouring Somali sultanate based in a town best known nowadays for producing onions.44 In between these dates, Barawa seems to have been pushed and pulled in several different directions by the shifting balance of power in the region. It had a Zanzibarian governor and a Zanzibiarian garrison.45 But, although it is stated to have regularly paid tribute to Zanzibar, it attempted to wrest its way free of the Omani orbit during the 1840s by despatching deliberately provocative “gifts” consisting solely of weapons of war – a mail coat, gunpowder and musket balls.46 There is also a reference to its paying off the Portuguese with a fairly token tribute payment worth £20 a year. This would be remarkable if true, since the Portuguese had exerted practically no influence over the Somali coast since 1698.47

Our last glimpse of the old town comes from the writings of a French naval captain, Charles Guillain, who was sent to the Horn of Africa in the mid-1840s to improve French influence in the region. Guillain’s lengthy cruise not only took him to Barawa – he is mainly interested in offering a detailed breakdown of the contemporary import-export trade – but also allowed him to build up a detailed knowledge of local power politics. Among other things, he noted the influence that the tribes of the Somali hinterland were able to exert over the port.

According to Guillain, in the decades leading up to Barawa’s incorporation into Italy’s ramshackle overseas empire, the rulers of the town were still struggling to navigate – as they must have done for centuries – the safest path between the competing demands of local strongmen, meaning the most powerful of the tribal chiefs of the interior; the Zanzibarian governor; and the Sultan of Zanzibar.48

The sources and their problems

With this background sketched in, we can turn to the specifics of your query – the governance of Barawa and the sources that can tell us about the ways in which it was organised. These are so scanty that it is actually usual to discuss governance on the Swahili coast as a whole, as though what happened in one if its city-states can tell us something about how things worked in another – and all too tempting to look at the tiny collection of information that we have available for the whole of the – 2,000-mile-long – littoral across almost a millennium and assume that if things worked in such-and-such a way in Town “A” in 1300, then they probably worked in much the same way in Town “B” in 1840. The reality is that town “B” was probably a thousand miles away from “A”, had a different ethnic mix and a different relationship with its hinterland, and also faced a unique set of challenges from the major imperial powers of the period. It’s inherently risky to draw broad or firm conclusions from static models that, when inspected, turn out to be constructed from scanty, and often late, source material.

The excavated ruins of the great merchantile city-state of Kilwa, on an island off the coast of what is now northern Tanzania.

Very broadly, however, we need first to grasp that there were many different “levels” of power involved in the politics of the Swahili coast. At minimum, we know that these included

  • Relations between the different tribes represented in the towns along the coast

  • Relations between the different classes who made up the population of the towns

  • Relations between the secular and religious leaders of the towns

  • Relations between the elders of the towns and the local rulers, or strongmen, or regional powers who wanted to extract tribute, and frequently an acknowledgement of suzerainty, from them

This recognition has some significant implications for any attempt to label Barawa “a republic”, since even if we could prove that the town had an elected, collective leadership, that is hardly the same thing as showing that this leadership was unchallenged or free to act as it saw fit, even at the height of the city’s power. To make matters worse, the truth is that we simply do not have a sufficient wealth of sources to know for sure exactly how these different levels interacted with each other over time. The information that we have gives us little more than snapshots, taken more or less at random, and over several centuries.

Many of the most useful, and most neutral, accounts of the Swahili coast have been written by archaeologists. Unfortunately, these are generally of very little help when it comes to understanding local politics. The sources that do offer the information that we need fall broadly into three categories, which are

  • Accounts compiled by travellers and geographers. These date back further than any other sources that we have, but many are fanciful and based on little more than hearsay. Many apparently useful accounts, such as those written by Chinese who served Zheng He, are not actually first hand. Even those travellers who we can be fairly certain did visit the region – the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta is by far the best known – spent only a little time there, and usually in ports other than Barawa.

  • Swahili chronicles. There are several, including not only the Kilwa Chronicle but the Chronicle of Pate. However, they are predominantly concerned with establishing pedigrees, and the texts that have come down to us are very late versions of what is often orally transmitted folklore, and are of uncertain provenance.

  • European accounts. These cover the period from 1500 and several are first hand accounts by sailors (Portuguese, British and French) who actually did call at Barawa. Unfortunately, most spent little time in the region, and their descriptions of the political structures of the cities of the Swahili coast tend to be superficial at best, and often actively misleading.

As I pointed out above, we really only have a small handful of references that tell us anything about the way in which Barawa was governed for the whole of the period from 1100 to 1840. Since almost everything that I will say about the town’s “republic” depends on these, it’s well worth setting them all out before we take things any further.

  • The earliest of these sources is the writings of Muhammed al-Idrisi (1100-1165), an Arab geographer and traveller who lived much of his life at the court of the Norman kings of Sicily. His Kitab Ruyar, commissioned by Roger II and completed in 1154, mentions Barawa as a town ruled by “pagans” who worshipped standing stones smeared with fish oil.49

  • Next, we have the evidence of Joao de Baros, a highly-respected contemporary historian who was the principal chronicler of the first years of Portugal’s Asian empire. His First Decade of Asia, based extensively on contemporary journals and letters found in the Portuguese archives, appeared in 1552. After giving the Swahili Coast foundation myth referred to above, he adds two passages on Barawa:

The first settlement they made in this land of Ajan [that is, Zanj, the name then given to the coast and peoples of southern Somalia, Kenya and northern Tanzania] was the city of Mogadishu, and the next at Brava, which even at the present time is governed by twelve chiefs in the manner of a republic, and they are descendants of the seven brothers.50

Portuguese ships in the Indian Ocean, 1521

The second passage summarises events of 1503, and discusses the experiences of Captain Ruy Lourenço, who was patrolling off the coast of Mombasa when

it happened that at different times he captured two ships and three zambucos [small, fast ships most often used in the Islamic slave trade], in which were twelve Moors who were some of the chief noblemen of the town of Brava… As this town is governed by a corporation, these twelve moors being the principal heads of government, they not only paid ransom for themselves and one of the captured ships, saying that it belonged to the town, but in the name of the said town they made it a tributary of the King of Portugal, paying a tribute of five hundred miticals [an Arab measure of gold dust] of gold per annum, and asked for a flag that they might navigate in safety as vassals of the king, which Ruy Lourenço gave them with good will.

The principal reason why these Moors had immediately made themselves vassals was because they were expecting to be followed by a very rich ship, the property of Brava, in which each of them had a large quantity of merchandise. As soon as the ship arrived, Ruy Lourenço understood this prudent conduct, and delivered it over to them entirely and freely, having ascertained that it was theirs, which proceeding filled them with astonishment, seeing that the riches of the ship did not arouse the covetousness of our men because of the protection they had promised them, although they comprehended the precautions that had been employed to save it.51

  • Another very helpful description – albeit one of no more than 10 lines, in the printed edition – is supplied by the Portuguese Duarte Barbosa (1480-1521), who visited the Swahili coast in about 1514, and compiled a description, The Book of Duarte Barbosa, which describes the towns he saw. We have no information about how the entries in this itinerary were compiled, or how much was based on eyewitness evidence. Thus, while there is no obvious reason to doubt that Barbosa was at least present in the area at the time, and in a good position to collect reasonably reliable information, we cannot be at all certain that he was ever actually in Barawa. Barbosa describes the city as

a town of the Moors, well walled, and built of good houses of stone and whitewash… It has not got a king; it is governed by its elders, they being honoured and respectable persons. It is a place of trade, which has already been destroyed by the Portuguese, with great slaughter of the inhabitants, of whom many were made captives, and great riches in gold, silver, and other merchandise were taken here, and those who escaped fled into the country, and after the place was destroyed they returned to people it.52

  • We then have a significant gap in the record, which is ended only with the appearance of the French naval officer Charles Guillain in Barawa in 1846-47. His later account of this voyage, published a decade later, was based on a fairly lengthy stay in the vicinity, and as such is worth quoting at length, even though it is so late:

The population of Brava reaches about 5,000, including slaves. It is made up of Somalis and descendants of the Arabs. The Somali are divided into five distinct tribes – the Dafaradi, the Ouarileh, the Hhadjoua, the Dakhetera and the Gougïal [all actually sub-clans of the Tunni]; the descendants of the Arabs are made up of two – the Bidda [Barawi] and the Hhatt’emia [Hatimi]. During our stay in Brava, the sheikhs of these tribes were, in the order I just listed them, Sheikh Hhadi-Aouïça, Mehadi-Heraou, Adballah-Abdi, M’hammed-Otsman, Ali-ben-Ibrahim, for the Somalis; and for the Arabs, Déra-ben-Omar and Sheikh Abouki. These sheikhs all enjoyed an equal authority on the council.

So far so good – but Guillain then throws a rather enormous spanner into the works with a quite remarkable passage that reads almost as if it was excerpted from James Frazer’s Golden Bough, then still 35 years from seeing publication:

Next to this quasi-republican government, it seems there is a species of small-scale monarch. He is elected for seven years; the election takes place in Brava, and is then proclaimed from the coast into the interior. I was seriously assured that he is put to death at the end of the seventh year; but as it seemed to me ridiculous that there would be people willing to accept the title of sultan with such prospects, I believe it is a canard of Idrisi’s concerning the inhabitants of Brava.

The present incumbent lives in this land and is called Ali Hap’hénou; they told me of his power, [but] I do not believe that Youceuf [the most powerful tribal leader in Barawa’s hinterland] leaves him much to do in the interior; as for the city, it is certain that power is exercised by the sheikhs.

Guillain concludes his passage with some rather heavy-handed humour:

One of the most curious peculiarities of what some geographers call the Republic of Brava is its multiplicity of sovereigns. There are three that I could mention. First Sultan Ali Hap’hénou; then Youceuf, who the people of Brava have good reason to look on as their lord and master; and finally Saîd [Seyyid Said, better known as Said b Sultan, the sultan of Zanzibar, Muscat and Oman], who, again, took all the authority he was allowed to take.53

Discussion of the primary sources

Charles Guillain (1808-1875)

At first glance, then, we appear to have recovered a set of primary sources that are in broad agreement with each other and which cover the whole period from the first European contact with Barawa in 1503 all the way to the 1840s. These sources describe a city-state that “does not have a king”, but is governed by a number of “elders” or “sheikhs” who all have “equal authority” on a “council” – and it’s easy to see how Barawa could have come to be thought of as a “republic” in these circumstances. Several of the historians of the East African littoral actually use the term, among them Nurse and Spear, who suggest that the “underlying political structure” along much of the Swahili coast was the “oligarchic republic.”54

We need to note four things here, however.

The first is that neither De Baraos, nor Barbosa, nor Guillain actually tell us that the port was a republic; De Baraos says it is governed “in the manner of a republic” and Guillain – the only one of the three witnesses who actually spent significant time in Barawa – is careful to call the place a “quasi-republic”: that is, a state that seems rather like a republic, but which isn’t. In other words, both writers are introducing the idea of a republic as a comparison in order to explain the city’s system of governance to readers familiar with European republics such as Venice, but unfamiliar with the ways of the Swahili coast. Moreover, De Baros is careful to add that membership of the council is open only to descendants of the original – Shirazi – inhabitants of Barawa. As such, it would seem that it was also to a significant degree hereditary.

Alessandra Vianello, who lived in Barawa for two decades in the 1990s and early 2000s, and is the only outside scholar who has ever actually written about the town at any length, is likewise careful to be precise with her description, and avoids suggesting that it was ever actually a republic:

Brava… was one among those Swahili centres where internal administration had always remained in the hands of a council of elders, without ever having individual rulers.55

The second point to bear in mind is that, as soon as we start digging beneath the surface, we find evidence of the hidden complexities and layers that I outlined above. Al-Idrisi describes a state that is still run by pagans at a time when we know that Barawa had already acquired its Friday Mosque; if his description (which may well have reached us via a fairly long chain of informants) can be trusted at all, it suggests – quite plausibly, I think – that in this very early period the city had more than one religious authority, and hence very possibly no single locus of power. Barbosa describes a town left in turmoil by its sack by the newly-arrived Portuguese. And Guillain explains that Barawa’s council has to deal with several competing would-be power-brokers, one actually based in the port, one in the hinterland surrounding it, and the third on an island a thousand miles to the south.

The Tabula Rogeriana – a version of al-Idrisi’s world map, drawn in 1154

A third point is that we have some evidence, even in this small selection of sources, that the government of Barawa was far from unchanging in this period. Pagan stone-worshippers give way to Muslim tribal elders; these “elders” – a description that, in this place and at this time, surely refers to religious leaders – are conflated with “noblemen” who apparently wield some secular power; the number of seats on the town council shifts from 12 to seven; the people of the hinterland begin to exert political power within the walls of the port (so that the all-“Shirazi” council described by De Baraos in the 16th century turns into the council dominated by Swahili-speaking Somali clans 400 years later); and an odd sort of sultanate apparently emerges. And the white-haired, land-based Islamic elders described by Barbosa and Guillain seem a pretty poor sort of fit with the wily seagoing merchant consortium encountered by Ruy Lourenço.

This last dichotomy is perhaps the most startling of all, since Ruy Lourenço met his group of Barawani elders in 1503, while Barbosa was on the Swahili coast a mere seven years later. Islam has always been more respectful of commerce than most other religions, and indeed merchant capital played an important part in the rise of the religion.56 But, even so, it seems at the very least unlikely that these two men were encountering the same group of rulers.

To go further than this, we need to consider a fourth point, which is that we do have other evidence, from other places up and down the Swahili coast, to help us understand how Barawa’s sister city-states were run. Potentially dangerous though it is to draw too many comparison and links between what were often very different polities, it can be illuminating to look in more detail at this set of evidence, and it is to the city-states surrounding Barawa that we now turn.

Governance elsewhere on the Swahili coast

To the Portuguese, newly arrived on the east African littoral, the Swahili city-states were a type of polity whose governance – however superficially exotic – could be explained in perfectly familiar terms. Mogadishu had a “king”;57Mombasa had “a king” who was also “a Moor”, meaning a Muslim,58 just as “a Moor ruled” in Kilwa, further down the coast.59 Malindi was ruled by a “wealthy sultan,”60 Sofala by a “king”,61 and Zanzibar by a “lord of the land.”62

Sayyid bin Sultan, the sultan of Zanzibar from 1806 to 1856

Even the slightest actual acquaintance with these states, however, very rapidly introduced complications. Thus the rulers of Kilwa’s dynasty of hereditary sultans turn out to be advised by a council representing the main clans on the island,63and this council, in turn, was led by one designated “chief man”.64 Those who were more fully acquainted with existing forms of Islamic rule spotted additional cogs in what were often actually quite complex governmental machines. Thus, a century and a half before the Portuguese appeared, when the Swahili coast was at its height, it was visited by Ibn Battuta – a Moroccan, a vastly experienced traveller, and also an Islamic legal scholar – who spent some time in Mogadishu and noted that its ruler was supported by groups of clerics, elders and military commanders, and had an elaborate “royal court”.65

Present-day scholars continue to debate how government in the Swahili city-states actually worked. The detailed examination of governance offered by Sinclair and Hakansson (which I should point out is far from uncontested) builds on the earlier work of Allen to break down these various forms of government into two broad types, the “Shirazi model of domination” and the “Arab-Wangwana mode of domination” (in which “wangwana” or “waungwana” is an Arabic term meaning free or nobly born). The former draws on African ideas – though it also borrows the old legend of a founding dynasty of Persian migrants from Shiraz to lend legitimacy to its rulers. This model, which is also known as the jumbesystem, places power in the hands of a single overall leader (jumbe) but supports him with a wide variety of officials, some of whom have advisory powers, while others are responsible for raising and commanding troops, and others again are purely ceremonial. The sultans who ruled under the Shirazi model generally had some hereditary claim to lead, but their accession was subject to “a process of acceptance” that was not quite so clear cut as an actual election; Sinclair and Hakansson describe it as “a combination of hereditary and consensus.” For Allen, the Shirazi model was quasi-feudal and was erected on a hierarchical system of ranked titles, each of which came with sumptuary, economic and ritual privileges attached.66

In this view, the Shiarzi model was the dominant one along the Swahili coast before the arrival of the Portuguese, and survived the considerable shock of the Europeans’ appearance, only to be replaced by the “Arab-Wangwana model” during the ascendancy of the sultans of Zanzibar during the eighteenth century. In this new model, the overt and hierarchical ranking of people that had existed under the Shirazi model became anathema, and significant power devolved into the hands of

a system of corporate patrician groups of equals based on patrilineal descent. However… clans and lineages were ranked according to prestige and individuals according to descent seniority.67

In Allen’s view, the “Arab-Wangwana model” was the product of the Ibadite Islam practised in Oman, “which abhors overt ranking”, and it produced the stone towns of the Swahili coast; these consisted of homes that “represented the wealth and power of the patrician descent groups.” Under this form of governance, even the sultan was merely a first among equals.68

Medieval Mombasa in 1572.

As Sinclair and Hakansson very reasonably point out, these models – while conceptually useful – are too static to apply to the shifting circumstances of the Swahili coast over nearly a thousand years; in addition, they certainly break down when it comes to the histories of ports such as Barawa and Mogadishu, which were reported to have elements of the Wangwana model as early as the 12th or 13th centuries, well before the shock caused by the Portuguese or the arrival of Omani power in the region.69 Nonetheless, understanding the ways in which the Wangwana model of governance actually worked offers considerable insights into the government of Barawa, and allows us to identify several significant “nodes” that appear to match the descriptions that European observers have left us of the Somali port. Sinclair and Hakansson describe the 18th and early 19th century government of Mombasa in this way:

Mombasa was organised into two sets of waungwana, free-born or noble, clan alliances, usually called the three and nine “tribes” or “nations” which appointed members to a council with great power over political affairs and over the sultan or governor as well. In Mombasa, the Omani family Mazuri ruled between the beginning of the 1700s until 1836, when they were overthrown by the Omani sultanate of Zanibar. The Mazuri governors seem to have been in the same position as earlier Swahili “kings”, i.e. dependent on the powerful descent groups, each with their appointed leaders. Although frequently at loggerheads, the Mombasa waungwana elected a chief as leader, and the British commandant of Mombasa between 1824 and 1826, Lieutenant Emery, observed when meeting with the Mazuri leaders [that] they had to wait for the chief, “without whose sanctions nothing could be finally adjusted.”

The wangwauna clans were ranked according to a system of prestige and representation which was quite fluid, and each clan alliance contained both wealthy merchants and regular farmers. While members of different clans were appointed to different government positions by the sultan or governor, few specialised political and economic institutions seem to have existed. Indeed, matters of taxation, trade, justice, and military organisation were in the hands of the clans. Subclans, clans, and clan alliances were the backbone of the Swahili states, which were organized into kin groupings reflected in ward organisation. For example, the custom dues from the island of Pemba, a dominion of Mombasa, were in the hands of the “Three Tribes” clan alliance. Similarly, military mobilisation and deployment was not only dependent on the clans but also on their “Nyika” allies in the hinterland of Mombasa.

The tension between collective clan-based government and hierarchical kingship seems to permeate historical and archaeological analyses of the coastal polities.70

Here, then, is a description of a model of government that matches what we hear of Barawa – with its councils of elders, its seven distinct tribal groupings (two “Arab” and five “Swahili”), its notable absence of departments of government, and its fractious relations with the more powerful and more warlike tribal groupings of its hinterland, and which falls down only in terms of its periodisation – the “council of elders” reported from Barawa was apparently in existence about two hundred years before the Omanis came to dominate the Swahili coast. This need not, however, be an insuperable problem; the location of the port – on the Somali coast, much closer to Arab influences than most of the other city-states of the Swahili littoral – suggests that it must have had extensive contacts with Oman from an early date, as, in fact, the story of the Barawan delegation that visited China suggests; the merchants of the port are supposed to have encountered Zheng He’s fleet while visiting Hormuz.71 Ibadi Islam, moreover, was already dominant in Oman by the time that Barawa emerged as an Islamic state.72 So perhaps it was natural for the waungwana model of government to make inroads on the Somali coast from quite an early period.

Lapidus summarises the situation by saying that

little is known of the political systems of these towns, but it may be surmised that they were composed of lineages. Each town may have had a council of clan chiefs, although such councils were probably superseded by a dominant lineage or by an outside Arab or Persian chief who became ruler and mediator among the local clans. The rulers were legitimised both in terms of hereditary succession and of African symbols.73

Given everything that we have learned so far, this makes a considerable amount of sense. Nonetheless, before trying to draw the various parts of this enquiry together in a general conclusion, it’s worth mentioning that we do have more detailed (albeit very late) accounts of at least one Swahili polity that existed during this period and which the ethnographer AHJ Prins identified as “a republic”, and his evidence also opens up some unexpected windows on the position in Barawa.74

Prins’s “republic” is Lamu, another island port located less than 10 miles south-east of Pate on what is now the coast of Kenya. Even at its peak, the town controlled no more than about 140 square miles of territory in its hinterland, but it did boast plenty of fresh water and one of the best deep-water, all-weather ports on its stretch of coast. Like Barawa, it also benefitted from being contested, in this case between neighbouring Pate and the Omani sultans of Zanzibar, who established a small garrison in the port in 1813.75 Since the Omanis were relatively powerful, but distant, while Pate was weak, but very close, the result (as Blanton and Fargher explain it) was the hesitant flowering of a state that was never fully independent, but which nevertheless retained significant real control over its affairs.76

The modern port of Lamu

Lamu, like Pate and like most other Swahili maritime towns, was dominated by a small group of tribes, but the key to its system of government – at least in the 19th century, which is the only period for which we have good evidence – was that the balance of power in the port was uniquely delicate. Thus, while Pate was dominated throughout the eighteenth century by the Nabahani clan, from whose ranks a line of sultans was chosen, Lamu (so Ylvisaker explains), was divided into two halves called Zaina and Suudi – the former of which claimed precedence because it was closer to Mecca, while the latter did so on the grounds that its territory incorporated the town’s economically vital port.

All of the noble families were affiliated with one or the other. The halves elected leaders from the heads of their constituent families and, alternately, the elected leaders from the two sections ruled the whole town for four-year periods. Even though the elders of the leading families acted as advisers to the mngwana wa yumbe, as the ruler was called, this form of government tended towards division. That the military regiments were also drawn from the two halves did not lessen this tendency.77

Here, too, then, we can hear echoes of the situation in Barawa, with its council divided between elders who claimed Arab descent, and those who were Swahili, and its “elections” – a word that carries with it quite significant republican baggage, but which we surely need to understand, rather, as a process of selection via discussion and consensus.

Perhaps the most significant parallel between Lamu and Barawa, though – certainly from our perspective – is that both states enjoyed fairly lengthy periods of peace and stability in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the case of Barawa, Vianella says,

the different ethnic groups living in Brava … achieved a remarkable balance of power and a community of interests that led to a sustained peaceful coexistence. Inter-clan clashes were unheard of in Brava during the whole nineteenth century, as witnessed by all the foreigners who visited the town, for whom the situation appeared so exceptional in the Benadir [south Somali coast] context of the time as to warrant particular remarks. Law and order was also maintained in Brava by checking the daily influx of people from the countryside at the town gates, where they had to leave their weapons until the time they left in the evening, after they had sold their goods or transacted their business.78

Perhaps it is here, then – in this delicate stability that nonetheless succeeded in producing an enduing peace – that we can root Barawa’s unusual, if not quite unique, system of government: one that attained a state of equilibrium based on a combination of consensus backed by the influence that tribal elders had over their tribes without requiring a local sultan to take charge and lead the state against its enemies.

I believe that this is the best explanation for the Barawa described by Guillain – at least if the town is stripped of the bizarre and impotent seven-year “sultan” that the French naval captain describes – particularly if we conclude that it was, perhaps, the razing of the city by the forces of a neighbouring town in 1840 that began the process of destabilisation and the rise in the influence of the heavily-armed tribes of the hinterland that Guillain witnessed.

Barawa seen as it should be, from the sea.

This does not, admittedly, explain why we have no references to Barawa (apparently uniquely among all the city-states of the Swahili coast) having ever had a genuinely influential sultan at any time in its history, nor how a consular form of government could have survived the seismic impact of the sack of the city by the Portuguese in 1506-07 apparently unscathed. That is why I draw attention to the considerable gap in our records of the city. The Portuguese records of Barawa’s government date to the period before, and immediately after, the sack; we then have no real idea of how the city was governed until the peaceful days of the early 19th century.

It does seem possible that the port underwent changes of government during this period, and that perhaps we simply have no record of the rise and fall of one or more sultans in the city who based their claims to legitimacy at least in part on military prowess. We may never know the solution to this problem, but, whatever the answer is, we know enough, now, about Barawa to realise that even though the city-state was never in any real sense a “republic”, it did have a rather remarkable, very unusual – and apparently effective – government for much of the time that it existed as an independent polity.


  1. Cerulli, Somalia: Scritti Vari Editi ed Inediti, I, 37. It’s worth noting that we have no photograph of this inscription, and its content has never been verified. Cerulli himself never visited Barawa in more than two decades in Somalia (an indication of the town’s remoteness and perceived unimportance nowadays), and had his information from a local correspondent.

  2. Omar, The Scramble in the Horn of Africa p.20.

  3. Wyatt, The Blacks of Premodern China pp.97-8; Ma Huan, The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores pp.18-19

  4. Barbosa, A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar (London, 1866)

  5. Guillain, Documents sur l’histoire, la géographie et le commerce de L’Afrique Orientale, II, 170-1.

  6. Lewis, “The concept of an Islamic republic,” pp.1-5.

  7. Jama, The Origins and Development of Mogadishu, p.87.

  8. Sinclair and Hakansson, A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures p.463.

  9. Ibid p.468

  10. Horton and Mudida, “Exploitation of marine resources” pp.673- 75; Insoll, The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa pp.154-55.

  11. Sinclair and Hakansson, op.cit. p.473.

  12. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony p.34.

  13. Nurse & Spear, The Swahili p.85.

  14. Vianello, “Nineteenth and twentieth century Brava,” p.51.

  15. Ibid p.50. But see also Jama, op.cit. pp.41-48. Jama notes a core problem for anyone with an interest in medieval Barawa: a dynamic local environment has left very few traces of the old port, and “most of its old buildings are now buried underneath deposits up to 6 m deep.”

  16. Freeman-Grenville, The East African Coast: Select Documents p.34; Chittick, Kilwa I, 14.

  17. Chittick, “Kilwa and the Arabic settling of the East African Coast,” p.251.

  18. Freeman-Grenville, op.cit. pp.34, 89.

  19. Allen, “The ‘Shirazi’ problem in East African coastal history,” p.183.

  20. Theal, Records of South-Eastern Africa VI, 240.

  21. Freeman-Grenville, The East African Coast: Select Documents pp.35-36.

  22. Chittick, “Medieval Mogadishu,” p.51.

  23. Hrbek, Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century, p.292.

  24. Pouwels, Horn and Crescent p.214.

  25. Allen, Swahili Origins, pp.114-15.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Allen, “Shirazi problem,” p.183.

  28. Allen, Swahili Origins, p.115.

  29. Allen, “Shirazi problem,” pp.183-85; Wynne-Jones, A Material Culture p.370.

  30. Vianello, op.cit. p.51.

  31. Lewis, “Somali Conquest of the Horn of Africa,” p.218

  32. Cerulli, op.cit. I, 37. More work would need to be done by specialists in the region to confirm the ethnicity of this person. Cerulli comments: “I was unable to go personally to Brava to carry out direct research on the remains of the Arab medieval antiquities that undoubtedly exist there. A Bravanese … sent me the copy of another (I believe funerary) inscription, which reads thus: Hajj Shanid, son of Abu Bakr, son of Umar, son of Uthman, son of Hasan, son of Ali, son of Abu Bakr; and he passed into that (?) tomb in the year 498, the month being Rabi’ al Akhir.” The lineage sounds distinctively Arabic, but Nurse, in his Bajuni Database, adds that the correct transliteration of the name “Shanid” is Chande, which is Swahili, and is “written as is usual for Swahili/Chimiini with Arabic letters shin-alef-nun-dal).” Perhaps this is an example of an Arab immigrant family integrating with the local Bantu community?

  33. Sinclair and Hakansson, Comparative Study p.467; Nurse & Spear, The Swahili p.16.

  34. Trimingham, Islam in East Africa p.13.

  35. Park, Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds p.176.

  36. Quoted in Wyatt, The Blacks of Premodern China, pp.103-04.

  37. D’Alòs-Moner, “Conquistadores, Mercenaries, and Missionaries,” p.8.

  38. Allen, Swahili Origins, pp.148, 160.

  39. Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration pp.152-80.

  40. Ibid.

  41. Barendse, The Arabian Seas, pp.15-17.

  42. Coquery-Vidrovitch, The History of African Cities South of the Sahara, p.198.

  43. Mukhtar, Historical Dictionary of Somalia p.51.

  44. Guillian, Documents, II, 38.

  45. Vianello, op.cit. pp.57, 59.

  46. Guillian, op.cit. II, 569.

  47. Brooks & Marshall, New Universal Gazetteer, p.121; Trimingham, Islam in East Africa p.20.

  48. Guillian, op.cit. II, 571.

  49. Allen, Swahili Origins, p.71; Jama, Origins and Development of Mogadishu p.37; Freeman-Grenville, East African Coastp.87; Trimingham, op.cit. p.5. We should note that al-Idrisi’s account does not mention “Barawa” or “Brava” – it describes a town that he calls “Bedouna, at the extremity of the country of the kaffirs”. It is usually assumed that his description actually refers to Barawa, but it would be dangerous to assume that this is absolutely confirmed.

  50. Theal, Records, VI, 233.

  51. Ibid pp.219-20.

  52. Barbosa, A Description of the Coasts of East Africa, p.15.

  53. Guillian, op.cit. II, 570-571.

  54. Nurse & Spear, op.cit. p.85.

  55. Vianello, op.cit. p.52.

  56. Ibrahim, Merchant Capital, pp.76-125.

  57. Freeman-Grenville, East African Coast p.33.

  58. Kusimba, Rise and Fall of the Swahili States p.93.

  59. Corea, The Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama, p.292.

  60. Nurse & Spear, op.cit. p.93.

  61. Kusimba, Rise and Fall p.167.

  62. Freeman-Grenville, East African Coast p.76.

  63. Ibid p.36.

  64. Corea, op.cit. p.293.

  65. Freeman-Grenville, East African Coast pp.28,30.

  66. Sinclair and Hakansson, op.cit. pp.468-69.

  67. Ibid, pp.469-70

  68. Ibid.

  69. Ibid pp.470-71.

  70. Ibid.

  71. Wyatt, op.cit. p.97.

  72. Staples, “Oman and Islamic maritime networks,” pp.81-115.

  73. Lapidus, History of Islamic Societies, p.481.

  74. Prins, The Swahili-speaking peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast, p.48.

  75. Bhacker, Trade and Empire in Muscat and Zanzibar, pp.82-83.

  76. Blanton & Fargher, Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States pp.48.

  77. Ylvisaker, Lamu in the Nineteenth Century p.67.

  78. Vianello, op.cit. pp.53-54.


Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (New York, 1989)

Andreu Martínez d’Alòs-Moner, “Conquistadores, Mercenaries, and Missionaries: The Failed Portuguese Dominion of the Red Sea,” North-East African Studies 12 (2012)

J. de V. Allen, “The ‘Shirazi’ problem in East African coastal history,” Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde 28 (1982)

Duarte Barbosa, A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar (London, 1866)

Rene J. Barendse, The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century (London, 2002)

M. Reda Bhacker, Trade and Empire in Muscat and Zanzibar: The Roots of British Domination (London, 1994)

Richard Blanton & Lane Fargher, Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States (New York, 2008)

Richard Brookes & John Marshall, A New Universal Gazetteer: Containing a Description of the Principal Nations of the Known World (Philadelphia, 1840)

Giancarlo Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration (Oxford, 2010)

Enrico Cerulli, Somalia: Scritti Vari Editi ed Inediti (Rome, 3 vols, 1957-64)

Neville Chittick, “The ‘Shirazi’ colonization of East Africa,” Journal of African History 6 (1965)

_______________, Kilwa: an Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast (Nairobi, 2 vols, 1974)

_______________, “Medieval Mogadishu,” Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde 28 (1982)

Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, The History of African Cities South of the Sahara (Princeton, 2005)

Gaspar Corea, The Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama (London, 1862)

G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville, The East African Coast: Select Documents (Oxford, 1962)

Charles Guillain, Documents sur l’histoire, la géographie et le commerce de L’Afrique Orientale, vol.2 (Paris, 3 vols, 1856-57)

Mark Horton and Nina Mudida, “Exploitation of marine resources: evidence for the origin of the Swahili comunities of East Africa,” in Thurston Shaw et al (eds), The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns (Abingdon, 1993)

I. Hrbek, Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century (London, 1992)

Mohammed Ibrahim, Merchant Capital and Islam (Austin, 1990)

Timothy Insoll, The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (Cambridge, 2003)

Ahmed Dualeh Jama, The Origins and Development of Mogadishu AD 1000 to 1850: A Study of the Urban Growth Along the Benadir Coast of Southern Somalia (Uppsala, 1996)

Chapurukha M. Kusimba, The Rise and Fall of Swahili States (Walnut Creek, 1999)

Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge, 1988)

Bernard Lewis, “The concept of an Arab republic,” Die Welt des Islams, NS 4 (1955)

I.M. Lewis, “The Somali conquest of the Horn of Africa,” Journal of African History 1 (1960)

Ma Huan, The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores (trans. JVG Mills) (Cambridge, 1970)

Mohamed Haji Mukhtar, Historical Dictionary of Somalia (Lanham, 1975)

Derek Nurse & Thomas Spear, The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500(Philadelphia, 1986)

Hyunhee Park, Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds: Cross-Cultural Exchange in Pre-modern Asia (Cambridge, 2012)

Randall L. Pouwels, Horn and Crescent: Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800-1900(Cambridge, 1987)

A.H.J. Prins, The Swahili-speaking peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast: (Arabs, Shirazi and Swahili) (London, 1961)

Paul J.J. Sinclair and Thomas Hakansson, “The Swahili city-state culture,” in Mogens Herman Hansen (ed.), A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures (Copenhagen, 2000)

Eric Staples, “Oman and Islamic maritime networks (632-1507 CE),” in Abdulrahman al-Salimi and Eric Staples (eds.), Omani Maritime History (Hildesheim, 2017)

George Theal, Records of South-Eastern Africa, Collected in Various Libraries and Archive Departments in Europe (Cape Town, 9 vols, 1898-1903)

John Trimingham, Islam in East Africa (Oxford, 1964)

Alessandra Vienello, “Nineteenth and twentieth century Brava: a Swahili cultural enclave in a Somali context,” in Francesca Declich (ed.), Translocal Connections Across the Indian Ocean (Leiden, 2018)

Don J. Wyatt, The Blacks of Premodern China (Pennsylvania, 2010)

Stephanie Wynne-Jones, A Material Culture: Consumption and Materiality on the Coast of Precolonial East Africa (Oxford, 2016)

Marguerite Ylvisaker, Lamu in the Nineteenth Century: Land, Trade, and Politics (Boston, 1979)

Halley’s comet appears in the skies of late Anglo-Saxon England. Panel from the Bayeux tapestry.

Q: How did the general public in England regard Halley’s Comet in 1066? Was universally seen as an ill portent?

A:  Sadly, sources that tell us what the man on Watling Street thought about anything in 1066 are almost entirely lacking; the opinions of the common freeman, serf or slave were of no interest to the people who actually kept the records, monks.

But, with that said, we do have several more or less contemporary sources for what went on in 1066. On the English side of things, the main one was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, kept in seven somewhat different versions in various monasteries up and down the country; there is also the Vita Ædwardi Regis (1065-67). On the Norman side there is the chronicle of William of Poitiers (c.1071-77) (which, like the Vita Ædwardi, doesn’t actually mention the comet) and that of William of Jumieges (1071), which does, together with the Carmen de Hastingæ Proelio, or Song of the Battle of Hastings (1067), a long poem usually attributed to Guy, the French (but not Norman) Bishop of Amiens.

The reference to Halley’s Comet in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1066.

We can usefully begin with the ASC, which covers the period from the mid-fifth century to the mid-twelfth century, albeit not always contemporaneously and not always in much detail. The Chronicle mentions a total of 11 different comets, including the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1066, and the general impression given is that these celestial visitations are being mentioned because they were considered significant, usually as portents of some sort. That said, several of the mentions, mostly the early ones, are remarkably neutral. The earliest (which dates from before the Chronicle was actually kept up on a year-by-year basis) comes from 678 and says merely:

In this year appeared the star called comet, in August, and shone for three months each morning like a sunbeam.

Following that, there are reports of two comets being seen in 729, one in 892, another in 905 and a fourth in 995.

The 892 comet attracted a bit more notice from the chronicler:

And the same year after Easter during Rogation-tide or earlier appeared the star which in Latin is called ‘comet’, likewise men say in English that the comet is a long-haired star, because long beams of light shine there forth, sometimes on one side, some times on the other side.

But it was the comet of 975 that gives us our first real glimpse of what the Anglo-Saxons thought of such signs in the heavens:

And in this year Edward, Edgar’s son, succeeded to the kingdom, and soon at harvest time of the same year appeared that star known as Comet. And the next year came great hunger.

It’s interesting to note that this comet appeared sandwiched between two noteworthy events, the accession of a new king and a famine, and that the chronicler pretty clearly links it with the latter, not the former – it appeared at harvest time because it was a portent of something that was going to happen next harvest time. And that portent was a message for the country as a whole – not a warning aimed at a specific person, as the comet of 1066 would be interpreted (and as such celestial phenomena were classically interpreted in China, where they very much were seen as indicating the judgement of heaven on the performance of the then ruler).

An excerpt from the Mawangdui silk texts, excavated in Hunan in 1973 and dating to around 300BC. This portion shows the varying shapes of comet tails and the different disasters associated with them.

So, a comet was not considered a commentary on events that had already happened, whether they were good or bad; rather, each was a foreshadowing of events still to come. And a comet could have a message meant to be understood by a whole nation, as well as being a warning or a judgement on a single person. For this last reason, we are justified in assuming that the everyday Anglo-Saxon would have been just as interested in the appearance of a comet, and in what that appearance might tell him or her, as a king would be.

We then come to the comet of April 1066. Of course 1066 was a very important year, and it’s not surprising that the ASC offers substantially more detailed coverage of events for this year than it had for others. Still, we have to note that it was compiled retrospectively – so we’re not reading speculation about the appearance of a comet that portended … something, but rather a post-hoc interpretation of what the comet’s appearance actually did mean, based on full knowledge of what happened next:

And Easter was on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of May. Then it happened that all through England such a sight in the heavens was seen as no man had seen before. Some men said that it was the star Comet, that some men call the long-haired star; it appeared on the even of Letania Maior, that is the eighth day before the Kalend of May, and so shone for all seven nights.

Although the ASC does not say so explicitly, it seems fairly clear this mention of the comet is made because of what happened in England later in the same year – the Norse and Norman invasions and the death of King Harold. And it also seems the duration of its appearance – for all seven days of the run up to the Kalends of May – was (then or afterwards) interpreted as an indication of the relative importance of what was going to happen – the comet was seen throughout the period leading up to the Kalends, so it portended something really significant.

Reconstruction of Harold’s great victory over a Viking army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066.

As such, Halley’s comet appears to have been regarded as a very important omen of some very portentous happenings. But, of course, I myself am writing this in the full knowledge that it did indeed antedate a vastly important set of events – and it is possible, in fact, to glimpse a possible alternate meaning in the comet’s appearance in the skies. This is because the mention of the comet appears directly before a description of the appearance of Harold’s brother, Tostig, with a fleet off the Isle of Wight. Harold was able to deter a landing, and Tostig subsequently reappeared in the north of England in alliance with the King of Norway, leading an invasion force that the Saxons, under Harold, defeated at Stamford Bridge. Had events in 1066 developed differently, and had William never landed, or had the Saxons actually triumphed over him, it’s thus possible to imagine that our reading of the Chronicle might have changed, and that the comet might now be read as one that was considered by the Saxons to be an ill omen for Tostig, not for Harold.

The next description of a comet in the ASC comes from 1097, which was part way through the reign of the notoriously anti-clerical William Rufus. Again it consists of a fairly lengthy description of what was seen and when, but without any explicit commentary as to meaning:

Then after Michaelmas fourth day before the Nomen of October there appeared a rare star shining in the evening, and soon sinking into its setting. It was seen in the southwest, and the beam of light which stood out from it seemed very long, shining in the south east, nearly all week it appeared in this way. Many men supposed it was a comet.

However, the passage that follows on immediately from this one in the Chronicle gives us a pretty clear idea of what sort of bad omen the monk who wrote the passage thought this comet represented:

Soon after this, Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, obtained permission from the king, though against his inclination, to leave the country and go over the sea, because it seemed to him that in this nation little was done according to right, or after his desires.

This flight took place in October 1097 and marked the start of a four-year exile for Anselm, which was ended only by Rufus’s death. During those years, the king seized the revenues of Canterbury and there was no archbishop of Canterbury in England – both of which would have been considered fairly major calamities by the monks of the time.

Based on all this (and on further references to comets in the Chronicle that occur in the years 1106, 1110 and 1114), we can say with some certainty that the English, in common with many other people during this period, saw comets, knew that what they were seeing were comets, and that these were a distinct sort of celestial phenomenon, and that they recorded them quite specifically as portents of ill-omen.

Harold II, depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.

But that’s not quite the end of the story, because portents of all sorts have always been things that can be subjected to what we’d today call “spin” – they were as liable to be reinterpreted in ways that suited the dominant powers of the time as they were to be recorded as judgements on them. And this certainly happened in 1066, since the appearance of the comet was also noted on the Bayeux tapestry. Now, exactly what the tapestry says, what it means, who created it and even whether it is pro-Norman or pro-English is famously open to question. It’s fair to say, however, that the consensus is that the strong implication is given that the comet was a portent of ill-omen specifically for King Harold, who is presented as a faithless, oath-breaking king who deservedly loses his throne to Duke William. Indeed, as Lucien Musset points out,

the true purpose of the Tapestry has long been understood … it is clear that the central theme of the narrative is not the conquest of England… but the oath taken by King Harold on the relics contained in two caskets – an oath whose causes and circumstances are explained in detail… and whose eventual consequence was catastrophic defeat for the perjured Harold and his people at Hastings.

Cowdrey puts all this in context for us by observing that Harold is shown in the relevant panel of the tapestry sitting “in regality… but under the comet the emptiness of his power is manifest.” And Elizabeth Carson Pastan’s reassessment of the piece points out not only that the comet panel shows the “populace marvelling at a comet presaging his downfall” – implying that the concept of the comet-as-portent was widely understood and commonly applied during this period – but also that an attempt has been made to give the comet’s appearance added weight by fudging the question of precisely when it was seen. The tapestry places its appearance directly after Harold’s acclamation as king. In fact, Harold was crowned in January 1066, and the comet appeared in April. This rather fascinatingly suggests that the strength of a cometary portent was considered to be proportional to the directness of its association with events – that is, that the comet would have been considered a stronger portent of doom for Harold had it appeared at the time of his coronation than it would have been if it was seen mid-way through his short reign.

Of course, the Bayeux version of the story is also, potentially, capable of reinterpretation. It can be seen not only as presenting the comet as an ill-omen for Harold but also – implicitly at least – as a good omen for William. This same meaning is repeated in other continental sources relating to the Conquest. The most explicit appears in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, which actually moves the comet’s appearance to associate it directly with the Norman landing. The relevant passage reads:

And blazing from heaven the streaming hair of a comet proclaimed to the English foreordained destruction.

But, very similarly, William of Jumieges, who portrays Harold explicitly as a usurper (and indeed as a fratricide as well), not only suggests the comet was direct proof of God’s wrath at his presumption in seizing the English throne, but also suggests it had an explicitly predictive message. William is the only contemporary source to say as much, but he notes that the comet appeared with “a three-forked tail, remaining visible for fifteen days” – which, surely, is intended to be read as a prediction of 1066 as a year of three kings – Edward the Confessor, Harold, and William. And William adds a further note that suggests the appearance of such omens were the subject of common gossip at the time:

It portended, as many said, a change in some kingdom.

The discovery of the spear of destiny – the “Holy Lance,” the weapon supposedly used to pierce Christ’s side while he was on the cross – in Antioch, as a result of a vision of St Andrew, proved to be one of the key turning-points of the First Crusade.

We have added one further bit of information here that is worthy of comment – because the comet appeared in the distant skies, it was associated with heaven. This helps us to understand why comets and other celestial phenomena were considered especially important portents. But all of this can be placed in a broader context, too, of course, one which shows belief in cometary portents as only part of a much broader set of beliefs in miracles and other signs of the intentions and the activities of God – you might be interested in Lapina’s book on the various miracles and portents associated with the First Crusade. Similarly, Dutton has a useful discussion which tells us something about the reasons why cometary portents were seen as uncertain and debatable: he mentions the ninth century monk Lupus of Ferrières, who received a letter from a fellow ecclesiastic observing that “concerning the comets that have been seen, it would seem that there is more to dread than to discuss,” and who sent a reply noting that the Bible makes no reference to comets at all, although pagan authorities such as Virgil invariably saw them as fearful portents of pestilence, famine or war. This suggests that contemporary ecclesiastics felt they had no reliable, sanctioned means of interpreting the meanings of comets.

So, to summarise, and in conclusion: while it’s certainly possible to suggest that comets were generally understood as portents of ill-omen in 1066, it’s certainly also the case that fixed meanings were only attached to them some time after the fact. Dutton, again, has useful commentary on this: when Halley’s comet appeared in the sky in 837, during the reign of the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious, Louis

immediately called on one of his courtiers, the one popularly known to us as the Astronomer since, as he said of himself, he was reputed to know the stars. The Astronomer tried to buy some time, as even Louis realized, for a more cautious reading of the comet lest he rush to announce something precipitous and unfortunate. But Louis would not be put off, and so sent the Astronomer into an adjoining room (effectively, then, an observatory) to study the star that very night. The two of them had had such conversations before. “But I know,” said the Emperor (presumably of the tail of Halley’s), “that this is a sign of comets about which we have spoken before. Tell me what you think it portends!” Not what the comet was, but what would follow from it was Louis’s true concern.

When Halley’s comet appeared in April 1066, likewise, the people of England would have understood that something momentous was going to occur, but they would have had no idea what, exactly, would occur. It might have been another bad harvest. It might have been an epidemic, or some other natural calamity. It might have been a political or a military event. But while there may have been a few who suspected the comet’s message was aimed at King Harold, we have no evidence to suggest that the vast majority of Saxons, at this time, saw him as anything but a legitimate and duly consecrated monarch, nor any that the later Norman narrative of an oath-breaking usurper was circulating anywhere in England. For most Saxon observers, then – elites and common people alike – the question of what the comet portended would have been a matter for mere speculation prior to the events of October 1066.


H.E.J. Cowdrey, “Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry: a critical introduction,” in Gale R. Owen-Crocker (ed.), King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry (2005); Paul Edward Dutton, Charlemagne’s Mustache: And Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (2004); Elizabeth Lapina, Warfare and the Miraculous in the Chronicles of the First Crusade (2015); E.G. Mardon et al, “The eleven observations of comets between 678AD and 1114 AD recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” in Lunar & Planetary Institute, Asteroids, Comets and Meteors 1991 (1992); Lucien Musset, The Bayeux Tapestry (2002); Elizabeth Carson Pastan et al, The Bayeux Tapestry and Its Contexts: A Reassessment (2014).

The Jewel of Muscat is a reconstruction of a ninth century Arab long distance trading dhow, based on the evidence of the Belitung Wreck

Q: How did the sack of Guangzhou (Canton) in 879, at the end of the Tang dynasty, affect transoceanic trade between the Tang empire and Abbasid caliphate?

A: You’re asking about the sack of one of the most important cities in China, which took place in the middle of a rebellion that played a major part in shaping the history of the Middle Kingdom for several hundred years to come. So it’s unfortunate that the sources that survive for the events of 879 (not 878, as Wiki has it) are not only pretty meagre, but frequently contradictory.

For all these reasons, constructing a full answer worthy of this question is going to take some time – so I’ll start with the short version.

  • Guangzhou (which some readers will be more familiar with under another name, Canton, or possibly in the Wade-Giles version of its name, Kuang-chou) was an important trading city in this period, and it sat at one end of what was, for a time, a major maritime trading route running all the way to the Persian Gulf.

  • The port was large and wealthy for more than 100 years – until the massacre you mention, directly followed by the fall of the Tang dynasty and then the onset of a long period of civil war in China, severely curtailed the transoceanic trade and reduced Guangzhou to the status of a comparative backwater for several more centuries.

  • While it lasted, however, the trade between the Abbasid caliphate and Tang China was based largely on ceramics. We know this because large quantities of bowls, dishes and jars and have survived to be found on several important shipwrecks of the period, as well as in archaeological digs in what is now Iran. The trade did also feature other luxury goods such as silks, mirrors and Tibetan musk, but these aren’t always as durable, so we have less archaeological evidence to help us determine their relative importance.

  • Unlike the Europeans, whose later trading efforts were often stymied by lack of Chinese demand for western products, the Arab merchants of the Abbasid caliphate had plenty of luxury products of their own to trade. By exploiting the diverse riches of the many lands bordering the Indian Ocean, and ranging as far south as the gold port of Sofala, in what is now Mozambique, it seems that they were able to trade on more or less equal terms with the Tang.

  • As for the question of how Guangzhou survived and prospered despite experiencing several different sacks, I’d say that part of the answer was that these events took place across quite a few trading generations (there was more than a century between the two major disasters that you reference); part was that the normal run of maritime dangers in this period, which certainly include piracy, typhoons and shipwreck, would have loomed a lot larger in the minds of the merchants of the time than the occasional one-off massacre; and part was to do with the nature of the first of the two sacks of the city, which was probably the work of the merchants of Guangzhou themselves…

We’re not quite certain about this last point; accounts differ. All of which brings us on to…


Guangzhou stands on the Pearl River, above Hong Kong and Macau in one of the most important river deltas in Chinese history.

The two Chinese dynastic histories that cover the late Tang state were both compiled more than 200 years after the events they describe, and they contain little more than a passing mention of what happened at Guangzhou – which was then probably the largest port in southern China. Our main Arab source, in the meantime – which is where the estimates of six-figure deaths is drawn from – was compiled by a man who never left the Abbasid caliphate, so it’s probably best to begin this response with an acknowledgement that the figure of 120,000 deaths cannot be proven, and is almost certainly best understood (like most medieval figures of this sort) to mean simply that “a lot of people died.” Since the Chinese sources that we have offer no detailed discussion at all of what happened at Guangzhou, it wouldn’t even be safe to presume that the rebels specifically targeted foreign merchants. I’ll come back to this point later.

As for that Arabic source I mentioned, it is Accounts of China and India, a book of akhbar – a compilation of oral accounts, supposedly taken down verbatim but more likely polished by the compiler – set down in two distinct parts, about a century apart. The earlier portion that we are most interested in is traditionally attributed to Sulaymān al-Tājir (that is, “Sulaiman the Merchant”), though he was at most only one of a number of travellers who apparently contributed accounts to an anonymous compiler. Although there are quibbles about some of the material contained in this portion of the Accounts, internal evidence suggests that much of the book does rest solidly on material contributed by merchants who had travelled to China and who had ranged almost as far north as the Korean peninsula.

From the particular perspective of this question, however, we have to note one significant problem with the Arab sources: the material contributed by Abbasid travellers who we can be fairly confident had actually visited China dates to c.851, before the sack of Guangzhou. The information we have about the sack of the city itself comes from the second part of the Accounts, which was compiled in about 916 by an Arab geographer named Abu Zayd al-Hasan al-Sirafi. Abu Zayd, as his name indicates, came from the Gulf port of Siraf, at the western end of the sea route to China, but he never travelled to the east, and his portion of the book is less clearly sourced than the part usually attributed to Sulaymān al-Tājir. For this reason, and while there’s certainly no reason to write it off completely, the second part of the Accounts is usually considered less reliable than the first half of the book. I’d suggest we need to be very cautious of the figures that it offers, including that for the number of dead at Guangzhou.

9th century Chinese ceramic bowls retrieved from the Belitung Wreck.

With all this said, however, there’s no obvious reason to doubt that the foreign trade that passed through Guangzhou was pretty significant, nor that the sack of the city did not result in the deaths of a very high proportion of the foreign merchants who had based themselves there, and every reason to think that the commerce they were engaged in was important for both the caliphate and for China. Thanks in part to some recent archaeological advances, especially the discovery of several important shipwrecks, we know quite a bit more about this trade than we did even a couple of decades ago, so it is now possible to look in some detail not only at the ways in which merchants lived and worked in Guangzhou, and at what the city meant to the Tang state, but also at the fundamentals of the transoceanic trade itself.

Arab-Chinese trade in the ninth century

Trade between China and the lands to the west appears to date back to at least the era of the Han dynasty; the Arab name for Middle Kingdom, Al-Sin, is derived from the Qin dynasty under which the country was first unified in the third century BCE. But it flourished especially strongly in the ninth and tenth centuries CE, a period in which the Tang and Song devoted significant resources to promoting foreign trade, unlike many of the dynasties that would succeed them. There is considerable evidence not only that there was significant commercial contact between China and merchants from the Abbasid caliphate during this period, but also that the trade was considered valuable by the Chinese, quite a contrast to the ways in which the later Ming and Qing dynasties came to view such contacts. For example, while we know that at least 40 groups of Arab envoys travelled to China between 651 and 798, we also read that several Chinese delegations were dispatched to the Abbasids in the tenth century. These envoys were sent, ostensibly, to solicit tribute, but it seems clear, reading between the lines of the various imperial edicts, that their true purpose was to encourage trade.

Two main trade routes existed during the Tang dynasty – one overland, via central Asia, and the other maritime. The Tang and the Abbasids were both expanding for much of this period, and, as is well known, their respective spheres of influence eventually butted up against each other and resulted in Abbasid victory at the Battle of Talas, to the south-east of the Aral Sea, in 751. The outcome of this battle helped to determine that Muslim powers would dominate in central Asia for centuries to come, but there is little evidence it interfered much with trade. The overland route continued to be used until 755, when the devastating An Lushan rebellion, combined with the rise of the Tibetan empire, introduced barriers that more or less halted land-based commerce between China and the Middle East. From then on, trade went by sea, via what was the longest sea route in regular use before Europeans began to trade with India round Africa in the 1400s. We know that a maritime route that stretched from the Persian Gulf to the ports of southern China existed at least as early as the 760s, since Du Huan, one of the prisoners taken by the Arabs at the Battle of Talas, was released and travelled to Guangzhou by sea in 762.

Tang-era Chinese cavalry, from the walls of a tomb near the Tang capital, Chang’an.

The account that he wrote of his time as a prisoner of war – the Jiangxinghji, or Travel Record – which survives today only in a small number of fragments, is the earliest first-hand account of the Islamic world by a Chinese writer, and Meng Wei points out that the material that survives from it “demonstrates remarkably accurate and rich knowledge.” Nonetheless, the sea route was not much travelled until the latter part of the eighth century; a biographical note on Li Mian, who was viceroy of Lingnan in 769, notes that only five or six Arab ships a year called at Guangzhou at that time. Thanks in large part to Li Mian’s honesty and fair-dealing, however – the same account contends – the total number of Abbasid vessels visiting China during his period in office eventually totalled 4,000.

Much of the best evidence that we have for maritime trade in this period comes not from written records but from the archaeology of several shipwrecks that have been excavated since c.1990. From our perspective, the most important of these is the early ninth century Belitung Wreck, discovered in 1998 off the coast of Sumatra. The wreck is of an ocean-going Arab dhow, made from sewn planks, which had been carrying a cargo that included as many as 60,000 pieces of Chinese ceramics, one of which was inscribed with a date in 826. This dates the wreck to c.830, and it’s evidence of a direct trade between Chinese ports and the Abbasid caliphate – though, thus far, it remains a mystery as to why the ship sank something like 380 miles south of the normal sea-route that connected Siraf to Guangzhou.

A glazed stoneware ewer thought to have originated in Henan province before 850 was among the items found on the Belitung Wreck.

Meanwhile the discovery of a second ship, the Intan Wreck, a few years later, offers an insight into the changes that happened as a result of the sack of Guangzhou. The location and the cargo of this c.920 wreck suggests that it was an Indonesian ship engaged in trade with the Srivijaya Empire in Sumatra, an entrepôt whose rise coincided with the decline of the Chinese port. The wreck tells us a good deal about the variety of goods, including Chinese exports, available in Srivijaya ports at this time, and helps to confirm textual sources that tell us many Muslim merchants preferred not to make the long and dangerous voyage all the way north to China in the tenth century, instead picking up the ceramics they coveted after they had been shipped south as far as Indonesia. But this change in trade routes does not seem to have limited the opportunities to pick up a wide variety of valuable goods. In fact, the Intan wreck disgorged a smaller overall number, but a much wider variety, of artefacts than the Belitung vessel, including tiger bones and elephant teeth. The rest of the cargo comprised

ceramics, silver ingots, mirrors, and ironware from China; tin ingots and currency from the Malay peninsula, pasteware and bottles from Thailand, and glass and amphorae from the Middle East

and confirms that a thriving maritime trade linking ports in Africa and Persia to the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia and China was still in existence at this date, about a half-century into the decline of Guangzhou – albeit one that probably no longer featured long voyages made direct from the Abbasid caliphate to China.

The port and fanfang of Guangzhou

Guangzhou had existed for well over 500 years by the time the city reached its early zenith, but it’s important to recognise that – while you can look at maps showing the borders of Tang China and see the whole of the coast shaded south all the way to Vietnam – the inland areas that surrounded it had by no means been fully integrated into the empire by this date. It’s safer to see the port as a remote, exotic outpost, which the Tang wrote of as located somewhere in the “land beyond the mountains” (the ranges north of Guangdong). Early biographical directories compiled by Chinese scholars list few people who came from the far south, and almost all of those who did appear were either state functionaries or local “chieftains” who had proved themselves loyal to the empire. “Outside Guangzhou,” notes David Faure, “was a no-man’s land dominated by local powers that few in Guangzhou understood or wanted to understand.”

A Han-era work, the Account of Strange Things, had been written to describe the wonders of the far south, which included

rice that ripened twice a year, birds that moved their nests lower down the tree as their eggs hatched, peacocks, the delicious lichee fruit, betel nuts, coconuts, and human beings whose ears stuck to their faces before dividing into several pieces drooping down to their shoulders.

This book was later supplemented by the Tang’s Records of Strange Things Beyond the Mountains, which mentioned deadly mists that swept down from the mountains and rebels, driven down from the north, who had fled into the sea and lived in houses made of shells. Guangzhou even had its own book of marvels in the Tang period, Dai Fu’s Strange Things of Guangzhou, which discussed a half-human race, the shanxiao, who supposedly lived in the hinterlands, squatting in trees and demanding payments from passers-by.

Communication with the main centres of Tang power was via the inland “Dayuling pathway,” opened up on the orders of the Emperor Xuanzong in 716, or by sea. The city did house a small army garrison, whose main duty was to keep the peace among the local aboriginal peoples, and it was also a centre of Buddhism that supported several important monasteries. Nonetheless, according to Faure, Guangzhou existed almost entirely to funnel luxury goods (whether sourced locally or imported) to the emperor and the great clans who clustered around the imperial court:

The [Tang] prefect’s reputation seems to have rested on his ability to quell the barbarian tribes that inhabited the vast unknown beyond the city. Taxes from Guangzhou probably were insufficient to pay the troops, but that does not seem to have mattered, as long as the rarities of the south were dispatched north to the imperial court. Guangzhou was an outpost where Arabs traded with aborigines under the military protection of the Chinese imperial state.

Simply reaching Guangzhou, however distant an outpost it was for the Tang, was a substantial achievement for the seafarers of the ninth century. The journey from the great Abbasid port of Siraf, in the Persian Gulf, to Guangzhou, via Kulam Mali in India and the lost city known as Kalah Bar on the Malay peninsula, involved about 90 days at sea, and took six months in total to complete, including time in port. The seagoing dhows that took part in it benefitted from the trade winds of the Indian Ocean – which, thanks to the annual monsoon, blew from east to west consistently in one season, before reversing themselves to blow from west to east.

The borders of Tang China. Control of the large westward node was required to secure commerce on the Silk Road.

Remote though Guangzhou was, however, it was a major entrepôt during this period, and according to the Accounts it had “twenty lesser cities under it.” The Buddhist monk Jianzhen, who visited during the eighth century, described it as crowded with large ships from Borneo, Java and Persia, carrying spices and pearls and jade “piled up mountain high.” From other sources we know that Sinhalese sailors from Sri Lanka, traders from the Malay peninsula, and ships from Japan were regular visitors to the port alongside Arabs and Persians. There is also a tradition, reported by the Jesuit missionary-scholar Matteo Ricci in 1605, that Jewish merchants were active in the city from 800. Guangzhou may well have been the most cosmopolitan city on earth during the ninth century.

The Accounts of China and India contains some fairly detailed description of the general condition of Chinese cities. They were plagued by frequent fires, we’re told, “because their houses there are built of wood and split bamboo.” But the inhabitants were prepared for this possibility: “The doorways of their houses have no thresholds, because their goods and treasures and all their possessions are kept in chests mounted on wheels, so they can be moved about. If fire breaks out, these chests and their contents can be pushed to safety, with no threshold to impede their swift exit.”

The merchants of Guanzhong, meanwhile, lived in their own quarter, or fanfang (fan = non-Han or foreigners, while fang = a residential area). The fanfang was certainly in existence by 835 and it appears to have grown significantly thereafter. By the 870s it housed a considerable community, comprising not only merchants and envoys, but also sailors, soldiers and refugees.

As to how the inhabitants of the fanfang lived: Tang law was clear that foreign merchants should live in their own communities, elect their own leaders, live according to their own customs, and – in cases of trouble – “be tried and sentenced using their own laws.” This meant that the fanfang grew up to the west of the city walls and formed a socially as well as a geographically distinct community. It had its own leader, known as the fanzhang, who combined a religious role as head of the local Muslim umma, or community, and what Wei describes as “a legitimate community authority, endorsed by the state.” The holder of this role was apparently elected by the fanfang as a whole, though their nominee required the emperor’s approval before he could take office and was also required to wear Chinese dress.

Minaret of the Huaisheng Mosque in Guanghzhou, photographed in 1873.

All this suggests, of course, that the fanfang was religiously as well as geographically and ethnically distinct, and it certainly had its own mosques and its own imams from an early period. One of the earliest Arab embassies to China is said to have been led by Mohammed’s uncle, Sa’d ibn Abbi Waqqas (c.584-664), who reached the Tang court during the time of Gaozu, the founder of the Tang dynasty, who reigned from 618-626. Gaozu welcomed the delegation and given orders permitting a mosque – the Huaisheng Mosque – to be erected in Guangzhou to serve the merchant community in the port.

The port area of Guangzhou was pretty large by the end of the ninth century. Faure notes that that fanfangwas probably several times the size of the Chinese portion of Guangzhou: “the Tang walled city was tiny,” he says, and though it probably did house the residence of the local prefect, the chief justice and the city’s eunuch chief of finance, the tuqam, the other major Chinese official, the maritime trade commissioner (shibo si, a post established in 763), probably lived outside the Tang walls in the port area itself.

Leslie makes the point that, while most foreigners who settled in China in this period quite quickly adopted Chinese customs, married into local families, and adopted Chinese names and customs, the same does not seem to be true of the Guangzhou Arabs, who apparently kept their own names and customs. This suggests a community large enough to be self-sustaining, and also one in which links to home communities remained strong, though this certainly should not be taken to mean that Arab traders did not live in the city for long enough to think of it as home, or that intermarriage never happened. Certainly Lu Jun, who was prefect of the city shortly before its sack, was concerned by the frequency with which Arab merchants formed relationships with Chinese women. According to one of the two Tang histories, the Jiu Tang shi, one of the local Maritime Trade Commissioners living in the city wrote that

First the locals and foreigners live together, then they marry each other. Sometimes the officials try to stop them. Somehow they seem to attract each other. When Jun came to the job, he established rules that Chinese and foreigners should live separately, and they shouldn’t marry. Foreigners shouldn’t buy land and build houses.

Examination of the surviving contents of contemporary wrecks suggests that porcelain was almost certainly the most important commodity traded between China and the Abbasid caliphate, but Accounts of China and India mentions other sorts of cargo, which would not have withstood centuries of immersion nearly so well: silk is one, and musk is also mentioned. The Chinese, meanwhile, were importing camphor together with

ivory, frankincense and copper ingots, as well as dhabl from the sea [tortoiseshell] and the bushan[rhinoceros horn].

They were also, arguably, expanding their own efforts to trade along the same sea routes, rather than leave the profits of the trade to the Arabs. Chinese trade with the west was underway by 785. There are records that suggest that Chinese merchants may have traded in Cairo during this period (an idea that raises eyebrows among more conservative historians), and in 863 the Tang poet and administrator Duan Chengshi published an account of voyages made by Chinese junks in search of ivory and ambergris to places as distant as Somalia – all undertaken nearly 600 years before the much better-known journeys of the eunuch admiral Zheng He.

Trade routes of the Abbasid caliphate.

For the most part, the Accounts assure us, trade in Guangzhou was very well-regulated. The shibo si required foreign captains to register at his office when they arrived in port, and he and his men inspected their manifests, collected export duty and freight charges, and policed attempts to export forbidden rarities. The same authorities were also responsible for maintaining the shoushi, or imperial monopoly on specified categories of luxury goods, and administering the jinfeng, or exchange of gifts, all of which had to be completed before trading could begin. Finally, they levied the very high 30 percent duty in imports, taken in kind from the cargoes that were landed at the port, and a sales tax of an additional 5 percent, the latter designed in part to pay the maintenance costs of the army garrison.

In exchange for all this, the Tang authorities ensured that the goods were securely warehoused and their owners were indemnified against breakage or loss. No trading was permitted until all the vessels in a fleet had arrived. It’s possible to interpret this last piece of information in a couple of ways – as an example of Chinese fair dealing, which ensured all the merchants in a party had an equal opportunity to buy and sell, or, as George Hourani suggests, as a piece of legislation designed to benefit the Tang, since it made it more likely that the local markets would be flooded with goods before trading began, reducing prices. Whatever the truth, the only person with special rights was the emperor or his representative, but “he gives the very highest price and pays immediately, so he does no harm to the merchants.”

Page from the Jiu Tang shu (Old Book of Tang).

Relations between the Chinese and members of the foreign merchant community were not always friendly, however. The “pirate raid” of 758 that you mention is variously explained. Suleyman’s account paints it as the work of Arab and Persian pirates based on the island of Hainan. On the other hand, the Jiu Tang shu suggests that it involved not an attack from the sea, but a rising by members of Guangzhou’s Muslim merchant community, who for unstated reasons (Wei suggests anger at the exorbitant taxes levied on imports) apparently escalated a dispute with local imperial officials into a sack of the city so severe that it reduced the port to backwater status for at least four decades. It seems likely that the latter account is to be preferred, since Howard points out that, in the aftermath of the violence, the Tang ordered that the port be closed to foreign trade, and that it remained closed until early in the ninth century – which would seem a harsh judgement if the damage had been caused by pirates. If Arab merchants were in fact responsible for this devastation, moreover, that would at answer your question as to why they were willing to return to Guangzhou and resume trading there when the port reopened after 800.

Much of the trade that had flowed into the Pearl River was shifted south to Tống Bình (Hanoi) in the years that followed the sack and massacre of 879, and Abu Zayd, the compiler of the Accounts of China and India,writes that “the trading voyages to China were abandoned, and the country itself was ruined, leaving all traces of its greatness gone.” Most of the remaining trade with the west moved to Quanzhou, a port the Muslims knew as “Zaytun” – which is in Fujien, further to the north in the Taiwan Strait. This was the major Chinese port mentioned by both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.

To understand how that happened, we need to look next at the internal politics of Tang China, and especially at the events that led up to the sack of Guangzhou, which revolve around one of the largest and most devastating wars recorded in the long history of rebellion in China.

The Huang Chou rebellion

The uprising that resulted in the sack of Guangzhou was a peasant rebellion led by a southerner named Huang Chou and was caused, according to Adam Fong, by a combination of increasingly bad and corrupt government, and a series of devastatingly bad harvests that occurred during the early 870s. The ensuing revolt lasted for ten years (874-884), and, at least according to the main dynastic histories of the Tang, involved several hundred thousand rebels – making it one of the largest, longest-lasting and most significant such uprisings in the whole of the history of China.

Reimagining of the Huang Chou rebellion

We possess only a few scraps of information about Huang Chou’s background, but the details that we have are certainly suggestive. Both Tang dynastic histories state that came from a merchant family that had been engaged in the salt trade for several generations, though one of them adds that he was also a disgruntled failed candidate in the imperial civil service exams – which opens the intriguing possibility that he may have had a rather similar background to the much later rebel Hong Xiuquan, the well-known leader of the mid-nineteenth century Taiping Rebellion. More importantly, however, Huang Chou’s profession of salt merchant brought him into conflict with a government that claimed a monopoly on salt production, and already raised more than 50% of its revenues by controlling production and adding so much tax to the price of the commodity that it became almost unaffordable to the average Chinese. This probably explains why one Tang history states that Huang Chou embarked on a career as a smuggler – which in turn, it would appear, brought him into conflict with Tang officials who saw him as an outlaw, and was the proximate cause of his decision to rebel.

The Tang’s control over the more distant provinces in their empire had so weakened by this point that there were already plenty of bandits and disgruntled peasants willing to fight for a charismatic and successful leaders. Huang Chao began his rebellion as only one of a number of commanders in a loose rebel alliance, but, after the death of his superior Wang Xianzhi, who was killed in battle with Tang forces in 878, he was able to unite the various factions into an effective army and have himself accepted as its “Heaven-Storming Generalissimo”.

Map showing the peregrinations of Huang Chow and his rebel army – Guangzhou marks the rebels’ “furthest south”. Click to view in higher resolution.

Huang Chou and his men arrived outside the walls of Guangzhou in 878, having apparently been forced south by the actions of imperial armies to the north. Neither of the Tang histories tell us much about the events that followed beyond the mere fact that the city fell to him – “merchants were not that important to society,” Fong argues, so “their mass slaughter in a remote city was not deemed important enough to be added to the dynastic histories.” Other than that, we are forced to turn to Arabic sources for more details. The Accounts of China and India states that

at first the citizens … held out against him, but he subjected them to a long siege … until, at last, he too the city and put its people to the sword. Experts on Chinese affairs reported that the number of Muslims, Jews, Christians and Magians [Zoroastrians] massacred by him, quite apart from the native Chinese, was 120,000.

The same account adds that “the only reason the number of victims from these four communities happens to be known is that the Chinese had kept records of their numbers.” This is an interesting bit of commentary; read carefully, it suggests that the Chinese bureaucracy listed 120,000 foreign merchants in the city before the siege (“had kept records”) rather than counted 120,000 corpses after it. Since we know that at least some of the merchants in the fanfang survived the massacre, we can be pretty certain that the total number of dead was below the 120,000 figure, that at least some of them were Chinese – and that since Abu Zayd gives us no more detail as to how the figure was obtained or made its way to him in Persia, we’re probably right to be quite sceptical of it; the Chinese historian Chao Zongchen suggests the real total may have been as little as 10,000. Nonetheless, there’s little reason to doubt that Huang Chao’s men did a huge amount of damage, and it’s more than likely that a high proportion of the local merchant community was killed.

What’s a lot less certain is what exactly the rebels were hoping to achieve by attacking Guangzhou. There are two broad schools of thought in this respect. It’s very possible to argue that Huang Chao was eager to wreak general havoc, both to punish the Tang (who, according to one of the dynastic histories, had rebuffed his attempts to negotiate a favourable surrender, refused the request-cum-threat that he’d sent them suggesting that he be named prefect of the city, and offered him an insultingly lesser post instead), as well as to reward his men with the rich plunder available within Guangzhou’s fanfang. On the other hand, several authors, such as Wright and Risso, have suggested that the massacre may have been specifically directed against the immigrant community, and was the product of Chinese resentment at the economic clout enjoyed by Arab and Persian merchants.

Guangzhou ceramics found on the seabed in the Belitung wreck.

My own view is that there’s little real evidence that Huang Chao intended to destroy the fanfang alone, rather than do more general damage to Guangzhou as a whole. We know that at least some of the foreign merchants there survived the sack of the merchant quarter, and that these men, rather than being rounded up and executed, were simply expelled from China. Nor was Huang Chou’s anger solely directed at foreign merchants; he also devastated the city’s hinterlands and destroyed the valuable cocoons that underpinned the local silk trade. Whatever his motives, the damage he and his men did was irreparable, at least in the short term. The Jiu Tang shu cites an official named Yu Qiong as complaining that

the southern sea contains the profits of the maritime trade, offering pearls and jewels annually. Now the wicked thieves took it. The national treasury will be vanishing gradually.

We can wrap up the remainder of the story fairly briefly. At the height of Huang Chou’s revolt, in 881, he captured and sacked the imperial capital, Chang’an, then had himself proclaimed as “Emperor of Great Qi”. The rebels then held the largely ruined city for two years. Huang Chao’s great mistake, almost certainly, was to sacrifice the mobility that had made him such a threat to the Tang; by staying in Chang’an, he allowed the ruling emperor, who had fled to Sichuan, to mobilise several armies against him and also call in Kirghiz troops from the Turkic west.

Huang Chou and his supporters were expelled from what was left of the capital – temporarily in 882, and permanently in 883. Depending on which dynastic history you favour, Huang Chou either committed suicide, or was killed by a nephew, soon afterwards, and what was left of his rebellion collapsed. At its height, nonetheless, he had controlled a significant part of China, and the damage done by the uprising is usually cited as one of the key factors behind the decline of the late Tang state, which collapsed only a few years later in 907. Chang’an never recovered, and in fact the great city – which had once been four times the size of Rome – fell into such decay that it disappeared altogether and reverted to farmland. The poet Wei Chuang records the desolation left behind by the rebels, and it is worth giving a few lines here, as it also offers us some insight into what happened at Guangzhou:

Chang’an lies in mournful stillness: what does it now contain?

Ruined markets and desolate streets, in which ears of wheat are sprouting.

Fuel-gatherers have hacked down every flowering plant in the Apricot Gardens.

Builders of barricades have destroyed the willows along the Imperial Canal.

All the gaily-coloured chariots with their ornamental wheels are scattered and gone,

Of the stately mansions with their vermilion gates less than half remain.

The Hanyuan Hall is the haunt of foxes and hares…

Only a dreary waste meets the eye; the old familiar objects are no more.


Half a century of further conflict then ensued in China – a period dominated by warlords ruling over what are known as the Five Dynasties – and the Song state that emerged after 960, and which lasted until the Mongol invasions of the 1270s, neither controlled as much territory as the Tang, nor had as much contact with the west.

Emperor Taizu, founder of the Song dynasty

The area surrounding Guangzhou split off from the Chinese state after the collapse of the Tang and called itself the kingdom of Nan Han (= “Southern Han”). It retained its independence for three generations, funded in part by a revival of foreign trade and the riches of the pearl fisheries around Guangzhou. The ruling dynasty became noted for its extraordinary cruelty and its extraordinary wealth, and its rule was supported by the remnants of the indigenous gentry who had emerged during the Tang dynasty and survived the massacres of 879. The Southern Han state was not reintegrated into the imperial polity to the north until the reign of the Song emperor Taizu (960-976).

From what little we know about the history of Guangzhou in the aftermath of Huang Chou’s rebellion, it seems that the city failed to recover from its sacking for several centuries to come. Zeng Yanwen notes a widespread culture of corruption, which had already begun to drive foreign traders to move to the rival port of Quanzhou even before 879. (“It was well known that posting in Guangzhou led immediately to great wealth,” Faure confirms.) This, combined with the devastation wreaked by the rebel troops, meant that Guangzhou had been relegated to the status of a second-class port by the time trade revived under the Song dynasty. It took several more centuries for the town that had once been one of the great symbols of the system of transoceanic trade to revive.


Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1991); David Faure, Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China (2007); Adam Fong, “Ending an era: the Huang Chao Rebellion of the Late Tang, 874-884,” East-West Working Papers 26 (2006); Heng Chye Kiang, Cities of Aristocrats and Bureaucrats: The Development of Medieval Chinese Cityscapes (1999); George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times (1951); Michael C. Howard, Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel (2012); Donald Leslie, The Integration of Religious Minorities in China: the Case of Chinese Muslims (1998); Donald Leslie, The Survival of the Chinese Jews: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng (1972); Xiaobing Li, China At War: An Encyclopedia (2012); Patricia A. Risso, Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean (1995); Harold M. Tanner, China: A History (2009); Meng Wei, “The Advent of Islam in China: Guangzhou Fanfang during the Tang-Song Era,” (unpublished Washington University in St Louis MA thesis, 2010); David Wright, The History of China (2001); Dennis C. Twitchett (ed.), The Cambridge History of China vol.3 part 1: Sui and T’ang China, 589–906 AD (1979); Victor Cunrui Xiong, Historical Dictionary of Medieval China (2008); Zheng Yangwen, China on the Sea: How the Maritime World Shaped Modern China (2011); Abu Zayd al-Sirafi, Accounts of China and India (trans. Tim Mackintosh-Smith) (2017).

Q: I was reading about the history of the stapler and found that the first stapler was made for King Louis XV. “The ornate staples it used were forged from gold, encrusted with precious stones, and bore his Royal Court’s insignia.” Is this true? Does the stapler still exist?

A: Fascinating question, not least because a moment’s thought suggests that the type of staples you’re describing would be pretty useless for any stationery-related purposes – gold is a soft metal and encrustations of “precious stones” would be an obstacle to any attempt to neatly collate paper.

Stapler king Jack Linsky (left) shows Keith Funston, president of the New York Stock Exchange, his “Louis XV stapler” in the winter of 1961-62.

A few checks reveal that this story has been pinging around online since the turn of the millennium on sites such as Mental Floss, almost always accompanied by the rather worrying prefix “legend has it”. But in fact the story does antedate the internet; the earliest version I have found – which is, importantly, stripped of all mention of royal insignia, gold staples and precious stones – actually appeared in Investor’s Reader, published by Merrill Lynch, in 1962. The reference appears in the “Business at work” feature of the 3 January 1962 issue of Investor’s Reader. This contains a three page section on the Swingline company (formerly the Parrot Speed Fastener Co.), of Queens, NY, which noted that founder and chairman “Jack [Linsky] showed NYSE prexy [president] Keith Funston the original stapler developed by Louis XV and its streamlined replacement…”, but unfortunately absolutely no more detailed description of the device. It does however run a photo of Linsky holding the object, albeit at too small a size for us to be very certain exactly what the “stapler” actually was or was supposed to do.

All this is interesting not least because Jack Linsky was the man who invented the modern stapler, creating the adhesive that is used to fasten lines of staples together so they can be loaded into a magazine. He emerges from histories of the staple as a man who took a serious interest in the history of the device, and I think it’s almost certain that the story of Louis XV’s “stapler” was first disseminated by him.

The reality, though, was that nothing created in this early period really matches the modern description of a stapler, and the detail that Louis’s staples were jewel-encrusted and made of gold does not appear until the very end of the 20th century. Moreover, Linsky plainly had good reason to re-label early paper-fastening devices – and especially devices produced under the patronage of a royal court – as “staplers” when they were really nothing of the sort, since this dignified his own business with a long and royal history.

Louis XV –inventor of the stapler (maybe).

From the scant information available, it appears that there are two broad possibilities. One, mentioned by an Italian industrial design website, is that the machine was actually “a tool that uses decorated pins, with which the king imprints the royal seal”. The other is that the “staples” used at Louis XV’s court were a type of paper fastener, used to secure papers in place of the sealing wax or tape or string then used. This would mean that the device described by Linsky was in effect some sort of binding machine, perhaps more accurately imagined as a distant precursor of the modern saddle-stitch binder, which would have been used to pierce the papers and insert a metal fastening and bend or twist it so it secured the papers.

The practicality of such a device would have been dubious, as it was not until the development of steel wire in the second half of the 19th century that a wire with the correct combination of softness and durability to be useful in fastening and binding papers was developed. This suggests that the Italian description is probably more accurate – though, if so, we’d be looking at something not unlike a Braille embosser that functioned in the same way as a stapler (insert paper, press down, use metal spikes to make holes in paper) rather than a device having the same purpose as a stapler. That is, it would not be any sort of paper fastener. My – inexpert – feeling is that the shape of the object displayed by Linsky in *Investor’s Reader* supports the idea it was designed to emboss a royal seal onto paper using a pattern of pins.

Lipman’s improved eyelet machine (c.1868).

Unfortunately, despite the investment of some time and effort, I have not yet been able to trace any mention of the original machine referenced by Linsky in more general sources relating to the history of paper fastening technology or the court of Louis XV – very probably because such sources refer to the device by its unknown proper name.  But, in the meantime, we can note that modern staples of the sort that are dispensed by machine date only to the 1840s, with the invention of devices such as Samuel Slocum’s “Machine for sticking pins into papers” (1841) and Lipman’s Improved Eyelet Machine (c.1868), a form of modified rivet for use by clothing manufacturers. The word “stapler” dates only to the 1880s; it first appeared in The American Bookseller of 2 June 1884 to describe a new type of “novelty paper fastener”.

And the humble staple was a successful enough innovation to make Linsky rich. A New York Times profile of him notes that

“He and his wife, Belle, were philanthropists and art collectors who once owned one of the largest collections of Fabergé eggs in America. Jack died in 1980, and in 1982 Belle donated a collection of the couple’s European art, then worth $60 million, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

The Linsky Art Collection – which, perhaps not coincidentally, is quite heavily focused on pieces created during the reign of Louis XV – is now an important feature of the Met. It seems to me quite possible that the device used in France in Louis XV’s time, and which was once part of the Linsky collection, still survives somewhere as well – although, having reviewed the Met’s catalogue, it appears it was not one of the items transferred to that museum by Belle Linsky.

More when I have it. But for now I think it’s reasonably safe to conclude that the basic story originated with Linsky and that the accoutrements – not least the jewel-encrusted staples – are just inventions added by imaginative writers to make the story more interesting around 2000. So, the device you are interested in was almost certainly not a stapler and did not dispense gold staples, jewel-encrusted staples, staples imprinted with the royal insignia, or any combination of the three.

Note: my thanks to the staff at the Library of Congress for tracking down and sending me a copy of Investor’s Reader for 3 January 1962.

Traditional view of the spread of the Black Death from plague foci in China. Note the absence of evidence for outbreaks anywhere in central Asia during this period.

Q: Why can’t I find very much information about the 14th Century black death in Asia?

A: You’re asking about an extremely important but remarkably neglected problem – and it’s one that also happens to have remarkably large implications.

It’s important because it asks about what happened to a large proportion of the world’s population in the fourteenth century. It’s neglected because there are major problems with sources, and because the vast majority of research into the Black Death has, historically, been done by Europeans who are chiefly interested in the pandemic’s impact on Europe. And it has substantial implications not only because it involves our understanding of the course of the lives and deaths of hundreds of millions of people, but also because it impacts on our understanding of the basic mechanics of how plague spread.

The short answer to your question, though, is that while historians did long assume that the Black Death began its journey in China, the modern consensus is that it did not. The most recent studies, dating to the last dozen or so years, place its original focus somewhere in the region of the west banks of the Caspian Sea, and the majority of those authorities, led by Ole Benedictow, the author of The Black Death 1346-1353: the Complete History, now prefer the idea that the pandemic had its origins in about 1345 in the lands controlled by the Golden Horde. While there is no doubt, moreover, that the disease reached and devastated the lands of the Middle East, it’s now believed to be very much open to question whether it ever reached what were then the world’s two most heavily-populated regions, India and China.

Plague specialist Ole Benedictow, an emeritus professor at the University of Oslo.

Benedictow is backed up by a recent revisionist paper, published in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, in which George Sussman summarises the available evidence for the pandemic’s impact on China and India, combining a re-examination of contemporary primary sources with a close look at what is known of the pathology of the plague bacteria itself, and concludes that evidence for an east Asian origin for the Black Death is seriously lacking. Sussman’s ideas, in turn, have received support from bacteriologists studying the disease, most notably in a paper by Spyrou et al which appeared in Cell Host and Microbe in 2016 and argued that study of the DNA evidence supports a reversal of our usual ideas about the transmission of the plague bacterium – that is, that it actually travelled from Europe to Asia, and not the other way around. The team behind this paper says that their research “provides support for (1) a single entry of Y. pestis in Europe during the Black Death, [and] (2) a wave of plague that traveled toward Asia to later become the source population for contemporary worldwide epidemics.”

So there are growing doubts as to whether the Black Death originated in China, as mainstream narratives have had it for several generations, and hence still active debates as to how exactly the pandemic was experienced in Asia as a whole. In order to assess the evidence for and against this new hypothesis, we need to look at a couple of key themes, which can be conveniently grouped under three main headings: why earlier authorities favoured an origin in east Asia; what evidence there is for any sort of plague pandemic in either China or India during the fourteenth century; and what our current understanding of the origins of such pandemics can do to inform this discussion – which in turn requires us to think about the the concept of plague foci, or hot spots.

Let’s take these issues one by one.

The mainstream view – a plague with origins in Asia

Historians of the Black Death have long argued that the pandemic had its origins in east Asia, probably in a region in the northernmost reaches of imperial China or in the adjacent steppe-lands.

Typically, the evidence presented in support of this idea includes some or all of the following:

The Plague of Justinian – which caused a major demographic crisis in the Mediterranean between 541 and 544, lingered in the region for centuries afterwards and has been blamed, at least in part, for the near-collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire in the poorly-chronicled seventh century.

• China is known to be a major plague focus, by which is meant an area in which the disease is endemic among rodents, and from which it occasionally erupts to cause pandemics among humans elsewhere in the world. Specifically, the argument goes as follows: there have been three global bubonic plague pandemics – the first was almost certainly the Plague of Justinian, in the sixth century; the second was the Black Death; and the third began in Hong Kong in 1894 and spread from there. Since China was certainly the area from which the third pandemic spread, and since plague foci are believed to endure for very long periods of time, it’s credible it also provided the focus for the Black Death.

Quite of lot of plague literature seems content to leap to such assumptions without subjecting the evidence to much of a critical enquiry. For example, William McNeill’s influential Plagues and People (1976) merely states that it’s “impossible to believe that the plague did not affect China, India, and the Middle East,” without actually examining the evidence – or lack of evidence – that it did so.

• It’s possible to back this idea up by appealing to contemporary sources. European chroniclers of the fourteenth century did believe that the pestilence that had exploded in their territories came originally from the distant, unknowable east. The writer most usually cited here is Gabriele de’ Mussis, an Italian lawyer whose Historia de Morbois one of the most detailed and well-respected histories of the Black Death. His chronicle includes a long list of the places where there was “weeping and lamenting” as a result of the passage of the plague, and this list includes China, India and Persia. De’ Mussis also says that

In the East, in Cathay, which is the greatest country in the world, horrible and terrifying signs appeared. Serpents and toads fell in a thick rain, entered dwellings and devoured numberless people, injecting them with poison and gnawing them with their teeth. In the South, in the Indies, earthquakes cast down whole towns and cities were consumed by fire from heaven. The hot fumes of the fire burnt up infinite numbers of people, and in some places it rained blood, and stones fell from the sky.

Of course we have no real idea where De’ Mussis got this idea from, and whether it has any basis in anything more solid than contemporary speculation, which, after all, took place in an area thousands of miles away from the area where the Black Death supposedly originated. One of the points that Benedictow draws attention to in his book is the conversion of the Golden Horde, or Kipchak Khanate, to Islam in 1313, and the impact that this may have had on east-west trade. Although Peter Jackson argues to the contrary – his The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410 posits that there was a golden age of trans-Asian trade that lasted from 1320 until 1345, precisely the period in which plague would most likely have been travelling west if the Asian origin theory is correct – Sussman tends to concur with Benedictow that it is much more likely it was badly disrupted, and that this disruption would have fatally impeded the transit of the Black Death across the Asian steppe. Sussman points out that the Golden Horde was not the only Mongol state to embrace Islam; both the Ilkhanate (c.1295) and the Chagatai khanate (after c.1330) also converted, creating a substantial barrier to trade that probably did result in the severe disruption of travel across Asia in the crucial years before 1345. Since the Horde was actually at war with the Genoese and Venetians by that latter year – these were the “Mongols” whose siege of Caffa is generally seen as the starting point for the journey of the Black Death west – we therefore at least need to question how readily a pandemic that originated in China could have made the leap to Europe.

Benedictow’s conclusion is that

It must be considered highly unlikely that plague could have been passed on by trade and travel from China to the Italians in the Crimea. No merchants in their senses would risk precious goods and expensive and dangerous transport over thousands of kilometres to the Christian Italian merchants through Muslim states that were intensely hostile to trade and contact with Christians… At the end of the caravan route, the ruler had actually gone to war to drive away the Christians, and the towns of destination were under siege.

Benedictow’s ideas seem to me to have some merit, though perhaps it’s not necessary to hypothesise that trade goods began their journey in China with a specific destination in the Christian territories to the far west in mind. It still seems possible that a pandemic might have spread in stages along a trade route where the passage of trade goods was more localised.

• The chronicler Ibn al-Wardi, of Aleppo, spoke to merchants who had seen the Black Death in the Crimea (and who brought it back with them to Syria), and reported their belief that it had been wreaking havoc in Asia since the early 1330s, had its origins in “the land of darkness” – a phrase usually interpreted to mean the northern steppe-lands. Al-Wardi adds:

China was not preserved from it, nor could the strongest fortress hinder it. The plague afflicted the Indians in India. It weighed upon the Sind. It seized with its hand and ensnared even the lands of the Uzbeks. How many backs did it break in what is Transoxiana!

Here again we have evidence that contemporaries suspected the plague came from the far east, but – again – little to suggest this was more than a sort of orientalist fantasy. The east (as De’ Mussis’s chronicle also demonstrates) was seen as a mysterious place where all sorts of wonders frequently occurred, and, for the inhabitants of both Europe and the Middle East in this period, it was also the only more or less unexplored part of the known world, so it was a natural spot to locate the origins of something as apparently new, and as completely devastating, as the Black Death.

• The Chinese census of 1200 (which like all such censuses at this time counted “doors” – households – rather than “mouths” – individuals) revealed a population estimated at 120 million. Another, taken in 1393, found that the total had fallen to just 65 million.

Kublai Khan, Mongol conqueror of China and grandson of Chinggis Khan, painted in about 1260.

I’ve seen it suggested that a significant proportion of the empire’s “missing” subjects, who apparently vanished between 1200 and 1393, were lost to the plague. Unfortunately, this claims takes no account of Kublai Khan’s census of 1290 – which is rated probably the most reliable of the Mongol enumerations. This census put the total at 13.9 million households, and hence at an estimated 59 million people, and would suggest that the great majority of the apparent population loss took place during the thirteenth century – and may be associated at least in part with the Mongol conquest – rather than the fourteenth century and the Black Death.

• Most of this information was noted by the earliest modern historians of the plague, most importantly the German medical historian J.F.C. Hecker, writing in the 1830s. His account became hugely influential (not least because it was first published at a time when another pestilence, cholera, was raging in Europe), and so Hecker’s description of “an universal pestilence, which extended from China to Iceland and Greenland” became the default from which later writers took their lead – even though it’s now generally agreed that the plague did not reach either Iceland or Greenland.

• One additional bit of evidence pointing to a pre-1347 Asian origin for the Black Death that you’ll often see cited comes from inscriptions found on grave markers in two Nestorian cemeteries to the north of lake Issyk-Kul – a stopover on the silk road in what is now Kyrgyzstan, only about a hundred miles from the westernmost borders of China – that were excavated by Russian archaeologists in the middle 1880s. Daniel Chwolson, the archaeologist leading the dig, noted that he had collected a total of 650 names from surviving headstones, dating from 1186 and 1349. Of these, 106 had died – in about 10 percent of cases it was specified of “pestilence” – in one two-year period, between 1338 and 1339. An example is a stone that reads:

In the year one thousand six hundred and fifty [= 1339 AD], the hare year. This is the grave of Kutluk. He died of pestilence with his wife Mangu-Kelka.

It did not take much joining of the dots for plague researchers to notice such a dramatic concentration of deaths less than a decade before the Black Death erupted into Europe, and to turn these inscriptions into evidence of the plague’s slow westward migration. More sceptical voices, however, point out that “pestilence” could mean a wide variety of diseases, and Sussman adds that Chwolson’s work remains, nearly a century and a half later, “the only evidence we have of a possible plague outbreak in the steppes before the reports from the Crimea in 1346, to which the European and Middle Eastern epidemics have been traced.” Without a better context, and ideally verification in the form of evidence from contemporary Nestorian graves – which has not yet been forthcoming – it would be unsafe to assume these deaths were caused by the Black Death.

Evidence and lack of evidence for the Black Death in China and India

Detail from The Triumph of Death (1562) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Chinese historians kept records of major epidemics from at least the Tang dynasty, and these were typically incorporated into dynastic records alongside floods, droughts, astronomical phenomena and other events that could collectively be considered portents or evidence of the judgement of heaven on the emperor and the imperial administration. Historians who have examined these records are fairly dramatically divided into those who argue that they contain clear evidence that the Black Death did ravage China and those who believe that it did not.

There seems to be general agreement here that the Chinese archives contain no absolutely conclusive reference to any epidemic of bubonic plague the Middle Kingdom before 1640. There certainly are records, however, of significant epidemics that took place in China at about the right time to have been associated with the Black Death. These include:

• An apparently devastating epidemic in Hebei, in the north-east of China, in 1331-34. The contemporary description of this pestilence – which may well be an exaggeration – suggests that it killed 90 percent of the population of the province, and a summary compiled at the end of the nineteenth century by the Imperial Maritime Customs Service places the mortality at “13 million persons”.

• A “great pestilence” in the coastal provinces of Fujian and Shandong in 1344.

• An apparent pandemic that cycled through several northern provinces in 1351-52, and which supposedly killed two-thirds of the population of Shanxi and Hubei.

• Additional “great pestilences” in northern and central China between 1356 and 1362.

Sun Ssu-mo, one of the greatest Chinese doctors of the Tang period, was a pioneer in the field of nutrition and author of Prescriptions Worth A Thousand Gold and Precious Formulas for Emergency.

There are two possible ways of interpreting this information. One is to assume that they are a record of a pandemic of the Black Death. This is certainly not impossible, at least if the various “pestilences” were actually linked; waves of bubonic plague, which moved steadily from place to place but were also capable of returning and revisiting areas they had already devastated, are characteristic of the progress of the plague in the better-chronicled regions of western Europe. And the timing, at first glance, looks right, at least if we assume that the Hebei pandemic was the first eruption of the Black Death; it would have had 15 years to make the journey from the eastern borders of China to the lands of the Golden Horde, which is no faster than the pace that the disease advanced across Europe. Estimates of vast numbers of deaths, moreover – assuming they are at least roughly accurate – suggest a pandemic of exceptional virulence, and again provide a good match for the Black Death.

Yet it’s also possible to look at the same evidence more sceptically, and observe that every one of the epidemics mentioned in contemporary Chinese sources is recorded in a very similar way – as a “pestilence”, that is, but without any specific mention being made of the symptoms of the disease. This might indicate that the pathogens were familiar ones, creating symptoms that were not considered strange enough to be worth recording; we know China was vulnerable to outbreaks of smallpox, typhus, dysentery and and influenza throughout this period. In this view, the Chinese record stands distinct from that we have from Europe and the Middle East, where it is commonplace to find detailed descriptions of the previously unheard-of – but highly recognisable – symptoms of the Black Death, characterised as it was by the presence of agonising, blackened buboes in armpits and groins, the spitting of blood, and almost certain death after three or four days.

In the European context, descriptions of what is undoubtedly the plague can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece. So is it really credible that generations of Chinese scholars could fail to make mention of the unique and distinct symptoms of the Black Death if they really were describing an exceptionally virulent pandemic of a type never seen in the country before? There are records to suggest that China was hit by what could have been the Plague of Justinian, since the physician Sun Ssu-mo (also known as Sun Simiao), who died in 652, refers in his Valuable Prescriptions to a pandemic characterised by the presence of a “malignant bubo”. How could his successors 700 years later have failed to make similar observations?

The Black Death was characterised by the appearance of large and painful buboes – often black – on the bodies of its victims

Determining which of these two competing positions is most likely to be correct means determining whether or not it is reasonable to suppose that a pandemic as devastating and distinctive as the Black Death could have taken place in China without contemporaries making any comment – especially as the 1330s and 1340s were a period in which the writing of history flourished under the patronage of the Yuan emperor Toghon Temür, who sponsored completion of the long-paused official histories of the Liao, Jin and Song dynasties during this period.

On balance, I believe, the evidence probably favours the sceptics. At the very least, it seems to show that the “pestilences” that visited China did not behave in exactly the same manner as the Black Death, which, in its journey through Europe, devastated the continent far more completely and more systematically than seems to have been the case in China. Moreover, it may very well be dangerous to assume that the pandemic could advance across the thinly-populated Asian steppe at the same sort of pace as it could move across the densely-populated lands of Europe. “Easier to believe,” Sussman concludes, “in the plague focus closes to there [the disease] was first observed in the Crimea [and that it] never reached China.”

An even more startling absence of evidence for a plague pandemic can be found in an examination of records from India, the northern portions of which were then dominated by the Delhi Sultanate and which maintained significant ties with Transoxiana, the area to the north and west from which the Tughluq dynasty had originated, and well as diplomatic and trade links the stretched across the Indian Ocean and connected Gujurat to the Red Sea. Trade – not least in slaves – also took place, via caravans, between the Sultanate and the Mongols of the Ilkhanate and the Golden Horde.

The Qutub Minar in Delhi is one of the best known monuments dating from the time of the Delhi Sultanate.

It would certainly seem, then, that India ought to have been at substantial risk of importing plague from its trading partners to the north. Our main source for this period of its history, the chronicle of Diya-yi Barani (also known as Ziauddin Barani), which covers the period up to 1351, describes an epidemic of cholera that devastated the Sultanate in 1334/35, but says nothing about any pestilence that could be bubonic plague. Diya-yi Barani’s successor, Sham Siraj Afif, who chronicled the reign of Firuz Shah between 1357 and 1388 (a period during which secondary and tertiary waves of plague were still devastating Europe) likewise makes no mention of any major epidemic, and indeed notes that the period was one of prosperity, peace and rising populations in India. Since we likewise have no DNA evidence to point to the existence of plague in any contemporary Indian cemeteries, it is generally agreed that the disease cannot have penetrated the subcontinent until what was clearly an outbreak of the disease was reported in Agra in 1619.

The most convincing reason that I’ve seen put forward to account for the failure of the Black Death to visit India was put forward by Sussman, who observes that the most efficient “vector” for the plague, and the one generally suspected of being the primary means of transmission of the Black Death, is Xenopsylla cheopsis, the oriental rat flea, a  native to Egypt. Unlike some other species of flea that become infected with the plague bacillus, which digest the bacillus they ingest when they bite infected rates, X. cheopsis is unable to process the pathogen. Instead, the bacilli form a large blockage in the upper reaches of the flea’s stomach, which is regurgitated into the bloodstream of the next mammal it bites. It is this peculiarity that many epidemiologists suggest helps to explain the incredible virulence of the Black Death; the earliest unlucky victims of the pandemic of 1346-51, at least, were receiving gigantic doses of the plague bacillus delivered by fleas with blocked alimentary canals.

According to Sussman, there is no evidence that X. cheopsis reached India before the nineteenth century, and if this is indeed the case, it may help to explain why the subcontinent was not devastated in the 1340s and 1350s. I should stress, however, all that this is very tentative and hypothetical. X. cheopsis was almost certainly not responsible for spreading the Black Death throughout Europe; most specialists in plague fleas believe that only the first stages of transmission were the work of Egyptian rat fleas, and that most of the damage that occurred during the Black Death was inflicted by the human flea.

Plague foci

Revisionist reconstruction of the transmission of the Black Death, showing probably plague reservoirs associated with the three strains of bubonic plague (coloured dots). From Spyrou et al.

Sussman writes in some detail about the concept of plague foci, or “plague reservoirs” – areas which play host to a population of infected animals over a period of many years, and even centuries. He traces the evolution of the idea, which really got established as a result of turn-of-the-last-century research into the origins of the third global pandemic of 1894 onwards. He points out that, as late as 1881, it was generally accepted that the Black Death was a European and Middle Eastern pandemic which did not penetrate further east than Persia – it was the discovery than endemic centres of the plague existed in northern India and south-west China, in which incidences of the disease could be traced back at least as far as the 1820s, that gave birth to the idea that the Black Death, too, probably had its origins in Asia. The idea was given added credence by the work of Wu Lien-teh, a Chinese epidemiologist working in the 1920s, who identified 12 such foci – two in Africa, and the other 10 in Asia.

The idea that the existence of plague reservoirs explains now only how, but also where, pandemics of bubonic plague originate has entered the mainstream since Wu Lien-teh wrote. McNeill used the hypothesis to suggest that the ultimate origins of the Black Death were in the reservoir that lurked in south-west China, on the border between the Chinese province of Yunnan and Burma. His suggestion was that it began its spread towards Europe practically a century before it erupted into Italy, at the time of the Mongol invasion of Burma in 1252-53. From there, he suggested, it returned the Mongolia via fleas transported in the clothes and saddlebags of the invading warriors, before moving west along long-distance trade routes.

This idea would make more sense if there was any contemporary evidence that the plague reservoir in Yunnan existed in the fourteenth century. In fact, however, the earliest known reference to the existence of the disease in this province dates to no earlier than 1792. For this reason, Benedictow and several other authorities prefer to trace the Black Death to plague reservoirs that existed much closer to the Crimea and to Europe, specifically to the areas around the Caspian Sea that I mentioned earlier.

Varieties of plague

One possible way of resolving all the uncertainties created by the ambiguous evidence offered up by history and epidemiology is to turn directly to biology to better understand the plague bacterium itself.

Xenopsylla cheopis, the Egyptian (or oriental) rat flea.

The foundational work in this regard is that of a French doctor, R. Devignat, who in 1951 identified three different biovars, or strains, of plague, based on a study of their ability or inability to ferment glycerine. He labelled these three pathogens Y. pestis antiqua, Y. pestis medievalis and Y. pestis orientalis, and suggested were responsible for the three global pandemics of plague mentioned above. According to Devignat, Y. pestis medievalis – the strain responsible for the Black Death – probably had an Asian origin, although he speculated that its plague reservoir was probably originally in Kurdistan or southern Russia, much closer to the Crimea than had been imagined hitherto and a direct contradiction of McNeill’s speculations regarding an infestation brought from Burma to the Crimea by Mongol horsemen.

For John Norris, who followed up on Devignat’s work in the mid-1970s, the biological difference that exists between the strains of plague in foci in China and Mongolia on the one hand, and the southern Russian steppes, on the other, clearly argued that the Black Death had its origins in Devignant’s southern Russian reservoir – that is, pretty much where Benedictow and Sussman say it did: somewhere along the shores of the Caspian sea or on the steppes directly to the north, which were then dominated by the Golden Horde.

In conclusion

Reviewing this rather lengthy post, it seems possible to suggest that the evidence that the Black Death originated in the far eastern part of Asia, somewhere in northern China or the steppe directly to the north of the Great Wall, is not supported by much evidence. To argue that it was, in essence, a Chinese disease requires us to make links between “pestilences” that may or may not have been connected, to assume that the disease could make its way across the vast steppe-lands at a time when east-west trade was probably very much disrupted, and to have done all this without impressing any chroniclers in its path with its uniqueness in such a way that they felt compelled to make a record of its symptoms. The Chinese origin theory probably also runs foul of Occam’s Razor; if there was indeed a plague reservoir in the vicinity of the Caspian, an east Asian origin would be far from the most parsimonious explanation for the presence of the Black Death in the Crimea in 1346.

We can conclude, then, that the reason that you have found it so difficult to locate information on the passage of the Black Death through Asia in the fourteenth century is very possibly that it never actually made such a journey, remaining instead a pandemic restricted to Europe and the Middle East.


Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death 1346-1353: the Complete History (2004); Bruce Campbell, The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late Medieval World (2016); John D. Durand, “The Population Statistics of China, A.D. 2–1953,” Population Studies 13 (1960); John Norris, “East or West? The Geographic Origin of the Black Death,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 51 (1977); Maria A. Spyrou et al, “Historical Y. pestis Genomes Reveal the European Black Death as the Source of Ancient and Modern Plague Pandemics”, Cell Host & Microbe 19 (2016); John Stewart, Nestorian Missionary Enterprise: the Story of a Church on Fire (1928); George D. Sussman, “Was the Black Death in India and China?”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 85 (2011)

Louis XV, nicknamed “The Well-Beloved”, ruled France during the tumultous – and often militarily disastrous – years from 1715 until 1774.

Q: In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo claims that children were kidnapped during the reign of Louis XV, and rumours were whispered of the King’s ‘purple baths’. What is Hugo referring to here, and would the rumours have been common knowledge to a reader at the time?

A: For those not familiar with Hugo’s work, the passage you are referring to reads as follows:

These abandonments of children, be it said, in passing, were not discouraged by the old monarchy [that is, the Bourbon Ancien Regime which ruled until the French Revolution – Hugo was writing of the early 1830s]… Moreover, the monarchy sometimes had need of children, and then it skimmed the street…

Under Louis XV, children disappeared in Paris; the police carried them off – nobody knows for what mysterious use. People whispered with affright horrible conjectures about the purple baths of the king. Barbier speaks ingenuously of these things. It sometimes happened that the officers running short of children, took some who had fathers. The fathers, in despair, rushed upon the officers. In such cases, the parlement interfered and hung – whom? The officers? No; the fathers.

Hugo is referring here to rumours that abounded during the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774) that the monarch was afflicted with leprosy and was willing to try almost anything in his desperate search for a cure. His source is the lawyer Edmund Barbier’s diaries, published in Paris as the Chronique de la Régence et du Règne de Louis XV (1718–1763) in eight volumes in 1857. According to Barbier, writing on 16 May 1750,

“For a week now people have been saying that police constables in disguise are roaming around various quarters of Paris, abducting children, boys and girls from five or six years old to ten or more, and loading them into the carriages which they have ready waiting nearby.”

Barbier added that it was generally believed that these agents of the monarchy worked on behalf of

“a leprous prince whose cure required a bath in human blood, and there being no blood purer than that of children, these were seized so as to be bled from all their limbs.”

Jones notes that while these rumours did not specifically identify which member of the Bourbon line was leprous, “in accounts which circulated widely at court and which reached the ears of the king himself, that leprous prince was metamorphosed into the morally and spiritually unclean and sexually debauched Louis XV”, leading the king to complain that “the wicked people… are calling me a Herod.”

I should point out that there is, of course, no evidence at all that Louis or any other Bourbon prince had leprosy – but the idea that he might suffer from the disease made perfect sense in contemporary terms. Leprosy had long been believed to be the corporeal manifestation of sin, and there were Biblical precedents for this – in 2 Chronicles, King Ozias is punished for his sins by being afflicted with leprosy. Plenty of other important theological commentators, moreover, made the same association: St Ambrose had said that Jews would be eaten away by leprosy of the body and soul for failing to recognise Christ; St Jerome wrote that leprosy was God’s punishment for the original sin of Adam and Eve; and Gregory of Tours, writing in the 6th century, reported a case in which a thief who had stolen from a church was struck down by leprosy in consequence. Since Louis XV was known to be lazy and feckless; since he was frequently criticised for his inability to rule either energetically or justly; since he spent huge sums of public money on personal pleasures; and since he publicly acknowledged that he kept mistresses, it was no great stretch to assume that he was precisely the sort of monarch who might attract the wrath of a vengeful God.

Paris during the reign of Louis XV. Detail from “La joute des mariniers, entre le pont Notre-Dame et le Pont-au-Change” (1756), by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet. Musée Carnavalet

As for the “purple baths” that Hugo mentions: these were, it appears, imagined to be literally baths of blood. The French “pourpre” is redder than the English “purple”, and the word is often used to refer to the colour of blood, as in the Jean Reno vehicle Les rivières pourpres (2000) – which can be translated as “The Crimson Rivers“. And blood had long been imagined to be a cure for leprosy. It was closely associated with the concepts of vigour and healing, and it wasn’t unknown for rulers to drink blood – according to Maluf, Pope Innocent VIII was given “a draught of blood from three youths for strength and rejuvenation” in 1492, and in fact the idea that the strength and vigour of the young could pass to the sick or elderly via their blood was the main reason why doctors began experimenting with blood transfusion during the sixteenth century.

The use of blood to treat leprosy had been noted as early as the time Pliny (1st century BC), who in book 26 of his Natural History suggested that the “divine kings” of ancient Egypt were allowed, by reason of their divinity, to seek this remedy if stricken with the disease: it was, he wrote,

“deadly for the people when it afflicted the kings, for their baths were usually prepared with human blood for treating it.”

Innocent VIII purportedly tried a blood cure to increase his vigour.

This short passage, Demaitre notes, fuelled “feverish fantasies” in doctors and in other writers, and the idea that restorative baths could be prepared from human blood crops up sufficiently frequently for us to trace its progress across the centuries. Hagiographies of the Emperor Constantine  (4th century AD) suggested that, prior to his conversion to Christianity, he had been advised by his priests “to have three thousand children slaughtered and to bathe in their warm blood” as a cure for leprosy – his refusal to countenance the idea was advanced as an early sign of his incipient holiness. An 11th century Latin text, similarly, advised that a leper could recover by bathing in the blood of two infant children, and Hildegard of Bingen recommended the use of menstrual blood as a cure for leprosy brought on by “sexual incontinence”.

So it is not actually that surprising that the people of Paris were willing to believe that, if their king truly did suffer from leprosy, he might seek to kidnap and murder enough children to fill a tub with their fresh, vigorous young blood. And certainly belief in this rumour was strong enough to spark trouble in Paris when the fantasy of murderous monarchs collided with the reality of a Paris police drive to sweep the streets of the French capital of vagrants in 1749-50.

The title page of a 15th century manuscript edition of Pliny’s Naturalis historia.

The anti-vagrancy drive had nothing to do with Louis XV and his health, and it was merely a coincidence that it was embarked on at a time when the rumour that the king was leprous was widely believed in Paris. Its roots actually lay in an instruction issued late in 1749 by the Lieutenant General [commander] of the Paris police, Nicolas-René Berryer (1703-62) – a protégé of Louis XV’s mistress the Marquise de Pompadour, but also an innovative officer who is generally credited with both the creation of the Sûreté [“Security Office”] and a domestic espionage system based on networks of police spies. Berryer ordered that

“all beggars and vagrants found in the streets of Paris…of whatever age or sex, shall be arrested and taken to prison, there to be detained for as long as shall be deemed necessary.”

In practice, however, it proved much easier to catch children than adult vagrants, and since the Paris police were being rewarded on the basis of the number of “beggars” they could arrest, they detained a disproportionate number of youngsters – enough for the locals to assume that the round-up was being specifically directed against them. Berryer then further compounded matters by issuing another order for the detention of “all children of workers and bourgeois alike caught gambling in the squares and market places along with other little rascals and vagabonds.” This guaranteed that at least some of those arrested had parents and other relatives on hand to protest the new policies – hence the outbreak of disorder.

Nicolas-René Berryer, the Paris police chief who ordered a round-up of vagrants and children in 1749-50.

It was widely assumed that the children caught up in this drive were not merely being imprisoned in Paris or relocated outside the city. The truth was that the six children whose arrest sparked the rioting in May 1750 were carted off to Le Grand Châtelet, a fortress on the right bank of the Seine, and that others, arrested later, were taken to another prison at Bicêtre, while at least some of the vagrant children detained in the round-ups, meanwhile, are generally believed to have been transported to help populate the French territories in Canada and along the Mississippi. Rumour, however, insisted that they were actually being arrested in order to be supplied to the Bourbon court, and according to one police report, a spy haunting a tavern near the Place des Victoires heard a local woman claim that they would have their revenge for these atrocities: “Our women of Les Halles will go to Versailles to dethrone the King and tear his eyes out.”

The result was serious rioting in at least six areas of the French capital, during which at least 20 people, including one royal official suspected of kidnapping children, were killed. Three of those involved were arrested and hanged for public order offences, and – intriguingly – the police (apparently seeking to distract attention from their own heavy-handedness) were responsible for the unleashing of another rumour: that the riots had been provoked by mysterious “men in black” who worked their way through the crowds assembling on Paris’s streets, and offered money to those willing to start trouble.

An opulent masked ball, held at Versailles during the reign of Louis XV. The king’s reputation for selfishness and extravagance was well-founded.

It’s worth pausing, in conclusion, to consider the rumour of these “men in black.” Farge & Revel note that the “basic premise” of the contemporary police was that

“disorder cannot exist without someone being guilty of causing it. The police knew perfectly well what had enraged the people of Paris and for the most part they freely admitted it, some of them even going so far as to deplore their colleagues’ actions. However this was rarely put forward as a valid explanation for the revolt. Since, in their view, collective aggression and street violence could never be justified in themselves, they drew on a powerful set of unshakeable beliefs to explain the causes of the situation. One of the strongest of these theories was that if peace was under threat and violence unleashed, it had to be the work of malign forces infiltrating the social body in Paris. The forces of law and order had always been quick to recognize these pernicious invaders.

One thing I am told which I can hardly believe is that at the height of the disturbances… there were three or four individuals pretending to be drunk who were handing money out to people saying, ‘Here, my friends, here are six francs, go and buy some broom handles to attack these rascals with.’ If that were true, it means there were secret leaders to the sedition. Only time and further information will reveal the truth of the matter.

“Despite his careful wording, prosecutor [A.N.] Gueulette, who recorded this rumour of 23 May [1750], did not have much faith in the existence of ‘men in black’ supposedly emerging from the shadows to lead the uprising… Clearly he was not convinced by the enigmatic presence of those archetypal agents provocateurs who were almost too perfect and certainly too elusive to be credible.”

So, there appears to have been no official follow up by the Paris police to the emergence of this rumour. However, I certainly should add that precisely the same supposed mechanism of rumour-generation was very much in evidence again a generation later at the time of the “Great Fear” – a series of rumours that swept France in July-August 1789, during the immediate run-up to the French Revolution. These rumours suggested that the country was being either invaded or scoured by what were variously supposed to have been the Austrians, brigands or gangs of pirates, and once again there were certainly reports that the rumours were spread by mysterious and unidentifiable agitators. However outlandish they may appear to us today, popular belief and wild rumour were, and are, capable of causing real and significant problems for the people who find themselves caught up in the ways that they play out.


Peter Lewis Allen, The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present (2000); Clare Anderson & Hannah Maxwell-Stuart, Convict Labour and the Western Empires, 1415–1954 (2013); Richard Mowery Andrews, Law, Magistracy, and Crime in Old Regime Paris, 1735-1789, vol.1 (1994); Luke Demaitre, Leprosy in Premodern Medicine: A Malady of the Whole Body (2007); Arlette Farge & Jacques Revel, The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumor and Politics before the French Revolution (1993); Victor Hugo, Les Misérables; Colin Jones, The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (2003); Georges Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (1932; 2014); NSR Maluf, “History of blood transfusion” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 9 (1954); Alan Williams, The Police of Paris, 1718-1789 (1979).

Hat-tip to Redditor u/Commissar_Sae for information about the French word pourpre.

The Vatican

Q: Do we know of any cases in the Catholic Church when the Advocatus Diaboli (or Devil’s Advocate) successfully argued against someone becoming a saint?

Yes – at least it’s very likely, but it is far from clear which. Kenneth Woodward, in his Making Saints, notes that “many cases do not succeed” – but since judgement is rendered on an overall case, comprising many documents other than the arguments of the Devil’s Advocate, and since no commentary is issued on the judgements that are rendered, it is impossible to be sure whether any cases have been rejected explicitly as a result of the Advocate’s work. In addition, while the prospective candidate for sainthood has already passed several other tests by the point his case reaches the pope for final approval, and while the Advocate’s material is the only explicitly negative portion of the documentation that remains, the decision is the pontiff’s – and a reigning pope is perfectly entitled to take account of some other, unstated, factor not contained in the process documents in rendering a judgement.

Breaking all this down a little further, it’s important to recognise two things. First, the lawyer popularly known as the Devil’s Advocate was not literally some evil agent provocateur seeking to throw a spanner in the works of the church establishment; rather, he was a key bastion of orthodoxy, whose official title was actually Promoter of the Faith, and whose role was to help ensure the worthiness of candidates for sainthood. Secondly, while the procedure created by the church to assess such cases (which was in place from 1587 until its abolition under John Paul II in 1983) was adversarial – with the Devil’s Advocate debating with an advocate for the candidate for sainthood – the role of the Promoter of the Faith was only one part of a much larger process. His advocacy, moreover, was never conducted in the form of an actual trial. Rather, the two advocates pitched written arguments back and forth, often over a period of decades, seeking to hone their arguments regarding the case before them.

The two advocates taking part in this stage of the canonisation process (called the Ordinary Process) were supplied with materials assembled by the local bishop, who was charged – as a first step – with collecting evidence and with determining that the candidate was not the object of a public cult. For several hundred years, the next stage in the process was for this evidence to be reviewed by censors for any evidence of unorthodox teachings or of heresy; it seems certain that far more prospective saints were disbarred as a result of these two steps than were ever failed by the work of the Devil’s Advocate. One example is Jean-Jacques Olier, the 17th century French founder of the Society of Saint-Sulpice, who was proceeding slowly towards canonisation in the 19th century when a publication of his containing unorthodox views on the Virgin Mary was uncovered. Olier’s process was immediately halted. Since 1940, the advocates of a candidate for sainthood also have to obtain a declaration of nihil obstat (“nothing objectionable”) from Rome, which is based on a search of the files of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the group responsible for maintaining the well-known Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or list of banned books.

The 1758 edition of the Index librorum prohibitorum

The adversarial phase in which the Devil’s Advocate participated began after these checks. It started with the selection of a “postulator”, a lawyer who would argue the prospective saint’s cause, who was selected from a group of canon lawyers (still in existence and currently around 200 strong) recognised by the Congregation. The postulator, in turn, selected his own Devil’s Advocate from among a smaller group of around two dozen lawyers licensed by the Holy See to handle such cases. Both men received copies of the materials produced by the local bishop, examined them, and began to engage in a dialectic, which might, as noted above, go on for decades, but which eventually produced a printed positio which incorporated the materials produced by the bishop and the key arguments of both advocates.

It was this positio that was considered by the cardinals and prelates associated with the canonisation process, and which went to the pope for approval. But this was not (and is not) the end of the process. Cases that passed this initial test went into a new “Apostolic Process” in which the office of the Promoter of the Faith drew up a new set of queries relating to the virtues of the candidate, which had to be considered by a new tribunal held in the candidate’s diocese. This collected additional evidence – from eyewitnesses where possible – which was sent back to Rome and used in the preparation of a new document, the informatio, which systematically laid out the case.

In addition to being the first non-Italian pope since 1523, John Paull II also thoroughly shook up the entire saint-making process, canonising more saints than his predecessors had done over the past three centuries.

The Devil’s Advocate and the advocate for the putative saint would again register points for and against the candidate, based this time on examination of the informatio, which would again be printed, and would again be studied by the Congregation; and this entire process was repeated three times, with the advocates on either side getting repeated opportunities to advance new arguments and respond to existing ones. The pope himself would take part in the third of these exchanges, and only candidates who received the final approval of the pontiff could proceed.

But even that was not the end of the procedure – those candidates who survived examination of their credentials still had to go through the processes of beatification and then canonisation, meaning that between two and four miracles had to be attributed to them and accepted as genuine as a result of separate studies by the Consulta Medica, a tribunal of Catholic doctors tasked with assessing evidence assembled to show that a reported cure could not be anything but miraculous. In addition, beatification was subject to a final sign off which might be, and sometimes was, put on hold if the candidature was politically sensitive (for example, in the case of a martyr who had died at the hands of a regime that was still in power by the time he or she came up for consideration). Typically there has always been a further delay between beatification and canonisation, during which more miracles are required to occur. Since the late 19th century, the act of canonisation itself has been made by infallible decree of the pontiff, meaning that it is not something that can ever be reconsidered or withdrawn.

Finally, it seems incontestable that the pontiff takes a key role not only in the process of canonisation, but also in the selection and acceptance of candidates, and can steamroll the entire process if he wishes – as John Paul II did in 2002 in the case of Juan Diego Cuauhlatoatzin, the main actor in the supposed visions of the Virgin Mary that took place at Guadalupe in Mexico in the early 16th century. There is considerable doubt as to whether Juan Diego actually existed at all, so his canonisation is good evidence that the elaborate process set out above is, at least in certain circumstances, more window-dressing than serious investigation in any case. So is the dramatic increase in the number of beatifications and canonisations dealt with by John Paul II, who not only abolished the devil’s advocate’s role but also, in the course of his 27-year reign, approved the candidacies of more people than all other popes put together since the modern system was created in the 17th century. So, arguably, is the controversial canonisation of Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, which was at least in part the product of the investment of significant resources in creating and arguing his case by the members of his own order.

Still, all in all, the process of canonisation has been, more often than not, a very protracted one (Benedict XIV, in the 18th century, set the timescale as a minimum of 100 years, a ruling that is no longer in effect; John Paul II was canonised in 2014, only nine years after his death). It’s one in which the Devil’s Advocate played an important but far from central role. Candidates for sainthood might fall out of the process at any time, for a variety of reasons, and while successful objections lodged by the Promoter of the Faith are certainly one possible cause of the failure of a candidacy, such failures were never formally announced as such.


John L. Allen, Jr., The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (2009); John Cornwall, Hitler’s Pope: the Secret History of Pius XII (2000); John Cornwall, “A game of miracles: how saints are made,” New Statesman 25 July 2013; Donald S. Prudio, Certain Sainthood: Canonization and the Origins of Papal Infallibility (2015); Kenneth Woodward, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why (1996)

Tsar Paul – autocrat and victim of assassination, but at whose behest?

Q: In 1801, Tsar Paul I of Russia was assassinated by conspirators funded by the British government. How did the British have the means to assassinate a monarch of a European superpower at the beginning of the 19th century?

A: This is a very interesting question, the answer to which opens up some fascinating windows not only into the early history of national intelligence services, but also into our understanding of the historians that study them.

Let’s begin, for those unfamiliar with this period, with a brief history of Tsar Paul, son of Catherine the Great, and with the events surrounding his murder.

Paul came to the throne on his mother’s death, in 1796. By that time he was 42 years old, married, and had an adult son, Alexander, who was 19. The new Tsar had spent his early adulthood being kept at arm’s length from the business of ruling Russia, and the historical consensus is that he proved to be a generally incompetent, capricious and poor-tempered ruler. His foreign policy saw him change sides in the Napoleonic Wars in 1800; having been elected as Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in 1798, and been promised that the order’s base, Malta, would be handed over to him after the French were expelled from it, the Tsar was enraged when the British reneged on the deal and retained control of the island. In retaliation, Paul expelled the British ambassador to Russia, Charles Whitworth, and allowed himself to be persuaded to drop out of the Second Coalition against Napoleon in favour of joining Prussia and Sweden in the so-called League of Armed Neutrality.

A map of Asia in c.1800 shows how outlandish and unlikely to succeed Paul’s dream of orchestrating an invasion of British India actually was. Click to view in higher resolution.

On top of all that, in January 1801 the Tsar committed to an attack on British India, ordering the Don Cossack host to proceed through Khiva and Afghanistan to the Indus, destroy the British armies there, “liberate the oppressed from their overlords, gently bring them under our dependence, and divert their trade to us.” Astoundingly, it seems Paul believed that this incredibly ambitious project, conducted in harsh conditions in midwinter, would not only succeed, but could be completed in little more than a month.

So, while it’s unclear exactly how much the British knew of the Cossack threat, London certainly had strong reasons for wanting the Tsar off the throne in the weeks and months before Paul’s death, and we also know that the British were preparing to take military action against Russia; shortly before Paul’s assassination, a Royal Navy squadron sailed into the Baltic with orders to make for St Petersburg.

Britain was, nonetheless, far from the only enemy that the Tsar had. Some accounts of Paul’s foreign policy suggest his withdrawl from the Second Coalition was a product not of British action over Malta, but of his distrust of Austria, which, he feared, was preparing to annex territory in Italy. In addition, the Tsar had as many domestic enemies as one might expect of a ruler who was prone to violent rages and the imposition of severe discipline, and who was also in the process of implementing a number of relatively progressive policies – several of which had the potential to upset elements of Russia’s ruling classes. For example, Paul attempted to reduce the burdens of serfdom, clamped down on corruption in the Russian government, and preferred to appoint professional bureaucrats over gentleman place-men in his administration.

Charles Whitworth, 1st Earl Whitworth, was certainly British ambassador to both Russia and France during the Napoleonic period – but was he really also the brains behind a British “wet affairs” assassination bureau?

The plot to remove the emperor is generally agreed to have been led by the military governor of St Petersburg, Count Pahlen, and approved by the heir to the throne – certainly it’s very telling that when Alexander became Tsar, he failed to punish any of the conspirators who had had removed his father. Pahlen assembled a group of discontented nobles and senior army officers, who in March 1801 forced their way into the Tsar’s palace, either bearing a pre-prepared abdication document, or at least having the intention to force Paul to write and sign one. When Paul resisted he was strangled and trampled to death.

Historians remain divided as to the motives of the regicides. The consensus, it is fair to say, favours the idea that the assassins were a poorly organised group who were drunk when they burst into the imperial apartments and had no clear idea of how they expected events to pan out, and that Paul’s death was not only unintended, but not necessary to their plans. Nonetheless, some evidence has been advanced to suggest that Britain was behind the murder, and that it had been planned in London and co-ordinated by Whitworth. Some of it is merely circumstantial: one of the conspirators, Levin von Bennigsen, was a Hanoverian mercenary, though he was apparently a late addition to the plot, and not apparently one with any significant ties to the British; and James Talbot, who was a close associate of Whitworth’s, was apparently relatively close by, in Sweden, in the run-up to the murder. The most widely cited piece of evidence, meanwhile, is a passing mention in a letter of Napoleon’s, which darkly accused British spies of being responsible for the murder.

Nothing in the letter, however, suggests that Napoleon had any specific evidence to back up the suggestion. All of which leaves us with the work of Elizabeth Sparrow, whose Historical Journal paper on the UK government’s “Alien Office” – set up to monitor foreigners in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, but, Sparrow claims, later a sort of precursor intelligence agency – and book Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815 contain the only referenced claims concerning British involvement in the murder of Tsar Paul.

The assassination of Tsar Paul, from a reconstruction of c.1884.

For Sparrow,

it is in the nature of the service that only records of failures were preserved, for the very good reason that they were necessary to protect the individuals concerned… Success must be attributed to conventional warfare or diplomatic treaty and never to the secret service. I have not therefore attempted to include the one great success in the years discussed, but there is reason to believe that the assassination of Paul I was directed from the alien office, almost certainly with the assistance of Calonne [who was a French royalist and the former Minister of Finance to Louis XVI]. There is a paper in the foreign office files which suggests that Lord Whitworth laid the basis of the plan, and the French records unequivocally state that that was so. They also name an agent, Charles-Philippe de Bosset, a Swiss officer from Neuchatel, whose employment by the alien office is well documented, as the man who is believed to have taken the order from London to St Petersburg for the operation to be put into effect.

Unfortunately, Sparrow never quotes directly from the documents she cites – her British archive reference is “Unsigned communication, dated Paris, 13 Mai 1801, P.R.O., F.O. 95” and her French one is “Jean Tulard, ‘Whitworth, Sir Charles’, Dictionnaire Napoleon (Paris, 1987), p. 1750; Constantin de Grunwald, L’Assassinat de Paul 1er Tsar de Russie (Paris, 1960), pp. 174-5″, so it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether they are actually as incriminating as she suggests. It’s worth pointing out that few academics have followed her lead, with the exception of William R. Nester, a professor of political science at St John’s, Newfoundland, whose book on British power in the period not only follows Sparrow (without citing any additional evidence), but rather surprisingly uses her work to allege that

circumstantial evidence links the Alien Office to such “wet operations” as the attempted murder of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800 and actual murder of Tsar Paul in 1801.

It certainly does seem to be the case that there was sufficient discontent within senior circles in St Petersburg to make it relatively unsurprising that Paul was deposed, and that British intervention would not have been required to bring about this result. Similarly, the half-organised, semi-farcical assassination that actually occurred was not the sort of plot that could only ever have been brought to fruition with foreign help; it was also scarcely something that required “funding,” and no one has produced evidence that the British had any reason to be certain that Paul’s son Alexander would return Russia to the coalition fold, which he eventually did – rather than carry on with his father’s attempts to invade India, which Napoleon certainly encouraged him to do. Conversely, it is possible to make the argument that Sparrow, like other intelligence historians, is prone to exaggerate the influence and impact of secret service operations, and also true that her depiction of the Alien Office as a ruthless and efficient proto-SOE hardly squares with the amateurish, uncertain, thuggish murder that actually took place in St Petersburg in March 1801 – a conspiracy that, inter alia, involved the leader of the plot and half his men getting so lost in the palace gardens that they did not arrive until after the emperor was dead. And, very definitely, the British did not have the capacity, in 1801, to assassinate the Tsar without significant co-operation from a large number of the most senior figures in the Russian state.

Elizabeth Sparrow, the British farmer’s wife and intelligence historian who claimed to have found evidence of London’s involvement in the murder of Tsar Paul.

Finally, I should point out that Sparrow was not a professional historian, and came to her study of the Alien Office via an unusual path – so, while she deserves praise for her diligent and imaginative research methods, it is permissible to wonder whether her accounts are as cautious as would be considered ideal for an historian of this rather complex period of history. Certainly I, reading her stuff, thought it involved quite a lot of unproven assumptions and was terrible at placing the activities of the Alien Office within the broader context of British strategy and aims in the Napoleonic period.

Main sources were:

Richard Cavendish, “The murder of Tsar Paul I”, History Today 51:3 (2001)

Janet Hartley et al, Russia and the Napoleonic Wars (2015)

William R. Nester, Titan: The Art of British Power in the Age of Revolution and Napoleon (2016)

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great (2016)

Elizabeth Sparrow, “The Alien Office, 1792-1806”, Historical Journal 33:2 (1990)

Elizabeth Sparrow, Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815 (1999)

But I also skimmed through of a number of period studies and mainstream histories of the period, including AC Czartoryski, Memoirs of Prince Adam Czartoryski and His Correspondence with Alexander I; Marie-Pierre Rey, Alexander I: The Tsar Who Defeated Napoleon (2016); and WB Walsh, Readings in Russian History: From the Reign of Paul to Alexander III (1963). As I say, these also tend to suggest that the conspirators’ intention was to force an abdication, not murder Paul.

Czartoryski’s verdict is:

It will be seen from the above narrative how easy it would have been for the undertaking to have been foiled by an accident, notwithstanding the precautions which had been taken to ensure its success.

With regard to your final point: we just don’t know for certain. But Czartoryski says he was willing to countenance keeping his father in some sort of detention while he acted as regent, and the presumption is that he had been an active, if not especially willing, participant in the plot, even if he had not wanted it to end in his father’s murder. In the early years of his reign, Czartoryski concludes,

Alexander’s position with regard to his father’s murderers was an extremely difficult and painful one. For a few month he believed himself to be at their mercy, but it was chiefly his conscience and a feeling of natural equity which prevented him from giving up to justice the most guilty of the conspirators. He knew that there was a general sympathy for the objects of the conspiracy, and that those who had personally taken part in their realisation had only decided to do so when they were assured of his consent. It would have been difficult under these circumstances to distinguish between degrees of guilt; every member of the society of St Petersburg was more or less an accomplice in the fatal deed…

Q: Did Coca-Cola produce a clear version of Coke for General Zhukov that could be disguised as vodka? If so, for how long was this going on?

A: Zhukov’s “white Coke” was a product of the Coca-Cola Company’s Technical Observer programme, established with the help of the US Army during World War II as part of a plan to raise morale among American troops by ensuring they had a constant supply of their preferred non-alcoholic beverage.

The story seems to have originated in interviews conducted by Mark Pendergrast in the late 1980s and early 1990s for his unauthorised history of Coca-Cola. He reports that, in the course of the war, Coke sent 248 TOs into the main combat zones, each of them exempt from conscription thanks to “a remarkably cozy arrangement” with US draft boards. The TOs were charged with installing Coke manufacturing and bottling plants behind the lines and ensuring supplies of the proprietary syrup from which the drink was made came through safely from the States. Between them, they were responsible for serving the US armed forces a total of 10 billion Cokes in the course of the war. The scheme was a propaganda triumph for the Americans (and Coke), with MacArthur personally autographing the first bottle of Coke to come off the production line in the Philippines after the liberation. Eisenhower was also a supporter of the programme, and according to the Times-Herald (19 June 1945), on his return to Washington after the war,

After feasting copiously at the Statler luncheon yesterday, Gen. Eisenhower was asked if he wished anything else.

‘Could somebody get me a Coke?’ he asked.

After polishing off the soft drink, the General said he had one more request. Asked what he wanted, he answered:

‘Another Coke.’

Coke had withdrawn from central Europe during the war, though thanks to the efforts of some remarkably loyal local employees, their operation in Germany had managed to stay in existence during the conflict under another name and without its lead product – Fanta being the most famous replacement drink it introduced during this period. But the Company took aggressive steps to recover its position after the war ended, opening 38 new plants in southern Europe in the years 1946-47 alone in an effort to prevent Pepsi from establishing itself in what had once been Coke territories.

One of Coke’s TO’s in Europe was Mladin Zarubica, a wartime PT boat captain who was sent to Austria in 1946 to supervise the installation of a massive new bottling plant there, four city blocks long and capable of producing 24,000 cases of the beverage per day. Zarubica’s relations with the US Army were typically close – the first consignment of the sugar required by the new plant was guarded by 500 GIs to prevent it being plundered by black marketeers. He also had sufficient influence to get a huge villa in Berchtesgaden refurbished as a base for corporate entertainment. “We had waiting lists to come there,” he recalled. “Senators, potentates, you name it.”

It was Zarubica who arranged for the engineering of Zhukov’s “white Coke.” According to his account, Eisenhower had introduced Zhukov to Coke during their time together in the Occupied Zones, when Zhukov was in charge of the Russian zone and Eisenhower of the American one. Zhukov liked the drink enough to request Eisenhower’s subordinate, Mark Clark, for a supply of it, but with one proviso:

It couldn’t look anything like Coke. As the central Russian war hero, Zhukov knew he couldn’t be seen drinking an American imperialist symbol. Clark passed the request up the line to President Truman, who summoned Jim Farley [Chairman of the Board of the Coca-Cola Export Corporation], and soon word filtered back to Zarubica, who found a chemist to take out the caramel coloring. Then the Coca-Cola man had the Crown Cork and Seal Company in Brussels make a special straight, clear bottle with a white cap and a red star in the middle.

Zarubica’s first shipment of White Coke for Zhukov amounted to 50 cases of the drink. In addition to the benefit to Soviet/US relations, there was also a plum for Coke: “The regular Coke supply from [the manufacturing plant at] Lambach had to pass through the Russian zone to reach its Vienna warehouse. While other supplies often waited weeks for the Russian bureaucracy to allow them through, the Coke shipment was never stopped.”

So Zarubica’s account explains how and why Zhukov’s white Coke came to be manufactured, but unfortunately he gives us no clue as to how long it was made for. We also need to be aware that the whole incident has been filtered through the lens of the – very often self-glorifying – Coke company tradition; in fact, outside the Coke tradition, I’ve seen no evidence the incident took place. There’s good evidence in Zarubica’s book The Year of the Rat that he could be a highly unreliable narrator; the book suggests that the guide he hired to hunt chamois during a holiday in the Tyrol around this time turned out to be Martin Bormann.

But there is one interesting bit of corroborating evidence. Pendergrast’s book contains an appendix discussing the famous “secret formula” for the Coke syrup that lies at the heart of the Company’s IP and contributes substantially to its mystique. This formula, notoriously, is available only to a tiny number of Company high-ups, there are restrictions in place to prevent all those who know it travelling together on the same plane, and in 1977 the Company withdrew from India rather than share the formula with the Indian government – which had demanded sight of it as a condition for Coke continuing to trade in India.

In the course of his research, Pendergrast uncovered what he believed to be the original formula in the Coke archives – unlabelled and apparently missed by the Company archivists. When he interviewed Zarubica, and mentioned he had a Coke formula, the former TO responded:

“Oh, really? So do I. The Company gave me one when I had to take the colour out for Zhukov. Want to see it?”

I did indeed. When the photocopy of his January 4, 1947, correspondence arrived, it contained exactly the same formula that I had found in the archives – same amounts, same format, even the same misspelling of “F.E. Coco.” The only difference was that Zarubica’s formula was incomplete, leaving off the final two ingredients in 7X [the flavouring at the heart of the Company’s formula]. It appeared they hadn’t wanted to release the complete formula and had taken the precaution of altering it in this fashion… [leaving] enough for his chemist to figure out how to turn brown Coke to white.

Pendergrast pp.422-3

Of course Zarubica could still have been lying about the Zhukov incident – but, if so, for what reason would Coke have sent a mere TO a copy of its sacred formula? He had no need of it to run a manufacturing or bottling plant, since Coke always made up the syrup in the US and shipped it out to overseas partners. That was the way it ensured the secret was kept. And Zarubica never claimed to have done anything else that would have involved him in tampering with the formula to produce a variant Coke.

So since Pendergrast was not a Coke man (and Coke wasn’t happy he published the original formula in his book), I’d say it’s not a bad bit of supporting evidence.


Mark Pendergrast, For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (1993); Mladin Zarubica, The Year of the Rat (1964).

Skeletons from a 14th century plague pit excavated in Lincolnshire. The pit , uncovered beneath the remains of an excavated hospital building at the site of Thornton Abbey monastery, contained 48 skeletons — 27 of which were children

Q: Why did Poland have lower rates of Black Death than other European countries during the 1300s?

I’m in the middle of creating an essay/presentation on this topic, and I’m having trouble finding concrete, sourced info. I’ve read anecdotal information on Reddit, Quora, etc. about the leadership of King Casimir the Great and the lack of cat-killing playing a role, among other things. What I really need is some quality, sourced primary or secondary information about the topic.

A: I agree with you that this question deserves proper investigation, and a better sourced answer to what is a pretty frequently posted query. My contribution is this short critical review of sources. I need to start by stressing that I do not read Polish and that the real answer, insofar as one does exist or can exist, is almost certainly going to be found in specialist economic and demographic studies done by Polish-speaking scholars. I’d strongly encourage anyone able to supplement our knowledge with information drawn from such sources to do so.

That said, I think we can make a couple of basic points that take us further than we’ve gone so far. The first is that Poland has not always been associated with low incidences of plague deaths. Something happened at some point in the 20th century to change our ideas as to how the relative incidence of plague in Poland should be viewed, and it’s interesting and revealing to investigate what exactly that “something” was, and to what extent it was based on heavy-duty primary source research in Poland.

Philip Ziegler, author of the most widely-sold history of the Black Death: his book provided clues that solved the mystery.

My second point is that there is some reason to suppose that the association of Poland with low incidence of plague is a product not of any actual variance in the death rate, but of lack of sources or lack of research. Ziegler, in his influential popular history of the Black Death (1969), makes the point that “until quite recently it was accepted tradition that the plague scarcely penetrated to Castile, Galicia and Portugal”; but he accepts that more detailed investigation of these regions dispelled the idea. This seems important to me, especially as discussions of Poland as mysteriously almost “plague free”, and forming a dramatic contrast to the rest of Europe, are pretty much entirely an internet phenomenon; while historians of the period, and even historians of plague, concede that the region did experience the Black Death somewhat differently to the lands to the west, they do not see that history as so different that they seem to have felt compelled to launch in-depth investigations to understand why; the explanation most commonly suggested in scholarly texts is that the population density of the area in this period was too low to allow the disease to be transmitted readily. Hence it seems to me to be at the very least possible that the idea that the Polish experience of the Black Death was unique, or almost so, is actually wrong, and that the explanations you cite for the supposed lesser incidence of plague deaths in the region (no cat-killing, the leadership of Casimir the Great) are post-hoc rationalisations – attempts to find explanations that fit the supposed evidence – rather than being sourced in contemporary materials.

Danse Macabre: Ole J. Benedictow calculates the Black Death killed 50 million people across Europe between 1347 and 1351.

Finally, I have to wonder to what extent lack of contemporary source materials impacts on the difficulty of discussing what happened in Poland during the plague years. Assessing the number of deaths caused by the Black Death is a notoriously difficult thing to do, even in countries with significant quantities of extant records, with estimates for total mortality varying dramatically from author to author; even today, after decades of intensive research, one can read estimates of mortality across Europe that vary from a third up to a half up to 60 percent of total population, so it would be astonishing if there was anything like a consensus for Poland, and indeed the materials I’ve read suggest there are dramatic instances of disagreement on crucial matters such as the approximate population of Poland (and even what constituted the “borders of Poland”) in the period 1000-1500. Until such matters are resolved (if it is even possible to do so), we will never be in a position to make any statements about the demographic impact of the Black Death in Poland with any confidence.

Part I: A survey of histories of the plague in Poland, 1832-2015

OK, let’s start with a survey of what has been said about the impact of the Black Death in Poland over time.

Jan Długosz, 15th century chronicler of Poland’s history.

• Hecker, a once highly renowned German medical historian, says in his On the Black Death (1832), that the plague arrived in Poland from Germany, and cites the chronicle of Jan Długosz (better known to English speakers as Johannes Longinus Dlugloss) Annales seu cronici incliti regni Poloniae  (1515) as his authority for the statement that “in Poland the infected were attacked with spitting of blood and died in a few days in such vast numbers that… scarcely a fourth of the inhabitants were left” – that is, he thought mortality in Poland was practically 75%.

• Most other works published around the middle of the nineteenth century mention Poland only in the context of what was then seen as the most interesting and remarkable thing about the plague’s passage through eastern Europe: “it had thus made the circuit of the Black Sea, by way of Constantinople, southern and central Europe, England, the Northern Kingdoms, and Poland, before it reached Russian territories, a phenomenon which has not again occurred with respect to more recent pestilences originating in Asia.” (Buckle’s Common Place Book 556 (1872)

Monumental: Sticker’s three volume Abhandlungen aus der Seuchengeschichte und Seuchenlehre (1908-10)

• Sticker, in his monstrous Treatises on the History of Epidemics and Episcopal Doctrine (1908/10), basing himself on two contemporary chronicles, suggests that the Black Death entered Poland from Hungary and caused incredible mortality. He writes that the plague killed half the population and depopulated entire towns and villages. This estimate is in line with the contemporary figure normally given for plague deaths elsewhere in Europe.

• Similarly, the Polish Encyclopædia (1921) states that “long, for instance, did the land bear the traces of the ‘Black Death’… which swept down with unabated fury upon Poland after decimating the populations of Italy, France, England and other countries of western and central Europe.”

• This seems to have been the consensus for some time. As late as 1969, George Deaux, in his The Black Death, 1347, could write that “the Black Death attacked Hungary and Poland at the same time as it appeared in Austria and with the same results. Towns were left totally depopulated…” In this context, it is interesting to note that Deaux (a popular writer) had access to no population studies for the region more recent than Hecker’s and makes the same claims about 75% mortality in Poland.

Then we come to the mid-20th century shift, after which it is generally accepted that something unusual did happen in Poland. Thus for example…

Perry Anderson: historian of absolutism.

• Perry Anderson’s Lineages of the Absolutist State, a very broad survey first published in 1974, observes that “Poland suffered less from the late feudal crisis than any other country in Eastern Europe; the Black Death (if not ancillary plague) largely passed it by, while its neighbours were ravaged.”

• Joseph Strayer’s Dictionary of the Middle Ages (1982) says that the plague was devastating “in all of eastern Europe save Poland.”

• Norman Davies’s God’s Playground: A History of Poland (1982) states not only that

Poland escaped the scourge of the Black Death,” but also makes the extraordinary claim that “economic life was not disrupted.

• And by 1983, a Rutgers professor, Robert S. Gottfried, could confidently state that “Poland lost about a quarter of its population to the plague.”

To the extent that this “something” is defined, it’s generally placed, as I mentioned above, in the context of relative population density – Poland was too sparsely populated to allow the plague to spread as rapidly as it did elsewhere. Sometimes the relative absence of trade – and hence of both travellers and the sort of transport of goods in which infected rats might hitch rides – is also suggested. It has also been argued that the relatively slow and late enserfment of peasants in eastern Europe suggests there was no demographic catastrophe in the region in the mid-14th century.

And the change in position had certainly been well-cemented by 2000:

• Jerzy Lukowski & Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland (2005) p.30 suggest that “the Black Death left a sparsely populated Poland largely unscathed“.

• Adam Zamoyski’s popular Poland: A History (2009) goes so far as to state that “most of Poland remained unaffected. The populations of England and France, of Italy and Scandinavia, of Hungary, Switzerland, Germany and Spain were more than halved. Poland’s grew, perhaps as a consequence of conditions elsewhere.”

Mass burials during the plague years.

• But these are survey works, mostly interested in later periods of Polish history, in which rather basic research and sweeping statements may be expected. Robert Frost, in The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, provides a more nuanced discussion. He similarly suggests that the “relatively sparsely peopled lands of east central Europe did not suffer as badly as western and southern Europe from the Black Death,” but adds that “Poland was not untouched. Population growth slowed, but its upward trajectory was not reversed, and by the mid fifteenth century the disparity between the density of settlement in Poland and western Europe had ceased.”

Frost goes on to state that the stream of German migrants heading east was “abruptly halted” by the plague, and that this caused the Polish economy to collapse after 1350, in part because of shortages of specie flowing in from the west. This may well be true, but, if so, it would partially or completely mask any impact to Polish population and economic activity caused by the Black Death within the borders of the kingdom, and make it harder to study the population problem in Poland. I think this is an important point, since once we start to consider Poland as an interconnected part of the broader socio-economic history of eastern Europe, we necessarily also have to start wondering about any claims to either its “isolation” or its “uniqueness”, both of which are central to the popular view of Poland as being mysteriously unaffected by the plague.

Part II: Was there anything special about Poland?

So, what can we do to investigate the idea of “Polish exceptionalism” in the spread of the Black Death?

• To begin with, I think that the literature which is available to me suggests it is actually difficult, verging on impossible, to extrapolate any accurate demographic info for Poland in the period before, during and immediately after the Black Death. The sort of detailed, manor-by-manor, records that still survive for some parts of England, for example, and inform works such as Hatcher’s The Black Death: An Intimate History, simply don’t exist. All we have left are chroniclers’ stories (which are notoriously likely to over-estimate the amount of destruction caused, and certainly seem to have informed the 19th century estimates we’ve seen of 75% death rates in Poland), one detailed – but late – economic study, and extremely broad surveys of Poland’s demography, which attempt to extrapolate large figures from isolated bits of information and tiny samples. Thus…

• The chapters by Christopher Dyer (on rural Europe) and Alexsander Gieysztor (on the post-1370 Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) in The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol.7 help add to our understanding of all this. Specifically, Dyer takes issue with the idea that it is possible to use the enserfment of Poles as an indicator of demographic crisis in the region:

parts of north-eastern Europe – now Poland and the Baltic states – are often cited as following a course opposite to that found in the west. Weak states, an undeveloped urban sector and a powerful nobility meant that peasant conditions deteriorated, beginning in the period of ‘second serfdom,’ as tenants were restricted in their movement and forced to perform heavy labour services. In fact, the peasants of eastern Europe were being brought under serfdom for the first time (they had been encouraged to settle the new lands in the east with privileges and easy terms in earlier centuries.) Enserfment took a long time, beginning in the later years of the fifteenth century, and was not completed until well after 1500 This cannot therefore be seen as an immediate response to any fall in population.

• Gieysztor notes that the population density of Poland in 1370, after the ravages of the plague, was about 8.6 people per square km, based on a total population of about 2m, but this figure is challenged by Frost, who notes it includes “Mazovia, whose princes recognized Casimir’s overlordship, but not that of the Polish kingdom, or of Louis of Anjou.” A second estimate by Kuklo (Demografia Rzecypospolitej przedrohiorowej, 2009, cited by Frost) excludes Silesia but includes Prussia and Mazovia, and suggests an estimated population of 1.25m in 1000 (with a density of 5 per rising to 2m in 1370 (8 per and 3.4m in 1500 (13 per

Norwegian plague historian Ole J. Benedictow.

• I have found only one detailed study which appears to show the impact of the plague on Poland. Two economic historians, Pelc (a Pole, writing in the 1930s) and Abel (a German, writing in the 30s and again in the 50s, and reorganising Pelc’s apparently opaque series of data), organised wage and price data from Krakow for the period beginning in 1369. This is a little late to be ideal, but Abel’s broad conclusion was that the Polish data matched equivalent figures from France and England for the same period; that is, there was a major fall in grain prices, and a major rise in wages, both of which are best explained by a significant decline in population. Benedictow observes that while these figures only relate to one Polish town, they must imply that there was a shortage of labour across at least much of Poland, otherwise the availability of higher wages would have encouraged immigration to Krakow.

These patterns therefore suggest the impact of the plague on Poland was similar to that in western Europe – that is, very significant.

A nation of cat lovers?

• We can also attempt to trace the idea that Poland’s escape from contagion was a product of special factors – the ideas, frequently encountered online that Casimir the Great “wisely quarantined the borders” or that Polish love of cats was a determining factor. The earliest reference to the former I can find appears in Christine Zuchora-Walske’s Poland (2013), and though I would certainly love to have a contemporary source, I have to point out that even if something of the sort actually was ordered, that’s not proof that an order was effectively implemented, or had a measurable impact.

As for cats – the idea that they helped retard the spread of plague can be traced back online at least to 2010 (though not in the context of Poland), but not to any academic study I have found. I have not seen any evidence that suggests either that cats were commonly massacred in most of Europe in this period because they were associated with the devil, as Hollee Abbee argues, or indeed that the Poles were less likely to kill cats than people of any other group. And it seems well established that cats can act as carriers of both bubonic and pneumonic plague in any case, so the idea that Polish cats were efficiently disposing of diseased rats, without picking up fleas and contracting plague themselves, seems highly dubious (see Kauffman et al; Doll et al, Weiniger et al, all in the sources at the foot of this post).

[We’re actually passing another historical rabbit hole here, one I just don’t have the time right now to explore in any depth. But briefly: it’s possible to trace the idea that there was an extensive slaughter of cats in Europe the period before the Black Death to various discussions of a Papal decretal known as Vox in Rama, issued by Gregory IX in c.1233. Thus Wikipedia features an entry for this document suggesting it was issued to condemn a sect of German heretics uncovered in Mainz who “worshiped devils in the forms of a demonic man and of a diabolical black cat”. The same entry goes on to claim that

Some historians have claimed that Vox in Rama is the first official church document that condemns the black cat as an incarnation of Satan. In the bull the cat is addressed as “master” and the incarnate devil is half-man half-feline in nature. Engels claims that Vox in Rama was “a death warrant for the animal, which would be continued to be slaughtered without mercy until the early 19th century.” It is said that very few all-black cats survive in western Europe as a result.

The sources given for these statements are Donald Engels’s book Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat(1999) and Malcolm Lambert’s The Cathars (1998). I have not found any sources dating to earlier than 1995 that make this claim, or any more solidly scholarly resources, of any date, that suggest the decretal resulted in any persecution of cats whatsoever, but there are plenty of internet resources out there making precisely this claim in extravagant fashion, for example “That One Time the Pope Banned Cats and It Caused the Black Plague”. Kors and Peters stress that Vox in Rama was not a bull (as it is often stated to be), and never entered canon law. The decretal also suggests devils take the form of frogs and toads, so any focused persecution of cats would seem odd. And anyway, even Engels suggests only black cats were killed, presumably leaving Europe’s population of other-coloured cats untouched.

Gregory IX (r.1227-41)L did he really set in motion a centuries-long massacre of Europe’s cats?

So what we seem to be seeing here is another process of post-hoc rationalisation, where the line of argument – flawed throughout – goes something like this:

  1. Gregory IX’s decretal suggested that cats were the tools of the devil.
  2. This prompted a great cat massacre, lasting for centuries, which killed most of the cats of Europe.
  3. Without cats, the rats that carried the Black Death were able to flourish, significantly increasing the impact and spread of disease.
  4. Poland escaped the ravages of the plague.
  5. Therefore the Poles cannot have massacred their cats.

… but the argument itself is obscured by the fact that the articles, essays and blog posts that result from it start with the definite – but unsourced and unproven – statement that the Poles had always had a special relationship with their cats, one so unique and so strong that it allowed them, and only them, to ignore the Papal “orders” contained in Vox in Rama.]

Norman F. Cantor, Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature at New York University.

• Finally, it’s worth adding that other explanations have also been hazarded, again apparently only very recently. For example Norman Cantor’s In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made observes that “the absence of plague in … Poland is commonly explained by the rats’ avoidance of these areas due to the unavailability of food the rodents found palatable.” This seems an extraordinary idea, and it took only a minute’s searching to uncover (for instance in Lardner) Polish chroniclers’ tales featuring “countess multitudes of rats, of an enormous size,” which seems to argue pretty strongly against the idea that such vermin were scarce in the area.

Part III: The smoking gun

So, with all that said, let’s look at the reason for the seismic shift in attitudes to the impact of the plague in Poland, which, as we’ve seen, takes place (at least in the English language sources) in about 1969-74. I think it is possible to identify exactly where the idea that Poland was somehow less badly affected by the Black Death comes from. The clue comes from Philip Ziegler’s best-selling and influential popular history, The Black Death – published in 1969, remember – which states (p.118):

Dr Carpentier has prepared a map of Europe at the time of the Black Death showing the movements and incidence of the plague. Virtually nowhere was left inviolate. Certain areas escaped lightly: Bohemia; large areas of Poland; a mysterious pocket between France, Germany and the Low Countries; tracts of the Pyrenees.

It seems to be Élisabeth Carpentier’s map, then – first published in the French journal Annales in 1962, but given a substantial push in its cross-over into English by Ziegler – which helped to introduce the idea that Poland escaped much of of the impact of the Black Death. Now, admittedly, if this information is merely written down, it’s hard to understand how Carpentier’s work makes it possible for us to privilege Poland’s exceptionalism. After all, she and Ziegler go on to list other areas of Europe that also appear to have almost escaped its ravages. (In this context, it’s well worth adding, at this point, that the legend Carpentier adds below the map specifically draws attention to the apparent escape of Milan from the worst effects of the plague. That has also become an item of popular belief, and is very frequently the subject of questions posted online.)

Elisabeth Carpentier’s provisional – but unanticipatedly-influential – 1962 Annales map showed the spread of the Black Death, with areas of lesser impact (“totally or partially spared”) – shaded

We need to look at the map itself [above] to understand how it could have had such a dramatic impact. It illustrates the regions lightly touched by the Plague using shading – and simple geography dictates that the area left “untouched” in Poland is well over ten times the size of the next largest bit of shading, covering Béarn, in the northern reaches of the Pyrenees. Don’t believe me? How about this version of the same map, coloured this time, but taken originally from Angus Mackay’s Atlas of Medieval Europe? Or the spectacular gif offered by Wikipedia to show the spread of the outbreak? Looking at these, it would be hard not to conclude that something amazing happened in Poland in 1347-60, something requiring some remarkable explanation.

I think a glance at Carpentier’s map, by itself, is sufficient to let us see how the idea that Poland was somehow veryspecial came about – and when we couple that with mention of the effect (and publication of the map) in Ziegler’s book, which was and is by far the best-selling popular study of the Black Death in English, we can make a pretty educated guess as to how it wormed its way into our collective consciousness, and from there crossed over onto the internet. It must have helped that, as early as 1964, the same map was also republished in Scientific American.

The oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) is generally supposed to have been the initial carrier of the Black Death.

While it was crossing over into the Anglophone world, however, the map was also attracting some criticism, by far the most interesting example of which is an article by David Mengel of Xavier University which appeared in Past & Present(pretty much as prestigious a history journal as there is, it seems hardly necessary to add) in 2011. Mengel’s focus is on the widely-accepted escape of the Kingdom Bohemia (a region very roughly equivalent to the modern Czech Republic) from the worst ravages of the plague, but what he says applies equally to the very similar situation with regard to Poland. His paper acknowledges the “influential role of popular history in shaping the questions and assumptions of scholars” and also discusses “the power of cartography to convey historical arguments.” He calls the influence of Carpentier’s map “astounding”.

Mengel’s criticisms are backed by those of a Czech historian, Frantisek Graus, who was the author of several highly detailed studies of Bohemia, which drew on sources – chronicles, sermons and letters – that had never previously been used in plague studies. Graus’s work showed that there was far less uniformity in the impact of the plague in Bohemia than Carpentier’s – very broad brush – map implied. More importantly, it concluded that while Bohemia had probably not suffered exceptionally severely from the initial outbreak of plague in 1349-50, the disease had returned in catastrophic style in 1380, visiting an exceptionally severe outbreak of plague on Prague and other major cities in the kingdom. In other words, Bohemia was not in some way uniquely resistant to the plague. It got (relatively) lucky once, but overall suffered at least as badly from the Black Death as did most other parts of Europe. In fact, Graus’s work is largely a call for the Black Death to be placed in a much broader context, as part of a wider pattern of epidemics. This, he stresses, is certainly how contemporaries saw it, though we can also read his work as a plea for the social crisis of the fourteenth century to be viewed in classical Marxist terms, and not as the product of the chance intervention of mere pathogens. For Graus, it was Bohemia’s proximity to (and not, as Ziegler mistakenly argued, distance from) Europe’s major trade routes that explained the impact of the epidemic in 1349-50 and 1380.

Skeletons excavated during building work beneath the ticket hall at Liverpool Street underground station in London are rare examples of confirmed victims of the plague – this time from the famous outbreak of 1665.

There are plenty examples of the sort of problems caused by basic acceptance of the idea that various areas of Europe “escaped” the plague – it’s invidious to pick out examples, really, but this is an important issue, so see for instance the Rutgers undergraduate paper referenced in the notes. It’s an example of what happens when you assume something to be true and then try grimly to explain it, without challenging yourself further on your initial assumption.

There’s only one thing left to do at this point, and that’s to ask exactly what encouraged Carpentier to conclude that Poland experienced the Black Death differently to practically every other part of Europe. After all, however inadvertently, her paper, and her map, have caused a thousand lazy writers on the net – and some first-rate historians, as well – to think of Poland as some sort of shining beacon in the grim history of mid-fourteenth century Europe. What on earth prompted her to identify the kingdom as an area “partiellement ou totalement épargnées par la peste” – partially or totally spared by the plague? What evidence did she cite, and how much detail did she go into? Could it be we’re overlooking some crucial bit of evidence that she dug up half a century ago?

Well, the answer to that final question is a resounding “no”. Carpentier’s paper mentions Poland only once, and pretty much in passing. She asserts that the country was “only affected – weakly – in its northern part”, and urges further study, noting in passing that the one Polish chronicle account familiar to her deals solely with Torun, a small town on the Vistula, and is in any case quite useless, being copied word for word from a French source. The problem requires further study, she suggests. Worse still, her brief passage is not footnoted or sourced, making it impossible to tell – without engaging in a major act of historiographical archaeology – how she was able to conclude that only northern Poland was visited by the Black Death. The citations for the rest of the article are all to secondary sources, though – this is a survey article, not a paper based on any primary source research.

All in all, it’s staggering that this short, casually-composed passage – and the map that she drew based on it – has had so massive an impact on plague studies. And it is, to put it as politely as I can, more than a little bit unfortunate that it unleashed a myth that’s only getting ever more entrenched with every general survey of Polish history that’s published, and every bit of internet clickbait written about the Black Death.


This has necessarily been a long post, so a tl;dr seems sensible. I conclude:

• There is currently no detailed, accurate demographic data for Poland in the period up to and after the Black Death that would allow us to extrapolate the number of deaths caused by the plague in this region, even very approximately, with confidence. Data for prices and wages from one major Polish city suggest an impact similar to that experienced in western Europe.

• Poland was not sufficiently isolated from the rest of Europe for isolation to explain its apparent “escape” from plague. And it seems to be the case that it experienced a significant number of deaths, though – perhaps as a consequence of population densities – possibly fewer, in proportion, than more populous states did.

• However, the difficulty of assessing the impact of the Black Death in the kingdom is increased by its integration into the eastern European trading economy of the 14th century. The flow of people and cash eastwards from Germany was sufficiently significant to obscure and confuse any attempt to measure the impact of the plague in Poland, both economically and demographically.

• English-language studies draw on only a couple of contemporary chronicle accounts from the region, not enough to base any proper sort of study on – and these suggest that the impact of the Black Death in Poland was, if anything, at least as catastrophic as it was elsewhere in Europe. More detailed local records may be largely or wholly lacking; if they exist, they have not been the subject of studies that have had an impact in the English-speaking world.

• Nonetheless, no peer-reviewed books and papers written by academic historians, at least in western European languages, suppose there was anything extraordinary about the passage of the plague through Poland.

More modern studies generally suppose that the country escaped relatively lightly in 1347-51, though they acknowledge that it was not unaffected by the plague, nor was it necessarily invulnerable to later outbreaks of epidemic. Since I have not yet come across any such work that cites more detailed surveys of the impact of the Black Death in the region, it may well be that even the writers of these studies are basing their ideas about Poland an the plague on Carpentier and her work.

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s current map of the spread of the Black Death still follow’s Carpentier’s. Click to view in larger resolution.

• Mention of the actions of Casimir the Great in blocking the borders of Poland, or of the idea that the reluctance of Poles to kill cats helped to retard the spread of disease there, exist only in popular books and on the internet; such suggestions only began to appear after 1995. They do appear not to have been made by specialists in Polish history, nor does there seem to be any evidence at all that they are true. It seems more likely they are post-hoc rationalisations, brainwaves dreamed up to explain Poland’s supposed escape from the ravages of the Black Death.

• The idea that areas of Europe (including Poland and Milan) “escaped” or almost escaped the impact of the epidemic can be traced to incautious reading and recopying of a map showing preliminary conclusions only regarding the spread of the disease first published by Carpentier in 1962, and widely republished in English-language popular works from 1969.


[General note: there is a large void in studies of medieval Poland. The literature is relatively abundant up to c.1250 and after the Union of Krewo in 1385, but I have struggled to find a single volume written in the past 50 years, in any language, devoted to the history of Poland after 1250 and before its union with Lithuania, much less a study of the impact of the Black Death there. Benedictow – who devotes a chapter to the question of “Did Some Countries or Regions Escape?” – acknowledges that the dearth of studies of Poland makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the impact of the epidemic there.]

Hollee Abbee, “Cats and the Black Plague,” Owlcation 4 February 2010, accessed 29 October 2017; Wilhelm Abel, Agrarkrisen und Agrarkonjunktur: Eine Geschichte der Land- und Ernährungswirtschaft Mitteleuropas seit dem hohen Mittelalter (1966); Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974); Ole J Benedictow, The Black Death, 1346–1353: The Complete History (2004); Henry Buckle, Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works (1872); Norman Cantor, The Black Death and the World It Made (2001); Élisabeth Carpentier, “Autour de la Peste Noire: Famines et épidémies dans la histoire du XIVe siècle,” Annales, XVII (1962); Alice Creviston, “Economic, social and geographical explanations of how Poland avoided the Black Death,” Rutgers undergraduate paper 2015; Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland (1982); George Deaux, The Black Death, 1347 (1969); JM Doll et al, “Cat transmitted fatal pneumonic plague in a person who travelled from Colorado to Arizona.” American Journal of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene 51 (1994); Christopher Dyer, ‘Rural Europe.’ In The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 7, c.1415-c.1500 (1998); Robert Frost, The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania I: The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, 1385-1569 (2015); Alexsander Gieysztor, ‘The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 1370-1506.’ In The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 7, c.1415-c.1500 (1998); Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (1983); Frantisek Graus, “Autour de la peste noire au XIVe siècle en Bohème,” Annales ESC (1963); J. F. C. Hecker, Der Schwarze Tod im Vierzehnten Jahrhundert (1832); Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Diseases from Space (1979); AF Kaufmann et al, “Public health implications of plague in domestic cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 179 (1981); Alan Kors and Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History (2001); Dionysius Lardner, The Cabinet Cyclopædia… History, Poland (1831); Jerzy Lukowski & Hubert Zawadzki, A Concise History of Poland (2005); David C. Mengel, “A plague on Bohemia?” Past & Present (2011); Julian Pelc, Ceny w Krakowie w latach 1369-1600 (1935); National Polish Committee of America, The Polish Encyclopædia (1921); Georg Sticker, Abhandlungen aus der Seuchengeschichte und Seuchenlehre I: Die Pest (1908-10); Joseph Strayer, Dictionary of the Middle Ages (1982); Helen Taylor [ed.], The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle (1872); Bruce Weiniger et al, “Human bubonic plague transmitted by a domestic cat scratch,” Journal of the American Medical Association 1984; Adam Zamoyski, Poland: A History (2009); Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (1969)

UPDATE [December 2017]

When I first wrote on the Black Death in Poland [October 2017], I pointed out that it was hard to trace the assertions made in Élisabeth Carpentier’s influential paper to their source(s), since the brief passage she devotes to Poland “is not footnoted or sourced, making it impossible to tell – without engaging in a major act of historiographical archaeology – how she was able to conclude that only northern Poland was visited by the Black Death.”

Given the positive reception of this post, and the significance of the problem itself, I’ve found myself unable to leave it at that. Instead, I devoted some additional time over the Christmas holiday to attempting to understand the question in more depth. I now think that I’ve identified the source that Carpentier used, and I’ve also got hold of a copy of Knoll’s book on Piast Poland from 1320-1370. As a result of these investigations, I can add the following comments to my preliminary conclusions:

[1] The source that Carpentier used for Poland in her Annales paper appears to be f’s Der Schwarze Tod in Deutschland: Ein Beitrag sur Geschichte des Vierzehnten Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 1882), or perhaps some other later work based on it. Carpentier does not list Hoeniger’s book in her footnotes, but it is by far the best researched earlier account of the plague in Germany and Eastern Europe; its discussion of the evidence of contemporary chronicles matches hers; and the book is frequently referenced in other older academic histories of the Black Death.

Hoeniger discusses Poland twice (pp.10-11 and 31-38) and argues that the plague did not visit East Franconia, Bohemia, Silesia and Poland in 1348, though he concedes there was a significant outbreak of the disease in eastern Europe in 1360. The evidences he advances is based not on accounts from Poland in the period 1347-51, however, but on the lack of such accounts. To go through the points made in Der Schwarze Tod one by one, Hoeniger argues:

• That an account by the Italian chronicler Matteo Villani (1283-1363), which notes that plague “raged in the part of Poland which bordered on the German reich” and that this epidemic coincided with an immigration of persecuted Jews into Poland, should be dated to 1360 and not to 1348, as has sometimes been supposed.

• That the itinerary of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV shows he stayed in the eastern parts of his dominions between 1349 and 1351, suggesting these provinces were a refuge from the ravages of the Black Death further to the west.

Medieval Breslau (Wroclaw), from the Liber Chronicarum, or Nuremberg Chronicle, of 1493.

• That the archives of Breslau (now Wroclaw), in Silesia – which had been Polish until 1335 but was in 1348 on the Bohemian side of the Polish-Bohemian border – fail to reveal “any trace of the the ravages of an epidemic.” These archives included correspondence from Charles IV “in which every important event is scrupulously recorded,” but which make no mention of plague, and city accounts that “show no fluctuation that would suggest the impact of the plague on local economic activity until 1358.” I now believe that this passage is the ultimate source for Norman Davies’s suggestion (noted above) that Poland’s “economic life was not disrupted”, even though it actually describes the position in a town that was not then part of Poland.

• That notes in two other contemporary chronicles which have been interpreted as evidence for the appearance of the Black Death in the region in the 1340s are “so vague that they cannot be dated with any certainty.”

• That Stenzel [who was secretary to the Historical and Geographical Section of the Silesian Patriotic Society during the 1830s and who edited Scriptores rerum Silesiacarum, a set of four Polish and Silesian chronicles, for the society] finds no mention of plague in Silesia in the 1340s, “an argumentum ex silentio… which I gladly use for my argument.”

• That evidence for an epidemic of the Black Death that killed a third of the population of Poland given in Długosz’s Historia Poloniae (a significantly later work, as we have seen above) “is certainly of dubious value.” Hoeniger argues that Długosz had no evidence of any visitation of plague, and merely assumed, from his knowledge of the epidemic in southern Europe, that it proved equally virulent to the east. Hoeniger concludes that “the Polish historian has found a gaping gulf in his native tradition, and has arbitrarily supplemented it with foreign reports from other countries.” [Carpentier concurs with this assessment.]

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1316-78), whose itinerary during the years of the Black Death gives some clue to its impact on eastern Europe.

• That two charters of Charles IV (1350 and 1352), dealing with commerce between the towns of Bohemia and Poland and ordering the expulsion of Polish merchants from imperial towns, “would have been superfluous in the event of the rule of the plague in the area”. In other words, Hoeniger is suggesting that the Black Death was so severe that it caused the almost total cessation of ordinary economic activity in Europe in the 1340s and early 1350s.

Hoeniger’s suggestion that the plague essentially spared Bohemia and Poland in 1347-51 is thus based on a fairly impressive array of documentation – chronicles, charter evidence, and royal correspondence – but one that is, collectively, identifiably nineteenth century in character. By this I mean that the author makes no real use of economic evidence; nor does he commit to the sort of painstaking, comparative, line-by-line examination of manorial records and ecclesiastical appointments that underpin much modern research aimed at establishing the demographic impact of the Black Death, and makes broad assumptions – not least the idea that the Black Death caused an almost complete halt in trade and commerce – that modern histories of the period do not support. So, while we can agree with Hoeniger’s criticism of the way in which Villani’s passage has been interpreted, and concede that his arguments concerning the charters of Charles IV deserve consideration, this does not mean that his history is the last word on the impact of the plague in Poland, much less that it is not in need of significant revision in the light of later findings.

Two points are well worth making here. One is that, as the old saw has it, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The sources Hoeniger quotes may well suggest that the initial outbreak of the Black Death was probably neither as severe nor as widespread in its passage through Poland as it was in France or Italy or England – but it’s scarcely possible to say, at this remove, that the plague did not visit Poland at all during this period. We would do well to remember that the almost complete absence of detailed contemporary records from Eastern Europe, certainly relative to those available for the major nations of the west, may conceal all manner of horrors.

In this respect, secondly, let’s also remember that Hoeniger’s verdict that the Black Death had minimal impact on Poland also extended to the visitation of the disease over the border in Bohemia – a judgement that Graus’s paper “Autour de la peste noire au XIVe siècle en Bohème” and Mengel’s “A Plague on Bohemia?” go a long way to undermine.

All of this suggests to me that detailed investigation of surviving evidence, using the latest historical techniques, would probably reveal that plague did make significant inroads into Poland in the 1340s. Certainly there seems to be no obvious reason to suppose that the situation in Casimir’s territories was significantly different to that in Charles IV’s Bohemia; the two territories were neighbours, trading partners and, quite frequently, enemies throughout this period. As such, the uncovering of Hoeniger as Carpentier’s ur source for the history of the plague in Poland does almost nothing to revise the verdicts I offered when I first tackled the subject two months ago.

[2] It’s also well worth noting that Hoeniger’s book also appears be the source of the suggestion that Casimir instituted a quarantine of Poland while the Black Death raged, a modern interpretation that I was not able to track down to its source when I first wrote. (I now note that the idea that a strict quarantine saved Poland was also accepted by Barbara Tuchman in her widely read pop history A Distant Mirror – also without formal attribution to a source, though she had definitely read Hecker. Given the considerable popularity of Tuchman’s work, this may well be how the quarantine story originally crossed over onto the net.)

If that is the case, however, Hoeniger’s conclusions seem questionable. Translated, the relevant passage in Der Schwarze Tod reads as follows [pp.37-8].

A certificate dated 30 March 1349, (Monum medii aevi res gestas Poloniae, III, p. 270), in which the King of the Poles abolishes [aufhebt] the customs barriers [Verkehrssperre] at Zmigrod [in Lower Silesia] with Hungary for his merchants and travellers, shows our extremely uncertain knowledge of the situation. We see from this that border barriers [Grenzsperre] were set up not only to the west, but also in the south of Poland. I thus suggest a similar interruption of traffic with the Baltic Sea areas; it is otherwise inexplicable that the infection was not brought to the open plains of Danzig [Gdansk], where there were numerous trade links with Poland. Only an energetic quarantine could afford the same protection as natural barriers for the remaining unpolluted areas, for they were not arbitrarily divided from their infected neighbours.

And Hoeniger adds, in a footnote:

The fact that ten years later, at a time when the plague was reappearing and threatening Austria, Hungary and Poland, these severe measures were imitated in Vienna clearly identifies its character as a quarantining measure. [“sanitätspolizeiliche Massnahme“, literally “sanitary police measure”].

It’s worth tracing Hoeniger’s thinking here. He starts from the position that a customs barrier was known to exist between Germany territories and Poland, then assumes that a decree abolishing a similar barrier at one town on the border with Hungary indicates the existence of customs points across the whole of the southern Polish border. From there, he uses the assumption (which, as we have seen, is essentially unevidenced) that the plague did not appear in the central plains south of Gdansk to suggest there must also have been effective customs barriers in place along the northern borders of the kingdom. Evidence that this “quarantine” was not only complete but also “energetic” likewise comes not from any specific evidence, but from the assumption that its effectiveness is proven by the apparent inability of the plague to penetrate Polish territory.

Downtown Zmigrod.

It seems clear, therefore, that there is practically no evidence that there were even customs barriers around the Polish kingdom in the late 1340s, and none whatsoever – other than “absence of evidence” – that such barriers were effective in imposing an actual “quarantine” on Casimir’s territories. In addition, the only evidence that Hoeniger cites to show that such barriers existed anywhere other than to the west is an edict abolishing a customs post at Zmigrod in March 1349, at a time when the Black Death was advancing rapidly across other areas of Europe. Hoeniger does not comment on this, but it seems utterly impossible to square his faith in the effectiveness of the Polish customs “quarantine” with the idea that Casimir would abolish a key border post at the very point when it would be most needed to protect the country.

I conclude that the idea that Casimir the Great saved his kingdom by instituting a strict “border quarantine” around Poland in the 1340s stems from a single edict actually abolishing one customs post on the border with Hungary beforethe Black Death appeared in the region, and hence that whatever steps the Polish king was taking in reordering his customs posts in the spring of 1349, they likely had nothing to do with any attempt to keep the Black Death out of Poland.

[3] As an addendum, I can also report that Knoll’s The Rise of the Polish Monarchy, while covering precisely the right period, is disappointingly completely devoid of any coverage of Polish demographic or economic history and also makes no mention at all of the country’s medical history.

[4] In my opinion, a fair summary of the state of play with regard to our understanding of the visitation of the Black Death in Poland in the period 1347-51 would be that

[a] There is insufficient evidence to be certain as to how badly the country was affected by the plague during these years. There is certainly no evidence that Poland was as badly affected by the epidemic as were the nations of western Europe, and some suggestion (mainly in the form of negative evidence from the archives of Breslau) that some parts of Polish and former Polish territory were less severely hit.

[b] Nonetheless, there is also no reason to suppose that the kingdom was entirely spared during the first wave of plague. The severe impact of the Black Death immediately to the west and east of Polish territory during these years is a matter of record, and while we simply lack evidence to assess the situation to the north and south, there is every reason to suppose that the disease would have been able to cross Poland’s borders, and almost none – given its incredible virulence and rapid spread during its first sweep across Europe – that it would not have done so.

[c] Evidence from elsewhere in Europe – and from modern studies of Poland itself – suggests that Hoeniger overstates his case in arguing for Polish exceptionalism, especially in imagining that the Black Death would have caused an almost complete cessation of trade in the region, and that surviving records of Polish trade in the late 1340s and early 1350s suggest that the country was spared the plague. Certainly it would be dangerous, without significant additional research, to argue that Poland escaped because it was less heavily populated than western Europe or because less trade flowed through the country.

[d] Contemporary historians of Poland tend to assume the apparently relatively limited impact of the Black Death there in the period 1347-51 was a product of low population density. This could be true. Nonetheless, I believe this verdict is a product of post-hoc rationalisation, and should be challenged for three reasons.

First, we don’t have proper studies of the population of Poland before, during or after the ravages of the Black Death. This means that any suggestion that Poland was “sparsely populated” in the middle of the 14th century is little better than a product of assumptions and guesswork; moreover, the kingdom was not entirely rural and certainly did possess several quite substantial towns and active trade routes, so talk of “low population density” needs to be qualified in any case.

Second, there is conflicting evidence from elsewhere in Europe regarding the impact of population density on the spread of the epidemic. Benedictow accepts that the lack of any evidence that the Black Death struck Finland in these years probably does suggest that population density was a factor there. But the plague nonetheless did have a major impact on other sparsely-populated areas of Europe, such as Norway and Sweden. This means that we certainly can’t say with any confidence that Poland was more sparsely populated than other mainly rural territories that clearly were devastated by the epidemic, and hence it would be unsafe to conclude that relative population density is a sure indicator of the likelihood that the epidemic would devastate a given area.

Third, evidence from Breslau/Wroclaw shows that population density cannot be the sole determining factor controlling whether or not the Black Death struck a region. Other factors, such as local conditions, and simply luck, along the routes along which the disease was transmitted, must have also been very significant.

[e] Much of the evidence for all this that does exist has been discussed only in older works, which lack the methodological and historiographical sophistication of more recent studies. This evidence is largely drawn from chronicles and contemporary correspondence; there is a real need for it to be reassessed and expanded on by scholars trained in demography and comfortable with handling medieval sources written in Latin and German, and secondary studies written in Polish and German.

[f] Whatever we make of the situation in 1347-51, Poland was not in some way “immune” to the plague; the country indisputably suffered a significant epidemic in 1360, during the second visitation of the Black Death in Europe, and there is reason to suggest that, overall, it suffered about as badly from plague as most other areas in Europe during the 14th century. This, in itself, is sufficient to render much of the special pleading that appears in non-scholarly sources in an attempt to explain supposed “Polish exceptionalism” pointless and misleading.

[g] Finally, there is no evidence whatsoever that the reasons commonly given online for the inability of the plague to penetrate Polish territory – the quarantining efforts of Casimir the Great and the existence of larger numbers of cats in Poland than elsewhere – have any basis in truth.


Robert Hoeniger, Der Schwarze Tod in Deutschland: Ein Beitrag sur Geschichte des Vierzehnten Jahrhunderts (1882)

Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

Paul W. Knoll, The Rise of the Polish Monarchy: Piast Poland in East Central Europe, 1320-1370 (1972)

 Q: What is the truth about “getting shanghaied”?

Getting shangaied – a popular view.

A: There’s no doubt that San Francisco earned its reputation as a place where unwary or unlucky sailors risked being pressed into service on board ships departing for long voyages across the Pacific. Forced labour of this sort was relatively commonplace in the years roughly from the 1840s until about 1915; certainly there must have been many thousands of cases in this period, and an entire group of procurers, known as “crimps,” sprang up on the Barbary Coast to supply this need.

There were a couple of reasons why shanghaiing was a relatively common practice and why it was specifically associated with San Francisco. Merchant seamen were itinerants in this period. Rather than serving as part of one ship’s crew for relatively lengthy periods that covered several different voyages and deployments, as was the case in the navy, they signed up for only single voyages and had the option of leaving a ship at the end of that voyage if they were not happy with the master, the conditions, the pay, or indeed the next planned port of call. They might also choose to leave a ship out of the necessity of requiring paid employment, since they were paid only while they were actually at sea; a ship that stayed in port for a few weeks or months, awaiting her next cargo, was costing these men money. Thus, while a competent ships’ captain would do everything in his power to retain a core of trusted, skilled men around him, he would also typically lose some members of his crew, and hence need to recruit ordinary seamen every time he was in port. In the 19th century, these men were supplied via a largely informal system focused on boarding houses along the waterfront. Sailors looking for work could find it by applying to the well-connected men and women who ran the major seamen’s flophouses; masters looking to top up their crews passed out their requirements lists to the boarding house keepers known to supply men, who not infrequently had a reputation for providing these bodies by less than above-board means. A bad master, or a poor or unsafe ship, would always struggle to attract sufficient men, and it was in cases such as these that the crimps turned to illegal methods of forcing unwilling recruits on board.

San Francisco in the gold rush era, at a time when sailors would regularly jump ship to join the thousands heading for the goldfields.

The problem was particularly associated with San Francisco both because it was the main US Pacific port, and so a starting point for many very long trans-oceanic voyages of the sort no man would want to undertake on a “hell-ship,” and because at the very start of the period, in 1849, the California gold rush created such an hysteria that it was common for seamen to desert their ships in large numbers in order to join the rush to the goldfields, creating a major manning problem for the ships arriving at the port that could only be solved by kidnapping unwilling crewmen from the bars and flophouses along what became known, for its lawlessness, as the “Barbary Coast.”

‘The Shanghai Chicken.’ John Devine was one of the most infamous crimps ever to operate out of San Francisco (at least according to the not-always-reliable Herbert Asbury.)

Getting the hapless men who became victims of “shanghaiing” (a phrase that dates to 1872) onto ships was one of the riskiest parts of the job, and a considerable folklore has sprung up around it. This lore incorporates not only trick chairs positioned over trap doors (an idea that can be traced back at least as far as the legend of Sweeney Todd, the “demon barber of Fleet Street”, which in turn has its origins in the Paris of the early 17th century), but also secret tunnels running down to the shore. And certainly rendering these men insensible, through drink or drugs, was a technique occasionally used by crimps such as the infamous ‘Scar-Face’ Johnson, Michael Connor – a terror of the 1880s – Paddy West and ‘The Shanghai Chicken,’ John Devine, the last of whom went to the gallows for murder in 1873.

Hiram P. Bailey – who quite literally wrote the book (albeit a semi-fictional one) on being shanghaied out of ‘Frisco in the ’90s, spoke of being slipped mickey finns in a seafront bar and waking up on board a hell-ship that he calls the *Washington*, notorious for her vicious master, which was “putting to sea with two clergymen, three bar-tenders, four agricultural labourers – all shanghaied – among a more or less nautical crew of thirty men.” Davidson describes the “standard concoction” served by crimps to men they planned to shanghai as a mix of “whiskey, brandy, gin, and opium,” capable of knocking a man out for days; this was the “Miss Piggott Special,” so named after a Barbary Coast landlady rumoured to serve the drink to unwary custmers. A notice in the *California Police Gazette,* similarly, warned of “strychnine whiskey,” served in San Francisco in South of Market bars, which had an almost identical effect.

Shanghaiing occurred worldwide, of course – not just in San Francisco. A typical case from Rio de Janeiro involved a Swedish sailor, Gustav Johnson, who had gone ashore from his ship to purchase medicine:

As he was leaving the chandler’s shop he was set upon by four negroes, directed by a short, thick-set white man. They “knocked him down and bound him, carried him to a wharf, threw him into a small boat [and] rowed him” back to their barque, the Canvas-Down. On the Filipino island of Cebu, Johnson tried to go ashore, but his captain prevented him from doing so. He protested. The captain took him to the British consulate and had him locked up until departure, then audaciously deducted this cost from Johnson’s pay. The Swede secured his release in New York and used that city’s courts to successfully sue the captain for $150 in damages.

Aerial view of the Chicago River district in 1898. Click to view in higher resolution.

We get some clues here as to the interconnectedness of the elements of the shanghai trade, which required collaboration between masters, crimps, and often the authorities. An especially blatant example of the latter comes from the Great Lakes, where in the 1880s much of the Chicago trade was in the hands of a shipping agent called “Big Jack” McQuade, whose position was immeasurably strengthened by his connections to the city’s infamously corrupt municipal government:

>A few days before Christmas 1888… when the 1,000 ton schooner C.C. Barnes broke free of her icy imprisonment in the Chicago River with the help of a tug, she needed extra hands before getting underway to Buffalo with a cargo of 38,000 bushels of grain. McQuade headed to the Sans Souci Bar and told its owner, Olaf the Swede, to give him six men. Olaf protested that he could not find mariners right before Christmas. McQuade threatened to arrange for the rescinding of the saloon’s license. That night, Olaf rolled up with a wagon carrying six unconscious men.

This said, there is absolutely no credible evidence for the use of trapdoors to secure victims, either in San Francisco or anywhere else; ditto for secret tunnels, in San Francisco at least (there is some evidence they were used in Portland). Bill Pickelhaupt, author of one of the key studies of crimping and shanghaiing, studied oral and written accounts for years without coming upon a verifiable case, and there are a couple of good reasons why this should be so: first, the practice would have risked injury to a man who needed to be able-bodied to be of much use to his new employer, and, second, the law required sailors to sign ship’s articles, something there was no guarantee a man who had been kidnapped or forced aboard would do. It was far easier to target men who, while they might not want to undertake the voyage, grudgingly accepted they had little alternative but to do so.

Boarding houses in San Francisco’s Steuart Street, c.1912

Mark Strecker comments that while crimps

>used drink, drugs, coercion, and trickery to shanghai men, most preferred to employ financial blackmail. It worked like this: seamen chronically lacked money, so a crimp extended them far more credit than they could possibly repay. The crimp then offered those indebted to him the choices of debtors’ prison – something many American states and territories had – or taking a berth on a ship of the crimp’s choosing. Most did the latter. The crimp took what they owed him from their advance… The loss of this portion of earnings caused the affected to have short wages at the voyage’s end. To make up the difference, they had to get credit from another boardinghouse master, starting the process over.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there is some evidence that crimps *did* make use of trapdoors at one key point in the shanghaiing process – Davidson mentions “dead-falls” in wharf-front warehouses, “through which shanghaied sailors were shoved into rowboats waiting below.” But Strecker’s book also gives us an interesting example of the consequences of employing the sort of coercive methods you are interested in:

>One Sunday night a seaman named Patrick Grant went carousing along [the Shanghai] waterfront. The next morning he awoke on a strange ship as the newest member of her crew. Feeling ill beyond the effects of a hangover, he informed the second mate he could not work because he had a nasty fever. During the four days [the voyage] lasted he received not a morsel of food. Somehow, his plight caught the attention of Mr Brown, a British vice-consul, who charged Grant’s master, Captain Murphy, with illegally bringing a man on board without first having him sign the ship’s articles, a violation of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. For his defense, Murphy produced articles with Grant’s signature, saying he had put it there himself as Grant could not write. Grant proved his literacy and went free. The judge fined the captain a mere £10 for his violation as he felt Murphy had meant no harm.

Shanghaiing in San Francisco: a 2007 collage.

Shanghaiing continued to flourish until the very early 20th century, in part because, as Davidson points out, “as members of a migratory class unable to vote for protective legislation, sailors formed a classic lost community in a democracy.” It took organisation and unionisation to force the legislative changes that outlawed crimping and made shanghaiing a thing of the past. The Dingley Act (1884), a Federal law that prohibited payment of advance wages by masters to crimps, was one significant blow to the shanghaiing system, as was the formation of the Seaman’s Union in 1885 and the agitation that led to the Maguire Act (1885) and the outlawing of the crimps’ other major stand-by, the attachment of sailors’ clothing. This was followed by the White Act (1898), which limited the amount a sailor could be required to pay to any “original creditor”.

Between them, these three acts – and the end of the sailing ship era, which had required a large number of semi-skilled crewmen used largely as muscle – pretty much finished off the crimps of San Francisco – but that does not mean that sailors did not continue to risk shanghaiing elsewhere in the world for many years to come.


Hiram P. Bailey, Shanghaied Out of ‘Frisco in the Nineties(1925)

Lance S. Davidson, “Shanghaied: the systematic kidnapping of sailors in early San Francisco.” California History 64 (1985)

Bill Pickelhaupt, Shanghaied in San Francisco: Politics and Personalities (1996)

Mark Strecker, Shanghaiing Sailors: A Maritime History of Forced Labor, 1849 to 1915 (2014)

The New York draft riots of July 1863 protested the introduction of conscription during the American Civil War – though the main targets were Manhattan’s blacks, who, it was feared, would take the jobs of working class white men sent to war. The disturbances lasted for four days, killed well over 100 people, and were the single biggest civil disturbance in the 19th century US. But did the staff of the New York Times protect themselves and their paper from the mob with the help of new-fangled machine guns?

Q: During the New York Draft Riots (1863), supposedly the New York Times defended their office from the mob with 2 Gatling guns. Where did they obtain these guns and ammunition and how did they turn away the mob?

Did the Times staff kill members of the mob? I’ve attempted to find more information about this incident but have been unable to. The NYT makes the claim itself on this site.

A: The most authoritative version of this story – which itself is based on no more than late recollection and “tradition” – suggests that none of the guns were fired. The Gatling was a complicated bit of machinery even though it was designed to be used with minimal training, and it would have been hard for ordinary members of the paper’s staff to use it effectively in any case.

From the History of the New York Times by Elmer Davis (1921):

Warned by the misfortune of The Tribune, which had actually been attacked by rioters and saved only by the opportune arrival of a detachment of the overworked police, The Times fortified itself.

The Gatling gun had lately been invented and offered to the War Department, though it was not used either widely or successfully in the war. Two specimens of the gun had been obtained by The Times, according to tradition through the President’s friendship for [Henry J.] Raymond [one of the partners who owned the paper], and were mounted just inside the business office under the command of Leonard W. Jerome. If the mob had not been more interested in attacking those who were unable to defend themselves, it would have found some trouble waiting for it at the Times office, for the entire staff had been armed with rifles; and there was a third Gatling gun on the roof mounted so that it could sweep the streets in any direction. It is only a malicious invention of jealous rivals that this gun was kept trained on the window of Horace Greeley’s office in the near-by Tribune Building.

Numerous accounts state that Leonard Jerome, a partner in the Times and grandfather of Winston Churchill, personally manned one of the Times’s machine guns during the riots.

The question of where these weapons may have come from, if they ever existed, is an interesting one. The Gatling gun had not been accepted or purchased by the US Army at this time. So – while I have read numerous histories of New York and of the riots which state unequivocally that the guns were obtained from the army, one writer even specifying that they were “appropriated from one of New York’s armouries” – it would seem that the only way the Times could have obtained them, with or without the assistance of Abraham Lincoln, is if it got them from the Gatling company itself.

This is more than a little problematic, since Gatling was based in Indianapolis, with manufacturing located in Cincinnati. At the time that the Draft Riots took place in the summer of 1863, it would appear there may have been as few as 12 actual Gatling guns in existence and there had only been one formal trial of the weapon; another took place in Washington Naval Yard that summer. Certainly they were not available, and had not been sold, in any quantity.

Of course it’s possible that the manufacturer had a few examples in a sales room somewhere in New York, but I’ve never read any such claim, and it’s not clear why it would have done so. Although individual army officers did purchase samples of the gun for their own use later in the war, the sole customer for the gun at this point in time was the Army; by the summer of 1863, Major General Horatio C. Wright, commander of the Department of Ohio, was the sole officer to have taken an active interest in the weapon, and he had gone to Cincinnati to witness trials. The first sales to foreign powers did not occur till 1867, when Russia bought the weapon.

The New York Times’s five storey building some time after the war. The paper’s history states that one Gatling gun was mounted on the roof to offer clear fields of fire over approach roads.

The rioting lasted for four days, but the current New York Times site you link to suggests the mob threatened its building on the first day, 13 July. That would rule out any attempt to source guns from any distance. Even if that account is wrong, is it really plausible that the NYT not only anticipated the unprecedented duration of the rioting, but also telegraphed to Ohio for help and received a rail shipment while the disorder was actually in progress? And then there’s the multiplying number of guns involved; Davis’s account raises the number from two to three, without explanation, in the space of a few lines.

As for the idea that the guns were provided courtesy of Lincoln’s personal intervention, this seems highly implausible; we know that Lincoln had tried to press another early machine gun, the Ager “coffee mill”, onto his generals in 1861, but when Gatling approached the President direct in an attempt to sell his invention in 1864, he was ignored – which does not suggest that Lincoln was either familiar with Gatling’s gun, or much of an enthusiast for it, one year after the Draft Riots occurred.

For these reasons – and since, despite the numerous anecdotal accounts of the story that have appeared in print since 1921, I have not been able to locate any contemporary or even near-contemporary source for the story – I have significant doubts as to whether the incident ever actually occurred.

The Model 1862 Gatling gun – the inventor’s original design – fired 150-200 bullets per minute, but used paper cartridges and was prone to jamming even in expert hands.


For exactly how far Gatling had got in selling his gun by July 1863:

David Armstrong, Bullets and Bureaucrats: The Machine Gun and the United States Army, 1861-1916 (1982)

For accounts of the NYT’s Gatling guns:

Ric Burns et al, New York: An Illustrated History (2001); Elmer Davis, History of the New York Times (1921); James M. McPherson, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2003); John Strasbaugh, City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War (2016)

For a – very slightly – more sceptical account:

Paul Wahl & Donald Topol, The Gatling Gun (1965)

For the book that explicitly claims the guns were “appropriated from one of New York’s armouries”:

Clint Johnson, A Vast and Fiendish Plot: The Confederate Attack on New York City (2010)

Brick wall.png

Q: Is it true that Henry VIII feared being attacked so much he had himself bricked into his bedroom every night?

I just heard on Horrible Histories that towards the end of Henry VIII’s life, he would be bricked into his bedroom every night then broken out the following morning. I’ve never heard this before and it sounds really implausible…

A: There is certainly no truth to the story, which is not mentioned by any of Henry’s major biographers. Furthermore, even had such an action been suggested or required, for some unfathomable reason, the actual process would have been impracticable in the sixteenth century, well before the introduction of quick-drying mortar and cement.

The story beaome “live” again in September 2017, presumably owing to the transmission of an episode from series 7 of the show entitled “Ruthless Rulers”, the programme notes for which read:

Get ready for some serious bad behaviour, as Horrible Histories brings you the most ruthless rulers of all time. Henry VIII is so demanding he has a brick wall built at his bedroom door every night, those vicious Vikings find that sorry seems to be the hardest word, hold your nose in Versailles because Louis XIV hasn’t got any loos, and rock out with the Warlords from Hell – take it away Genghis and Vlad.

Greg Jenner.png

Greg Jenner: “We are well aware many facts are possibly myths.”

This in turn has prompted others to question the rumour. As a result, there was an interesting exchange on Twitter between a couple of sceptics and Greg Jenner, who teaches an MA seminar in public history at York, is an historical consultant to the “Horrible Histories” TV show – and, somewhat incredibly, claims to be “both a passionate defender and careful critic of the way in which the past is exploited by our society for entertainment.”

While Twitter is not normally a good source, it’s worth giving the exchange here as it does illuminate the sort of standards a children’s TV history show produced for the BBC feels it needs to stick to these days – the short answer being that the standards are quite unbelievably low.

The question was first posed on History Stack Exchange:

I was just watching some TV with my kids, and we were enjoying the (normally reliable) Horrible Histories TV show.

It claimed that Henry VIII had a long series of bedtime preparations to ensure his nightly slumber was safe. Fair enough. The final step, though, was to brick up his doorway each and every night, taking the wall down in the morning.

This seems pretty crazy. If Henry could get out in the morning, intruders would surely have been able to get in fairly easily. If the wall was mortared, it would take too long to dry. Not to mention the level of skill involved by artisans to do the brickwork.

So I searched on it and found nothing except a bunch of other amateur historians also ridiculing the idea.

I posted about this on social media and, to my surprise, the historical adviser to the series replied to say he’d heard the story from the owners of Allington Castle. That seems a bit of a flimsy basis to me. And even with the extra information I couldn’t track down any evidence.

Is there any truth to this story? Is it as unlikely as it sounds?

This query was then forwarded to Jenner by an archaeologist called Iain McCulloch:

One for Greg Jenner I think.

And Jenner responded:

Haha thanks, it’s one of those half dubious stories which circulate and we thought it would be fun to run with it.

A Twitter user called Matt Thrower then asked:

Sorry it’s me again, wondering if I can find any evidence 🙂

To which Jenner replied:

Feel free to ask around, we are well aware many facts are possibly myths but until they are disproved they remain usable on a comedy show.


these stories come from somewhere, but where… and why


I suppose a TV show is free to set its own rules in this regard, and though I find it regrettable that such a popular series plays so fast and loose with the facts, I can at least see some spin off benefit in the form of more kids finding history more fascinating.

henry_viii scared.jpg

Henry VIII: what does the brick wall story suggest about his reign?

But I find it unfortunate, in fact unforgivable, that anyone who calls himself an historian could take such a cavalier approach to evidence and sources. After all, if HH requires that someone “disprove the myth” in order that some check be placed on its content, that’s something its “historical consultant” ought to be responsible for, and could quite easily have done. Clearly he didn’t feel it necessary to try.

In this context, it’s worth mentioning that a response to the initial query was posted on History Stack Exchange, where a user called Patricia Shanahan observed:

In this case, I think the absence of evidence does very, very strongly suggest it didn’t happen. For example, the Eltham Ordinance lists many types of royal household workers and their duties, but never mentions the Privy Chamber Bricklayer, who would have had to be close to the King twice a day. It discusses the handling of left over torches and wax, but not the handling of the bricks for the King’s chamber. It specifies when the pages and squires have to get up in order to be ready to attend the King at eight in the morning, without saying what time the bricklayer should dismantle the wall.

It strikes me that this is a useful way of approaching the problem, although hardly a definitive one – the Eltham Ordinance dates to 1526, which is more than two decades before Henry’s death.


Allington Castle: source of the brick wall rumour?

This still leaves unresolved the question of where the original rumour originated. We have Jenner’s claim that he heard it from “the owners of Allington Castle”, which is privately owned, in Kent, and does have associations with Henry VIII. This is quite plausible, as the castle website reveals that several series of Horrible Histories have shot at this location. The current owners are Sir Robert Worcester, the founder of the MORI polling organisation, and his wife. Other than that, the earliest account I have been able to trace dates to November 2013, when the question was debated on the forum of a website called The Anne Boleyn Files. The original questioner sourced it as follows – adding an alternate supposed reason for the practice:

It cropped up during a conversation I had with a friend some time ago. She said to me…

“Did you know that Henry (towards the end of his life) used to be bricked up inside his lodgings every night, and the bricks taken down every morning, due to his fear of getting sick”

I know he had a fear of getting poorly… but did he take it this far!?

That’s pretty vague. But perhaps further investigation will reveal if the rumour can be traced further back than that.

One closing comment: I think there’s really no excuse for HH not to make an effort to look into stories it knows are dubious.

I can only imagine they don’t because they don’t want to rule out stuff they think would make good TV. But however entertaining, this is also the stuff that sticks, and it has an impact on perceptions more generally.

In this case, if kids are being told Henry was frightened of being killed in his bed, that affects how they will think about him as a ruler, and think about how dangerous it was to be a king in Tudor England – all in ways that won’t be helpful if they come to study the period at A level or at university. So it’s not just a harmless bit of fun.


Patagonian giants (right) illustrated in a late 18th century German atlas

Q: When Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the Earth, he came across supposed “Giants of Patagonia”. Who were these giants and why were they so tall?

A hotel detective depicted in the old Hal Roach film “Barnum & Ringling, Inc.,” dating to 1928.

Q: Whatever happened to the hotel detective?

I read a lot of old pulp fiction, and hotel detectives are in a lot of the stories. But I also travel a lot and have never noticed one.

A: Hotel detectives were indeed once extremely ubiquitous, and are now indeed much less commonly encountered. They were men who did a very distinct type of job. They were responsible for ensuring that the hotel the detective worked for was safe and secure – memoirs describe regular rounds of the building and endless testing of locks – but they were, for the most part, far more concerned with protecting their employer than their guests. Their job certainly did involve preventing crimes from taking place on the premises, and solving, where possible, those that did occur – but mostly this was done to ensure that the business they worked for was not being ripped off. Only occasionally, and at the very best hotels, would their work extend to more customer-focused activities, such as offering protection to distinguished guests.

A large proportion of these “house officers” were former policemen who took hotel posts after retiring from the force. Such men made ideal employees. The skills required of a hotel detective included a good understanding of human nature, a talent for conflict resolution, and a good working knowledge of the local criminal element – all things that were readily picked up in the course of a career in law enforcement. Ample experience of dealing with crooks and crime was important not least because, in taking up a house position, a former policeman forfeited a good deal of the powers he’d had as a cop. “The hotel detective is the world’s most fenced-in man,” the journalist Frederick Laurens observed in 1946. “He has no badge, can carry no weapon, has no authority to push people around, as have the regular police, and must either rely on tact or threats and ugly looks to get his way.”

Hotel bellhops could be enlisted to provide important information to the house detective.

Experience was the most important attribute of a hotel detective, since, for the most part, such men had three main functions to perform. The first was to protect the hotel’s reputation and prevent it from unwittingly breaking any laws, which, especially in earlier periods, often involved preventing an establishment from acquiring a reputation as the sort of place that allowed unmarried couples to have sex on the premises – very often an offence at the time under laws relating to “unlawful cohabitation”. A 1979 article in Texas Monthly notes that in earlier times a house officer would, as part of his routine, challenge male guests with the line “Is there a woman in your room?” Dev Collans, in his pulpy exposé I Was A House Detective (1954), describes enlisting bellboys to report on “couples who wouldn’t open their suitcases while the bellboy was still in the room; married couples didn’t hesitate to. A man in sleek clothes with a woman whose shoes were run down at the heels is another giveaway.”

The detective’s second major task was to screen new employees and know as much as possible about those who made it onto the staff, in order to prevent them from robbing both the hotel (of food, silverware, bedlinen and pretty much everything else) and the guests. In this respect, a New York Times article dating to 1902 recounted how “Detective Sergeant ‘Sam’ Davis, who has for twenty years been responsible to Police Headquarters for all the hotel detective work between Fourteenth and Fifty-ninth Streets” in Manhattan, fingered “one chef, three cooks, two porters, half a dozen chambermaids, and a woman in charge of the linen room” as thieves in a single hotel. As soon as the 13 malefactors had been fired, “the robberies stopped [and] the proprietor found his receipts growing larger.”

The Adolphus Hotel, an old-style establishment in an unfashionable area of Dallas, continued to employ a team of three hotel detectives into the late 1970s.

Thirdly, a house officer would be expected to keep criminal elements from causing trouble in his hotel. This involved recognising known crooks and prostitutes – another reason why retired police officers from the district were highly favoured as hotel detectives. A detective might, for example, agree on a signal with the desk clerk to warn of a known criminal attempting to check in; since the crook would be highly likely to leave without paying his bill, he would be told the establishment was full and there were no vacancies.

Of course, an especially large proportion of their work involved spotting when guests were taking prostitutes into their rooms, and either stopping them or, more usually – since active intervention embarrassed and angered guests, and tended to cause scenes – logging the girls’ locations, and dealing later with any problems that occurred as a result of their visits to the hotel. These only rarely had anything to do with sex; as Charley Coyle, a house detective at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, noted in 1979, “These girls aren’t there just to have sex and get paid. It would be different if they were. Not so much trouble for us. They’re there to steal.” According to Gregory Curtis of Texas Monthly, keeping track of prostitutes was by far the most time-consuming aspect of the house detective’s job: “Every hotel detective I talked with, from those in the plainest hotels to those in the fanciest, said prostitution was still their main problem.” One reason for this was that sex workers favoured working in hotels, not least because of the advantage that a prostitute had over her clients when they were in a public space. Lou Speer of the Adolphus explained that

A clever working girl can get the money she’s been promised, then clean out her client’s wallet and possibly his luggage, and escape from the room with her virtue, at least the sexual part of it, intact.

No, they don’t usually carry guns or nothing. They don’t really have to. A lot of times they’ll get out of the rooms just by saying they’re going down the hall for some ice to put in their drinks…. Usually what they do is make sure the mark takes his clothes off first. Hell, he’s got his own ideas about what she’s there for, so all he has to do is just heat him up a little bit, and he’s not going to think twice about stripping down. Then, with him naked as a jaybird, she can grab his wallet and run out the door and there’s no way he’s going to come running after her.”

A prostitute, her victim, and the stereotypical hotel detective – posed photo from Texas Monthly, 1979.

Interestingly – in Speer’s experience, at least – the hotel detective’s main role in cases such as this was not to catch the girl, but to prevent the guest from attempting to bring a claim of theft against the staff. Few men would admit to bringing a prostitute into the establishment, much less to being stupid enough to allow themselves to be robbed by her, but many would attempt to lodge a complaint that their wallet had been stolen while they were in the hotel. In such circumstances, Speer and his men had recourse to their “hooker reports” – a log they kept of single guests who entered the premises with women on their arms.

“If a guest comes down in the morning and says his wallet was stolen, the first thing I do is look up my hooker reports to see if he had a girl up there. The guest is trying to say that the hotel is responsible for the loss. You ought to see the expression on some of their faces when I say, ‘But what about the girl you took up to your room at twelve-eleven last night?'”

As to why hotel detectives are now a dying breed: two key developments have combined to do away with them. One is changes in morals; no modern hotel is likely to acquire a dubious reputation simply because it allows clearly unmarried couples to share a room, and it’s no longer against the law for guests of this sort to “unlawfully cohabit” – so house detectives are no longer required to police the guests. The second is the ubiquity of close-circuit television. When it comes to deterring and detecting theft, it’s cheaper and probably more effective to outfit a hotel with multiple CCTV cameras than it is to pay a roster of former detectives to work often unsociable hours to try to solve such crimes after they have taken place. The problems of staff theft and of prostitutes stealing from guest rooms can both fairly readily be investigated now – and evidence handed over to the local police – without recourse to a house detective.


Dev Collans’s pulpy 1954 exposé of the house detective’s world.

Hotel detectives and their experiences“, New York Times, 1 June 1902

Dev Collans, I Was a House Detective (1954)

Gregory Curtis, “Hotel detective,” Texas Monthly February 1979

Norman Hayner, Hotel Life (1936)

Frederick V. Laurens, “Hotel detective – 1946” in Best: the Popular Digest

Frank O’Sullivan & Walter Wright, Practical Instruction in Police Work and Detective Science (1940)

Horace Herbert Smith, Crooks of the Waldorf: Being the Story of Joe Smith, Master Detective (1930)

Q: At any point between the end of WWI and the end of WWII was there ever a rise of supernatural beliefs in Japan?

A: In fact there was – though the “interwar” period has much less meaning in Japan than it does in the west, and the spike in interest and belief can be more accurately dated to c.1910-35. This rise and fall had more to do with the history of Japan’s engagement with western ideas than it did with the impact of the two World Wars.

I would point you towards four figures in particular who played a key part in this spike, and who influenced the way in which Japan thought about the subjects you are interested in: Asano Wasaburō (1847-1937), a teacher at the Naval War College who imported a version of western spiritualism into Japan; Deguchi Nao (1837-1918), who was a sort of trance medium who claimed to have visions of the deity Ushitora-no-Konjin; her son-in-law Deguchi Onisaburô (1871-1946), a flamboyant Shintoist-spiritualist who blended existing folk belief with new concepts of divination, exorcism and millennarianism to create a new religion, Oomoto, which eventually took on an unusual anti-state flavour that resulted in its persecution in the 1920s; and Inoue Enryo (1858-1919).

To deal with Enryo first: he was an academic philosopher who attempted to fuse Buddhism with western science and founded, first the Enigma Research Society, and then the more successful Fushigi Kenkyukai, or “Society for Research on the Mysterious” in 1886 – pretty much at the same time as the rough-equivalent Society for Psychical Research was founded in the UK (1882). He became popularly known as “Dr Ghost” and was the creator of what Japanese call yokaigaku, literally “monsterology” but more usually translated as “mystery studies”.

Enryo was an active Buddhist (in fact at one point in his life, a Buddhist priest) and as such found it easier than many of his fellow academics to accept the reality of some psychical phenomena. One of his key concepts was that the distinction between the “false mystery” and “true mystery” was key to understanding superstitious belief. His society studied “Ghosts, foxes and tanukis [狐狸], strange dreams, reincarnations, coincidences [偶合], prophesies [予言], monsters [怪物], witchcraft [幻術], insanity, and so on.”

There’s an English paper on “Inoue Enryo’s Mystery Studies” in the journal International Inoue Enryo Research, 2 (2014), 119-55, and a full bibliography of western language materials about him can be seen here.

The other three were significantly more influential than Enryo, and they have been quite extensively studied. See Nancy Stalker, Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto and the Rise of New Religion in Imperial Japan; Emily Groszos Ooms, Women and Millenarian Protest in Meiji Japan: Deguchi Nao and Omotokyo; Birgit Staemmler, “The chinkon kishin: divine help in times of national crisis.” In Kubota et al [eds], Religion and National Identity in the Japanese Context and Kenta Kasai. “Theosophy and related movements in Japan.” In Prohl & Nelson [eds], Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religions

In addition, Helen Hardacre, the great authority on Shintoism, has a useful introductory chapter on their movement in Sharon A Minichello (ed.), Japan’s Competing Modernities: Issues in Culture and Democracy, 1900-1930 entitled “Asano Wasaburō and Japanese Spiritualism in Early Twentieth-Century Japan.” This paper is a good English language intro that explains how western spiritualist concepts entered Japan and were adapted to relate to pre-existing religious, nationalist and especially shamanic concepts – bringing the new movement inevitably into conflict with state-sponsored Shintoism. Hardacre concedes that throughout this period such beliefs were marginal to the mainstream of Japanese culture. However,

nineteenth-century spiritualism from the West was a subject of great interest in early twentieth-century Japan. Situated on a border between mass culture and the more rarefied pursuits of Westernized, bourgeois salon culture, Japanese spiritualism represented, in part, the importation of Western cultural fads for seances, telekinesis, clairvoyance, and hypnosis. As such, it was [initially] romantic and escapist in a larger cultural context of empire, industrialization, and the expansion of state powers.

Trouble really started when Asano’s ideas ideas became fused with the apolocalyptic preaching of Deguchi Omisaburo, who caused considerable official alarm by attempting to spread his ideas in military and university circles. Hardacre, Ooms and Stalker all also discuss the ways in which western-influenced spiritualism, in the form of the Omotokyo movement founded by Deguchi Nao but later run by Asano, was heavily suppressed in Japan in two campaigns dating to 1921 and 1935.

Finally, a quick summary of other English-language resources:

  • Michael Dylan Foster’s Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai looks at the evolution of the Japanese concept of ‘monster’ – specifically the variety known as yôkai from 1700-2000. It covers the way in which ghost and monster stories evolved over this period, but it’s not a chronological study.
  • Noriko T. Reider’s Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present includes a couple of chapters on the changing conceptions of demons in Tokyo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with a focus on the increasing commercialisation of demons in the media.
  • Suzuki Kentaro’s paper “Divination in contemporary Japan” is an analysis of a detailed survey of contemporary divination practices. Although focused on the present, it is very useful in presenting a breakdown of the types of belief in divination that exist in Japan, and as such it would be a useful jumping off point for more more detailed research in the period that interests you. Incidentally, Suzuki comments that this is “a subject upon which there is at present almost no academic research.” In Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22 (1995), 249-66.
  • A popular account of palmistry in Japan just before the period you are interested in is S. Culin, “Palmistry in China and Japan,” Overland and Out West 23 (1894). This one is available online from the University of Michigan library.
  • Curran et al, in Multiple Translation Communities in Contemporary Japan, mention that the vampire story became popular in Japan in the period 1915-30, as a result of the influx of translated western works of all sorts that peaked in the early 1900s. The Japanese term for vampire, kyuketsuki, was coined in 1915. It seems this new interest was literary and academic, however, rather than resulting in the appearance of actual supposed cases of vampiric activity.

Sphinx of Hatshepsut

Sphinx of Hatshepsut (ca. 1479–1458 B.C), from the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Contrary to popular belief, some images of female pharaoh survive – this seven-tonne example was destroyed on the orders of Hatshepsut’s successor, Tuthmosis III, and the remains hurled into a quarry, from whence it was recovered and painstakingly reassembled by archaeologists.

Q: Did Ramses II try to erase Queen Hatshepsut from the record books because she was a successful ruler or because she was a woman (who depicted herself as male)?

A: At its simplest, the answer to your question is that the destruction wrought on Hatshepsut’s monuments and memory seems to have occurred explicitly because she was a women – for reasons that I will try to set out for you below.

We do need to be honest about the problem here: we have no histories, no chronicles from Hatshepsut’s time (c.1507-1457 B.C.). The evidence we have is – bar a few late king lists – archaeological, and while it can tell us something of what happened during her reign as pharaoh, and after her death, it tells us little – directly at least – about why things happened as they did: why so many examples of her cartouche were shaved down and recut in order to ascribe them to some other pharaoh, and why elsewhere “her entire figure and accompanying inscription were effected and replaced with the image of some innocuous ritual object such as an offering table.” [Dorman] All answers are speculation; the distinction that we need to draw is that between informed and ill-informed guesswork.


Re-imaginings of Hatshepsut – some more realistic and respectful than others – are commonplace nowadays, testament to the hold the ancient Egyptian ruler still exercises over our imaginations.

But, with that said, the following is broadly agreed, by most Egyptologists, to be true: that Hatshepsut was a powerful member of the Egyptian royal family of the 18th dynasty, being the eldest daughter of one of Egypt’s greatest warrior-kings, the pharaoh Thuthmosis I (her very name means ‘Foremost of Noble Women’); that she was fortunate, in that her parents had no surviving male child, which eventually led her to move close to a position of power – as was commonly the case in ancient Egypt, she was married to a close relative, her half-brother, also Thuthmosis, the son of a high-ranking woman in the royal harem who eventually succeeded to the throne; and that she was also, very probably, ambitious, for when her husband died, leaving her to rule as regent for his infant heir by another woman from the royal harem – her step-son and nephew, the future Tuthmosis III – she was able to manouevre herself (in ways that have, unfortunately, left no clear traces in the archaeological record) into a position of absolute power. Hatshepsut the king’s-woman (which is the literal translation of the ancient Egyptian word for ‘queen’ – rank in this period, even for a woman of Hatshepsut’s lineage, was entirely the product of a husband’s or a father’s status) became Hatshepsut the pharaoh, ruling alone and portraying herself in masculine terms, most famously by overseeing the production of statues that showed hear sporting a full beard.

It’s worth pausing briefly to look at the reign before we consider what happened to Hatshepsut’s monuments and to her reputation after she died. One key point to make is that, while she was not actually the first woman to take absolute power in Egypt, she was the first one to do so in a time of peace; the only previous female pharaoh, Sobekneferu of the 12th dynasty (r. c.1800 B.C., at the tail end of the Middle Kingdom period), had taken power at a time of national crisis, and apparently out of necessity, there being no other senior royal males available to rule. Another is that Hatshepsut was apparently not, as she is sometimes portrayed, a ruler with a distinctively “feminine” agenda, preferring peace to war. It is true that one of the more notable achievements of her reign was a trading voyage to the land of Punt (far to the south, sometimes identified with modern Somalia), but Egypt did wage war – successfully – in Hatshepsut’s time. This, together with her use of standard Egyptian iconography, and her entirely conventional determination to divert vast state resources to the construction of funerary monuments for herself (her magnificent mortuary temple, which survives, is one of the most iconic tourist attractions on the Nile) tend to argue that, whatever the reason for the post-mortem destruction that partially obliterated her name, it was not because she forced through policies or ordered actions that were outrageous or reviled. She was no Akhenaten – the 18th dynasty pharaoh notorious for neglecting the old gods in favour of a quasi-monotheistic new cult focused on the sun god, Aten, whose name was also wiped from Egyptian records after his death.It is also very helpful to look at what we know of Hatshepsut’s relationship with her stepson, Tuthmosis III, since it was in his reign that much of the destruction wrought on her monuments took place. Two points emerge most clearly here. The first is that there is no direct evidence that Hatshepsut ever did anything to suggest that Tuthmosis was not the rightful heir to the throne. Dating the monuments that survive, it would appear that she ruled in her stepson’s stead, as regent, for at least two years before claiming power for herself; thereafter, Tuthmosis was not only allowed to live, but was actually given a solid training for taking power, being not only highly educated by the standards of the time, but also allowed to rise within the ranks of the Egyptian army until he became its commander-in-chief.

Tuthmosis I

Hatshepsut was the daughter of Tuthmosis I (ca. 1506-1493 B.C), a powerful New Kingdom pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. His remains, disturbed by tomb robbers years after his death, were concealed in a cache of royal mummies at Deir el-Bahri, above his daughter’s mortuary temple, and were recovered in 1881.

It seems inconceivable that the stepson would have been permitted a distinguished military career, and command over a powerful army, had Hatshepsut viewed him as a direct threat to her rule. Tuthmosis must have accepted – at least on some level – Hatshepsut’s right to rule, and we have no evidence that he made any attempt to seize power or prepare any sort of coup while she was still alive. Similarly, it is almost impossible to believe that a woman, who long custom and Egyptian political philosophy alike conceived as having no divine right to rule, could have held onto power for 22 years without the active support of a large portion of the country’s elite. There are other examples in Egyptian history of inconvenient heirs meeting suspicious ends, and of elites rising up against unpopular rulers; it has to be significant that neither of these things occurred during Hatshepsut’s reign.

Several alternatives have been advanced to explain how power may have been wielded during this period. We know that Hatshepsut made an effort to stress the legitimacy she had acquired via her royal parentage, emphasising not only that she was the rightful heir to a powerful king, but also divine, as the product of her father’s union with a royal mother from the same family. In this sense, importantly, she was actually more “royal” than her half-brother and husband, who was the son of a much lower-status woman. We also know that Hatshepsut was depicted far more commonly than was her stepson, and nominal co-ruler, on monuments constructed during her regency and then reign; surveying her mortuary complex, Vanessa Davies counts 87 occurrences of Hatshepsut’s name and figure, compared to 37 of Thuthmosis III. All this suggests that her efforts to portray herself as a worthy ruler, and as a divine monarch, were successful, and perhaps this best explains why she did not feel threatened by her stepson, and why she not only allowed him his army career, but also permitted him to be represented, during her reign, as a figure of considerable power and potency. Davies concludes that he “was represented as a multi-faceted and powerful figure; thus one might infer that he actually behaved and functioned in this manner, or, at the very least, that Hatshepsut intended for him to be viewed in this light.”

So while the Egyptian state may have expected and prefered to be ruled over by a male pharaoh, it seems there was no absolute proscription on female rule; it was highly unusual, but neither blasphemous nor “impossible.” Joyce Tyldesley concludes that

Legally, there was no prohibition on a woman ruling Egypt. Although the ideal pharaoh was male – a handsome, athletic, brave, pious and wise male – it was recognised that occasionally a woman might need to act to preserve the dynastic line. When Sobeknofru ruled as king at the end of the troubled 12th Dynasty she was applauded as a national heroine. Mothers who deputised for their infant sons, and queens who substituted for husbands absent on the battlefield, were totally acceptable. What was never anticipated was that a regent would promote herself to a permanent position of power.

Yet this is not to say that Hatshepsut was not aware of the underlying weakness of her position. There are two points to make in this respect. First, let’s hear again from Tyldesley:

Morally Hatshepsut must have known that Tuthmosis was the rightful king. She had, after all, accepted him as such for the first two years of his reign. We must therefore deduce that something happened in year three to upset the status quo and to encourage her to take power. Unfortunately, Hatshepsut never apologises and never explains… Indeed, seen from her own point of view, her actions were entirely acceptable. She had not deposed her stepson, merely created an old fashioned co-regency, possibly in response to some national emergency. The co-regency, or joint reign, had been a feature of Middle Kingdom royal life, when an older king would associate himself with the more junior partner who would share the state rituals and learn his trade. As her intended successor, Tuthmosis had only to wait for his throne; no one could have foreseen that she would reign for over two decades.


Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple survives close to the Valley of the Kings, and is today one of the best-preserved New Kingdom monuments in Egypt.

It is interesting, in this context, to consider how Hatshepsut portrayed herself over the course of her reign. Early statuary from her regency period clearly depicts a woman wearing male regalia, breasts visible on a naked upper body. Later, after her coronation as pharaoh, depictions change; Hatshepsut is now portrayed as a man, with wider shoulders and no breasts. And she was buried as a man, as well, in a king’s sarcophagus. As Kara Cooney points out, this can be seen as a matter of convention, not deception; Hatshepsut never changed her – very clearly feminine – name, so it seems unlikely she was trying to pretend to be something she was not. Yet it is difficult to imagine that female rule was simply accepted without any question in the Egypt of her day; its consequences were too stark a departure from religiously-rooted norms. The problem here was one of political philosophy, not simply politics. But, as Cooney notes:

Given that the king on earth was nothing less than the human embodiment of the creator god’s potentiality, Hatshepsut must have been all too aware that her rule posed a serious existential problem: she could not populate a harem, spread her seed, and fill the royal nurseries with potential heirs; she could not claim to be the strong bull of Egypt.

Perhaps, then, it is better to see “male” images of Hatshepsut as nods to a conventional iconography that applied equally to any Egyptian ruler, of whatever sex, than it is to imagine them as admissions of serious political weakness.

So, with all this said, we can turn at last to answering the question posed: why were Hatshepsut’s images destroyed after her death, and why was her name removed from so many of the monuments she made?

It’s important, first, to recognise that the new regime was not a complete break with the past. Thuthmosis continued to employ a large proportion of the royal servants who had served his stepmother. And the desecration he ordered – which Cooney estimates accounted for “hundreds, if not thousands” of images and inscriptions – was not a campaign of attempted absolute obliteration, as the campaign against Akhenaten seems to have been. Not all of Hatshepsut’s statues were destroyed, and not all of her cartouches were hacked away; a significant number survived, not least those representing her as queen, including some that were quite prominently displayed on her tomb, which would surely have been a prime target for any Roman-style campaign of damnatio memoriae. The same is true of the desecration that seems to have occurred to the monuments of her prime supporter, her steward Senenmut – whose name was removed from only 9 of his surviving 25 statues. Cooney summarises by saying that the statues that were removed or desecrated were those in public places – the aim, therefore, may have been to “prevent people from seeing and interacting with her as king.” The archaeological record, moreover, strongly suggests that the campaign did not begin immediately on Thuthmosis’s accession – Hatshepsut was buried with all honour, for one thing, and works underway at the time of her death were completed, which can only imply that her heir ordered work on them to continue. Something happened later to change this, something that Cooney concludes was probably a shift that took place in the mind of an ageing ruler considering his legacy.


Surviving statue of Hatshepsut in a devotional pose. The image comes from the early part of the reign and the pharaoh is still depicted as a woman.

Modern consensus is that the desecration of Hatshepsut’s monuments cannot have begun earlier than the 42nd year of Thuthmosis’s reign, which is 20 years after his aunt’s death. We also know that it continued into the reign of his son, Amenhotep II – to a period when few of those responsible would have had any memory of the female pharaoh. Finally, where Hatshepsut’s name was obliterated, it was rarely replaced with her stepson-nephew’s; more usually, the new name carved was that of her father, his grandfather, Thuthmosis I.

All of this suggests that the campaign was neither wildly aggressive, nor “personal”. It seems unlikely to have been carried out on the orders of a man who had spent the 20 years of Hatshepsut’s reign boiling with anger at being usurped.

Most modern archaeological interpretations of Hatshepsut’s reign, including those of Dorman, Tyldesley and Cooney, prefer instead to see the destruction of her name as a form of reassertion of what would have been seen as the the natural political and theological order – “an impersonal attempt at retrospective political correctness” (Tyldesley) aimed at stressing the male prerogative to rule. This would explain why Thuthmosis seems to have ordered the adoption of distinctive artistic style in sculptures and paintings showing him – one that was very much a break from the old style that had existed in Hatshepsut’s style, and which harked back, more importantly, to the styles adopted by his grandfather. Dorman argues that the key intention was to stress Thuthmosis III’s royal lineage (and hence legitimacy) while removing signs of female disruption to the approved order, most probably because “the recently invented phenomenon of a female king had created such conceptual and practical complications that the evidence of it was best erased.”

For Cooney, meanwhile,

“the Egyptian system of political-religious power simply continued to work for the benefit of male dynasty. Hatshepsut’s kingship was a fantastic and unbelievable aberration. Ancient civilization didn’t suffer a woman to rule, no matter how much she conformed to religious and political systems; no matter how much she ascribed her rule to the will of the gods themselves; no matter how much she changed her womanly form into masculine ideals. Her rule was perceived as a complication by later rulers—praiseworthy yet blameworthy, conservatively pious and yet audaciously innovative—nuances that the two kings who ruled after her reconciled only through the destruction of her public monuments.


Kara Cooney, The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt (Broadway Books, 2015); Vanessa Davies, ‘Hatshepsut’s use of Tuthmosis III in Her Program of Legitimation,’ Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 41 (2004); Peter F. Dorman, ‘The proscription of Hatshepsut,’ in Roehrig, Dreyfus & Keller, Hatshepsut from Queen to Pharaoh (Yale, 2005); Joyce Tyldesley, ‘Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis: a royal feud?’ BBC History, 2011

St Brices day

A Viking-era burial pit uncovered on the Dorset Ridgeway in 2009. The mass grave contains the remains of about 50 mostly young men. All had been decapitated. Carbon-dating and isotope analysis show that the skeletons date to c.975-1024, and it is possible they were victims of the St Brice’s Day Massacre of November 1002, an attempt by Æthelred the Unready to rid his kingdom of every Danish inhabitant in a single day.

Q: This article in The Atlantic mentions that the murder rate in the Medieval period was 12%. That seems absurdly high. Is there any truth to it?

It just seems absurd. Like, just estimating, half the world’s population or more was in India and China. China and south India both had long periods of political stability – does that mean a European had something like a 25% chance of dying due to violence? Are they counting people who die to due to war-caused famines as being murdered?

A: Tracking this claim to its source is a good example of heading down an Alice in Wonderland-style rabbit hole.

Checking back to the article you cite, it’s clear that the claim is based on a new and really quite exceptionally broad survey of violence among all mammal populations. This was published in Nature this week as Gomez et al, “The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence.” Superficially this means the source is an impressive one, since Nature is certainly one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. However, it’s worth noting that the paper appears as a “Letter” rather than as a full fledged article, and that Nature has a surprising history of publishing high-profile but what can politely be termed “controversial” articles, such as one offering a scientific name for the Loch Ness Monster based on underwater photographs of what later turned out to be almost certainly a tree stump.

In this case The Atlantic itself sounds some cautionary notes about the evidential basis of the violence survey. It is a meta-analysis, and by its nature not a very comprehensive one (that is, it does not include any original research, but collates the results of earlier surveys) that attempts to compare the levels of violence among a huge variety of different mammal populations across the whole of the archaeological record. A total of 1024 species are surveyed, humans being just one of them. So it’s reasonable to wonder exactly how much effort was put into making sure the human sample was comprehensive and representative, and problems associated with the data had been completely thought through.

The Atlantic has a few pertinent comments about the team’s methodology:

  1. “First, he and his team compiled everything they could find on causes of death for various mammals, accumulating some 3,000 studies over two years.”
  2. As for the sources of information for the human sample: they did this “by poring through statistical yearbooks, archaeological sites, and more, to work out causes of death in 600 human populations between 50,000 BC to the present day.”
Polly Wiessner

Polly Wiessner: unimpressed.

As for the way in which the data has been handled: “Polly Wiessner, an anthropologist from the University of Utah … is unimpressed with the study’s human half. “They have created a real soup of figures, throwing in individual conflicts with socially organized aggression, ritualized cannibalism, and more. The sources of data used for prehistoric violence are highly variable in reliability. When taken out of context, they are even more so.”

“Richard Wrangham from Harvard University has similar concerns about the mammalian data, noting that Gómez have folded a lot of different kinds of killing—infanticide, adult deaths, and more—into a single analysis. And from an evolutionary standpoint, it matters less whether two related species kill their own kind at a similar rate, but whether they do so in a similar way.”

To go further into this requires a close reading of the original article, which is available online here. It’s worth noting that the article itself gives very inadequate sources for most of the information it contains, which is not surprising when it is based on such a vast meta-analysis. To find out what the actual sources are we have to go to the “Supplementary material” section which is separately available here.

Let’s summarise what we can discover about the sources used and their comprehensiveness and reliability by reading through these two sources.

First, the Letter itself.

This points out that the human violence figures available were divided into four categories by socio-political organisation: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states. This is a categorisation widely used in the social sciences (eg anthropology) but one that I’d say a lot of historians find unhelpful. After all, there’s a vast historical literature devoted entirely to trying to define what a “state” actually is.

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Above: a statistical yearbook yesterday.

There are also some acknowledgements of potential bias that give some clues as to the sorts of sources being used: “The level of violence inferred from skeletal remains could be under-estimated because many deadly injuries do not damage the bones…” And there’s also a reference to “statistical yearbooks” being a prime source of information. So it would appear that the data for the medieval period is going to be based on the archaeological record, rather than the written record. There’s not much clue yet as to how broad the sample will be, geographically or temporally, but if a lot of reliance is being placed on “statistical yearbooks” then that sounds some pretty loud warning bells for me when it comes to making accurate assessments of the medieval period, since, of course, no such contemporary sources exist for this period.

That’s about it for the Letter itself, and the bibliography offers no further clues as to the exact sources of information. To go deeper we have to look at the “Supplementary information:” document. This contains a couple of useful additional bits of information. First, by “medieval period” the authors mean the period 1300-500 BP, which is 716-1516 A.D. Second, their data is based on a sample of 17,372 human remains. Again this sounds warning bells, since such as sample size is not going to be enough to provide proper coverage of the whole human population across the whole globe for that whole period. It’s a real drop in the ocean sort of a figure – a sampling. Actually, we’re told that figures from 600 different populations were compiled for the survey as a whole (covering the period from 50,000 BP to now), which in one sense is quite impressive, but which also implies that very likely no one population is followed in a consistent and systematic way across the whole period.

Third, there is a better definition of “lethal violence” offered: for the purposes of the paper, this is defined as “the percentage of the people that died owing to interpersonal violence.” If we think about that for a moment in the context of earlier cautions, this sets off more alarm bells. If we’re looking at archaeological data, it’s going to be very difficult to distinguish for example between interpersonal violence and accidents and suicides in many of these records. Was a broken leg inflicted in a battle or a fall? If the researchers have been scrupulous, I would expect this factor would result in a form of understating of figures for the medieval periods, since they should only be counting wounds that were clearly inflicted by weapons. Again though we have to recognise that this whole debate goes on in the wider context of the difficulty of identifying some marks of violence from purely skeletal remains. Many arrow wounds, not to mention cut throats, deaths by poison etc etc are not going to show up readily in the archaeological record.

Finally, we can use the data supplied here to be much more explicit about the precise sources consulted. I’ve copied the portion of the survey data that refers to the medieval period here.

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Some of the fractures identified in medieval remains from Serbian cemeteries by Djuric et al. But what caused them?

This shows the site of the remains surveyed, rough date and number of remains, and (final column) a source, which you can chase up in the bibliography if you’re so inclined. They are anthropological and archaeological, not historical. Just to give one example, one of the sources for Serbian violence is Djuric MP, Roberts CA, Rakocevic ZB, Djonic DD, Lesic AR (2006). “Fractures in late Medieval skeletal populations from Serbia.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 130: 167-178.

From all this we can see that the survey is very limited – it covers only the UK, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland and Croatia. Even allowing for my earlier comments about the lack of comprehensiveness here, in my opinion this is a ridiculously limited pool of data from which to extrapolate a worldwide, pan-medieval figure. There are many reasons for supposing that even if the European figures are representative (which we can’t know, but look at some of the specifics – two Viking cemeteries, a burial pit associated with the Battle of Towton (the bloodiest battle, probably, in British history), a royal graveyard in Croatia, and some monks’ graveyards … it would be so easy to argue that these are very unrepresentative samples), these figures are just not very useful.

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Easily identifiable battle damage from a skull excavated from a burial pit dating to the Battle of Towton (1461), during the Wars of the Roses. But the battle is hardly representative of medieval experience – perhaps 28,000 died in what was the bloodiest engagement ever fought on British soil.

All we can really conclude from this is that a survey of remains from 40 different, broadly medieval, European sites, containing a very varied number of bodies, from very varied periods that include some periods of war, estimates deaths by violence at an average of 12%. Even in this limited context, I immediately have hundreds of questions about how typical these sites are, what sorts of violence, how we know who inflicted what wounds in what circumstances, and even whether the victim survived them to die a natural death much later. None of these questions are answered by the Letter and to focus on something as specific as deaths in the medieval period is to use the paper itself for purposes it was not really intended for.

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A London cityscape in the Victorian era, as re-imagined for “Assassin’s Creed.” The reality would have been significantly smellier and dirtier.

Q: I am a hot-blooded young British woman in the Victorian era hitting the streets of Manchester for a night out with my fellow ladies and I’ve got a shilling burning a hole in my purse. What kind of vice and wanton pleasures are available to me?

A: To begin with, I need to caution that Manchester – which looked like this in 1870 – has not been as widely written about as other cities, so I have drawn on some studies of other major cities as well; in addition, there would have been huge gulfs in experience depending on social class, and the “Victorian era” is in itself an extremely broad term, covering 60 years and some substantial shifts in lived experience and in the types of entertainment on offer. For all these reasons, consider this answer a rather broad one that attempts to cover young women’s experiences in the big city generally, and mostly in the latter half of the Victorian period.

Let’s start, though, by considering what elements may have been unique to Victorian Manchester, which in the course of this period passed Liverpool and Dublin to contend, with Birmingham and Glasgow, for consideration as the “second city of the empire.” It was, to put it bluntly, an industrial hell-hole, albeit one that offered exciting opportunities – the main centre of cotton manufacturing in the UK at a time when Britain was a gigantic net exporter of finished textile products. This had several important impacts that we need to be aware of, of which the most important was that the city became a magnet for workers from rural or small-town backgrounds, who could easily find work in the myriad of factories that sprang up there, and lodgings in the vast swathes of slum housing that inevitably grew up as a result. All this meant that Manchester was home to a large number of young workers of both sexes who were a considerable degree free of the sort of restraints that they would experience at home. Adolescent and young women might live without parents, and sometimes siblings; the social bonds and restraints created by the church were also significantly weakened, and the Religious Census of 1851 revealed church attendance among working class people in major industrial centres to be scandalously low.

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Female workers in a Victorian-era sweat-shop.

By the 1840s, then, Manchester was already the greatest and most terrible of all the products of the industrial revolution: a large-scale experiment in unfettered capitalism in a decade that witnessed a spring tide of economic liberalism. Government and business alike swore by free trade and laissez faire, with all the attendant profiteering and poor treatment of workers that their doctrines implied. It was common for factory hands to labour for 14 hours a day, six days a week, and the conditions in domestic service – which was the other main source of employment for young women – were only a little better. Chimneys choked the sky; Manchester’s population soared more than sevenfold. Thanks in part to staggering infant mortality, the life expectancy of those born in Manchester fell to a mere 28 years, half that of the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. One keen observer of all this was an already-radical Friedrich Engels, sent to Manchester in 1842 to help manage a family-owned thread business (and keep him out of the hands of the Prussian police). The sights that Engels saw in Manchester (and wrote about in his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England) helped to turn him into a communist. “I had never seen so ill-built a city,” he observed. Disease, poverty, inequality of wealth, an absence of education and hope all combined to render life in the city all but insupportable for many. As for the factory owners, Engels wrote, “I have never seen a class so demoralised, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress.” Once, Engels wrote, he went into the city with such a man “and spoke to him of the bad, unwholesome method of building, the frightful condition of the working people’s quarters.” The man heard him out quietly “and said at the corner where we parted: ‘And yet there is a great deal of money to be made here: good morning, sir.’”

For all these reasons, it is hardly surprising that Manchester was also a noted centre of radicalism and an early hotbed of the labour movement in this period. The infamous Peterloo Massacre, in which cavalry had charged a vast crowd demonstrating for parliamentary reform, killing or injuring as many as 500 of them, took place in the city before Victoria’s day (1819), but it cast a very long shadow over the decades to come. Manchester became of the biggest supporters of the Chartist movement, a (for then) radical mid-century organisation calling for a large-scale expansion of the franchise.

So, to summarise: to be working class in Victorian Manchester was to do work that was long, hard and dangerous; to be an interchangeable and expendable part in an industrial machine built by factory owners who laboured to resist unionisation; and to work in an environment in which “health and safety” was largely non-existent. Terrible accidents involving unguarded, whirring machinery and human limbs were hideously common.

There was every reason to seek escape in the city’s entertainments.

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Molly Hughes, education pioneer and author of the invaluable – and still highly readable – trilogy A Victorian Family 1870-1900.

Let’s begin by considering the degree to which male and female entertainments were, or were not, one and the same in the Victorian era. To a great extent, it seems, women – or at least the right sort of women – might go almost anywhere, if appropriately accompanied; at one of the main dog pits in London, where crowds assembled to watch dogs take on a dozen wild rats at a time, Henry Mayhew (author of the utterly invaluable London Labour and the London Poor) was told: “I’ve had noble lords and titled ladies come here to see the sport – on the quiet.” But class was a vital determining factor when it came to entertainment. The experiences of Molly Hughes – who was a girl in London in the 1870s, and an adolescent in the city in the 1880s, and who grew up in a family that seems to have been both relatively liberal and relatively fun-loving, give an interesting insight into just how constrained middle-class life could be for a girl. Molly had to press hard to get herself a decent education, and her experiences of life outside the family home– which she considered to be unusually broad, by the standards of her contemporaries – strike us today as almost comically limited. When Molly was a girl, her mother

was for encouraging any scrap of originality in anybody at any time, and allowed me to ‘run free’ physically and mentally. She had no idea of keeping her only girl tied to her apron-strings, and from childhood I used to go out alone in our London suburb of Canonbury, for a run with my hoop or to do a little private shopping.

As an adolescent, however, her experience of big-city fun was limited to just one or two vividly-recalled and heavily-chaperoned experiences. Here is by far the grandest and the most important that teenaged Molly ever enjoyed – and it is quite evident that the men in the family had serious concerns about the idea of taking her out at all, and that she herself was permitted no part in bringing it about. She was 16:

During the Christmas holidays of ’82, it occurred to the boys that I ought to have a little relaxation, in view of the rigorous time I was likely to have at my new school. How would I like to go to a theatre and see a real play? … I had never even been to a pantomime. Mother was consulted, and thought it wouldn’t do me any harm, especially as Dym [a brother and Cambridge undergraduate] said he would choose a small theatre and a funny farce – Betsy at the Criterion… The play itself has faded from my memory, but the accompaniments are still vivid. An anxious farewell from mother, as Dym and I stepped into a hansom, set us off.

Mother had put me into my nearest approach to an evening dress, which Dym approved, so that I was not too shy when I sat in the dress-circle, and walked into the grill-room after the play. This was full of cheery people and a pleasant hum of enjoyment and hurrying waiters. I felt it to be like something in the Arabian Nights. Tom and Charles [two older brothers] walked in and joined us. A low-toned chat with the waiter followed, while I looked with amazement at the wide array of knives and forks by our places.

’What can all these be for?’ I asked Charles.

’You’ll see. I’ll tell you which to use as we go on; and remember you needn’t finish everything up; it’s the thing to leave something on your plate.’

Such a meal as I had never dreamt of was then brought along in easy stages. Never had I been treated so obsequiously as by that waiter. When wine was served I began to wonder what mother would think. It gave that touch of diablerie to the whole evening that was the main charm. To this day I never pass the ‘Cri’ without recalling my one and only visit to it, with those adored brothers.

One reason for the paucity of Molly’s experience was that theatre, in this period, was not really considered suitable for the well-bred; the quality went to the opera, to stroll in the pleasure gardens (by now gas-lit and open in the evenings) or perhaps to musical recitals such as the popular programmes of choral singing offered by the children at London’s Foundling hospital. Nevertheless, more or less elaborate theatricals were widely available and popular with the working classes. They ranged from the “penny gaff” – the cheapest sort of neighbourhood theatre, most popular in the first half of the Victorian period, and often found in the back room of a pub – up to large theatres that operated, by the end of the era, as music halls and were the most popular form of mass entertainment before the advent of the cinema.

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A Victorian-era public house. Women were welcome – in some parts of the premises – and in some circumstances would visit unaccompanied.

Given Henry Mayhew’s broad experience of (and considerable sympathy for) many of the aspects of working class life in the mid-Victorian period, it is interesting that his view of the penny gaff was negative; he thought it “the foulest, dingiest place of public entertainment I can conceive,” with an unspeakably vile odour – a place “where juvenile poverty meets juvenile crime.” The entertainment on offer consisted of six performances a day of gory retellings of violent crimes, laced with “filthy songs, clumsy dancing and filthy dancing,” which – reading between the lines – we can suppose were shocking more for their crude and sexual- or violence-charged lyrics and actions than anything else. Also shocking: most the audience at a penny gaff, Mayhew found, were women.

Street performances of various sorts were also popular and affordable. Puppetry, usually centred around Punch and Judy, was an enduring perennial in all its various forms (“the Fantoccini… the Chinese Shades…”), but there were also hundreds of performers scraping a living as clowns, fire-eaters, sword swallowers and so on. “When we perform in the streets, we generally go through this programme,” one Fantoccini man explained to Mayhew, as he set out a highly elaborate set of entertainments:

We begins with a female hornpipe dancer; then there is a set of quadrilles by some marionette figures, four females and no gentlemen… for four is as much as I can handle at once. After this we include a representation of Mr. Grimaldi the clown, and a comic dance and so forth, such as trying to catch a butterfly. Then comes the enchanted Turk. He comes on in the costume of a Turk, and he throws off his right and left arm, and then his legs, and they each change into different figures, the arms and legs into two boys and girls, a clergyman the head, and an old lady the body…. Then there’s the tightrope dancer, and next the Indian juggler… They are all carved figures, and all my own make.

Just down the road on a holiday evening, one might encounter stilt-walkers, strong-men or groups of “street posturers,” as contortionists and acrobats were sometimes known.

“There’s five in our gang now,” the leader of one such troupe of tumblers said, around 1850:

There’s three high for ‘pyramids’ and ‘the Arabs hanging down’ … there’s ‘the spread,’ that’s one on the shoulders and one hanging from each hand, and ‘the Hercules,’ that is, one on the ground while one stands on his knees, another on his shoulders, and the one one a-top of them two, on their shoulders… The dances are mostly comic dances, or, as we call them, comic hops. He throws his legs around and makes faces, and he dresses as a clown.

Such performers had to be acutely aware of exactly how and when they might be paid:

Our gang generally prefers performing in the West End, because there’s more ‘calls’ there. Gentlemen looking out of the window see us, and call us to stop and perform; but we don’t trust them, even, but make a collection when the performance is half over… And yet we like poor people better than the rich, for it’s the halfpence that tells [adds] up the best.

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The Oxford Music Hall in 1875 – a relatively high-class example of such an establishment, and one in which the sexes mingled. In lower-class London music halls, prostitution and sexual encounters were commonplace.

By the 1850s, though, tastes in entertainment were already changing. Theatre, music hall and pantomime (already becoming a Christmas-time entertainment by then, but one that was available for months at a time, rather than solely during the festive season) began to emerge in the 1860s. Performances were long and varied, often lasting from 7,00 or 7.30 till 11 – so, rather as in 1930s cinemas, with their cartoons, newsreels, second and main features, you got an entire evening’s entertainment for somewhere around 2d or 4d. Most early Victorian programmes centred on melodrama, or sometimes circus-style performance, but by the end of the period music hall had triumphed as the most popular form of entertainment for lower-class audiences. A typical programme might involve a dozen different touring artists, who worked circuits up and down the country, from popular singers such as Marie Lloyd to comedians like Dan Leno. Broad, often rather “blue” humour was increasingly permitted and appreciated as the century progressed, and it was often possible to smoke and drink in the auditorium, which helped to make for an especially raucous atmosphere.

The most famous British music hall was the Alhambra, in London, which had a capacity of about 5,000 and had started out as a sort of permanent circus venue in the 1850s. it was well known for its elaborate scenery and mixed everything from ballet to what was advertised as “a dance forbidden in Paris” into its programme. Such venues did attract female audiences, but could often be centres of prostitution. Entry to the main part of the building cost a shilling just for standing room – a large sum for the time – and, visiting in 1869, James Greenwood found that the entertainment on offer was aimed more squarely at men than at women:

in the boxes and balconies sat brazen-faced women, blazoned in tawdry finery, curled and painted … there is no mistaking these women.

Behind the numerous bars, meanwhile,

superbly-attired barmaids vend strong liquor… besides these, there are small private apartments to which a gentleman desirous of sharing a bottle of wine with a recent acquaintance may retire.

This brings us on to pub-going, which was undoubtedly a central part of working class nights out. Female drinkers were normal sights in such places, making up between a quarter and a third of the clientele (but middle- and upper class women most certainly were not). Young women tended not to be regular pub-goers however; the typical Victorian era female clientele was middle-aged or even elderly. There was a reason for this; Gutzke explains that

age, marital status, and income imposed insuperable barriers to acceptability. Young, unmarried women seldom ventured into the pub alone, lest they be mistaken for prostitutes. Middle-aged or older wives, the preponderant women in pubs, displayed two types of drinking behaviour: during the week the poverty-stricken – the largest group – drank with each other, while on the weekend wives from the lower-middle classes downwards might accompany their husbands.

While most pubs had bars that were male-only, therefore, they also had spaces where women were allowed. Charles Booth, the Salvation Army leader – and hence a morally disapproving commentator – spoke to one publican in the late 1890s who ran five public houses, in one of which which there were “seven bars, two of which are reserved for men only” – and also noted that while “children do sip the beer they are sent to fetch… this is not the origin of their liking for beer. This dates back to early infancy while they were yet in their mother´s arms. Mothers drink stout in order to increase the supply of milk in the breast but often help the baby straight from the pintpot from which they help themselves.” Another publican, “Mr Clews of Clerkenwell,” observed that this was “a great area for women’s drinking… Women take rum in cold weather and gin in hot. “Dog´s nose” they also drink which is a compound of beer and gin.”

Marie Lloyd

Marie Lloyd, the great female star of the English music halls, had an act that combined renditions of popular songs with “blue” humour.

Of course, not all entertainment was so raucous. Young mothers – and many young women were also young mothers in the Victorian period – might not often get the chance to visit any sort of theatre or penny gaff, and their entertainments were often of a gentler kind. One girl born in 1855 looked back fondly to the gatherings that her mother and her mother’s female friends had taken their children to in summer in Victoria Park, by the 1860s the only significant area of greenery in London’s crowded East End. A special attraction of the park was that it was possible to hire prams there – “very few people had prams of their own then, but it was possible to hire them at 1d an hour… We would picnic on bread and treacle under the trees and return home in the evening a troop of tired but happy children.”

For the rather better off, there were zoos in Regents Park and Surrey Gardens, the British Museum (open three days a week from 10 till 4 – and till 7pm in summer), the titillating medical exhibits of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and indeed freak shows, and one-off performances of all sorts, at which one main attraction was the chance of witnessing death and disaster. A pioneering parachutist, Cocking, died attempting a descent from 5,000 feet at Vauxhall Gardens in 1837; in 1871 a huge crowd gathered on London Bridge to watch the celebrated swimmer ‘Natator, the Man-Frog’ dive from the balustrade into the river, only to be disappointed when the performer appeared but was promptly arrested for attempted suicide.

So a wide variety of entertainment was on offer in the Victorian city, much of it relatively innocent, some of it considered, by the moral authorities of the day, liable to corrupt, and a little of it actually dangerous. But we cannot close without considering the moral dimension of popular entertainment, especially as it applied to single women. Judith Walkowitz’s influential City of Dreadful Delight, for example, maps the social panics prompted by the “narratives of sexual danger” that warned young, independent Victorian-era women that enjoyment of the city’s pleasures might easily usher them down the path that led to prostitution, pre-marital sex, venereal disease, or alcoholism. All this raises important questions, not least about agency; the women Walkowitz writes about were all too often “figures in an imaginary urban landscape of male spectators” – and male predators. These fears, Walkowitz shows, typically coalesced into strident anti-vice campaigns, condemnation of most expressions of sexuality, melodramatic newspaper coverage, and fresh mutations in the Foucauldian power relationships of the period. They are also powerful reminders that the history of popular entertainment in the Victorian period is as good a demonstration as any other of the inequality of opportunity, treatment and potential agency that coloured female experience, and was typical of this, and other, periods.

Ruth Alexander, who writes of New York in a slightly later period, givens numerous excellent examples of the way in which any “rebellious working girls” who fought against the sort of constraints imposed on them in these ways could easily be treated. Even slightly sexually awakened, or emancipated, behaviour on the part of young women was regarded as a serious threat – with often catastrophic consequences for the girls. For example, 16-year-old Nellie Roberts was sent to the New York State Reformatory for Women in 1917 as a “menace to the community” for the crime of standing on the roadside and “hailing men on motorcycles and asking them for rides.” This was seen as tantamount to prostitution. Alexander’s detailed and more empathetic investigation of Nellie’s circumstances uncovered a desire to escape fuelled by a desperately unhappy family background – a dead mother; a drunk father who raped his eldest daughter and “got fresh” with Nellie, too, on several occasions; poverty; boyfriends who might sometimes be “good to her” but were equally capable of sexual assault. When we read contemporary accounts of female “social delinquency,” we would do well to remember that many such cases were underpinned by circumstances as bad as those that Nellie Roberts endured, or worse.


Ruth Alexander, The ‘Girl Problem’: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930 (1995); Carl Chinn, They Worked All Their Lives: Women of the Urban Poor in England, 1880-1939 (1988); Mike Dash, “Friedrich Engels’ Irish Muse,” 2013; David W. Gutzke, “Gender, Class, and Public Drinking in Britain During the First World War,” Social History (1994); M.V. [Molly] Hughes, A London Family, 1870-1900 (1946); Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (1851); Liza Picard, Victorian London: The Life of A City, 1840-1870 (2005); Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (1992).

Q: You wrote:

Judith Walkowitz’s influential City of Dreadful Delight, for example, maps the social panics prompted by the “narratives of sexual danger” that warned young, independent Victorian-era women that enjoyment of the city’s pleasures might easily usher them down the path that led to prostitution, pre-marital sex, venereal disease, or alcoholism.

I recently read a paper by Ruth H. Bloch, “Changing Conceptions of Sexuality and Romance in Eighteenth-Century America,” in which she sets out to examine normative rather than transgressive sex and sexuality and how that changes across the century.

To quote her:

Many scholars have focused on the prohibitions or abuse; few have examined the aspirations.

The titles of two of the books you cited hint to me that this is probably an almost universal issue. Sexual delinquency and sexual danger, especially, of course, with regard to women. Are there many sources out there that help to coax out the aspirations of female sexuality in Victorian England? Aside from what might be shouted down from the pulpit, of course.

A: I think that’s a very fair question and Bloch seems to me to be clearly right – though perhaps Walkowitz and Alexander might contend that the cases they are writing about were actually the products of increasing aspirations.

Part of the problem, certainly, is the nature of the sources available. “Female delinquency” resulted in court cases, concerned reports by learned bodies and official enquiries, and of course copious newspaper coverage as well. Very few women wrote about their sexual feelings in this period. Other forms of aspiration (such as Molly Hughes’s – she eventually became one of the most prominent figures in education in London in the early 1900s) leave little trace, and they might also be cut short as well – in Molly’s case she gave everything up to be a wife when she married (entirely willingly, it should be said, though of course her willingness was in itself a product of her upbringing), and went back to work only after the early death of her husband.

We’re reliant on diaries, letters and memoirs, like Molly’s, for much of our information about women’s aspirations when these did not cause them to run foul of the moral and the actual police of the period – and these are conspicuously devoid of information about explicitly sexual aspirations. On top of that, our sources are very heavily biased towards upper and middle class women, which in turn makes them unrepresentative because such women had access to wider (though still very limited) opportunities. One of the very few examples of a working class Victorian woman making a huge success of her own life, and agitating to improve the lives of others, is that of Victoria Woodhull, who in the 1870s became the first woman to run for US President – and it’s very notable that Woodhull had to take at least the first steps along that path by exploiting her great beauty, rather than her impressive brains. The most important reason why Woodhull aroused the widespread condemnation and revulsion that she did was that she was a “sex radical” – meaning a supporter of women’s right to enjoy the same sexual pleasure and sexual experience as a contemporary man. This was a profoundly shocking position to take in the 1870s. I think you might find Joanne Ellen Passet’s Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality (2003) especially interesting as a result.

One interesting sidelight on all this is the way in which popular religion and popular protest formed a legitimate outlet for female aspiration. You would probably be interested in studies of the roles that women played in the new spiritualist movement and it is very noticeable, also, how prominent women from less well-off social backgrounds, such as the merely middle class Annie Besant, were in theosophy. Then there was nursing – where the all-too-recently eminent Mary Seacole made her name. A few working class women were also prominent in the women’s suffrage movement, even though the vast majority of suffragists did not think it was feasible to agitate for the vote for women who failed to meet the usual property qualifications (which excluded pretty much the entire working class). But the prominent ones were so rare that they were practically exhibits, used by their better-off colleagues to demonstrate that such aspirations actually existed. The suffragettes of the WSPU, for instance, made a great deal of Annie Kenney, a former mill worker who was the only working class person to feature among their most senior hierarchy.

Finally, one of my favourites of all the things I’ve written is this essay on the experiences of Philippa Fawcett (the daughter of the suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett, and a government minister, so hardly poorly off) in demonstrating conclusively that women were not in fact “fragile, dependent, prone to nerves and—not least—possessed of a mind that was several degrees inferior to a man’s” – which she did by causing international consternation in becoming the only female ever to top the results in Cambridge’s mathematics tripos. It’s possibly the only thing I’ve ever written that is capable of raising goose-bumps.

So you may also find some interesting reading in the following:

Lynn Donald, Mary Seacole: the Making of a Myth (2014)

Amanda Fricksen, Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution: Political theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth century America (2004)

Anne Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America(1989)

Annie Kenney, Memoirs of a Militant (1921)

 Q: Did British criminals in the 1700s and 1800s really worship a deity called the Tawny Prince? If so, what were the origins of this deity?

Criminals worshiping the Tawny Prince is mentioned briefly in this book on Australian history I’m reading, Commonwealth of Thieves by Thomas Keneally… Googling the Tawny Prince gets me nothing at all.

A: Thomas Keneally’s Commonwealth of Thieves is a popular history of the first years of the British colony in Australia, published in 2006.

Keneally (an Australian who is, of course, best known as a novelist, and as the author of Schindler’s List) uses the term “Tawny Prince” – always with capitals – five times in the course of his book. The most significant mentions are:

“… In Spitalfields to the east, in squalor unimaginable, lived all classes of criminals, speaking a special criminal argot and bonded together by devotion and oath to the criminal deity, the Tawny Prince. The Tawny Prince was honoured by theft, chicanery and a brave death on the gallows…” [p.20]

[Of convicts on their arrival in Australia:] “Not that they were reborn entirely, since they brought their habits of mind and the Tawny Prince, the deity of the London canting crews, with them” [p.81]

[Of a wild celebration in the rain:] “The great Sydney bacchanalia went on despite the thunderstorm. Fists were raised to God’s lightning; in the name of the Tawny Prince and in defiance of British justice, the downpour was cursed and challenged…” [p.89]

All this is referenced, so Keneally did not invent the Tawny Prince, but a little further research does suggest he took a fairly basic reference, elaborated it, embroidered it, and used it to produce a much more solid and distinct figure than the evidence actually warrants. All in the name of good colour, I am sure.


The crowded streets of Georgian London were a haven fro thousands of criminals of all varieties. But did the rookeries and canting crews actually spawn a perverted religion?

Let’s start with Keneally’s own notes. He cites as his references for a collection of material about the “Tawny Prince” and cant (thieves’ slang) as Watkin Tench’s Sydney’s First Four Years and Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1811.

Tench was an officer in the marines who was part of the First Fleet. The book Keneally cites was a 1961 reprint of one originally titled A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, first published by Debrett in London in 1789. This contains no reference to the Tawny Prince, so in fact Keneally’s only source is Grose (1731-91), an antiquary, whose work (correctly titled Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue) was first published in 1785.

This work does contain a passing reference to the Tawny Prince, not in the form of a separate entry, but rather inserted as a phrase that forms part of a much longer oath supposedly taken by “Gypsies” (a term which Grose uses not to mean “Romani,” but as a synonym for vagrants of all sorts) when “a fresh recruit is admitted into the fraternity.” The relevant extract is the first of several clauses, and is:

“I, Crank Cuffin, do swear to be a true brother, and that I will in all things obey the commands of the great tawney prince, and keep his counsel and not divulge the secrets of my brethren.”

Now, The Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang confirms that a “crank-cuffin” is an 18th century term for a vagrant feigning sickness, which at least implies that the claimed oath is in the language of the period, but Grose incorporates no commentary at all, so we are left to our own devices in attempting to make sense of the terms and of the passage as a whole.

We can start with the bio of Grose that appears in the Dictionary of National Bibliography, which notes:

Captain Francis Grose, antiquary and author of the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

From 1783 he published in a torrent to make a living. The Supplement to the Antiquities was resumed, with a greater proportion of views from other artists, particularly S. H. Grimm, and was completed with 309 plates in 1787. This and the main series were reissued in a cheaper edition in 1783–7. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) and A Provincial Glossary, with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (1787) were at the time the largest assemblage of ‘non-standard’ words or meanings, about 9000, omitted from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary; they drew on his fieldwork as far back as the 1750s. The first parts of two other pioneering works appeared in 1786: Military Antiquities and A Treatise on Ancient Armour. Both relied mainly on his specialist library and the armouries at the Tower of London, but also included observations on military music from the 1740s. Of more popular appeal was Rules for Drawing Caricaturas: with an Essay on Comic Painting (1788).

How much further does this get us? The reference to “fieldwork” is intriguing, but it’s balanced by the discussion of a “torrent” of works churned out to make a living, and in fact a careful search shows that Grose’s source was not some vagrant informer, but rather the grammarian James Buchanan’s New Universal Dictionary of 1776, which has an entry for “Gypsies” that contains a fuller version of the same oath that Grose gives, referenced more precisely to what appears to be a description of the Romani people, in which is embedded in a significantly more detailed account of gypsy oath-making. Buchanan, sadly, gives no source for his information or the reference to the “tawney prince”, but his own gloss on the oath as a whole is as follows:

“The Canters have, it seems a Tradition, that from the three first Articles of this Oath, the first Founders of a certain boastful, worshipful Fraternity, who pretend to derive their Origin from the earliest Times, borrowed of them, both the Hint and Form of their Establishment. And that their pretended first derivation from Adam, is a forgery…”

That is as far back as I have been able to trace the term,* but I’m afraid that a more sober consideration of Grose and especially of Buchanan and his gloss indicates that the “great tawny prince” was not some sort of special deity of thieves, in the way that Keneally uses the term, but simply a synonym for the prince of darkness – that is, the devil. (Note, in support of this argument, the lack of capitals in the term “tawney prince” as given by both Grose and Buchanan, and in contradistinction to Keneally’s usage.) I think the inference of the word “tawny” is essentially “animal-like” – with a hide. Although it’s much less common now, 17th and 18th century portrayals of the devil very frequently saw him described as a shape-shifter who could and did assume animal forms, appearing as an ox or a bull, among other disguises. These carried with them implications of physical vigour, lack of restraint, and being placed beyond the order of human society.

We can also check the impressive online collection of trial reports known as The Proceedings of the Old Bailey. This is “a fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court” between 1674 and 1913. Although the reports are not literally trial transcripts of everything that was said in every case, but rather court reporters’ summaries of salient points, the most celebrated and interesting trials did receive extensive coverage that included verbatim reporting of some segments. Nowhere in this gigantic criminal word-mine do the terms “Tawny Prince” or “Tawney Prince” appear – so I think we can be certain that the figure imagined by Keneally was not a commonly-evoked deity, or even a figure commonly sworn to, in the whole of this period.

As such, it seems likely that the oath taken is presented not as one sworn to a real “god” of any sort, but rather an inversion of the sort of decent oath an honest Christian might swear by his or her God, in which insertion of mention of the devil actually serves to underline the dastardly and perverted nature of the oath for the dictionary’s intended audience – not thieves, but gentlefolk who, it is intended, will be horrified by it. The idea that thieves and criminals of every stripe were organised into an ordered fraternity that placed itself in distinct opposition to decent society was not only an outrage in itself, but also helped to justify their persecution – which, in this period, before the repeal of the ‘Bloody Code’, was notoriously severe.

* Further research shows the “gypsy” oath does date to a slightly earlier period. A colleague informs me: “The whole inverted-oath and attached gloss goes back at least to Richard Head’s The Canting Academy of 1673. He has it as “great tawny Prince.” Head is most famous as a satirist and fiction writer, so it’s a toss-up that he pastiched the oath together himself.”

Q: How bad would it have smelled in a medieval city?

One of the almost perfectly preserved medieval alleyways in Albarracín, Spain – a village noted for its surviving 10th-15th century architecture.

A: Smell is a problem for historians. The vocabulary that we have to describe smells is much less nuanced than it is for other senses (Gordon, 120); Isidore of Seville divided them very crudely into either “sweet” or “stinking”. Moreover, unlike physical objects, smell leaves no trace of itself to be studied, so we are entirely dependent on written descriptions. And we’re all familiar with the ways in which we quickly become inured to bad smells – smelly rooms cease to stink so badly when we spend some time in them – so it’s very probable that things that would smell very strongly to us, were we to be suddenly exposed to them now, passed largely unnoticed in their time. A good example is garum, the Roman condiment used as freely by them as ketchup is by us. Garum’s main ingredient is putrid fish guts, but the smell, highly offensive to us, was not considered foul by them. Adds Piers Mitchell:

“Some of the nuisances and smells that annoy many modern urban populations were an accepted part of everyday life in ancient cities. People simply had a higher tolerance to the unsanitary conditions of their city, and therefore the rigorous standards of proper waste disposal would seem irrelevant and impossible to reach for those in the past.” (Mitchell, 70).

We can certainly say that medieval people did notice smells and that they described them in terms that ascribed moral dimensions to them. They believed there was such a thing as an “odour of sanctity”, generally described as sweet, like honey; paradise was thought to smell “sweet, like a multitude of flowers”; and the martyrdom of Thomas Becket was “likened to the breaking of a perfume box, suddenly filling Christ Church, Canterbury, with the fragrance of ointment” (Woolgar, 118). But good smells were also temptations (monks were urged to avoid the smells of spices, which would tempt them to demand better food) and when they entered the body, they could be channels for disease (Cockayne, 17). Conversely, bad smells were associated with hypocritical, evil or irreligious behaviour, and those who sinned were assumed to have acquired a stench: Shakespeare’s Gloucester “smells a fault” and later in Lear is thrown out to “smell his way to Dover,” where an enemy army is waiting.

The public latrines on the Thames at London Bridge, from a medieval manuscript: British Library Yates Thompson, 47 f. 94v.

In other words, “defamation had a strong moral odour” (Woolgar, 123); a case brought before the courts at Wisbech in c.1468 involved the insulting of John Sweyn by William Freng, who had called him a “stynkyng horysson”. Allen has some revealing things to say about the medieval attitude to farting: “To smell the intestinal by-product of others brings one into extimate relation with them; more profound than psychoanalysis, it entails a knowledge more intimate than sight or hearing, more detached than touching or licking…. The stink of a fart belongs to a different mode of being.” (Allen, 52-3)

Smell in this period was also closely associated with the concept of miasma – the idea that disease was borne on waves of foul air that were betrayed by their smell. This means we do have evidence that medieval people noticed changes in the levels of smells that they might not otherwise have commented on; there was a case in London in 1421, involving the surreptitious dumping of refuse by one William atte Wode, which tells us a lot about what were then considered the main sources of bad smells in the city – and also that the people of London differentiated between stench and a “wholesome aire” which was

“faire and cleare without vapours and mists… lightsome and open, not dark, troublous and close … not infected with carrian lying long above ground… [nor] stinking and corrupted with ill vapours, as being neere to draughts, sinckes, dunghills, gutters, chanels, kitchings, church-yardes and standing waters.” (Rawcliffe, 124)

Tanneries, which cured leather with the help of large pits filled with urine, night soil and ash – were a major contributor to the stench of medieval cities throughout Europe. The remains of this tannery were discovered beneath modern Nottingham.

With all this said, we can also highlight some of the smells that would have struck us most strongly, have we visited a medieval or early modern city (I include the latter because we have more evidence for them, and changes in the way cities were run were not extensive between the medieval and early modern periods.) In terms of overall sensation, these would include the sulphurous smell of burning coal (Brimblecombe, 9); Green rather imaginatively, but probably fairly, goes further and invokes a “richly layered and intricately woven tapestry of putrid, aching stenches: rotting offal, human excrement, stagnant water,… foul fish, the burning of tallow candles, and an icing of animal dung on the streets.”

In terms of locales, we would notice the smells generated by small scale industry, which was mixed up indiscriminately with living spaces (no industrial parks in those days) – perhaps most especially those created by the slaughterman and butcher (whose work produced a rich stench of blood and excrement), the fuller, the skinner and the tanner. Not a lot of care went into disposing of the by-products of these industries. The dredging of one Cambridge well yielded 79 cat carcasses, dumped there by a local skinner; his preparation of their pelts would have involved treating them with a high-smelling solution of quicklime (Rawcliffe, 206). Tanning – which required the copious use of bodily wastes and the immersion of skins “for long periods in timber lined pits of increasingly noisome liquids… a malodorous combination of oak bark, alum, ashes, lime, saltpetre, faeces and urine” (Rawcliffe, 207) – was widely considered the worst-smelling work of the period. Glue- soap- and candle-making all involved rendering animal fats, and their smells would also have been prominent; soap-makers boiled lime, ash and fat together to make their products (Cockayne, 199). Then there were the smells of cooking and of animals (Ackroyd notes that in the fifteenth century the dog house at London’s Moorgate sent forth “great noyious and infectyve aiers”). The area along the Thames would have added the smell of pitch, used to caulk timbers in the shipbuilding trade (Cockayne, 9).

Fleet Ditch – London’s most infamous open sewer – was actually the highly polluted River Fleet. It is seen here in the Victorian period and the river still flows under London today – less polluted now, and completely built over.

We would certainly notice the open sewers, such as London’s infamous Fleet Ditch – actually a small river into which nightsoil and industrial byproducts were dumped – which ran directly down the centre of major roads towards the Thames, even though contemporary accounts rarely refer to them unless something happened to make the smells worse than usual. This happened to the Fleet in the 13th century, when the river became so choked with tannery filth that it was no longer navigable above Holborn Bridge (Chalfant, 81). In 1749, a body dragged from the Ditch was initially supposed to be that of a murder victim; it turned out to belong to a man who made his living dragging the sewers for the carcasses of dogs that he could sell to skinners, and who had fallen in by accident (Cockayne, 199)

Different towns would have had their own characteristic smells, based in large part on the nature of local industry. In my own book Tulipomania, I discussed the smells of the Dutch town of Haarlem (a great centre of brewing and linen-dyeing) in the early 17th century:

The city stank of buttermilk and malt, the aromas of its two principal industries: bleaching and beer. Haarlem breweries produced a fifth of all the beer made in Holland, and the town’s celebrated linen bleacheries, just outside the walls, used hundreds gallons of buttermilk a day to dye cloth shipped to the city from all over Europe a dazzling white. The milk filled a series of huge bleaching pits along the west walls, and each evening it was drained off into Haarlem’s moat, and thence into the River Spaarne, dyeing the waters white.

Last, but not least, of course, there were the smells of the human population itself, with its unwashed, decaying or diseased bodies. The lack of dental treatment available in the period meant that most people would have suffered badly from bad breath. At least until the advent of sugar in the diet in early modern period, decay was not as common as it would become – the grain-based diet of the period tended to wear down teeth to flat but regular planes, without leaving crevices in which food could fester. But archaeology reveals extensive evidence of plaque build ups that would have been very noticeable to anyone in close proximity. Dante likens the stench of the hellmouth to the stink of human breath, and Jones notes that in medieval Wales, “a peasant woman could divorce her husband on the grounds of his halitosis.” (Jones and Ereira, 29)


Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography; Valerie Allen, On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages; Peter Brimbelcombe, The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London; Fran C. Chalfant, Ben Jonson’s London: A Jacobean Placename Dictionary; Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England; Mike Dash, Tulipomania; Sarah Gordon, Culinary Comedy in French Medieval Literature; Matthew Green, London: A Travel Guide Through Time; Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives; PM Mitchell, Sanitation, Latrines and Intestinal Parasites in Past Populations; Carol Rawcliffe, Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities; CM Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England

Q: Your points about smelly industries makes me wonder about something: I vaguely recall reading that specifying where tanneries and such could be located was a very early form of city building code. IOW, the people of the time recognized that these tasks were unpleasant and wanted them to be located at a slight remove. Is there any truth to this recollection?

A: There was some regulation – there is evidence from early 14th century Norwich that polluting industries were forced to locate downriver of the main population, and Stanford’s Ordinances of Bristol notes that Bristol soap-boilers so polluted the Avon that they were ordered to halt the practice of throwing waste ash into the waters for fear that it would lead to “the utter decaie and destruction of the same river.” But this was rare and the product of severe and repeated problems. The reality is that small scale change was more often achieved by bringing cases to a court than by pre-emptory law-making.

So Kermode, in Medieval Merchants: York, Beverley and Hull in the Later Middle Ages (p.19) and Schofield and Vince, in their Medieval Towns (p.144), all point out that clear-cut zoning of occupations was not a feature of medieval towns; certain industries did cluster together, as is commonly demonstrated by surviving street names – a study of Ghent shows distinct quarters for carpenters, drapers, mercers, fishmongers and leatherworkers – but this was more a matter of convenience than law-making. The same effects help explain clusters of related industries. Tanners used the bark discarded by carpenters.

London Bridge, with Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, in the foregrounds, from an engraving by Claes van Vischer, 1616.

That said, the London tanning industry was based largely in Bermondsey, on the far side of the river to most of the city, in part because it was also, notoriously, in a part of town that was much more lightly regulated and policed than the City of London itself. That is why Southwark was also the centre of London’s disreputable (and closely connected) theatre and prostitution industries. Cockayne notes that “location was the cause of some nuisances” – meaning indictments brought because of inconvenience – and that while “all citizens drank beer, used candles, and wore shoes, few wanted to live near a brewer, a chandler, or a tanner.” (Cockayne, 21). In Manchester, “leet juries” had the power to hear cases involving “noysome” – meaning smelly – inconveniences.

Incidentally, the word noisome itself is a contraction of “annoysome”.

Q: Was it likely that garum smelt particularly worse than modern Thai/Vietnamese fish sauce, or even Worcestershire Sauce? Both are made from fermented fish.

A: The best garum was made from the guts of rotten mackerel. The bones were taken out and the flesh and fish blood was mashed up together and poured into a large amphora. A layer of strong-tasting herbs like dill, mint and oregano was tipped on top, then lots of salt – ‘two finger lengths’, one recipe said, which is about 12cm. The Romans added more layers of fish, herbs and salt until the jar was full. Then they left it lying in the hot sun for a week until the fish had gone off and was pretty rank.

Making garum – a modern reconstruction of an ancient method.

After that, the mixture was stirred every day for three weeks, before it was sieved and the fish sauce was sent to Rome, where it fetched high prices.

On this basis one might suppose garum was better smelling than South East Asian fish sauces, which don’t usually contain herbs. It would depend on how you feel about the smell of mackerel compared to the smell on anchovy, the typical ingredient in a Thai fish sauce. Both are oily fishes, so perhaps it’s not too different. The Roman method, which left the fermenting fish lying around in an amphora, likely created stronger concentrations of smell than the Asian method, in which fermentation takes place inside a sealed barrel.

The best garum came from Barcelona in Spain. The factories that made it smelled so bad that they had to be built miles away from the nearest houses. Ordinary Romans were banned from making garum in their own homes because the stench was so awful the neighbours tended to complain.

Q: What exactly were the relics on which Harold Godwinson swore his oath to William of Normandy?

Harold swears his fatal oath of fealty to William – from that masterpiece of Norman-era propaganda, the Bayeux tapestry.

A: The exact nature of the relics is not specified in the most reliable contemporary sources. According to Orderic Vitalis – an Anglo-French monk who was writing more than half a century later, but who had been brought up in a Norman monastery – Harold swore on super sanctissimus reliquias juraverat, generally translated as “very sacred saint’s relics”. Anglo-Saxon sources from the 1060s are completely silent on the subject, however, and it’s as possible to argue that the entire story of Harold’s oath was an invention of the Norman propaganda machine, used to justify William’s invasion, as it is to suppose that the Saxon chronicles deliberately suppressed an incident discreditable to one of their own. Elizabeth van Houts, in her 1992 edition of William of Jumieges’s Gesta Normannorum Ducum, argues that the entire story is based on a single, official, Norman account, drawn up to be presented to the Pope in order to justify and seek approval for the invasion. Even Norman sources suggest there was an element of deception involved – that Harold only realised too late the holyness of the oath he’d sworn because the presence of the relics was concealed from him.

That said, some later sources are more specific. The Brevis Relatio, written by a monk of Battle Abbey around 1130, the Warenne Chronicle (about 1157) and Wace (a canon at Bayeux), writing after 1155, say one of the reliquaries was the “ox eye” or “bull’s eye”. Wace’s passage says that William “ordered that all the holy relics be assembled in one place, having an entire tub filled with them; then he ordered them covered with a silk cloth so that Harold neither knew about them nor saw them, nor was it pointed out to him. On top of it he placed a reliquary, the finest he could choose and the most precious he could find; I have heard it called ‘ox-eye’.” Apparently this was because the centre of the reliquary was an elaborate mounting for a magnificent gemstone.

William the Conqueror (c.1028-1086): a decidedly non-contemporary image.

If this identification is accepted then the relics may have been those of St Pancras, which the Warenne Chronicle explicitly identifies with the ox-eye reliquary. Pancras, a Roman citizen of Diocletian’s reign, was especially venerated in England because St Augustine had been despatched from Rome bearing some of his relics when he was sent to convert the Saxons. However, the cult of St Pancras was unknown in Normandy, which perhaps suggests that Warenne was wrong, and implies that it was more likely that any oath was sworn on locally venerated relics.

If so, then much depends on where exactly an oath may have been sworn. There is no agreement on this point. Orderic says Rouen, William of Poitiers says Bonneville-sur-Toques, and the Bayeux Tapestry puts it in Bayeux. Stephen D. White, in his “Locating Harold’s oath and tracing his itinerary” in Pastan and White [eds] The Bayeux Tapestry and its Contexts, takes this latter identification and uses it to suggest that the most likely candidate is the bones of Saints Rasyphus and Ravennus. He argues that Duke William’s brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, is known to have commissioned a new reliquary to hold these c.1050 which can be identified with the image of the reliquary shown on the Bayeux Tapestry.

However, Odo’s name is not associated with this stage of the tapestry narrative, meaning it’s difficult to establish who exactly selected the reliquaries for any oath that was sworn. There’s no way to be certain, but if the incident occurred, and if it occurred at Bayeux, then most likely Odo would have been involved. As such, White’s identification, while it must be considered tentative, is certainly not implausible.

Q:  I remember reading David C. Douglas’s “William the Conqueror” and one line stood out. I’m paraphrasing since it’s been about eight years since I read it and a quick look through the book was unsuccessful in finding the exact quote, but it was something like, “There can be no doubt [Harold Godwinson’s oath to William] was genuine.” My immediate thought was “wait, what, it sounded like total bullshit made up by the Normans.”

What is the current historical consensus (or majority view) as to whether or not Harold ever swore an oath of loyalty to William?

A: There’s no question that Harold’s visit to Normandy, and the oath-swearing ceremony in which he vowed to support William’s claim to the English throne, are accepted by pretty much 100% of the authorities on this period – in fact the paper I linked to above is the only one I can recall reading that absolutely dismisses the idea. Other authorities question the veracity of Norman accounts of events, to varying degrees, but not that the events took place.

While it’s true that no contemporary Anglo-Saxon source mentions a visit by Harold to Normandy, and while I personally share your instinctive scepticism about the traditional account of events, it was therefore a little bit glib of me to imply that the two possibilities (there was a visit and an oath-swearing, there wasn’t) are equally probable. Let’s review the evidence as it’s generally set out.

Edward the Confessor, whose childless death precipitated a succession crisis in late Anglo-Saxon England.

[1] Could Harold have visited Normandy?

Saxon sources are silent about Harold’s whereabouts and activities between the conclusion of his campaign in Wales in 1063 and July 1065, when he is recorded as giving orders for the construction of a new hunting lodge at Portskewet to replace one lost in the course of a Welsh raid. Norman sources give no exact date for the supposed visit, but William of Poitiers places it at about the time of William’s acquisition of the county of Maine, which was complete by 1064. So there’s a sufficiently large hole in Harold’s known itinerary for the visit to have taken place at the time that Norman sources suggest it did. We have to conclude it’s possible he did travel to Normandy in 1064.

[2] How plausible is it that Harold could have gone to Normandy without leaving any trace in the contemporary record?

Perfectly plausible. We know this because Harold also made a visit to Flanders in 1056 which likewise left no trace in English sources. We only know about it because he witnessed a diploma drawn up in Flanders that year that has, fortuitously, survived. In addition, assuming that some ceremony in which Harold promised to support William’s claim to the English throne did take place, albeit under duress, Harold would have had no motive for broadcasting his actions when he returned home. There is one tiny fragment of evidence that suggests the Anglo-Saxon polity may have been aware of an oath-taking ceremony prior to the Conquest; this is a passage in the Vita Eadwardii Regis (a life/hagiography of Edward the Confessor) that observes that Harold was “rather too generous with his oaths (alas!)” But even if this gnomic comment refers to Harold’s Norman visit – and Frank Barlow prefers to interpret it as suggesting that Harold, unlike his brother Tostig “had the ‘smoothness’ of their father,” Earl Godwin – the VER was probably not completed until 1067 and the sole manuscript of it that we have appears to date to c.1100. We can’t rule out the insertion of a comment intended to win favour with the new king.

[3] What motive would Harold have had for visiting Normandy?

Four have been suggested.

The first is that he didn’t intend to go the France at all, but was caught in a storm while at sea in the English Channel. (This is first suggested by a late but very highly-regarded source, William of Malmesbury. As for what reason he might have had for being at sea … Malmesbury says a fishing expedition, and the Bayeux Tapestry’s rendition of this part of the story features a line of thread that has been interpreted as a fishing rod. If true, this would make this the sole reference to a high English noble engaging in fishing as a sport, rather than the more conventional hunting or falconry.) A Scandinavian source, King Harald’s Saga, also says bad weather, though it suggests Harold had been caught while sailing for Wales. Whether any of this is truth, it’s at least highly plausible to suppose that Harold had not intended to go to Normandy, as opposed to elsewhere in what’s now France, for reasons that I will discuss below.

Old Bayeux – the Norman town is possibly the likeliest setting for the controversial oath-taking ceremony Harold is alleged to have submitted to.

The second relates to another odd reference in the VER: that Harold was engaged in a study of the “princes of Gaul” and “noted down most carefully what he could get from them if he ever needed their services in any of his projects.” This has been interpreted as meaning he possibly undertook an expedition in search of a marriage alliance for one of his daughters, or perhaps a similar journey on behalf of his king.

The third is that he went to secure the freedom of two relatives – one of them his nephew, Hacon – who had been held hostage by Duke William since 1052. This is the view of the Canterbury chronicler Eadmer, writing in c.1100, but since it means that Harold would have willingly placed himself at the mercy of Duke William to secure the freedom of people whom he had apparently made no effort to get freed in the years 1052-64, I find this implausible.

The last is the official Norman view: that Harold was sent by Edward to confirm his promise of his throne to William. This last is also, I believe, highly unlikely, for three reasons. First, the throne was not entirely within the gift of the childless Edward; confirmation of an “outsider” candidate such as William would, at minimum, have required the approval of the Saxon witan, and Harold himself, it can very plausibly be supposed, would have vehemently opposed it – since it would very likely have resulted in a sharp fall in his personal power and prosperity. Second, when Edward wanted to name Edward (and later Edgar) Ætheling as his heir, he had him brought back to England, where he could be presented to the entire Saxon nobility; had he really wanted William to be accepted as his heir, it would have made more sense for William to be brought to England to meet the whole Saxon leadership than it would for one Saxon earl to travel to Normandy. Third, while the idea that there was a set line of succession is anachronistic in this period, it’s clear that Edward’s nephew, the ætheling Edgar – grandson of Edmund Ironside – was generally accepted as his heir at this point, and in fact had been brought back with his (by now deceased) father from exile in Hungary specifically to fill the role of heir apparent. It was only the timing of the Confessor’s death, which occurred when Edgar was still aged only about 14, too young to lead an army in battle, that made it possible for Harold to seize the throne in the extraordinary circumstances of 1066.

[4] What motive would Duke William have had for requiring Harold to swear an oath?

In my view, it’s here that the main conventional accounts of the oath-swearing ceremony break down. The purpose of the ceremony is quite clearly stated in the Norman sources to have been for William to secure Harold’s backing for his claim to be heir apparent to Edward’s throne. For William to have wanted to secure Harold’s support in this way makes perfect sense in light of what happened in 1066 – that is, it makes sense if we assume it went ahead on the basis that the Confessor would die in circumstances that made it possible for Harold to seize the throne for himself, and hence in circumstances that [i] made William’s claim much easier to press and [ii] made it necessary for him to dispose of Harold as a rival claimant. It makes very little sense in the circumstances that actually existed in 1064, when Edgar was very clearly the most obvious candidate for the throne – and, moreover, one whose recall from Hungary post-dated the supposed promise from Edward that William based his claim to the throne on.

Cnut the Great (right) and his wife, Emma. The Danish warlord took the Saxon throne by conquest in 1016, but his marriage to a Norman woman would have consequences for the kingdom three decades after his death.

To clarify this last point: Edward the Confessor certainly had pro-Norman sympathies. His mother was Norman and, during the period of Danish supremacy in England (the reigns of Cnut, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, 1016-1042), he had been sheltered at the Norman court. William’s claim was based on a promise Edward had supposedly made in c.1051-2, at the time of the fall of Harold’s father, Godwin, from royal favour. It is generally supposed that any such promise would have been engineered by, and made in the presence of, the Norman archbishop of Canterbury, Robert of Jumièges, prior to Robert’s deposition and exile at the behest of the resurgent Godwin family in 1052. Again, the very existence of such a promise is disputed, but if it had been made we can certainly say [i] that Edward had no absolute authority to make it and [ii] that, however much he did so under compulsion, it must have been effectively superseded or withdrawn by events post-1052, when Godwin was restored to his position as the chief power behind the throne. Given that the invasion of England from Normandy was an entirely unprecedented event, one that required the construction of a huge navy from scratch and that William’s barons apparently thought unfeasible, it would have made very little sense for William to assume that getting Harold’s support, via an oath sworn under compulsion – since, if Harold was in Normandy in 1064, he was effectively William’s prisoner there – would have helped much to cement a claim that would have set William against a legitimate member of the Saxon royal house, a close relative of the king, whose claim was acknowledged by the whole country (and de facto by the pope) at this time.

For me, such an action only makes sense in the context of William’s need to secure papal support for a claim made in the face of Harold’s kingship, not Edgar’s. That’s my main reason for suspecting that the oath-swearing was an invention of the Norman propaganda machine in 1066, not something that would plausibly have taken place in 1064. It is not impossible that a man as ambitious as William would have been willing to attempt an invasion of England in support of a claimed promise dating back to the early 1050s, and in face of the accession of an older Edgar Ætheling. But it seems highly doubtful he could have carried the papacy and his barons with him easily in order to assert such a claim. If he knew that then forcing an oath-taking ceremony on Harold makes comparatively little sense.

[5] Why are historians of the late Saxon and early Norman period so willing to support the oath-taking accounts given by Norman chroniclers?

Essentially, as Harold’s recent biographer Ian W. Walker puts in in his Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King (p.105) because they feel that Norman accounts “must have a basis in truth, otherwise their authors would lose [he means would have lost, at the time] credibility completely.” To believe this, you need to believe that [i] the true events of 1064 and the oath-swearing ceremony were widely known in the period 1066-1100, and [ii] that public credibility (in the very limited sense of credibility among the audience of likely readers of these manuscript chronicles) mattered more to chroniclers such as William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers than the favour of King William. I would respond that there is no evidence of general awareness of an oath-swearing ceremony in this period – much less of any willingness on the part of those who were familiar with it to challenge the version mandated by the man who had become one of the most powerful rulers of his age – and that both chroniclers were intimately associated with William and his court, and therefore highly unlikely to care about anything as much as they cared about retaining William’s favour. This undoubtedly made them potential, if not actual, mouthpieces for Norman propaganda, including the oath-taking story.

Tl;dr Historical consensus strongly favours the reality of the oath-taking story, but there are, nonetheless, reasons to doubt it is correct.

Q: What prompted the first emperor of Qin to have hundreds of scholars buried alive and their works burned? If history was the primary concern, what interpretations and narratives was he trying to suppress? Was live burial a “normal” punishment or an exceptional one, to make an example?

Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of China (259-210 BC) – a later, romanticised portrayal.

A: There are several points to consider here, and I will try to cover them one by one.

First, the general idea of live burial was not an invention of the First Emperor. More than 1,200 sacrificial burials dating to the Shang dynasty have been excavated at Xibeigsang alone, and these include “a few children who seem to have been trussed up and buried alive.” A second set of live burials – both men and women – dating to the Warring States period has been uncovered at Langjiazhuang. This type of burial is termed “human offerings” by Chinese archaeologists, as distinct from the “companions in death”, typically young women, who were dignified with their own burials. Both types of burial seem to have involved the executions of wives, slaves or attendants who were to accompany some eminent dynast or court official into the afterlife.

In addition, Chinese chronicles record that during the latter years of the Warring States period, not long before the First Emperor’s birth, the survivors of a Zhao army that had invaded the state of Qin, but been surrounded and starved into submission, were supposedly “buried alive” en masse by Bo Qi (AKA Bao Qi), the military genius who played a major part in setting up the eventual victory of Qin and the First Emperor over its rival states [Cambridge History of Ancient China I, 193, 640, 734].

This is the closest we get to an example of burial alive apparently being used as an exemplary punishment before Qin Shihuangdi’s time, but there is a vitally important caveat that applies both to Bo Qi’s atrocity and the deaths of 460 scholars in 212 BC that Sima Qian records, in his the Records of the Grand Historian, were ordered by the First Emperor. This relates to the correct way to translate “k’eng“, the word use to describe the deaths of both the scholars and the men of the defeated Zhao army. In its noun form, k’eng means “pit” and it is for this reason that it has been understood since at least the 16th century to mean “buried” or even “buried alive.” However, both Emmanuel-Edouard Chavannes and Timoteus Pokora have convincingly argued that it should be translated to mean only “to destroy” or “to put to death”; hence there has to be considerable doubt as to whether any scholars were buried alive in the First Emperor’s reign at all. This is not an insignificant point, since the extreme nature of the punishment is integral to the way in which the First Emperor has typically been viewed both by later Chinese chroniclers (who of course could readily imagine themselves suffering similar fates) and by modern historians. [Chavannes, Les Mémoires historiques de Se-ma Ts’ien traduits et annotés, II, 119; for Pokora’s views see Archiv Orientální 31 (1963), 170-1.]

The Daoist alchemists consulted by the First Emperor sought recipes for immortality and wealth in nature.

Second, if we go back to the works of Sima Qian, it becomes clear that the idea of burning books, if not that of executing scholars, was not the First Emperor’s, but rather a policy that was urged on him by his chancellor and chief advisor Li Si (Li Ssu in the old Wade-Giles system of transliteration).

The sequence of events as set out by Sima Qian is that a number of Confucian “scholars of wide learning” attended an imperial banquet held at Qin Shihuangdi’s palace in 213. One of these dared to criticise the Emperor for not following the example of Shang and Zhou emperors in giving fiefs to his sons and to “meritorious ministers,” a policy that, it was intimated, was crucial to the maintenance of these earlier dynasties. Li Si responded angrily that the “stupid literati” did not understand that things had changed and that “now the world has been pacified, laws and ordinances issue from one source alone.” Criticism of “the present age” would only “confuse and excite the ordinary people,” leading to a decline in imperial power. “It is expedient that these [criticisms] be prohibited,” he concluded.

The practical upshot of Li Si’s recommendation was an order that all the relevant records in the imperial record bureau be burned, that any public discussion of the two most important, the poems of the Book of Songs and the chronicles and collections of speeches contained in the Book of Documents, be punishable by death. Furthermore, Li Si urged that orders be given that all copies of the prohibited works that existed outside the immediate control of the imperial government be burned within 30 days.

This order applied specifically to works of history, custom and law. Works relating to divination, agriculture, medicine and forestry were excluded from the edict. Moreover, even copies of the forbidden works were authorised to be preserved within the archives of the Bureau of Academicians. The purpose of the order that interests you, therefore, was explicitly to prevent unrest and not to utterly destroy knowledge, nor, as is sometimes supposed, to establish a Pol Pot style “Year Zero” for a new period of Chinese history, beyond which future historians would not be able to penetrate. It was possession and discussion of the forbidden works by scholars who were beyond the immediate control of the state (unlike those manning the Bureau of Academicians) that Li Si really objected to.

Most scholars suppose that the edict remained in place for no more than about five years (though it was not formally rescinded until 191) and hence that the loss and destruction of old texts was less than total. Nonetheless, if only by drastically limiting the number of copies of ancient works that actually survived, the impact of the decree was considerable. Many of the archived works would have been destroyed when Han armies burned the Qin palaces at Xianyang in 206 BC. It’s worth pointing out, however, that this sort of attrition has been a normal feature of Chinese history. We have a catalogue of the Han imperial library as it existed in the first years of the first century (more than two hundred years after the First Emperor’s time), for example; of the 677 works listed, three-quarters are now lost to us.

The members of the Terracotta Army constructed to guard Qin Shihuangdi in death are now a major symbol of the emperor’s wealth and power.

As for the “execution of the literati”: that took place one year after the infamous burning of their books and, according to Sima Qian, for a different reason. Its proximate cause was the First Emperor’s infamous determination to keep his movements hidden, which the Grand Historian attributed to the advice of the magician Master Lu, who was brought in to assist the Emperor in his search for an elixir of immortality. One consequence of this was that the emperor would have anyone known to have revealed his whereabouts put to death.

On one visit to the east coast, Qin Shihuangdi was angered to note the large numbers of carriages and attendants surrounding Li Si – these, he felt, clearly represented a risk that his whereabouts would be disclosed and the magical forces needed to secure the desired elixir dissipated. This news reached the ears of the chancellor, who, fearing the Emperor’s wrath, took immediate steps to reduce their numbers. When Qin Shihuangdi realised that there had to be an informer among his attendants, he had the entire group who had been with him at the time executed.

This drastic action, in turn, prompted unrest among Master Lu and the scholars who associated with him. Lu and several other magicians clearly feared they might be next and fled – taking with them the Emperor’s chief hope of attaining eternal life. Qin Shihuangdi ordered an immediate inquiry into how and why Lu and his helpers had been able to flee, and when the other scholars in his entourage blamed one another, he had 460 of them selected for execution. In this case, therefore, the “scholars” we hear so much about were likely Daoists, alchemists and magicians rather than court historians or academics.

[Main sources for the discussion above: Derek Bodde, “The state and empire of Ch’in,” in The Cambridge History of China I, 69-72; Frances Wood, The First Emperor of China pp.40-5, 78-88.]

With regard to the follow-up question on sources: Sima Qian’s Records are indeed the most significant resource for the reign of the First Emperor. They are important not only because they are the only detailed source we have for much of what happened, but because they were compiled free of much of the inbuilt bias that bedevils later Chinese historiography. As the Cambridge History of China puts it (I, 972):

As yet they were not bound by the inhibitions under which their successors labored. They were not required to display their masters as paragons of fine behavior, whose predecessors had rightly deserved destruction. As yet they were not obliged to portray the past in terms of the steady influence exerted on mankind by the force of Confucian teaching.

[Such characteristics first emerged with full force in histories of the remarkable usurper Wang Mang, whose highly controversial reign at around the time of Christ separates the Former from the Late Han; I discuss these problems in more detail here.]

Two other important sources do exist, however. The first is the Han su or Book of Han, a chronicle of the Former Han Dynasty, modelled on the style established by Sima Qian and covering the period 206 BC to AD 5 in 12 volumes. This work is late – completed c. AD 111 – but its early coverage deals with the overthrow of the Qin dynasty and some of the people who figure in it were important in the First Emperor’s reign.

The second source that needs to be considered is archaeological and numismatic evidence – most obviously the imperial tomb from which the famous Terracotta Warriors have been unearthed, but also numerous lesser archaeological sites – most notably record steles – and coin finds.

Good sources of detailed information on the historiography of the period include Van der Loon’s “The ancient Chinese chronicles and the growth of historical ideals,” in Beasley & Pulleyblank’s Historians of China and Japan, and Michael Loewe [ed], Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide.

Sima Qian, the “Grand Historian” and author of the only major surviving account of China during the Qin dynasty, was caught up in court intrigues and found guilty of serious offences. He chose castration over execution in order to finish his work – an example to all who have come after him.

Q: Could you please also comment on several recent discoveries of Qin period bamboo slips? To what extent did these newly discovered texts change our perspective on Shihuangdi and his empire?

A: There are two such discoveries, I believe: one a set of material from a Qin era tomb in Hubei, which total 11,000 strips, comprising 10 distinct texts, including some Qin statutes; the other a cache of 36,000 strips found in a well in Hunan.

The Hunan strips are curse official documents produced by low level officials in the district. They can tell us something about the local organisation of the Qin state – for example, the details of its postal service, its document styles and its bureaucracy, and their dating also fills in some things we did not know about the Qin calendar. The Hubei strips tell us more about the operations of the Qin state at a slightly higher level. They reveal many hitherto unknown details about Qin administration, its requirements, and its accounting practices. Also included in the latter collection are some biographical annotations concerning the magistrate in whose tomb the slips were laid, and a complete divination almanac showing the best days for making sacrifices, digging wells and so forth.

Broadly, we can say that the two collections are helpful in understanding everyday life in the Qin period, but they do not reveal much about the top level workings of the Qin government or the doings of the First Emperor. As such, they fit more into the continuum of Chinese social and economic history than they illuminate the distinct political upheaval caused by Qin Shihuangdi.

Q: Were the pyramids still kept in repair at the time of Cleopatra?

The pyramids of the Giza group today.

A: We have only a little information about the state of Egyptian structures in the late Pharaonic/Roman period, so it’s difficult to be precise as to the state of repair of the pyramids – or any other Egyptian monuments – at this time. However, the short answer to your question is that, at least while Egypt retained some independence, occasional restoration work was done on some monuments, usually for religious/magical reasons to do with aiding souls that had already passed into the afterlife. For this reason, Pharaonic restoration work tended to involve erecting new inscriptions rather than making extensive repairs to old monuments.

Even this work seems to have largely ended by the time Egypt passed under Roman control (at least we have no evidence of its continued practice), and the Graeco-Roman period is often considered to mark the start of “tourism” to Egpyt. Certainly it was in this period that many of the monuments famous today first seem to have been visited on a regular basis simply because they were remarkable sights.

That’s the summary; here are a few salient details:

  • We do know that Egyptians completed some repairs to the sphinx soon before the reign of Thutmosis IV began in about 1420 B.C. The monument was then almost buried in sand (as it later would be again), and Thutmosis, who was one of the then pharaoh’s sons but not actually in line to succeed him, had it excavated and built a retaining wall to prevent it sanding up again too easily. His workmen also re-secured some blocks from its back in their proper places. This was not, however, a typical thing for an Egyptian ruler to do; we know from the so-called “Dream Stele” left at the site that Thutmosis’s motive for the restoration was that he had had a dream in which the sphinx promised him he would become pharaoh if he would restore it.
  • Later, in the reign of Ramesses II (c.1280 B.C.) the two main pyramids at Giza appear to have undergone some restoration. This work is attributed to Ramesses’ som Khaemwaset, who added hieroglyphic inscriptions to monuments at Giza, Saqqara and Dashur. Although Khaemwaset is sometimes called “the first Egyptologist,” these additions had explicitly religious functions; although a contemporary inscription records that the prince “loved antiquity and his noble ancestors,” and could not bear to see old monuments fall to ruin, his texts were created because they “literally renewed the memory of those buried within, benefitting their spirits in the afterlife,” Manassa notes.
  • A deep scar marks the north face of the third pyramid at Giza, tomb to the pharaoh Menkaure. From an 1842 sketch by EJ Andrews.

    Possibly associated with this same period is evidence from within the Great Pyramid of limited repair and replastering work that hardly fits the MO of the typical tomb robber. It’s not possible to date this but it’s usually attributed to the Pharaonic period.

  • About a century later, during the 12th Dynasty, a ruler named Khnumhotep set up an inscription (first transcribed by Percy Newberry in 1890-1) which imply some Pharaonic-style conservation work took place in this period. His inscription boasted: “I caused the names of my fathers which I had found destroyed upon the doors to live again…”
  • At some point during the Middle Kingdom, at the height of the Cult of Osiris, the royal tombs at Abydos were excavated in search of Osiris’s tomb. When the diggers uncovered the First Dynasty tomb of Djet, they took it to be the deity’s resting place and so restored it, building a new roof and an access stairway.
  • In the Third Intermediate and Late Periods, older monuments were studied so that their styles could be replicated in new buildings. Some dilapidated temples were restored at this time. The work was not extensive however and with the decline of the state funds for restoration probably weren’t available in any case. Thompson states that “by the Roman period, Egypt was little more than a mass of ruins.” What survived was generally that which had been built most solidly – not least, of course, the pyramids.
  • Both Strabo (writing within 6 years of Cleopatra’s death, in 24 B.C.) and Diodorus Siculus give accounts of the Great Pyramid that imply they personally visited the site and were taken around it by local guides, who told them stories about its construction. Diodorus, who visited in around 50 B.C., writes in chapter 64 of his Universal History of the Great Pyramid that he saw “the entire structure undecayed” – though it would be unwise to assume this was a careful description.
  • That’s not least because Roman era graffiti was found inside the Great Pyramid early in the 19th century, written in soot on the roof of the subterranean chamber, which again strongly suggests that the pyramid was open to at least some visitors at this time; that the pyramid’s Descending Passage was left open, not sealed, argues against the idea that the local people were keeping the monuments “in repair” in Cleopatra’s time, and might suggest they no longer considered them sacred in this period, several centuries after the arrival of dynasties of Greek rulers.
  • We also know that Romans often visited other Egyptian sites to see their wonders – popular destinations include Armana, Abydos, Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. Unfortunately all we have in these cases are inscriptions, not accounts of what exactly these sites looked like at the time. But again this argues against Pharaonic monuments being considered sacred and inviolate in this period.
  • There are numerous other Graeco-Roman grafitti on various Egyptian monuments, perhaps most famously on the plinths and legs of the pair of sandstone colossi commemorating Amenhotep III (reigned c.1350 B.C.) near Luxor that are popularly known as the Colossi of Memnon. One of these statues was felled by an earthquake in 27 B.C., only three years after Cleopatra’s death, and it was after that occurred that the statue famously began to emit an unusual sound, said to have been like the string of a broken lyre, soon after sun-up on some mornings. Largely thanks to this phenomenon, the Colossi acquired a reputation as an oracle. Because of the fame thus acquired, and the graffitti left by visitors, we know something of their history around this time and it’s clear that while the damaged statue was not immediately repaired, the fallen portions were replaced about 200 years later – a restoration popularly ascribed to Septimus Severus, who visited the statues but failed to hear the sound shortly before 200 A.D.


Thomas W. Africa, “Herodotus and Diodorus in Egypt,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 22 (1963); Colleen Manassa, Imagining the Past: Historical Fiction in New Kingdom Egypt; Maria Swetnam-Burland, Egypt in the Roman Imagination; Jason Thompson, Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology 1: From Antiquity to 1881