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)

[50] How could Russian coins from 1811 have ended up in Eastern Canada in 1934?

[49] What is the highest rank a commoner could rise to in medieval England?

[48] “In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek boiled hundreds of Communists alive,” claimed George Orwell. Is this actually true? If not, where could he have heard such a report from?

[47] Did Anne of Cleves really hang the famous Holbein portrait in her castle to troll King Henry?

[46] Did the Empire of Japan seriously try to make conman Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln the 14th Dalai Lama?

[45] According to Sir James Frazer, in his famous book The Golden Bough, Iron Age kings were regularly sacrificed after completing a fixed term as monarchs, in order to safeguard the fertility of the soil. Was Frazer right about this? What do we know about the kings who were supposedly sacrificed, and the people who killed them?

[44] Supposedly Madagascar was pretty close to industrialization prior to European colonialism. Is this true?

[43] Is the story of the Man in the Iron Mask real? If he was, how did he get so well known, even in his contemporary time? And why was his identity concealed?

[42] I live in London in 1670, I have up to date fire insurance and a fire mark for my insurer, a fire has just broken out. How do I tell my insurer I need their fire brigade? What happens if there are multiple fires and all the services are being used?

[41] I’ve seen it claimed, without any sources, that Lord Byron lost his virginity at age nine with his family nurse. What evidence is there that this actually happened and what are the details?

[40] What should we think of the early medieval stories of sky-ships, crewed by sky- sailors, appearing in the air over monasteries and towns?

[39] Does anyone know, for real, which the oldest pub in England actually is?

[38] During the 9th century, a Tang Dynasty author wrote a story about a Black Person (“Negrito”) active during the 8th century in the Tang Dynasty. How many Black People were in Tang China, how did they get there, and what were their lives like?

[37] Were there links between William the Conqueror’s banning of the slave trade in England, and England’s later invasion of Ireland?

[36] Do we know what Joan of Arc looked like?

[35] Warning: NSFW. Did Wu Zetian really demand that foreign diplomats perform cunnilingus on her in in open court as a show of obedience–or is this a myth?

[34] Why did Fine Gael run a candidate in Inverness, Scotland, in the February 1974 and 1979 UK General elections? They’re an Irish party, so I have no idea why they would run there. It was the same candidate (U. Bell) both times. Any ideas?

[33] Is it true that a portrait of Cleopatra, painted in about 30 BCE by someone who had met her, was unearthed in Italy in 1818? What happened to the image?

[32] Did anyone really say “Her Majesty takes a bath once a month whether she need it or no” about Elizabeth I? Where did this come from? Why is it always referenced in quasi-academic literature without sources?

[31] What do we know about the history of the True Cross after the 1st Century?

[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?

Carron Point

The beach at Carron Point, New Brunswick

Q: How could Russian coins from 1811 have ended up in Eastern Canada in 1934?

I came across a curious article from 1934 saying that a treasure was found in buried on or near a beach around a lighthouse near Bathurst on the Northern New Brunswick coast in Eastern Canada. It was a kettle full of mysterious coins. The lighthouse keeper who found it hoped it was a pirate treasure, but it turned out to be 111 two kopek coins from the Russian Empire. As far as the article mentions they were all from 1811. This, apparently was worse than worthless at the time, except for the value of the copper.

I don’t know much more than that, and there doesn’t appear to be any follow up. Entirely hypothetically speaking though, how might that pot of copper have ended up there? Who could have brought such a thing over? How would a Russian even have managed to end up in Bathurst, New Brunswick, Canada on or around 1811?

A: Coins are durable objects, and, as a result, they have cropped up in some pretty surprising places over the years. Favourite oddities include Roman currency found in Iceland and – a particular surprise, this one – a coin dating to the reign of the Emperor Hadrian that was excavated from under several feet of soil about a hundred miles up the river Congo in central Africa in about 1890. There is also an ongoing investigation into the mystery of how a small group of coins minted in the coastal African state of Kilwa (in modern Tanzania) in about 1200 found their way to the Wessel Islands, 5,000 miles to the east, off the north coast of Australia, where they were uncovered during the Second World War.

McIntosh coins

Coins minted in the Sultanate of Kilwa in about 1300, and found in the Wessel Islands, Arnhem Land in 1944.

There is a tendency, when dealing with stories of this sort, for the imagination to conjure up a one-step, and generally romantic, solution to such mysteries – coming up with adventurous scenarios that might have taken a Roman legionary of the second century way south of the Sahara, or envisioning a Kilwan trading ship disabled by the monsoon winds and drifting thousands of miles off course to strand her crew amidst the unintelligibly alien culture of the indigenous Yolngu peoples of Australia. The reality, insofar as we can work it out, tends to be both more complex and also a lot more prosaic. The Congo coin had a high silver content, enough to make it a valuable item of exchange hundreds of years after it was struck in Rome and the empire that had made it had declined and fallen. Rather than being dropped by a solitary, way-out-of-place Roman soldier, it’s far more likely that it made its way south via a lengthy series of transactions. Possibly these started on the north shores of the Mediterranean, but continued in the Roman provinces of North Africa, from where the coin eventually made its way into the hands of desert nomads – who crossed the Sahara and then traded it to someone in the Sahel, from whence it eventually continued its journey south. Or, perhaps more likely, the coin stayed in the Mediterranean for centuries, eventually to find its way on board a Portuguese ship headed for the Kingdom of Kongo sometime after contact was established between the two states in the 1480s. Either way, it’s probable that no one person took the coin from its point of origin to its point of discovery, and the same most likely applies to the Wessel Islands coins too – which were found mixed with Dutch currency dating to the 17th century, and so, we can deduce, probably didn’t actually come direct from the Swahili Coast in the 13th century.

Alexander I 1812 kopek

A Russian 2-kopek coin minted in 1812, during the reign of Alexander I

Without having seen the article you read (which I’d love to have a reference to…), it’s hard to know what to make of the find that you are interested in, but a few thoughts do occur. First, the coins were found inside a kettle. That strongly suggests they were not trade objects but rather a hoard, deliberately buried by someone who wanted them to stay together in one place, and hoped to come back eventually to recover them. The fact that the coins were all minted around the same date points in the same direction. But the value of the coins was very low, even in 1811, and Alexander I kopeks were minted from soft copper. That meant they contained no precious metals that would have made them intrinsically valuable to anyone outside Russia in the early 19th century, whether as trade objects or as a source of useful materials in areas where there are no naturally occurring lodes of workable metal (I commented in an earlier response on the ways in which iron carried across the Pacific on disabled Japanese merchant ships may have eventually found its way into use by indigenous communities in the Pacific north-west). So, actually, it’s unlikely the coins you are interested in made their way to eastern Canada via the sort of lengthy series of unremarkable financial transactions I was describing above – any such trades would have tended to break up the collection of currency found in the hoard, and the out-of-place discoveries I have mentioned involved single coins, or at most a small handful of them, not more than a hundred apparently struck in the same time or place. But this realisation, by itself, doesn’t take us a whole lot closer a solution to your mystery.

I can make a couple of observations that might move us a bit further forward, nonetheless. Firstly, as is well known, Russians certainly were present in what’s now Canada in about the period we are interested in – Alaska was an imperial colony until its purchase by the US in 1867. That fact, however, is almost certainly less significant than it might at first appear – New Brunswick is an entire continent, and some 3,000 miles, away from any Russian settlement of the period, and getting from one side of the Americas to the other as early as the first decades of the 19th century would have been an incredibly difficult, lengthy and arduous affair, one that would have almost certainly required careful planning and involved a distinct objective. It’s very difficult to imagine what the latter might have been, nor why anyone would think it a good idea to take a big bag of kopeks with them on what would have been an unimaginably arduous trek. Overall, I think it extraordinarily unlikely that any individual or group of Russians would have made their way from Alaska to the Canadian Maritimes overland in the first half of the 19th century.

More probably, the coins arrived in Canada from the opposite direction – coming from the east. The existence of a hoard of identical coins suggests to me that they were once the property of a single person who placed some value on them and had some potential future use for them, which in turn suggests the person who buried the hoard was probably a Russian. By far the most obvious reason for such outsiders to come to New Brunswick in the 19th century would have been involvement in the fisheries there. Ships and merchants from what is now New Brunswick were heavily involved in the highly lucrative cod industry, for instance (there was also a prominent local logging industry which might also have proved attractive to immigrants). We do know that at least one Russian reached the eastern Canadian coast as a result of his involvement in the fishing trade – William Hyman, who was born into a Russian Jewish community in Lódz, in what is now Poland, in 1807, fetched up in Gaspé, Quebec, in about 1843, and built up a successful stake in the dried cod business there. By the time of his death in 1882, Hyman was one of the most successful businessmen in town, accounting for about 10% of the port’s exports, and he was able to bequeath to his heirs

a dock, storehouses and a warehouse at Gaspé, a hotel and several properties and mortgages in the Forillon peninsula region, and six fishing establishments… He had also accumulated many securities in banks at Quebec City and Montreal, and owned a Montreal residence where he had spent the winters since 1874.

Of course, a man like Hyman would have been far too wealthy, and no doubt far too integrated into Canadian society, to have wanted to bury a hoard of old low-value imperial coins on a remote beach. But his very existence does at least establish that some Russians did make their way to there Maritimes in the relevant period. How plausible, then, is it to suggest that the coins you are interested in were once the property of some Russian fisherman? I have had a look for evidence of Russian fleets taking part in the great cod trade, and not turned up anything to suggest that this happened – sailing from the eastern Baltic, through the North Sea and then all the way to the Grand Banks would have been a costly and challenging voyage that would have taken a lot longer than the journey from a western European port like Bristol, and it would most likely have been easier for any Russians in the market for Canadian cod to have bought lightly salted and dried end product on the open market in Europe than to have fished for them themselves in the distant North Atlantic. Moreover, while the religiously observant Russians did eat large quantities of fish (Sarhrage & Lundbeck point out that the proscriptions of the Orthodox church prohibit the consumption of meat on 132 days of the year), these were plentifully available from nearer waters – the main sources were the Caspian, the White Sea, and from European freshwaters. In addition, the main Russian fish import in the 19th century was not cod, but the very differently-flavoured, and much more popular, salted herring, which made up almost 80% of imports when reliable figures become available from the start of the 20th century. Those fish, moreover, were sourced from Hanseatic ports in the Baltic, and in general local conditions would mitigate against any attempt to build a commercially-viable long-distance fishing trade based out of Russian Baltic ports – Tallin, for example, is typically iced-up for anything up to 175 days each year.

Now, none of this absolutely rules out individual Russian sailors working their way west and taking part in the Canadian fisheries as part of the crew of a foreign ship, and it’s certainly possible that this did occur from time to time. But why would such a man want to burden himself with a large quantity of low-value coins that would have been useless in Canada as items of exchange? A 2-kopek coin of the period you’re interested in weighed 13g, or about half an ounce – a hoard of more than a hundred of the things would have weighed in at about 1.4 kilos, or more than 3lbs, which seems an awful lot to carry on board ship and then take off that ship in Canada for no readily apparent reason. Finally, if – as their burial and their placement together in a kettle certainly suggests – the Bathurst find was a hoard, why would any visiting sailor planning eventually to return to the only country where those kopeks could actually be spent choose to abandon them at the spot where they were found?


Carron Point lighthouse in 1933

There are a couple of interesting points to make in this respect. First, the lighthouse at Bathurst is located at Carron Point. This is a promontory at the mouth of Bathurst harbour, but (thanks to the large size of the harbour) it is located almost two miles outside the town. That’s a long way for a sailor in port to lug a heavy sack of coins – why make that journey? Second, while it’s not clear from your post whether or not the spot was chosen because of the proximity of the lighthouse, it makes a certain amount of sense to assume it was – you note the coins were found pretty close by, and, potentially, the location of the lighthouse itself would have provided a straightforward means of relocating an otherwise hard-to-find burial spot. If that’s the case, then we also know something about the date of the deposit, since the first lighthouse on the site was not constructed until 1871.

All of these clues suggest to me another possible origin for the coins. William Hyman had left Russia to escape the limited opportunities and often active persecution endured by Jewish people in the empire, and the first significant wave of Russian emigration to Canada actually roughly coincided with the construction of the Bathurst lighthouse, beginning from the 1870s; today more than 620,000 Canadians (including a few thousand in New Brunswick) have Russian heritage. While the first significant group of emigrants were actually around 7,000 ethnically German anabaptists who settled in Manitoba, from the 1880s much larger numbers of Jewish refugees fled the pogroms that fairly regularly occurred during this period. Most of these people settled in eastern urban areas such as Toronto and Montreal. Might a poor emigrant, whose wealth largely comprised low-value coins that they’d planned to convert into the local currency, but never had the opportunity to, have been the source of the find?

Well, it’s possible, and I’d say actually that it’s fairly plausible that at least one Russian family from this diaspora might have made its way to a relatively flourishing port like Bathurst in this period (even today, it’s still the fourth largest town in New Brunswick – in the 19th century it would have been more prominent than that). But once again I’d have to say that the specific nature of the find makes the idea unlikely – it’s almost vanishingly improbable that a single Russian family’s source of wealth would comprise 3lbs of coins of identical date, rather than a far less heterogenous collection of higher-value currency. I’d say that the coins in the hoard that turned up in Bathurst must have remained together for a reason.

And this is where both my imagination and my research skills begin to fail me, I’m afraid. The homogeneity of the find seems to suggest someone with a direct connection to a Russian mint, or a Russian bank, but the gap between the date these coins were struck and the earliest plausible date for their deposit at Carron Point remains a real puzzle – there’s no obvious reason why such a large number of low-value coins would have stayed together for so long. Perhaps the hoard was itself the product of a find of some sort, of a bag of coins that had never been opened since it was minted, and was found at the back of a dusty shelf, or locked up in a cupboard somewhere? Might it have reached Canada as part of some commercial transaction carried out some time in the 19th century?

But then again, why bury such a low-value collection of coins in the first place? Why would anyone make the journey all the way to Carron Point to leave them? I’d guess the coins were more likely taken to the beach by boat than lugged up to the lighthouse from Bathurst on foot, but, beyond that, I’m stumped for a specific motive. The hoard might even have been placed there as a joke, or “uncovered” as part of a publicity-seeking hoax, to see what wonderment it might generate. I don’t know the exact date of your newspaper clip, but there were a couple of major finds of hoards in 1934 that might have provided inspiration for such an exploit, such as the discovery in August of that year of gold coins worth more than $11,000 buried in a cellar in Baltimore.

Well: if the last of these possibilities is correct, then we can say one thing: the depositor would probably have been gratified by your curiosity, and my willingness to spend a couple of pretty interesting, if ultimately unsuccessful, hours attempting to investigate on your behalf.


The Canadian Encyclopedia

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

John Murray Gibson, Northern Mosaic: the Making of a Northern Nation (1939)

Dietrich Sahrhage & Johannes Lundbeck, A History of Fishing (1992)


The Cathedral at Canterbury

The cathedral at Canterbury

Q: What is the highest rank a commoner could rise to in medieval England?

A: Archbishop of Canterbury.

The church was long noted as the means by which those from less than exalted backgrounds could best make both a good living, and, potentially, their mark, both theologically and politically. A high proportion of successful prelates were the younger sons of prominent families – men who were unlikely to inherit significant amounts of land. Careers in the church offered such men livelihoods, and family connections the leverage to achieve higher office within the ecclesiastical community. These sorts of career decisions also applied to family members who faced more significant barriers to advancement than mere order of birth; thus at least two of the Canterbury archbishops of the medieval period – Ralph Nevill and John Stafford – were the illegitimate sons of noted families.

A second, and much smaller, group of eminent clerics made their way up the ecclesiastical ladder from lower positions than that as a result of talent or patronage. Cathedral cities and monasteries typically provided opportunities for schooling for children from much more modest social backgrounds, and there was always demand from the royal government for educated men who could read and write. While those able to take advantage of such openings were rarely if ever from the very bottom rungs of society, sons of artisans and merchants could and did get themselves “talent-spotted” by superiors who valued their scholastic or administrative skills.

Very occasionally, a child from such a background might make it all the way. The best-known example from the medieval period was that of Thomas Becket, whose disagreements with Henry II, and eventual death within the precincts of Canterbury cathedral at the hands of a group of the king’s knights, made him perhaps of the most famous of all English archbishops; he was the son of a successful London merchant. And Edmund of Abingdon, who became archbishop a few decades after Becket, was probably the son of a wool merchant.

Edmund’s career offers a good example of the means of ascent that could be employed by men from more humble backgrounds in this period. His family background was sufficiently affluent to allow him to attend the University of Paris, after which he moved to the university at Oxford and became well known as an expert on Aristotle and a teacher of grammar. All university teachers this period were also ordained priests, and further alternating periods spent as a scholar at Paris and Oxford were interrupted by time spent in possession of various church benefices and preaching the crusade. Eventually one of Edmund’s old university pupils, Walter de Gray, became Archbishop of York, and was able to use his influence to advance the career of his old master. Edmund ultimately became compromise candidate for the archiepiscopal throne at Canterbury in 1233.


Walter Reynolds – from small-town bakery to Archbishop of Canterbury

Such a career was rare, but certainly far from unknown in the medieval period. While we often have only the barest details about the parentage and early careers of many eminent churchmen (and are not completely sure, for example, that Edmund’s father really was a minor merchant), the archbishop who rose from the must humble background of all in the medieval period was almost certainly Walter Reynolds, who held the see at Canterbury from 1314-27. He is generally accepted to have been the son of a baker in Windsor, Berkshire, which meant that he began his church career in a town with very strong links to the English monarchy. This seems to have been critical; Walter became a clerk in the court of Edward I and there he met the king’s son, the future Edward II. He quickly became a close friend of both the future monarch (who in 1309 described him as one who, “active in our service from our earliest youth, has came to enjoy our confidence ahead of others”) and of Edward’s lover, Piers Gaveston. As a result, he moved to take an administrative position as keeper of the young prince’s wardrobe.

Reynolds’s successful career, then, was entirely the result of royal favour and patronage. He was provided with the livings of a series of parishes (which he probably rarely if ever visited), which provided him with a good income, and in 1308 became Bishop of Winchester. He was named Chancellor of England in 1310, and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1314. He was sufficiently politically astute to switch sides with remarkable adroitness after Edward was overthrown by his wife and her lover, Sir Roger Mortimer, in 1327, preaching the text ‘Vox populi vox Dei’ (in which he justified the revolution and seems to have approved renunciation of homage to Edward II) only one day after the deposition of his old friend and patron.

Reynolds has an equivocal reputation. For Robert of Reading, he was

a man decidedly unclerkly, and so ill-educated that he was entirely unable to set out the form of his own name … Having ceremoniously received the insignia of an archbishop, he used them as an ox does its horns, in robbing churches and oppressing the religious, indulging in immoderate filthiness of lust.


Edward II – still the only English monarch to be the subject of his own “anal rape narrative”

For John of Trockelowe, on the other hand, the archbishop was a far more benign influence, the “man by whom those tribulations [of the church in England in this period] could best be assuaged.” Modern historians have viewed him increasingly favourably. In the overall judgement of his biographer, J. Robert Wright,

A product of his own turbulent era, Reynolds tried to work with the crown rather than in direct opposition to it, prizing the virtues of moderation, harmony, and stability higher than a reliance on uncompromising standards in which he did not believe. Reynolds desired to see the king and realm at peace, and he used his influence to that end, even when it necessitated a politics based more on expediency than on ultimate principles. What has appeared as indecision to many commentators may in fact have been scrupulous and conscientious deliberation, probably influenced by the king’s changing moods as well as by … consistently cautious advice… Reynolds lived in a world of complex personal interests rather than in one of clear-cut constitutional conflicts. In spite of his evident personal limitations, his Canterbury appointment was consequently a political triumph for both Edward II and Clement V.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; J. H. Denton, ‘Canterbury archiepiscopal appointments: the case of Walter Reynolds’, Journal of Medieval History 1 (1975)


Shanghai Massacre - contemporary image

A 1947 woodcut by Jun Li depicts a later episode in the Nationalists’ “white terror” – the “221 Incident,” a massacre that took place in Taiwan in 1947. Wikimedia Commons

Q: “In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek boiled hundreds of Communists alive,” claimed George Orwell. Is this actually true? If not, where could he have heard such a report from?

A: The Shanghai massacre, which took place in April 1927, was a fairly significant event in the history of the civil war between Nationalist and Communist forces in China; by killing what were probably fairly large numbers of urban communists in one of the most notably left-wing cities in China, Chiang and his supporters arguably helped tilt the balance of power within communist ranks towards the peasant rebel forces led by Mao Zedong.

Nonetheless, exactly what happened in Shanghai that month, how many died, and how they did so, remains very difficult to establish. The massacre was chaotic, and it was carried out not only by Chinese nationalist forces but also by criminal elements in Shanghai who worked alongside them. No records were kept, no bodycounts were made – historians’ estimates of deaths vary from a couple of hundred all the way up to 10,000 – and the handful of western reporters in the city at the time seem to have had little access to firm details, and to have written nothing at all about any “boilings” at the time. I have searched digitised editions of newspapers published in 1927 in both the US and UK fairly extensively without finding contemporary reports that suggest any such executions took place, and Orwell’s account, rather notably, dates only to 1945.

It certainly does seem to be true, however, that stories of such killings did circulate at a later date. Here it’s helpful to turn to Roy Rowan’s memoir Chasing the Dragon, a book written by a long-lived American foreign correspondent who reported the Chinese revolution for Time-Life. Rowan (1920-2016) was far too young to have reported the Shanghai Massacre when it took place, but he was in the country a couple of decades later, and that put him on the spot in time to pick up rumours of what had actually taken place back then.

Big Ears Du

“Big-Ears” Du – gangster and Nationalist collaborator in Shanghai.

One of the characters that Rowan wrote about was Du Yuesheng, better known as “Big Ears” Du, a gangster who ran much of the sex trade in Shanghai during the 1920s and was leader of an organised crime group known familiarly as the Green Gang. This group acted, at times, as the enforcement arm of local Nationalist leaders, and, according to Rowan, it was “Du’s thugs” who carried out most of the killings in 1927:

Heads rolled in the gutter like ripe plums,” according to an eyewitness [and] a number of Communist railway workers were also cooked alive in the boilers of their steam engines… Du’s reward for masterminding the massacre was the tight hold he still enjoyed on the city’s variety of vices, from the opium section of Nantao, to the waterfront bars of Hongkew, lined with smiling Chinese singsong girl and White Russian ‘hostesses’.

So Rowan, who arrived in Shanghai in July 1946, picked up a story that could plausibly match Orwell’s perhaps-exaggerated “hundreds” of deaths by boiling, written the previous year. Where, though, might such accounts have actually originated from?

I should make clear that there is certainly nothing to absolutely invalidate the idea that this unpleasant method of execution actually was employed in 1927. But with no contemporary accounts suggesting that such killings did take place, it’s worth looking a bit further afield. The first thing to say in this respect is that wild stories about people being boiled alive in China certainly did circulate throughout this period, and were very arguably one fragment of a much broader western Orientalist discourse derived from popular notions of exotic, barbarous Chinese cruelty that dated back at least a century. The infamous French novel The Torture Garden (1899), Bear’s underground Actual Photographs of Chinese Executions (c.1915), and the circulation of images supposed to show the 1904 execution of a criminal named Wang Weiqin by the “death of a thousand cuts”, all drew on (and contributed to) this trope, and one consequence was the circulation of demonstrably unreliable tall stories alleging deaths by boiling in the first quarter of the 20th century. For example, the Russian diplomat Roman Romanovich (Baron Rosen) recorded that stories circulated at the time of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) that one of his colleagues, Michael de Giers, had been boiled alive by the rebels; in fact, De Giers survive the uprising to die in 1932. Similarly, the British journalist Arnold Wright, writing in 1908, noted that other accounts (in circulation at the time of the siege of the foreign legations in Beijing, during the rising) confidently reported “the boiling alive in oil of every foreign man, woman, and child in the capital.” Again, no such killings actually took place. Rather, their circulation was attributed at the time to a shadowy figure nick-named “The Shanghai Liar”.

Western troops guard the international settlement

Western troops guard the international settlement in Shanghai, 1927 (Pathé)

So all this background perhaps helps us understand how stories of atrocities in which people were boiled alive might plausibly have begun to circulate as a result of the Shanghai Massacre. But how did George Orwell, who had never visited China, get hold of the tale earlier than did Roy Rowan, who actually was in Shanghai in 1946? As it happens, there is a very plausible, and very fictional, explanation which seems to locate the origins of this specific story in the mind of the renowned French novelist Andre Malraux, whose best-selling La Condition Humaine (translated into English as Man’s Fate) – a book set in Shanghai in 1927 – contains a passage in which a wounded Chinese man

began to mumble. It was too dark now for Katov to make out his features, but he heard his voice, he felt he was becoming coherent. Yes – “… don’t shoot, they throw them alive into the boiler of the locomotive,” he was saying… the sentry was approaching again. Silence, except for the pain.

Exactly where Malraux got this detail from, or how he dreamed it up, is not known. He was in Cambodia – then part of the French colony of Indochina – in 1926, and later claimed to have crossed over into China and experienced the horrors of the civil war period at first hand. But this, according to Anne Lijing Xu, was a fabrication; Malraux was in fact at home in France at the time, and did not first visit China until 1931. Given this, it seems well worth noting that, in the opinion of his biographer Oliver Todd, the China that he portrayed was

neither true in its detail nor false overall, but it is nonetheless imaginary. Malraux cannot quite break clear of a conventional idea of China with coolies, bamboo shoots, opium smokers, destitutes, and prostitutes.”

And exotic methods of execution? One cannot help but wonder.

What matters, nonetheless, is that La Condition Humaine was a colossal success, winning the Prix Goncourt in 1933, and going on to sell in excess of 5 million copies. Given its very wide circulation, it seems more than plausible that Orwell read it, and that some memory of doing so might have formed the basis of his passing reference to the boiling deaths of Shanghai. Certainly no account that I have read takes this story back any further than Malraux, who published in 1933.


Baron Rosen, Forty Years of Diplomacy (1922); Timothy Brook et al, Death By a Thousand Cuts (2008); André Malraux, La Condition Humaine (1933); Roy Rowan, Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist’s Firsthand Account of the Chinese Revolution(2004); Harold Schiffrin, Sun Yat-Sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution (1968); Oliver Todd, Malraux: A Life (2005); Arnold Wright, Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Other Treaty Ports of China(1908); Anne Lijing Xu, The Sublime Writer and the Lure of Action: Malraux, Brecht, and Lu Xun on China and Beyond (2007).



Detail from Holbein’s famous portrait of Anne of Cleves, painted in 1539.

Q: Did Anne of Cleves really hang the famous Holbein portrait in her castle to troll King Henry?

In honor of Broadway reopening in September (and my ticket purchase for October!!) I spent all week listening to Six: the Musical. The chorus for Anne’s song goes:

You, you said that I tricked ya

Cause I, I didn’t look like my profile picture

Too, too bad I don’t agree

So I’m gonna hang it up for everyone to see

And you can’t stop me

Cause I’m the Queen of the castle

I tried some googling and couldn’t find out what happened to the portrait during that time. Is this just a fun line for the show or was the portrait actually hung in Richmond Palace?

A: What a remarkably interesting question – because, oddly enough, it turns out to be extremely difficult to answer. In fact, so far as I can tell, no historian, nor art historian, has ever paid any attention to the problem of what became of Anne’s famous portrait after it was presented to Henry VIII, and before it turned up again among the possessions of a famous collector during the 1650s.


Nicholas Wooton, the diplomat who arranged Henry’s marriage to Anne and thought Holbein’s portrait of her accurate.

Because of this, I can’t answer your query definitively, but I can, I think, push things forward a little bit for you, and suggest at least a couple of plausible alternative ideas about what may have become of painting in this missing period. But before we move on to the answer you are looking for, we ought, I think, to begin by re-examining the idea that Hans Holbein’s famous image of Anne of Cleves played an important part in the history of the period because – as the lyrics you cite suggest – it “tricked” Henry into thinking she was far more beautiful than she was.

This certainly is a very familiar story, one that a lot of people who have no real knowledge of the Tudor period have likely heard – and if they have heard it, they’re probably also familiar with Henry’s dismayed dismissal of the woman who journeyed to England to marry him as a “fat Flanders mare”, and possibly even with the notion that Henry was so displeased with Holbein that the German master fell out of royal favour, and was never commissioned by Henry again. But none of this is actually true. Recent historiography strongly disputes the celebrated narrative, and downplays the part that Holbein’s painting played in the disaster that was Henry’s marriage to Anne. Rentha Warnicke, for example, notes that the English diplomat Nicholas Wotton, who accompanied Holbein on his journey to Cleves, and was responsible for much of the detailed negotiation of the marriage terms, considered the painting to be an accurate portrait. Moreover,

when Henry was later divorced from Anne, he complained bitterly about his ministers’ activities, but not about the artist’s honesty or the ambassador’s efforts

…. and Holbein continued to be employed as Henry’s court painter until his death in 1543.

We actually have no contemporary record of Henry’s reaction to the portrait, though we do know that he responded positively to others – when he was shown an image of Christina of Denmark, it delighted him so much he had his court musicians play all day, so he could “feast on the food of love.” And in fact, the idea that the image was inaccurate, and deliberately portrayed Anne as attractive when she was not, was not first reported until the 17th century, which is also the earliest that we hear of Anne described as a “Flanders mare” – the phrase, not even actually attributed to Henry, first appears in Gilbert Burnet’s History of the Reformation in 1679. For all these reasons, there’s no obvious reason why Anne would have responded as she does in the song lyrics, and sought out the painting to display it in her own home. In its day, it was apparently considered unremarkable, a perfectly accurate portrait of its moderately attractive subject.

With all this said, we can turn to the problematic issue of what happened to the painting after it was presented to Henry in the early autumn of 1539. It was, at this point, already technically a royal possession – the king paid Holbein an annual salary to act as his court painter, taking his yearly output of panels and vellums in exchange – though the idea that there was such a thing as a royal “collection” of paintings was not actually formalised until the first half of the 17th century. However, Chamberlain, the author of the first major critical biography of Holbein, noted as early as 1913 that, while the original was by then on display at the Louvre, in Paris,

nothing is known of the painting, or how it came to find a home in France, except that it was at one time in the Earl of Arundel’s possession, and afterwards in the collection of Louis XIV.


Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, pioneer collector of art. Portrait by Rubens.

We can trace this reference to the Earl of Arundel a little further than that, since we do also know that Holbein’s painting of Anne was among a group of portraits acquired by a French art collector named Everard Jabach during the 1650s, at a time when Arundel had been forced into exile after the execution of Charles I and found himself forced to dispose of some of his possessions to meet his debts. The most reasonable explanation of the painting’s movements from that point is that Jabach sold it on to the Sun King or his representatives, and that it thus entered the French royal collection, only to be effectively nationalised during the French Revolution. This would explain how it comes to hang in Louvre today.

But who was the 14th Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), how did he come to possess the painting, and why did he choose to dispose of it when he did? The answers to these questions turn out to take us quite a lot closer to resolving your central query, because Arundel (whose actual name was Thomas Howard) was, in fact, more than simply the 14th in a long line of Tudor and Stuart aristocrats. He was also, to quote Lionel Cox and Mary Cust, “the pioneer of art-collectors” – one of the earliest connoisseurs and, indeed, arguably the first to seek out and purchase works of art (and also sculpture and manuscripts) for their merit, and then attempt to assemble them into a coherent collection. On top of that, rather intriguingly, we also need to note that Arundel was a scion of one of the most distinguished families in England, the Howard dukes of Norfolk. He was, in fact, the great-great grandson of Thomas Howard, Third Duke, whose sister Elizabeth was the mother of another of Henry’s queens, Anne of Cleves’s predecessor Anne Boleyn.

We don’t know for certain how Arundel came by the Holbein painting that you’re interested in, but we can make some educated guesses. To begin with, he definitely looked out for works by Holbein. We know this because an inventory of his collection, drawn up shortly after his death and published in Hervey’s Life, Correspondence and Collections, lists more than 40 works by the two Holbeins, father and son. But it’s not clear whether Arundel found and purchased the portrait of Anne of Cleves, or acquired it via inheritance. Some of his collection did come from other members of his family; for example, we know that his grandfather, the 12th Earl, filled both his London home and his country estate at Nonsuch Palace, near Cheam, with pictures, other works of art, and a library which contemporaries considers to be “right worthy of remembrance”. What is almost certainly a partial inventory of this collection survives in the form of a list of works owned by the 12th Earl’s daughter, Jane, Lady Lumley, and kept by her at Lumley Castle. It makes no mention of the Cleves portrait, but this does not necessarily mean it may not have been in the family’s collection at this time, but kept at some other property – the family also owned Arundel House in London, Arundel Castle, and Welbeck Abbey, among a number of very prominent properties. And certainly the 12th Earl would have been in an excellent position to have acquired the Holbein portrait, had King Henry decided that he had no further use for it – he had served both Henry VIII and his son Edward VI as Lord Chamberlain, making him the man responsible for managing the royal household.


Christina of Denmark, painted by Holbein. This is the portrait that sent Henry into raptures of love.

There is one other possible chain of transmission that might also account for the presence of the Holbein portrait in Arundel’s collection, and that is that it remained a part of the royal collection well into the 17th century, and thus came into the possession of Charles I. Charles was also a noted connoisseur of art, and he and Arundel were well known to each other; in fact, Cust tells us, they frequently “used to exchange pictures.” This seems to be another distinct lead, since the inventory of works in Arundel’s possession mentioned above, and dated to 1655, mentions not only the Cleves portrait, but another of Jane Seymour and a third, noted in the document as “Duchessa de Lorena grande del naturale,” which is actually the famous Holbein portrait of Christina of Denmark that Henry liked so much – she became, by marriage both Duchess of Lorraine and Duchess of Milan. (The Christina of Denmark painting is now in the National Gallery in London, and if you want to get a better idea of Henry VIII’s taste in women, you could do worse than take a look at it.) At least one other of Arundel’s paintings, then (the Christina), and probably at least two (that and the Seymour), had also once been in the royal collection.

I would have thought that the presence of so many pictures that had once been part of the royal collection among the paintings that Arundel took into exile with him could well be explained by an exchange or series of exchanges of the sort mentioned by Cust; it’s certainly more likely that the Cleves portrait was acquired in this way than that Arundel got hold of it from some other collector. Such people did exist; the Dutch painter and early art historian Karel Van Mander (1548-1606) mentions in passing another collector of Holbeins, a turn-of-the-seventeenth century “gentleman residing near Temple Bar, in London,” who possessed a number of the painter’s works, and Cust conjectures that Arundel may have purchased this man’s collection. But even if he did, it’s far from clear how a gentleman collector, hailing from several rungs further down the social scale than an Arundel earl, might have come to have access he would have needed to the royal collection to have laid hands on the Anne of Cleves portrait.

So there you have it. Arundel owned the painting, and he may have acquired it in the form of an inheritance from his grandfather, who would have purchased it or been gifted it as a result of his service to Henry VIII. Or – more probably, in my opinion – he was given it by Charles I, who in the 1620s and 1630s exchanged numerous paintings in the royal collection with the earl because both men were noted connoisseurs of art.

Neither of these possible chains of ownership runs through Anne of Cleves, and my investigation suggests that there is no reason to suppose she ever had possession of the painting made of her.


Arthur B. Chamberlain, Hans Holbein the Younger (New York, 2 vols, 1913)

Lionel Cust & Mary Cox, “Notes on the Collections Formed by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey, K. G.”, 5-part series in Burlington Magazine vols.19-21 (1911-12)

Mary F.S. Hervey, The Life, Correspondence & Collections of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel(Cambridge 1921)

Karel van Mander, Het Schilder-boek (Haarlem 1604)

Edith Miller, Records of the Lumleys of Lumley Castle (London 1904)

David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (London 2003)

Rentha M. Warnicke, The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Tudor England (Cambridge 2011)

Ralph Nicolson Wornum, Some Account Of The Life And Works Of Hans Holbein, Painter, of Augsburg(London 1867)


Trebitsch Lincoln (centre) as a Buddhist abbott in China

Trebitsch Lincoln (centre) as a Buddhist abbott in China

Q: Did the Empire of Japan seriously try to make conman Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln the 14th Dalai Lama?

From Wikipedia: “Supposedly after a mystic experience in the late 1920s, Trebitsch converted to Buddhism, becoming a monk. In 1931 he rose to the rank of abbot, establishing his own monastery in Shanghai. All initiates were required to hand over their possessions to Abbot Chao Kung as he now called himself. He also spent time seducing nuns…. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he also made contact with the Nazis, offering to broadcast for them and to raise up all the Buddhists of the East against any remaining British influence in the area. The chief of the Gestapo in the Far East, SS Colonel Josef Meisinger, urged that this scheme receive serious attention. It was even seriously suggested that Trebitsch be allowed to accompany German agents to Tibet to implement the scheme. He proclaimed himself the new Dalai Lama after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, a move that was supported by the Japanese but rejected by the Tibetans.”

A: For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Trebitsch Lincoln was quite a bit more than just a “con man”; indeed, one of the remarkable things about him, certainly at this late stage in his career, seems to have been his ability to persuade himself that the things he was doing and the things that he wanted were real. His biographer, Bernard Wasserstein – an otherwise pretty sober professor of history at Oxford – prefers the term “political adventurer,” and calls him “one of the most astounding and bizarre figures in modern history.”

Lincoln MP

Trebitsch Lincoln, the short-lived Liberal MP for Darlington, from a – pretty racist – cartoon in Punch that drew attention to his heavy Hungarian accent.

In the course of a long career that began at the turn of the 20th century, Lincoln (1879-1943) – who was born into a Jewish family in Hungary – was successively a trainee actor, Presbyterian missionary in Canada, Anglican curate, British Liberal MP, bankrupt, oilman, tramp and German spy. During the First World War he served a three-year prison term in Britain for fraud; after his release, he left for Germany, where be became head of press for the very short-lived post-war government installed during the Kapp Putsch of 1920, and later a prominent member of the inter-war White International. Indicted for high treason in Vienna, Lincoln fled to China, where he became political advisor to a succession of prominent warlords. He spent the remainder of his life in Asia as an arms dealer, Buddhist abbot, and Bodhisattva, living in Shanghai under the name Chao Kung. All this, as Wasserstein observes, makes Lincoln

the only person ever to have been formally adopted by a major British political party as a parliamentary candidate while still a Hungarian citizen …[and also] the only former British MP ever to serve as a member of a German government.”

Attempting to install oneself as Dalai Lama might have seemed ambitious even for a man of all these many talents, but it was certainly something that might conceivably have been in line with Lincoln’s personality and interests – Wasserstein comments that he had developed “an obsession with the idea of travelling to Tibet” as early as the 1920s. However, the source that Wiki cites for the information you are interested in is not an especially reliable one. It’s a feature published in an Australian newspaper by a former Buddhist monk turned journalist, and it appeared in April 1945, two years after Lincoln’s death and still several months before Japan’s surrender, at a a time when none of those with knowledge of what had happened was actually available for interview. As such, the Australian report seems to have relied more on rumour than anything else to label Lincoln as someone suffering from a life-long “religious mania” and suggest that

When the Dalai Lama died, Trebitsch-Lincoln notified the Buddhist Lamas of Tibet that the old Lama had been reincarnated in him – Ignatius Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln! The Japanese government and Buddhist hierarchy gave him an eager backing and vehemently confirmed his claim to the Dalai Lamahood. Japan began to press his claim.

But the Tibetans thought otherwise, and found their new Dalai Lama [who was, in fact, the present one, who we’re all pretty familiar with] in the person of a Chinese baby. So Trebitsch-Lincoln committed hara-kiri to save Japanese face, or, more likely, he was “happily despatched by the Japanese themselves.

There is much that is demonstrably wrong with this report. For example, the 14th Dalai Lama was not a “Chinese” baby. And Lincoln certainly did not commit suicide – though his death was in fact rather mysterious, and Wasserstein concedes it is possible he was killed by the Japanese. But it seems to be the only published report that mentions the story you are interested in at all.

Wasserstein’s biography of Lincoln is the the best-sourced and most carefully considered account of his life that we have, so we need to turn to him to try to discern the actual course of events. He begins by pointing out that Lincoln was living in Asia during a period of incredible disruption. There had been tension between China and Japan since the beginning of the 1930s, and full-scale war had broken out in 1937. Furthermore, the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933 was followed fairly closely by that of the second most important Tibetan leader, the Panchen Lama, in 1937, threatening the fragile internal stability of Tibet.

It was, Wasserstein relates, against this background that the British consul-general in Chungking composed a dispatch in September 1938 reporting that

Trebitsch Lincoln is proceeding towards Tibet and that he claims to be, by some extraordinary metempsychosis, a reincarnation of both the Dalai and the Tashi [Panchen] Lamas.

This dispatch, then, appears to be the origin of the story that Lincoln schemed to become the Dalai Lama, but Wasserstein is quick to point out that the original informant, a “Mr Cunningham of Tatsienlu,” about whom nothing else at all is known, had apparently confused Lincoln (then definitely in Shanghai) with an American by the name of Engler who had been passing through his city. We are as certain as we can be that Lincoln himself made no attempt to reach Tibet and, in any case, the boy who would become the 14th Dalai Lama had by that point already been identified as the tulku (reincarnate custodian) of the spirit of the previous 13 holders of that office; he would be formally recognised as such in 1939.


Gestapo colonel Joseph Meisinger – a war criminal who thought Lincoln could be a useful pro-Nazi agitator in Asia

What, though, of the involvement of the Japanese and the Germans in the selection of the new Dalai Lama? It is certainly the case that foreign interference in the process was so commonplace by this time as to be unremarkable; China had laid claim to a major role in the selection of a successor since the 18th century. And Lincoln certainly was known to Police-Colonel Josph Meisinger, the senior Gestapo officer mentioned by Wiki. But Meisinger came onto the scene only four years after the events set out above occurred. In 1937-38 he was still in Germany, where he had charge of the Gestapo office responsible for the investigation of homosexuality and abortions; in 1939 he was in Warsaw, where he ordered the execution of 16,000 Jewish people, a crime for which Poland would execute him after the war. He was not appointed to the Far East until 1941, when he was made “police attache” at the German embassy in Tokyo, and he did not visit Shanghai until May of that year.

Lincoln was well known to be a charismatic and persuasive individual, and he certainly seems to have had an impact on Meisinger. He sent a telegram to Berlin urging that the German government take seriously the “plans” Lincoln had for “China, Tibet and India,” which Meisinger considered “worthy of consideration.” What these plans were, we do not know, but certainly Meisinger’s enthusiasm for Lincoln was not shared by other German officials in the Far East. The Consul-General in Japan, Martin Fischer, appended his own commentary to the telegram, pointing out that Lincoln was a “political adventurer” with no known influence in “lama circles”, and, when the message did reach Germany, there were plenty of people there with memories long enough to remember the Lincoln of the 1920s; one of these, a Foreign Office official named Martin Luther – who readers of historical fiction may recognise as an important character in Robert Harris’s famous counter-factual thriller Fatherland – wrote a strongly-worded memo pointing out that Lincoln was not only wildly unreliable, but also “by birth a Hungarian Jew”. Meisinger’s interest in Lincoln promptly cooled, and Wasserstein does not mention any connection between Lincoln and the Japanese at all.

Did Lincoln proclaim himself the new Dalai Lama? We have no evidence he did so, though it would not, apparently, have been wholly out of character for him to have harboured such a dream. Did the Japanese support that candidacy, or indeed make any effort to meddle in the selection and installation of the 14th Dalai Lama? I can find nothing to suggest as much, and Japan seems to have taken very little interest in Tibet at all during this period; a single Japanese agent, Hisao Kimura, who posed as a Mongolian, is known to have spent 18 months in the country in 1940-1, but, other than that, there seems to be very little to suggest that Japan took any interest in Tibetan affairs.

I note that Wiki does not include Wasserstein’s important and conspicuously well-researched book among the sources for its article on Trebitsch Lincoln; this explains why it carries such an inaccurate account. Regrettably and unfortunately, this seems to be yet another example of the need to treat the material it publishes with caution.


Daisuke Murakami, “Japanese imaginings of Tibet: past and present,” Inner Asia 12 (2010); Ivan Orlov-Abstrebski, “Buddha threatens the Japanese,” Sydney Morning Herald, 7 April 1945; Bernard Wasserstein, The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln (New Haven, 1988); Bernard Wasserstein, “Lincoln, Ignatius Timotheus Trebitsch,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


The Golden Bough exhibited 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner’s well-known painting The Golden Bough (1834) was inspired by Virgil’s The Aeniad, in which the hero consults an oracle who tells him he can only enter the underworld to meet the ghost of his father if he offers Proserpine a golden bough cut from a sacred tree. The panting shows the Sibyl holding a sickle and the freshly cut bough, in front of Lake Avernus, the legendary gateway to the Underworld. The dancing figures are the Fates; Virgil’s story was incorporated by J.G. Frazer into his retelling of the myth of the sacrificial king.

Q: According to Sir James Frazer, in his famous book The Golden Bough, Iron Age kings were regularly sacrificed after completing a fixed term as monarchs. What do we know about the kings who were supposedly sacrificed, and the people who killed them?

I heard a story about sacrificial Celtic kings or “corn kings” These kings were supposedly sacrificed in times of famine or to placate their gods for food harvests. Apparently they were fed year round and treated like kings only to be sacrificed to appease the gods. Is this true? What real sources cite these kings?

A: The rex nemorensis, as everyone agrees, is a very primitive figure, a remnant from the distant past, when the first settlements of Latin peoples were forming in the Alban hills and probably no more than the odd shepherd had as yet taken up residence on the Palatine [Hill, where Rome now stands]. He was a priest of Diana and a king, whatever that might have meant. He was linked to a tree that was sacred…

When a challenger appeared, identified by his success in obtaining a bough from the sacred tree, the rex was required to fight him to the death. The victor, whether challenger or incumbent, from that moment became, or continued as, Diana’s priest and the King of the Wood. The rex was important (though we do not know precisely how) to the power of Aricia and to Aricia’s pre-eminence within that earliest alliance of Latin communities in the sixth century BCE. We know hardly anything else about his cult; and yet already what we do know far exceeds our evidence for any Italic cult outside Rome, and indeed for most cults in Rome itself.

C.M.C. Green

As Carin Green reminds us, the story that you’ve heard is an old one. Very possibly, it is one of the oldest stories of all, and certainly it’s representative of a set of ideas that have been studied and discussed for more than a century. The question is: was it ever anything more than a story? Did these things happen, and, if they did, how can we be sure about both the events themselves and – much more contentiously – what they meant?

This is far from an easy problem to address. The idea that ancient kings (or proxies for them) were regularly sacrificed as part of a pre-Christian religion that sought power over the natural world and control of its fertility was once very widely believed. The idea was highly influential between around 1915 and 1970, influential enough for the concept of the blood sacrifice of monarchs to crop up in almost every popular retelling of the history of the Celtic period, and to seep out into fiction and film as well. The classic British horror film The Wicker Man (1973) is possibly the best-known example of the latter genre, but the same idea also underpinned the more recent, well-regarded Swedish film Midsommar (2019).


A still from Midsommar, in which an unwary party of outsiders are lured to a pagan festival in northern Sweden to serve as sacrificial victims for a nature cult.

The problem with all this is a twofold one. The first part concerns our sources, which are scanty and late; this makes it even harder than it usually is to guess which bits of them might refer to real practices and real events. The second part is rather more unique; this particular topic, more than any other I can think of, has been promoted by writers of such eminence that their ideas became a sort of article of faith for many people, academic and lay alike. The sacrifice of kings was first written about in detail by the pioneer anthropologist James Frazer. From there, his ideas were taken up and dramatically elaborated by the very long-lived (1863-1963) Margaret Murray, who – despite starting out as an Egyptologist, and having essentially no qualifications in the field – took up Frazer’s mantle as the English-speaking world’s most famous anthropologist between his death and hers. Murray energetically promoted the concept of sacrificial kings in a series of three books written for the general public which were published between 1921 and 1954.

Sir James Frazer

Sir James Frazer, a man of extreme work habits and verdant imagination

It was Margaret Murray who was responsible for suggesting these sacrifices were organised and carried out by the members of a multi-generational witch cult that was responsible for preserving an “old religion” that antedated Christianity, and which flourished, underground, long into the Christian period. This is an idea that I dissected here some time ago in a response that looked at the best-known of the supposed royal sacrifices written about by Murray, the death of the English king William II (William Rufus) in 1100, and it’s one that serious scholars of pagan religion, such as Ronald Hutton, have roundly dismissed. But Murray’s claims were catnip to the new generation of self-styled witches, led by Gerald Gardner, which emerged in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and collectively founded the religion we now know as Wicca. Gardner recognised that Murray’s claims offered his brand-new faith the chance to claim continuity with an historical religion of tremendous antiquity and, apparently, considerable power – something that made the claims of Wicca and the Wiccans vastly more impressive and imposing. The result of all this was that the ideas first pioneered by Frazer have not only long outlived him; they have become a core part of the belief systems of large numbers of modern Wiccans and New Agers, who continue to spread them as widely as they can. In the age of the internet, that is pretty widely – certainly widely enough for them to have reached you.

I could write at considerable length about Murray and Gardner, but really everything they said was based on the ideas that Frazer had pioneered – and their elaborations of those ideas are pretty much entirely ahistorical. So it probably makes more sense to return to The Golden Boughand discuss what Frazer’s lifetime of scary work habits turned up in terms of evidence for the reality of sacrificial kings (he was famous for reading and taking notes in several languages for anything up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week – but notorious among later generations of anthropologists for writing about the world he had never actually seen for himself; he practically never left his study).

Frazer devoted most of his long life to tracing, exploring and setting them down in what became, over time, The Golden Bough (1890-1915). This 12-volume study of comparative religion has certainly been more revered than actually read, but it was a foundational influence on several generations of anthropologists; no lesser figure than Bronisław Malinowski, indeed, could write that Frazer’s masterpiece was “in many respects the greatest achievement of anthropology.” Beginning his study with a famous, and highly romanticised, retelling of the legend of the rex nemorensis – the priest-king of Nemi, a runaway slave who reigned as “king of the wood”, but only for so long as he could defeat all those who sought to challenge him in a single combat fought to the death – Frazer expanded his focus to study every aspect of what he termed “the dying god”. This involved the belief that the youth and health of a divine monarch had a direct bearing on the quantity and quality of the annual harvest, and that ritual death of such a king might be (and was) used to redress crises caused by drought and bad harvests, and so restore prosperity to a people.

Frazer’s book includes discussion of the practices of Iron Age celts. According to him, their history offers numerous examples of kings who reigned for fixed periods (which might, in his original, vary from one to nine years, though seven years has become the default figure generally cited today). And, because most of the societies that took part in these practices were agrarian ones, a number of these monarchs were described in terms that made them “vegetative kings” – such as the “corn kings” you’ve encountered.


Margaret Murray, whose witch-cult hypothesis played fast-and-loose with history, but had a major impact on the way pagan religion was perceived in Britain

Frazer made a number of influential claims in The Golden Bough, and before I go on to discuss the historicity (or otherwise) of the kings you are interested in, it’s worth touching on some of these. First, he stressed how common the theme of a god’s, or a ruler’s, sacrifice is in myth and folklore. For example, the Norse god Odin sacrifices an eye in exchange for access to the well of wisdom; and (for Frazer), Dionysius, a Greek god; Osiris, an Egyptian one; and Tammuz, a Syrian deity, can all be seen as examples or “corn kings” who, in specific myths told of them, die as part of a harvest ritual, to ensure the bountifulness of the crops. Elsewhere, Frazer suggests that the Phrygian god Attis was addressed as the “reaped green (or yellow) ear of corn”; and, most interestingly from your perspective, he devotes significant attention to the figure of Lugh, a king and magician in European mythology who is associated with the sun. The Golden Boughargues that the same figure also appears as “Lughnasad” in pre-Christian England, Ireland and Wales; ultimately, he lends his name to the pagan festival we know as Lammas. In a second important theme in the same work, Frazer argues that the divine king possessed his powers only for so long as he remained perfect and un-mutilated. He discusses some of the precautions taken to prevent this; for instance, in the medieval Welsh story-cycle we know as the Mabinogion, the divine King Math seeks to protect the perfection of his body by always sleeping with his feet in the lap of a virgin.

Frazer is far from the only writer to point these things out. Joseph Campbell also thought there were associations between the concepts of birth and growth, and death and decay; human sacrifice, he argues, was intended to enhance life or stave off decay. Rosemary Sutcliff, the well-known author of historical novels, wrote one titled Mask of the Horse-Lord (1965) in which the hero is a Roman-Celtic king, Phaedrus, who ultimately decides to sacrifice himself for his people after listening (as Barbara Talcroft summarises things) to “a voice from a deeper past than that of Rome, and his solution belongs to the oldest of all traditions.” And the well-known writer and amateur scholar Robert Graves, taking Frazer as his departure-point, discussed Hercules as an exemplar of the “oak king”; according to Graves, some Iron Age monarchs, each cast in the role of Hercules, enjoyed reigns of a very brief duration, six months, after which successive kings were tied to an oak tree at midsummer and then ritually castrated, dismembered and slain, their blood being sprinkled over the people of their tribe, their body roasted and eaten at a ceremonial feast, and their head and genitals floated downriver on a boat to a sacred island; after that, supposedly, the head was sometimes cured and used for prophecy. Graves’s use of sources has been the subject of some significant criticism, and his work made little impression on the scholarly community, but it was much more impactful on a broader audience. In consequence, says Hutton, even today, Graves’s ideas about pagan Celtic monarchy “remain a major source of confusion about the ancient Celts and influences many un-scholarly views of Celtic paganism.”

A final key source for this inquiry into ideas about the Celtic monarchy of this period is G.F. Dalton – like Graves an amateur rather than a professional academic scholar – who during the 1970s published several papers arguing that the Irish high kings of Tara “were killed on a particular day of the year, in a ritual manner, for religious reasons, and at the end of a fixed term of years or of some multiple of this term.” According to Dalton’s reading of Irish history, the central goddess of pre-Christian Ireland was Éire (Éiru), who was an earth-goddess identified with the land itself. She was ritually “married” to a noble mortal, the High King at Tara, and in Dalton’s view each successive Irish king’s inauguration was portrayed in poetry as essentially a marriage feast. “The object of the marriage, we may reasonably assume,” he says, “was to make the land fertile.”


Reconstruction of an ancient cave painting believed to show a shaman in animal costume. This image is often used by pagans as a portrayal of the “horned god” who is one of the main deities worshipped by Wiccans

With all this said, then, let’s look at the historical evidence Frazer and his followers used in an attempt to prove their case that divine kings were ritually sacrificed to bring fertility to the Iron Age Celtic kingdoms they ruled before the advent of Christianity. The examples I am going to discuss here for you come not only from the Golden Bough but from the more extensive lists offered by his followers R.A.S Macalister, in his Temair Breg (1919), and G.F. Dalton, in his papers “The ritual killing of the Irish kings” and “The tradition of blood sacrifice to the goddess Éire”. Dalton compiles these suggestions into a master-list of 14 supposedly historical Irish monarchs whose deaths might be interpreted as resulting from ritual sacrifice, all of whom supposedly died on a particularly significant day – the pagan festival of Samhain, held at the onset of winter, which we know better today as the Christians’ Hallowe’en. That total is, by the way, arguably a remarkably small one, given that the Irish annals purport to trace their Iron Age monarchy back to around 3000 BCE, and so cover in excess of 3,400 years before the advent of Christianity. It represents well under 10 percent of the Irish high kings named in those annals.

Examples taken from this list include:

  • Conary Mōr (Conaire Mór), who after he become high king of Erin (supposedly some time in the first century BCE), enjoyed a reign characterised by bounteous trade, rivers abounding in fish, and plentiful acorns for the swine – what Rolleston summarises as “the fair seasons and bounteous harvests always associated in Irish minds with the reign of a good king.”

  • Tighearnmas (Tigernmas), who supposedly lived in the second millennium BCE and who, the Irish Annals of the Four Masters assures us, died “with three-fourths of the men of Ireland about him, at the meeting of Magh-Slecht, in Breifne, at the worshipping of Crom Cruach, which was the chief idol in Ireland. This happened on the night of Samhain precisely.”

  • Eochaid (Eochu Airem), who was, according to different sources, struck by lightning, or burned to death at a banquet – either by a rival tribal group, or by the fairy-folk.

  • Fergus Blacktooth (Fergus Dubdétach), who reigned for one year in the second or third centuries AD, and then was killed in a battle that took place on Samhain. According to Dalton, this ‘battle’ was a very strange affair. Fergus and his brothers were all killed on the same stone, by the same man, Lugaid Laiga, who is said to have killed seven kings. After killing these three, Lugaid was so crazy with fighting that he tried to kill his own king, Cormac, himself. But Cormac had foreseen this, and dressed his fool, Deilionn, in the royal robes, so that Lugaid killed Deilionn in mistake for Cormac. For Dalton, it is obvious that Deilionn was a mock king, who was invested with the royal robes purely in order that he might be sacrificed instead of the real king Cormac.

  • Finally, Dalton suggests that an Irish legend, ‘The Adventures of Art son of Conn’, may be put beside these. This story concerns a wicked enchantress named Becuma, who marries a king of Ireland named Conn Cetcathach (Conn Cétchathach, Conn of the Hundred Battles – reigned later than most of the others on this list, in the 1st century AD; he was the supposed ancestor of most subsequent high kings). As a result of her depravity the crops fail, and there is a famine. The druids proposed to remedy this via a human sacrifice, the victim being a young man named Segda, who is, Dalton presumes, a substitute for the king himself. According to one version of the story: “When the druids saw the young man with Conn, this is the counsel they gave: to slay him and mingle his blood with the blighted earth and the withered trees, so that its due mast and fruit, its fish, and its produce might be in them.” The most interesting point, Dalton contends, is the detailed description given of the proposed sacrifice. The victim’s blood is to be allowed to sink into the ground. Dalton interprets this as an example of sympathetic magic – moistening the soil brings rain and revives the crops

Now, looking at all this from the perspective of the historian, rather than the ethnographer or the folklorist, there seem to me to be two all-too-obvious things to point out. The first is that none of these supposed rulers is a clearly historical figure. All of them date from the period of roughly 2000 BCE up to the appearance of St Patrick in Ireland, which is typically dated to roughly the first half of the fifth century CE. This means that every one of them significantly antedates any surviving written record we have for Ireland – the Annals of the Four Masters, referred to above, for instance, was not compiled till the 1630s, though the men who wrote it drew on annals which, Irish historians believe, may have been written as early as the 550s. So even these ancient records, assuming that they actually existed, could have recorded only traditions and legends about earlier Irish kings. Really, all the people on Dalton’s list have an historicity approximately equivalent to that of King Lear, a figure who supposedly ruled “Britain” in the eighth century BCE – but whose legend was not actually written down until the twelfth century CE.

The second point to be made about the list is that none of the people on it are unambiguously described as having been ritually sacrificed to protect their people or to save them from dearth. How, we might ask, did Macalister and Dalton conclude that they were, in fact, sacrificial victims? Only because they had read Frazer and were actively looking for examples of the practices outlined in the Golden Bough. Indeed, a reading of Dalton’s papers reveals they are replete with phrases such as the “it is obvious from this that…”, the “it may have been” and the “we may reasonably assume” that I quoted above – “the answer must be largely guesswork…”; “we can conjecture…” and so on. From the historian’s point of view, these sorts of phrases sound loud warning bells, because the people who write them are not evaluating their sources as historians are supposed to – they are example-seeking, and actively going in search of “evidence” to prove a case they are already convinced of. And they ignore the existence of a number of story tropes – the sacred importance of the number seven, the portrayal of fools as sorts of mirrors of the king – that might equally explain the form of some of the old legends.

To take only the example of Eochaid Airem, who is supposed to have reigned in about 100 BCE, Dalton not only ignores the fact that he is a figure from saga, not history – one who lived in a world in which fairies were very powerful and very real, and whose main purpose was to carry out acts that advance an epic story. He also cites three different possible causes of death, not one of which is obviously recognisable as a product of the sort of ritual sacrifice described by Frazer. Moreover, Eochaid’s reign is said to have lasted for 15 years. Dalton expends some energy trying to demonstrate that this figure should actually be read to show a “real” reign of 14 years, which would be a multiple of the mystic seven years he is looking for (2 x 7). There are many, many echoes of this sort of special pleading in the literature I’ve been discussing. Thus Margaret Murray’s attempt to argue that William Rufus’s death was the product of ritual sacrifice wriggles frantically around in an attempt to account for the fact that the death took place not on the pagan festival of Lammas, but on the morning afterwards. She also insists that the king was 42 years old at the time of his death (6 x 7), when, in fact, we simply don’t know when Rufus was born, and ignores the inconvenient fact that he died not after ruling for 14 years, but after a reign of 12 years and 10 months. None of this encourages much faith in the arguments of the Golden Bough brigade.

Thus far, our discussion has revolved around negatives; hopefully I’ve shown there is good reason to suppose that the historical record contains little in the way of evidence to back up the idea that Iron Age Celtic kings were ritually sacrificed in extremely similar ways in the name of a religion that survived the Christianisation of Ireland and the British Isles. In concluding, though, it’s only fair to point out that some modern evidence does possibly point to the sacrifice of significant figures from these communities. This evidence is provided by some of the bog bodies recovered in Ireland over the past couple of decades, at least two of which – the remains known as Old Croghan Man and Cashel Man – potentially fit this particular bill.

Cashel man

The remains of Cashel Man, the world’s oldest bog body, excavated from a peat mire in Ireland in 2011. The upper part of the body was thought to have been placed in a large bag; as a result, it decomposed. The lower limbs, outside the bag and posed to the anaerobic environment of the bog, survived

These bodies are much older than most of the people we’ve discussed in this response thus far – they date to the period 2,000–1,000 BCE. But, certainly, they belong to people who, if not definitely kings, probably were prominent figures in their communities. Old Croghan Man, in particular, would have been a striking figure; he stood about six feet five inches tall, gigantic for that time, had been reared on an expensive diet that was largely meat-based, had apparently done no manual work (his fingernails were neatly manicured), and died in his prime, aged about 25. Moreover, he had apparently been ritually killed. I covered the mystery of Old Croghan man in an earlier essay, which you can read here; the relevant passage runs:

“Forensic examination shows that he died hard, stabbed through a lung and then decapitated with an axe. After killing him, his executioners chopped his body in half at the diaphragm, and at some point, perhaps while he was still alive, they also inflicted two pairs of unusual wounds on him. Deep cuts almost severed both his nipples, and his arms were vigorously pierced so that twisted lengths of hazel withy could be threaded through from side to side, presumably to pinion him. “

These sorts of details can be, and have been, read as archaeological confirmation of Frazer’s anthropological speculation. The main proponent of these views, Eamon Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, has written several papers based on these finds that argue in favour of the reality of Irish sacrificial kingship. And it’s hard to be certain that he’s not right about this.

wicker man

Engraving of a wicker man, reported by Julius Caesar to have been used by Celtic peoples to imprison intended human sacrifices prior to their immolation

What can be said, though, in conclusion, is that it’s just as hard to prove that Kelly is correct. We have no written records that date back this far; and while it seems quite reasonable to suppose that Old Croghan Man was killed in some sort of ritual, we can’t definitely link that to the ideal of sacrifice to ensure good harvests, nor even be certain he was not the victim of some other set of circumstances that we simply have no record of, and hence no reference points for. Similarly, while Kelly very interestingly speculates on the reasons why only portions of many bog bodies are recovered – he argues that, after being dismembered, various parts were buried at different spots around the boundaries of their kingdoms as a form of magical protection – it is, once again, impossible to prove what remains a theory; and some of his evidence is based on exactly the sort of wriggly special pleading that Margaret Murray used to deploy, as well. Thus, we simply don’t know what boundaries Iron Age Irish kingdoms had; to make his argument, Kelly assumes they can be traced in the bounds of medieval-era Christian Irish polities that existed two to three thousand years later, which seems a considerable stretch, especially as his arguments in favour of the careful placement of the remains assume that the inhabitants of Iron Age Ireland could plot their position on the landscape with the sort of precision expected of a 21st-century orienteer.

For all this, though, the evidence of bog bodies does remain intriguing. If we’re ever to salvage Frazer and his Golden Bough ideas from their chilly academic exile, it’s likely the proofs will have to come from archaeology, not history.


Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (London 1964)

G. F. Dalton, “The ritual killing of the Irish kings,” Folklore 81 (1970)

__________, “The Tradition of Blood Sacrifice to the Goddess Éire,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 63 (1974)

James Frazer, The Golden Bough (3rd edition, 1911-15)

Jeffrey Gantz, The Mabinogion (NY 1976)

Robert Graves, The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (London 1948)

CMC Green, “The slayer and the king: Rex Nemorensis and the Sanctuary of Diana,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 7 (2000)

_____________, Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia (Cambridge, 2012)

Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford, 1999)

____________, Pagan Britain (London 2013)

Eamon P. Kelly, “Bog Bodies – Kingship and Sacrifice,” Scéal na Móna 13 (2006)

____________, “Kingship and sacrifice: iron age bog bodies and boundaries,” Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide 35 (2006)

Victor Kumar, “To walk alongside: myth, magic and mind in The Golden Bough”, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (2016)

R.A.S. Macalister, Temair Breg : a Study of the Remains and Traditions of Tara (Dublin, 1919)

Bronisław Malinowski, “The Golden Bough”, in Nature, 19 May 1923

Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology (Oxford 1921)

__________________, The Divine King of England: A Study in Anthropology (London 1954)

Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage (London 1961)

TW Rolletson, Celtic Myths and Legends (New York, 1986)

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Mask of the Horse Lord (London 1965)

Barbara L. Talcroft, Death of the Corn King: King and Goddess in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Historical Fiction for Young Adults (Metuchen, 1995)


Imperial ironworkers at Imerina, early C19th. From William Ellis, History of Madagascar vol.1 (1838)

Imperial ironworkers at Imerina, Madagascar, in the early nineteenth century. From William Ellis, History of Madagascar vol.1 (1838)

Q: Supposedly Madagascar was pretty close to industrialization prior to European colonialism. Is this true? Read it on a Twitter thread.

A: I think it’s highly likely that the claim you read was written by someone who’d heard something about Gwyn Campbell’s paper “An Industrial Experiment in Pre-colonial Africa: The Case of Imperial Madagascar, 1825-1861”, which appeared in Journal of Southern African Studies 17 (1991). If so, the writer either hadn’t read the paper very carefully, or had some reason to exaggerate the claim, because Campbell certainly doesn’t suggest anything along the lines of “Madagascar”, as a whole, being “pretty close to industrialisation” in the C19th.

What he does do is to examine what began as an interesting experiment in cotton manufacturing carried out by the Merina empire, a polity with its main power bases the central highlands of the island. Merina was by far the most powerful of a number of states that existed on the island prior to its seizure by the French in 1894; its monarchs – Ranavalona I was the reigning queen in the period we’re interested in – were often referred to by Europeans as the kings and queens of Madagascar as a whole.

According to Campbell, the rulers of Merina attempted an “industrial experiment” in Imerina, a central province of their kingdom, between 1825 and1861 – that is, at a time when word of the concept of industrial revolution and its possibilities had had plenty of time to reach the island. This project, Campbell says, was of considerable note, as it

occurred in the precolonial era, was contemporaneous with industrial experiments in Western Europe and North America, it was a result of indigenous enterprise, and it involved large scale factory machine-based production.

Ranavalona I (reigned 1828-1861), queen of Merina

Ranavalona I (reigned 1828-1861), Queen of Merina

Madagascar did possess a number of the pre-conditions required for industrialisation. It had natural resources, including a centre for iron ore production at Miarinarivo, about 35 miles south-east of the capital at Antananarivo, and smelting at Amoronkay; in addition, two major famines in the early and mid 1700s had led to the emergence of a class of full-time rural artisans

The experiment began with the textile industry but was expanded to incorporate processing of sugar and tobacco, and eventually even arms production. It was an ambitious effort, but one that ultimately failed, so while Campbell notes that “by the mid-nineteenth century, many of the preconditions for successful industrialisation had been met,” it wasn’t the case that Madagascar came close to fully industrialising before the arrival of the French, only to be thwarted by an invading colonial power – which is, I’d suspect, the form the Twitter claim you mention, took.

Nonetheless, the experiment was quite a large-scale one. The major local industrial site, at Mantasoa, eventually “comprised five factories with blast furnaces, plus numerous workshops, employing 5,000 workers and producing a wide range of manufactured goods including cannon, muskets, glass, tiles, clothes and leather.” The furnaces themselves were also pretty advanced: “four feet deep and two in diameter, in which the charcoal fire was fanned by two manually operated bellows,” each capable of producing almost 50 pounds of iron in under five hours. The metal they output was used to make iron tools – spades, needles, hammers, scissors, pots and, of course, weapons.

Ultimately, Campbell concludes,

if one accepts as one standard definition of ‘factory’ industry a single production unit employing a minimum of fourteen workers, the workshops on the iron ore fields of eastern Imerina qualified as a factory industry as early as 1817 … comprising furnaces, each of which would employ seven labourers, and two workshops containing 18 and 32 forges respectively.

Pre-colonial Madagascar, showing the extent of Merinan control over the island. From Campbell

Pre-colonial Madagascar, showing the extent of Merinan control over the island. From Campbell. Click to view in higher resolution

There were other outputs, too, that allow us to consider all this “industrialisation” in a real sense. For example, the development of a “market system”, first organised on a permanent basis by king Andrianamboatsimarofy (1773-95), resulted, in turn, in the emergence of a “symbiotic relationship between rural industry and agriculture leading to regional specialisation”. While Imerina was the main area in which this work was going on in, moreover, it also sat at the centre of an island wide long distance trade network, in which inter-regional specialisation began to flourish. And the project also involved some impressive attempts to improve education in the region, and so develop an efficient industrial workforce – which resulted in a literacy rate of around 7% among the adult population, a significant proportion for the place and time.

Campbell explores several key problems which combined to stall the Merinan project. These included lack of capital (which was largely offset by the availability of cheap manpower – Campbell notes that, in fact, about a third of the workforce were agrarian labourers transferred to the industrial sites and made to work there without pay; this resulted in high rates of desertion and some acts of industrial sabotage) and “exorbitant transport costs” caused by the almost total lack of infrastructure; there was no road network capable of shipping products to the main towns or the coast.

In the end, he writes, the major issue was the way in which the state used compulsion to develop the economy; in particular, he writes of

the long term damage this inflicted upon the Merina economy as, in the attempt to avoid the intolerably harsh régime, artisans abandoned their trade and petty farmers abandoned the land, thus undermining the rural economy, the very strength of which, at the start of the nineteenth century, had made feasible the attempt to industrialise.

All in all then, the tweets you’ve been reading do have some basis in fact. There was a conscious effort to industrialise in Madagascar. It was pursued over a relatively long term by a series of rulers. And it produced results – albeit with the help of the local slave trade and only by significant exploitation of the workforce. However, it certainly is not the case that Merina itself, much less Madagascar as a whole, was “pretty close to industrialisation” when the island was colonised. Campbell’s analysis suggests the experiment had already failed 50 years earlier, the result of a combination of inadequate infrastructure and the failure to build an export trade, increasing availability of imported industrial goods, and a significant industrial accident:

It would appear that production was never on a sufficient enough scale to meet state demand for armaments, as the court was obliged to import gunpowder from the American commercial agent Marks at Mahajanga on the west coast, and powder and muskets from Delastelle on the east coast throughout the later 1830s and 1840s.

Finally, in November 1853 the Isoraka powder mills exploded, instantly killing nine workers, including Rainimanana [a British-trained factory-owner], and wounding a further 47, some of them fatally. This was followed four years later by the expulsion of Laborde [a French entrepreneur with interests in sugar processing and cigar-manufacture on the island] from the island, after which production at Mantasoa came to an abrupt end. Of the ‘foreign’ industrial techniques introduced onto the plateau only soap manufacture succeeded, spreading steadily from the mid 1830s but on a handicraft rather than factory basis.

Mantasoa industrial complex, c.1850. From Campbell

Mantasoa industrial complex, c.1850. From Campbell. Click to view in higher resolution

The expulsion of foreigners like Laborde, which was not uncommon in the period 1835-57, underlines a key feature of Madagascan proto-industrialisation we have not commented on to date: it was driven from the top down, by authority in search of power, not by a diverse group of profit-seeking technocrats and merchants who enjoyed independent access to capital. This did have short-term advantages (no competition), but it also meant support for the whole project could be turned off like a switch. Royal capriciousness also had the further consequence of making Madagascar seem an unwelcoming environment for inward investment of both cash and industrial expertise. Indeed, after c.1850 the whole attitude of the local elites towards industrialisation changed, so that indigenous skilled artisans, including foreign-trained Merina, were eventually banned from working for themselves for fear the greater efficiency of their manufacturing would dent the profits of crown-owned artisanal industries.

The failure of industrialisation in Madagascar, then, owed more to local issues and to local problems and attitudes, than anything else, and it’s hard to lay it at the doors of either international competition or invading imperialists. It was a truly fascinating experiment, nonetheless, and I’m not surprised it still attracts the attention of people on Twitter.



Romantic. Fictionalised. The Man in the Iron Mask as he exists in popular imagination.

Q: Is the story of the Man in the Iron Mask real? If he was, how did he get so well known, even in his contemporary time? And why was his identity concealed?

A: Yes, a masked prisoner certainly was kept incarcerated in a series of French prisons between 1661 and his death in 1703. The mask most commonly associated with him was not made of iron, though – consensus suggests it was probably made of whalebone faced with velvet, and that it may only have been worn when he was likely to be seen in public, for example during a transfer between prisons. And while the man’s existence was known at the time – a contemporary gazette mentions his transfer from one prison to another in 1687 – the case owes much of its current fame to the work of Alexandre Dumas, who wrote an influential novel about the case in 1847-50 as part of the wildly popular series of books he authored about the Three Musketeers.

The real puzzle, of course, concerns the masked man’s identity. A large amount of research has been done in an attempt to solve the problem, and it has turned up a small quantity of contemporary prison records that do little but heap up more mystery. For example, the memoirs of an officer of the Bastille prison notes that a prisoner arrived in Paris who was “always masked and whose name is never pronounced.” Records of his burial suggest he was in his 50s when he died – which if true would mean that he was aged in his late teens when incarcerated, and thus hint at a motive that had more to do with who he was than what he might have done. They add that all his belongings were burned after his death. There are plenty of other details, some more plausible than others but all of them essentially folklore, to suggest that someone very senior indeed in the French state, or perhaps some state organisation, wanted to make sure that the man’s identity remained a secret. For instance, there are several accounts alleging that the walls of his cell were scraped and whitewashed after he died to ensure no messages were left on them. (Some of this work was in vain; a couple of years ago, French archivists exhumed two inventories of the prisoner’s possessions from the endless word-mine of the National Archives.) And we know that he was moved from prison to prison in order to ensure he remained under the care of Bénigne de Saint-Mars, one of the most senior of French prison governors – though not why Saint-Mars, of all those in the service, was selected for the job.


Bénigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars, the self-mythologising prison governor at the centre of the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask.

Most of the speculation that has surrounded the Man in the Iron Mask suggests he was incarcerated on the order of Louis XIV. This is not implausible; French monarchs could make use of a device called a lettre de cachet to issue orders that had to be carried out without any recourse to legal process or appeal. But there’s no firm evidence that the man was specifically Louis’s prisoner. A large part of the reason that we think he was has a direct bearing on your question, because most of the earliest accounts of the Iron Mask case were the product of anti-French propaganda. For example, the Dutch used the case to try to undermine Louis’s legitimacy during the Nine Years War (1688-97), alleging that the prisoner was the former lover of the Queen Mother, and in fact the Sun King’s real father. Other pamphlets were published to suggest the prisoner was the king’s bastard half brother, or a lover of Louis’s wife. Voltaire – who picked up rumours of the prisoner’s existence when he was locked up in the Bastille briefly in 1717 – was a proponent of the theory that the prisoner was the king’s brother, and it is also to Voltaire that we owe the idea that his mask was made of iron. Dumas’ novel elaborates on this suggestion, making the prisoner Louis’s twin, and hence a direct threat to his position as king.

Modern historians reject these ideas and several have sought to identify a candidate who meets the most obvious criteria for the Mask – someone whose existence was an embarrassment to the state and who was likely to be recognised if seen. It’s fair to say that no-one of the necessary eminence who fits the known dates of the case has yet been identified. If we set aside the idea that the man was as young as in his late 50s when he died in 1703, and hence might have been imprisoned for what he did rather than for who he was, then a reasonable guess would be that the prisoner was involved in some potentially highly embarrassing court scandal, along the lines of the infamous Affair of the Poisons, which had the potential to gravely compromise the Crown. The longest-serving female prisoner in French history was Magdelaine (or Madelaine) Chapelain, a Parisienne fortune-teller caught up in the Poisons case, who was incarcerated for 44 years.

To probe further is really is to enter the realm of speculation. But the question that has to be asked, I think, is this: why would whatever French authorities were responsible for incarcerating this prisoner care so much about keeping this man away from other people? Who were they concerned might recognise him, and what did they think the consequences might be if he was identified, or able to speak to someone? We don’t know of any other significant examples in which prisoners’ identities were concealed in this way over quite such long periods, in quite such exceptional circumstance – though the device certainly was used on occasion when a prisoner was moved. For example, the 21 March 1695 issue of the Gazette d’Amsterdam published a story noting that “a masked prisoner, brought from Provence in a litter and closely guarded throughout the journey” had been immured in the Bastille. This, the paper noted, “leads one to believe that he is someone of importance, especially as his name is kept secret and those who brought him say it is a secret from them.” Another example is that a governor of the Bastille, François de Besmaux, kept his own wife masked and guarded in public, supposedly for fear “that someone might try to steal his money and his wife.”


The fortress-prison of Pignerol, located in what is now north-west Italy, was home to Saint-mars and the Mask for two decades.

So this is quite an interesting problem. In this period, which was pre-photograph and, largely, pre-newspaper, only a small handful of people, starting with the king, would have been widely recognisable to anyone. This is the main reason that the various theories that the Mask was the twin brother of Louis XIV, or some other member of the royal family, have gained so much traction. Yet serious students of the subject are agreed that there are really no more than two plausible suspects, whose identities have been deduced by close study of the French prison records of the period. The first was a Mantuan diplomat named Count Matteoli, who had accepted a vast French bribe to let the frontier fortress of Casale fall into French hands and then reneged on the agreement. In 1679, a vengeful Louis XIV had him kidnapped in Italy and smuggled back over the border to France, an act in breach of the international law of the period that might certainly help to explain why it was considered so important to conceal his identity thereafter. With that said, however, there is quite a bit of doubt as to whether Matteoli was actually incarcerated at all the same times, and in the same places, as we know that the Man in the Iron Mask was – and there is also a fair weight of evidence suggesting that the prisoner was not in fact a man of much social distinction; a letter of 1669 refers to him as “only a valet”, and indeed he was assigned to serve in that capacity to the disgraced former finance minister, Fouquet, when he was imprisoned alongside him. It is these scraps of evidence that have led a second group of writers on this subject to identify the Mask as an obscure manservant named Eustache Danger or Dauger, who actually was a valet up to his arrest in 1669. Both the most interesting recent writers on the subject, John Noone and Paul Sonnino, have no doubt that the man was Danger.

The supposition, if this latter theory is correct, is that Danger must have served someone important, and picked up some knowledge that was very compromising. No one has ever conclusively identified what this information may have been. Noone simply admits he has no definite solution, though he does point one very interesting thing – that in 1670, only shortly after the arrest of Danger, a gentleman by the name of Valcroissant, who was a friend of Fouquet’s, attempted to contact Danger in prison; we also know that Valcroissant himself was subsequently sentenced to five years in the galleys for taking a letter from Fouquet to Fouquet’s wife. On that basis, we might assume that Danger had special knowledge of some especially embarrassing detail to do with Fouquet’s fall – which involved his conviction for massive theft of state funds and created a highly embarrassing and long-remembered scandal for Louis XIV. Sonnino, for his part, tries to show that Danger was known to Cardinal Mazarin and makes the suggestion that he may have picked up some information about the misappropriation of some royal diamonds.

What’s perhaps most interesting about all this, however, is the case Noone builds with regard not to the prisoner himself, but to his gaoler, Saint-Mars – a social climber on an epic scale who was obsessed with rank, status and (especially) the money that came with them. There are three key planks to this argument:

  1. Noone plausibly argues that, while he is remembered today chiefly as the gaoler for several decades of the Man in the Iron Mask, a large part of Saint-Mars’s contemporary prestige, and actual income, came from looking after the most high-ranking prisoners in France during his 20 years at Pignerol, and from siphoning off a significant proportion of the large sums – around 7,000 livres per prisoner per year – that he received to pay for food for them. Chief among these was Fouquet. It was having charge of Fouquet and another important prisoner, the Duc de Lauzun (who was an inconvenient suitor to France’s then-greatest heiress) that gave Saint-Mars real status, as well as real opportunities to enrich himself.
  2. However, Saint-Mars was in effect put out to grass in 1681, being moved from the governorship of Pignerol to that of a much more minor (and isolated) prison: Exilles, in an Alpine path on the road to Turin. He took the Mask with him as he went – certainly a sign that the prisoner was an important one and that the authorities in Paris wanted to limited the number of people to whom the man had access – but he had charge of no socially eminent prisoners at Exilles. Saint-Mars responded by lobbying the government furiously for a better appointment, and when he received one (to Sainte-Marguerite, an island off the Mediterranean coast, in 1687), he was told to move the Mask with him again. It was this move that really drew public attention to the prisoner for the first time, since it was carried out in a remarkably high-profile way. Yet, as Noone shows, no specific order was issued by Saint-Mars’s superiors to make sure that the man wore a mask as he moved to his new prison – rather, there was simply an order to stop him from speaking to anybody who might encounter the party as it made its way from prison to prison. The authorities, then, cared only about what the man knew, not who he was or who might conceivably recognise him.
  3. On this basis, the person responsible for the insistence that the prisoner was exotically masked (he made the 11-day journey in a sedan chair, wearing a specially-constructed steel mask so heavy and so restrictive that it left him quite ill) must have been Saint-Mars himself. Noone persuasively suggests that this “precaution” was probably taken to give the impression that Saint-Mars himself must be a man of great consequence to be was entrusted with looking after such a remarkable prisoner – that is, it was a piece of theatre designed to impress the people of the local area, the garrison at Sainte-Marguerite, and, most of all, to remind his bosses in Paris that he was the sort of man who could and should be entrusted with looking after any other prisoners of Fouquet’s eminence that the state might wish to incarcerate.

The fortress of Exilles on an Alpine pass leading from France towards Turin: a more isolated and less prestigious posting for Saint-Mars.

Noone offers quite a bit of circumstantial evidence to support his theory. Certainly Saint-Mars put some effort into constructing two “high-security suites” at Sainte Marguerite. One was assigned to the masked prisoner, but the other, large enough and secure enough to contain even the most eminent of prisoners, was never actually used in its intended role – so there seems to be good evidence the governor was doing what he could to put himself in line to be placed in charge of any future prisoners of eminence. And, certainly, the route that Saint-Mars chose to take between Exiles and Sainte-Marguerite was very public and high-profile – hardly the best way to make a discreet transfer of a prisoner the government didn’t want anybody thinking about. Saint-Mars, Noone says, might equally have chosen to proceed by more discreet back roads; this was a deliberate decision. So we can only suppose, he adds, that Saint-Mars positively wanted people to know something remarkable was going on, and to wonder who this incredible prisoner must be:

“If hiding his face had indeed been necessary, then a sack pulled over his head would have done the job just as well… The idea of masking the prisoner was a ploy thought up by Saint-Mars to advertise the supposed secret of his prisoner’s identity, and he chose to do it in such a theatrical way because he knew a steel mask would have a greater impact on those who saw it than would a normal mask… Saint-Mars conducted his campaign with all the flash and flair of a modern promoter.”

Fouquet-engraving by Nanteuil 1661

Nicolas Fouquet. Engraving by Nantueil, 1661.

Really, I think that all of this suggests that the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask has some interesting similarities to the 130-year old controversy over the identity of Jack the Ripper. Everything we know about sex crimes and serial murder suggests that the Ripper was very probably some deeply unpleasant and inadequate nobody, but his killings were so hideous and extraordinary that many of the writers on the case have presumed that he himself must also have been extraordinary. Combine this with the commercial pressure to sell books, and you get the long line of “Ripper” books suggesting that the murderer was a member of the royal family, or Queen Victoria’s surgeon, and so on and on. It is the same with the Mask: more people are going to want to buy and read a book arguing that he was a disinherited twin brother of Louis XIV than will be interested in reading about a manservant who had stumbled across some salient detail of what is, for most people, a very long-forgotten financial scandal.


Rupert Gould, The Stargazer Talks (1946); John Noone, The Man Behind the Iron Mask (1988); Paul Sonnino, The Search for the Man in the Iron Mask (2016)

1678-type London fire engine by John Keeling

A late 17th century London fire engine, of the 1678 type designed by John Keeling, photographed in the Victorian era. Construction of a replica by the Museum of London revealed the limitations of the design: “The resulting water pressure was pretty pitiful. I estimate the fire engine would have emitted about six pints of water per squirt, and the water would have travelled no more than 5 metres.”


Q: I live in London in 1670, I have up to date fire insurance and a fire mark for my insurer, a fire has just broken out. How do I tell my insurer I need their fire brigade? What happens if there are multiple fires and all the services are being used?

This is certainly an interesting question, and it’s actually one that’s not especially straightforward to answer. To begin with, while it’s true that the early modern English fire insurance system has been well-studied, not least by Trebilcock and Pearson, its chroniclers have always been economic historians who were a lot more interested in the economic aspects of the insurance business than in the practicalities of what one would do if, having taken out insurance, either you or your neighbours suffered an actual fire.

This problem has been further exacerbated by the many popular sources available online, most of which seem very taken by the comic opportunities apparently presented by the system that prevailed in London between the Great Fire of 1666 and the creation of the first proper metropolitan fire service in London in 1833. This 150+-year period saw much London firefighting effectively privatised and left in the hands of rival fire insurance companies, each of which maintained its own small fire-fighting service. You don’t have to look too far online to find sources (including the one maintained by the current London fire brigade) that suggest that these competing groups of fire-fighters would simply refuse to tackle blazes in properties that didn’t happen to be insured by them, and that, on occasion, several different crews of professional firemen would simply stand back and watch while fire ran out of control, intervening only if it reached a property that was actually insured by them. Similarly, it’s pretty regularly asserted that, if you happened to own an insured home and a blaze broke out in a property owned by an uninsured neighbour, it was no use summoning your private fire brigade to tackle that blaze and so protect your own property. They would only go into action when your home actually caught fire.

The reality was rather different. The Great Fire left a very deep imprint on the collective memories of Londoners. It had been hideously destructive, obliterating around 13,000 homes, 87 churches (including St Paul’s cathedral), 52 guild halls and Newgate Prison as it raged, and it left about a fifth of the city’s population homeless. The result, as London historian Jerry White points out, was that an “understandable paranoia” about fire prevailed among the people of succeeding generations, and that fire remained “one of the great anxieties of the age”. It was simply inconceivable, in such circumstances, that Londoners of any sort would simply allow a fire to rage unchecked, no matter what the financial situation that prevailed, and in fact the evidence rather strongly suggests that the image of private fire-fighters standing idly by while a blaze got seriously out of hand simply never actually happened.


The Great Fire of London destroyed large swathes of the city in 1666, and provided the impetus for a series of reforms that changed the face of firefighting in Britain.

Let’s begin this response at the beginning, though. Your presumption that you would be able to insure your London property adequately against fire so early as 1670 is incorrect. The first modern fire insurance company was not created until 1681, when an enterprising London doctor named Nicholas Barbon launched his Insurance Office for Houses, and it was not until two rival mutual schemes, the Friendly Fire Office and the Amicable Contributorship (nicknamed the Hand-in-Hand), got underway in 1683 and 1696 respectively that the first private fire brigades actually came into existence. All in all, therefore, the creation of a workable insurance system that might actually help you to extinguish a fire in your property thus need to be dated to closer to 1700 than 1670. This dating is rather interesting, because from March 1708 London ordinances mandated that every parish in the city should maintain its own fire engine, “and also a hand engine” which could “throw up water for the extinguishing of fires”, and which it was required to keep in “good order and repair”. Many parishes, it appears, had maintained a firefighting service of their own before this date, but it was this ordinance that regulated the system and set required standards for it – for example, every parish was henceforth required to possess a leather hose of the right size to plug into London’s system of water mains, which could “without loss or help of bucket” replenish the reservoir of water in the engines. From this date, every parish also employed an engine keeper, who was paid a bonus of 30 shillings if his engine was the first to attend a fire, and paid 10s. rewards to “turncocks” who had the job of turning on the water supply in the vicinity of a fire. There was, thus, only a really rather short period of perhaps 10 or 15 years during which a fire might break out in London and be attended by a private fire brigade alone, and even before 1708 this must have been a rare, if not actually unheard-of, occurrence.

Let’s assume, though, that you are a Londoner in this period, decided to take out proper insurance, and were unlucky enough to suffer a fire. If the blaze began by day, you, or more probably a servant, would most likely notice it in time to extinguish it yourselves, or with the assistance of neighbours. If it broke out by night – or during the day in high summer and in a period when winds were high and fire spread quickly – then it was the duty of the members of the city watch to raise the alarm, which they’d typically do by ringing the bells of the nearest parish church. It was this ringing that would alert both the parish fire brigade and the private fire services of the period to the existence of the fire. What wouldn’t happen, apparently, is any sort of attempt by the householder or his servants to directly notify their insurance office that they were in need of help. These, in fact, kept normal office hours and don’t seem to have maintained any sort of out-of-hours emergency service.

Nonetheless, the ringing of church bells would have been an effective alert for the parish fire brigade, together with the parish constable and beadles, whose duties also including attending fires. All these people would certainly be able to distinguish the bells of their parish church from those of neighbouring parishes. They would have needed help to locate the actual blaze – the signal certainly did not communicate the exact address of the conflagration, nor the identity of the properties that were on fire – but proximity would have ensured that, in most cases, the parish engine would probably arrive at the site of a fire first. It certainly appears that, subsequently, several different private fire brigades might also converge on the scene, and that their crews would also attempt to assist if the fire was a serious one. The insurance crews might, indeed, have been more effective fire-fighters than the parish men – private insurance companies typically contracted this work out to moonlighting Thames watermen, who supplemented their normal incomes in this manner.


A London firemark, this one issued by the Amicable Contributorship – nicknamed, thanks to this early logo, the :hand-in-hand”.

Thus no fire that took place in London would have been left to burn unchecked. Moreover, while, in theory, the fire services maintained by the private insurance companies would only assist in extinguishing fires in premises insured by them, it seems that in practice very few private engines attended a fire, discovered it had originated in an uninsured property, and then did nothing about it. By the middle of the 18th century, at the latest, rival insurance groups had established formal reciprocal arrangements under which their crews would tackle fires in properties insured by other companies, to be reimbursed by the insurer later, and private brigades might also combine forces to tackle any significant blaze that threatened to get out of hand and cause significant damage over any wide area.

The sort of chaos implicit in the existence of private fire services thus appears to have been very largely avoided in Georgian London, and we can, I think, read quite a bit into the financial success of the insurance system that was established in this period. Pearson puts the value of property insured across the whole of Britain in 1725 at about £31m. This total rose rapidly. By 1782, according to estimates made for the Prime Minister, Lord North, about £150m of British property was insured against fire. It was clearly in the best interests of the wealthy financial sector that was thus created to keep the actual damage caused by fire to a minimum, and it seems inconceivable that such a powerful business would have been content to allow the comically-inept firefighting operations envisaged in many popular histories of London to have put at risk so much of their capital. It’s also telling that, after 1666, the next really major “fire of London” did not take place till 1861, when a blaze that started in a warehouse district in Tooley Street, near London Bridge, got badly out of control.

While firefighting in the London of the 18th century certainly did not involve the sort of fully-professional, highly trained services that we rely on today, then, it was certainly good enough to precent a recurrence of the Great Fire. The worst Georgian-era blaze noted by White (1749) consumed fewer than a hundred homes and destroyed only £80,000 of property, a very far cry indeed from the disaster wrought in 1666.


Robin Pearson, Insuring the Industrial Revolution: Fire Insurance in Great Britain, 1700-1850 (2004); Clive Trebilcock, Phoenix Assurance and the Development of British Assurance, Vol. 1. 1782–1870 (1985); Cornelius Walford, “Fires and Fire Insurance Considered Under their Historical, Financial, Statistical, and National Aspects,” Journal of the Statistical Society of London 40 (1877); Jerry White, London in the 18th Century (2012); David Worsfold, “London burning,” Insurance Post, September 2016


aberdeen 1800

Painting, by Alexander Nasmyth, of Aberdeen in about 1800, looking west along the High Street.

Q: I’ve seen it claimed, without any sources, that Lord Byron lost his virginity at age nine with his family nurse. What evidence is there that this actually happened and what are the details?

A: This story certainly has a long pedigree, and even if, as is typical with such fundamentally private matters, there is uncertainty as to what actually occurred, it is generally accepted that Byron did have sexual experiences of some sort from the age of nine, and such detail as survives appears to have originated ultimately with the poet himself.

Byron’s most recent major biographer, Fiona McCarthy, sets out the details as follows: the incidents began when the future poet was living in Aberdeen with his mother, in significantly reduced circumstances caused by his father’s profligacy and early death. They involved a local “free girl” named May Gray, who had been hired by the mother as a servant and nurse, and who “used to come to bed with him and play tricks with his person”. When this was discovered, and the boy admitted the encounters, she was “sent off”. This, McCarthy adds, “was presumably the episode to which Byron was referring when he wrote in his journal, “My passions were developed very early – so early – that few would believe me – if I were to state the period and the facts which accompanied it.” (Cochran, in his study of Byron’s sexuality, disputes the two passages are connected.)

Portrait of a child, sometimes identified as George Gordon Byron. From The English Bible, by Sir Herbert Grierson. [Collins, London, 1943].

Portrait of a child, sometimes identified as George Gordon Byron. From Gireson’s The English Bible (Collins, London, 1943)

Gray’s “tricks” (we have no further details of exactly what they comprised) seems to have continued for two or three years, in the period c.1798-1799. We know nothing more of what occurred, or with what frequency, though it would seem likely that the encounters became more common later on, when Byron and Gray were living in lodgings together in Nottinghamshire, than they would have been in the cramped apartment the future poet shared with his mother in Aberdeen. Certainly it does seem true that once the superficially pious and respectable Gray was away from the watchful eyes of other members of the family, she quickly began to attract disapproval in local high society. Ann Parkyns, a friend of the Byron family, noted that she was often drunk, and the Byrons’ socially ambitious solicitor, John Hanson, was sent to interview the boy, writing to Byron’s mother that:

He told me that she was perpetually beating him, and that his bones sometimes ached from it; that she brought him all sorts of Company of the very lowest Description into his apartments; that she was out late at nights, and he was frequently left to put himself to bed… But Madam this is not all; she has even traduced yourself.

Nothing in the surviving Byron correspondence, however, explicitly relates to sex, and the details of Gray’s sexual encounters with Byron emerged only much later – the first edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (1886) very conventionally claimed that the poet was and remained “passionately fond” of his nurse, and it was only starting in the 1950s that Byron’s biographers have felt able to discuss the reality of what occurred.

In this context, it needs to be observed that the information that we have is really only at third hand, though the apparent respectability of the parties concerned has led Byronists to accept the details as accurate. Still, it’s worth noting that, to trust the account, we have to place credence not only in what Hobson the lawyer claimed that the 11 or 12-year-old Byron told him, but also in what one of Byron’s closest friends, the radical Whig politician and diarist John Cam Hobhouse, 1st Baron Broughton (1786-1869), claimed that Hobson told him after Byron’s early death in 1824. Hobhouse’s papers and diaries – which passed to the British Museum and subsequently to the British Library as the Broughton Papers, with the stipulation that they not be opened until 1900 – are the actual source of the few details that we now have.


Catherine Gordon, Byron’s mother

Anyway, I think it’s well worth concluding by pointing out that we need to see the incidents not, as and other online resources have generally tended to, as ones that resulted in Byron “losing his virginity” and discovering the pleasures of sex at an uncommonly early age. After meeting with Hobson and telling the layer what had transpired, the young Byron followed up with a letter begging that the nurse be dismissed and sent away, rather pathetically signing it from “your young friend” – so the evidence we have portrays not an adolescent who was uncommonly adventurous and mature for his age, but rather a boy traumatised by a serious case of child abuse.

McCarthy summarises the situation as follows:

The May Gray episode had important repercussions. Byron’s nurse was ostentatiously religious, and the coexistence of pious Bible study and lascivious behaviour sharpened his awareness of hypocrisy and cant, deepening his scorn of false religiosity and over-zealous Calvinism in particular. The strange and furtive memories of sex being forced upon him at this early age also influenced Byron’s sexual development, to the point where he negated the physicality of sex even as he indulged it. There are echoes of May Gray in a journal entry for December 1813: “A true voluptuary will never abandon his mind to the grossness of reality. It is by exalting the earthly, the material, the physique of our pleasures, by veiling these ideas, by forgetting them altogether, or, at least, by veiling these ideas, by forgetting them altogether, or, at least, never naming them hardly to one’s self, that we alone can prevent them from disgusting.”…

The memories of female dominance, the large nurse in the small bed, affected his later attitudes to sex with women. Byron found a mature woman a complicated structure, threateningly flabby. He preferred the physique of young teenage boys, or the girls dressed as boys that became a feature of his early days in London. Byron’s preferred bodies would be youthful, lithe and firm.

We don’t know much, finally about May Gray’s background. She was Scottish, apparently aged around 30 at the time of the incidents, and came from the Aberdeen area; after leaving the Byrons’ service, she “returned to her native country,” married respectably, and died around 1843.


George Gordon Byron, The Complete Works of Lord Byron (1846); Peter Cochran (ed.), Byron and Women (and Men) (2010)l Kasimir Edschmid, The Passionate Rebel: the Life of Lord Byron (1930); Fiona McCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend (2014)


Scandinavian witches call up a storm - woodcut 1555

Scandinavian witches summon up a storm – woodcut, 1555

Q: What should we think of the early medieval stories of sky-ships, crewed by sky- sailors, appearing in the air over monasteries and towns?

Was the idea of sky sailors a common superstition of the time or is Abogard’s reference the only evidence of this belief?

A: For those who aren’t familiar with the early medieval idea of “sky sailors”, or the account that you are asking about, it may help to give the original story you refer to and put it in some sort of context before going on to actually answer your question.

Abogard (c.779-840) was Archbishop of Lyon during the reign of Louis the Pious, who was the son of Charlemagne. This was a period in which the Christianisation of the Frankish kingdoms had been ongoing for more than three centuries, but Abogard remained concerned that some peasants retained non-Christian superstitions and beliefs, and some of his writings were devoted to efforts to counter these beliefs. The one that we’re concerned with is Contra Insulam Vulgi Opinionem de Grandine et Tonitruis, or “Against Absurd Notions of the Common People on Hail and Thunder,” which was written some time after 810, and – as Jean-Louis Brodu points out – very probably after 829, when an ecclesiastical council meeting in Paris denounced the belief that sorcerers could “disturb the air, send hail, remove the fruit and the milk from their rightful owners and give them to others, and make numerous prodigies.”

In this treatise, Abogard complained of travelling through a district in which

almost all persons, noble and plebeian, townsmen and rustics, old and young, believe that hail and thunder may be produced at the will of man – that is, by the incantations of certain men called tempestarii … We have seen and heard many who are sunk in such folly and stupidity, as to believe and assert that there is a certain country which they call Magonia, whence ships come in the clouds for the purpose of carrying back the corn which is beaten off by the hail and storms; and which aerial sailors purchase of the said tempestarii.

So Agobard is telling us that the people of this region believed in a “country in the sky”, Magonia. These people seem to be in league with earthbound sorcerers – weather wizards – who are capable of raising storms that knock down peasant crops. Once the crops have been destroyed, Magonians appear and purchase them from the wizards.

Exactly what Agobard himself believed about all this is of some relevance. He lived at a time when large-scale battles were being fought, sometimes fairly literally, over competing interpretations of the core Christian texts – the dispute between those who approved of the veneration of religious images, and the iconoclasts who opposed the practice, was coming close to tearing Byzantium apart during this period – and his modern biographer, Allen Cabaniss, points out that he “was an opponent of the reactionary elements of the time, the judicial ordeal, weather magic, relic worship, pilgrimages, the excessive veneration of the saints, the use of images, Biblical obscurantism, [and] unrestrained ritualistic aberrations.” The flip side of all this, however, was that Agobard was also a sincere Christian. The Bible makes no mention of any such place as Magonia, and so Agobard had no compunction in suggesting that belief in such a place was the product of nothing but superstition. On the other hand, there was Biblical authority – as we will see – for the idea that God had created waters of heaven as well as creating waters of earth, and it seems far less certain that he would have denied that such regions actually existed.

Agobard’s account is especially interesting for the apparent eyewitness account it offers of an encounter with this belief:

We have even seen several of these senseless fools who, believing in the reality of such absurd things, brought in front of an assembly of men four persons in chains, three men and one woman, who they said had fallen from these ships. They retained them in irons for some days, before they brought them before me, followed by the crowd, to have them stoned to death as they had been condemned, but after a long discussion, the truth finally triumphed after the many reasonings which I opposed to them, and those who had shown them to the people were found, as a proverb has it, ‘as much confused as a thief when he is surprised.'”

Brodu makes the important point that Agobard is not simply concerned to attack peasant “superstition” in his account of the Magonians; he is part of a broader ecclesiastical discourse, prominent in this period, designed to “suppress any form of pagan activities” and which “had already acted against much more visible magical methods of defence against hail.” This effort certainly dated as far back and the 780s, when Charlemagne had prohibited the peasant practice of attempting to guard against hailstorms by planting large sticks covered with pieces of parchment in the fields. It has been suggested, quite plausibly in my view, that these parchments would have been covered with magical symbols of some sort. The Archbishop was also concerned to prevent what he saw as a form of racketeering which was going on to the detriment of the local peasantry – if the hail-damaged crops he referred to were not being sold to the Magonians, then presumably they were being traded to someone else.

Brodu comments usefully on possible meanings of the word “Magonia”. He cites Jean-Claude Bologne, in his Du Flambeau au Bûcher: Magie et Superstition au Moyan Age (1993), as suggesting the word may refer to the Minorcan port of Port-Mahon, which was known during the Roman period as Portus Magonis, or Magona, and was supposed, in legend, to have been founded by Hannibal’s brother Mago, whose family was known as the Magonides. Bologne notes that the inscription “Magonianus” meant “from Port-Mahon” in this period. This seems to make it not entirely certain that Magonia itself was conceived of as a “country” located in the celestial sphere. It may be that the superstition Abogard encountered was that the inhabitants of Minorca had acquired the ability to navigate sky-ships.

imagesThe beliefs that Agobard describes seem to have been pretty widespread in this period and although he is the only writer that we know of to refer explicitly to ‘Magonia,’ the earliest accounts of this sort were certainly not invented by him; in fact, they can be traced in material from early medieval Ireland that Meyer has concluded were “entirely based on oral information obtained in Ireland itself.” Very similar stories were later told in England, and continued to appear as late at 18th century Canada and even in 1890s Texas (the last being what was probably an example of the wide-eyed newspaper hoaxes common in this period). At least one of these accounts, and probably several of them, dates to before Agobard and the first half of the ninth century, and there are traces of what appear to be the same set of beliefs in sources that originated in earlier periods still.

The first ‘sky sailor’ accounts that have come down to us are Irish, and are found in the Annals of the Four Masters for 743 and in the Annals of Ulster for 749. Versions of the same account(s) can also be found in the annals of Tigernach and Clonmacnoise and in two recensions of the Lebar Gabála (“Book of Invasions”), which was compiled in the 11th century. It’s important to point out that the first two of these annals, which seem to preserve the earliest versions of the basic story, have survived only in, respectively, a compilation dating to the 1630s, and an MS dating to the late 15th century. However, scholars of Irish historical writing seem satisfied that the Ulster version, at least, contains material that was written contemporaneously from around the 550s, and as such it is probably reasonable to presume that the sky-ship story it contains predates Agobard’s.  

The two entries are both extremely brief, and read as follows. First, the Annals of the Four Masters notes that in “the Age of Christ 743, ships with their crews were plainly seen in the sky this year.” According to the Ulster account, meanwhile, monks at the major ecclesiastical centre of Clonmacnoise, in the centre of Ireland, reported that “ships (naues) with their crews were seen in the air” over their monastery. The two versions are so similar that it may well be that, as McCaughan suggests, that despite the apparent six-year gap between the two entries, they actually refer to the same event, or story.

A third account from the same period is equally brief and gnomic: “According to the Book of Leinster, when King Domnall mac Murchada was at Tailtiu [Teltown] fair in 763, three ships appeared above him in the air.” Tailtiu (Tailteann in modern Irish) was an important market town noted for the Lughnasa Assembly which was held there on the first Monday of August, and which marked one of the quarterly feasts of the old pagan year. These celebrations had traditionally been marked by funeral games, and the fair of Tailteann coincided with what were then the best-known athletic games and horse and chariot races held anywhere in Ireland. As we will have cause to note, it may be that the Tailtiu story, too, is related to the first two.

So much for the earliest accounts of sky-ships – which, it will be noted, already feature sky-sailors, but no real other detail of any sort. One characteristic of these Irish stories, however, is that they tend to reappear in later texts in substantially elaborated versions – sometimes with revised dates attached to them. Thus we find an expanded version of the Tailtiu account, which Kuno Meyer attributes to an – unidentified – MS originating in Paris, and the American Celticist John Carey to De mirabilibus Hiberniae, a poem composed by Patrick, a late 11th century Bishop of Dublin. Meyer offers it in (Latin) verse and seems to confirm that the event occurred during King Domnall mac Murchada’s visit to the fair in 763:

The king of the Irish was in the open-air exercise ground [for martial games] at a certain time with diverse crowds, with soldiers admirable in their arrangement. Lo! suddenly they see a ship racing through the air from which, at that moment, a man had thrown a spear after a fish which [spear] rushed to the earth, but the man swimming [after it] drew it back.

As Carey points out, this revision of the story is notable for the addition of a very specific detail: “a fishing-spear falls from air to earth, briefly establishing some kind of physical link between the amazing ship and its mortal witnesses.”

According to the late 14th century Book of Ballymote – basing itself on a lost Latin tract, De Ingantaib Érenn [‘Concerning the Wonders of Ireland’], by Nennius – however, the Tailtiu incident actually occurred about two centuries later, in the reign of quite a different king:

Congalach, son of Maelmithig (A.D. 956) was at the fair of Teltown on a certain day, when he saw a ship [sailing] along in the air. One of the crew cast a dart at a salmon. The dart fell down in the presence of the gathering, and a man came out of the ship after it. When he seized its end from above, a man from below seized it from below. Upon which the man from above said: “I am being drowned, ” said he. “Let him go,” said Congalach; and he is allowed to go up, and then he goes from them swimming.

Carey discusses the transposition of the story, pointing out that it is much safer to associate it with the reign of Domnall mac Murchada’s that it is with that of Congalach, not least because the tradition of holding assemblies at Tailtiu had lapsed before the latter became king, and arguing that “it is… textually derived from De Ingantaib Érenn: various parallels in the wording appear to establish this relationship beyond reasonable doubt.”

Clonmacnoise monastery (est.544) on the Shannon

Clonmacnoise monastery (est.544) stands in the centre of Ireland on the River Shannon

In much the same way, the very early, very brief, Clonmacnoise incident is significantly elaborated on in the Norse Speculum Regale (“Royal Mirror”) of about 1250, which reports a much more dramatic version of events, and also introduces what Carey points out is “an authority figure” paralleling the one represented by Congalach: a man who “prevents bystanders from detaining the man from the air ship”:

There is yet another thing that will seem most wonderful, which happened in the city that is called Cloena [Clonmacnoise]. In that city is a church which is sacred to the memory of the holy man Kiranus. And there it thus befell on a Sunday, when people were at church and were hearing Mass, there came dropping from the air above an anchor, as if it were cast from a ship, for there was a rope attached to it. And the fluke of the anchor got hooked in an arch at the church door, and all the people went out of the church and wondered, and looked upwards after the rope. They saw a ship float on the rope and men in it. And next they saw a man leap overboard from the ship, and dive down towards the anchor, wanting to loosen it. His exertion seemed to them, by the movement of his hands and feet, like that of a man swimming in the sea. And when he came down to the anchor, he endeavoured to loosen it. And then some men ran towards him and wanted to seize him. But in the church, to which the anchor was fastened, there is a bishop’s chair. The bishop was by chance on the spot, and he forbade the men to hold that man, for he said that he would die as if he were held in water. And as soon as he was free he hastened his way up again to the ship; and as soon as he came up, they cut the rope, and then sailed on their way out of the sight of men. And the anchor has ever since lain as a witness of the event in that church.

McCaughan draws some interesting conclusions from all this. He suggests the “central theme of the “airship” mirabilia is that, not only is an inversion of the natural order of things possible, but that the natural order of things can be perceived from complementary perspectives and that simultaneously the marvellous is both in the world and out of the world.” On that basis, he makes a series of points about these reports, arguing that

  • extraordinary happenings are regarded as actual historical events and are transmitted during the Middle Ages as fact, not fiction, despite their supernatural dimension
  • the events are witnessed by numerous people, both secular (Teltown) and religious (Clonmacnoise)
  • seen from the ground, vessels are floating in the air above
  • seen from the vessels, the air between them and the ground below is perceived as water in which fish swim and which enables the vessels to float above a submarine world
  • this air/water is life-giving oxygen to the people on the ground, but is life-threatening water to the swimming aircrew, who almost drown
  • air/water is the common element, which envelopes both ground people and sky people, as the heights above and the depths below

McCaughan’s analysis of Irish sky-ship accounts also usefully places them in some broader contexts. First, he points out, “early Christian and medieval Ireland,” in particular, was filled with reports of miracles and wonders, many of which “were sky-related… including a steeple of fire in the air, across raised up in the air, [and] showed of blood and honey”. This is no exaggeration; Tom Peete Cross’s Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature contains the category ‘Magic object affords miraculous transportation,’ and this incorporates about 30 distinct sub-sections, ranging from “self-propelling boat (ship)” to “Saint’s bachall [staff or crozier] permits him to walk on water.” McCaughan notes that the same motifs are common in accounts from other parts of Europe. For example, in Norse mythology, the dwarf Dvalin builds a marvellous ship, Skidbladnir, for the weather god Freyr, who belongs to a race of divinities that have power over both the water and the air. Skidbladnir could sail both in the sky and on the sea, always enjoying fair winds.

McCaughan also notes that further evidence for contemporary belief in sky-ships and sky-sailors can be traced on an Irish monument that has been dated to the 8th century. The Kilnaruane pillar stone, located in Bantry, outside Cork, shows an Irish boat with a crew of five. A cross is mounted on the stern of the boat, and three larger crosses have been carved beside it. As the French art historian Françoise Henry was the first to point out about this stone ship, “the unexpected thing about it is that it shoots straight upwards amidst a sea of crosses…The little cross over the rudder can leave little doubt that we have a representation of the boat of the Church… here it seems to be very literally portrayed as sailing to Heaven.”

Kilnaruane pillar from McCaughan

Kilnaruane pillarstone, from McCaughan, with the image of the five-man boat picked out on the left.

Ross, meanwhile, combines with Carey to offer a rather different focus: both scholars look at sky-ship tales featuring anchors that appear in accounts by the 12th century French cleric Geoffrey de Breuil of Vigeois – whose Chronica Gaufredi, completed before 1184, reports that an air-ship had appeared in the skies over London in 1122 and cast down an anchor into the centre of the city – and the chronicles of that noted wonder-merchant Gervase of Tilbury (who also wrote one of the ur-accounts of the famous Green Children of Woolpit). Gervase’s Otia Imperialia incorporates a chapter on the sea, completed in about 1211. This includes a commentary on Genesis in which the monk points out something very significant to the understanding of all sky-ship stories – that the Bible refers, quite clearly and explicitly, to God’s division of the waters he had created into the waters of heaven, and the waters of earth. Thus, in Genesis 1, verses 6-10:

[6] And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.[7] And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.[8] And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.[9] And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.[10] And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

The two sky-ship stories that Gervase offers are introduced in support of the idea that there are “heavenly waters” in which vessels may sail. It seems very notable that the second of these is attributed to Bristol, which was, in the 12th century and earlier, by far the most important English port trading with Ireland.

Biblical cosmology

The waters of heaven and earth, from WD Reyburn and Euan McG Fry, A Handbook on Genesis

Gervase’s first account has clear parallels with the anchor-story that the near-contemporary Norwegian Speculum Regale attributes to Clonmacnoise, although, once again, it introduces a rather interesting variant – the death of one of the sky-sailors: 

As people were coming out of church in Britain, on a dark cloudy day, they saw a ship’s anchor fastened in a heap of stones, with its cable reaching up from it into the clouds. Presently they saw the cable strained, as if the crew were trying to pull it up, but it still stuck fast. Voices were then heard above the clouds, apparently in clamorous debate, and a sailor came down the cable. As soon as he touched the ground the crowd gathered around him, and he died, like a man drowned at sea, suffocated by our damp thick atmosphere. An hour afterwards, his shipmates cut the cable and sailed away; and the anchor they left behind was made into fastenings and ornaments for the church door, in memory of this wondrous event.

Gervase continues with his Bristol account, explicitly linking it to Ireland, and offering some implicit suggestions as to the ways in which the waters of heaven and earth might still be connected:

This port is the one used by the most of those who travel to Ireland. On one occasion a native of that place set sail from that port for Ireland, leaving his wife and family at home. His ship was driven far out of its course to the remote parts of the ocean and there it chanced that his knife fell overboard, as he was cleaning it one day after dinner. At that very moment his wife was seated at table with their children in the house at Bristol, and, behold, the knife fell through the open skylight, and stuck in the table before her. She recognised it immediately, and when her husband came home long afterwards, they compared notes, and found that the time when the knife had fallen from his hands corresponded exactly with that in which it had been so strangely recovered.

Much of the work of unpicking what these tales might mean has been done by Carey, who now teaches at University College Cork and whose research frequently focuses on folklore and the supernatural – his works include papers on Irish werewolves, otherworld traditions and origin myths. He concludes that we are not dealing with several independent accounts, but with variations on a single basic tale. He has traced the various embellishments and additions that have been made to the basic story, noting touches such as the introduction of an anchor in place of the spear mentioned in earlier versions of the tale, which has to be cut to allow the sky-ship to escape, and suggests that the switch in the story’s location to Clonmacnoise was a product of the “heady atmosphere” created by monkish “mirabilia-collecting” at that site. Carey has also suggested that the anchor motif that appears in most late versions of the story is probably related to another well-known Irish legend of the period, this one relating the various efforts of St Brigid to send to Rome to “learn the Rule of Peter and Paul” – a ‘Rule’ in this case being a code of behaviour by which members of a religious community agree to live. None of her embassies came back with worthwhile learnings, so at last she sent several men to escort a “blind youth” who had a such a superb brain that “whatever he heard he stored up in his memory on the spot.” When this group

got as far as [Plea, a city on] the Ictian Sea, a great storm came upon them, so that they let down the anchor. It caught on the dome of an oratory, so that they cast lots among themselves about diving down and it was on the blind youth that it fell to go down. He took off and released the anchor but he stayed there to the end of a year, learning the Rule, until the rest of the party got back to him from the East. And a great storm overtook them again in the same place so that they cast anchor once more. Then the blind youth came up to them from below with the Rule of celebration of that congregation with him. He brought along with himself a bell to give them. The bell, which belongs to the congregation of Brigid today, is the same bell brought by the blind youth, and the Rule they have is the Rule the blind youth brought from Plea.

As both Ross and Carey point out, the life of Brigid of Kildare significantly antedates any of the versions of the sky-sailor story we have encountered so far. She is one of the patron saints of Ireland and is usually assigned the dates of c.450-525. While the story of the blind youth and the anchor first appears in the 17th century version of the Annals of the Four Masters, therefore, it is possible that it dates to earlier than the 730s and provided a model for all of the later sky-ship stories.

Ross, meanwhile, introduces some other useful parallels. He points out that Bernhardinus of Siena, a noted early 15th century Franciscan writer whose works feature extensive criticism of the usual suspects featuring in contemporary Christian sermons –­ sorcery, gambling, infanticide, witchcraft, sodomy, usury and Jews – also refers to evil weather-wizards in the course of recounting a version of the legend now known as “The ship-sinking witch,” and suggests that vessels that are sunk by magic on the oceans of the earth are destined to serve as transports for the crops sold to sky-sailors who traverse the waters of heaven.

Bernhardinus’s Latin is rather obscure, but as Brodu points out, his original MS in the Bibliotheque Nationale rather intriguingly contains what appears to be the word “magonez” – one that has no meaning in Latin. Brodu comments: “I transcribe [in] ‘z’ a letter in the word ‘magonez’ that I have not been able to identify and which must be the abbreviation of a Latin termination.”

Spooner, in an article on what appears to be some closely-related Cornish lore, suggests that writers such as Gervase of Tilbury are actually drawing on a very much older idea, one that explains the strange story of the Bristol sailor’s lost knife, and which was “based on the Babylonian [notion], that the sea arched right over the sky’s vault, and well underneath the earth.”

Ross explains that

“the ocean was believed to curve somewhat like a Moebius strip. This latter curiosity resembles the fanbelt of a car, except that it has twists in it which impart to it the property that a resolute movement forward from any point inside the lower belt will bring the traveller over the starting point outside the belt and ultimately back to the original position. Put on a cosmic scale, ships sailing westward before the European discovery of America could, by this process, it was believed, ‘shoot the gulf’ and sail across the sky.”

This seems to explain how, in Irish mythology, Maeldún sails over a sea “like a cloud,” and looks down on fields and forests; indeed, Carey asks whether “he is really on water as he thinks, or is he gliding through the sky like the sailors above Tailtiu.”

We can probably best conclude by reporting the conclusions that Carey arrives at in his paper.  

We can I think outline the most probable scenario for the air ship’s development as follows:

(a) In the mid-eighth century, a notice that ships had been seen in the air was included in the annals. The apparition was subsequently localized at the assembly of Tailtiu, and said to have been witnessed by the then reigning king of Tara.

(b) By the late eleventh century the story had been transferred to the reign of the tenth-century king Congalach Cnogba, and embellished with the detail of the lost and recovered fishing-spear; there was now only one air ship,

(c) By the end of the twelfth century the story was shifted to the monastic milieu of Clonmacnoise, and an anchor took the place of the fishing-spear.

Carey goes on to argue that there may be connections between Clonmacnoise, and the story of the sky-ship which sent down a sailor, and the tale of St Brigid’s ‘blind youth’:

A few suggestions occur to me. Clonmacnoise in the later Middle Irish period seems to have been greedy for marvels: quite a number of little tales, drawn in all likelihood from many disparate sources, associate the monastery with fantastic occurrences of all kinds. So far as I know this material has never been considered as a corpus, although such an exercise would probably be rewarding. It may be worth mentioning in passing that one of these remarkable events, the discovery of the corpse of a blond giant, is said to have taken place in the reign of the same Congalach alleged to have seen the air ship in De Ingantaib Érenn? Did other marvels connected with Congalach find their way to Clonmacnoise?

Other forces may have been at work… the mention of Domnall son of Murchad having seen the flying ships at Tailtiu appears in the Book of Leinster as a pendant to the story of St. Ciarán and the headless Ambacuc [a man who lived for seven years after his head was cut off], a story which ends in all versions with the assertion that Ambacuc was “one of the wonders of Tailtiu.” But although that story begins in Tailtiu, it ends in Clonmacnoise, where Ciarán takes Ambacuc to spend the last years of his life; and in fact in De Ingantaib Érenn Ambacuc is included among “the three wonders of Clonmacnoise.” I am inclined to believe that a version of the air ship story similar to that in De Ingantaib Érenn was transferred from Tailtiu to Clonmacnoise – riding piggyback, so to speak, on the story of Ambacuc. 

There are other indications that the Plea story too was naturalized beside the Shannon. Another of the “wonders of Clonmacnoise” was a blind man who used to plunge into the river, consistently emerging with eels clutched in both hands and both feet; this sightless diver fetching booty from the waters seems strikingly reminiscent of the ‘blind lad’ who brought the bell and ordo back from Plea to Kildare. We have also the tale, preserved in the Book of Lismore, of how a bishop of Clonmacnoise made the acquaintance of a monastic community residing beneath Loch Rí – for, as one of its members matter-of-factly observes, “it is not more difficult for God that people should live under water than anywhere else.” As in the Plea story, one of the treasures of the church comes from the underwater community: in this case a psalter which had belonged to a young man who was willed while transformed into a pig. All in all, it seems likeliest that it was in the heady atmosphere of Clonmacnoise mirabilia-collecting that the Tailtiu air ship and the monks of Plea were fused into a single tale.”

So to summarise: there are a number of accounts of sky-sailors and sky-ships on record. Superficially, they appear to come from a number of different sources – Irish, English, French – but in reality most, including those told by Gervase of Tilbury several centuries later, appear have a common source in 8th century Ireland, and specifically in the wealthy, wonder-seeking monastic community of Clonmacnoise.

It’s important to remember that while the early middle ages seem very alien to us, being a period in which transportation was relatively slow and limited, and in which numerous very different and difficult languages were spoken, that is not the way they looked to the people who were alive at the time. This was a period in which there was a common religion in Europe, and a common language – Latin – was spoken by all those sufficiently educated to read and write. Monks travelled fairly frequently from house to house, and country to country, and the manuscripts they wrote were copied and circulated too. The ideas and the commentaries that these manuscripts contained were based on a relatively small and well-known corpus of works, centred on the Bible, whose ideas and allusions may be barely remembered among most of those reading this post, but would have been very familiar indeed to the educated people of the day. In these circumstances, it is easy to see how stories such as those told of sky-ships and sky-sailors could circulate easily and widely within the Christian communities of Europe. The very idea that sky-ships might exist, and might sail in the air, for instance, would have seemed fairly unremarkable to the religious minds of the day, even if actual reports of such craft were sufficiently rare to be classed as “marvels”; it was one that followed naturally from the idea that God had created waters of heaven alongside the known waters of earth.

With all that said, the Magonian version of the story that you are interested in is sufficiently different from the Irish ur-account to be potentially independent of it, and Agobard’s first hand account of his encounter with it is without precedent elsewhere in the literature. It’s worth noting, though, that even Agobard – a rationalist by the standards of the day – disputed only a part of the story that he heard. He denied that it was possible for weather-wizards to control storms and hail, and on that basis he denied the possibility that the three men and a woman he encountered could have been guilty of colluding with sorcerers to destroy and steal crops. He did not believe in the existence of Magonia. But, read carefully, his account doesn’t seem to absolutely rule out the possibility that sky-ships and sky-sailors might exist.


Jean-Louis Brodu, “Magonia: a re-evaluation,” Fortean Studies 2 (1995)

John Carey, “Aerial ships and underwater monasteries: The evolution of a monastic marvel,” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 12 (1992)

Michael McCaughan, “Voyagers in the vault of heaven: the phenomenon of ships in the sky in medieval Ireland and beyond,” Material Culture Review 48 (1998)

Kuno Meyer, “The Irish mirabilia in the Norse Speculum Regale,” Ériu 4 (1910)

Miceal Ross, “Anchors in a three-decker world,” Folklore 109 (1998)

B.C. Spooner, “Cloud ships over Cornwall,” Folklore 72 (1961)



The Old Ferry Boat Inn, near St Ives in Cambridgeshire, claims to have been in business since 560 CE, the most extreme claim of any made by an English pub.

Q: Does anyone know, for real, which the oldest pub in England actually is?

I used to live in Nottingham, and sometimes had a pint or 5 in a pub called “Ye Old Trip To Jerusalem” which claims it dates back to 1189. It also claims to be the oldest pub in England, a claim it shares with (I think) about 100 other pubs in England.

A: Simply speaking – no. Confusion exists, and always will exist, because no continuous, officially-maintained listing – such as might be provided by, for example, licensing records – exists so far back as the medieval period, and because the claim to be “the oldest” pub offers status and, more importantly, a reason for customers to visit the premises.

In the case of ancient English pubs, there are typically several distinct problems lurking behind the claims that are made for both age and continuity of purpose.

Olde trip

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem claims to have served ale to the soldiers of Richard the Lionheart, embarking for the Third Crusade. It maintains a self-consciously ancient ambience, and is built into the side of a hill, meaning the interior incorporates some atmospheric caves. But its building dates only to 1650, and there is no evidence at all for its claimed 1189 foundation date.

  • In some cases, a pub makes the claim on the basis of a single old record that shows a public house of some sort existed on the spot occupied by the current pub. The assumption is made that the locale has offered the same services continuously ever since, but there is no documentary chain to prove it, and in pretty much every case that I’m familiar with, the building currently trading as a pub was constructed at a significantly later date, as well. This is certainly the case with the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem; the building occupied by the pub today dates to only the 1650s, though in this case there is also no documentary record of a public house existing on the spot at the specific date of 1189. The 1189 date seems to have been selected because it is the date of the accession of Richard I, one of the leaders of the Third Crusade, whose purpose was to retake Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks. I suspect that Nottingham’s close association with the Robin Hood legend – which is also commonly associated with Richard’s reign – offers another reason why a pub in this town would claim an 1189 founding date. The idea that the pub has always had the name it bears today is also implausible; in addition to the “Ye Olde” prefix, which is typically one applied no earlier than the Victorian period, the earliest known use of the word “trip” to mean a journey dates only to 1691 [Oxford English Dictionary].

  • In other cases, a claim is made based on a perceived similarity in purpose between the current establishment and some much older one that can be shown to have existed at a certain date. For example, buildings located on the same spot as one once occupied by monasteries or other religious establishments sometimes make claims to have been continuously engaged in the hospitality business, on the basis that monasteries used to put up and feed travellers

  • Claims are also sometimes made on behalf of a very old building which has been a pub for a long time. It’s assumed that continuity of purpose extends back to the construction date, though investigation of the building’s history is often enough to show otherwise. A good example is the Brazen Head, an old Dublin drinking house whose claims to significant age is based on tradition rather than documentation. The pub claims to have been established in 1198, but Timothy Dawson, in his “The Brazen Head re-visited,” Dublin Historical Record 26 (1973), notes that the earliest confirmed references to the property have it in the possession of a prominent Dublin merchant named Richard Fagan in 1613. By 1703 the same property was described as a large timber house, with an attached warehouse, which was used as a centre of operations by a prominent Dublin wool merchant. The earliest certain reference to the location as the site of an inn, a lease, dates only to 1754.
  • Finally, claims are sometimes made based on the existence of dated archaeological remains. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans claims a history going back to 743 on this basis, although the building’s history as a licensed premised can be traced only to 1756

The reality is that it is very difficult indeed to trace the history of any public house so completely that we can be confident it has been a drinking establishment continuously for more than a couple of hundred years. There are several reasons why searches of surviving records are inherently problematic: inns were not required to bear names until 1393, in the reign of Richard II, and licences were first required only by the Alehouse Act of 1552. Some of the latter do survive among quarter sessions records in county record offices; similarly, bonds from purveyors of victuals, including innkeepers, 1578-1672 have been collected in the National Archives. However, records are very incomplete, and only a few are sufficiently precise to offer the names of inns. For more complete records we have to wait till 1753 and an order that licensed victuallers’ recognizances were supposed to be entered in annual registers, some of which note the inn sign; newspapers and street directories, which become fairly commonplace from the second half of the eighteenth century, provide another way of tracing the continuity of use of an establishment from this time. See J. Gibson and J. Hunter, Victuallers’ Licences: Records for Family and Local Historians (1997) for more detail of the quantities and types of records that survive. All in all, I’d expect any effort to trace the continuous history of a single pub would find it hard to push the timeline back much further than 1750 or so. I’d be fairly surprised if it proved possible to do so securely for any one establishment for as far back as the mid-sixteenth century, and certainly it is now essentially impossible to do so for any date earlier than 1552.

In terms of the exotic claims, though, the most extreme appears to be that made by the Old Ferryboat Inn in Holywell, Cambridgeshire, which boasts a foundation date of 560. The exact basis of this claim is hard to pin down – it’s not mentioned on the inn’s own website, for example – but, online at least, it is commonly suggested this refers to the earliest date ascribed to the site by an archaeological dig – no date or details given. The inn is not mentioned in the relevant volume of the Victoria County History, which I would expect it to be if this reference was accurate (although quite possibly any excavation occurred after publication, which was in 1932); there’s no evidence that whatever structure might have stood on the site in Saxon times was an inn; and the present structure dates only to the C17th. The pub’s claim to be the oldest in the country appeared in the Guinness Book of Records for 1993, but it was merely recorded, not investigated, by the Guinness team.

porch house

The Porch House, Stow-on-the-Wold, claims a foundation date of 947 – via some demonstrably bad history.

The Porch House, Stow-on-the-Wold, claims to have been founded in 947. Its claim is one of the recognisable types I outlined above, that of “similarity of purpose”:

There is a long-held tradition that part of this building was once a hospice built by order of Æthelmar, Duke of Cornwall in 947AD, on land belonging to Evesham Abbey.

Once again there is a lot of bad history in the Porch House’s claim. 947 is about 40 years before the historical Æthelmar is known to have been active; his flourit can be dated to c.987-1005. Ealdorman (not “duke”) Æthelmar is known to have founded the abbeys at Cerne and Eynsham, and given land to Mulcheney Abbey, but the only known connection of anyone of that name with Evesham that I can find occurs in 1016/23 with the grant by the abbey to one “Æthelmaer” (who may or may not be the same person) of the lease of an estate at Norton in Worcestershire, which is about 30 miles from Stow-on-the-Wold. No Evesham charter of 947 exists, although there is record of grants in Evesham made by King Eadred to “Æthelgeard, his faithful minister” in 955/9, and I can find nothing to evidence the “tradition” that the Porch House’s claim rests on.

bingley arms

The Bingley Arms, Leeds, claims to have been up and running by 953 at the latest. It is one of at least three pubs that claim to be mentioned in Domesday Book (1086) – but aren’t.

The Bingley Arms, in Leeds, claims a foundation date of between 905 and 953. The evidential basis of this claim is, as usual, extremely hazy, but several online sites suggest it is based on the idea that the spot was a rest stop for monks travelling between the abbeys of Kirkstall and St Mary’s York. This cannot be true, as St Mary’s was not founded until 1088, and Kirkstall not until 1152.

The Old Ferryboat Inn, the Bingley Arms and another old pub, the Royal Standard of England in Beaconsfield, all claim to have been mentioned in Domesday Book (1086). These claims are also spurious. Domesday did not record inns. The entry for the area that is now Leeds mentions a mill, a church, and a number of plough teamsBeaconsfield is not mentioned at all in the Domesday survey, but it is not too surprising, given all the commentary offered so far, to find that the land that the town (and the pub) stand on was in the possession of Burnham Abbey at that time.

Vicars Close

Wells Cathedral School is only one of a number of British schools making spurious claims to great antiquity. Although it claims a foundation date of 909, the current school dates only to the later 1880s.

Much the same problem exists elsewhere. It is very common, for example, for British public schools to make claims to extreme antiquity – cathedral schools often claim very early foundation dates on the basis that it was one of the functions of cathedral clergy to educate their choristers; hence it’s assumed that a school must have existed on the spot from the date of the foundation of the cathedral. Wells Cathedral School, for example, claims to have been founded in 909 on this basis, but there is no documentation proving the existence of a school associated with the cathedral at anything like this early date (and, in addition, the school definitely closed for a period in the 1880s and was then refounded).

In the case of another claim often encountered online – that of the Japanese construction company Kongo Gumi to have been founded in 578 CE – there is the same lack of both contemporary documentation and proof of continuity of existence. The claim made by this company is actually based on genealogical charts of unknown reliability that were drawn up in the 17th century, and which purport to trace the history of the controlling family back through 40 generations to the firm’s supposed founder.


Yulin Grottoes in Gansu Anxi the west wall of Cave 25- the south side of Samantabhadra change murals -detail Kunlun Nu and white elephant

A kunlun managing a white elephant. The image comes from the Yulin Grottoes in Gansu, a province in north-west China. The caves contain thousands of Buddhist wall paintings, this one dating to c.750.

Q: During the 9th century, a Tang Dynasty author wrote a story about a Black Person (“Negrito”) active during the 8th century in the Tang Dynasty. How many Black People were in Tang China, how did they get there, and what were their lives like?

A: You are asking about a pretty contentious topic, and it is probably best to start, in fact, by pointing out that there is little to no consensus on the question of whether or not people of African origin reached and lived in China at all during the Tang period, nor – if they did – whether they arrived in the east as free people, or enslaved. With that said, however, it’s certainly interesting to look both at the evidence that does exist for African encounters with China and at the ways in which the Chinese appear to have thought about “blackness”.

To begin with, there is no doubt that a number of Chinese sources do refer to people who were usually described as kunlun, a term denoting, from the fourth century CE, non-Chinese peoples who possessed noticeably darker skin than the typical person of Han heritage, or sometimes as heiren (“black person”). Heiren is a term that, to further muddy things, originally described, in the period BCE, a sort of semi-bestial spirit, but which Don Wyatt, in his controversial book The Blacks of Premodern China (2010), asserts had evolved by the 8th century to refer to a person who possessed dark skin, an inability to acquire culture, and an inherent savagery. Other similar words were also sometimes used – sengchi and gulun, for example. Finally, the term that you mention in your question, “negrito“, was definitely used to described people of Malay ethnicity, and it’s questionable whether this word can be accurately translated to mean “black” in the current sense the term is used, or to refer to people of African heritage.


This figurine was discovered in 1954 in the old Tang capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an). It had been buried in the tomb of a woman who died in c.850 CE. Archaeologists suggest it represents an African servant who attended the lady in life.

It should be fairly obvious, given these difficulties, that it is far from certain what sort of people the Chinese writers of the period are referring to when they describe people living in Tang China as “negrito“, as “kunlun” (崑崙) or as “heiren” (黑人). Before Wyatt published his book, it was usually assumed that all three terms referred to Malay and Khmer peoples or to peoples from the broader bounds of what is now Indonesia. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to doubt that things were really anything like this simple. For example, it is certainly true that there are references to kunlun in China significantly before we have any evidence that the empire had made any contact with the peoples of south-east Asia, much less those of Africa. The Empress Li, for instance, who was a concubine of the Jin emperor Xiao Wuwen (373-97 CE), is described, in a passage in The History of the Jin that has long puzzled historians, as “tall and her colouring was black. All the people in the palace used to call her kunlun.” And while some Tang-era references explicitly locate the kunlun in south-east Asia – for example, the Jiu Tangshu, or Old Tang History notes that “the people living to the south of Linyi [present-day Vietnam] have curly hair and black bodies and are commonly called kunlun,” while “the country of Zhenla [in present-day Cambodia] is northwest of Linyi… It is of the kunlun type” – Wyatt contends that, by the Tang era at least, some of the kunlun actually were people from Africa.

Wyatt’s thesis echoes one proposed a few years earlier by Julie Wilensky. Both writers argue that at least some kunlun reached China via the seaborne trade routes that existed in this period between the southern Tang port of Guangzhou (Canton) and the port cities of the Ummayad and, later, Abbasid caliphates, beginning perhaps as early as the 680s and ending after 879. (I have written in detail on this remarkable trade in an earlier response here at AH that you can read here.) And both suppose that, because the Arab seafarers of this period did engage extensively in a slave trade that shipped “Zanj” – an Arabic word meaning “dark” that was used in this period to refer to people of eastern African origin who came from the area that is now Kenya and Uganda – back for sale as enslaved people in the markets of the Abbasid Empire, it is possible, even likely, that some members of this group were shipped to China alongside other African produce, such as gold and ivory, and traded there for porcelain, silks and other Chinese luxury goods.

Wyatt cites an entry from the Old Tang History, which observes that

the territories of Guangzhou border the Southern Sea. Every year, the kunlun merchants arrive in [their ships], laden with valuable goods to trade with the Chinese.

In 684, the same passage notes, one of these kunlun assassinated Lu Yuanrui, the governor of Guangzhou, stabbing him in a dispute over payments and successfully escaping by sea. Wyatt contends that the year 684 thus represents the first definite point of contact between people from China and visitors from Africa.

It should, I hope, be pretty obvious from the above that there are issues with Wyatt’s identification of these Tang-era kunlun with Africa, and with his suggestion that the person who murdered the governor of Guangzhou in 684 was a black African slave. To begin with, it is easier to read the passage he cites as referring to merchants who were ethnically kunlun than it is to suggest that the port was visited by “kunlun merchants” – meaning merchants who sold kunlun slaves – and much easier to suppose that people who had the status and the wealth of merchants, and who visited southern Chinese ports in this period, were likely to be Malays or Khmer than they were to have hailed all the way from Africa. Finally, it seems almost impossible to suggest that anyone who bore the status of slave would have been received as the emissary of the kunlun merchants who were in dispute with Lu Yuanrui, much less to have been permitted to get close enough to him to stab him to death.

zanj slave trade

An early 13th century Arab ship, engaged in the Indian Ocean trade and crewed by Zanj. The miniature dates to 1237 and comes from the al-Maqamat of al-Hariri, Baghdad.

With all this said, however, it’s still possible to take the main evidence that Wyatt and Wilensky offer for the presence of Zanj in Tang China – which I should point out actually dates almost entirely to documents written no earlier than the 12th century – and suggest that, while there certainly are accounts of kunlun being enslaved by Chinese people (one, from Zhu Yu’s Pingzhou Ketan [“Pingzhou Chats on Things Worthwhile”] of c.1115 CE, notes that “they eat raw food. But once they are acquired as slaves, they are fed cooked food. They thereupon endure days of diarrhea, which is referred to as ‘converting the bowels'”), there is no reason to suppose that all of them were necessarily enslaved people. When we first get to hear detailed contemporary accounts of the Indian Ocean trading world in the ninth and tenth centuries, in fact, we find that black African merchants and sailors were certainly active in the trade that flourished in the region, both competing and collaborating with Arab traders from further north. A few hundred years later again, as one product of the celebrated 14th century voyages of the Chinese eunuch Zheng He, merchants from the Swahili-speaking port of Barawa, on the southern Somali coast, are known to have travelled to Beijing via Hormuz and to have returned home some time later. (I wrote about the history of Barawa, again at inordinate length, in this earlier response, which might also be of interest.) And a third possible source of African kunlun in medieval China might conceivably have been the trade that existed in this period between Madagascar and Indonesia. So some, even many, of the kunlun referred to in Chinese sources may perhaps have been free African seafarers who travelled as crew on Arab-owned dhows, or African merchants working in partnership with Arabs, or travelling as passengers on their dhows, or Malagasy peoples who had travelled first to Indonesia, and later on to Chinese ports – not enslaved people at all.

Whatever the truth, and despite the evidence that Wyatt provides that most references to kunlun come from Guangzhou, and hence probably were in some way involved in international commerce – a point that is a major plank in his argument for a seventh-, eighth- and ninth-century Chinese slave trade with East Africa – we do have some references to the lives of the kunlun in Tang and Song China that will hopefully be of interest to you – if little to no evidence of their numbers.

Wyatt writes that most kunlun lived limited lives within the “closed system” of the fanfang, or trade quarter, of Guangzhou, mixing only rarely with native Chinese, and thus having very limited impacts on Chinese society and culture. But Wilensky counters that

by the ninth century, a sizeable community of Arabs lived in Guangzhou, and the local residents could have seen African slaves on trading ships and in Arab homes. Some wealthy Chinese people even owned African slaves, whom they used as doorkeepers.

Wyatt also discusses the ways in which the Tang conceived of “blackness” – as a quality rather than as a skin colour or a denoter of “race” – and perceived the members of this group as culturally deficient. His discussion broadly follows that of Abramson, who in his earlier book on ethnicity in Tang China proposed that perceptions of ethnic difference were sieved through four core “themes” during this period, those of culture, ancestry, the body, and politics.

The main trade routes of teh Abbasid Caliphate in c.800

he main trade routes of the Abbasid Caliphate in c.800

Wilensky draws attention to a key source from the Tang era, the Buddhist lexicographer Huilin’s dictionary Yiqie Jing Yinyi, which tells us a little more about perceptions of the kunlun while further muddling the question of exactly where they came from – he refers to them both as Zanj and as hailing from the east:

Kunlun can also be written as gulun. They are the non-Chinese peoples from the east, those from the island states of the Southern Seas. Their bodies are black…. There are many types of them, including the zanj, the turmi, the kurdang, and the khmer. They are all base peoples. These countries lack ritual and propriety. They steal in order to live, and love to feed on humans for food, as if they were some sort of rakshas or a kind of evil ghost. The words they speak do not have any correct meaning at all…. They do extremely well when they enter the water, since they can stay there for a day without dying.

Woodblock print of the Kunlun slave Mo-lê (left) and his master Cui (right) from the 17th century

17th century woodblock print showing a scene from the Tang era story of the Kunlun Slave. Mo Le (left) is shown with his master Cui (right).

This final point – that the kunlun were excellent swimmers – crops up again and again in Tang-era sources. For example, the fictional tales in the Taiping Guangji (which date broadly to the Tang, but were only published under the Song) includes several tales that tell of wealthy Chinese men who force their kunlun slaves to recover treasures from the bottom of the sea.

There are a few other accounts from Tang China, however, which point to broader and better-integrated lives than the sources we have looked at so far. Wilensky mentions another Tang tale, The Kunlun Slave, which

depicts the adventures of the valiant and powerful kunlun slave Mo Le, who helps his irresolute young master Cui successfully pursue a love interest. When the old slave observes Cui’s distraught expression and offers his help, Cui replies, “How could someone like you know my private feelings?” Undaunted, Mo says, “Tell me anyway, and I will certainly be able to fix your past or present problems.” Astonished that the slave might be able to help him, Cui tells Mo about a singing concubine and her mysterious hand signals. Mo Le exclaims, “How could this be difficult to understand?” and proceeds to help his master interpret the signals, which makes Cui “so happy he was unable to control himself.” Mo Le immediately takes charge and devises a plan for Cui to enter the girl’s chambers.

Throughout the story, Mo Le acts with cunning and strength, successfully solving everyone’s problems, while Cui passively watches. Mo Le must physically carry Cui over the high wall to the girl’s courtyard. The girl begs Cui to save her from captivity as a singing concubine, “Since you have a servant with great claws and great teeth who has divine powers, why don’t you help me escape from this prison?” While Cui stands there silently, “looking anxious,” Mo Le plans the escape, scoops up Cui and the girl, and carries them both back over the high wall to freedom, where they live in Cui’s compound. Mo Le’s speed and skill have no limits, for when the official eventually discovers Mo Le’s role in the concubine’s escape and sends fifty heavily armed soldiers, the old slave successfully eludes his would-be captors. The narrative concludes when one of Cui’s servants encounters Mo Le ten years later, selling medicinal drugs on the streets of Luoyang [the eastern capital of Tang, then a city with a population of half a million to a million people]. The old slave’s appearance “had not changed a bit.”

Some other accounts, finally, are summarised by Ptak (whose views on the realities of life as an enslaved person could frankly do with serious reconsideration) as follows:

Black “slaves” … of African, Timorese or other descent were essentially employed in urban households. On average, their living conditions were better… than the ones encountered in parts of early modern Europe. By and large – and in the absence of proper statistics – it should be clear that [those kept in] the foreign quarters in Guangzhou, under the Tang and Song, did equally well, perhaps even better. Here, some black migrants were serving in cultured households, embedded in material wealth and opulence, at least in conditions better than those found in the slums of modern US megacities. Some kunlun servants also reached the Tang capital, where many of them became happy members in cosmopolitan gentry families, while only some would be ill treated and dream of returning to their native countries.

To sum up: while there is significant evidence, both written and visual, that people designated kunlun and characterised by skins that were darker than those of the Han Chinese did live in Tang-era China, is is far from clear how many of them, if any, came from Africa. Similarly, though Wyatt can point to contemporary sources that identify some kunlun as enslaved people living in Tang Guangzhou, we cannot be certain that many, indeed any, of these were African. Other authorities, such as Philip Snow and Adams Bodorno, insist that the earliest clear evidence of contact between Africa and China dates only to the voyages of Zheng He in the first three decades of the 15th century. So, many, and perhaps all of the kunlun – and the “negrito” that you refer to – who lived in China during the Tang period were probably Malay or Khmer. But it is possible that some were African, and that they had travelled to China as free people, and made lives of their own when they got there.


Marc S. Abramson, Ethnicity in Tang China (2008); Adams Bodorno, Africans in China (2012); Roderich Ptak, review of Wyatt in Monumenta Serica 58 (2010); Philip Snow, The Star Raft: China’s Encounter With Africa (1988); Paul Wheatley “The Land of Zanj: Exegetical Notes on Chinese Knowledge of East Africa Prior to A.D. 150,” in Robert W. Steel and R. Mansell Prothero [eds.], Geographers and the Tropics (1964); Julie Wilensky, “The magical Kunlun and ‘Devil Slaves’: Chinese Perceptions of Dark-Skinned People and Africa Before 1500,” Sino-Platonic Papers 122 (2002); Don Wyatt, The Blacks of Premodern China (2010).


Working in the fields during the 11th century. The labourers in this image may have been freemen, villeins, cottars, or freedmen, as well as slaves, but the work they did would have been the same

Working in the fields during the 11th century. The labourers in this image may have been freemen, villeins, cottars, or freedmen, as well as slaves, but the work they did would have been the same.

Q: Were there links between William the Conqueror’s banning of the slave trade in England, and England’s later invasion of Ireland?

A: Briefly: no. There’s no discernible connection whatsoever between the decline of slavery in England in the late 11th century England and the Angevin invasion of Ireland which took place a century later, in the period from 1169-75, for reasons that had nothing at all to do with William I. In fact, there’s so little evidence of any connection that I’m actually rather confused as to why you think there might have been; if you could possibly expand on your question a little, I could probably offer you a more detailed response.

For now, though, I can offer some further details that might help you to understand the contexts of this period. To begin with the practice of slavery in England: it is certainly true that slavery was commonplace in the Anglo-Saxon world. To be realistic, the institution has not been much studied by earlier generations of historians; we have very little evidence from surviving texts as to exactly how it worked, and, perhaps just as importantly, the very idea that the Saxons were enthusiastic slave-holders did not fit too well with the preconceptions of the earliest generations of historians to study the period professionally, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – many of whom preferred the romanticised idea that Saxon England was a freedom-loving society that already contained the seeds of liberty, democracy and sturdy individualism that were so valued in the Victorian era. So most histories of the period treat the issue of slavery very much in passing.

The reality appears to have been that the institution was actually pretty important to the Saxons and their economy, and that the lot of slaves in Saxon England was not nearly as mild, even pleasant, as earlier generations of historians tend to suggest that it was. As Marc Morris points out,

to be a slave was to be held in the most abject of conditions. As Old English law codes make clear, slaves could be treated like animals: branded or castrated as a matter of routine and punished by mutilation or death; stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burned to death if they were female.

The one surviving passage written by an Anglo-Saxon that attempts to see the world through the eyes of a slave paints an equally bleak picture: ‘I go out at daybreak, goading the oxen to the field, and I join them to the plough; there is not a winter so harsh that I dare lurk at home for fear of my master,’ Ælfric, the abbot of Eynsham, wrote in the late 10th century. ‘Throughout the whole day I must plough a full acre or more … I must fill the stall of the oxen with hay and supply them with water and carry their dung outside. Oh, oh, the work is hard. Yes, the work is hard, because I am not free.’

Anglo-Saxon noblemen at leisure. Anglo-Saxon calendar, 11th century. BL

Anglo-Saxon noblemen at leisure. From a manuscript in the British Library.

From the few references we have, it seems that the main source of slaves in the Saxon kingdoms was prisoners of war. The majority of these were probably originally Welsh or Scots, but a good number were the products of civil war between the Saxons themselves – thus, for example, as late as 1065, when a force of Northumbrians travelled south to meet Edward the Confessor in Northamptonshire and ask him to recognise a local man, Morcar, as their earl, even this supposedly peaceful party could not resist the opportunity of enslaving some of the people of the places that they passed through; as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle points out, they ‘captured many hundreds of people and took them north with them, so that that shire and other neighbouring shires were the worse for it for many years.’ Of course, this trade was by no means only one-way – Welsh princes made slaves of Saxons whom they captured on raids into English territory as well, as Gruffydd ap Llywelyn did in Hereford in 1055, and as late as 1138 the Irish Annals of Loch Cé record that a raiding party went into ‘the north of Saxan’ (Pelteret suggests this means Westmorland) where it took ‘countless persons captive,’ and presumably shipped them back to Ireland. Similarly, writing well into the 12th century, Hermann the Monk mentions that when he and his party visited Bristol, he was warned that it was a practice of Irish traders at the port to raise anchor unexpectedly, and depart with any incautious men that had come on board their ships; these unfortunates were then sold abroad.

Overall, anyway, it can be calculated that at least 10 percent of the population of England at the time of the Norman Conquest were slaves, and estimates have run higher than that – up to 30 percent, in fact. Their number varied quite dramatically from shire to shire, apparently depending on how settled or unsettled the area had been over the previous few centuries – thus 21% of the inhabitants of Cornwall – which was peopled almost entirely by Britons, and which had been an independent kingdom until some time in the early 10th century – were slaves in 1066, but only 5% of the people of Middlesex, in the heartland of the Saxon state, shared the same status.

These men, women and children fulfilled many roles, but a good number of these were domestic, and the majority of the slaves themselves appear to have been women. We also know that this group fairly rapidly declined in numbers after 1066: Domesday Book tells us that the number of slaves in the shire of Essex, for instance, fell by 25% between the conquest and 1086. Similar patterns appear to have occurred elsewhere, and Loyn has suggested that the sharp decline in slavery was actually ‘the most vivid feature of change’ revealed in the Domesday survey. For the most part, historians seem to be agreed that the major reason for this was pressure from the church, the senior leadership of which became significantly less Saxon and more continental in terms of both its origins and ideas from the time of William I, who brought in the Italian-educated Lanfranc of Bec as his archbishop of Canterbury.

Nonetheless, it is clear there were still may thousands of slaves in England in 1086, and these numbers ought to give pause to those who believe that William I ‘banned’ slavery. It is certainly true that slavery had declined in Normandy well before it did so in England, something that specialists in the study of the duchy have suggested was probably a product of its contact with the Frankish societies further to the east. And it is also true that the Conqueror issued a law code (based, it is worth pointing out, on three Saxon and one Danish precursors – V Æthelred 2, VI Æthelred 9, VII Æthelred 3, and II Cnut 3 – that date back to the time of Archbishop Wulfstan in the first half of the 11th century) which stated:

I prohibit the sale of any man by another outside of the country on pain of a fine to be paid in full to me.

But this, read properly, is in no sense a law literally prohibiting of slavery, which had clearly continued to flourish in the face of Wulfstan’s attempts to restrict it, and which appears, in fact, never to have been abolished by the Norman state, but rather to have withered away gradually over the course of half a century or so, finally more or less vanishing during the reign of Henry I. Rather, the practice was increasingly condemned by the church, and it was this condemnation that appears to have underpinned its ultimate decline – Eadmer tells us that the Westminster Council of 1102 ruled that ‘no one is henceforth to presume to carry on that shameful trading whereby heretofore men used in England to be sold like brute beasts,’ while it is possible to suggest that the state, in the shape of the king, remained ambivalent about the trade, was not all that interested in taking firm action to suppress it, and if anything was happy to get its hands on some of the profits of the slave trade of this period.

Wood Quay - excavating Viking Dublin

Wood Quay – excavating Viking Dublin

We know that this trade was principally comprised of Bristol merchants who sold what were probably Welsh slaves, taken captive during the incessant border wars fought in the Marches, into bondage in Ireland. We also know that it had a very long history – Ireland’s patron saint, Patrick, who was the son of a Romano-British family of significant means and was enslaved by Irish raiders sometime in the fifth century, is the best-known example.

Both William of Malmesbury and the Vita Wulfstani offer us windows onto this Bristol trade. Thus the Vita mentions that it was a custom of some standing for captives taken all over the country to be transported to Bristol for sale, and Malmesbury agrees that the merchants of that city

would purchase people from all over England and sell them off to Ireland in the hope of profit… you would have groaned to see the files of the wretches of people roped together, young people of both sexes, whose youth and beauty would have aroused the pity of barbarians, being put up for sale every day.

The chronicler, adds Morris,

believed that the slave-traders of Bristol fornicated with their female captives before selling them on and it is probably significant in this regard that he emphasises their youth and beauty. Elsewhere he wrote about [Gytha], the wife of Earl Godwine (d.1053), [who was a Danish noblewoman and] was said ‘to buy parties of slaves in England and ship them back to Denmark, young girls especially, whose beauty and youth would enhance their price’.

All this is not really all that unexpected. Over the past few years, we’ve begun to recover quite a bit of new evidence concerning the extent to which Ireland was integrated into the broader trading community of western Europe in this period. It is increasingly clear that Dublin, at least – which was still ruled by a Scandinavian dynasty at this time – traded extensively with England and points east; excavations at Wood Quay, a major archaeological site in the city, reveal considerable evidence of participation both in trade that came from Scandinavia around the coasts of Scotland and that originating in western Europe and passing through or around England. The artistic styles of artefacts recovered in these digs – mostly pewter, bronze and earthenware – are predominantly French; Richter concludes that ‘there are many indications that the Irish element in Dublin was quite prominent and that the town had become part of the Anglo-Norman trading world.’


Diarmait Mac Murchada, pictured in the 13th century Expugnatio Hibernica, or Conquest of Ireland

What I’m not too sure about, given your question, is whether you think that attempts to restrict the trade of slaves to Ireland in the period c.1080-1100 was linked to the eventual invasion of Ireland by some of Henry II’s nobles in the 1160s, and eventually to the invasion led in 1170 by the king himself. There seems to me to be absolutely no evidence it was, although it is certainly true that contemporaries writing in the 1160s and 1170s did associate the continuation of the Anglo-Irish slave trade with the events of that period.

In fact, it’s generally accepted that the proximate cause of the Angevin invasion of this period was the attempt of Diarmait Mac Murchada, the exiled King of Leinster, to establish himself as high-king of Ireland. Diarmait sought English aid, offering himself as vassal to Henry II to obtain it, and that it was this that prompted the first English incursions into Ireland in the period 1167-69. With this said, it certainly is noteworthy that in 1170 the Synod of Armagh decreed that any Englishman who was then enslaved in Ireland was to be freed – this action might be read, as Giraldus Cambrensis read it at the time, as recognition on the part of the Irish church that the English invasions were God’s punishment for Irish willingness to buy and keep slaves. Giraldus added, nonetheless, that the English themselves were just as as much at fault as the Irish were, because they used to sell their children and relatives into slavery when they were suffering from penury and hunger; and of course, the far greater lures of land and money loomed large when it comes to understanding why Henry and his barons were really interested in helping Diarmait Mac Murchada to become High King.


David Carpenter, The Search for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284 (2003); David Douglas, William the Conqueror (1990); English Historical Documents, 1042-1189; Henry Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest (1962); Marc Morris, “Normans and slavery: breaking the bonds,” History Today March 2013; David Pelteret, “Slave raiding and slave trading in early England,” Anglo-Saxon England 9 (1980); Michael Richter, Medieval Ireland (2005)


Joan of Arc 1903 engraving of St. Joan of Arc by Albert Lynch was featured in Figaro Illustre magazine.

Joan of Arc as she is usually portrayed today – this influential re-imagining by Albert Lynch was first published in Figaro Illustre in 1903.

Q: Do we know what Joan of Arc looked like?

Joan’s fame, during her lifetime, was such that some of the contemporaries who met her did comment on her physical appearance, albeit not in nearly such detail as we might wish for. We also have some information about the clothing that was made for her. As a result we know that Joan stood about 5 feet 2 inches [157cm], a fairly typical height for her time, and had dark hair, which she wore cropped short like a man’s “in a circle above her ears”. A letter written by Perceval de Boulainvilliers, who was chamberlain to the French king Charles VII, and who would have seen Joan at his court, describes her as “of satisfying grace” – that is, reasonably good-looking, rather than beautiful – and “of a virile bearing,” adding that “her voice has a womanly charm” and that while she “sheds tears freely, her expression is cheerful.”

Two of the men who accompanied Joan, saw her change her clothes and, in one case, helped to dress wounds incurred in battle, commented more favourably on her physical attractiveness, noting, for example, the pleasing size and shape of her breasts. And Eugelide, Princess of Hungary – who did not meet her – revealed in a contemporary letter that she had heard that the maid had a short neck and a red birthmark beneath one ear. But the above is really all the even vaguely reliable information that we have about Joan’s physical appearance.


Charles VII of France

What’s perhaps more interesting (and what has certainly exercised historians of this period) is not so much what Joan looked like, but the ways in which she attempted to manage her appearance and her reputation in order to better carry out the mission she believed that God intended for her – to lead a military force to defeat the English and restore the powers and dignity of the King of France. She consistently referred to herself, for instance, as a “pucelle,” a French term inferring both youth and virginity in a way that allowed her to differentiate herself from a woman occupying one of the other possible female roles of the day – those of daughter, wife, mother, widow or nun – while also claiming for herself a vitally important spiritual purity. Joan’s self-identification as a pucelle is the origin of the familiar English description of Joan as “the Maid of Orléans”.

Most notable, in this respect, however, and most commented on by contemporaries, was not Joan’s looks or even her virginity, but her decision to wear male clothing, which she insisted on doing even when well away from the field of battle. This was extremely surprising and remarkable to her contemporaries; it’s very telling of the usual assumptions of the day, for instance, that the one image of her that was drawn during her lifetime (a crude sketch in the margin of the parliamentary register of Burgundian-controlled Paris, made by someone who had never seen her) unthinkingly depicted her as a girl with long hair, wearing a dress. But Joan’s decision was a very important one, as things turned out, since cross-dressing is something explicitly condemned in the Bible (while, for example, women fighting was not), and as such became a charge that could be made to stick against Jean in the eventual religious trial that she was subjected to after her capture by the English. Indeed, her refusal to disavow the practice before the tribunal that examined her became one of the main reasons that she was executed.

Drawing of Jeanne d'Arc in the protocol of the parliament of Paris (1429)

The only image of Joan made during her lifetime was this sketch, drawn by Clément de Fauquembergue, an official of the Anglo-Burgundian Parlement of Paris. He never saw Joan in person.

Historians have debated why Joan was so adamant from the very beginning of her mission that she should wear male clothing. There may well have been practical elements to the decision. The theology of the day was quite explicit that only a pucelle had the moral and religious right to defy male authority, and for this reason, it was absolutely critical to Joan’s mission that she retained her virginity. In consequence, it’s been suggested that her determination to dress like a man, and wear her hair in a male style, was an attempt to redirect male attention away from her sex and so reduce the likelihood of sexual assault in the all-male and highly violent militarised community that she became a part of. But there was very clearly a spiritual aspect to the decision as well; St Jerome, who was one of the main canonical authorities who stressed divine approval of female virginity, had written that

while a woman serves for birth and children, she is different from a man as body is from soul. But when she wants to serve Christ more than the world, then she shall cease to be called a woman, and shall be a man.

Nonetheless, Joan’s determination to dress as a man did create difficulties for her that make it hard to understand why she so adamantly refused to appear as a woman, even when she was on trial for her life. Most obviously, it set her outside the expectations that contemporaries had of female religious figures, and it was her claim to be acting, as a mystic would do, on a “sign” (frustratingly undefined in our sources) that she had received from heaven that was the other critical aspect of her ability to achieve what she did. It was, for example, only because Joan was able to present herself as an important female mystic that she was able, despite her peasant birth, to secure what would otherwise have been out of the question: the audience with Charles VII that resulted in her being provided with military equipment and a commission to lead a force in relief of the besieged city of Orléans. Dressing as a man emphatically did not help Joan to present herself as a female religious figure who fitted neatly into one of permissible categories of mystic that existed in this period, and this has to suggest that her decision to do so was of critical importance to her.

We can’t be certain why, and historians have interpreted the decision in a number of ways; for instance, Susan Crane has suggested it may have been a reflection of Joan’s sexuality, something that might possibly be true, but which certainly can’t be proven. She herself, at her trial, insisted that it was “pleasing to God” that she dress in this way, and that it was in fact a crucial element of her divine mission. But without any clear idea of what the “sign” that Joan believed she had seen consisted of, it’s really not possible to understand what precisely she meant by the comment.

What’s certain is that, as Taylor notes, Joan’s disguise was “only partial” – that is, she did not attempt to pass herself off as a man, or fool the men who followed her into believing that she was not a woman. In consequence, her cross-dressing was “far more threatening” to the male hegemony and gender roles of the day, and hence far more interesting to historians, than her mere physical appearance.


Deborah A. Fraioli, Joan of Arc: the Early Debate (2000); Régine Pernoud, Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses (1994); Craig Taylor (ed.), Joan of Arc: La Pucelle (2006)


Wu sexualised

A highly stylised and sexualised Wu is depticted in the recent feature film The Empress of China (2017)

Warning: NSFW.

Q: Did Wu Zetian really demand that foreign diplomats perform cunnilingus on her in in open court as a show of obedience–or is this a myth?

The only ‘sources’ for this story I’ve been able to find are blog posts, reddit posts, and an ebook. This fact is so ludicrous and entertaining that I feel like confirmation from some reliable source would be great. An oft-cited Reddit post claims that “Wu Zetian of China made people eat her out if they wanted to talk to her. Even when menstruating. If they couldn’t make her cum, she wouldn’t listen to him. She called it ‘Paying homage to the Lotus Stamen’.”

A: Wu Zhao (624?-705) – to give her the name that she herself wished to be known by – was the only woman in the history of China to rule in her own name. This, in itself, was sufficient to ensure that her name has been blackened since her death by generations of Chinese, since female rule was considered an outrage to the natural order. Official histories, and, later, less formal writings on her and her reign combine to convey the impression of a ruthless, selfish, sexually wanton woman – and they do so precisely because these are characteristics that best damned Wu in the eyes of posterity, and acted to ensure that no other empress could ever rule the country. So, no – what you are encountering online is not material sourced in reliable accounts that date to Wu’s reign; rather, it is calumny designed (consciously or not) to denigrate the very idea that a woman should hold political power, or that an empress could be considered in any sense a competent ruler.

Tang dynasty art garden hotel Xi'an

The Tang period is commonly cosidered to be China’s “golden age”. The gardens of this modern hotel, in the old capital, Xi’an, attempt to reconstruct some of that flavour.

I should probably pause before going on to observe that, because the vast majority of the detail that we possess for Wu’s reign dates to the period after her death, it is extraordinarily difficult to recover anything of the real woman behind the various legends that are told of her. We can, I think, conclude that Wu was not only intelligent and highly competent, but also self-willed and significantly ruthless – nobody who lacked such qualities could possibly have risen, as she did, from the position of fifth-rank palace concubine to become the consort of a reigning emperor, much less seize power for herself. But it is certainly very arguable that she was no more violent, or more ruthless, than some of the men acclaimed among the greatest of all emperors of China. On the other hand, while both dynastic histories and a later rather ripe vein of erotica, written during the Ming and Qing dynasties and alluding to the empress as a sort of metaphor for unbridled female lust, combine to give us the impression of a woman who remained – disgracefully – sexually active into her eighties, I think we can be pretty confident that nothing remotely resembling the scenario you set out ever actually occurred.

There are enough of these stories, admittedly, for Wu’s most recent scholarly biographer, N. Harry Rothschild, to devote an entire chapter of his book on the empress to addressing the topic of “Wu Zhao as lover.” Rothschild explains that male writers felt it imperative to portray Wu as a woman “in thrall to her senses” in order to put her down, and thus “restore her to her proper station” – one of subservience. In these stories, her body is described as flawless, like jade, even in old age, and her appetites as “incandescent… excelling the nymphomaniacs and most lustful prostitutes of the day.” But this Wu, it can be argued, was written to call to mind a well-known Daoist immortal, the Plain Girl, who was said to lure and seduce lonely peasant men in her lakeside hut. “Through her consummate skill in the boudoir arts,” the Plain Girl “goaded men to extremes of passion” – and, in doing so, was able to absorb “all of their spent male essence.” This was significant not merely because the immortal left her lovers “withered, enervated husks,” but because she also robbed them of the Daoist ideal of masculine self-control. In this reading, the perfect skin that Wu boasted into advanced old age was not some genetic gift, or even a literary metaphor: it was clear evidence she was a sorceress capable of rejuvenating herself by draining the maleness from her younger lovers.

All this was extremely unbecoming in a ruler. As Rothschild points out,

a man, particularly an emperor… needed to carefully regulate his emissions and avoid frequent ejaculation. Otherwise, he would lose his male yang energy and become both sexually depleted and, without [that] to sustain him, politically emasculated and thus less effective in the public, administrative, arena.

The unbridled Wu, then, in this reading, was displaying her unfitness to rule in every sexual act, and if one reads the official histories of her reign in date order, it becomes quite clear that the writers are drawing a parallel between Wu’s ascendant political power – which she has deliberately drained from the men who ought to possess it – and her moral and sexual descent. The sort of woman who, as a concubine, could ruin the emperor Gaozong by encouraging him to submit to his most shameless appetites, and “contort herself into a wide range of gymnastic positions to cater to the Emperor’s peculiar tastes,” became a ruler whose inadequacy was made all too apparent by her willingness to openly take numerous young lovers from the peasant class – including, in many of the most widely-retold myths about her, Xue Aocao, a man renowned for possessing the largest “meaty instrument” in the whole of China.


The noted Tang era poet Liu Binwang was critical of Wu in his verse.

Read this way, stories of the type that you have encountered online perhaps make greater sense. Wu was a woman who took things that she should never have had by using explicitly female arts, and an explicitly female body, to undermine and then seize for herself what should have been explicitly male power. And (while I rather doubt the story you have cited is contemporary) this could certainly extend to whatever power male envoys – and the foreign powers they represented – brought to court. As the contemporary poet Liu Binwang put it, she used her sexual glamour to destroy the men who surrounded her:

”All fell before her moth brows. She whispered slander from behind her sleeves, and swayed her master with vixen flirting.”


Mike Dash, “The Demonization of Empress Wu,”

Dora Shu-Fang Dien, Empress Wu Zetian in Fiction and in History: Female Defiance in Confucian China (2003)

N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (2005)


Q: Why did Fine Gael run a candidate in Inverness, Scotland, in the February 1974 and 1979 UK General elections? They’re an Irish party, so I have no idea why they would run there. It was the same candidate (U. Bell) both times. Any ideas?

A: How fascinating. Your query – an apparently minor and eccentric one, if you’ll forgive me for saying so – leads us down one of the most remarkable rabbit holes I’ve ever investigated for AskHistorians, and leaves us confronting what may actually be one of the larger unopened cans of worms currently lurking in the recesses of the British body politic. Not that one would realise that any of this was likely from a merely cursory glance at the eccentric, but apparently harmless, figure at the centre of the story, with whom we really ought to begin.

Uilleam Bell (in kilt) at the front door broken down by the police during their raid in the early hours of 7 February 1975 (Aberdeen Evening Express)

Uilleam Bell (in kilt) at the front door broken down by the police during their raid in the early hours of 7 February 1975 [Aberdeen Evening Express]

William Bell (b.1940/1), an Inverness architect who preferred to go by “Uilleam”, the Gaelic version of his name, was (and perhaps still is) a vociferous opponent of the British government, a man noted in his home town for his habit of going dressed in a full kilt, armed “with a foot-long dirk hanging from his broad-buckled belt” which he had designed and made himself. He was the sole candidate of the “Fine Gael Party” that he himself created, following his expulsion from the Scottish National Party for “trying to foist unpalatable anti-English ideas” on its members, and put himself forward for election to parliament in both the October 1974 and the 1979 general elections. (He missed standing in the February 1974 ballot thanks to his inability to fill in the registration forms correctly.) Bell came in last place in both polls, notching only 155 votes in the first of them and 112 in the second.

What’s not so apparent from this brief summary is that “Fine Gael”, in Bell’s usage, means “family of Gaels,” and was intended to refer to the people of Scotland. Certainly the Scottish newspapers of the day make it very clear that his organisation had no connection to the centre-right Irish party of the same name. Instead it identified itself as “the political wing of the Army of the Provisional Government,” a contemporary Scottish terrorist group modelled on the IRA which sought independence for Scotland. Speaking in 1975, Bell acknowledged that he had marched in parades alongside men from the “Provisional Army”, but insisted he was a politician and no supporter of violence. In other words, he aspired to create, and lead, a Scottish equivalent to Sinn Féin.

Viewed strictly in the context of the times, Bell’s political career seems to have been a mere irrelevance. Interestingly enough, he was not born in Scotland – one press account suggests that he was actually Australian by birth, and returned “home” to the country from which his family had emigrated some years earlier – and he fails to make an appearance in the main academic studies of Scottish republicanism and Scottish terrorism. His election manifesto was chiefly concerned with putting an end to what he saw as the “English invasion” of Scotland and with the creation a sovereign Scottish parliament, but the policy most associated with him at the time – opposition to Britain’s membership of the Common Market, that is, the European Economic Community, precursor to the EU – is one that would raise few eyebrows today. Read more deeply, however, and it becomes clear that Bell’s politics were considerably more radical than the rather bland coverage of his campaigns offered by the psephologist Fred Craig makes them appear; he claimed that he would “support an armed uprising” against the government, and what he saw as English rule in Scotland, “if it came to the bit.”

All this leads us to the events of February 1975, four months after the first of Fine Gael’s general elections, and the appearance of a group of half a dozen police officers armed with a battering ram outside Bell’s flat in the early hours of the morning. These men broke down the door and searched the premises, claiming that they were acting “as a result of information received” in connection with the armed robbery of a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Glasgow the previous month. Only about £3,000 of the robbers’ haul had been recovered, and a contemporary press account reported that the authorities suspected that “a subversive organisation” might have been behind this crime, and had “credible evidence” that Bell was harbouring the remaining £5,000 from the total of £8,040 stolen in the raid.

Press reports of these events were couched in humorous terms at the time, though the tone of the coverage subsequently became much more serious. A reporter from the Aberdeen Press & Journal, for example, wrote that Bell “indicated a claymore lying against the shield and targe-festooned wall of his flat” and commented:

“I was about to pick up a weapon to defend myself – I thought I was about to be attacked by maniacs. It’s a good job I saw a uniformed sergeant or I’d have taken up a sword.”

The police, added the Press & Journal, confiscated banners, flags and a variety of pamphlets and fliers in the raid, among them

“SNP literature, Gaelic literature, and An Commun Gàidhealach [an organisation promoting Gaelic language and culture] literature”; Bell added that “they even searched my sporran. They were taking stuff down the stairs in relays.”

A similarly colorful Uilleam Bell was recalled at the beginning of this year by Murdo Fraser, a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament, in The Scotsman. Fraser had grown up in the Inverness of the 1970s and remembered Bell as

a tall, broad man, always seen attired in full Highland garb. We would often see him striding along the country road outside my parents’ house, Gandalf-like with staff in hand. Bell had an acquaintance, Granville Paterson, a man as small as Bell was large, and always similarly attired in kilt, jacket and bonnet. Granville, as everyone in town knew him, would hang around outside Inverness Castle and pose for pictures for tourists in exchange for drink money. He would give chase to local school kids who taunted him with shouts of “sheep-shagger”, an insult which in his case was not unjustified: he was well-known in the Inverness courts and had numerous convictions for both shoplifting and bestiality.

I note, finally, that Bell’s later life does not seem to be well documented, though I would expect that if and when the files of the local Inverness Courier newspaper are digitised past the current cut-off date of 1909, a good deal more could be discovered about his politics and activities. In 1984, his wife was murdered by a teenage boy who had taken her back to his flat for a party.

While all this seems at first glance to be merely eccentric and unpleasant, however, and more than a little bit marginal when it comes to the history of the time, I suspect that there may well be more to it than is discoverable from the few sources currently available to me.

Tartan Army 1

Members of the Army of the Provisional Government pose with a sword supposed (dubiously) to have belonged to the Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace. The APG stole the weapon from the Wallace Monument at Stirling in 1972, but returned it later that same year.

To begin with, there is clearly an interesting question mark over the identity of the mysterious-but-“credible” informants who supplied the Inverness police with the – as it transpired quite untrue – suggestion that Bell was harbouring the proceeds of a bank robbery, and thus led them to the discovery of a large cache of APG documents that actually was present in Bell’s flat. Then there is the problem of what, exactly, Bell knew about some of these items, most notably the contents of a “bulky notebook” which he denied was his. This apparently contained “an amazing ‘blueprint’ for Scotland’s future under the rule of the Army of the Provisional Government,” including the creation of an “assassination corps”, death sentences for “traitors and informers”, a ban on all “foreign” ownership of business interests in Scotland, and the imposition of Gaelic as the national language on a nation almost entirely made up of English-speaking monoglots. Next, we have to note that Bell was not only “well-known in Inverness for his anti-English views” during the 1970s – his aversion to the British government and its policies continued into the Thatcher era. In March 1980 he applied for permission to organise a protest march in support of Sinn Féin through the streets of Inverness. An action of that sort, coming in the midst of the IRA’s British mainland bombing campaign (1972-2001), is unlikely to have been considered either harmless or humorous by the government of the time.

Murdo Fraser

Murdo Fraser MSP, whose childhood memories of Uilleam Bell help to contextualise what the Inverness maverick meant to the local community in the 1970s.

So the question, really, is which of the two Uilleam Bells that we have met thus far – the would-be freedom fighter, and the comedy Scot described by the Aberdeen Press and Journal of 24 May 1975 as a man seen by his neighbours “more as a music hall caricature of a ‘cheuchter’ [“Highlander”] than a tartan terrorist” – is closer to the real man. It is certainly true that Bell himself was known in the mid-1970s mostly for his tendency to “startle strangers with his diatribes against Sassenachs [the English] and foreigners” and for the hopeless campaign he waged protesting the presence of a Chinese takeaway that had opened on his street. Similarly, the APG with which he was so proud to associate himself has typically been depicted as a bunch of incompetent malcontents which posed a threat lesser, by several orders of magnitude, to that represented by the IRA. Kemp, for instance, notes that the team “sent to rob a bank found it [permanently] closed”, before deciding on the branch that they actually robbed, while Brooke concludes that “to call the APG a terrorist organisation would diminish the term somewhat.” With all this said, however, recent press coverage of decisions made to withhold some 1970s political files from release at the British National Archives rather strongly hints that there is quite a bit more to this fragment of Scottish history than meets the eye.

I summarise from the Scottish Herald newspaper, which reported in August 2005 that the British government had taken the unusual step of sealing a set of files dating from the mid-1970s, which would then have been due for release to the National Archives under the government’s “30-year rule”, instead ordering that they be sealed – to the vocal outrage of senior members of the SNP – “for 50 years”. There was speculation at that time (which I hope is admissible under our own 20 year rule, since it relates to events that occurred c.1975) that the reason why the government was so reluctant to release the files was that they contain evidence that the APG had been either infiltrated, or actually set up, by London-backed provocateurs who were out to discredit both the SNP and the cause of Scottish nationalism.


The Scottish press reports the beginnings of the terrorist bombing campaign of 1975. Uilleam Bell of Fine Gael served a year for his part in the planning of the campaign.

In this connection, it’s certainly worth noting that the SNP vote did indeed suffer a spectacular electoral collapse after 1974, in some small part as a result of stories that appeared in the newspapers at the time that linked members of the party to attempts by the novice Scottish terrorist groups of the period (not only the APG, but also a second organisation known as the Tartan Army) to bomb the Glasgow suburban railway, a North Sea oil pipeline, the Glasgow offices of the Bank of England, and the Clyde Tunnel in September 1975. These efforts, it seems possible to suggest, might have been funded in part by the unrecovered £5,000 proceeds of the preceding January’s bank heist, for which seven members of the APG stood trial – and for which five, including Uilleam Bell, were convicted that May. When all the dust had settled, anyway, Bell had been given a one-year jail sentence for conspiracy and intent to obtain firearms and explosives (other members of his group received sentences of as much as 12 years), and an SNP that had secured 30% of the vote in Scotland in October 1974, and returned 11 MPs to the House of Commons, held on to only 17% of the vote, and two of those seats, in 1979.

According to the Herald:

Nationalist MSP Christine Grahame, who has been an SNP member for 35 years and whose office discovered the sealed files, said: “It is frankly outrageous that the state is withholding these documents. I am certain their reasons for doing so will be connected to a long suspected dirty tricks campaign which was waged against the party by British unionists who were frankly in a panic about the rise of the SNP.”

Rumours about agent provocateurs within nationalist ranks in the 1970s have raged for decades. It has been claimed that one such figure was Major Frederick Boothby, an ultranationalist who set up the 1320 Club – named after the date of the Declaration of Arbroath [a Scottish declaration of independence from England that was promulgated by supporters of Robert the Bruce].

Boothby, who began recruiting young men to the extremist cause in the 1970s, published a magazine which contained instructions for bomb-making and began a terror group called the Army of Provisional Government, giving himself the code number 01 and the nom de guerre, Clydesdale.

Adam Busby, the founder of the Scottish National Liberation Army, was another recruited by Boothby in the 1970s. Busby, too, it is claimed, was working for Special Branch [the unit of the British police responsible for political intelligence and protection of the state from threats of subversion].

All in all, then, we can conclude that the loose thread represented by your enquiry as to why an “Irish” political party had stood at two British parliamentary elections in the 1970s, when pulled, unravels a very different, and much more complex story in which Uilleam Bell appears, in fact, to have been a potential dupe, and perhaps even victim of British security state dirty tricks aimed at suppressing support for Scottish independence. Let’s not forget, after all, that the mid-70s were an especially turbulent and difficult time in British politics – without going into possibly excessive detail, this was a period in which “secret armies” of several different political stripes were widely believed to be making plans and building support ahead of what can credibly be deemed planned coups d’etat, and by the end of which the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had come to firmly believe that he was the target of plots organised by elements within the British security service, MI5.


Aberdeen Evening Express 7 February + 10 March 1975 & 27 June 1984; Aberdeen Press & Journal 6 + 7 February & 11 March & 9 + 24 May 1975 & 14 March 1980; Birmingham Daily Post 19 April 1975 & 6 January 1976; Nick Brooke, Terrorism and Nationalism in the United Kingdom: The Absence of Noise (2018); F.W.S. Craig, British Parliamentary Election Results 1974-1983 (1984); Herald 21 August 2005; Arnold Kemp, The Hollow Drum: Scotland Since the War (1993); “Pair jailed over Highland drugs,” BBC News 29 August 2007, accessed 22 February 2020; Reading Evening Post, 22 September 1975; The Scotsman, 7 January 2020; James Young, The Very Bastards of Creation: Scottish International Radicalism – A Biographical Study, 1707-1995 (1996)



Reproduction of the claimed contemporary portrait of Cleopatra discovered in Italy in 1818. Mezzotint, engraved by John Sartain, of the original life-sized encaustic, made in about 1884.

Q: Is it true that a portrait of Cleopatra, painted in about 30 BCE by someone who had met her, was unearthed in Italy in 1818? What happened to the image?

A: The painting you are interested in is certainly a remarkably obscure one, given what it is claimed to be, and while I think it is perhaps more accurate that it has been “lost track of” rather than definitively “lost”, the short version of an answer to the problem of why it has not attracted much more interest seems to be the strong suspicion that it was a fake.

But this is AskHistorians, which means that you are here for the long and more complicated answer, so let me contextualise and explain.


John Sartain

As you note, the painting was supposedly “discovered” in 1818. Our main source for its appearance and existence is a short work by John Sartain, an Anglo-American engraver, publisher, and friend of Edgar Allen Poe, who saw it on display in Sorrento, Italy, in about 1884 and went on to write a book entitled On the Antique Painting in Encaustic of Cleopatra Discovered in 1818 about it. Sartain notes that it was “life-size, though… only half length,” measuring 79 by 57 centimetres, and gives the circumstances of the discovery as follows:

It was discovered by [Luigi] Micheli, the well-known antiquary, under the cella of the temple of Serapis, at Hadrian’s Villa… When found it was in sixteen fragments, which on being laid together showed that scarcely any part was missing. The disjointed pieces were taken to Florence, and submitted to the critical examination of the eminent advocate, Giov. Batt. Tannucci, of the Royal Academy of Pisa, who wrote an elaborate report on the subject, showing how profoundly he was impressed with the value of the discovery. This report was printed in the “Autologia di Firenze,” vol. 7… The broken pieces were fitted together and united in a bed of cement.

Hadrian’s Villa, we should note, is a well known site in Tivoli, central Italy, which was constructed in 117 CE, and this in itself introduces some interesting problems of provenance to the whole story, since – as will shortly become clear – it has been claimed that the painting was executed about 150 years earlier than that. According to Sartain, anyway, Micheli and his brother first attempted to sell the image in Florence, but “the large price demanded was refused, at a time so little removed from the political convulsions and great wars of the first French Empire, the finances of the Duchy requiring yet many years of economy for their re-establishment.” Undeterred, they next took it to France, apparently in 1822, and it is at this point that the earliest printed reference to the painting that I know of appeared. News was published in the Museum; or, Record of Literature, Fine Arts, Science, Antiquities, the Drama &c., a short-lived weekly that appeared in London between April and December 1822, and the Museum had it from an anonymous correspondent, writing from Paris.

Temple of Serapis

The supposed site of the discovery: the Temple of Seapris at Hadrian’s Villa, from Sartain’s On the Antique Painting in Encaustic of Cleopatra.

This man’s account reported that “I have really seen a very strange thing today,” and described accepting an invitation to “apartments occupied by two Florentine gentlemen, in the Grand Hotel, Rue de Bac,” where he was shown the image and heard the claim that “it is actually supposed, imagined, or conjectured (I am afraid I use too positive a term) to be a real portrait, painted by a Greek artist patronized by Octavius Cæsar!!!” This claim would, if true, date the image to c.30 BCE-14 CE, and suggest it might have been an image painted by an artist who had seen the queen. The work, the Museum‘s correspondent added, was “done on a blue slate” and its “colouring is remarkably fresh, very like life.”

So, the very earliest known published description of the image casts some doubt over its authenticity– and a possible motive for faking it, and for claiming a provenance that would associate with work with Octavian (who was later to become, of course, Augustus, the first Roman emperor) emerges from the considerable efforts made by Micheli and his brother to sell it. Several different attempts were made. The article published by the Museum noted that “I have heard it whispered that it has been offered to the king” – that would be Louis XVIII, the restored Bourbon King of France – “for the sum of 30,000 francs.” This sale did not go through, and Micheli brought the image to London in 1834, where it was again put on display and claimed to have been valued at £10,000. An engraving of the painting (not the same one, apparently as the one you have linked to) was made at this time by R.R. Reinagle, an artist – and known forger – whose description of the image and of its discovery elaborates on, but only partially matches, that given by Sartain. Despite these problems, however, Reinagle’s account at least gives us a fairly clear idea of the claims that were being made for the image at this time.

This version of events was written in a letter that was preserved by Simon Wilkin, writing in the 1880s as editor of a seventeenth century work, Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors. Browne had mentioned another claimed painting of Cleopatra, and Wilkin’s commentary on this part of his work incorporated a missive, written by Reinagle on 2 December 1834, which noted that:

the painting was done on a species of black slaty marble — was broken in two or three places. It was said by the Chev. Micheli, the proprietor, who brought it from Florence to this country, that it had been found in the recesses of a great wine cellar, where other fragments of antiquity had been deposited. That it was in a very thick case of wood nearly mouldered away. That it got into a broker’s hands, by the major domo of the house or palace where it was discovered, having sold a parcel of insignificant lumber, so called, in which this painting was found. It was generally incrusted with a sort of tartar and decomposed varnish, which was cleared off by certain eminent chemists of Florence.


Ramsey Richard Reinagle (1775-1862). Self-portrait of the artist – who in 1848 “sent to the Royal Academy exhibition as his own work a small picture of Shipping a Breeze and Rainy Weather off Hurst Castle painted by a young artist named J. W. Yarnold, which he had purchased at a broker’s shop, and to which he had made some slight alterations.”

Note here that Reinagle’s revised provenance seems to rather undermine the idea that Micheli made any claim to have personally unearthed image at Hadrian’s Villa. Perhaps the most interesting part of Reinagle’s account, therefore, is the information he offers about the claims that Micheli was apparently making at this time about the origins of the image. Thus, while Reinagle notes that “the whole picture presented the strongest signs of antiquity; but whether it is a real antique, remains still a doubt in many minds,” he also records that at this point it was being

attributed to Timomachus, an artist of great eminence and a traveller, who lived at the court of Augustus Cæsar. He followed the encaustic style of Apelles, and with him died or faded away that difficult art. The picture was painted (as is surmised) by the above-named Greek artist, from memory (for he had seen Cleopatra often,) to supply her place in the triumph of Augustus, when he celebrated his Egyptian victories over Anthony and Cleopatra.

I have to say that this provenance – at least, so it appears from the accounts that I have read – seems very highly dubious; there is no suggestion that any serious study was done of the image’s style, that it was “signed” in any way by the artist, or that its “finding” revealed any other traces that might reasonably allow such an association was made, and it seems much more probable that the nineteenth century owners deliberately associated with a renowned Roman-era artist of the appropriate period, known to have painted in encaustic, who could be shown to have had links with Cleopatra – hence allowing maximum value to be placed on the painting. Certainly that interpretation best matches another passage in Sartian’s work, in which the author notes that another appraiser had attempted to attribute the same work to Leonardo da Vinci!

Claiming that the object supposedly found in Hadrian’s Villa was a “true image” of the famous queen, painted by someone who had seen her, would substantially inflate any sale price, and it seems quite possible that Micheli would also have known about, and pointed to, some contemporary Roman accounts that do attest to the existence of portraits of Cleopatra. James Eason, a University of Chicago classicist who hosts a site that makes available a digital edition of Vulgar Errors, summarises what we know in this respect as follows – and in doing so helps us to understand where the attribution to Timomachus may have come from:

Appian (Civil Wars II.102) says that Cæsar (Julius) caused a “beautiful image of Cleopatra” to be placed next to the image of the goddess in the temple of Venus Genetrix in the forum of Rome, which portrait he remarks was still there in his day (2nd century AD). Cass-Dio says this image was of gold. Pliny (XXXV. 136 & 145), on the other hand, makes no mention of any such portrait. He does say that Cæsar bought (at great price) two masterful paintings by Timomachus, a Medea and an Ajax, which he had placed on either side of the goddess in the temple of Venus Genetrix. (The Loeb edition states baldly that copies of the Medea are still in existence, end of note. While this is hardly helpful, there it is, for what it’s worth.) The Medea he lists (in XXXV.145) among paintings whose great beauty is in part a result of their unfinished state. It seems most unlikely that anyone could possibly mistake even an unfinished picture of Medea for a portrait of Cleopatra, but that is one possible solution.

Whatever the truth, it certainly seems that Micheli went to some considerable efforts to offer proof of “authentication” of his image to potential buyers. According to Reinagle,

parts of the colouring were scraped off and analysed by three or four persons. Formal attestations were made by them before the constituted authorities, and the documents had the stamps of authorized bodies and signatures.


Cosimo Ridolfi (1794-1865), a Florentine noble and amateur chemist who in 1822 examined the Hadrian’s Villa Cleopatra.

Hanson, an art historian writing in the 1970s, offers further information about one aspect of this analysis, noting that work on the image was carried out in 1822 by a “learned chemist,” the Marquis Cosimo Ridolfi or Ridolphi – so without the benefit of modern advances in forensic techniques – and that this revealed merely that the paint consisted of “one-third wax and two-thirds resin” … which scarcely adds much to any attempt to determine whether it had been painted in the first century BCE, or in the nineteenth CE. The European Magazine for 1823, finally, adds the detail that the identification of the work as possibly that of “Tymomacus” was made by Ridolfi.

In any case, it would appear that the high price, and dubious provenance, of the image prevented any sale being made in London, either, and the Cleopatra remained in Micheli’s hands. The ownership and location of the painting between 1834 and Sartain’s encounter with it in the 1880s is traced, in Sartain’s book, in the following passage (which I should point out incorporates some unpleasant notes of anti-semitism):

Some years later, the business of the Micheli brothers falling into a decline, they realized funds by pledging the picture with some Jews, and soon after both died. The charges went on increasing with time, and the heirs finding themselves unable to redeem it, sold it to an acquaintance of the Baron de Benneval, subject to these accumulated charges, and he rescued it from the hands of the usurers at serious sacrifice.

Sartain then completes the chain of provenance by observing that the painting next passed into the hands of the baron himself: “subsequently the new owner also found he could not afford to keep it, and the present owner purchased it from him in the year 1860”.

Sartain concludes:

Since that date, the picture has been exhibited in London, Paris, Munich and Rome. At Munich, M. Plater, the well-known restorer of King Ludwig’s collection of Greek and Etruscan vases purchased from the Prince of Casino, being very enthusiastic over the picture, undertook to place it on an underbed of a peculiar cement, which has rendered it so secure that since then it can be transported from place to place without risk.

In 1869 the Emperor Louis Napoleon made an offer to purchase, which was reluctantly agreed to, and the picture was transported to Paris with a view to the fulfilment of the arrangement; but the war with Germany began, and just on the arrival of the picture in Paris there occurred the battle of Forbach, which caused hesitation as to risking its delivery. During the German siege of Paris and the Commune following, the painting was under the protection of the Prince Czartoryski, and after the liberation of the city the picture was returned to Sorrento, where it has remained ever since.

Villa Benneval

The Villa Benneval, in Sorrentino, where the Cleopatra was seen by Sartain in 1884. It has not been reported since.

So it was in Benneval’s property, the Piano di Sorrento, that Sartain viewed the image and made a mezzotint of it. This is the image that you have found on WikiCommons, and it appears as the frontispiece of his book.

Sartain was apparently satisfied that the image was genuine, and doubts about the remarkable “freshness” of the colours in the image were addressed at about this time by a German authority, and reported in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly in 1889:

Marvelous as it may seem, the authenticity of the Encaustic Cleopatra was questioned chiefly on account of the freshness of the colors, says Dr R. Schoener, the great German expert. Fragments from the slate have been ground up, however, and the age of the wax and resin colors verified.

Some writers do still consider it possible that the 1818 Cleopatra was, and maybe still is, the real deal. (It seems fair to say these have not investigated the history of the image very closely.) On the whole, however, modern commentators seriously dispute that conclusion, and not only because of the clearly mercenary motives of the painting’s original owner.

There seem to be three main lines to pursue here. Firstly – at least as noted by Jarves, writing (unfortunately without attribution) in 1875, in an account found and reported by Meadows,

certain critics, however, considered it to be one of the experiments made in the last century by Count de Caylus to resuscitate the lost Art [sc. encaustic].

Anne Claude de Caylus (1692-1765) was a French antiquarian, and a cousin of Madame de Maintenon, the mistress of Louis XIV. He was a considerable artist in his own right, known for copying many works by noted painters, and his work on recovering the lost skill of painting in encaustic (a wax-based medium) was covered in some considerable detail by Müntz, writing in the 1760s. Whether he ever attempted a painting of Cleopatra remains obscure, but certainly his experiments were cited when the Hadrian’s Villa Cleopatra was first discussed in the 1820s.

A second possible reason for doubting the age of the Cleopatra is that its appearance did not match that of other known examples of antique encaustic, such as the well-known Fayum mummy portraits, at all well. Here a contemporary piece that appeared in the European Magazine (January 1823) notes that encaustic images were typically painted on wood, not slate. The same source cites a Signor Zannoni, “a well known antiquary of Florence”, as insisting that the Cleopatra was of “a very modern date” – both on this basis, and because the woman depicted in the painting has “features that bear no resemblance to those of Cleopatra on the ancient Latin and Greek medals.”

Cleopatra coin

Image of Cleopatra – note the famous nose (made known to generations of more modern readers by the Asteríx comics) and compare to the Hadrian’s Villa Cleopatra.

Finally, and more usefully, perhaps, since it comes from a more modern and better-informed source, Meadows – a classicist who runs the popular rogueclassicism blog – also points out, albeit only in passing, that the engraving made by Sartain, certified to accurately represent the original encaustic image found in 1818, and hence supposed to reproduce an image painted some time around 30 BCE, actually depicts ” that ‘upward gaze’ … belonging to a later time in Roman art [which] doesn’t seem to be the norm in wax encaustic paintings which we have.” In other words, the painting would appear not to match the artistic styles that prevailed when Cleopatra was alive.

It strikes me that we seem to have sufficient information here to make a more detailed examination of the Cleopatra image and its status possible, but the job certainly appears to be one best left to an art historian with a good knowledge of Roman-era styles. As for the Cleopatra itself – I am afraid that its current whereabouts appear to be unknown, and my attempts to at least begin the process of tracking it down foundered when it became clear that the “Baron” [my researches suggest that the original Italian version may actually have been “Conte”] de Bonneval’s obit remains uncertain, and no trace can be found of any estate sale associated with him. I’m afraid that any further enquiries would probably take someone with much better Italian than I can boast.


Anon., “Intelligence relating to the fine arts, foreign and domestic,” The European Magazine, January 1823; John Paul Bocock, “Some artistic conceptions of Cleopatra,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly 27 (1889); Harold Hanson, “The development of new vehicle recipes for encaustic paints, Leonardo 10 (1977); David Meadows, “An image of Cleopatra,” rogueclassicism, 7 June 2010 (accessed 18 March 2020); James Jackson Jarves,  “An Assumed Example of Greek Easel-Painting of the Best Period of Antiquity,” The Art Journal NS1, (1875); JH Müntz, Encaustic: or, Count Caylus’s Method of Painting in the Manner of the Ancients (London, 1760); New York Times, 12 October 1884; Notes & Queries 2S., 6, 28 August 1858; John Sartain, On the Antique Painting in Encaustic of Cleopatra Discovered in 1818 (Philadelphia, 1885); Simon Wilkin [ed.], The Works of Sir Thomas Browne (London, 3 vols, 1888), hosted by the University of Chicago



Elizabeth I: a martyr to personal hygiene?

Did anyone really say “her majesty takes a bath once a month whether she need it or no” about Elizabeth I? Where did this come from? Why is it always referenced in quasi-academic literature without sources?

A: I have done my best to trace this quote back to its source. To begin with, and unlike some potentially apocryphal quotations, this one does at least date back to the pre-internet age. It is cited in Constance Classen’s Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (1994) with a footnote that references Lawrence Wright’s Clean and Decent: the Fascinating History of the Bathroom, which was originally published in 1960.

Although a popular history (based, in fact, on material collected by the author for the 1957 Building Exhibition held in London) – and one described by a reviewer in The Antiquaries’ Journal (1960) as “cheap and vaguely furtive” – Clean and Decent does make some claims to being authoritative; Wright was an academic (in fact, he was a member of the Royal Academy), and his introduction boasts that while the book “is meant to entertain…scholarship does keep breaking through”. Nonetheless, he was an architect, not an historian, and his book is unfortunately not referenced. And while the quotation you give does appear in it (p.75), it does not do so in its full form. Rather, discussing bathing arrangements at Windsor Castle, Wright mentions one location that was

perhaps the room where Queen Elizabeth took a bath once a month “whether she need it or no”.

My attempts to trace even this fragment further back than Wright have been unsuccessful. The earliest references I have found, by date, come from the Northants Evening Telegraph, 22 November 1957, and The Gas Journal vols.291-292 (1957) p.76, and both cite the quote in a review of Wright’s Building Exhibition installation – in other words, the earliest versions that I can find come direct from Wright himself. Furthermore, no secondary source written since 1960 shows any sign of having found the information, or the quote, independently, or reference any earlier source. And the identity of the person supposed to have originally written, or said, the words, is never given, though several more recent writers take what can reasonably be supposed to be a guess at its origin – one suggests “a courtier”, another “a diarist”.

So the question of where Wright got the quote from remains obscure. I can find no evidence that he exhumed it from some earlier work on Elizabeth I, or on the architecture of Elizabethan buildings, but I don’t think he literally made it up himself. Rather, it seems that he (or someone he is quoting from) has adapted an existing saying, and applied it to Elizabeth. I say this because further research reveals a critical additional problem with the claimed quote: it exists in an early 20th century, anti-semitic, variant. This “gag” was analysed by Sigmund Freud, no less, in his rather heavy-handed 1905 book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Freud cites it this way:

Two Jews were discussing baths. “I have a bath every year”, said one of them, “whether I need one or not.”

and goes on to point out the blindingly obvious – “that this boastful insistence on his cleanliness only serves to convict him of uncleanliness.”

On this basis, we can surely conclude that (as is quite common, of course), a relatively old, generic joke has been applied somewhere, by someone (quite possibly by Wright himself), to a famous person in order to buff it and add to its interest and its currency.



‘The discovery of the True Cross’, by Agnolo Gaddi (1350-96) – part of the fresco cycle “The Legend of the True Cross” at the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence.

What do we know about the history of the True Cross after the 1st Century?

A: The history of the True Cross and the innumerable fragments supposed to originate from it is long, complex, filled with vast chronological and narrative gaps, and also very heavily disputed – so much so that it is scarcely possible to reconstruct it in its entirety. This response will focus on what are arguably the two most significant – and problematic – incidents in the early history of the relic: its supposed rediscovery shortly before 330 by the Empress Helena (mother of the same Emperor Constantine whose conversion to Christianity was such an important turning-point in the history of the religion) and the supposed recovery of the relic from the hands of the Persians by Heraclius in the early seventh century.


Helena, supposed discoverer of the True Cross. Orthodox icon.

Let’s begin with a look at the story of the discovery of the True Cross at it is usually told, and move on to consideration of how likely that account is to be accurate. Helena visited the Holy Land in 327, and – according to some significantly later sources – the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, and the nails that had been used to place Christ on the cross were all discovered during her time in Jerusalem. Drijvers refers to these events as comprising ‘one of the most important and best-known myths from Late Antiquity,’ but it is important to bear in mind, at this point, that the fairly straightforward story of these events which often appears in secondary sources was not only not written at the time of this journey, but does not align especially well with the handful of near-contemporary sources that survive – most especially with that of Eusebius of Caesarea, whose Life of Constantine, written before 339, discusses the rediscovery of Christ’s tomb, under a temple to Venus at the site of what became the Church of the Holy Sepulchure, but makes no mention of the finding of the True Cross. Moreover, although often presented as a single narrative, the version that appears in these secondary sources has also been pieced together from several variant accounts.

By far the fullest account of the various versions of events is that collated by Borgehammar during the 1980s for what was originally his PhD thesis. There are at least three basic versions, only one of which dates to the fourth century. Scholars of this period of ecclesiastical history suggest that an account of the discovery must have appeared in the Church History of Gelasius of Caesarea, compiled around 390, but that work is now lost to us, and the earliest surviving report comes from a funeral oration delivered for the Emperor Theodosius by St Ambrose of Milan in 395, or almost 70 years after the supposed events that it describes. According to Ambrose, while Helena was in Jerusalem, she was moved by the Holy Spirit to search for the cross, and so ‘opened up the earth, scattered the dust, and found three crosses in disarray.’ These were the crosses that had displayed Christ and the two thieves alongside whom he was crucified; the True Cross was distinguished from the other two because it still bore the inscription ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ that Pilate had affixed to it, according to the Gospels.

A fuller account of the same events was given by Rufinus of Aquileia in 397. Rufinus, although a long-time resident of Jerusalem, was again no eye-witness, and he dates Helena’s journey to 325, two years earlier than did Ambrose. Once again, moreover, the story is presented framed by some distinctly miraculous events. Birley summarises this account as follows:

Inspired by divine visions she came to Jerusalem and made enquiries from the inhabitants about the site of the Crucifixion. It was, she learned, under the pagan temple of Venus, which she ordered to be demolished. When the three crosses were excavated, the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, proposed a sure means of confirming which was the True one. They were taken to the bedside of a distinguished lady who was dangerously ill. As the bishop prayed for a revelation, the touch of the True Cross immediately cured her. Helena at once ordered the construction of a magnificent basilica above the spot where the cross had been found.
This was, however, far from the end of the matter, and further elaborations of these early accounts continued to be published as late as the 570s.
An early sixth century version, which dates to c.500 and is summarised by Baert, incorporates further important new details:
Helena sets off for Jerusalem at the request of her son [the Emperor Constantine], to search for the cross of Christ. The Jew Judas Cyriacus is selected, against his will, to accompany the queen to Golgotha. After suffering seven days of starvation in a dried-out well, Judas leads Helena to the spot. In answer to his prayer, sweet-smelling dust and a flash of lightning point to the place where Judas should start digging. They find three crosses, and the true one is revealed when a dead youth is brought back to life by its touch.
In this version of events, the miracle is enough to secure the conversion of Judas Cyriacus to Christianity; supposedly, he eventually became bishop of Jerusalem and was martyred by Julian the Apostate. Yet another variant dating to this same late period reports that the miracle worked by the True Cross was not the revival of a dead man, but the cure of a leper who was was instructed to touch the crosses one by one. In Baert’s retelling, this man touched the first cross, but nothing happened; he touched the second with the same result. Finally, reaching out to the third and final cross, he was instantly healed.
Further retellings of the legend of the True Cross were completed during the sixth century by other ecclesiastical historians—Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and in due course by Gregory of Tours, writing c.580. I leave it to readers to judge how likely any of these accounts are to be somehow “true”. They are late, they are written to inspire devotion, and they are worryingly inconsistent. Moreover, even if we do credit the basic story – that Helena travelled to Jerusalem hoping to uncover the True Cross, and that excavations that she set underway unearthed it – it certainly seems perfectly possible that the arrival of a figure as powerful as a dowager empress in the city, hunting for relics of the crucifixion, might easily have supplied the motivation for the local authorities (whether religious or secular) to make arrangements for her hopes to be gratified. Drijvers makes the argument that the visit was not a private pilgrimage, as it is generally presented, but, rather, an iter principis, ‘undertaken for state purposes and carefully orchestrated in advance by the court.’ If this is correct, the case for someone deciding to ‘arrange’ for a discovery capable of satisfying her would only be strengthened.
antonio-canova-an-apparition-of-the-empress-helena-holding-the-true-cross-and-a-flaming-heart-at-the-death-bed-of a young woman c.1800

“An apparition of the Empress Helena holding the True Cross and a flaming heart at the death bed of a young woman.” School of Antonio Canova, c.1800

Such an argument is, however – it ought to be added here – most likely quite unnecessary. The majority of scholars working on the history of relics in this period tend to concur, as Drijvers points out, that ‘Helena’s association with the cross is late, and that she is not responsible for its discovery.’ Rather, it is suggested, the chain of events that resulted in the recovery of the True Cross had purely local origins and emerged, as is quite typical in cases of other holy relics, as a product of church politics. In this particular case, we need to remember that Jerusalem did not, during the first half of the fourth century, enjoy the absolute primacy it later acquired as the natural centre and heart of the Christian religion. Rather, its see was engaged in a protracted dispute with Caesarea, on the coast, over which of the two bishoprics ought to be considered senior.
This ancient and now-forgotten dispute certainly mirrors circumstances in which other relics have emerged and been authenticated and promoted by the clergy who were the ultimate arbiters in matters of this sort. One piece of evidence that points to the conclusion that the True Cross was produced in Jerusalem, by local figures rather than as a result of the journey of the Empress Helena, is that a festival of veneration, commemorating the discovery of the relic, was certainly celebrated in Jerusalem before the end of the fourth century – but the same is not true of Constantinople.
Drijvers’s own summary of the most likely sequence of events comes to the conclusion that the ‘discovery’ of the Cross and the promotion of its cult may have been part of an effort promoted by Cyril, who was bishop of Jerusalem from 350-387, to make his city the holiest place in the world of Christendom – and hence his see the most authoritative and prestigious one, if not in the Christian world as a whole, then at least in Palestine:
There is little doubt that wood considered to be the cross of Christ was discovered, although we do not know how and by whom. A probable scenario is that during the excavation and construction work for the church, which started around 326, pieces of wood turned up which were considered as belonging to Christ’s cross and were authenticated as such by the Jerusalem clergy. It is not likely that three complete crosses were found, as the later legends tell us, but rather a small chunk or chunks of wood. This discovery probably took place during the reign of Constantine, if we consider Cyril’s words in his letter to Constantius, that the cross was found in the days of Constantine to be trustworthy (and there is no reason not to), which makes Constantine’s death at 22 May 337 the terminus ante quem for the discovery. Shortly after the relics were found, a cult of the cross started in Jerusalem and this was already quite developed by the mid fourth century, as we may conclude from Cyril’s remarks in his Catechetical Lectures.
There is a consensus that the legend came into being in Jerusalem in the second half of the fourth century. Its original language was Greek… Although it has been argued that the legend originated in response to questions of pilgrims about how the cross came to be present in Jerusalem, it was probably the competition between the sees of Caesarea and Jerusalem about primacy in the church province of Palestine, which gave cause to the origin of the story. Its origin had therefore in the first place a political background rather than the curiosity of pilgrims. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem in 350–387, may have been responsible for the invention of the narrative, although this cannot be proved. In Cyril’s theological system the symbol of the cross was of extreme importance and he therefore encouraged the cult of the cross to a great extent. However, apart from theological reasons, Cyril also brought the cross and its veneration to prominence for political reasons and he greatly stressed the connection between Jerusalem and the cross.
Now, Drijvers clearly has no real reason, other than baseline scepticism and logic, to assume that what was found in Jerusalem was not three complete crosses, as the early versions of the story tell us, but rather ‘a small chunk or chunks of wood.’ However, even if a complete artefact actually was uncovered in the 320s, we can be pretty certain that the relic identified and venerated as the True Cross was indeed broken up, rather than retained whole. All the evidence suggests that this process began at a very early date, and hence that the relic removed from Jerusalem by the Persians in 614 was certainly not a complete, supposedly original, cross, as you imply, and this has significant implications for the later identification of the relic returned from Persia in about 628. Certainly Rufinus reports that, while the bulk of the relic was retained in Jerusalem, Helena had one piece sent to her son, the emperor, at Constantinople, and we also know that – while wood supposed to be from the True Cross was physically present and venerated in Jerusalem no later than 351, and that pilgrimages were undertaken to Jerusalem for the purpose of seeing the portion of the relics kept in the city from at least as early as 381 – a church in far-off Mauretania (an imperial province in the interior of what is now Morocco) possessed a collection of relics which included what was described as a fragment of the cross as early as 359. Similarly, the Sessorian basilica at Rome also possessed what were claimed to be relics of the cross before the end of the fourth century.
The Battle of Hattin, from a 13th-century manuscript of the Chronica Majora

The cataclysmic Battle of Hattin (1187) resulted in the loss of most of the Holy Land – and of the True Cross, which had been carried before the Crusader army, as it had been many times before.

Again according to much later accounts, the part of the True Cross that remained in Jerusalem was placed, first, in the care of the bishop of Jerusalem, and later in the Church of the Holy Sepulchure, completed on the orders of the Emperor Constantine in 335. It was placed in a silver reliquary, and kept there in a special chapel, from which it was occasionally removed so that it could be carried at the head of Christian armies in order to inspire them. As Jonathan Phillips points out, the True Cross was apparently successful in bringing victory to the army that possessed it on about 30 different occasions until it at last fell into Muslim hands at the fateful Battle of Hattin in 1187. Thereafter, while it remained a central focus of Christian-Muslim negotiations for some time, it was never again in Christian hands, and is (says Milwright) last reported to have been in Damascus, under the control of the Ayyubids, in 1218-19.
While, once again, we have no firm and definite chain of provenance, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that so holy a supposed relic would have been treated with great reverence after its discovery, and that the ‘True Cross’ seized by Khrosrau II after the fall of Jerusalem to the Persians was at the very least the same piece of wood placed in the Holy Sepulchure at some point in the mid-fourth century; certainly there seems to be no record of the relic’s loss or damage in this period. Similarly, there does not seem to be any particular reason to suppose that the ‘True Cross’ returned to Jerusalem by Heraclius at some point in the period 629-631 (the exact date remains disputed), several years after the successful conclusion of his campaigns against the Persians, was not the same wood that eventually fell into the hands of Saladin in 1187. The real question, then, with regard to your query, is whether or not the portion of the Cross restored to Jerusalem by Heraclius was the same one as was seized in 614, and, if so, how it was identified.
Emperor Heraclius sets off on a campaign against the Persians. – Miniature 43 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14 century.

Emperor Heraclius sets off on campaign against the Persians. Miniature 43 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14th century.

Here we face the same problem of an absence of absolutely contemporary evidence that we have already noticed in the case of the initial discovery of the True Cross. The precise circumstances under which this occurred are reported only in the Syriac Chronicle of 1234, but the consensus seems to be that the relevant portions probably originate in the now-lost chronicle of Dionysios of Tel-Mahre, which dates to about 850. According to this account, the True Cross was not recaptured or discovered by the Byzantines, but rather returned to them by the Persian general Shahvaraz almost immediately after death of Shah Kavadh II Shiroe in 628, at a time when Shahvaraz was making a bid to seize the Persian throne. In these circumstances, it is clear, the general had good reason to desire peace on his western front, and hence a motive to cultivate Heraclius. The end result of this diplomacy, Zuckerman says, was the formal return of ‘the Holy Cross, wood and reliquary, in mint condition… one of the elements in the strategic alliance that Heraclius and Shahrvaraz had many reasons to forge.’

How, though, can we be confident that the wooden fragment returned to Jerusalem in about 629 was the same as the one taken in 614? Here we have the basic story in the form of an account in the Story of the Return of the Cross that is attached to an account of the Sack of Jerusalem written by the monk Strategios of Saint Sabbas, which Zuckerman dates to ‘the 650s at the earliest,’ and an important fragment of what may be eyewitness evidence preserved in the (much later) Brevarium of Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople. The Brevarium can probably be dated only to c.800, or very nearly 200 years after the events it describes, but, crucially, it notes that upon their return to Jerusalem, the ‘life-giving woodpieces’ [ξύλα] remained ‘sealed’ and, moreover, that they were still ‘as they were when they were captured.’ Nikephorus adds that Heraclius displayed the fragments in Jerusalem on his return west (probably around September 629), where they were exhibited to ‘the archpriest and his clergy.’
A lot thus depends on how accurate and how contemporary Nikephorus’s account is likely to be. Cyril Mango has argued that this portion of the Brevarium was based on a Constantinopole chronicle, now lost, that covered the period from the downfall of Phokas in the first years of the seventh century to 641. He further proposes that this chronicle was probably complete by 645 – which would at least place its composition in a period in which living memory of the events of 614-31 must have remained strong. Zuckerman, who prefers to see the source as ‘a historical pamphlet rather than a chronicle, a plea pro domo’, based on personal recollections, rather than a concerted search for evidence, that was perhaps ‘inspired and possibly composed by Pyrrhos’, nonetheless broadly concurs with Mango’s dating, proposing a composition date of c.650.
Heraclius returning the True Cross to erusalem - Belle_Heures_du_duc_de_Berry_-_f156r_-_Héraclius_rapportant_la_croix-e1556594521735

Heraclius returning the True Cross to Jerusalem – from the Belle Heures du duc de Berry.

What, though, of the reliquary itself, and its contents? Were they sufficiently unique and identifiable to make it likely that the relic returned to Jerusalem in c.629 was the same as the one removed in 614? Zuckerman has argued that it is actually more likely that the relic did go missing during the chaos of the Byzantine-Sasanian wars of 602-28, and that the artefact returned to the Church of the Holy Sepulchure was a fake. I would counter that, really, much depends on two things: whether or not the reliquary and the wood inside it were sufficiently visually unique to be readily identifiable, and whether or not the account we have of the return of the True Cross is dependable.

To take the first of these two points first: we cannot be absolutely sure precisely what the relic of the True Cross looked like. Two accounts survive, and it is not entirely clear whether or not they are compatible. According to Theodoret, writing before 450, the portion of the cross that was retained in Jerusalem was ‘enclosed in a covering of silver’. This seems to imply that the relic may have been completely hidden, and Theodoret’s description might be interpreted as tying in to the Brevarium’s description of the relic as ‘sealed’. On the other hand, we do also have what appears to be an eye-witness account of the reliquary, written by a Roman pilgrim, or perhaps nun, named Egeria [also known as Etheria]. Egeria probably came from Gaul and visited Jerusalem in about 380. The fragment that survives of her account exists in the form of a letter that was apparently written from the Holy Land and sent home to a group of women of Egeria’s acquaintance to relate her experiences:
Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and [the wood] is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title [apparently the inscription supposedly made by Pilate] are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, some one is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest any one approaching should venture to do so again. And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring.
So: Egeria describes the reliquary as ‘a silver-gilt casket’, and adds that the wood inside it was periodically taken out to be venerated and even touched and kissed by the faithful. Her account is extremely detailed, but is in the third person, and does not explicitly state that she herself saw all this. Nonetheless, it seems very likely that anyone who travelled such a long distance to visit Jerusalem for religious purposes would have gone to see the reliquary that Egeria describes so precisely, and the manner in which she concludes this passage – with the remark that
…all the people are passing through up to the sixth hour, entering by one door and going out by another; for this is done in the same place where, on the preceding day, that is, on the fifth weekday, the oblation was offered…
is so exact it seems to me hard to suggest it describes anything other than a first-hand visit to see the relic. On that basis, I am inclined to prioritise Egeria’s version of events, and suppose that the object taken by the Persians was a silver casket containing a piece of ancient wood that could fairly easily be removed from the reliquary.
To sum up, then: given agreement that the rough date of Nikephorus’s source was c.650, within living memory of the events of 614-29; given that a group of clerics from Jerusalem was reported to have viewed the True Cross when it was returned to the city; given that it seems quite implausible that any ‘silver-gilt reliquary’ made to contain an object as sacred as a fragment of the True Cross would have been so plain and of such standard construction that it would not have been readily identifiable; given that the precise shape, colour, texture and so on of the wooden fragment itself would also have been perfectly familiar to the senior clergy of Jerusalem, who regularly removed it from its casket and in some cases seem to have actually physically held it in their hands; and presuming that at least some of these men would have been in office in the city in 614, and must surely have been familiar with the relic from its periodic public displays, we are really left with an at least moderately convincing case for supposing that the relics returned to Jerusalem in 629 or, more probably, 630 at the very least looked almost exactly like those removed from it in 614. Furthermore, there is no obvious reason why Shahvaraz would have chosen to damage or destroy the relic while it was under his control. On the contrary, knowing its importance to the Byzantines, it would hardly be surprising to find that the Persians had taken good care of the relic, intending to ransom it or make its return a bargaining chip in eventual peace negotiations with their enemies.
There is a counter-argument, of course, and it is proposed by Zuckerman: that Heraclius and Shahvaraz both knew that the original relic had been lost or destroyed during the wars and that the two men conspired, for essentially political reasons, to foist a fake on Jerusalem. The evidence that this is what actually occurred is not inconsiderable, and the most important piece of it is the ‘highly reliable’ contemporary account given by Strategios in his Sack of Jerusalem. Zuckerman summarises the evidence as follows:
[Strategios] describes the scene when the Persians place the Cross on a doorstep and force their Christian captives to trample on it under the threat of death; in another scene, King Khosrau II and his dignitaries deride the Cross set in front of them “as Christ stood before Pilate.” Finally, a queen ex haeresi Nestorii (Shirin) obtains the Cross from the king and has it resealed in its reliquary (accepit lignum sanctae crucis eodem modo sigillatum). This data stands in no contradiction to the indication of the somewhat later Khuzistan Chronicle (alias Anonymus Guidi), according to which the leading Persian Nestorian Jazdin, with the king’s permission, took for himself a part of the Cross.
These worrying descriptions lead naturally to a consideration of what, precisely, happened to the True Cross after 614 and before Shahvaraz handed a relic purporting to be it back to the Byzantines. On the one hand, the description of the recovery of the badly-treated relic and its ‘resealing’ in its reliquary by the Nestorian queen Shirin seems encouraging. On the other, it can certainly be argued that the Cross probably did not remain in the hands of Khosrau and his successors. The Brevarium notes that, although Heraclius ‘made a fervent plea concerning the Holy Cross’ in the very first letter that he sent to Kavadh II Shiroe after the new shah had ordered the execution of his predecessor, he received in return only Kavadh’s cautious promise that he would deliver up the Cross ‘if it comes his way’. Zuckerman adds that the Persians would surely have ‘left no palace unturned in search for the Cross, without which, as they knew, the war could not end for Byzantium.’ If they did not send it back, he adds, this was not because they wanted to keep it, but because they could not find it.
All this raises some unanswerable questions about if and how the relic was actually tracked down and what exactly was returned to Jerusalem after 628. Nikephoros describes in some detail what happened when the relics handed over by Shahvaraz subsequently arrived in the holy city. Heraclius
exhibited them to the archpriest Modestos and his clergy. They acknowledged the seal to be intact, and since [the woodpieces] had been preserved untouched and unseen by the profane and murderous hands of the barbarians, they offered to God a hymn of thanksgiving. The bishop produced the key that belonged to them [i.e. to the reliquary containing the fragments of the Cross] and that remained in his possession, and when they were unlocked, everyone worshiped them.

Everything depends, then, on how one interprets the two accounts set out above – one that describes the relic being desecrated, if not actually destroyed, in 614, and another that describes its return in an apparently undamaged casket that could still be unlocked with a key that had never left Jerusalem.

Church of the Holy Sepulchure

The Church of the Holy Sepulchure, Jerusalem.

There are really only two possibilities here. One is that Shahvaraz – who was based, in 628/9, in Alexandria – would have been in no position to locate and return the True Cross from some hiding-place in Persia, and that the entirety of what occurred in 629/30 was a piece of political theatre, which would certainly have been considered vital by Heraclius, given the significance that the Byzantines placed on the True Cross. The other is that the Cross was of such significance that not even an emperor and a bishop would have dared to foist a fake onto the clergy and the people of the empire.

The latter argument does possess some merit – Zuckerman acknowledges that the True Cross was something so holy that even the emperor himself would have been considered by contemporaries as of no importance when compared to it, and he uses this point to suggest that there must have been two distinct ceremonies in Jerusalem, one on the occasion of the return of the cross, and the other on Heraclius’s – separate – entry into the city: ‘the heroic emperor with the Holy Cross in hands would have appeared as a meaningless pale figure, a simple carrier of the precious relic.’ On the other hand, it seems clear that the political and religious situation in 629/30 was such that imperial morale required the restoration of the relic, no matter how that restoration was achieved.

Zuckerman proposes a solution to this problem:

Of the crowd that stood in the Holy Sepulchre on March 21, 629, watching Modestos take out the original key of the inviolate reliquary—which he, since he was not a cleric of the Holy Sepulchre in 614, had no reason to hold—quite a few came back from Persian captivity and had witnessed the abuse of the Cross fifteen years earlier. They knew at first hand that heretics at Ctesiphon had venerated the Cross outside its reliquary. Did they all believe in a miracle?

This question would remain rhetorical if not for one neglected testimony. One of the ancient miracles of St Anastasios begins in Jerusalem, where, in 631, the saint’s relics were brought first, and terminates in Caesarea, where they were later deposited in a sanctuary built at the Tetrapylon. The connecting link between the two cities is a lady from a distinguished family of Caesarea, improperly named Virtue (Aretê), who makes an irreverent remark in Jerusalem, and then is punished and pardoned in her native city. In describing the people waiting for the martyr’s relics at the Nea Church of the Mother of God in Jerusalem, with the holy woodpieces of the Cross put on display (τά τε ἱερὰ ξύλα σημάναντες), the writer addresses to this whole crowd an unexpected reproach, accusing it of “lack of faith” (ὀλιγοπιστία).

Virtue, in a striking exhibition of this spiritual failing (δυσπιστία), makes the sudden remark: “I would not venerate a relic coming from Persia” (ἐγὼ λείψανον πὸ Περσίδος ἐρχόμενον οὐ προσκυνῶ). Why this sweeping censure, as if dubious relics arrived to Jerusalem from Persia every couple of months? The question has never been asked, and yet the answer is obvious. Only two relics are known to have ever arrived from Persia, in swift succession: the Holy Cross and the body of saint Anastasios. The crowd that gathered specially in the latter’s honor could not be accused of “lack of faith” in his respect. Virtue’s skepticism and the writer’s reproach clearly concern the other relic, prominently displayed in the crowd.

In short, that is, Zuckerman produces a near-contemporary anecdote, which was certainly set down before 640, to suggest that plenty of people in Palestine doubted that the True Cross of 629/30 was the Cross of 614. And he adds one more piece of evidence to this at least suggestive investigation:

When, c. 638, the Cross was discretely smuggled from Jerusalem to Constantinople, we do not hear a single voice regretting the great loss.

In contrast, and as Zuckerman points out, the version of events later approved by the Byzantine state – in which Shahrvaraz returned the original relic after becoming king of Persia – dates only from the mid- to late 650s.

Speaking personally, I think the evidence here remains inconclusive. For example, it is perfectly possible to interpret Strategios’s description of the ‘trampling’ of 614 as having involved only the – potentially less easily damaged – wood of the True Cross itself, and not the silver reliquary; the object that was trampled, after all, is explicitly identified as ‘the Cross’. Any damage to the original wood might or might not have been considerable, but it is at least not absolutely obvious that the silver reliquary would have been damaged in such a way as to have been visible to all in 629/30. And Zuckerman’s other objections strike me as a good deal less convincing. Might not Modestos simply have inherited an object as obviously important as the key to the reliquary from his predecessor? And might not many voices have spoken out against the removal of the Cross in 638, without the clamour necessarily being noted in a source that has come down to us? Or, rather more pertinently, might not the smuggling out of the True Cross to Constantinople in that year have been considered entirely wise, given that 638 was one year after Jerusalem fell to its Islamic conquerors?

Whether you accept Zuckerman’s version really depends, I think, on how much stress you want to place on what exactly happened in Jerusalem in 614, on the anecdote of Virtue, on the sliver of evidence that suggests the relic was actually lost at some point before 628, and on the possibility that the clergy of Jerusalem would have willingly gone along with the creation of a false relic in the circumstances that pertained in 629/30. For me, while Zuckerman makes a decent case, it is still one rooted in a modern scepticism that makes it easy to assume that bishops and priests alive in the 630s would have participated in an imposture that involved what they would truly have believed was a relic of the Passion of Christ – an unholy fraud that, furthermore, must have been quite obvious to at least some of their contemporaries. Everything, ultimately, depends on how safe you consider that assumption. Taken as a whole, however, it does seem plain that the history of the True Cross is a lot more murky than most secondary accounts allow, and than the church still, today, insists.


Barbara Baert, ‘New Observations on the Genesis of Girona (1050-1100). The Iconography of the Legend of the True Cross,’ Gesta 38 (1999)

Anthony Birley, ‘St Helena, discoverer of the True Cross (250-330)’, unpublished paper available from the Brown research website

Stephan Borgehammar, How the Holy Cross was Found: From Event to Medieval Legend (1991)

Jan Willem Drijvers, ‘Helena Augusta: the Cross and the Myth: some new reflections,’ Millennium 8 (2011)

Cyril Mango, ‘The Brevarium of the patriarch Nikephorus,’ in Nia Stratos, Byzance: Hommage à André N. Stratos (1986)

J. Gordon Melton, ‘Elevation of the True Cross,’ in Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations (2011)

Marcus Milwright, ‘Central and southern Jordan in the Ayyubid period: historical and archaeological perspectives,’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series 16 (2006)

Jonathan Phillips, The Life and Legend of Sultan Saladin (2019)

J. Charles Wall, Relics of the Passion (1910)

Constantin Zuckerman, ‘Heraclius and the return of the Holy Cross,’ in Zuckerman (ed.), Constructing the Seventh Century (2013)


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.


dry tree 2

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.


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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)

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

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

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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?

According to the Wikipedia page, between 120k-200k foreigners were robbed and killed there in 878. The Wikipedia page is very bare. It mentions a previous massacre of foreigners a hundred years before by pirates and then the fact that a rebel army again massacred the foreign merchants in the city.

I am just wondering if I could have a bit of background into the city, the regional issues, etc. Considering how closed off China has been, such a large foreign population seems even bigger. I’m guessing it was a trade port, but for what? And if it had been previously massacred within a hundred years, why did people come back and remain unprotected?

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, Xi’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, Xi’an (a place more familiar to many historians under the earlier transliteration of 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 Xi’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. Xi’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:

Xi’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 e