Tag: History

Book review: Crypt by Professor Alice Roberts

My next review is for Crypt by Professor Alice Roberts, this is one of a sequence of three books on archaeology and history centred around burials. I reviewed Ancestors a couple of years ago which covered the prehistoric period. Crypt covers the second millennium of the current era, the third book, Buried, covers the first millennium and is on my reading list.

In common with Ancestors, Crypt considers seven burials across a period of time – in this case the medieval period – from about 1000CE to 1500CE. The burials are a launch point for a wider discussion covering archaeology, genetics, disease pathology and history. It is the study of DNA from ancient bodies that has been the biggest innovation over the last 25 or so years, and it has been applied to a lot of existing archaeological collections as well as new digs. It can show how diseases have emerged and evolved over the period of human history.

“Crypt” is not a particularly accurate description of the burial sites, the chapters look at a mass grave in Oxford (in a ditch) whose members met violent ends, a leper colony near Winchester, Thomas Beckett’s (possible) burial at Canterbury Cathedral, burials at Norton Priory near Runcorn showing evidence of Paget’s disease, plague pits and evidence for the Black Death, the Mary Rose and the skeletons of otherwise healthy men, finishing with a burial at a church in York and syphilis.

In contrast to Ancestors this book has much more historical material, understandably since Ancestors covered prehistoric burials.

The book starts with the discovery of 35 skeletons in a ditch in Oxford, primarily young men who had met a violent end. Ultimately this was linked to Æthelred the Unready’s edict to kill Danes in England dated to 1002CE in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Although the carbon dating initially indicated the skeletons were from a slightly earlier period, isotope analysis suggested they had a diet very high in fish, which is know to lead to systematically older carbon dating. It also suggest that the skeletons may have belonged to Danes, whose economy was very dependent on fishing. Contemporary reporting of the massacre was limited but picked up after the Norman invasion as some sort of justification for the invasion.

Leprosy was spreading in the 11th century – possibly as a result of the Crusades. The second chapter of Crypt concerns the hospital on Magdalene Hill on the outskirts of Winchester. 100 graves were excavated of which 85% had inhabitants afflicted by leprosy – this is very clear from skeletal evidence. The hospital was founded around 1000CE, in this period hospitals were starting to be founded but the line between hospital and monastery/abbey was blurred. In the modern era PCR analysis has shown that many have leprosy without symptoms.

In some senses the chapter on Thomas Beckett is anomalous, it is almost entirely historical. On his well-documented death he was quickly made a saint and his tomb at Canterbury Cathedral, featuring a special alcove for his severed scalp, became a site of pilgrimage. The archaeological interest is because none of the tomb of St Thomas remains, it was removed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution who also comprehensively clamped down on celebration of St Thomas. The chapter also talks about the politics between the local royalty and the Roman church.

The chapter on Norton Priory, near Runcorn, brings things home for me – I live just down the road in Chester. The new visitor centre looks rather fine. The focus here is on Paget’s Disease which is a disorder of the bone which is more common in north west England, and used to be more common generally. As a disease it is still a bit of a mystery. Norton Priory has a very high incidence of Paget’s in its graveyard – as many as 3 in 20 skeletons show evidence of the disease.

Paget’s disease and leprosy both show clear signs of disease on the bone, the Black Death on the other hand, does not since it kills its victims in days, or even hours giving little time for bone to be affected. This means that genetic methods are used to diagnose the disease in ancient remains. They were first applied to the Black Death around 2000 but the results were disputed with the identity of the disease micro-organism for the Black Death only confirmed as Yersinia pestis in 2011. It has been identified in victims of the earlier Justinian plague.

For Roberts the Mary Rose is a significant part of her childhood memories, as it is for me – many of us around the age of 50 will remember the raising of the Mary Rose shown on an old CRT TV in the school assembly hall. The interest in the Mary Rose is that the anaerobic silt of the Solent preserved the skeletons of its crew very well and nets to prevent boarders meant many men were trapped on the sinking ship. The primary interest here is in counting the dead, best estimates are rather below the historical figures suggesting that the ship may have been under-crewed. The skeletal pathologies are also of interest – what was the impact of the types of activities that sailors and fighting men undertook on their skeletons.? The Mary Rose is also the home of a large cache, over 100, of English long bows – very few of these famous weapons have been preserved – in fact the Wikipedia article cites only three other examples not from the Mary Rose.

Crypt finishes with an unusual burial in a York church, (All Saints on Fishergate) and syphilis. The burial is unusual because it is a pit burial in the apse of the church. The buried skeleton contains crater-like lesions characteristic of advanced syphilis. The origin of syphilis is still a mystery, there has long been a “Columbian Hypothesis” that Columbus brought syphilis back from the New World (in exchange for a wide range of diseases brought from the Old World) – however genetic analysis has failed to find the syphilis bacteria in remains prior to 1492 in either the New or Old World. The burial is thought to have been of an anchoress, possibly Lady Isabella Germann, buried around 1493.

The disease pathology sections are interesting but can be quite lengthy, I noticed this particularly in the chapter on the skeletons of the Mary Rose in the discussion on the skeletal features arising from archery – it all became clear when Roberts writes of this topic “…this had formed the backbone of my PhD”!

Reading this book it becomes clear that the various diseases mentioned, leprosy, syphilis, and Black Death went through periods of high prevalence across human history -this is covered in Peter Frankopan’s book The Earth Transformed. The bubonic plague – the disease responsible for the Black Death, is covered in Simon Schama’s book, Foreign Bodies, at least for the 19th century outbreak.

I enjoyed this book, so much so that I have just bought the last (for me) of the sequence.

Book review: How the world thinks by Julian Baggini

Whilst economising during a period without work I thought I would turn to other books in the house to read and review. This is how I came to How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini. This is not to say I am uninterested in philosophy but, as a scientist in the Western tradition, philosophy was a substrate on which I worked without thinking.

How the World Thinks aims to provide an outline of the major schools of philosophy around the world, Baggini alludes to the fact that in the Western world university philosophy departments are more accurately described as “Western philosophy” departments. Comparative philosophy, apparently, is not really a thing. Baggini also talks about how “academic” philosophy impacts the culture in which it sits – a process called sedimentation. Baggini cites the 5rd-3th centuries BCE as when the major philosophical traditions were born (know as the Axial Age), when understanding of the world started moving from myth to some sort of reason.

How the World Thinks is divided into four parts and an additional concluding part; these cover the nature of philosophy in different traditions, the nature of the world, who we are and how philosophy impacts the way we live. The text typically covers Far Eastern traditions (China and Japan), India, Islamic and Western traditions with some references to African philosophy. Rather strangely he mentions Russian philosophy in the final part, only to say really he hasn’t mentioned Russian philosophy!

Western philosophy is built around “reason” and nowadays is largely separate from theology, there are empiricist and rationalist schools within this. Empiricists believing on observing the world and building models based on observation, whilst rationalist believe the world can be understood with pure thought. East Asian philosophy is more concerned with a “way” of living in the world which is difficult if not impossible to explain in words. Indian philosophy lies between these two. Interestingly yoga is part of a philosophical tradition which sees it as a way of better seeing how the world really is.

The next part of the book concerns the processes that govern the world: time, karma, emptiness, naturalism, unity, and reductionism. Karma is a particularly Indian concept, and is linked by Baggini to the caste system which DNA evidence dates back to the 6th century AD. East Asian philosophy is more concerned with emptiness / nothingness then Western philosophy – it struck me reading The First Astronomers that Australian Aboriginal constellations include the absence of stars into their constellations. Naturalism, a regard for nature which links the natural world to the human, is stronger in East Asian philosophies – Chinese art incorporated natural scenes long before Western art. Islamic philosophy is strong on unity, whilst Western philosophy likes reductionism.

Part 3 concerns the self, contrasting the East Asian view of the self which is defined in relationship to others, similarly in Africa, with the indivisible, individualistic self of the West. There is even the idea that the self does not exist, as such. Baggini refers to the indivisible self as “atomistic” which harks back to the ancient Greek definition but for a modern scientist this is a bit confusing because an atom is a very different thing. Indian philosophy thinks in terms of a self that is reborn but need not hold any recollection of previous selves. Perhaps not made explicit in this part but one gets the feeling that other philosophies have a strong sense of being concerned with individual self-improvement, by acting in the right way, leading the right life one improves through each rebirth.

The final part of the book concerns how the world lives, how the philosophy discussed in earlier chapters is reflected in culture. This starts with a consideration of the idea of “harmony” in China, this can have elements of hierarchy and misogyny. Although Baggini highlights that it is understood that hierarchy is not bad in all cases, or even most. There is a chapter on “virtue” which as much as anything highlights that the meanings of words when translated can shift. We might think about the importance of “ritual” in Far Eastern cultures but equally we could call it “cultural grammar” which has different connotations in English .

I found How the World Thinks straightforward enough to read, the chapters are a convenient size and the style is readable. It also thought provoking, in that it challenges the deepest assumptions about the way I lead my intellectual life – in some ways it parallels The First Astronomers by Duane Hamacher in this respect.

Book review: Broad Band by Claire L. Evans

Broad Band by Claire L. Evans book cover. Cream background with a silhouette of a woman made from circuit boards

This review is of Broad Band by Claire L. Evans, subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. It is arranged thematically with each chapter focusing on a couple of women moving in time from the first chapter, about Ada Lovelace in the 19th century, through to the early years of the 21st century. The first part of the book covers the early period of computing up to the mid-sixties, the second part the growth of networked computing through the seventies and eighties with the final part covering the rise of the World Wide Web and services devoted to women.

The first chapter introduces us to Ada Lovelace, sometimes heralded as the first programmer which is a somewhat disputable claim. More importantly she was clearly a competent mathematician and excelled in democratising and explaining the potential of the mechanical computing engines that Charles Babbage was trying, and largely failing, to build. More broadly this chapter covers the work of the early human “computers”, who were often women, employed to carry out calculations for astronomical or military applications. Following on from this role, by 1946 250,000 women were working in telephone exchanges (presumably in the US).

Women gained this role as “computers” for a range of reasons. In the 19th century it was seen as acceptable work for educated women whose options were severely limited – as they would be for many years to come, excepting war time. The lack of alternatives meant they were very cheap to employ. Under the cover of this apparently administrative role of “computer” women made useful, original contributions to science albeit they were not recognised as such. Women were seen as good at this type of meticulous, routine work.

When the first electronic computers were developed in the later years of the Second World War it was unsurprising that women were heavily involved in their operation partly because of their previous roles, and partly because men had been sent to fight. There appears to have been an attitude that the design and construction of such machines was men’s work and their actual use, the physical act of programming was women’s work – often neglected by those men that built the machines.

It was in this environment that the now renowned Grace Hopper worked. She started writing what we would now describe as compilers to make the task of programming computers easier. She was also instrumental in creating the COBOL programming language, reviled by computer scientist in subsequent years but comprising 80% of the world’s code by the end of the 20th century. The process that Hopper used to create the language, a committee involving multiple companies working towards a common useful goal, looks surprisingly modern.

In the sixties there was a sea-change for women in computing, it was perceived that there was a shortage of programmers and the solution was to change programming into an engineering science which had the effect of gradually pushing women out of computing through the seventies. It was at this time that the power of computer networks started to be realised.

The next part of the book covers networking via a brief diversion into mapping the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky which became the basis of the first network computer game: Colossal Cave Adventure. I was particularly impressed by Project One, a San Francisco commune which housed a mainframe computer (a Scientific Data Systems 940) which had been blagged from a company by Pam Hardt-English. In the early seventies it became the first bulletin board system (BBS) – a type of system which was to persist all the way through to the creation of the World Wide Web (and beyond). Broad Band also covers some of the later bulletin board systems founded by women which evolved into women’s places on the Web, BBS were majority male spaces for a long time. In the meantime Resource One also became the core of the San Francisco Social Services Referral Directory which persisted through until 2009, this was a radical innovation at the time – computers used for a social purpose outside of scientific or military applications.

The internet as we know it started with ARPANET in 1969. Broad Band covers two women involved in the early internet – Elizabeth (Jake) Feinler who was responsible for the Resource Handbook – a manually compiled directory of computers, and their handlers, on ARPANET. This evolved, under her guidance, to become the WHOIS service and host.domain naming convention for internet addresses. The second woman was Radia Perlman, who invented the Spanning Tree Protocol for ethernet whilst at DEC in 1984.

This brings us, in time, to the beginning of the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web grew out of the internet. Hypertext systems had been mooted since the end of the Second World War but it wasn’t until the eighties that they became technically feasible on widely available hardware. Broad Band cites British Wendy Hall and Cathy Marshall at Rank Xerox as contributors to the development of hypertext systems. These were to be largely swept away by Tim Berners-Lee’s HTML format which had the key feature of hyperlinking across different computers even if this made the handling of those links prone to decay – something handled better by other non-networked hypertext systems. The World Wide Web grew ridiculously quickly in the early nineties. Berners-Lee demonstrated a rather uninspiring version at HyperText ’91 and by HyperText ’94 he was keynote speaker.

There is a a brief chapter devoted to women in gaming. Apparently Barbie Fashion Designer sold 600,000 units in 1996 more than Doom and Quake! There was a brief period when games were made very explicitly for girls – led to a degree by Brenda Laurel who had done extensive research showing boys strive for mastery in games, whilst girls were looking for a collaborator to complete a task. These ideas held sway for a while before a more diverse gaming market took hold which didn’t divide games so much by gender.

It is tempting for me to say that where women have made their mark in computing and the internet is in forming communities, communicating the benefits of technology and making them easier to use – in a reprise of the early pioneering women in science – because that is what women are good at. However, this is the space in which women have been allowed by men – it is not a question of innate ability alone.

I found this book really interesting, it is more an entry point into the topic of women in computing than a comprehensive history. It has made me nostalgic for my computing experiences of the eighties and nineties, and I have added a biography of Grace Hopper to my reading list.

Book review: Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama

My next review is of Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama.

The book is divided into three parts, covering smallpox, cholera and bubonic plague – in its late 19th century manifestation – and how vaccines were developed and deployed for these diseases. Waldemar Haffkine features heavily in the chapters on cholera and bubonic plague, for which he invented and delivered vaccines, and in some senses this is his biography albeit somewhat unfocussed with much additional material.

The first part covers the introduction of inoculation for smallpox to Western Europe in the early 18th century. This a process whereby a small quantity of the material from a smallpox pustule is introduced to small cuts in the skin of a patient who then falls mildly ill with the disease but is protected from further more serious infection. Voltaire appears in this section as a hook for some of the discussion – he was one of the early promoters of inoculation in France.

Terms are a bit fluid in this area but inoculation refers to the use of the live, unaltered bacteria/virus whilst vaccination refers to the use of a vaccine which is based on a weakened or even partial version of the disease causing micro-organism.

Smallpox was a serious disease in the 18th century, having apparently mutated to a more virulent, deadly form in the mid-17th century. This newer variant killed as many as 1 in 6 of those infected with many of those surviving showing significant scarring. It was indiscriminate, killing royalty as well as paupers. The inoculation process had been used by at least some communities in the Middle East, Africa and South America. The first chapter in this section is largely about the introduction of the idea of inoculation to polite Western European society. This met with some resistance – inoculation did not fit with the then current model of the smallpox disease (essentially the side effect of a bodily purging process), and it challenged the medical establishment coming as it did from a “foreign” country and, worse than that, was often practiced by women!

The second of the smallpox chapter covers the commercialisation of the inoculation process during the 18th century. This typically involved upselling preliminary treatments and post-inoculation care which was largely superfluous. It is interesting though that as part of this process the first clinical trials were conducted to test the efficacy of the process.

The second part of the book, on cholera, features Adrien Proust, father of Marcel Proust. Adrien Proust would become very involved in creating international the first public health organisations. Cholera had come to Europe around 1817 with pandemics killing many thousands recurring through the century. Proust senior had been a young doctor in the 1854 outbreak in Paris as a hospital doctor he would have seen 40% of patients die from this disease. At the time the cause of cholera was not known, it was assumed that it was a result of “filth” and unsanitary living conditions. This perhaps explains some of the Victorian efforts to install sewers and water systems, as well as the fact that living in crowded insanitary cities was simply unpleasant.

In the case of cholera, which is a bacterial infection discovered (quietly) by Filippo Pacini in 1854 and more famously by Robert Koch in 1883, sanitation and disinfection measures are a reasonable approach which has some benefits. There was commercial opposition to seeing cholera as an infection because that implied quarantines and the like which had a commercial impact. This attitude was to recur in the subsequent bubonic plague outbreaks in Indian and China which has more serious consequences since dirty water has no bearing on plague transmission. In fact we saw this argument regarding the COVID-19 restrictions.

It is in this part we first meet Waldemar Haffkine, born into a Jewish family in Odessa in 1860. He trained as a biologist working under Ilya Mechnikov, who would later win a Noble Prize for his work on immunity. Haffkine went on to the Pasteur Institute in Paris (Pasteur was still alive at this point), where he developed a vaccine for cholera. Haffkine had a an extensive file with the authorities in Odessa as a result of his activism in the defence of the Jewish community against repeated pogroms.

He tested his vaccine in India with minimal support from the colonial medical services. Reading between the lines it looks like his expenses claims were a key historical resource. To a degree he used the Indian population as one amenable for doing controlled trials of the vaccine due to their living conditions, and their status in the colonial system.

The part of the book on bubonic plague is a repeat of the chapters on cholera with Haffkine involved in the discovery of the plague bacillus, and the development and deployment of the vaccine, particularly in India. Here the story diverges a bit, the colonial response to plague was to apply sanitation measures up to and including burning down houses where infections had occurred. This, naturally, angered the local population and played some part in the rise of Indian nationalism.

Haffkine’s medical career was to effectively come to an end in the Indian plague vaccination programme. A vial of vaccine that had been produced in the facility he led was contaminated with tetanus leading to the death of nineteen vaccine recipients. The colonial Indian medical authorities were quick to place the blame on Haffkine although later investigations showed that the vial was most likely contaminated “in the field” (literally) and so was not at all Haffkine’s responsibility. He was eventually notationally exonerated with the support of Sir Ronald Ross (who won a Noble prize for his work on the transmission of malaria) but the damage was done and after some work on a typhoid vaccine he gave up his medical work aged 54.

Haffkine, in his later years, returned to his Jewish roots – arguing the case for Orthodox Judaism, and supporting a movement to make Crimea an area for training Jews in agriculture with a view to moving to Palestine. After the Russian revolution Jews no longer faced pogroms on the basis of their religion, they experienced persecution because the Soviet Union did not want anyone, regardless of religion practicing their religion.

I have mixed feelings about this book, it feels like it is trying to be several things at once – a history of vaccination for smallpox, cholera and bubonic plague but also a biography of Waldemar Haffkine with substantial chunks of not entirely relevant material also added. The long chapters don’t suit my reading style very well. At one point Schama manages a half-page sentence which I don’t think I’ve seen before in English! The book is clearly well-researched and written with some style but it doesn’t feel like a book to be read by the pool.

Book review: Femina by Janina Ramirez

In my history thread of reading, Femina by Janina Ramirez is up next. The subtitle, A New History of the Middles Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It, is as good a summary as one would like. Through nine chapters it relates the stories of women from the 7th century through to the 15th century. The earliest chapter relies entirely on archaeological evidence with later chapters mainly documentary but with some reference to historical objects.

The introductory chapter highlights that medieval women, such as Joan of Arc and Julian of Norwich influenced the suffragettes, so their existence was not unknown. It is fair to say that medieval women have not been subject of a huge amount of academic interest.

Subsequent chapters typically focus on one woman but include some material on other similar or related women. The chapters progress chronologically.

A recurring theme is the spread of the Catholic Church through the medieval period, and the role of women in that spread. First, bearing jewelry with secret Christian symbols but later as abbesses – in this period it seemed common for a monastery, for monks, and a convent, for nuns, to be paired. The position of abbess was quite senior, and providing an opportunity for study. The Reformation in the first half of the 16th century took away this route to power for women.

As is my custom I will provide a short summary of the chapters:

Movers and Shakers – the “Loftus princess burial” in North East England in the 7th century. It represents a transitional burial incorporating pre-Christian grave goods – in a Christian cemetery where grave goods are typically not found. It also considers the role of women like Queen Bertha of Kent and Hilda of Whitby in the development of the early Christian church in England.

Decision makers – the women of the British kingdoms prior to the “Viking” invasion in the second half of the 9th century. Cynethryth, Queen of the Mercians, features heavily – she ruled with her husband, Offa, until he died, and then in her own right. Cynethryth is unique as a women in England found on coinage of this period.

Warriors and Leaders – the Birka Warrior, a burial in a settlement near Stockholm – occupied for a period of 200 years. They were buried with weapons but were recently identified as a woman rather than a man. Obviously this caused some controversy but other sources suggest that there were at least some military women in this period and other burials on the site suggested that women were also tradespeople.

Artists and patrons – the Bayeux Tapestry, and the team of women believed to have made it – it turns out that it isn’t King Harold getting the arrow in the eye – once again my childhood history knowledge is false!

Polymaths and scientists – this chapter focusses on Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was an abbess and wrote widely on a range of topics including science and medicine as well as composing music. Her correspondence network included several popes.

Spies and Outlaws – the Cathars in southern France – who were subject to the Albigensian Crusade for heresy in the early 13th century. This was in a time when the Inquisition was only part-formed and local arrangements were more important than the central view. Women appear in the records of the Inquisition, and could be preachers in the Cathar religion.

Kings and diplomats – Jadwiga, the only female king of Poland, a member of the Europe-wide royal families. She introduced the Catholic Church to Poland, founded a University in Krakow, the first in Poland. She died following childbirth at the age of 26. In common with the Decision Makers chapter it shows how marriage was used as a tool of diplomacy in medieval Europe but with women playing some role in organising these partnerships – not simply pawns moved around a board by men.

Entrepreneurs and influencers – the chance survival of The Book of Margery Kempe – the first autobiography in English, written around 1440. Margery Kempe was from a relatively important family in Kings Lynn. She seems like quite a character, reporting a wide range of business enterprises, and religious visions as well as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The final chapter touches on diversity, looking at the ethnicity of Londoners around the time of the Black Death – it shows (on the basis of 41 skeletons) that London in 1350 was about as diverse as modern London. There is also a single court account, elided in the official translation, relating to someone who might now be considered transgender.

Unrelated to gender, Femina highlights how cosmopolitan and connected medieval England was to Europe, and even Asia.

One thing that struck me from this book is that history is viewed through a glass darkly. Across the span of the 600 or so years from the latest of the women described in this book to the present day a great deal can happen. The first is that women are simply not written about, although this book shifts the balance a bit, it is clear were not generally considered the equals of men in the Middle Ages but they were more important than we perhaps currently believe.

More insidiously history is continually re-written by (usually) men with their own axe to grind, or simply a story to tell. An example of this is the “invention” of the Vikings in the 19th century, including their horned helmets which were popularised by a staging of The Ring of the Nibelung in 1876. The suppression of women’s stories started not long after the end of this book, in the 16th century or so.

This is without considering the amount of material simply lost over the span of 600 years.

I found Femina really readable, the chapters all start with some scene setting written in a more fictional style, the chapters provide self-contained stories – it is easy to see this being made into a TV series. I think the biggest takeaways for me were how important at least some women were in the Middle Ages, and how distorted our view of the past is by the historians (and wider society) of the intervening period.