The Logic of the Mile

Ever wonder why it is that a mile is 5,280 feet?  Given the entire world has gone metric, using an awkward measure like the mile seems out of place.  The truth behind the system that Americans get harangued over is actually founded in some very solid and reasonable logic.  And in England.

Originally, the measurements for anything you did were eyeballed.  You would measure an object with the only thing you had: your own body and whatever you could grab that seemed to hold a similar size at all times.  Because of that, Egyptians were known to use the “cubit” (distance from elbow to the end of the arm) to measure things because everybody had a relatively similar cubit to use.  The English took that idea and drew it out to a massive system where things could be measured in nails, digits, palms, hands, links, spans, lines and of course, inches.  The great thing is that old English measurements of an inch considered it to be “equal to the length of three barleycorn”.  How large was a barleycorn?  Why, exactly the length of 4 Poppyseeds.  The barleycorn and poppyseed were used as the very base line of measurement in the English unit, meaning a man with a muffin could measure the world.  Around 1150, King David I of Scotland declared an inch to be the breadth of a man’s thumb from the base of the nail.  Accounting for the differences of sizes, he took the measurements of a large man’s thumb, a small man’s thumb and a medium man’s thumb and averaged them.  Another legend was that Henry I declared that the yard was equal to the length from his nose to his thumb around that same time.  It wasn’t until the 1300s that the inch was “standardized” to be the size of three average grains of barley stacked lengthwise under the reign of Edward II.  Even with the added standardization, the English measurement system was in shambles.  The rod (5.5 yards) was the length of “the left feet of sixteen men standing  heel to toe while entering the church” while the yard was the distance around a man’s waist (because Saxon kings of yore wore belts that could be used to measure things, leading to the yard being named after “gird” or the Saxon word for the circumference of a man’s waist).

When Roman measurements began to intrude on the English system, action was taken to ease the usage.  The Roman mile was equal to 1,000 paces done by a soldier, and each pace was equal to two steps, so roughly equated to 5 feet.  In the 1500s, Elizabeth I declared that a mile be equal to 8 furlong to ease the distribution of land and acreage measurements.  In an agrarian society, the furlong was an essential measurement; it was the length of a furrow in a field that oxen plowed, roughly 40 rods, or 220 yards.  Acres were a furlong by a chain in length and width, if that helps with the visual.  While the Roman mile was 5,000 feet in length, the new English mile was 8 furlongs, or 5,280 feet.  The mile was extended to simplify the acre measurements in England to better fit the size of fields.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that the English actually took on the metric system.  They were using their system of barleycorn and churchgoers for much longer than Americans have been.  Keep that in mind the next time anybody bothers you for counting things in miles or inches.  Like most things in history these days, it’s the British’s fault.  Also, just as food for thought, your US and UK shoe sizes are in barleycorn; each size up is roughly 1/3 of an inch, meaning even in this the 21st century, we still measure things by grains of food.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, at the very least you now know how tall you are in poppyseeds.

Citations, a list at least 14 barleycorn long:

Click to access history_metric.pdf

History of the Fork

If you think about one of the most ubiquitous things in cuisine, the fork is one of the first things that comes to mind, after a knife, possibly chopsticks and a spoon.  Oddly enough though, the fork only made its journey into Europe and the Americas through marriages, being the subject of heavy criticism until the late 1800s.

While the concept of the fork has been known for a very long time, (Poseidon was famous for swinging one around) the actual use of the fork as an implement to aid consumption didn’t happen until around 600 AD.  The fork was used largely as a cooking aid, mainly to hold a hot slab of meat without using bare hands, the fork basically looked like a little two pronged spear.  Egyptians and Byzantines were the first to begin to use the tool at diner tables by the wealthy as a means to prove their wealth and etiquette.

It wasn’t until 1004 when Maria Argyropoulina, a Byzantine princess of sorts, married the Doge of Venice that the fork showed up in Central Europe.  She whipped out her set of gold forks at the wedding feast and ate her meal with forks, much to the chagrin of the entire Venetian court.  Priests went bonkers and complained that God gave men NATURAL forks in the form of hands and that using the metal implements was spitting in the face of God’s creations.  Two years later, Maria died from the plague and St.Peter Damian wrote that her death was God’s punishment for her vanity and lavishness.  Slowly, forks began to work their way into Italian eateries, largely used by the wealthy to skewer candied fruits that were syrup-ed enough that they would stain fingers without a utensil (used by the wealthy and by high caliber courtesans, further pressing the Church to associate forks with all things vain and sinful).  In 1533, Catherine De Medici brought the fork to France from Venice when she married Henry II, spreading the tool to Western Europe. In the 1560s during the turmoil that followed in Henry’s death, Catherine was said to travel around France hosting dinner parties with the rival factions to force them to her table.  She created etiquette rules that would force the leaders to sit down to diplomatic and polite dinners.

The fork got another legendary win in the 1660s, when Cardinal Richelieu (the villain from Dumas’ Three Musketeers) supposedly became aggravated with a dinner guest who would pick his teeth with a knife at the table.  Richelieu had all the tips of the knives filed down, forcing a new tool to be needed to stab and skewer foods.  Even if Richelieu wasn’t the reason for it, in 1669, Louis XIV declared it illegal to bring a pointed knife to a dining table for reasons of the violence pointed metal potentially does.  At that point in time France was the apex of high society, so when France abolished pointy knives, everyone did.  Across the ocean, Americans of the 1700s began to struggle with the sudden lack of pointed knives for dining.  Americans instead used a spoon in their left hand to hold down the object while they sawed it apart, then swapped the spoon to the right hand to pick up the food and eat it.  Rather than simply cave to the power of the fork, some Americans held onto their practice of “zigzagging” well into the mid 1800s.  A native of Maine groused that “Eating peas with a fork is as bad as trying to eat soup with a knitting needle.” in 1824; and few Americans used the fork until the World Fair of 1851, where the European high society brought the fork with them, and rather than look like country bumpkins, many Americans took to using the tined tool.  That said, British Sailors didn’t use forks until around 1897 because they were “unmanly”.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, like how God frowns when you grab a salad fork.

Citations, for the Fork of it:

The 47 Ronin

One of the more famous stories about Samurai comes from a 1701 event during the Tokugawa era.  In 1701, a daimyo (territorial lord, roughly equivalent to a baron in Europe) from Ako named Asano Naganori was chosen to entertain the imperial family’s envoys.  He was assigned a government official named Kira Yoshinaka to train him in the ways of court manners (In Shogun Japan, you didn’t meet the imperial family without the utmost courtesy) for the meeting.  Sources claim that either on arrival Kira was not given a grand enough gift by Asano, or that he was a twerp, and he immediately began to berate and insult Asano during their lessons.  After several days of being called a country bumpkin, Asano went ballistic and whipped out his sword.  Slicing Kira’s head open, he was detained before he could kill him (when questioned later, his only regret was that he failed to kill Kira).  Asano had drawn a weapon on an imperial official while in the imperial palace, and his sentence was to commit suicide (seppuku).  Asano’s land and titles were taken from his family and his brother was placed under house arrest, which is where the story begins.

Of his 320 or so samurai on Asano’s payroll, 47 of whom ,led by Oishi Yoshio, decided that they would avenge their lord by going rogue.   Kira, fearing for his life after a close encounter with a samurai lord, reinforced his mansion and decked it out with guards and fortifications.  Oishi ordered his men to disperse through the country and bide their time waiting for the proper time.  Some became monks, some became merchants, some became tradesmen; one went so far as to marry the daughter of the man who built Kira’s mansion FOR THE SOLE REASON of getting a blueprint of it.  Oishi became a bum, drinking and visiting brothels, he made a clear display of his fall from grace for all of Kira’s spies who observed him.  After being kicked in the face (one of the cardinal dishonors for a samurai) Kira’s spies returned the word that the Ronin (samurai without a lord) were more or less harmless.  With his guard down, Oishi gathered the 47 together once more and began to prepare for their revenge, over a year and a half after the death of their lord.  Expecting one outcome from their plan, Oishi divorced his wife to prevent any blame for his actions from reaching her and designated the youngest of the Ronin to not be involved.  The forty seventh Ronin was tasked with spreading the story of their actions and was not going to join them on the assault.  First getting the neighbor’s approval for their actions (the neighbors were alright with a revenge slaying of Kira, he wasn’t a popular guy), the Ronin took the night guards of Kira’s mansion by surprise and took positions on the rooftops.  Beating on a drum, the 46 samurai began their attack on the unprepared warriors within the compound, killing as many as 40 of them with only minor wounds of their own.  Kira scampered away to a storage shed somewhere on his grounds, where he was found after an hour of Samurai manhunting.  Oishi presented to Kira the exact same blade that Asano had used to kill himself and offered Kira the choice of suicide.  When it became clear that Kira was unable to do himself in, Oishi lopped Kira’s noggin off and the 46 marched to the burial place of their lord where they presented the severed head.

The Shogun was left in an awkward spot soon thereafter, because the 47 Ronin had gained overnight fame for their actions.  The public clamored for their pardoning, while the officials of the government requested execution for the illegal attacks.  Giving in partway to the pressure, the Shogun allowed the samurai to commit Seppuku (more honorable than execution) on February 4th, 1703, and granted the title and a tenth of the land back to Asano’s eldest son.  The forty seventh Ronin, the storyteller, was given a full pardon.  Kabuki theater and puppet shows about the Ronin began almost immediately as the warriors gained a pop culture fame for their actions.  People had worried that the samurai class had lost its way and abandoned Bushido codes and their honor, but the 47 Ronin stood as a proud testament to a warrior’s devotion to their lord.  A shrine was erected to the Ronin, and according to legend, the Samurai who kicked Oishi in the face during his hobo days was the first man to visit, committing seppuku there to atone for his actions to such an honorable man.  The author of the Hagakure, on one of the major works about Samurai culture was one of the few critics of the Ronin, musing not about how their actions were wrong, but that they waited so long to kill Kira.  He wondered what the men would have done if Kira had died from an illness at some point during their undercover period, and wrote that it was better for a Samurai to be bold and decisive at all times.

The Ronin’s influence lasted far into the 20th century, when a film was produced by Imperial Japan in 1941 to spark the Japanese fervor for loyalty to and beyond death. They have also appeared in television, books, pop culture, art and music over the last 300 years.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, like why you don’t insult a guy with a sword.

Citations, Otherwise People Will Think This Is About That Keanu Reeves Movie:

History of a Holiday:Valentine’s Day

Every year it rolls around, February 14th we buy candy, cards and stuffed objects to ply our loved ones with.  Chocolates, suckers, mints and all things heart shaped, which are not really heart shaped by the way, hearts have chambers and ventricles and look totally different.  The Valentine’s day heart is really just a thinly veiled image of a nude person’s gender specific bits.  Male and female, upper and lower, all it takes is a wee bit of imagination and a 180 degree rotation.  The holiday itself has origin roots in the Roman empire, like most of the modern holidays do.

Originally celebrated on and around February 15th, Lupercalia was the Roman holiday we associate with the Feast of St.Valentine.   Men would sacrifice goats, cut them into little bits, dip the strips into the dead goat drippings and then bolt nude around the city and wallop women with the gore to promote fertility.  Modern medicine has since deemed bloody goat slaps less than effective as a fertility treatment, but in Ancient Rome, whacking your woman could end sterility and cause pregnancy.  Lupercalia also supposedly had a tradition where the eligible bachelors of the towns would draw slips of paper out of an urn with the name of one of the bachelorettes on it.  The two would be obligated by tradition to hook up, and often ended up marrying.

Valentine’s day of modern times comes from the legend of a Christian martyr.   In the year 270 AD, the Roman empire was falling apart at the seams.  Claudius II took the throne and tried to keep his empire together through a strong military.  One of his famous acts forbade soldiers from marrying, assuming that they would fight more efficiently if they were not linked to their homes because of families and spouses.  The legend of St.Valentine is that he declared Claudius to be a nimwit and continued marrying soldiers in secret.  When he was caught, he was imprisoned and, depending on the story, either healed the blind daughter of his jailer (with saintly healing powers, this is the Catholic story), helped the blind daughter (by being a nice guy, this is the Protestant story), or slept with the daughter (this is likely the honest truth).  When he met with Claudius, Valentine refused to give up his God to follow the Roman ones and was sentenced to death on the 14th of February.  The legend is that he wrote a letter to the jailer’s daughter and signed it “from your Valentine”, which could potentially be the origin of the card-giving epidemic that came about later.

The leap from Lupercalia’s sex and fertility holiday to Valentine’s martyrdom holiday came in the 5th century when Pope Gelasius declared Lupercalia outdated and replaced it with the feast of St.Valentine.  It wasn’t until much later when the date was associated with love and all that.  In medieval France and England, it was believed that birds chose their mates on the 14th of February.  Chaucer linked the two together in a story and the idea of love on the 14th became more and more integral to the holiday.  Then you get to today, where a full 25% of the cards purchased in a given year are given out.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, like how the holiday originated from a giant goat and sexual-lotto orgy festival.

Citations, got no clever one liner after the goat and lotto orgy one:

Dating in Rome must have been a lot Easier with Festivals like that:

Unwhitewashed History, pt.IV

The phrase “unwhitewashed” may be a bit misleading.  The intention of the segment is to tell the history of those who are not the typical members of historical pantheons.  That means, no Lincolns, no Washingtons, no Lockes, no Bonapartes.  It means to give history of non-European lands a chance to be known, but also to give women a piece of history’s pie.  They’ve been there the whole time, yet very few are typically considered to be influential for broad swathes of what we tell as history.  To steal a bad pun, these are a couple of her-stories.

Pirate’s Life for the Wife of Yi:
Hands down, the most successful pirate of all time was Ching Shih.  Forget Edward Teach, forget Long John Silver, Ching Shih put them all to shame.  Born into a Cantonese village in the late 1700s, Ching’s real name is unknown.  All people know is that she was a prostitute who was married to a pirate lord in 1801; her name that we know now Ching Shih, translates roughly to “widow of Zheng”.  Zheng Yi owned a fairly successful pirate band and was responsible for forming a major alliance between the assorted groups of Chinese pirates of the early 19th century.  When he died in Vietnam in 1807, Ching maneuvered to the helm of the operation and forced herself into the leadership seat of a fleet upwards of 1,800 ships large with roughly 80,000 crew members.  She established a set of codes that formed a public pool of money, allowing successful pirates to keep only 20% of the overall booty, and spreading the remainder out to other ships who were less successful.  Pirates were forbidden to attack friendly villages and towns along the coasts, forming a soft power structure that allowed Ching to occasionally collect taxes from the villages as a de facto governor of the area.  Pirates who tried to hide their loot would be severely whipped for the first minor offense and executed for major or repeated happenings.  Any person relaying orders that were not Chings, or attempting to lead without her blessing, would be beheaded on the spot.  Women were typically released rather than held as captives, though some would be kept as concubines.  Any pirate caught raping would be killed, any women consensually engaging with a pirate would have cannonballs strapped to her legs before she would be hucked into the water.  The male on the other end of the consent agreement would also be executed.  Because of her codes, Ching’s fleet became a force to be reckoned with because the troops were loyal to her, terrified of her, and willing to die before being punished.  When the Chinese government attempted to rid themselves of Ching’s piracy, the conflict was decisive.  China’s navy, along with fleets of bounty hunters from Portugal and Britain failed.  China offered Ching a total pardon if she would give up her pirating ways.  She took the offer and retired from piracy in 1810, at which point she opened a gambling house and lived out her life in leisure, making her one of the very few pirates to ever live to retirement.

The Lady Pope, A Load of Papal Bull:
Pope Joan, while it is now considered widely to be a myth, was a very real folk tale in the early renaissance.  She is mentioned several times by assorted chroniclers, though never before the 1200s.  The story is that a woman took on the name of John Anglicus and worked her way through higher education (this happens either in the 800s or the 1000s, nobody is really too clear on it, but most believe the story referred to the popes of the 9th century).  She showed a knack for theological discussion and blazed a trail through the Catholic ranks before eventually becoming pope after Leo #4 died.  Her stay in the papal estates was supposedly roughly 2.75 years, all the while nobody knew she was a female.  The story is that her ruse was discovered when she was traveling between St.Peter’s Basilica and another part of the Vatican, when she mounted a horse and suddenly began to give birth right there in the street.  The final fate of Pope Joan goes any of a few directions, either she was confined to chambers and did penance for the remainder of her life, or she was tied to a horse and dragged for a half league while angry rabble chucked rocks at her.  A French chronicler in the early 1400s wrote that there was a three day long rain storm of blood and a swarm of mutant locusts attacked when Joan was revealed as a woman.  Ever since 1601, the Catholic Church has officially stated that the story is a medieval equivalent to an urban myth because of the records of the papal succession after Leo IV died.  The lull in the popes between him and Benedict III came from a viscous battle between Benedict and an antipope.   Other fun legends are that the next pope in line was sat down on a chair for a cardinal to reach up under his robes to see if he had the stones (“he has two, they dangle nicely” is apparently what he said).  Joan was a figure whose mythic story was immortalized in statues and writing throughout the next several centuries and still persists today regardless of papal attempts to quash it as a rumor; and for large parts of time, popes would turn their eyes away from the location Joan was said to have given birth when passing by.  Just so nobody walks away thinking this was a real event, a pope giving birth in the streets of Rome would have caused a fair bit of writing, and nothing is found until 400 years later.  Compelling, yes; interesting, yes; true, no.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, like how there is an actual job for “pope ball checker”

Citations, otherwise you’d never know Edward Teach was Blackbeard:

Retiring from Piracy is Really Hard to do:

Pope Joan, not real, but quite Interesting: (“he has two, they dangle too”)