History’s Favorite Color

In the olden days, you could signify your wealth by wearing gold bracelets, earrings and jewels; but if you wanted to make your opulence clear to everyone, you wore purple.  Specifically, you would wear Tyrian Purple, a color that was produced in a single city in the Roman Empire for somewhat unknown reasons.  Said to be discovered by Hercules as he wandered along the beach with a Nymph named Tyrus.  His dog came bounding up to him with a sea snail in its mouth and when it ate the snail, his dog’s mouth became a deep purple color.  The nymph told Hercules that she would marry him if he made a robe the color of the snail goo, and he named it after her (in actuality, it was named after Tyre, the city that produced it).

While dyes in general were difficult to produce and expensive to obtain, Tyrian Purple was the highest bar attainable in the ancient world of colors.  When fresh out of the dyeing vat it was described as the color of “coagulated blood, but when held to the light it showed a crimson hue”.  What made it so sought after was that wear over time in the sun and elements would cause the color to gradually become purple, becoming brighter and richer as it wore.  While most dyes would slowly turn brown or beige, Tyrian Purple would only become more beautiful and brilliant as it was used.

What made it so expensive was that it was only obtainable through a specific mixture of secretions from two varieties of predatory sea snails that were found in the harbor region of Tyre.  Buccinum secretions would cause a reddish color that would fade quickly, while Murex secretions would give it a deep purple shade.  Nowadays, Murex shellfish are found at 25 fathoms, and rapidly becoming harder to find; but when the Romans used them they were closer to the shore and more populous.  200 pounds of concentrated Buccinum dye would sell for the same amount that 111 pounds of Murex. The Murex dye was obtained by fishing out the mollusk at a specific time of the year around wintertime because the secretion is a bromine solution that the snails produce as an anti-microbial shield on their eggs.    The shellfish would secrete the liquid as a defense against predators, but it only produced a useful amount of it “after the rising of the dog star”. Catching the snails around their mating season would allow the Romans to “milk” them.  The excretion of the snails could be obtained by poking them until they used it as a defense mechanism, or by crushing the snail and forcibly removing the vein that held the dye.

As for why it was such an expensive dye, Roman scholars said that 1,200 snails would only produce 1.4 grams of the dye when fully concentrated, barely enough dye to color the hem of a robe (each snail had only a few partial ounces of the fluid, and 8,000 pounds of the pulped snail glands would result in only 500 pounds of dye).  The snail goo would be collected in a vat and boiled for 10 days to remove all impurities and concentrate the fluid.  Because of this long boiling session where snail corpses were burned to a crisp, Tyre was known as an terribly smelly city, “unpleasant for residence”.  The end result of the boil was a tiny amount of the radically expensive dye that would be used to make clothes for the richest in Rome and Byzantium.  Tyre was one of the transit points of the famous silk road; Silk from the Orient would be woven in Lebanon and later brought to Tyre to be dyed.  Because of the wealth that the dye trade brought to it, Tyre was said to be one of the largest commercial cities of its time, beautiful and richly decorated (and stinky).  Sadly, with the sacking of Constantinople during the Crusades, the crippled Byzantine empire was no longer economically able to continue producing the dye and ceased.  Europe shifted to using Vermilion as the go-to color of wealth and power. Vermilion was produced by crushing insects from the Kermes genus, and was more readily accessible to Western Europe.  For that reason, the classic image of a King’s outermost robe being deep red exists: the Europeans destroyed the producers of all things purple.  While this is only a guess, it seems plausible that Cardinals in the Catholic Church wear red robes for the same reason, the color of power shifted away from purple, and ecclesiastical princes required a powerful and royal hue (Bishops will still commonly wear purple though, for what it’s worth).


Mosaic of Christ clad in Tyrian Purple in St.Apollinare, Ravenna Italy (http://iconreader.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/tyrian-purple-byz-ravenna6c.jpg)



Fire of the Greeks

12th century manuscript about Greek Fire in the Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Bibliteca Nacional de Madrid

In the year 672 (loosely, we really don’t know when) the Byzantine empire stumbled upon one of their most valued inventions.  A mixture of tars and minerals, the resulting liquid was both flammable and difficult to put out.  It would ignite on water, it couldn’t be put out by water and it spread further as water was added to it, making it the Atomic Bomb of 7th century naval warfare.  We assume now that it was a combination of crude oil and pine tars that the Byzantine empire had access to (Oil in the Black Sea and tars in Northern Anatolia) but the secret to Greek fire was lost with the empire.

The liquid was created just as Arabic armies began to attack the city of Constantinople, and it was largely responsible for the Roman victories in two of the sieges of Constantinople.  The creation was timely enough that in his De Administrando Imperio, Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos (a later emperor in the 940s) told his son to never release the secret of the creation.  That it must never be used on Christians, that it may only be made in Constantinople and that it was a gift to their empire from an angel of God, giving them a means of defeating the Muslim aggressors.  He added that a chemist once tried to sell their secret to their enemies and was struck down by a pillar of flame when he next entered a Church.  He and his son, along with nearly all others involved in the process kept the recipe tightly guarded, with only a handful of partial recipes and guesses existing now.

What made Greek Fire so effective was more than just the terrible nature of napalm while on a ship; it was the fact that they borrowed Greek technology to form a siphon and blast it.  A long tube that would spray the fire made it the first real flamethrower in an era of bows and spears.  There are accounts of soldiers even having handheld versions of the flamethrower, something akin to a large syringe with a burning tip that they could squirt the liquid fire from.  Byzantines began to adapt the flamethrower into the very designs of their ships, with stories popping up about boats having metal lions and monsters at their prow.  Inside these metal sculptures were tubing that allowed them to spray Greek Fire.  Accounts of fully armored soldiers on ships leaping over the side of ships became more common, because they would prefer drowning over burning.

The creation made enough of an impact on the world that Western scholars called any weapon that used fire “Greek Fire”, regardless of their connection to Greece (Chinese and Arabic chemists were also using incendiaries around this time, Arabs were known to use grenades with a flamable liquid inside them, but it was never the same as Byzantine Greek Fire).  By the 7th Crusade, there are accounts of Saracen troops using a device that shot a “spear of flame” at enemy troops and in the 1800s, an Armenian chemist was said to have approached the Ottoman government with a creation that appeared to be Greek Fire.  When he refused to tell how it was made and demanded to be the one in charge of its deployment, things went sour and he was poisoned by Imperial officials without ever revealing his creation.

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/the-link/videos/greek-fire/ (this one is quite interesting)

Jesters and Fools

Most medieval films and television shows these days include a person who capers about and cracks wise for the sake of levity.  Generally assumed to have been a staple in the courts of the mid to late middle ages, the court jester has landed a role as an archetypal character in nearly every story.  It has become difficult to swing a thing around on netflix and not strike a show that has some form of comic relief who brandishes “deeper insight than expected” (Blame Shakespeare for that, he caused this with King Lear and with Puck)  The history behind the man in the motley suit actually dates a ways before knights and swordplay, and has never truly been a European creation.

To begin with, humankind has been making jokes for a long, long time.  The European court jesters were likely a result of satirical theater and humor plays from Greece, later comic actors in the Roman empire.  In the olden times, the line between actor and jester was blurred at best; but as time passed, the two zones began to define more clearly.  By the 1400s, European courts were home to several buffoons, dwarves, fools and jesteresses (The position was one of the few that a woman could actually move into during this era, so a funny gal could gain social mobility and surprising amounts of influence if she could land a spot as a jester).  In other parts of the world, similar positions could be found.  Usually, monarchs and nobility would be wandering through the forest and stumble upon a peasant who was humorous (one story is about a guy who tried to take his geese with him and decided it would be easiest to wedge the baby geese into his belt as he walked, they all died and the king who met him found it side splittingly hilarious).  The royalty would offer a payment for taking the fool with them (family was generally happy to see them go) and would make them the official fools.

In the most basic sense, making the king laugh gave you a job.  In India, Tenali Rama got a job by convincing the king’s guru to let him ride his shoulders.  When the king heard his priest was being used as a horse, he sent men out to beat the offender senseless.  Tenali hopped down from the guru’s shoulders and apologized, then offered to carry the guru on his shoulders.  When the king’s guards found him (they didn’t know which the guru was), they followed their orders to beat the guy on top and they socked it to the unfortunate guru.  The trick tickled the king’s jollies and Tenali got himself a job.

The thing that has made the fool such an enduring icon in media is that he held no true power in the court.  A jester was a commoner who was blithely meandering through the seat of government, so he could make statements to anyone in the court while posing very little threat to the system or to the monarch.  This allowed the fool the chance to say things and do things that no other nobleman could.  Fools were able to tell it like it was, whereas nobility with their own plans and aspirations would often cook the numbers to improve their positions.  Jesters were known for being able to criticize the ruler or deliver bad news without actually risking the ire of the lord.  In 1340, the French fleet was crushed by the English, the jester broke the news to the king by saying the English soldiers weren’t brave enough to jump into the water like the French soldiers were.  In another case, the Austrian king Leopold the Pious was mulling over invading Switzerland.  Tired of hearing from his yes-men, he asked the jester on his opinions, he said “you all have argued about how to invade, but how will you get out?”.  Granted, Leo ignored his jester and invaded, losing huge numbers of men to weather and geography.

Jesters as a profession began to die out at different times in different places.  Succession disputes in England cut the fools out in the 1600s, whereas the French Revolution ended jesting in France.  Germans held onto their jesters for a bit longer (Perkeo of Heidelburg was an 18th century jester/wine taster who was said to have drank over 5 gallons of wine a day.  He died when he was in his 80s, after following doctor’s orders to drink water.  He lived his life by the motto: troll hard) but they too dropped the profession before the turn of the 19th century.  In recent years, Jesters have made a minor resurgence though, with Kester the Jester being named England’s state Jester in 2004, and a man in Vancouver, Canada being given a government stipend to bring back the honorable profession.

As a P.S. about the court dwarves thing: beginning in ancient Egypt, dwarves were considered to be novelty items (even good luck charms) and were bought and traded around like Pokemon cards.  Wealthy European kings would sometimes have a party of seven or eight dwarves around them as they entered rooms so they would look taller and more imposing by comparison.  Queen Henrietta Maria’s “personal dwarf” was named Jeffrey Hudson (aka Lord Minumus), he was a jester, an acrobat and fought for the Royalists in the English Civil War.  He fled to France where he was later exiled for killing a man in a duel (he chose pistols from horseback and popped a cap directly between his opponent’s eyes) at which point he was captured by Barbary Pirates and made a slave for 25 years before being ransomed back to England.  He may get a blogpost of his own, because the man led a truly interesting life.



A Forgotten Olympic Sport

Most people know Gymnastics as an Olympic sport, some people have heard of Rhythmic Gymnastics (where people prance about holding a koosh ball or swinging a hula hoop around; the sport is less about flips and more about contortionism) and every once in a while people see Trampoline Gymnastics.  The interesting thing is that the Olympic committee has axed dozens of sports over the years.  Among the sports forgotten in the annals of time was Swedish Gymnastics, better known (while still remaining fully unknown) as Medical Gymnastics or Ling Gymnastics.

Said to have been created by Pehr Henrik Ling, Ling gymnastics were invented around 1810.  Ling was a fencing master who traveled the world until his joints gave out, and upon returning home to Sweden he discovered that a year or two of his daily exercises for fencing allowed him a full recovery.  He began to pull together a list of motions and exercises that would help speed healing and generally improve health and fitness of those who practiced them.  Basically, it was the 19th century version of Tae Bo (Billy Blanks, eat your heart out) and the Swedish government took it seriously.  The Royal Gymnastic Central Institute was formed in 1813, and Ling’s exercises began to be criticized by fellow medical practitioners who argued that the massages and exercises that Medical Gymnastics advised were crock and should not be given an official seal of approval.  The critiques fell upon deaf ears, since Ling was appointed as a Fellow within the Swedish Medical Society in 1831.

Ling gymnastics were broken into 4 realms: Medical, Aesthetic, Military and Pedagogic.  The Medical side of it is falsely cited as the origin of the Swedish Massage, which was actually created by a Dutchman.  Medical and Military gymnastics within Ling’s style focused on resistance training on lever joints in the body, an old version of Modern Crossfit in a way.  Aesthetic gymnastics was about grace and motion, while Pedagogic gymnastics from Ling gymnastics is thought to be one of the origin points for modern Physical Therapy.

In 1912, when the Olympics were in Stockholm, the Swedes took the opportunity to showcase their pride and joy by adding the sport to the games.  Again in 1948, the opening ceremony was graced by a demonstration of Swedish Gymnastics done by a squadron of fifty plus young people.  Oddly enough, the sport never caught on and like Ballooning (Hot Air Balloon racing, it was a sport in 1900) it was never added to the games officially.