The Smallest of Prices

Everywhere we lived, my father had a home office. And the best thing about that office was that it was filled with books. Floor to ceiling, stacked in front of his desk, piled under his chair and atop tables, were books ranging in topic from religion to geography, world cultures, dead languages, history, science, and so on. Among them was one large book, with a blue spine, and in it were descriptions and photographs of Istanbul. Markets, mosques, street scenes. It was exotic, even to my travel-jaded eyes, and I wanted to experience the sights and smells for myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe obvious apple of my eye, in regard to Istanbul, was the Aya Sofya, or Hagia Sofia. I cannot think of another place so steeped in religious history.  There, my studies of Byzantine, Ottoman, Islamic, and Christian history collide in one breathtaking structure. I simply had to go there.


And so I did, many years later. I saw the Blue Mosque, and viewed the sacred relics in Topkapi Palace, and dined on a terrace overlooking the water. And, indeed, I spent hours in the Aya Sofya, touched the Marble Door, viewed the ancient Christian mosaics, and the mosque was even larger and more beautiful than I had imagined for all those years.

14 million people in a city seems like a terrible crush, and the streets and markets were at times cacophonous, but over the racket of vendors, traffic, and street prophets, the haunting müezzins’ calls to prayer resound. The city is made of magic. The sounds, the scents wafting on the breeze off the Bosphorus, the gentle ways of its inhabitants, all create a sense of calm amidst the chaos. Orhan Pamuk wrote of Istanbul, “If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too.”


A friendly guard at Topkapi Palace


I walked through the squares, and parks, and markets, through neighborhoods, and down city streets. I talked to guards and shopkeepers and ladies out walking with their friends and children. The people of Istanbul are friendly and funny, and curious and kind.


Later in the day, full of Turkish delight and nose twitching from sampling the wares in the Egyptian market, where spices are sold, I made my way to the Grand Bazaar.


The gate of the Grand Bazaar

The name is apt; everything about this bazaar is grand. The vendors are endless in every direction, so many I could not see the far end, and in fact never did make my way all the way through to the opposite side. I made a few small purchases: a scarf, a necklace, and by then it was growing late and the sun was setting quickly.


Not prayer rugs, but a sales demonstration inside a rug shop.

As I approached the way out, a man about my age called to me, and asked if I wanted to buy a prayer rug. They were beautiful, and I admired them, but declined. I went on, and there was a bit of a bottleneck as people were leaving through the gate. I stood waiting my turn, and the man came to me again. His English was only slightly better than my Turkish, but we managed nonetheless. He said that he noticed I admired his rugs, and he would cut the price for me, as the hour was late, and he wouldn’t have to carry it back home again.

The price was more than fair, and yet I hesitated, as the idea of carrying a prayer rug across the city, then jamming it into my bag, was a complication I was not sure I was prepared to take on. He held my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “I will give you this rug, for the smallest of prices: a kiss. A kiss,” he said, “to bring me good fortune.”

Who can say no to that kind of charm? Righty-o, I agreed, he rolled up my rug and handed it to me, and I offered my cheek. Quick as a snake, he landed the most resounding smooch square on my lips, winked, and disappeared into the market.

And that is how I bought my prayer rug for the price of a kiss in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, a magical city where anything can happen.



The Bog Blog


IMG_6924I stood in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin a few months ago, gazing through a thin sheet of plexi at a man. He had laugh lines by his eyes. I could imagine quite easily what his face looked like when he smiled. I saw his eyebrows, his facial stubble, the delicate folds of his ear. He was taller than I expected. His hands were strong, like he had worked hard all of his life. I could also see the places his body had been pinned down. Was he dead before he went into the bog? Probably. I hope so. There is no way to know why he was left there. Did he commit some atrocity that his community could not abide? Was he killed in a tragic accident and left as a post-mortem sacrifice? Did he volunteer to go to his death in the bog, as atonement, or out of sorrow or fervent spiritual belief? Was he a challenger to a position of prestige, killed to make way for another leader? In a body that is so perfectly preserved, there is a great deal of tantalizing information, which leads to even more impossible questions. Who was this man, how did he live and die, and why was he placed in the bog?


Clonycavan Man

Peat bogs of northwestern Europe have been the place of last repose for hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies, for over 10,000 years.  The first reported discoveries of these bodies were in the 1700s.

The bodies themselves are widely dated, from 8000 B.C. (Koelbjerg Woman of Denmark), to the medieval period. Most, however, date to the Iron Age (ca. 500 B.C.–A.D. 100). During this period, bogs were sacred to the people living there, who used them for religious rituals, such as dedications, offerings, and sacrifices.


Most are fragmented, some consisting of just a few bones or body parts. Few are nearly intact, perhaps 20 in the world. Historically the found bodies were not well cared for, damaged during extraction, left to rot in improperly controlled museum storage, or worse.

Those bodies which did survive, though, are remarkable and fascinating.  These bodies have skin and hair and are so well preserved they could have died recently. Perhaps it is because they appear to be so close to life that we give them names, such as Lindow Man, Tollund Man, and Yde Girl.


Tollund Man, of Denmark

People cutting peat have generally been the discoverers of the bodies in the bogs. However, now that machinery has taken over this work, new discoveries are rare. The machines destroy the remains as the peat is quickly removed. Research on bog bodies now focuses on learning all that can be learned from the bog bodies already found. New technologies have been helpful in that.  For example, damage to the bodies previously considered to be results of torture or violent execution were often, it is now understood, results of more natural causes such as the weight of the peat on the remains over millennia.



Gallagh Man

Back to Dublin, and my visit with the fellows under glass there.  The Irish bog bodies have some interesting features, and the story they tell is one of a possible struggle for dominance. Within an exhibit entitled Kingship and Sacrifice, these found fellows are given context, history, and a new theory as to who they were, and why they were there. (In the bog, that is, not in the museum.)


Old Croghan Man

The theory proposed, and there seems sufficient evidence to believe the argument here, is that Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man were contenders for, or defenders of, a throne, but were either defeated or removed from standing in another’s way. Their bodies were mutilated in such manners as to make them incapable of reigning according to the tradition of their time, and their bodies placed in the bog.

This all shines a very different light on just who the bog bodies we have collected over the centuries may have been. Perhaps not all innocent victims of religious right, but rather pawns in political intrigue.

Valentines Day: not necessarily the holiday you thought it was

What do Chaucer and werewolves have to do with Valentines Day?  After reading this, you may reconsider your feelings toward this holiday, or at the very least, discover some reasons it may not be such a bad thing to be without a Valentine this year.

We can begin tracking the origins of Valentines Day, vaguely, in ancient Egypt.  Men and women of the lower classes determined their marital partners by the drawing of lots.  This happened in mid-February, though its association with the holiday we know now is possibly no more than coincidental.  This does add a bit more solemnity to the phrase “luck of the draw,” however.

And now, on to werewolves:

In prehistoric societies, the wolf charmer was a fellow who had a particular affinity for communicating with wolves. A wolf whisperer, one could say.  As these ancient tribes developed agriculture and settled in small villages, it became necessary to have a person skilled in singing with the wolves in order to convince them not to attack the villages’ domesticated animals.  The wolf charmer  had the ability to howl with the wolves and lead them away from the livestock pens.  In some stories, the wolf charmer also had the power to transform himself into a wolf if he so desired.

These beliefs continued through history to our arrival in the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, amongst whom the wolf charmer was called the Lupicinus.

Lupus, meaning wolf, is not an original Latin word, but was borrowed from the Sabine dialect.  The Sabines were a nearby people, and in the very early days of Rome, when they found their male population far too heavily outnumbered their female, they raided the Sabines for their young women, who they then took back to Rome and married off to Roman citizens.

Luperca, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, was represented in a bronze statue, possibly of Etruscan origin, called the Capitoline Wolf, the presence of which was noted by such scholars as Livy, Pliny the Elder, and Cicero.


The significance of this wolf in the founding of Rome gave rise to secret fraternities known as the Luperci, who sacrificed goats at the entrances to their “wolves’ dens.”   Well, now that I’ve written this, they’re not so secret anymore, are they?  Difficult to hide a pile of smelly dead goats, so they were bound to be discovered at some point.

The Lupercalia festival, one of the most ancient of Roman holidays, occurred annually from February 13-15.  It was a perpetuation of the ancient blooding rites of the hunter, wherein the initiate is smeared with the blood of his first kill.  The sacrificial slaying of a goat represented the flocks that nourished early humans in their efforts to establish permanent dwelling places.  This was followed by the sacrifice of a dog, in honor of the watchful protector of a flock that would be the first one killed by attacking wolves.

The blood of the goat and the dog were mixed, and a knife was dipped into the blood and drawn across the foreheads of two noble-born children, possibly representative of Romulus and Remus.  Once the children had been “blooded,” their faces were washed in goat milk. As the children were being cleansed, they were expected to laugh, thereby demonstrating their lack of fear of blood and their acknowledgment that they had received the magic of protection against wolves and wolfmen.

The god Lupercus, represented by a wolf, inspired men to behave as werewolves during the festival.  Early in history, these werewolves chased down innocent victims and ate them, tearing off bites of the flesh with their teeth.  In later years, as the Romans and their practices gained sophistication, their bloodlust was satisfied in a slightly more acceptable fashion.  The men were drunk, and naked, and young women would line up for the men to flog them with leather thongs cut from the animals they had just slain. They believed this would make them fertile.  This idea stemmed from earlier practices of beating the fields to encourage crop success.

The festival also included a matchmaking lottery, similar to that of ancient Egypt, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar.  The man and woman would then be coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.  So, ladies, if you fancy being publicly flogged by a naked drunk guy, who then draws your name from a jar, thus winning your sexual services for the weekend…perhaps this is indeed your kind of holiday.

Moving forward a bit in time to the third century; the Roman Empire was ruled by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus.  He was nicknamed Claudius the Cruel for his merciless tactics, which must have been considerable for him to stand out in the crowd amongst Roman rulers.  The Roman Empire was, in this period, experiencing massive turmoil.  The Empire was divided into three competing factions, and the threat of invasion came from all sides, and

Claudius was struggling to fill his military ranks.  He decided that recruitment was down because Roman soldiers were unwilling to leave their wives and families for such long periods.  His solution was to outlaw marriage in Rome.  You can imagine how well this went over amongst the citizens.

Hope arrived in the name of a Christian priest called Valentine.  Recognizing the injustice of Claudius’ decree, Valentine began conducting secret marriages for Roman soldiers.  When Claudius discovered the secret ceremonies, he ordered Valentine’s execution.  As Valentine was awaiting execution, tradition has it that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter.  It was unfortunately a short romance, as in 269 Valentine was clubbed to death and then beheaded by Roman executioners.  Father Valentine, champion of sweethearts, was named a martyr by the Church, because he gave up his life to perform the sacrament of marriage.  When the Church gained power in the Roman Empire, the Holy See quickly made him a saint.

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century.  This was the same era in which Pope Gelasius I, in declaring February 14 St. Valentine’s Day, combined it with the celebration of Lupercalia, in order to replace pagan ritual with Christian, as had been done with such holidays as Easter and Christmas.

The early Church fathers were quite aware of the popularity of a vast number of heathen gods and goddesses, as well as the dates of observation of pagan festivals, so they made a point of replacing as many of the deities and the holidays as possible with ecclesiastical saints and feast days.  Mid-February had an ancient history of being devoted to acts of love of a far more passionate and lusty nature than the Church was willing to bless, and the bishops moved as speedily as possible to claim mid-February as belonging to Saint Valentine.  One can easily see why the early Church fathers much preferred the union of man and woman to be smiled upon by St. Valentine, rather than the leering wolf god Lupercus.  St. Valentine’s Day was celebrating the same general concept: that of fertility and love, and so it became Lupercalia with its clothes put back on.

By the Middle Ages, Valentine was among the favorite saints in England and France, popular for his romantic and heroic story.  Among the peasantry, the customs surrounding Saint Valentine appear to have roots in the traditions of ancient Egypt and Rome.  On the evening before Valentine’s Day, young men and women would gather in the village and draw names by chance.  The matches would be sweethearts for the year.  Clearly, this residually Lupercalian method of celebrating St. Valentine led to circumstances that encouraged relationships of a more lasting nature, presided over by the local priest. Among the upper classes, where arranged marriages were of greater importance to the continued success of the landed gentry and aristocracy, this practice was a dangerous prospect.  Instead, upper class families allowed their children to draw names at highly supervised holiday parties, and be chaperoned “sweethearts” for the length of the event, and no further, thus protecting the noble family lines and the future of the families.

Rarely does a day go by I don’t blame Chaucegeoffrey-chaucer-drawing1-e1329413408492r for something, and this is no exception.  Geoffrey Chaucer, medieval English poet, is known to have taken liberties with history, often placing his characters into fictionalized historical contexts, which he then presented to his readers as fact.  There are no records of courtly, romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day in the medieval era before Chaucer wrote a poem around the year 1382, in celebration of the engagement of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia.  In the poem, “Parliament of Fowles,” he makes the assertion that Valentine’s Day is a special day of romantic celebration for lovers, with the exchanging of notes and gifts.  The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds and humans find their mates.  It was only after this poem received widespread fame that Valentine’s Day became the holiday we recognize today.  Yes, Chaucer invented Valentine’s Day.  It’s his fault.

Side note: Here are links to the book of past posts from Chaucer’s blog and his current twitter for your perusal.  Your love life may depend on it.

Valentine greetings, therefore, were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400.  The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.  (It is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library.)  Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.

By the 1750s, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by the 1850s, Valentine’s Day cards were being manufactured and sold commercially in England, and the custom of observing the holiday with cards to one’s sweetheart became popular in the United States in the 1860s, around the time of the American Civil War.

By 1900, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.  Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.   Today, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year.

And finally, a few facts about the fellow who started the whole mess: Valentine.  The saint we celebrate on Valentine’s Day is known officially as St. Valentine of Rome, in order to differentiate him from the dozen or so other Valentines on the list of saints.  Because “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful—was a popular name between the second and eighth centuries, there were bound to be a few martyrs with that name, and indeed, there are about a dozen Valentines (or some variation thereof) on the official Roman Catholic roster of saints.  There was even a Pope Valentine, though all we really know about him is that he served a mere 40 days around A.D. 827.


Saints don’t get to lounge about much in the afterlife, and Valentine is no exception.  St. Valentine has a wide-ranging assortment of spiritual responsibilities, to include being the patron saint of beekeepers and travelers, and sufferers of epilepsy and the plague.  All of this on top of his duties to look after engaged couples and happy marriages.

stvalentinesskullIf you happen to be in need of his services, you can find Valentine’s skull on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome.  (It’s cleverly displayed in a little gold television-shaped reliquary, with a sticky note on his forehead identifying him.  I think he looks rather fetching.)  Excavations in the early 1800s in a catacomb nearby unearthed his skeletal remains, and as is customary in the Catholic Church, bits and pieces of Saint Valentine have been shipped about to reliquaries around the world.  You can find parts of Valentine in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, England, and France.

Today, of course, we have great commercial enterprises focused on St. Valentine’s Day, insisting that folks buy their sweethearts a box of candy, a dozen roses, a diamond ring or necklace, or at least a five-dollar card.  This is all Chaucer’s doing, which makes me wonder why more florists aren’t named after him.

As you stand in line to buy your roses this February 14, remember that it all began with a deranged wolfman smeared in blood, chasing down women with a leather strap.

Feel free to celebrate that as you see fit.

Columbian Exchange: 1492 fallout explained

A number of years ago a ladies-who-lunch type of group asked me to provide a lecture for Columbus Day.  I suppose they expected a whitewashed, ‘Caucasians Discovered The World’ piece.  That is not what they got.  To their credit, they listened and they learned.  I have since presented this lecture for a few other groups, and here it is for you guys to enjoy as well.  This was originally cobbled together from a lecture I gave in my American Indian History class, and it was inspired many, many years ago by a fantastic course I took during my undergrad years on imperialism.  The first time I read Alfred Crosby, I felt like all the little pieces of ‘colonial’ history were clicking into place.  Much thanks to Chet DeFonso, my former professor and advisor, and still and always my friend.  He has never failed to inspire and encourage me, for over twenty years.  This lecture is almost entirely his fault.


Before 1492, we couldn’t talk about “world history” at all; we could only talk about the histories of separate regions.  Columbus changed all of that.


Divergent Evolution

When the continents drifted apart millions of years ago, separating the Americas from Eurasia and Africa, it brought about divergent evolution—the development of different species, as the continents (and their contents) were isolated one from another.  This occurs when a group from a specific population–in this case, the population of the ancient supercontinent, or Pangaea–develops into a new species.  In order to adapt to various environmental conditions, the two groups develop into distinct species due to differences in the demands driven by their environmental circumstances.

While some similarities remained between the flora and fauna of the Old and New Worlds, such as the existence of jaguars in South America and leopards in Africa, divergent evolution also resulted in entirely original species for each of the continents.  The rattlesnake of the Americas has no similar European species, nor does the camel of Eurasia have an American counterpart.

Beginning with the cargo accompanying Columbus’ second journey to the Americas, the movement of explorers and colonists after 1492 from Old to New World began the reversal, in small part, of this divergence.  After millions of years of divergent evolution humming along on its own, human behavior set into motion what became an enormous reversal in geographical biodiversification.

The Columbian Exchange is a term coined by historian Alfred Crosby.  Columbian Exchange refers to the exchange of crops, animals, disease and technology between the Old World and the New World in the decades following Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. Sometimes called the Triangle Trade, this concept includes Europe, the Americas, and Africa in a three-pronged swap of flora, fauna, foods, technologies, and ideas. Not to mention people.

This exchange can be organized under four categories:  disease, animals, plants, and people.



Native Americans had exactly ONE response to the arrival of Europeans: death.  Native Americans suffered a 90% mortality rate upon the arrival of Europeans, and that was mainly due to disease.

The spread of infectious disease in the Americas was so devastating mostly because the Western hemisphere was isolated, biologically, from Europe’s pathogens, and the Americas just did not have much in the way of infectious diseases prior to 1492.

Prior to the coming of the Europeans, the New World only had a few infectious diseases, perhaps in part because the Americas were populated much later, and the cities were newer than those of the Old World.  More importantly, the Americas had far fewer domesticated herd animals, which are among the greatest sources of disease-carrying microorganisms. Influenza, for example, originates in barnyard animals such as pigs.

Smallpox, measles, malaria, mumps, yellow fever, cholera, typhus, chicken pox, bubonic plague, and influenza were all new to the Americas.

Secondary effects of disease in the Americas were numerous, as well.  For example, the deaths of Aztec and Incan rulers set off wars, which eased the spread of disease, as we all know the best way to spread germs is via hand to hand combat.

Plus, leaders kept dying.  The Incan leader Huayna Capac succumbed to smallpox before the Spanish Conquistador Pizarro even arrived!  This led to a great battle for succession amongst his sons, eventually won by Atahualpa, who was then captured and killed by Pizarro.  Without that war for succession, the Incas would have had much better chances against the Spaniards, as the Spanish numbers were comparatively small.

The same thing happened to the Aztecs:  Moctezuma was the nephew of a more powerful king who died of smallpox, leaving a weak leader in his place, which provided an opening for some of the smaller states in the Aztec Empire to revolt and aid the Spanish in the defeat of the Aztecs.

Another secondhand effect of the introduction of disease was starvation.  There simply weren’t enough people left standing to get food to keep themselves alive.  Malnutrition, then, left people more vulnerable to disease.  Smallpox was the most deadly of transmittable diseases brought to the Americas.  This pathogen sometimes took down so many adults simultaneously within a community that deaths by starvation numbered nearly as high as those from the disease.  In some cases, entire tribes were rendered extinct.

The one and only disease that spread from New World to Old World, usually via sailors and explorers, was syphilis.  It quickly made its way into the upper classes of European society, and amongst the infected were Gauguin, Nietzche, and the famously infertile Tudor family, who all suffered from syphilis.  The effects of this, of course, paled in comparison to smallpox in the Americas.

However, the New World provided tobacco to the Old World.  Cigarettes were handed out to American soldiers during World War II, and more soldiers who started smoking during the war died eventually from smoking than died from the war. Slow moving revenge for smallpox. Well done, New World.



All other purposes aside, the main reason Europeans came to the Americas was to eat—abundant land for crops and animals was highly appealing.

American animals like llamas and guinea pigs never really caught on in Eurasia, but European animals coming to the Americas were revolutionary.  Prior to Columbus, the Americas had no horses, donkeys, pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, or chickens.  Pigs breed really quickly, and eat anything, which utterly remade the food supply in the Americas.  De Soto brought 13 pigs with him when he arrived in Florida in 1539.  By the time of his death three years later, there were 700 pigs.

Large European animals changed the nature of work in the Americas.  Before the Columbian Exchange, the largest beast of burden was the llama, and at best it carried 100 lbs.  This meant that for the long distance travel that the Inca engaged in regularly, the primary transportation was on foot.

The Europeans brought the horse, which was a game changer for Native American culture.  The introduction of horses enabled many Plains tribes to develop entirely nomadic lifestyles, traveling and hunting by horse.

The Comanche became known for their superior horsemanship, and are known for this skill even in our modern world.  The horse was so valuable to the Plains tribes’ daily lives that horses were used as currency between tribe members and from tribe to tribe, and the possession of a horse or more was their primary signifier of prestige.

Oxen with their plows enabled large-scale cultivation, heretofore unknown in the Americas.  This obviously allowed for greater food production.

There were much fewer large mammals that were native to the New World that could be tamed. Buffalo, the primary large American mammal, are still not domesticated.



While Old World animals and diseases totally reshaped the New World, it was New World plants that had the biggest impact on Eurasia.

Europe gave us wheat and grapes—useful for Catholic mass, to be sure—but American plants radically changed the lives and cuisines of millions of Europeans, Asians, and Africans.

Imagine Indian and Thai curries without hot peppers; Italian food without tomatoes; or Belgium with no chocolate!  Much of what we perceive to be typical European food was unheard of prior to the Columbian Exchange.  New World crops foreign to Eurasia and Africa before Columbus arrived in the Americas also include: corn, beans, potatoes, avocados, peanuts, squash, pumpkin, manioc.

The abundance of food influx from New World crops led to a planet-wide population explosion.  The world population doubled between 1650 and 1850.

Potatoes and corn grow in soil that Old World crops cannot survive in.  Consuming primarily potatoes, the Irish more than doubled their population between 1754 and 1845, when the potato famine it.


Side note:

In 1847, roughly 15 years after their forced removal from their ancestral lands in the east, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma heard about what was happening in Ireland, and perhaps they saw an echo of what had happened to them during the Trail of Tears.  Despite their impoverished situation, the Choctaw took up a collection and sent it, via an aid agency, to Ireland.  The Irish people never forgot their generosity, and a huge plaque still hangs prominently in the airport in Dublin to honor the Choctaw people.


So, manioc and cassava went to Africa, the sweet potato went to China and Japan, and corn became the primary ingredient in animal feed around the world.


African Crop Exchange

 The European colonization of the Americas led to the establishment of plantation slavery in the New World, spurring the Atlantic slave trade. This transfer of unwilling migrants from Africa to the Americas had another, unintended effect: a transfer of crops across the ocean between Africa and the Americas, creating another leg in the Columbian Exchange. Slave ships en route to the Americas were provisioned with African food crops, and these crops, upon their establishment in the New World, dramatically influenced American cuisine.  Typical African foods supplied to slave ships included yams, African rice, pearl millet, sesame, sorghum, and tamarind. It was believed that slaves fed familiar foods were more likely to survive the ocean voyage.

New World crops made their way to the west coast of Africa in the first decades after 1492, beginning with corn, and followed shortly thereafter by manioc, sweet potatoes, capsicum peppers, and others. Corn, as it is a high-yield crop, quickly became a standard cereal crop grown along Africa’s west coast, in order to supply slave ships.

South Carolina had, by 1690, established rice as its primary export crop. In order to establish this economy, plantation owners requested seeds from ship captains, and the result was the introduction of seeds from all over the globe, including a red rice from Africa. African slaves working the plantations planted the same red rice in their garden plots for their own consumption.



With the Columbian Exchange, we had the exchange of people. This was largely going in one direction, as Europeans and Africans (the latter mostly against their will) moved to the Americas, repopulating the New World following the disease and devastation that came with colonization.

Europe’s population had been cut by 1/3 – ½ by plague during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  Better food products from the New World allowed Europe’s population to grow by leaps and bounds, putting pressure on the continent, causing more people to move to the Americas for land and food.


In Conclusion…

So there were our three categories: disease, food, and people.  The bottom line is, the Columbian Exchange devastated the population of the Americas; led to widespread slavery of Africans; allowed for a worldwide population increase.  And as a result of the Columbian Exchange, fewer people have starved since 1492, but the diversity of life on earth has diminished dramatically, and planting crops where they don’t belong has hurt the environment.

Via man’s meddling, says Alfred Crosby, humanity ‘has killed off more species of life forms in the last 400 years than the usual processes of evolution might kill off in a million years.’

Recipe: New World Brownies

This recipe combines some wonderful New World ingredients.  I have been making these to accompany my lectures for years.  Enjoy!

  1. 2C unbleached flour
  2. 2C sugar
  3. 1/2C cocoa
  4. 1 tsp baking powder
  5. 1/2 tsp salt
  6. 1/2 tsp habanero powder
  7. 1C coffee
  8. 1C veg oil
  9. 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  10. 1/2 tsp jamaican rum

Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.

Mix remaining ingredients separately, then add to bowl of dry ingredients. 

Stir until well blended. Pour into a 9 x 13 pan. Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool ten minutes before cutting. 










What is history but a fable agreed upon?

We talk about the historian as storyteller, and the history, therefore, is made up of the stories being told about the past.  History is a grandfather recounting an event to a younger relative; a document detailing what work was done on one’s vehicle; a photo album of a now-ended relationship; an eyewitness account of an affair of state; the events that brought a civilization up and then to its knees; and it is all of these things, for and from all people, forever, making up a network of stories within stories.

It was the very idea of stories that drew me in.  My father’s office was filled with books, floor to ceiling shelves, stacks of books on the floor, under his chair, covering his desk. All of those books were stuffed with stories about ancient people, far off places, amazing adventures. How could I not fall in love with them?


I left all of my clothes in Wales and Ireland in order to fit this library book in my backpack.

R.G. Collingwood suggests that history is not so much the events or actions that happened, but the thoughts and ideas behind them. To understand the thoughts which precede the actions is the historian’s path to understanding how events came to pass, and why. A historian records the events of the past, and attempts to interpret them and determine their importance/relevance.

The thing about importance or relevance is that it’s subjective.   Stories I find important are not of any consequence to others.  Sometimes when a friend tells a story we tune them out, focusing on our own thoughts and ideas. Where does that story go, when there is no one to hear it? What of the lost stories in the library of Alexandria? Do we not have some responsibility to keep thoughts and ideas alive, to fill the empty spaces in history with the minutiae of lives lived by those long dead?

Everybody has an angle. That old adage about there being three truths: mine, yours, and what really happened, has some merit. How do we record history when there are so many stories telling different truths about the same event?

It is expected that the historian holds knowledge and understanding of the past and of its impact on the present and potential effect on the future. It is expected that this knowledge shall be dispensed with truthfulness and without influence from the historian’s own beliefs or intentions. There is some room for making judgments on how information is put forth, as there is in every profession.  The madness of being a historian is deciding when to stop digging, upon what level of detail to settle. One of my favorite professors long ago told me that what is most important to know about doing research is when to stop.  At some point, he said, you have to start writing. You have to tell the story. Pick a truth, and make it your own.


The mindblowing Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland.


So what was Napoleon (or, perhaps, Voltaire) getting at with the statement with which I have titled this post?  In my particular case, this blog is a series of stories, of histories, of a life lived, maybe a lie lived.  These are my own family’s fables, and over the years the details may have shifted slightly during transport. However, with only myself left standing to tell these tales, while I present truths here, MY truths, the truths are unchallenged — these fables are agreed upon.