Category Archives: history

Did Mosquitoes Bring Down the Roman Empire?

Gibbon wrote volumes to explain why the Roman Empire fell. And there were many reasons. Hence the long, long treatment. But Gibbon left one one. One of the reasons that the Romans were weakened was due to the success of their trade.  Incoming ships brought malaria from Africa. And malaria was especially devastating in prime agricultural areas, like on the island of Sardinia.

This is a very cool video that tells the story about how we found out about this. And the video is evidence of how little we actually know about the past.



what Happened at 9:00 am on Oct 25, 4004 B.C??

None of us were around back then, but you  might be surprised  to learn  that a  few hundred  years ago some folks were convinced  that they knew exactly what happened at that time, on that date.

Many  people believed well into the nineteenth century … that the Creation took place (at that moment).

Why did they believe it? It was based on certain calculations  based on certain calculations based on the Old Testament made by archbishop James Ussher in 1654. This guy

Image result for James Ussher

To us, this seems absurd. But we should not conclude that Ussher was a dolt. To the contrary, he was one of the more enlightened men of his day. And in this day,it was thought indisputable that God created the world just as it was recorded in the Bible.

Science was just starting to take root.


Where did Baudelaire Buy Shirts? And More!

Paris is loaded with fascinating public spaces that have historical interest. Few cities have more, and fewer still embrace their traditions the way Parisians do.

One of those historic establishments is the shirt maker Charvet.

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Wikipedia has this to say

The world’s first ever shirt shop, Charvet was founded in 1838. Since the 19th century, it has supplied bespoke shirts and haberdashery to kings, princes and heads of state. It has acquired an international reputation for the high quality of its products, the level of its service and the wide range of its designs and colors. Thanks to the renown of its ties, charvet has become a generic name for a certain type of silk fabric used for ties.

BTW, the founder’s father had been curator of the wardrobe of Napoleon. That gave Christofle Charvet a great head start. But there was something else going on

Christofle Charvet created the first shirtmaker store in Paris, for which the new term chemisier (shirtmaker) was coined. Previously, shirts were generally made by linen keepers with fabric provided by the customer,but in this store of a new kind, clients were measured, fabric selected and shirts made on site.[The development of this specialty trade was favored by a change in men’s fashion, with more importance given to the waistcoat and the shirt collar, which called for more propositions for the shirt front and a technical change. Previously, shirts were cut by linen keepers entirely of rectangles and squares. There were no shaping seams and no need for shirt patterns. The new interest for a closer fitting shirt led to curving the armhole and neckline or adding a shoulder yoke, by application to the shirt of tailoring techniques. The new kind of shirt was called chemise à pièce (yoked shirt).  Alan Flusser credits Christofle Charvet with the original design of a collar that could be turned down or folded, much in the manner of contemporary collars, and the concept of the detachable collar.

In those days, the most elegant men belonged to the “Jockey Club”. Charvet advertised himself as shirt maker to the club. Who could resist that?

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And if stories like the above interest you, check out this list of other Parisian destination locations! Most important, enjoy!

Some Dukes are Pretty Cool!

Aristocracy is not what it used to be. Nor is it likely to return to its former dominant position in society. Are we better off without that?

In some cases, perhaps yes. I wrote the other day, for example about the bad 5th  duke of Marlborough, who left little if anything better off when he exited the stage in 1840.

But not all dukes have been like that. And I was cheered by a show starring Mary Berry, the food writer, who visits various great country houses of Britain to showcase nice things one can find there. I was especially cheered by her visit to Goodwood and the Duke of Richmond and his family.

Here is a view of the main buildings

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A quick note – Mary Berry may not be to everyone’s taste. She is not a hipster like Tony Bourdain  To the contrary, she is proper lady and kind and respectful to all. No snarky comments, or even a single bead of sweat in the kitchen as she prepares coq au vin.

Back to the story. Goodwood is unique among the great estates for a variety of reasons. First, the Duke himself, taking after his father has proved to be an innovative estate manager. This story about the founding of the motor sport race track on the property gives you a hint

During World War II a large area of farmland on the southwestern edge of the Goodwood Estate was developed as the Royal Air Force Westhampnett fighter base, which became a center of historic aircraft action during the 1940 Battle of Britain. After the war, RAF Westhampnett was closed to operations and returned to the Goodwood Estate. The late Freddie March then led the way in persuading British government ministries to permit the disused aerodrome perimeter tracks to be adopted for motor racing, which led to the opening of the Goodwood Motor Circuit in 1948.

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The Duke and his family have embraced some highly attractive values in their care of the property and care for the animals that they maintain there. That would include organic farming.

Mary Berry gave an interview where she said this

It’s very difficult to pick out a highlight. I went to a dinner during Members’ Meeting: the room was so unusual and beautiful, with grass laid out over the tables and then the wonderful surprise of motorbikes zooming through the front hall. You are in the middle of a conversation and all of a sudden there’s a slight draft as the door opens and before you know what is happening a motorbike shoots past.

I really enjoyed spending time with Susan, Duchess of Richmond and Gordon. She is exactly the same age as me and we reminisced about how things have changed and how we do things differently. I appreciate her love of animals and her efforts to take in battery chickens, nursing them back to health. What strikes me about Goodwood is that the whole house is in such pristine condition. The present Duke has done some amazing things including restoring the Egyptian Dining Room. Susan found the little crocodiles that were on the back of the original chairs tucked upstairs in the attic and brought them out so they could be restored. I am full of admiration for such endeavours and have loved getting to know the family a little.

You can watch the episode via good old YouTube. One thing impressed me most. The duke is committed to doing fine preservation and renovation of  a historically important estate, yes. But he also seems to have a lot of fun in the process! Enjoy!

A final note. The above show was filmed not long after the duke and his wife had suffered from a break in and robbery at Goodwood. During the robbery, the Duke was physically assaulted. Historically important jewels valued at over £700,000 were stolen. No doubt he and his wife were traumatized by the experience. And yet, the Duke has not withdrawn from pubic view. Good for him!

Remembering the Bad Duke and more!

Sir Winston Spencer Churchill was undoubtedly a great man who descended from a great family line. And yet, the Marlborough family line did have its peaks and troughs.

It all stared amazingly well, when John Churchill returned from his triumphant military campaigns against the French. He was made the first duke, and with funds provided by a grateful state, he built Blenheim Palace as a memorial to one of his greatest triumphs, It was designed not for beauty or elegance, but for grandeur. Here it is, that great pile of stones (paraphrasing Voltaire)

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But the family line did not produce a succession of great men who could or would live up to this level of grandeur. Perhaps the fifth duke, who lived in the early nineteenth century,  represented the absolute low point.

Here is a glimpse

The diarist Harriet Arbuthnot wrote one of her most scathing comments about the Duke following a visit to Blenheim in 1824:

The family of the great General is, however, gone sadly to decay, and are but a disgrace to the illustrious name of Churchill… The present Duke is overloaded with debt, is very little better than a common swindler and lets everything about Blenheim. People may shoot and fish at so much per hour and it has required all the authority of a Court of Chancery to prevent his cutting down all the trees in the park.

Indeed, John Pearson writes in “The Private Lives of Winston Churchill”

After the hermit duke came his son George, one of the greatest spendthrifts of a spendthrift age. He did his best,  through lunatic extravagance, to empty the first Duke’s treasure chest to pay his debts. This was none too easy, since most of the fabled books and gems and paintings were still guarded by trustees. Even before succeeding to the Dukedom, George could gaily lose £30,000 in an afternoon at Doncaster Races, and although this was one of many debts he refused to pay, he remained chronically and wretchedly in debt throughout his dukedom.

The details are incredible. Pearson goes on

The early nineteenth century was a time when a duke could get away with almost anything, but there were limits, such as when he hoodwinked the Blenheim trustees by melting down the solid gold state dinner service, presented to the first Duke by the Elector of Bavaria, and having it replaced with a cheap pinchbeck replica. But no matter what he melted down, the desperate fifth duke could never hope to repay his debts. According to one visitor to Blenheim in  the 1820’s, all the servants in the palace were in fact bailiffs, which didn’t do much to cheer things up.

BTW, “pinchbeck” is a form of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, that has the color or gold and was popular as an inexpensive gold imitation. It was invented in the 18th century by a clockmaker, Mr. Christopher Pinchbeck, hence the name.

Pearson’s interest in the story of the bad duke relates to the romantic expectations of Sir Winston Churchill over the prospects of his son, Randolph. Sir Winston believed in great destiny for himself and his family — at least the men. It was his guiding star. But that would be upended by Randolph. As a young man, Randolph believed he would inherit greatness, and he could talk a blue streak, but he would prove unable to live up to the calling. What happened? That is what Pearson explores in his book. Let’s just say that a recipe of great hubris without great abilities to match will not produce a great success.

But back to the fifth duke. In 1987, Sir Winston’s daughter, Mary Soames, published a biography of the profligate duke. Here is the cover

Image result for Fifth Duke of Marlborough

It is a book that I would like to purchase, both because of the author and the topic.  The image on the cover of the fifth duke was made in 1803 by James Gillray and published by Hannah Humphrey. The subtitle is “The inexpressible air of dignity”.  Gillray was one of the two greatest satirical cartoonists of his day. Hogarth was the other. Mrs. Humphrey was a well known publisher … and Gillray’s consort. I do not use the word “mistress” because they lived together., unmarried. The more modern term, POSSLQ (persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters) was not to be invested for another century and a half, give or take a decade or two.

In case you are wondering, the term POSSLQ is a designation created by the US Census Bureau in the 1970’s to assist in measuring the prevalence of such cohabitation. It became popularized in the 1980’s, which inspired Charles Osgood to write

There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do

If you would be my POSSLQ

You live with me and I with you,

And you will be my POSSLQ.

I’ll be your friend and so much more;

That’s what a POSSLQ is for.


Stay tuned!

Cuppy: The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody

Some Sunday fun!

Will Cuppy is best known as a humorist. That is true, though it tells us little about Cuppy’s unique style of humor. What was that? He had a simple way of reducing human vanity to the absurd. For example

We all make mistakes, but intelligence enables us to do it on purpose.

Cuppy’s usual work was writing a column  where he reviewed mystery books. Behind the scenes, however, he worked for 16 years on his book, “The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody”.

I love this book. It combines history and humor in a way that no one else has matched. Here is a snippet about Louis XIV

Louis XIV was decidedly the Louis. e is hard to write about because he lived so long and was always up to something. Among his hobbies were women, invading thee Low Countries, annexing Alsace and Lorraine, surrendering  Alsace and Lorraine, and revoking the edict of Nantes. Everybody wanted Alsace and Lorraine because they were full of Strassbourg geese.

Hmmm … full of Strassbourg geese? It goes on

Throughout his reign, Louis XIV worked eight hours a day. Other kings let their ministers make their mistakes for them, but Louis insisted on making the important mistakes personally. He was the original quick-decision man.  He did it almost automatically, but there were so many details to ball up that he had to get experts to help him. Jean-Batiste Colbert, an authority on industry, agriculture, and finance, worked sixteen hours a day and therefore did twice as much for the country. He abolished the highly unpopular tax on salt and put taxes on everything else; afterwards the salt tax came back somehow. He then established strict codes for every business, so that the manufacturers went bankrupt and the peasants lived on grass, nettles, and bread made of mud. Some of the peasants went so far as to dress up in rags.

Ouch! And this is just the beginning!


The Trouble with Disraeli … and More!

The trouble was that the dude wrote too many great letters!

From the preface to Robert Blake’s biography

Disraeli died in 1881. His literary executor was his private secretary, Montagu Corry (Lord Rowton), who seems to have contemplated writing a biography of his chief. Certainly no one would have been better qualified to “Boswellize” Disraeli. But when he died in 1903 nothing had been done. In the interim not only had some unofficial lives  — mostly of dubious value — appeared, but also the official biography of Gladstone, whose death had occurred only five years earlier, in 1898. In the circumstances the Beaconsfield Trustees of whom Lord Rothschild was the key figure, were anxious to have something done as soon as possible. After offering the job for a fee of £20,000 to Lord Rosebery, who declined it, they chose W.F. Monypenny, a distinguished Times journalist.  He began work in 1906. His first volume covering the years 1804 -37. appeared in 1910, and the second (1837-46) in November 1912. But he was in failing health and died a few days later. The Trustees then invited G.E. Buckle, who had recently resigned the editorship of The Times as a result of a disagreement with Lord Northcliffe. The remaining four volumes were published at intervals over the next eight years, the last appearing in 1920..

The six volume work, running to at least one and a quarter million words, is rightly described in the notice of Buckle in the Dictoniary of National Biography as both a “quarry and a classic”. Not least of its virtues is the great quantity of Disraei’s letters published there for the first time. All subsequent writes about Disraeli must acknowledge their debt to Monypenny and Buckle. Perhaps one day some wealthy foundation will finance the complete edition of the correspondence of the best letter-writer among all English statesmen. Till that day, the official biography remains the nearest equivalent.

Notice the great care that was taken to retain and re-think the things that Disraeli wrote in his private letters. In those days, in contrast to our own, letters were a major channel for exchanging ideas.

Food for thought. Given that exchange is the key to developing new ideas. should we be concerned that our use of more sophisticated tools may not be producing such high level exchanges on a regular basis?

And what of that dispute between Buckle and Northcliffe? Buckle represented the old school view that The Times was a repository of the public interest, rather than an organ of its own opinions.  Northcliffe was a publishing baron of the popular press. When he purchased The Times in 1908., he wanted to “modernize” The Times, something that Buckle did not support.

Here is Buckle as a young man, who btw, had been a very bright student

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And Northcliffe, born Alfred Harmsorth?

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That is a flattering image. Northcliffe was a controversial figure, as he catered to popular tastes .Heaven forbid! And powerful, he was!