Dec 102018

Today is the birthday (1588) of Isaac Beeckman, a Dutch natural philosopher who is rarely spoken of today, but in his time was well respected, and was a leading figure in the development of many modern scientific theories, especially atomism.

Beeckman was born in Middelburg, Zeeland, to a strong Calvinistic family, which had fled from the Spanish-controlled Southern Netherlands a few years before. He had his early education in his home town and went on to study theology, literature and mathematics in Leiden. Upon his return to Middelburg he could not find a position as a minister, due to his father’s clashes with the local church, and decided to follow his father in the candle-making business, setting up his own company in Zierikzee. While trying to improve on the candle making process, he also involved himself in other projects, like creating water conduits and doing meteorological observations. In 1616 he sold the business to his apprentice and went to study medicine in Caen, where he graduated in 1618. On his return, he became an assistant rector in Utrecht. On April 1620 he married Cateline de Cerf, whom he knew from Middelburg, and with whom he would have seven children. From 1620 to 1627 he taught at the Latin school in Rotterdam, where he founded a “Collegium Mechanicum”, or Technical College. From 1627 until his death at the age of 48 he was rector of the Latin school in Dordrecht.

Rene Descartes and Isaac Beeckman.

Beeckman’s most influential teachers in Leiden probably were Snellius and Simon Stevin. He himself was a teacher to Johan de Witt and a teacher and friend of René Descartes. Beeckman had met the young Descartes in November 1618 in Breda, where Beeckman then lived and Descartes was then garrisoned as a soldier. It is said that they met when both were looking at a placard that was set up in the Breda marketplace, detailing a mathematical problem to be solved. Descartes asked Beeckman to translate the problem from Dutch to French. In their following meetings Beeckman interested Descartes in his corpuscularian approach to mechanical theory, and convinced him to devote his studies to a mathematical approach to nature. In 1619, Descartes dedicated one of his first tractati to him, the Compendium Musicae. When Descartes returned to the Dutch Republic in the autumn of 1628, Beeckman also introduced him to many of Galileo’s ideas. In 1629 they fell out over a dispute concerning whether Beeckman had helped Descartes with some of his mathematical discoveries. In October 1630, Descartes wrote a long and harshly abusive letter, apparently meant to crush Beeckman psychologically, in which he declared himself never to have been influenced by Beeckman. Despite a few other such fallings-outs, they remained in contact until Beeckman’s death in 1637.

Beeckman did not publish his ideas, but he had influenced many scientists of his time. Since the beginning of his studies he did keep an extensive journal, from which his brother published some of his observations in 1644. However, this went basically unnoticed. The scope of Beeckman’s ideas did not come to light until the science historian Cornelis de Waard rediscovered the Journaal in 1905, and published it in volumes between 1939 and 1953.

The following are key points in the Journaal:

Beeckman developed, independently of Sebastian Basso, the concept that matter is composed of atoms.

Beeckman is one of the first people to describe inertia correctly, although he also assumed that a constant circular velocity is conserved.

Beeckman showed that the fundamental frequency of a vibrating string is proportional to the reciprocal of the length of the string.

In the analysis of the functioning of a pump he theorized correctly that air pressure is the cause and not the then popular theory of horror vacui (“nature abhors a vacuum”

In his time, he was considered to be one of the most educated men in Europe. For example, he had deeply impressed French polymath Marin Mersenne, despite their opposing religious views, as well as astronomer and mathematician, Pierre Gassendi, who apparently had been introduced by Beeckman to the philosophy of Epicurus and atomism. Gassendi stated in a 1629 letter that Beeckman was the greatest philosopher he had ever met.

Here is a 16th century Dutch recipe for gooseberry omelet taken from Seer excellenten gheexperimenteerden nieuwen Coc-boeck (The very excellent and tried new cookbook) by Karel Baten (Carolus Battus) published in 1593:

Om een tasey van stekelbesyen te backen.
Neempt versche boter ende smeltse in een panne. Doeter dan soo vele stekelbesyen in datse bycans twee vyngeren hooch liggen ende laetse met de boter een weynich sieden tot datse maer recht hen coleur verloren hebben. Clopt dan wel cleyn 7, 8 ofte 9 eyeren met wat gengeber ende wat rooswaters. Gietet tsamen over de besyen ende latet so over een coolvyer backen dat niet en brande. Als de tasey genoech gebacken is, so laetse properlick uut de panne in de schotel rijsen datse niet en breke. Dan stroyter suycker ende caneel op ende dientse.

To bake an omelette of gooseberries.
Take fresh butter and melt it in a pan. Add gooseberries so that they are almost two fingers high and let them simmer in the butter until they have lost their color. Then beat 7, 8 or 9 eggs with a little ginger and rosewater. Pour this mixture over the gooseberries, and let it bake over a coal fire without burning. When the omelet is done, let it glide from the pan on to a dish without breaking. Then sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on it and serve.

Dec 092018

Today is Anna’s Day in Sweden, which is both a name day celebrating people named Anna, and the day to start the preparation process of the lutefisk to be served on Christmas Eve.

OK – my sister is named Anna, so that’s a good start. I’m not going to write a post on her, but here’s her picture from facebook.

Then there’s Anna Harriette Emma Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian or Indian-born British travel writer, educator and social activist, who became well known with the publication of her memoirs, beginning with The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which chronicled her experiences in Siam (modern Thailand), as teacher to the children of the Siamese King Mongkut, fictionalised in Margaret Landon’s 1944 best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam, as well as films and television series based on the book, most notably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 hit musical The King and I.

There’s Anna May Wong, the first Hong Kong-Chinese American Hollywood movie star, as well as the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition, which is actually a cheat because she was born Wong Liu Tsong.

There’s also Anna Pavlova and Anna Freud who have posts here, and an alarming number of 19th century serial killers, as well as Russian tennis players and gymnasts. Maybe they are all named after Anna Karenina?

Let’s now turn to lutefisk. Garrison Keillor has this to say about lutefisk in his memories of Minnesota:

Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, “Just have a little.” Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.

The description “fishlike” is incorrect. It is not like fish, it is fish. His sentiment about it, however, is fairly widespread, including in Scandinavia. There are Scandinavians who love it, and those who hate it. There is no middle ground. I suspect that it is more popular among ex-pats at Christmas nowadays than among those living in Scandinavia where roast pork and roast turkey are common Christmas Eve treats.

Lutefisk is dried whitefish (normally cod, but ling and burbot are also used) treated with lye. The first step is soaking the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, producing a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) is caustic, with a pH of 11–12. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.

After the preparation, the lutefisk is saturated with water and must therefore be cooked extremely carefully so that it does not fall to pieces. To create a firm consistency in lutefisk, it is common to spread a layer of salt over the fish about half an hour before it is cooked. This will release some of the water in the fish. The salt must be rinsed off carefully before cooking. Lutefisk does not need additional water for the cooking; it is sufficient to place it in a pan, salt it, seal the lid tightly, and let it steam cook under a very low heat for 20–25 minutes. An alternative is to wrap in aluminium foil and bake at 225 °C (435 °F) for 40–50 minutes. Another option is to parboil lutefisk; wrapped in cheesecloth and gently boiled until tender. Lutefisk can also be boiled directly in a pan of water.

When cooking and eating lutefisk, it is important to clean the lutefisk and its residue off pans, plates, and utensils immediately. Lutefisk left overnight becomes nearly impossible to remove. Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will permanently ruin silver. Stainless steel utensils are recommended instead.

In Sweden and Finland lutefisk is a part of the Christmas tradition and is mostly eaten with boiled potatoes, green peas and white sauce. Regional variations include a sprinkle of freshly ground allspice or black pepper and the addition of coarsely ground mustard in the white sauce (in Scania). In parts of Jämtland it is served on flat bread along with whey cheese.

In the United States lutefisk is often served with a variety of side dishes, including bacon, peas, pea stew, potatoes, lefse, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, melted or clarified butter, syrup, and geitost, or “old” cheese (gammelost). It is sometimes eaten with meatballs, which is not traditional in Scandinavia. Side dishes vary greatly from family to family and region to region, and can be a source of jovial contention when eaters of different “traditions” of lutefisk dine together.

Lutefisk prepared from cod is somewhat notorious, even in Scandinavia, for its intensely offensive odor. Conversely, lutefisk prepared from pollock or haddock emits almost no odor. The taste of well-prepared lutefisk is very mild, and the white sauce is often spiced with pepper or other strong-tasting spices. In Minnesota, this method (seasoned with allspice) is common among Swedish-Americans, while Norwegian-Americans often prefer to eat it unseasoned with melted butter or cream sauce.

There are many wholly apocryphal stories about the origin of lutefisk.  The one that amuses me claims that St. Patrick attempted to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with lye-soaked fish, but rather than kill them, the Vikings relished the fish and declared it a delicacy.

Dec 062018

Today is the birthday (1778) of Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, a French chemist and physicist,  known mostly for his discovery that water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (with Alexander von Humboldt), for two laws related to gases, and for his work on alcohol-water mixtures, which led to the degrees Gay-Lussac used to measure alcoholic beverages in many countries.

Gay-Lussac was born at Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat in the present-day department of Haute-Vienne. His father, Anthony Gay, was a lawyer and prosecutor and worked as a judge in Noblat Bridge. He owned much of Lussac village and usually added the name of this hamlet, following a custom of the ancien régime. Towards the year 1803, father and son finally adopted the name Gay-Lussac. Gay-Lussac received his early education at the Abbey of Bourdeix, though later in life he became an atheist. Under the Abbot of Dumonteil he began his education in Paris, finally entering the École Polytechnique in 1798. Gay-Lussac narrowly avoided conscription and by the time of entry to the École Polytechnique his father had been arrested (due to Robespierre’s Reign of Terror). Three years later, Gay-Lussac transferred to the École des Ponts et Chaussées, and shortly afterward was assigned to C. L. Berthollet as his assistant. In 1802, he was appointed demonstrator to A. F. Fourcroy at the École Polytechnique, wherein (1809) he became the professor of chemistry. From 1808 to 1832, he was the professor of physics at the Sorbonne, a post which he only resigned for the chair of chemistry at the Jardin des Plantes. In 1821, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1831 he was elected to represent Haute-Vienne in the chamber of deputies, and in 1839 he entered the chamber of peers. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1832.

Gay-Lussac married Geneviève-Marie-Joseph Rojot in 1809. He had first met her when she worked as a linen draper’s shop assistant and was studying a chemistry textbook under the counter. They had five children, of whom the eldest (Jules) became assistant to Justus Liebig in Giessen. Some publications by Jules are mistaken as his father’s today since they share the same first initial (J. Gay-Lussac).

Gay-Lussac died in Paris, and his grave is at Père Lachaise Cemetery. His name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.

Here is a timeline of Gay-Lussac’s accomplishments:

1802 – Gay-Lussac first formulated the law, Gay-Lussac’s Law, stating that if the mass and volume of a gas are held constant then gas pressure increases linearly as the temperature rises. His work was preceded by that of Guillaume Amontons, who established the rough relation without the use of accurate thermometers. The law is sometimes written as p = k T, where k is a constant dependent on the mass and volume of the gas and T is temperature on an absolute scale (in terms of the ideal gas law, k = n·R/V).

1804 – He and Jean-Baptiste Biot made a hot-air balloon ascent to a height of 7,016 meters (23,018 ft) in an early investigation of the Earth’s atmosphere. He wanted to collect samples of the air at different heights to record differences in temperature and moisture.

1805 – Together with his friend and scientific collaborator Alexander von Humboldt, he discovered that the composition of the atmosphere does not change with decreasing pressure (increasing altitude). They also discovered that water is formed by two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen (by volume).

1808 – He was the co-discoverer of boron.

1810 – In collaboration with Louis Thenard, he developed a method for quantitative elemental analysis by measuring the CO2 and O2 evolved by reaction with potassium chlorate.

1811 – He recognized iodine as a new element, described its properties, and suggested the name iode.

1815 – He synthesized cyanogen, determined its empirical formula and named it.

1824 – He developed an improved version of the burette that included a side arm, and coined the terms “pipette” and “burette” in an 1824 paper about the standardization of indigo solutions.

Clafoutis, is a baked French dessert of fruit, from the Limousin region where Gay-Lussac hailed from. It is traditionally made with unpitted black cherries, arranged in a buttered dish and covered with a thick flan-like batter. The clafoutis is dusted with powdered sugar and served lukewarm, sometimes with cream. The cherry pits contain amygdalin, the active chemical in almond extract, so during baking a small amount of amygdalin from the pits is released into the clafoutis, adding a complementary note to its flavor. If you cannot find fresh, unpitted cherries, pitted will work. While black cherries are traditional, there are now numerous variations using other fruits, including red cherries, plums, prunes, apples, pears, cranberries or blackberries. When other kinds of fruit are used instead of cherries, the dish is properly called a flaugnarde. The dish’s name derives from Occitan clafotís, from the verb clafir, meaning “to fill” Clafoutis apparently spread throughout France during the 19th century.

Clafoutis Aux Cerises


4 large eggs
½ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ tablespoon kirsch
zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons melted butter
¾ cups all purpose flour
2 cups black cherries, unpitted
powdered sugar for dusting


Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.

Butter and lightly flour a 9-inch round pie dish or cast iron pan.

Combine the eggs, sugar, salt, milk, lemon zest, kirsch and vanilla extract in a food processor. Blend just until combined. Add the flour and blend again, just until combined and smooth. Finally, add the melted butter and pulse a few times to incorporate into the batter. You can mix the ingredients by hand, if you don’t have a processor.

Pour the batter into the prepared dish. Top with the cherries.

Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes to one hour or until the custard is just set. A toothpick poked in the center should emerge relatively clean. Do not bake too long, so that the custard is completely dry.

Remove from the oven and let it cool slightly.

When ready to serve, dust with powdered sugar. Serve warm.

Nov 272018

Today is the anniversary of the Berners Street hoax, perpetrated by Theodore Hook in London in 1809. Hook had made a bet with his friend, Samuel Beazley, that he could transform any house in London into the most talked-about address in a week, which he achieved by sending out thousands of letters in the name of Mrs Tottenham, who was supposedly the resident at 54 Berners Street, requesting deliveries, visitors, and assistance. There was a widow living there but her name was not Tottenham.


At five o’clock in the morning, a sweep arrived to sweep the chimneys of Mrs Tottenham’s house. The maid who answered the door informed him that no sweep had been requested, and that his services were not required. A few moments later another sweep presented himself, then another, and another: twelve in all. After the last of the sweeps had been sent away, a fleet of carts carrying large deliveries of coal began to arrive, followed by a series of cake makers delivering large wedding cakes, then doctors, lawyers, vicars and priests summoned to minister to someone in the house they had been told was dying. Fishmongers, shoemakers, and over a dozen pianos were among the next to appear, along with “six stout men bearing an organ”. Dignitaries, including the governor of the Bank of England, the Duke of York, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor of London also arrived. The narrow streets soon became severely congested with tradesmen and onlookers. Deliveries and visits continued until the early evening, bringing a large part of London to a standstill. A London newspaper noted:

Every Officer that could be mustered was enlisted to disperse the people, and they were placed at the corners of Berners Street to prevent trades people from advancing towards the house with goods. The street was not cleared at a late hour, as servants of every denomination wanting places began to assemble at five o’clock. It turned out that letters had been written to the different trades people, which stated recommendations from persons of quality. A reward has been offered for the apprehension of the author of the criminal hoax.

Hook rented a room in the house directly opposite 54 Berners Street, where he and Beazley spent the day watching the chaos unfold.

Despite fervent efforts to find the perpetrator, Hook managed to evade detection, although many of those who knew him suspected him of being responsible. It was reported that he felt it prudent to be “laid up for a week or two” before embarking on a tour of the country, supposedly to convalesce. The site at 54 Berners Street is now occupied by the Sanderson Hotel.

A hoax recipe would do well today, but I have given quite a few already: for example, here —  Hoax dishes involve making a dish that looks like one thing, but is, in fact another entirely. Bob Blumer is a modern master at hoax recipes. You can check out his cauliflower popcorn or salmon cupcakes here:   I am going to go with a peculiar Georgian recipe, deep-fried strawberries from Cookery reformed; or, The Lady’s assistant, (1755). I have edited the recipe slightly, but you get the idea. Move over deep fried Mars bars.

Make a batter with flour, a spoonful of sweet oil, another of white wine, a little rasped lemon-peel, and the whites of two or three eggs, make it soft, so as to drop with a spoon. Mix it with some large strawberries, and drop them with a spoon into hot oil. When they are of a good color, take them out, and drain them on a sieve. When they are done, strew some sugar over them, and glaze them.

Nov 252018

Today is the birthday (1638) of Catherine of Braganza, queen consort of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1662 to 1685, as the wife of Charles II. She was the daughter of John IV, who became the first king of Portugal from the House of Braganza in 1640 after overthrowing the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs in Portugal.

Negotiations for the marriage of Catherine and Charles began during the reign of Charles I, were suspended during the Commonwealth, and then renewed immediately after the Restoration. On 23rd June 1661, in spite of Spanish opposition, the marriage contract was signed. In the contract, England secured Tangier (in North Africa) and the Seven Islands of Bombay (in India), trading privileges in Brazil and the East Indies, religious and commercial freedom in Portugal, and two million Portuguese crowns (about £300,000). In return Portugal got assurance of British military and naval support in its fight against Spain and liberty of worship for Catherine. She arrived at Portsmouth on the night of 13–14th May 1662, but was not visited there by Charles until 20th May. The following day they were married in Portsmouth at two ceremonies – a Catholic one conducted in secret, followed by a public Anglican service.

On 30th September 1662 Charles and Catharine entered London as part of a large procession, which included the Portuguese delegation and many members of the court. There were also minstrels and musicians, among them ten playing shawms and twelve playing Portuguese bagpipes, Catharine’s favorite instruments. The procession continued over a large bridge, especially designed and built for the occasion, which led into the palace where Henrietta Maria, the queen mother waited, along with the British court and nobility. This was followed by feasting and firework displays.

Catherine had been brought up in a convent, secluded from the world, and was scarcely a wife Charles would have chosen for himself. The queen mother wrote that she is “The best creature in the world, from whom I have so much affection, I have the joy to see the King love her extremely. She is a Saint!” In reality, Catherine’s personal charms could not draw Charles away from the society of his mistresses, and in a few weeks after her arrival she became aware of her position as the wife of a licentious king.

Little is known of Catherine’s own thoughts on the match. While her mother plotted to secure an alliance with England and thus support in Portugal’s fight for independence, and her future husband celebrated his restoration with his mistresses, Catherine’s time had been spent in the seclusion of her convent home, with little opportunity for fun or frivolity. Even outside the convent her actions were governed by the strict etiquette of the royal court of Portugal. By all accounts Catherine grew into a quiet, even-tempered young woman.

At the time of her marriage she was already 23 and had long since resigned herself to the necessity of making a match abroad to help her family and country. Catherine’s response on being told of her impending nuptials was to request permission to make a pilgrimage to a favorite shrine of hers in Lisbon. Catherine became pregnant and miscarried at least three times, and during a severe illness in 1663, she imagined, for a time, that she had given birth. Charles comforted her by telling her she had indeed given birth to two sons and a daughter. Her position was a difficult one, and though Charles continued to have children by his many mistresses, he insisted she be treated with respect, and sided with her against his mistresses when he felt she was not receiving the respect she was due. After her three miscarriages, it seemed to be more and more unlikely that the queen would bear an heir. Royal advisors urged Charles to seek a divorce, hoping that the new wife would be Protestant and fertile – but Charles refused. This eventually led to her being made a target by courtiers. Throughout his reign, Charles firmly dismissed the idea of divorcing Catherine, and she remained faithful to Charles throughout their marriage.

Catherine was not a particularly popular choice of queen since she was Roman Catholic. Her religion prevented her from being crowned, as Catholics were forbidden to take part in Anglican services. She initially faced hardships due to the language barrier, the king’s infidelities and the political conflicts between Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Over time, her quiet decorum, loyalty and genuine affection for Charles changed the public’s perception of her.

Although her difficulties with the English language persisted, as time went on, the once rigidly formal Portuguese Infanta mellowed and began to enjoy some of the more innocent pleasures of the court. She loved to play cards and shocked devout Protestants by playing on Sundays. She enjoyed dancing and took great delight in organising masques. She had a great love for the countryside and picnics; fishing and archery were also favourite pastimes. In a far cry from her convent-days the newly liberated Catherine displayed a fondness for the recent trend of court ladies wearing men’s clothing, which we are told, “showed off her pretty, neat legs and ankles”; and she was even reported to have considered leading the way in wearing shorter dresses, which would show off her feet. In 1670, on a trip to Audley End with her ladies-in-waiting, the once chronically shy Catherine attended a country fair disguised as a village maiden, but was soon discovered and, due to the large crowds, forced to make a hasty retreat. And when in 1664 her favorite painter, Jacob Huysmans, a Flemish Catholic, painted her as St Catherine, it promptly set a trend among court ladies.

She did not involve herself in English politics, instead she kept up an active interest in her native country. Anxious to re-establish good relations with the Pope and perhaps gain recognition for Portuguese independence, she sent Richard Bellings, later her principal secretary, to Rome with letters for the pope and several cardinals. In 1669 she involved herself in the last-ditch effort to relieve Candia in Crete, which was under siege by the Turks and whose cause Rome was promoting, although she failed to persuade Charles to take any action. In 1670, as a sign of her rising favor with the pope she requested, and was granted, devotional objects. In 1670 Charles II ordered the building of a Royal yacht HMY Saudadoes for her, used for pleasure trips on the Thames and to maintain communications with the Queen’s homeland of Portugal, making the journey twice.

Catherine fainted when Charles’s official mistress, Barbara Palmer was presented to her. Charles insisted on making Palmer Catherine’s Lady of the Bedchamber. After this incident, Catherine withdrew from spending time with the king, declaring she would return to Portugal rather than openly accept the arrangement with Palmer. Clarendon failed to convince her to change her mind. Charles then dismissed nearly all the members of Catherine’s Portuguese retinue, after which she stopped actively resisting, which pleased the king, however she participated very little in court life and activities.

In 1675 the stress of a possible revival of the divorce project indirectly led to another illness, which Catherine’s physicians claimed was “due as much to mental as physical causes”. In the same year, all Irish and English Catholic priests were ordered to leave the country, which left Catherine dependent upon foreign priests. As increasingly harsher measures were put in place against Catholics, Catherine appointed her close friend and adviser, the devoutly Catholic Francisco de Mello, former Portuguese Ambassador to England, as her Lord Chamberlain. It was an unusual and controversial move but wishing to please Catherine and perhaps demonstrate the futility of moves for divorce, the King granted his permission. De Mello was dismissed the following year for ordering the printing of a Catholic book, leaving Catherine even more isolated at court. One consolation was that Louise de Kérouaille, duchess of Portsmouth, who replaced Barbara Palmer as reigning mistress, always treated Catharine with proper deference. Catharine in return showed her gratitude by using her own influence to protect Louise during the Popish Plot.

The Test Act of 1673 had driven all Catholics out of public office, and anti-Catholic feelings intensified the following years. Although she was not active in religious politics, in 1675 Catherine was criticized for supposedly supporting the idea of appointing a bishop to England who, it was hoped, would resolve the internal disputes of Catholics. Critics also noted the fact that, despite orders to the contrary, English Catholics attended her private chapel. As the highest-ranking Catholic in the country, Catherine was an obvious target for Protestant extremists, and it was hardly surprising that the Popish Plot of 1678 would directly threaten her position. The Popish Plot was a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates that gripped England and Scotland in anti-Catholic hysteria between 1678 and 1681. Oates alleged that there was an extensive Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II, accusations that led to the executions of at least 22 men and precipitated the Exclusion Bill Crisis. Eventually Oates’s intricate web of accusations fell apart, leading to his arrest and conviction for perjury.

Fortunately, Catherine was completely secure in her husband’s favor (“she could never do anything wicked, and it would be a horrible thing to abandon her” he told Gilbert Burnet), and the House of Lords, most of whom knew her and liked her, refused by an overwhelming majority to impeach her. Relations between the royal couple became notably warmer: Catherine wrote of Charles’ “wonderful kindness” to her. and it was noted that his visits to her apartments became longer and more frequent.

At Charles’ final illness in 1685, Catharine showed expectations for his reconciliation with Catholic faith, and she exhibited great grief at his death. When he lay dying in 1685, he asked for Catherine, but she sent a message asking that her presence be excused and “to beg his pardon if she had offended him all his life.” He answered, “Alas poor woman! she asks for my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart; take her back that answer.” Later in the same year, she unsuccessfully interceded with James II for the life of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, Charles’s illegitimate son and leader of the Monmouth Rebellion – even though Monmouth in rebellion had called upon the support represented by the staunch Protestants opposed to the Catholic Church.

Catherine remained in England, living at Somerset House, through the reign of James and his deposition in the Glorious Revolution by William and Mary. She remained in England partly because of a protracted lawsuit against her former Lord Chamberlain, Henry Hyde, 2nd Earl of Clarendon, over money that she claimed as part of her allowance and that he claimed was part of the perquisite of his office. Catherine’s fondness for money is one of the more unexpected features of her character: her brother-in-law James, who was himself notably avaricious, remarked that she always drove a hard bargain.

Initially on good terms with William and Mary, her position deteriorated as the practice of her religion led to misunderstandings and increasing isolation. A bill was introduced to Parliament to limit the number of Catherine’s Catholic servants, and she was warned not to agitate against the government. She finally returned to Portugal in March 1692, where she took care of and mentored her nephew, prince John. His mother, Maria Sofia of Neuburg, had recently died, and the prince had fallen into a depression. Catherine was instrumental in lifting the young prince’s spirits, and soon became a key part in his life, as his tutor and main female figure in his life. Her death would, in fact, cause John to experience another depression.

In 1703, she supported the Treaty of Methuen between Portugal and England. She acted as regent for her brother, Peter II, in 1701 and 1704–05. She died at the Bemposta Palace in Lisbon on 31st December 1705 and was buried at the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora Lisbon.

Here is a Stuart era recipe from The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex, (1696). It is described as a way to prepare lamb so that it tastes like venison. The “coffin” mentioned in the recipe means pastry, so it appears to be a kind of lamb roulade en croute.

Lamb to make like Venison.

Bone it, and take the side or quarter, and dip it in its Blood, sprinkle it over with Salt, Cinamon and Pepper, rowl it up, and parboyl it, adding some Vinegar to the Water you boyl it in, a sprig or two of Hysop and Thyme, let it stand six hours in the water when it is off the Fire, put it into a coffin, and pour to it when half Baked, Claret and Melted Butter, with some Cloves Mace and dryed Rosemary, finely beaten.

Nov 182018

Today is the birthday (701 CE) of the Mayan “king” (ajaw), Itzam K’an Ahk II, also known as Ruler 4, which, among other things, gives me the opportunity to present his date of birth in the Mayan Long Count: 7 Men 18 K’ank’in. Of the three extant references to Itzam K’an Ahk’s birth, none mentions his line of descent, suggesting that Itzam K’an Ahk was not his predecessor’s (K’inich Yo’nal Ahk II’s) son, and that he may have been the founder of a new dynasty. In one carving, the ajaw in his name is shown with a turtle ornament on his belt, suggesting that one of his ancestors had the word auk (“turtle”) in his name and was thus of royal blood. Additionally, Stela 40 shows what could be Itzam K’an Ahk’s mother in Teotihuacano dress, suggesting that Itzam K’an Ahk was emphasizing maternal connections to Teotihuacan. This stela was erected exactly 83 Tzolk’in, (about 59 years), following the death of Itzam K’an Ahk I (a former ajaw of Piedras Negras whose name Itzam K’an Ahk II adopted), vaguely suggesting some kind of link between the two.

Itzam K’an Ahk II ascended to power on November 9th, 729 ( 7 Ben 16 K’ank’in). In 749, he celebrated his one K’atun as ruler, an event that was attended by many dignitaries, including a b’aah sajal (“first ruler”) named K’an Mo’ Te’ who had served K’inich Yo’nal Ahk II. The events of this banquet were later recorded by the final ajaw of Piedras Negras, K’inich Yat Ahk II on Panel 3. This carving shows Itzam K’an Ahk II lecturing the interim ruler of Yaxchilan, Yopaat Bahlam II, about Piedras Negras’ local dominance. (This panel has lent support to the belief that during Itzam K’an Ahk II’s rule, Piedras Negras had eclipsed Yaxchilan in power.) The K’atun celebration was followed by another event a few days later, at which Itzam K’an Ahk II performed a ‘descending macaw’ dance and then had a drink made from fermented cacao beans passed around to his guests.

Itzam K’an Ahk II probably engaged in war, since a pyrite disc found in his tomb depicts the severed head of a leader from Hix Witz. It seems likely that Hix Witz was under Piedras Negras’ control, largely based on the disk and because the Maya center is identified on Panel 7, erected earlier by Itzam K’an Ahk I, as a “tributary bearing plumes and textiles” to Piedras Negras.

Itzam K’an Ahk II’s reign was clearly marked by hegemony over neighboring kingdoms. He died on November 26th, 757 ( 7 Kaban 0 Pax) and was buried three days later. According to Panel 3, the burial took place at the “‘mountain’ of ho janaab witz”, which in this context refers to Pyramid O-13. Itzam K’an Ahk II was succeeded by Yo’nal Ahk III on March 10th, 758. Itzam K’an Ahk II’s burial site was venerated by the succeeding kings of Piedras Negras, which has led some scholars to hypothesize that Itzam K’an Ahk II produced a new ruling dynasty, and that the following three kings—Yo’nal Ahk III, Ha’ K’in Xook, and K’inich Yat Ahk II—were his sons.

Itzam K’an Ahk II erected at least five stelae: 9, 10, 11, 22, and 40, of which Stelae 9, 10, and 11 were raised in front of or near Structure J-3. Stela 11, constructed in August of 731, is of the niche variety (meaning it depicts the ruler seated in a small hollow, or niche) and commemorates Itzam K’an Ahk II’s ascent to power. This monument depicts him flanked by witnesses to the ceremonies explored on the stela itself. The expanse in front of the stone slab was a space for offering and supplication, the monument’s bottom depicts human sacrifice. The monument was discovered by Teoberto Maler in two pieces on the ground; the front was well-preserved (even retaining some of its pigment), although the glyphs on the upper right were weathered.

Stela 9 had long been broken into thirds when it was discovered in 1899 by Maler. While these fragments had eroded slightly, the base was later found in situ by the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum. In the 1960s, looters carted off parts of the monument, namely a portion depicting a captive. Stela 10 is highly eroded, resulting in a loss of detail. In addition to this decay, the head ornament has presumably been lost. Stela 40 contains the depiction of the aforementioned woman dressed in Teotihuacano garb; it shows Itzam K’an Ahk II dispersing something—hypothesized to be either blood or incense—into a “psychoduct” (that is, a vent leading into a subplaza tomb). The female on the stela, denoted only by an “upside down vase” glyph, is likely Itzam K’an Ahk II’s mother.

Given that Itzam K’an Ahk served fermented cacao beans in a drink for his anniversary, the following video on fermenting cacao may be instructive to you. Chocolate served as a drink was reserved for Mayan nobility and the fermentation process is necessary to bring out the chocolate flavor:

Here also is a video on supposedly ancient Mayan cooking styles. It’s a bit touristy, and not in any sense academically rigorous, but it has some interesting moments nonetheless.


Nov 162018

Today is the feast of Saint Edmund of Abingdon (circa 1174 – 1240), a 13th-century archbishop of Canterbury. He became a respected lecturer in mathematics, dialectics and theology at the Universities of Paris and Oxford. Edmund was born around 1174, possibly on 20th November (the feast of St Edmund the Martyr), in Abingdon in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire). “Rich” was an epithet sometimes given to his wealthy merchant father. It was never applied to Edmund or his siblings in their lifetimes. Edmund may have been educated at the monastic school in Abingdon. His early studies were in England, but he completed his higher learning in France at the University of Paris. About 1195, in company with his brother Richard, he was sent to the schools of Paris. He studied at the universities of Oxford and Paris and became a teacher about 1200, or a little earlier. For six years he lectured on mathematics and dialectics, apparently dividing his time between Oxford and Paris, and helped introduce the study of Aristotle.

Edmund became one of Oxford’s first lecturers with a Master of Arts, but was not Oxford’s first Doctor of Divinity. Long hours at night spent in prayer had the result that he often nodded off during his lectures. There is a long-established tradition that he used his lecture fees to build the Lady Chapel of St Peter’s in the East at Oxford. The site where he lived and taught was formed into a medieval academic hall in his name and later incorporated as the college of St Edmund Hall. His mother influenced him towards self-denial and austerity, and this led to his taking up the study of theology.

Though for some time Edmund resisted the change, he finally entered upon his new career between 1205 and 1210. He was ordained, took a doctorate in divinity and soon became known as a lecturer on theology and as an extemporaneous preacher. Some time between 1219 and 1222 he was appointed vicar of the parish of Calne in Wiltshire, and treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral. He held this position for eleven years, during which time he also engaged in preaching. In 1227 he preached the sixth crusade through a large part of England. In 1233 he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury by Gregory IX. The chapter had already made three selections which the pope had declined to confirm. Edmund’s name had been proposed as a compromise by Gregory, perhaps on account of his work for the crusade. He was consecrated on 2nd April 1234.

Before his consecration Edmund became known for supporting ecclesiastical independence from Rome, maintenance of the Magna Carta and the exclusion of foreigners from civil and ecclesiastical office. He was reluctant to accept appointment as archbishop but was persuaded to accept when it was pointed out that if he refused, the pope might very well appoint a foreigner. He chose as his chancellor Richard of Wich, known to later ages as St Richard of Chichester.

In the name of his fellow bishops Edmund admonished Henry III of England at Westminster, on 2nd February 1234, to heed the example of his father, king John. A week after his consecration he again appeared before the king with the barons and bishops, this time threatening Henry with excommunication if he refused to dismiss his councilors, particularly Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester. Henry yielded, and the favorites were dismissed, Hubert de Burgh (whom they had imprisoned) was released and reconciled to the king and soon the archbishop was sent to Wales to negotiate peace with Llywelyn the Great. Edmund’s success, however, turned the king against him.

Edmund was valued by the local people for his teaching, preaching, study, and his prayer; but his uncompromising stand in favor of good discipline in both civil and ecclesial government, of strict observance in monastic life, and of justice in high quarters brought him into conflict with Henry III, with several monasteries, and with the priests of Canterbury cathedral. He claimed and exercised metropolitan rights of visitation, this was often challenged and he had to resort to litigation to maintain his authority, not the least with his own monastic chapter at Canterbury.

Although he was known for his gentleness and courtesy, Edmund firmly defended the rights of Church and State against the exactions and usurpations of Henry III. In December 1237 Edmund set out for Rome to plead his cause in person. From this futile mission he returned to England in August 1238 where his efforts to foster reform were frustrated. Edmund submitted to papal demands and, early in 1240 paid to the pope’s agents one fifth of his revenue, which had been levied for the pope’s war against Emperor Frederick II. Other English prelates followed his example.

The papacy then ordered that 300 English benefices should be assigned to Romans. In 1240 Edmund set out for Rome. At the Cistercian Pontigny Abbey in France he became sick, began traveling back to England, but died only 50 miles further north, on 16th November 1240, at the house of Augustinian Canons at Soisy-Bouy and was taken back to Pontigny.

In less than a year after Edmund’s death miracles were alleged to be wrought at his grave. He was canonized only 6 years after his death, in December 1246. A few years later the first chapel dedicated to him, St Edmund’s Chapel, was consecrated in Dover by his friend Richard of Chichester (making it the only chapel dedicated to one English saint by another). At Salisbury a collegiate church and an altar in the cathedral were dedicated to Saint Edmund. Today he is remembered in the name of St Edmund Hall, Oxford and St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

Edmund’s body was never translated to Canterbury, because the Benedictine community there resented what they regarded as Edmund’s attacks on their independence. After his death he was taken back to Pontigny Abbey, where his main relics are now found in a baroque reliquary tomb dating to the 17th century. An arm is enshrined in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption at St. Edmund’s Retreat on Enders Island off the coast of Mystic, Connecticut. The retreat is operated by the Society of the Fathers and Brothers of St. Edmund. In 1853, the fibula of the Edmund’s left leg was presented to St Edmund’s College, Ware, by Cardinal Wiseman. Many local cures of serious illnesses were attributed to the intercession of St Edmund; one of the earliest of these was of a student who nearly died after a fall in 1871. His complete healing led to the accomplishment of a vow to extend the beautiful Pugin chapel with a side chapel to honour the saint. The Islamic silk chasuble, with the main fabric probably made in Al-Andaluz, that Edmund had with him at his death remains in a local church, with a stole and maniple.

Here is a recipe from Libellus De Arte Coquinaria (The Little Book of Culinary Arts), a culinary manuscript containing thirty-five early Northern European recipes. The manuscript consists of recipes in Danish, Icelandic, and Low German with bits of Latin thrown in, dating from the early 13th century. I imagine this style of cooking was well known in England. The recipe looks like a cross between a quiche and a pot pie. Worth a shot. I’ve made a stab at a free translation from Old Danish, but you will have to fill in the gaps.

De cibo qui dicitur koken wan honer.

Man skal gøræ en grytæ af degh, oc skær et høns thær I alt I styki, oc latæ thær I spæk wæl skoren sum ærtær,pipær oc komiæn oc æggi blomæ, wæl slaghæn mæth safran; oc takæ thæn grytæ oc latæ bakæ I en ofn. Thæt hetær kokæn wan honer.

The dish that is called Chicken Pie.

Make a shell of dough, and put into it a hen, cut into pieces. Add bacon, diced the size of peas, pepper, cumin, and egg yolks well beaten with saffron. Then take the pastry shell and bake it in an oven. It is called Chicken Pie.


Nov 132018

Edward III of England was born on this date in 1312. He was king of England and Lord of Ireland from January 1327 until his death. He is noted for his military success and for restoring royal authority after the disastrous and unorthodox reign of his father, Edward II. Edward III transformed the kingdom of England into one of the most formidable military powers in Europe. His long reign of 50 years was the second longest in medieval England (after that of his great-grandfather Henry III) and saw vital developments in legislation and government, in particular the evolution of the English parliament, as well as the ravages of the Black Death.

Rather than dribble on endlessly concerning his reign, I want to emphasize two aspects of it: (1) The constant squabble over whether the king of England was also the king of France, and (2) Edward’s conscious effort to evoke king Arthur as the spirit pervading his monarchy.  The first point is generally glossed over these days, particularly with Brexit looming and nationalists marching around singing “Rule Britannia” and “There’ll Always Be An England” as if since the dawn of time, England/Britain has been a gloriously separate island nation, untouched by wogs across the channel. The inconvenient historical truth is that England was a part of Denmark for many years, and when Normans conquered England under William the Bastard, it became an adjunct of Normandy for at least a century. It was not in any sense an isolated kingdom and cannot legitimately be said to have been for centuries before. Celts were conquered by Romans who made Britain part of their empire for centuries. When they left, Angles and Saxons moved in, and, according to legend, Arthur rose to take back land for the Celts that had been stolen first by Romans, then by Anglo-Saxons. Edward embraced the legend of Arthur for complicated reasons.

Edward was born at Windsor Castle and was often referred to as Edward of Windsor in his early years. The reign of his father, Edward II, was a particularly problematic period of English history. One source of contention was the king’s inactivity, and repeated failure, in the ongoing war with Scotland. Another controversial issue was the king’s exclusive patronage of a small group of royal favorites. The birth of a male heir in 1312 temporarily improved Edward II’s position in relation to baronial opposition. To bolster further the independent prestige of the young prince, the king had him created earl of Chester at only 12 days of age.

In 1325, Edward II was faced with a demand from his brother-in-law, Charles IV of France, to perform homage for the English Duchy of Aquitaine. Edward was reluctant to leave the country, as discontent was once again brewing domestically, particularly over his relationship with the favorite Hugh Despenser the Younger. Instead, he had his son Edward created Duke of Aquitaine in his place and sent him to France to perform the homage. The young Edward was accompanied by his mother Isabella, who was the sister of King Charles, and was meant to negotiate a peace treaty with the French. While in France, Isabella conspired with the exiled Roger Mortimer to have Edward deposed. To build up diplomatic and military support for the venture, Isabella had her son engaged to the twelve-year-old Philippa of Hainault. An invasion of England was launched and Edward II’s forces deserted him completely. Isabella and Mortimer summoned a parliament, the king was forced to relinquish the throne to his son, who was proclaimed king in London on 25 January 1327. The new king was crowned as Edward III on 1st February at the age of 14.

It was not long before the new reign also met with other problems caused by the central position at court of Roger Mortimer, who was now the de facto ruler of England. Mortimer used his power to acquire noble estates and titles, and his unpopularity grew with the humiliating defeat by the Scots at the Battle of Stanhope Park and the ensuing Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton, signed with the Scots in 1328. Also the young king came into conflict with his guardian. Mortimer knew his position in relation to the king was precarious and subjected Edward to disrespect. The tension increased after Edward and Philippa, who had married at York Minster on 24 January 1328, had a son on 15 June 1330. Eventually, Edward decided to take direct action against Mortimer. Aided by his close companion William Montagu and a small number of other trusted men, Edward took Mortimer by surprise at Nottingham Castle on 19th October 1330. Mortimer was executed and Edward III’s personal reign began.

To mark his claim to the French crown, Edward’s coat of arms showed the three lions of England quartered with the fleurs-de-lys of France. The French carried out raids on English coastal towns, leading to rumors in England of a full-scale French invasion. In 1337, Philip VI confiscated the Edward’s duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Ponthieu. Instead of seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict by paying homage to the French king, as his father had done, Edward responded by laying claim to the French crown as the grandson of Philip IV. The French rejected this claim, of course, because the inheritance passed through a woman (his mother), and previous claims by others had settled the matter that the claimant must be descended from previous kings through the male line only (agnatic descent). Instead, they upheld the rights of Philip IV’s nephew, king Philip VI (an agnatic descendant of the House of Valois), thereby setting the stage for the Hundred Years’ War.

The Hundred Years’ War was not a single war, but a series of wars between England and France concerning who owned what and where. At the start of the wars it is not legitimate to say that there was a well-defined sense of either English national identity or French national identity. By the end of them, lines were more clearly drawn even though England still had claims to French territory.

Central to Edward III’s policy was reliance on the higher nobility for purposes of war and administration. While his father had regularly been in conflict with a great portion of his peerage, Edward III successfully created a spirit of camaraderie between himself and his greatest subjects. Both Edward I and Edward II had been limited in their policy towards the nobility, allowing the creation of few new peerages during the 60 years preceding Edward III’s reign. The young king reversed this trend when, in 1337, as a preparation for the imminent war, he created six new earls on the same day. At the same time, Edward expanded the ranks of the peerage upwards, by introducing the new title of duke for close relatives of the king (a policy which continues to this day). Furthermore, Edward bolstered the sense of community within this group by the creation of the Order of the Garter, probably in 1348. A plan from 1344 to revive the Round Table of king Arthur never came to fruition, but the new order carried connotations from this legend by the circular shape of the garter.

Edward’s wartime experiences during the Crécy campaign (1346–7) seem to have been a determining factor in his abandonment of the Round Table project. It has been argued that the total warfare tactics employed by the English at Crécy in 1346 were contrary to Arthurian ideals and made Arthur a problematic paradigm for Edward III, especially at the time of the institution of the Garter. There are no formal references to Arthur and the Round Table in the surviving early 15th-century copies of the Statutes of the Garter, but the Garter Feast of 1358 did involve a round table game. Thus there was some overlap between the projected Round Table fellowship and the actualized Order of the Garter. Polydore Vergil tells of how the young Joan of Kent, countess of Salisbury – allegedly the king’s favorite at the time – accidentally dropped her garter at a ball at Calais. Edward responded to the ensuing ridicule of the crowd by tying the garter around his own knee with the words “honi soit qui mal y pense” – shame on him who thinks ill of this – which became the motto of the Order. How much of this is true is difficult to determine now. You will note that a distinctly English Order of Chivalry had a French motto.

This reinforcement of the aristocracy must be seen in conjunction with the war in France, as must the emerging sense of national identity. Just as the war with Scotland had done, the fear of a French invasion helped strengthen a sense of national unity and nationalize the aristocracy that had been largely Anglo-Norman since the Norman conquest. Since the time of Edward I, popular legend suggested that the French planned to extinguish the English language, and as his grandfather had done, Edward III made the most of this scare. As a result, the English language experienced a strong revival. In 1362, a Statute of Pleading ordered the English language to be used in law courts, and the year after, Parliament was for the first time opened in English. At the same time, the vernacular saw a revival as a literary language, through the works of William Langland, John Gower and especially The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Yet the extent of this Anglicization must not be exaggerated. The statute of 1362 was in fact written in the French language and had little immediate effect, and parliament was opened in French as late as 1377. The Order of the Garter, though a distinctly English institution, included also foreign members such as John IV, Duke of Brittany and Sir Robert of Namur. Edward III – himself bilingual – viewed himself as legitimate king of both England and France, and could not show preferential treatment for one part of his domains over another.

So . . . how do you see England now? Has it always stood out from “the continent” in splendid isolation, or was it once something else?

Here is a recipe for a bread and egg dish called iuschett from The Forme of Curye (c.1390). Several things to notice. First, it is in English – not French. That is the direct influence of Edward’s reforms, making England more English. Second, some of the words will be unusual to you but if you say the recipe out loud you should understand it well enough. The text may be a bit hard for you to read from the image, so here is a transcription:


Tak brede y grated & ayron & swynge hem to gyder do þer to safron, sauge & salt and cast broth þer to, boyle & messe forth.

If you need help (my free translation into modern English).

Take grated bread and eggs and mix them together. Add saffron, sage, and salt, and moisten with broth. Boil the mix, and serve.

This is very much like the stuffing I use for chickens (sans eggs – yes, using “sans” is a bit coy). It sounds a tad too mushy for my tastes, so I am unlikely to try it any time soon.


Nov 102018

Today is the birthday (1668) of François Couperin, a French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. who was known as Couperin le Grand to distinguish him from other members of the musically able Couperin family.

Couperin was born into one of the best-known musical families of Europe. His father Charles was organist at Church Saint-Gervais in Paris, a position previously occupied by Charles’s brother Louis Couperin, a highly regarded keyboard virtuoso and composer whose career was cut short by an early death. As a boy, François must have received his first music lessons from his father. Unfortunately, Charles died in 1679. The church council at Saint-Gervais hired Michel Richard Delalande to serve as new organist, on the condition that François would replace him at age 18. Meanwhile, the boy was taken care of and taught by organist Jacques-Denis Thomelin, who served both at the court and at the famous church of St Jacques-de-la-Boucherie.

In 1689 Couperin married Marie-Anne Ansault,  and the next year he published  Pieces d’orgue, a collection of organ masses that was praised by Delalande (who may have assisted with both composition and publication). In three more years Couperin succeeded his former teacher Thomelin at the court. The new appointment was extremely prestigious and brought Couperin in contact with some of the finest composers of his time, as well as numerous members of the aristocracy. His earliest chamber music dates from around that time. The numerous duties Couperin carried out at the court were accompanied by duties as organist at Saint Gervais, and also by the composition and publication of new music. He obtained a 20-year royal privilege to publish in 1713 and used it immediately to issue the first volume (out of four) of his harpsichord works, Pieces de clavecin. A harpsichord playing manual followed in 1716, as well as other collections of keyboard and chamber music. In 1717 Couperin succeeded one of his most eminent colleagues, Jean-Baptiste-Henry d’Anglebert, as ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin, one of the highest possible appointments for a court musician. However, his involvement in the musical activities at the court may have diminished after Louis XIV’s death in 1715.

Couperin’s health declined steadily throughout the 1720s. The services of a cousin were required by 1723 at Saint Gervais, and in 1730 Couperin’s position as court harpsichordist was taken up by his daughter Marguerite-Antoinette. Couperin’s final publications were Pièces de violes (1728) and the fourth volume of harpsichord pieces (1730). He died in 1733. The building where Couperin and his family lived from 1724 still stands and is located at the corner of the rue Radziwill and the rue des Petits Champs. The composer was survived by at least three of his children: Marguerite-Antoinette, who continued working as court harpsichordist until 1741, Marie-Madeleine (Marie-Cécile), who became a nun and may have worked as organist at the Maubuisson Abbey, and François-Laurent, who according to contemporary sources left the family after François died.

Couperin acknowledged his debt to the Italian composer Corelli. He introduced Corelli’s trio sonata form to France, for example. Couperin’s grand trio sonata was subtitled Le Parnasse, ou L’apothéose de Corelli (“Parnassus, or the Apotheosis of Corelli”). In it he blended the Italian and French styles of music in a set of pieces which he called Les goûts réunis (“Styles Reunited”).

His most famous book, L’art de toucher le clavecin (“The Art of Harpsichord Playing”, published in 1716), contains suggestions for fingerings, touch, ornamentation and other features of keyboard technique. This link has dozens of Couperin’s pieces on it:

Couperin’s four volumes of harpsichord music, published in Paris in 1713, 1717, 1722, and 1730, contain over 230 individual pieces, and he also published a book of Concerts Royaux which can be played as solo harpsichord pieces or as small chamber works. The four collections for harpsichord alone are grouped into ordres, a synonym of suites, containing traditional dances as well as pieces with descriptive titles. They are notable for Couperin’s detailed indication of ornaments, which in most harpsichord music of the period was left to the discretion of the player. The first and last pieces in an ordre were of the same tonality, but the middle pieces could be in other closely related tonalities. These volumes were admired by Johann Sebastian Bach, who exchanged letters with Couperin, and later by Brahms and by Ravel, who memorialized their composer in Le tombeau de Couperin (Couperin’s Memorial).

Many of Couperin’s keyboard pieces have evocative, picturesque titles (such as “The little windmills” and “The mysterious barricades”) and express a mood through key choices, adventurous harmonies and (resolved) discords. They have been likened to miniature tone poems. These features attracted Richard Strauss, who orchestrated some of them.

I have taken a recipe for a venison stew with beetroots from the 1674 classic, The English and French Cook, to commemorate Couperin. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were a great many recipes shared by English and French cooks before the cordon bleu school put its stamp on French cooking. The recipe is straightforward except noting that “sweet spices” could be thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, etc., and Saunders is red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus) that was used in Medieval cooking to give a red color to dishes.

Potage of Venison

Take a Haunch of Venison, and cut it into six pieces, and place them in the bottom of a Pan or Pot, then put in no more Water than will cover it, let it boil, then scum it, after that add to it a good quantity of whole Pepper; when it is half boiled, put in four whole Onions, Cloves, and large Mace, some sliced Ginger, Nutmeg, three or four faggots of sweet Herbs, let it boil till the Venison be very tender, and a good part of the broth be wasted; after this pour out the broth from the meat into a Pipkin, keep your Venison hot in the same Pot by adding other hot broth unto it; then take a couple of red-Beet roots, having very well parboil’d them before, cut them into square pieces as big as a shilling, and put them into the broth which is in your Pipkin, and let them boil till they are very tender, add unto the boiling four Anchovies minced, then dish up your Venison on Sippets of French-bread, then pour on your broth, so much as will near-upon fill the Dish, then take your roots by themselves, and toss them in a little drawn Butter, and lay them all over the Venison; if the Beets be good, it will make the broth red enough, which you must have visible round about the Dish sides, but if it prove pale, put to it some Saunders: This is a very savory Potage.

Nov 082018

Today is the birthday (1656 [O.S. 29th October]) of Edmond Halley FRS, an English astronomer, geophysicist, mathematician, meteorologist, and physicist, known for the comet named after him, whose periodicity he accurately calculated.

Halley was born in Haggerston, in east London. His father came from a Derbyshire family and was a wealthy soap-maker in London. As a child, Halley was very interested in mathematics. He studied at St Paul’s School where he developed his initial interest in astronomy, and from 1673 at The Queen’s College, Oxford. While still an undergraduate, Halley published papers on the Solar System and sunspots. At Oxford, Halley was introduced to John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal. Influenced by Flamsteed’s project to compile a catalog of northern stars, Halley proposed to do the same for the Southern Hemisphere.

In 1676, Halley visited the south Atlantic island of Saint Helena and set up an observatory with a large sextant with telescopic sights to catalogue the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. While there he observed a transit of Mercury across the Sun, and realized that a similar transit of Venus could be used to determine the absolute size of the Solar System. He returned to England in May 1678. In the following year he went to Danzig (Gdańsk) on behalf of the Royal Society to help resolve a dispute. Because astronomer Johannes Hevelius did not use a telescope, his observations had been questioned by Robert Hooke. Halley stayed with Hevelius and he observed and verified the quality of Hevelius’ observations. In 1679, Halley published the results from his observations on St. Helena as Catalogus Stellarum Australium which included details of 341 southern stars. These additions to contemporary star maps earned him comparison with Tycho Brahe: e.g. “the southern Tycho” as described by Flamsteed. Halley was awarded his M.A. degree at Oxford and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 22. In September 1682 he carried out a series of observations of what became known as Halley’s Comet, though his name became associated with it because of his work on its orbit and predicting its return in 1758 (which he did not live to see).

In 1686, Halley published the second part of the results from his Saint Helena expedition, a paper and chart on trade winds and monsoons. The symbols he used to represent trailing winds still exist in most modern-day weather chart representations. In this article he identified solar heating as the cause of atmospheric motions. He also established the relationship between barometric pressure and height above sea level. His charts were an important contribution to the emerging field of information visualization.

Halley spent most of his time on lunar observations, but was also interested in the problems of gravity. One problem that attracted his attention was the proof of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. In August 1684, he went to Cambridge to discuss this with Isaac Newton, much as John Flamsteed had done four years earlier, only to find that Newton had solved the problem, at the instigation of Flamsteed with regard to the orbit of comet Kirch, without publishing the solution. Halley asked to see the calculations and was told by Newton that he could not find them, but promised to redo them and send them on later, which he eventually did, in a short treatise entitled, “On the motion of bodies in an orbit.” Halley recognized the importance of the work and returned to Cambridge to arrange its publication with Newton, who instead went on to expand it into his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica published at Halley’s expense in 1687. Halley’s first calculations with comets were thereby for the orbit of comet Kirch, based on Flamsteed’s observations in 1680-1. Although he was to accurately calculate the orbit of the comet of 1682, he was inaccurate in his calculations of the orbit of comet Kirch. They indicated a periodicity of 575 years, thus appearing in the years 531 and 1106, and presumably heralding the death of Julius Caesar in a like fashion in  (45 BCE). It is now known to have an orbital period of circa 10,000 years.

In 1691, Halley built a diving bell, a device in which the atmosphere was replenished by way of weighted barrels of air sent down from the surface. In a demonstration, Halley and five companions dived to 60 feet (18 m) in the River Thames, and remained there for over an hour and a half. Halley’s bell was of little use for practical salvage work, as it was very heavy, but he made improvements to it over time, later extending his underwater exposure time to over 4 hours. Halley suffered one of the earliest recorded cases of middle ear barotrauma. That same year, at a meeting of the Royal Society, Halley introduced a rudimentary working model of a magnetic compass using a liquid-filled housing to damp the swing and wobble of the magnetized needle.

In 1691, Halley sought the post of Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. While a candidate for the position, Halley faced the animosity of the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, and his religious views were questioned. His candidacy was opposed by both the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson, and Bishop Stillingfleet, and the post went instead to David Gregory, who had the support of Isaac Newton.

In 1692, Halley put forth the idea of a hollow Earth consisting of a shell about 500 miles (800 km) thick, two inner concentric shells and an innermost core. He suggested that atmospheres separated these shells, and that each shell had its own magnetic poles, with each sphere rotating at a different speed. Halley proposed this scheme to explain anomalous compass readings. He envisaged each inner region as having an atmosphere and being luminous (and possibly inhabited), and speculated that escaping gas caused the Aurora Borealis. He suggested, “Auroral rays are due to particles, which are affected by the magnetic field, the rays parallel to Earth’s magnetic field.”

In 1693 Halley published an article on life annuities, which featured an analysis of age-at-death on the basis of the Breslau statistics Caspar Neumann had been able to provide. This article allowed the British government to sell life annuities at an appropriate price based on the age of the purchaser. Halley’s work strongly influenced the development of actuarial science. The construction of the life-table for Breslau, which followed more primitive work by John Graunt, is now seen as a major event in the history of demography.

In 1698, Halley was given command of the Paramour, a 52 feet (16 m) pink (sailing ship), so that he could carry out investigations in the South Atlantic into the laws governing the variation of the compass. On 19th August 1698, he took command of the ship and, in November 1698, sailed on what was the first purely scientific voyage by an English naval vessel. Unfortunately, problems of insubordination arose over questions of Halley’s competence to command a vessel. Halley returned the ship to England to bring charges against his officers in July 1699. The result was a mild rebuke for his men, and dissatisfaction for Halley, who felt the court had been too lenient. Halley thereafter received a temporary commission as a Captain in the Royal Navy, recommissioned the Paramour on 24th August 1699 and sailed again in September 1699 to make extensive observations on the conditions of terrestrial magnetism. He accomplished this task in a second Atlantic voyage which lasted until 6th September 1700, and extended from 52 degrees north to 52 degrees south. The results were published in General Chart of the Variation of the Compass (1701). This was the first such chart to be published and the first on which isogonic, or Halleyan, lines appeared.

In November 1703, Halley was appointed Savilian Professor of Geometry at the University of Oxford, his theological enemies, John Tillotson and Bishop Stillingfleet having died, and received an honorary degree of doctor of laws in 1710. In 1705, applying historical astronomy methods, he published Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae, which stated his belief that the comet sightings of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 were of the same comet, which he predicted would return in 1758. Halley did not live to witness the comet’s return, but when it did, the comet became generally known as Halley’s Comet.

By 1706 Halley had learned Arabic and completed the translation started by Edward Bernard of Books V-VII of Apollonius’s Conics from copies found at Leiden and the Bodleian Library at Oxford. He also completed a new translation of the first four books from the original Greek that had been started by the late David Gregory. He published these along with his own reconstruction of Book VIII in the first complete Latin edition in 1710.

In 1716, Halley suggested a high-precision measurement of the distance between the Earth and the Sun by timing the transit of Venus. In doing so, he was following the method described by James Gregory in Optica Promota (in which the design of the Gregorian telescope is also described). It is reasonable to assume Halley possessed and had read this book given that the Gregorian design (a reflecting telescope) was the principal telescope design used in astronomy in Halley’s day. It is not to Halley’s credit that he failed to acknowledge Gregory’s priority in this matter. In 1718 he discovered the proper motion of the “fixed” stars by comparing his astrometric measurements with those given in Ptolemy’s Almagest. Arcturus and Sirius were two noted to have moved significantly, the latter having progressed 30 arc minutes (about the diameter of the moon) southwards in 1800 years.

In 1720, together with his friend the antiquarian William Stukeley, Halley participated in the first attempt to scientifically date Stonehenge. Assuming that the monument had been laid out using a magnetic compass, Stukeley and Halley attempted to calculate the perceived deviation introducing corrections from existing magnetic records, and suggested three dates (460 BCE, 220 CE and 920 CE), the earliest being the one accepted. These dates were wrong by thousands of years, but the idea that scientific methods could be used to date ancient monuments was revolutionary in its day.

Halley succeeded John Flamsteed in 1720 as Astronomer Royal, a position Halley held until his death. Halley died in 1742 at the age of 85. He was buried in the graveyard of the old church of St Margaret’s, Lee (since rebuilt), at Lee Terrace, Blackheath. He was interred in the same vault as the Astronomer Royal John Pond; the unmarked grave of the Astronomer Royal Nathaniel Bliss is nearby. His original tombstone was transferred by the Admiralty when the original Lee church was demolished and rebuilt – it can be seen today on the southern wall of the Camera Obscura at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. His marked grave can be seen at St Margaret’s Church, Lee Terrace.

For no other reason than the name, I give you a recipe for hasty pudding from a manuscript dated 1742. Hasty pudding was popular in the 18th century because, as the name implies, it was a quick and easy dessert. In this case, I suspect that the second sentence means to add the flour and butter mix to boiling milk and continue cooking. Otherwise the flour would not cook, and that would be rather nasty. Actually, the whole affair seems pretty nasty to me, but I like the idea of celebrating a man who tracked comets – which return slooooooooooowly – with a recipe for something hasty.

Hasty Pudding (1742)

Break an egg into fine flour, and with your hand work up as much as you can into as stiff a paste as possible.  Add milk boiling, and put in a little salt, some rose water, or orange-flower water, a few drops put to your taste, some butter, and keep stirring all one way till it is thick as you would have it, pour it oute and when it is in the dishe stick it all over with littel bits of butter, and beaten cinnamon over.