Sep 122017
 

Today is another coincidence day.  On this date in 1634 a Hospitaller gunpowder factory in Valletta on Malta accidentally blew up, killing 22 people and causing severe damage to a number of buildings. On this date in 1940 297,000 pounds of gunpowder blew up in a series of explosions at the Hercules Powder Factory of Kenvil, New Jersey, killing 51 workers and leveling a wide area. I guess that makes today a good day to talk about gunpowder.

There’s no doubt that gunpowder transformed the world and I’ve written about one aspect of this transformation: gunpowder put an end to fighting in heavy armor which, ironically, led to a glorification of the armor-clad knight in chivalric tales that were a nostalgic look back at a golden age that almost certainly never existed. All the tales of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, etc. are pure inventions of imagination with nothing whatsoever to do with historical reality. Seemingly people are constantly in search of an imaginary simpler and better world from the past – now out of reach. My academic interest, once upon of time, was with the invention of the Robin Hood legend which grew out of the same false nostalgia for a simpler age when a man of strong moral fibre, armed with only a bow and arrow (and occasionally sword or quarter staff) could right the wrongs of the world. Despite much historical wishful thinking, neither Robin Hood nor anyone like him ever existed. He is pure fiction emerging from the age of gunpowder in Europe.

There’s also a misguided belief, perpetrated by pseudo-historians, that gunpowder was invented by the Chinese for fireworks and other pleasures, but Europeans turned it into weapons of war.  Nope.  The Chinese used gunpowder in war for centuries as well as for fireworks. Gunpowder is now classed as one of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China: the magnetic compass, papermaking, printing, and gunpowder. These inventions were ascribed to Europeans in the Renaissance as evidence of their superiority over the Greeks and Romans of the ancient world, but now we know better. The Chinese got there first.

Gunpowder was the first chemical explosive and propellant to be invented. Gunpowder is the first physical explosive and propellant. Before its invention, many incendiary and burning devices had been used, including Greek fire but they were not explosive. The invention of gunpowder is usually attributed to experimentation in Chinese alchemy by Taoists in the pursuit of immortality. It was invented during the late Tang dynasty (9th century) but the earliest record of a written formula appeared in the Song dynasty (11th century).

Knowledge of gunpowder spread rapidly throughout the Old World possibly as a result of the Mongol conquests during the 13th century, with the earliest written formula for it outside of China contained within the Opus Majus, a 1267 treatise by the English friar Roger Bacon. It was employed in warfare to some effect from at least the 12th century in weapons such as fire arrows, bombs, and the fire lance before the appearance of the gun. While the fire lance was eventually supplanted by the gun, other gunpowder weapons such as rockets continued to be used in China, Korea, India, and eventually Europe. Bombs too never ceased to develop and continued to progress into the modern day as grenades, mines, and other explosive implements.

Rather than give you a long, dreary historical account, here’s a gallery of Chinese gunpowder weapons from the 12th and 13th centuries, consisting mostly of fire arrows (arrows with flaming gunpowder attached), hand-held cannons, and grenades.

 

Here then is a gallery of European gunpowder weapons, mostly cannons, showing that there was actually a fairly smooth evolution from China to Europe.

The two explosions that occurred on this date were both in munitions factories: a constant hazard in the manufacture of gunpowder. The thing about gunpowder is that the ingredients – charcoal, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), and sulfur – are not especially harmful by themselves. They are particularly inflammable when combined but also not especially harmful, certainly not explosive, unless they are confined in a tight space. I’ve made gunpowder since I was a small boy just for the fun of seeing it fizzle and burn. When gunpowder is tightly confined, the copious hot gases that are produced when it burns are deadly as a propellant or an explosive. The exact mixture of the three ingredients is very important, and was the subject of experiments for centuries. For example, the saltpeter is necessary to produce oxygen for the burning of the sulfur and charcoal, but too much saltpeter reduces the explosive effect of the gunpowder (as does not enough). Munitions factories generally have their gunpowder packed tightly, so it’s important to be very careful near it. A careless spark can be fatal.

The Hospitaller gunpowder factory in Valletta was built some time in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, replacing an earlier one in Fort St. Angelo in Birgu. It was located in the lower part of Valletta, close to the Slaves’ Prison. The explosion in 1641 damaged the nearby Jesuit church and college. The church’s façade was rebuilt in around 1647 by the architect Francesco Buonamici, while the damaged parts of the college were also rebuilt after the explosion.

The gunpowder factory was not rebuilt. In around 1667, a new factory was constructed in Floriana, far away from any residential areas. This factory was incorporated into the Ospizio complex in the early 18th century

The explosion at the Hercules Powder plant in Kenvil, New Jersey in 1941 leveled over 20 buildings. The explosions shook the area so forcefully that cars were bounced off the roads, most windows in homes miles away were broken and articles flew off shelves and walls. The explosions were felt as far away as Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and were picked up by the seismograph at Fordham University in New York, about 50 miles east of Kenvil. Not only were windows broken, but telephone wires were torn apart from their poles. Many windows in both Roxbury and Wharton high schools were shattered.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new.  Was the explosion an industrial accident or Nazi sabotage ?????? I don’t know enough about the event to draw an educated conclusion, but my money is on it being an accident. In war time fears are heightened, and it’s an easy cop-out to blame the enemy for catastrophic events rather than take responsibility yourself. The latter takes more spine than most people possess.

For a recipe I could go two ways, and I will take both paths.  There are actual recipes that use gunpowder. I imagine that they’re pretty unsavory (because of the sulfur), but they do exist. In fact sulfur does have various culinary uses. I used to be able to buy it in bulk for my home chemistry experiments from the grocery in South Australia as a boy in the early 1960s. Sulfur is actually a critical nutrient, found particularly in strong onions, to aid in vitamin D absorption and in the correct glucose metabolism. There are records of soldiers through history using gunpowder to add taste to field rations when they had no salt. But there’s also this one from the Old Foodie found here — http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2011/11/gunpowder-in-kitchen.html

Tongues, to cure. No. 1.

Take two fine bullocks’ tongues; wash them well in spring water; dry them thoroughly with a cloth, and salt them with common salt, a quarter of a pound of saltpetre, a quarter of a pound of treacle, and a quarter of a pound of gunpowder. Let them lie in this pickle for a month; turn and rub them every day; then take them out and dry them with a cloth; rub a little gunpowder over them, and hang them up for a month, when they will be fit to eat, previously soaking a few hours as customary.

The lady’s own cookery book, and new dinner-table director (1844) by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury

Try it at your peril. Actually, I don’t suppose it’s all that bad.

Then there’s ingredients or dishes called “gunpowder” because they resemble it.  There is Chinese gunpowder tea of course.  In Chinese it’s called 珠茶(zhū chá), literally “pearl tea.” Each leaf is rolled into a small round pellet which English colonists thought resembled grains of gunpowder. This rolling method of shaping tea is most often applied either to dried green tea (the most commonly encountered variety outside China) or oolong tea.

I’ll go with a south Indian dish which is called gunpowder in English, also known as chutney podi, a ground, powdered mix of toasted urad dal, chana dal, toor dal, grated coconut, dried red chiles,curry leaves, tamarind, jaggery, and salt, which can also be seasoned with mustard seeds, turmeric, and asafetida. It is mixed with oil or ghee and eaten with flatbread, rice, idli, or whatever. It can also be made with peanuts in place of some of the dal.  It is considered comfort food in many parts of south India.

Gunpowder or Chutney Podi

Ingredients:

250gm chana dal
250gm toor dal
6 dried red chiles
1 tbsp roasted Bengal gram (putana)
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp whole cumin
1 tbsp black sesame seeds

Instructions

Dry roast all the ingredients separately. There are various ways to do this.  I use a dry cast-iron skillet on medium heat. You have to stir the ingredients frequently making sure that they toast and become fragrant, but do not burn.

Let each of the ingredients cool, then mix them all together. Grind them to a powder, in batches if necessary.  I use a coffee grinder for this step (not one I use for coffee).

Serve with ghee or oil to accompany idli, flatbread, or rice.

Sep 202015
 

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Today is the birthday (1486) of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester and Duke of Cornwall as the eldest son and heir apparent of Henry VII of England. Arthur was viewed by contemporaries as the great hope of the newly established House of Tudor. His mother, Elizabeth of York, was the daughter of Edward IV, and his birth cemented the union between the House of Tudor and the House of York.

Plans for Arthur’s marriage began before his third birthday; he was installed as Prince of Wales two years later. He grew especially close to his siblings Margaret and Henry, Duke of York, with the latter of whom he shared some tutors. At the age of eleven, Arthur was formally betrothed to Catherine of Aragon, a daughter of the powerful Catholic monarchs in Spain, in an effort to forge an Anglo-Spanish alliance against France. Arthur was well educated and, contrary to modern belief, was in good health for the majority of his life. Soon after his marriage to Catherine in 1501, the couple took up residence at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, where Arthur died six months later of an unknown ailment. Catherine would later firmly state that the marriage had not been consummated.

One year after Arthur’s death, Henry VII renewed his efforts of sealing a marital alliance with Spain by arranging for Catherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, who had by then become Prince of Wales. Arthur’s untimely death paved the way for Henry’s accession as Henry VIII in 1509. The question of the consummation of Arthur and Catherine’s marriage cast doubt on the validity of Catherine’s union with Henry, eventually leading to the separation between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

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Arthur Tudor is not well known these days, and usually gets a brief mention only by way of “explaining” Henry’s marriage to Catherine, and the subsequent divorce leading to the break with Rome. But I find his life interesting in its own right, and helps us dig a little deeper into the relatively short but colorful Tudor era. By and large the Tudors tend to be simplistically stereotyped – Henry VII (“miserly and practical”), Henry VIII (“fat with 6 wives”), Edward VI (“sickly and young”), Mary (“bloody”), Elizabeth (“long-lived golden virgin”) – but because Arthur never made it to the throne he just gets forgotten.

In 1485, Henry Tudor became King of England upon defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. In an effort to strengthen the Tudor claim to the throne and emphasize his family’s Welsh, that is to say Romano-British, ancestry, Henry had royal genealogists trace his lineage back to the ancient British rulers and decided on naming his firstborn son after the legendary King Arthur. On this occasion, Camelot was identified as present-day Winchester, and his wife, Elizabeth of York, was sent to Saint Swithun’s Priory (today Winchester Cathedral Priory) in order to give birth there. Sir Francis Bacon wrote that although the Prince was born one month premature, he was “strong and able”. Young Arthur was viewed as “a living symbol” of not only the union between the House of Tudor and the House of York, but also of the end of the Wars of the Roses. In the opinion of contemporaries, Arthur was the great hope of the newly established House of Tudor.

Arthur became Duke of Cornwall at birth. Four days after his birth, the baby was baptized at Winchester Cathedral by the Bishop of Worcester, John Alcock, and his baptism was immediately followed by his Confirmation. John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, William FitzAlan, 16th Earl of Arundel, Queen Elizabeth Woodville and Cecily of York served as godparents; the latter two carrying the prince during the ceremony. Initially, Arthur’s nursery in Farnham was headed by Elizabeth Darcy, who had served as chief nurse for Edward IV’s children, including Arthur’s own mother. After Arthur was created Prince of Wales in 1490, he was awarded his own household structure. Over the next thirteen years, Henry VII and Elizabeth would have six more children, of whom only three – Margaret, Henry and Mary – would reach adulthood. Arthur was especially close to his sister Margaret (b. 1489) and his brother Henry (b. 1491), with whom he shared a nursery.

(c) Palace of Westminster; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

On 29 November 1489, after being made a Knight of the Bath, Arthur was appointed Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, and was invested as such at the Palace of Westminster on 27 February 1490. As part of his investiture ceremony, he progressed down the River Thames in the royal barge and was met at Chelsea by the Lord Mayor of London, John Mathewe, and at Lambeth by Spanish ambassadors. On 8 May 1491, he was made a Knight of the Garter at Saint George’s Chapel at Windsor Palace. It was around this time that Arthur began his formal education under John Rede, a former headmaster of Winchester College. His education was subsequently taken over by Bernard André, a blind poet, and then by Thomas Linacre, formerly Henry VII’s physician. Arthur’s education covered grammar, poetry, rhetoric and ethics and focused on history. Arthur was a very skilled pupil and André wrote that the Prince of Wales had either memorized or read a selection of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Terence, a good deal of Cicero and a wide span of historical works, including those of Thucydides, Caesar, Livy and Tacitus. Arthur was also a “superb archer”, and had learned to dance “right pleasant and honourably” by 1501.

The now popular, and largely unchallenged, belief that Arthur was sickly during his lifetime stems from a Victorian misunderstanding of a letter from 1502. On the contrary, there are no reports of Arthur being ill during his lifetime. Arthur grew up to be unusually tall for his age, and was considered handsome by the Spanish court. He had reddish hair, small eyes, a high-bridged nose and resembled his brother Henry, who was said to be “extremely handsome” by contemporaries.

In May 1490 Arthur was created warden of all the marches towards Scotland and the Earl of Surrey was appointed as the Prince’s deputy. From 1491, Arthur was named on peace commissions. In October 1492, when his father travelled to France, he was named Keeper of England and King’s Lieutenant. Following the example of Edward IV, Henry VII set up the Council of Wales and the Marches for Arthur in Wales, in order to enforce royal authority there. Although the council had already been set up in 1490, it was headed by Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford. Arthur was first dispatched to Wales in 1501, at the age of fifteen. In March 1493, Arthur was granted the power to appoint justices of oyer and terminer (fiscal power) who could inquire into franchises, thus strengthening the council’s authority. In November of that year, the Prince also received an extensive land grant in Wales, including the County of March.

Arthur was served by sons of English, Irish and Welsh nobility, such as Gearoid Óg FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, who had been brought to the English court as a consequence of the involvement of his father, Gerald Fitzgerald, 8th Earl of Kildare, in the crowning of pretender Lambert Simnel in Ireland during Henry VII’s reign. Other servants were Anthony Willoughby, a son of Robert Willoughby, 1st Baron Willoughby de Broke, Robert Radcliffe, the heir of the 9th Baron FitzWalter, Maurice St John, a favorite nephew of Arthur’s grandmother Lady Margaret Beaufort, and Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas, the son of powerful Welsh nobleman Thomas ap Rhys. Gruffydd grew quite close to Arthur and was buried in Worcester Cathedral upon his death in 1521, alongside Arthur’s tomb.

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Henry VII planned to marry Arthur to a daughter of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, in order to forge an Anglo-Spanish alliance against France. It was suggested that the choice of marrying Arthur to Ferdinand and Isabella’s youngest daughter, Catherine (b. 1485), would be appropriate. The Treaty of Medina del Campo (27 March 1489) provided that Arthur and Catherine would be married as soon as they reached canonical age; it also settled Catherine’s dowry at 200,000 crowns (the equivalent of £5 million in 2007). Since Arthur, not yet 14, was below the age of consent, a papal dispensation allowing the marriage was issued in February 1497, and the pair were betrothed by proxy on 25 August 1497. Two years later, a marriage by proxy took place at Arthur’s Tickenhill Manor in Bewdley, near Worcester; Arthur said to Roderigo de Puebla, who had acted as proxy for Catherine, that “he much rejoiced to contract the marriage because of his deep and sincere love for the Princess.”

In a letter from October 1499, Arthur, referring to Catherine as “my dearest spouse”, had written:

I cannot tell you what an earnest desire I feel to see your Highness, and how vexatious to me is this procrastination about your coming. Let [it] be hastened, [that] the love conceived between us and the wished-for joys may reap their proper fruit.

The young couple exchanged letters in Latin until 20 September 1501, when Arthur, having attained the age of 15, was deemed old enough to be married. Catherine landed in England about two weeks later, on 2 October 1501, at Plymouth. The next month, on 4 November 1501, the couple met each other for the first time at Dogmersfield in Hampshire. Arthur wrote to Catherine’s parents that he would be “a true and loving husband”; the couple soon discovered that they had mastered different pronunciations of Latin and so were unable to communicate orally. Five days later, on 9 November 1501, Catherine arrived in London.

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On 14 November 1501, the marriage ceremony finally took place at Saint Paul’s Cathedral; both Arthur and Catherine wore white satin. The ceremony was conducted by Henry Deane, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was assisted by William Warham, Bishop of London. Following the ceremony, Arthur and Catherine left the Cathedral and headed for Baynard’s Castle, where they were entertained by “the best voiced children of the King’s chapel, who sang right sweetly with quaint harmony”.

What followed was a ceremonial laid down by Lady Margaret Beaufort: the bed was sprinkled with holy water, after which Catherine was led away from the wedding feast by her ladies-in-waiting. She was undressed, veiled and “reverently” laid in bed, while Arthur, “in his shirt, with a gown cast about him”, was escorted by his gentlemen into the bedchamber, while viols and tabors played. The Bishop of London blessed the bed and prayed for the marriage to be fruitful, after which the couple were left alone.

After residing at Tickenhill Manor for a month, Arthur and Catherine left London and headed for the marches in Wales, where they established their household at Ludlow Castle. Arthur had been growing weaker since his wedding, and although Catherine was reluctant to follow him, she was ordered by Henry VII to join her husband. In March 1502, Arthur and Catherine were afflicted by an unknown illness, “a malign vapour which proceeded from the air”. While Catherine recovered, Arthur died on 2 April 1502 at Ludlow.

News of Arthur’s death reached Henry VII’s court late on 4 April. The King was awoken from his sleep by his confessor, who quoted Job by asking Henry “If we receive good things at the hands of God, why may we not endure evil things?” He then told the king that “[his] dearest son hath departed to God”, and Henry burst into tears.

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On 8 April, a general procession took place for the salvation of Arthur’s soul. That night, a dirge was sung in Saint Paul’s Cathedral and every parish church in London. On 23 April, Arthur’s body, which had previously been embalmed, sprinkled with holy water and sheltered with a canopy, was carried out of Ludlow Castle and into the Parish Church of Ludlow by various noblemen and gentlemen. On 25 April, Arthur’s body was taken to Worcester Cathedral via the River Severn, in a “special wagon upholstered in black and drawn by six horses, also caparisoned (draped) in black”. As was customary, Catherine did not attend the funeral.] The Earl of Surrey acted as chief mourner. At the end of the ceremony, Sir William Uvedale, Sir Richard Croft and Arthur’s household ushers broke their staves of office and threw them into the Prince’s grave. During the funeral, Arthur’s own arms were shown alongside those of Cadwaladr ap Gruffydd and Brutus of Troy. Two years later, a chantry was erected over Arthur’s grave.

It is tempting to wonder what would have happened in England had Arthur lived and become king: no divorce, no Reformation, no brutal purges, no Elizabethan Age, no wars with Spain – England perhaps still a Catholic country. It’s hard to imagine. So much that has carried down to the present day, especially the Church of England, was formed in the Tudor era. From what little we know, Arthur was intelligent, kind and gentle. Maybe his would have been a tranquil reign. It’s idle speculation, of course. What happened, happened.

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Arthur’s short life spanned the 15th and 16th centuries when cooking followed medieval norms. Here is a recipe taken from Harleian MS 279 for a simple poached chicken in ale:

Chykonys in bruette. Take an Sethe Chykonys, & smyte hem to gobettys; þan take Pepir, Gyngere, an Brede y-ground, & temper it vppe wyth þe self brothe, an with Ale; an coloure it with Safroun, an sethe an serue forth.

This recipe is easy enough to follow:

Put a stewing hen (or hens for a big group) in a pot and cover with chicken broth or water. Bring to a slow simmer and poach for about 90 minutes. Remove from the broth and let cool a little. Then, using a sharp cleaver, chop the chicken into bite sized pieces, bones and all. You can, of course, strip the meat from the bones and then chop it – more suited to modern tastes. (In China, hacking into bony morsels is the norm.) Put the chicken bits into a pan with a little of the broth and flavor with freshly ground pepper and thinly sliced fresh ginger. Thicken with bread crumbs (or flour). Add ale and some strands of saffron and warm through gently until thick and smooth.

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Choice of ale is a challenge but will make a big difference to the flavor of the sauce. Historically ale was fermented without hops, and was made bitter with a blend of bitter herbs known as gruit. Gruit was a mix of herbs, commonly including sweet gale (Myrica gale), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), and heather (Calluna vulgaris). But gruit varied somewhat, each gruit producer including different herbs to produce unique flavors and effects. Other adjunct herbs included black henbane, juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, aniseed, nutmeg, and cinnamon in variable proportions.

Good luck finding ales without hops these days. Brewing your own allows you the opportunity to produce distinctive flavors. The 1990s microbrewery movement in the U.S. and Europe saw a renewed interest in unhopped beers and several have tried their hand at reviving ales brewed with gruits, or plants that once were used in it. Commercial examples include Fraoch (using heather flowers, sweet gale and ginger) and Alba (using pine twigs and spruce buds) from Williams Brothers in Scotland; Myrica (using sweet gale) from O’Hanlons in England; Gageleer (also using sweet gale) from Proefbrouwerij in Belgium; Cervoise from Lancelot in Brittany (using a gruit containing heather flowers, spices and some hops); Artemis from Moonlight Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California (using mugwort and wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, also known as bee balm or horsemint); Alaskan Winter Ale from Alaskan Brewing Company, Anchor Brewing Company’s Our Special Ale, Haines Brewing Company’s Spruce Tip Ale, Kodiak Island Brewing Company’s Island Trails Spruce Tip Wheat Wine, and Baranof Island Brewing Company’s Sitka Spruce Tip Ale, (all southeast Alaskan companies, except Anchor) using young Sitka spruce tips; Bog Water from Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, Canada (using Myrica gale, also known as bog myrtle), and Spring Fever Gruit from Salt Spring Island Brewery (made from organic barley, and containing some heather, among other spices). Brasserie Dupont in Wallonia, Belgium produces a gruit (Cervesia) for The Archeosite D’Aubechies an open-air museum that interprets life from the Iron Age to the Roman Era. The recipe is based on archeological research. In the United States this beer is sold as Posca Rustica.