May 062018
 

Today is the birthday (1856) of Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Schlomo Freud. I was rather surprised to discover that I had not commemorated Freud in a post previously, even though I have posted numerous things about him and his (erstwhile) followers. Freud is rather like Marx in my mind in that (a) he was not a Freudian (any more than Marx was a Marxist), (b) his ideas were complex and changeable over his lifetime, and (c) he was and is misunderstood by the general public. I lectured on Freud for decades, and I always prefaced my lectures with: “You probably all think that Freud was all wrong and his theories are outdated. Well, think again. He was wrong about a lot of things, but he was also right about a lot of things, and I expect that many of his theories that were new in his day, you take for granted as obvious without attributing them to Freud.” Many of his theories, such as the psychosexual stages of development, are patently the result of his own self analysis and are rooted in his culture, and are, therefore, not generalizable to all cultures. Anthropologists were on that path of criticism early on while Freud was still alive, and, one way or another, put serious dents in his theory. But we use the term “Freudian slip” as a matter of course, perhaps not as trenchantly as Freud, but still with a sense that a slip of the tongue is revealing. More to the point, we accept the existence of thoughts and motivations that lie below the surface of what is conscious to us. The common term is “subconscious” although Freud used the term “unconscious.” Before Freud such an idea did not exist. He saw dreams and slips as avenues into the unconscious, which is not a normal part of modern therapies, but it is not a trivial insight. He pioneered the “talking cure” – using various methods, such as free association, to get patients to talk through their issues (under guidance from a trained therapist). Unfortunately, the question that has never fully been answered is whether the talking cure actually works.

Freud was born to Jewish parents in the Moravian town of Freiberg, in the Austrian Empire (later Příbor, Czech Republic), the first of eight children. Both of his parents were from Galicia, in modern-day Ukraine. His father, Jakob Freud (1815–1896), a wool merchant, had two sons, Emanuel (1833–1914) and Philipp (1836–1911), by his first marriage. Jakob’s family were Hasidic Jews, and although Jakob himself had moved away from the tradition, he came to be known for his Torah study. He and Freud’s mother, Amalia Nathansohn, who was 20 years younger and his third wife, were struggling financially and living in a rented room, in a locksmith’s house at Schlossergasse 117 when their son Sigmund was born.

In 1859, the Freud family left Freiberg. Freud’s half brothers emigrated to Manchester in England, parting him from the “inseparable” playmate of his early childhood, Emanuel’s son, John. Jakob Freud took his wife and two children (Freud’s sister, Anna, was born in 1858; a brother, Julius born in 1857, had died in infancy) first to Leipzig and then in 1860 to Vienna where four sisters and a brother were born. In 1865, the 9-year-old Freud entered the Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium, a prominent high school. He proved an outstanding pupil and graduated from the Matura in 1873 with honors. He loved literature and was proficient in German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Freud entered the University of Vienna at age 17. He had planned to study law, but entered the medical department at the university, where his studies included philosophy under Franz Brentano, physiology under Ernst Brücke, and zoology under Darwinist professor Carl Claus. He graduated with a medical degree in 1881.

In 1882, Freud began his medical career at the Vienna General Hospital. His research work in cerebral anatomy led to the publication of an influential paper on the palliative effects of cocaine in 1884 and his work on aphasia would form the basis of his first book On the Aphasias: a Critical Study, published in 1891. Over a 3-year period, Freud worked in various departments of the hospital. His time spent in Theodor Meynert’s psychiatric clinic and as a locum in a local asylum led to an increased interest in clinical work. His substantial body of published research led to his appointment as a university lecturer or docent in neuropathology in 1885, a non-salaried post but one which entitled him to give lectures at the University of Vienna. In 1886, Freud resigned his hospital post and entered private practice specializing in “nervous disorders”. The same year he married Martha Bernays, the granddaughter of Isaac Bernays, a chief rabbi in Hamburg. The couple had six children: Mathilde (b. 1887), Jean-Martin (b. 1889), Oliver (b. 1891), Ernst (b. 1892), Sophie (b. 1893), and Anna (b. 1895). From 1891 until they left Vienna in 1938, Freud and his family lived in an apartment at Berggasse 19, near Innere Stadt, a historical district of Vienna.

Freud had greatly admired his philosophy tutor, Brentano, who was known for his theories of perception and introspection, as well as Theodor Lipps who was one of the main contemporary theorists of the concepts of the unconscious and empathy. Brentano discussed the possible existence of the unconscious mind in his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874). Although Brentano denied its existence, his discussion of the unconscious probably helped introduce Freud to the concept. Freud owned and made use of Charles Darwin’s major evolutionary writings, and was also influenced by Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869).

Though Freud denied having read Friedrich Nietzsche until late in life, analogies between his work and that of Nietzsche were pointed out almost as soon as he developed a following. One historian concluded, based on Freud’s correspondence with his adolescent friend Eduard Silberstein, that Freud read The Birth of Tragedy and the first two of the Untimely Meditations when he was 17. In 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death, Freud bought his collected works. He told his friend, Fliess, that he hoped to find in Nietzsche’s works “the words for much that remains mute in me.” Later, he said he had not yet opened them. Freud came to treat Nietzsche’s writings “as texts to be resisted far more than to be studied.” His interest in philosophy declined after he had decided on a career in neurology.

In October 1885, Freud went to Paris on a fellowship to study with Jean-Martin Charcot, who was conducting scientific research into hypnosis. He was later to recall the experience of this stay as catalytic in turning him toward the practice of medical psychopathology and away from a less financially promising career in neurology research. Charcot specialized in the study of hysteria and susceptibility to hypnosis, which he frequently demonstrated with patients on stage in front of an audience. Once he had set up in private practice in 1886, Freud began using hypnosis in his clinical work. He adopted the approach of his friend and collaborator, Josef Breuer, in a use of hypnosis which was different from the French methods he had studied in that it did not use suggestion. The treatment of one particular patient of Breuer’s proved to be transformative for Freud’s clinical practice. Described as Anna O., she was invited to talk about her symptoms while under hypnosis (she coined the phrase “talking cure” for her treatment). In the course of talking in this way these symptoms became reduced in severity as she retrieved memories of traumatic incidents associated with their onset.

Anna O.

Freud’s clinical work eventually led him to the conclusion that more consistent and effective symptom relief, compared to that achieved by using hypnosis, could be obtained by encouraging patients to talk freely, without censorship or inhibition, about whatever ideas or memories occurred to them. In conjunction with this procedure, which he called “free association”, Freud found that patients’ dreams could be fruitfully analyzed to reveal the complex structuring of unconscious material and to demonstrate the psychic action of repression which underlay symptom formation. By 1896, Freud had abandoned hypnosis and was using the term “psychoanalysis” to refer to his new clinical method and the theories on which it was based.

Freud’s development of these new theories took place during a period in which he experienced heart irregularities, disturbing dreams and periods of depression, a “neurasthenia” which he linked to the death of his father in 1896 and which prompted a “self-analysis” of his own dreams and memories of childhood. His explorations of his feelings of hostility to his father and rivalrous jealousy over his mother’s affections led him to fundamentally revise his theory of the origin of the neuroses. On the basis of his early clinical work, Freud had postulated that unconscious memories of sexual molestation in early childhood were a necessary precondition for the psychoneuroses (hysteria and obsessional neurosis), a formulation now known as Freud’s seduction theory. In the light of his self-analysis, Freud abandoned the theory that every neurosis can be traced back to the effects of infantile sexual abuse, now arguing that infantile sexual scenarios still had a causative function, but it did not matter whether they were real or imagined and that in either case they became pathogenic only when acting as repressed memories.

This transition from the theory of infantile sexual trauma as a general explanation of how all neuroses originate to one that presupposes an autonomous infantile sexuality provided the basis for Freud’s subsequent formulation of the theory of the Oedipus complex and the development of the superego. Freud described the evolution of his clinical method and set out his theory of the psychogenetic origins of hysteria, demonstrated in a number of case histories, in Studies on Hysteria published in 1895 (co-authored with Josef Breuer). In 1899 he published The Interpretation of Dreams in which, following a critical review of existing theory, Freud gives detailed interpretations of his own and his patients’ dreams in terms of wish-fulfillments made subject to the repression and censorship of the “dream work”. He then sets out the theoretical model of mental structure (the unconscious, pre-conscious and conscious) on which this account is based. An abridged version, On Dreams, was published in 1901. In works which would win him a more general readership, Freud applied his theories outside the clinical setting in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) and Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905).[42] In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, published in 1905, Freud elaborates his theory of infantile sexuality, describing its “polymorphous perverse” forms and the functioning of the “drives”, to which it gives rise, in the formation of sexual identity. The same year he published ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (Dora)’ which became one of his more famous and controversial case studies.

There is much more, but I will stop there. I taught Freudian theory in anthropology classes related to psychology and anthropology, and I usually used Totem and Taboo (1913) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930), although I ranged much farther afield than these texts in my lectures, and did occasionally assign other readings. One great difficulty with Totem and Taboo is that Freud was using anthropological texts that nowadays have zero value because they were not based on actual fieldwork, but focused on the idea that all cultures evolve in the same ways over time. By this theory, modern cultures that are more primitive than Western civilization are at an earlier stage of cultural evolution. Therefore, they can be studied to investigate how we behaved in past millennia. This theory has been completely debunked, so Freud’s theories are based on worthless conjectures, and therefore are equally worthless. Totem and Taboo is completely mistaken when it comes to understanding what totemism is all about.

In the strict realm of psychoanalysis, Freud started a movement that is now a gigantic business. Freud had 2 principal concepts that he adhered to strictly: (1) Therapy is only for people with serious problems that they wish to be rid of. As far as Freud was concerned, if a person had a condition that he deemed clinical, but that person was coping with it, there was no point in therapy; (2) Therapy should be intensive and finite. Freud saw his patients every day and expected the therapy to result in a cure in a limited period of time. Thus, Freud treated psychoanalysis like physicians in other specialties treated illnesses within their realms. Freud’s ideas have fallen by the wayside completely in this regard. Many people start seeing therapists as teenagers or young adults, and continue their entire lives. Furthermore, therapy has shifted from medical practitioners to a host of allied professionals, including psychologists with M.A.s or Ph.D.s, and social workers. Psychiatrists with M.D.s spend most of their time dispensing medications rather than working in therapy. Approaches to therapy have also diversified enormously, starting with Freud’s own students who diverged from him in different ways almost as soon as they had qualified.

Wolf Man

This state of affairs has caused a great many critics to wonder (out loud) whether therapy actually works. Freud’s own patients could be critical of the efficacy of Freud’s work with them. The Wolf Man (Sergei Pankejeff), for example, ended up in analysis for 6 decades (including with Freud’s students) even though Freud pronounced him cured. It is also the case that many psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia, cannot be cured by psychoanalysis because they do not stem from childhood (or other) traumas (conscious or unconscious), but from biophysical/neurological problems. Freud, like many pioneers, was making up psychoanalysis from scratch, so it is unfair to dwell too long on his shortcomings. He made many missteps, but that is no reason to diminish his stature as an original thinker of great insight.

Freud wrote a fair bit about his home life in private notes as well as publications, and there is a 2000 book Zu Tisch bei Sigmund Freud (At table with Sigmund Freud) that discusses his eating habits. Even though he was married to the granddaughter of a famous rabbi he not only did not keep kosher, he actually believed the diet was harmful to one’s health. Being the (amateur) Freudian for a moment, I suspect that this attitude had a lot to do with his vehement rejection of God and Judaism which in turn stemmed from his conflicts with his father. He also had some seemingly irrational food aversions, the two most well known being chicken and cauliflower. According to his son, Martin, he had an aphorism, “One shouldn’t kill any chickens; let them live and lay eggs.”

You should not be surprised to learn that Freud saw asparagus as an obvious phallic symbol and that eating asparagus (which was conventionally done with the fingers in the late 19th century), was a substitute for masturbation. It may cause you to smile, therefore, to know that he was fond of asparagus. He was also fond of picking wild mushrooms to eat instead of store bought mushrooms. His wife apparently disapproved of this habit, although it is not clear whether she did not trust Freud to distinguish edible from poisonous fungi or whether she thought they were unclean (in the Judaic sense).

My suggestion for today’s recipe, therefore, is to make a wild mushroom omelet with a side dish of asparagus. You can follow this with homemade vanilla ice cream which was Freud’s favorite dessert.

Nov 172017
 

Today is the birthday (1937) of Peter Cook who is widely regarded as the leading light of the British satire boom of the 1960s. Cook had an enormous influence on legendary British comedians who achieved worldwide prominence including his partner Dudley Moore and the Monty Python group (many of whom started on Cook’s shows). He was also a major player in the rise to fame of the likes of David Frost whose stage presence was actually modelled on Cook’s. I want to focus on Cook today because he was both brilliant and completely misunderstood in his personal life and ambitions.  On his death some critics chose to see Cook’s life as tragic, insofar as the brilliance of his youth did not translate into a lifetime of international fame and fortune as it did for so many people he got started in the business. However, Cook himself always maintained he had no ambitions at all for sustained success. He assessed happiness by his friendships and his enjoyment of life. Eric Idle and Stephen Fry said Cook had not wasted his talent but rather that the newspapers had tried to waste him. Some put his lack of fame and ambition down to alcoholism or bad luck or poor choices or whatever. It’s all nonsense. Cook lived the life he wanted and I admire him greatly for that.

In 2005 The Guardian called Cook “the father of modern satire” and he was ranked number one in the Comedians’ Comedian, a poll of over 300 comics, comedy writers, producers, and directors throughout the English-speaking world. He was the master of the dry, laconic, one-line comment that perfectly summed up the absurdity of his era and of life. A very small sample:

All in all, I’d rather have been a judge than a miner. And what’s more, being a miner, as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with judges.

What terrible sins I have working for me. I suppose it’s the wages.

As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are.

We believe this to be the work of thieves, and I’ll tell you why. The whole pattern is very reminiscent of past robberies where we have found thieves to be involved. The tell-tale loss of property — that’s one of the signs we look for.

Here’s a classic clip of Pete and Dud in a pub scene from Not Only . . . But Also. It’s such a period piece that you’ll never see the likes of it again. You can tell that Cook and Moore are not using a script, but are just working on a dialogue impromptu, based on a general idea they thought up. Cook also “corpses” in the sketch, that is, breaks character with a faint laugh when he is amused by his own banter. Nowadays such scenes would be consigned to blooper reels. In later life Cook readily admitted that one of his favorite things in the world was to sit and chat with friends.  It shows.

Cook was born at his parents’ house, “Shearbridge,” in Middle Warberry Road, Torquay, Devon. He was the only son and eldest of the three children of Alexander Edward “Alec” Cook (1906–1984), a colonial civil servant, and his wife Ethel Catherine Margaret, née Mayo (1908–1994). He was educated at Radley College and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied French and German. As a student, Cook initially intended to become a career diplomat like his father, but in later life he claimed that he couldn’t because “Britain had run out of colonies.” Cook was a good student and was awarded an upper second in his final tripos. He could have achieved first class honors, but in his final year at Cambridge he was also running reviews in London’s West End. He always considered himself an amateur comedian, and would have sat the Foreign Office exam and joined the diplomatic service if he’d attained a first. Just as well. He did say in later life, though, “I’d still say yes if the governorship of Bermuda came up. I’ve always wanted to wear a plumed hat.”

At Pembroke Cook performed and wrote comedy sketches as a member of the Cambridge Footlights Club, and became president in 1960. Whilst still at university, Cook wrote for Kenneth Williams, providing several sketches for Williams’ hit West End comedy revue Pieces of Eight and much of the follow-up, One Over the Eight, before finding prominence in his own right in a four-man group satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe, with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore. Beyond the Fringe became a great success in London after being first performed at the Edinburgh Festival and included Cook impersonating the prime minister, Harold Macmillan. This was one of the first occasions satirical political mimicry had been attempted in live theater and it shocked audiences. During one performance, Macmillan was in the theater and Cook departed from his script and attacked him verbally.

In 1961, Cook opened The Establishment, a club at 18 Greek Street in Soho in London, presenting fellow comedians in a nightclub setting. Cook said it was a satirical venue modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets … which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” As a members-only venue it was outside the censorship restrictions. Cook befriended and supported Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who began his British solo career at the club. Dudley Moore’s jazz trio played in the basement of the club during the early 1960s.

In 1962, the BBC commissioned a pilot for a television series of satirical sketches based on the Establishment Club, but it was not immediately picked up and Cook went to New York City for a year to perform Beyond The Fringe on Broadway. When he returned, the pilot had been refashioned as That Was the Week That Was and had made a star of David Frost, something Cook resented. He complained that Frost’s success was based on copying Cook’s own stage persona and Cook dubbed him “the bubonic plagiarist.” Cook said that his only regret in life, according to Alan Bennett, had been saving Frost from drowning. This incident occurred in the summer of 1963, when the rivalry between the two men was at its height. Cook said he realized at the time that Frost’s potential drowning would have looked deliberate if he had not been rescued.

Around this time, Cook provided financial backing for the satirical magazine Private Eye, supporting it through difficult periods, particularly in libel trials. Cook invested his own money and solicited investment from his friends. For a time, the magazine was produced from the premises of the Establishment Club. Cook expanded television comedy with Eleanor Bron, John Bird and John Fortune. His first regular television spot was on Granada Television’s Braden Beat with Bernard Braden, where he featured his most enduring character: the static, dour and monotonal E. L. Wisty, whom Cook had conceived for Radley College’s Marionette Society.

Cook’s comedy partnership with Dudley Moore led to Not Only… But Also. This was originally intended by the BBC as a vehicle for Moore’s music. The working title was Not Only Dudley Moore, But Also His Guests. But Moore was unsure about going it alone, so he invited Cook along to guest in the pilot (along with Diahann Carroll and John Lennon). The studio audience loved their double act, in particular the first “Dagenham Dialogue,” “A Spot of the Usual Trouble,” and so Cook was invited to become a permanent fixture and the show became Not Only Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, But Also Their Guests, though it was only ever really referred to as Not Only… But Also. Cook played characters such as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and the two men created their Pete and Dud alter egos for which old gits like me will always remember them. Other sketches included “Superthunderstingcar”, a parody of the Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows, and Cook’s pastiche of 1960s trendy arts documentaries – satirized in a parody segment on Greta Garbo.

When Cook learned a few years later that the videotapes of the series were to be wiped, a common practice at the time, he offered to buy the recordings from the BBC but was refused because of copyright issues. He suggested he could purchase new tapes so that the BBC would have no need to erase the originals, but this offer was also turned down. Of the original 22 programs, only eight still survive complete. With The Wrong Box (1966) and Bedazzled (1967) Cook and Moore began to act in films together. The underlying story of Bedazzled is credited to Cook and Moore and its screenplay to Cook. Bedazzled is a comic version of the Faust story, starring Cook as George Spigott (The Devil) who tempts Stanley Moon (Moore), a frustrated, short-order chef, with the promise of gaining his heart’s desire – the unattainable beauty and waitress at his cafe, Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron) – in exchange for his soul, but repeatedly tricks him. The film features cameo appearances by Barry Humphries as Envy and Raquel Welch as Lust. Moore composed the soundtrack music and co-wrote (with Cook) the songs performed in the film. His jazz trio backed Cook on the theme, a parodic anti-love song, which Cook delivered in a monotonous deadpan voice and included his familiar put-down, “you fill me with inertia.” The Brendan Fraser 2000 remake of Bedazzled is – mercifully – completely re-written, and is funny in its own way. But it pales in comparison with the original.

I won’t wear you out with reams of biographical stuff from the late 1960s until Cook’s death in 1995. You can look it up.  While you’re at it, find his old routines on YouTube. Cook died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on 9 January 1995, aged 57. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes were buried in an unmarked plot behind St John-at-Hampstead, not far from his house in Perrins Walk. Dudley Moore attended Cook’s memorial service at John-at-Hampstead on 30 April 1995. He and Martin Lewis presented a two-night memorial for Cook at The Improv in Los Angeles, on 15 and 16 November 1995, to mark what would have been Cook’s 58th birthday.

Stephen Fry had this to say in memoriam because he was so disgusted with the mainstream obituaries treating Cook as a man with “undeveloped potential” and “unfulfilled promise” (and such):

Being British in this part of the century meant living in the country that had Peter Cook in it. There are wits and there are clowns in comedy, I suppose. Peter was a wit, it goes without saying, but he was funny in an almost supernatural way that has never been matched by anyone I’ve met or even heard about. It wasn’t to do with facial expression or epigrammatic wit, or cattiness or rant or anger or technique: he had funniness in the same way that beautiful people have beauty or dancers have line and grace. He had an ability to make people gasp and gasp and gasp for breath like landed fish.

Fry also said that Peter Cook was, “The funniest man who ever drew breath.”

There’s a certain ironic pleasure in finding a recipe to suit a man called Cook. In a newspaper interview he remarked, “Food is so simple. You go out, buy the best bit of fresh stuff and cook it. What could be simpler? But they will muck it up. My favourite food is asparagus.” I’m not sure you can take him seriously, but it’s a start. In that same interview is this:

He lit another cigarette, pushed his plate away, leaving untouched a side dish of spinach. I said huh, what about the spinach? “What are you, some sort of nanny? I always order spinach when I’m here. I hate spinach. I get my own back by leaving it.”

I love asparagus too, so this is not hard. I had an asparagus patch in my garden for 20 years and loved harvesting great handfuls and cooking it simply: steamed and served with butter or hollandaise sauce. If you grow it at home you can be sure to cut only the tender parts of the stalks, but commercial growers harvest the stalks below ground level and you end up with a lot of useless woody ends. If you buy your asparagus, bend the stems before cooking them. They will naturally snap at the point that divides the edible tender tops from the woody bottoms.

I agree with Cook’s general point – “buy the best bit of fresh stuff and cook it” – but I don’t know what he means by mucking it up. Does he mean cooking it badly, or making too complex a dish? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Asparagus is dead easy to cook badly. Drowning it in water and boiling it for too long will do it. Light steaming for 5 to 10 minutes is all it takes. If you burden asparagus with too many other ingredients you can also lose its subtle flavor. It does not need herbs or spices, and will get lost if you use them.  Butter and eggs are fine partners, though. I’m fond of asparagus omelets, for example. Lightly steam the asparagus first, make an omelet and then add the asparagus as a filling when serving.

My favorite sandwich, without question, is grilled ham and asparagus. Butter two slices of good white bread.  Make a sandwich, with the butter on the outside, with a layer of ham and a layer of steamed asparagus stalks. Cook the sandwich in a hot, dry skillet browning both sides evenly.

May 032016
 

my2

Today is the birthday (1446) of Margaret of York  – also by marriage known as Margaret of Burgundy – the duchess of Burgundy as the third wife of Charles the Bold, and protector of the duchy after his death. She was a daughter of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and the sister of two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. She was born at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in England, and she died at Mechelen in Flanders, an important center for the duchy of Burgundy in the 15th century. What follows is my usual dribble about historical events and machinations centered on Margaret. But I can sum it up in a simple generalization, and you can skip to my recipe for white asparagus if you are not interested in the details. Nations such as England, France, Belgium, and Holland were not created by God soon after he separated sea and dry land on the third day of creation; they are artifacts of history emerging from an incredibly complex series of events occurring over hundreds of years. In the 15th century circumstances were remarkably fluid, with kingdoms and duchies vying for territory, money, and power. Sometimes women were simply pawns in the game, being used simply as marriage partners to cement ties between power blocs.  Margaret refused to be a pawn; she wanted to be an active agent for change and to be actively involved in contemporary  power relationships.

Duchess Isabella of Burgundy, the mother of Charles the Bold, was, through her blood-ties and her perception of Burgundian interests, pro-English. As a granddaughter of John of Gaunt, she was consequently sympathetic to the House of Lancaster. She believed that Burgundian trade, from which the duchy drew its vast wealth, depended upon friendly relations with England. For this reason she was prepared to favor any English faction which was willing to favor Burgundy. By 1454, she favored the House of York, headed by Margaret’s father, Richard, 3rd Duke of York. Although the King of England, Henry VI, was the head of the House of Lancaster, his wife, Margaret of Anjou, was a niece of Burgundy’s bitter enemy, Charles VII of France, and was herself an enemy of the Burgundians. The Duke of York, by contrast, shared Burgundy’s enmity towards the French, and preferred the Burgundians. Thus, when the Duke of York came to power in 1453–54, during Henry VI’s first period of insanity, negotiations were made between himself and Isabella for a marriage between Charles the Bold, then Count of Charolais, and one of York’s unmarried daughters, of whom the 8-year old Margaret was the youngest. The negotiations petered out, however, due to power struggles in England, and the preference of Charles’s father, Philip the Good, for a French alliance. Philip had Charles betrothed to Isabella of Bourbon, the daughter of Charles I, Duke of Bourbon, and Agnes of Burgundy, in late March 1454, and the pair were married on 31 October 1454.

my6

Margaret, being a useful bargaining tool to her family, was still unmarried at age 19, when Isabella of Bourbon died in September 1465. She had borne Charles a daughter, Mary, which made it an imperative for him to remarry and father a son. The situation had changed since 1454. Charles was now highly respected by his father, who had in his old age entrusted the rule of Burgundy to his son. Charles was pro-English, and wished to make an English marriage and alliance against the French. For her own part, Margaret’s family was far more powerful and secure than it had been in 1454: her father had been killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460, but her brother was now Edward IV, opposed ineffectively only by Margaret of Anjou and her son, Edward of Westminster. This made Margaret a far more valuable bride than she had been as the mere daughter of a duke. Because of this, Charles sent his close advisor, Guillaume de Clugny, to London weeks after the death of his wife, to propose to Edward IV a marriage between Charles and Margaret. Edward responded warmly, and in the Spring of 1466 sent his brother-in-law, Lord Scales, to Burgundy, where Scales made a formal offer of Margaret’s hand in marriage to Charles, and put forward Edward’s own proposal of a reciprocal marriage between Charles’s daughter Mary and Edward’s brother, George, 1st Duke of Clarence.

The marriage did not take place immediately, however. Continued talks were required, particularly since Charles was unwilling to marry his only child and potential heiress to Clarence, and these talks were undertaken by Anthony, Grand Bastard of Burgundy, Charles’ half-brother. But added problems were introduced by the French: Louis XI did not want an alliance between Burgundy and England, his two greatest enemies. Louis accordingly tried to break the two apart, by offering the hand of his elder daughter, Anne, to Charles, that of his younger daughter, Joan, to Edward’s youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and that of his brother-in-law, Philip of Bresse, to Margaret. Edward showed interest in the latter two propositions, offending Charles the Bold, and delaying Anglo-Burgundian relations.

Instead, in 1466, Margaret was betrothed to Peter, Constable of Portugal, whom the rebellious Catalans had invited to become their king. Peter was himself a nephew of Duchess Isabella of Burgundy, and the betrothal thus signified an attempt to placate Burgundy. It was not to be, however. Worn out by illness, disappointments, and overwork, Peter died on 29 June 1466, leaving Margaret available once more.

my7

By 1467, the situation had changed again. Philip the Good had died, and Charles the Bold had become Duke of Burgundy. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, had turned against Edward IV, and was plotting against him with French support. Edward in such circumstances needed the support of Charles, and provided no further obstacles to the marriage negotiations, formally agreeing to it in October 1467. Negotiations between the duke’s mother, Isabella, and the king of England’s in-laws, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers, then proceeded between December 1467 and June 1468. During this time, Louis XI did all he could to prevent the marriage, demanding that the Pope refuse to give a dispensation for the marriage (the pair were cousins in the fourth degree which was incestuous under contemporary church law), promising trade favors to the English, undermining Edward’s credit with the international bankers to prevent him being able to pay for Margaret’s dowry, encouraging a Lancastrian invasion of Wales, and slandering Margaret, claiming that she was not a virgin and had borne a bastard son. He was ignored, however, a dispensation was secured after Burgundian bribes secured papal acquiescence, and a complex agreement was drawn up between England and Burgundy, covering mutual defense, trade, currency exchange, fishing rights and freedom of travel, all based on the marriage between the duke and Margaret. By the terms of the marriage contract, Margaret retained her rights to the English throne, and her dowry was promised to Burgundy even if she died within the first year (often, the dowry would return to the bride’s family under such circumstances). For his own part, Charles dowered Margaret with the cities of Mechelen, Oudenaarde, and Dendermonde.

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The marriage contract was completed in February 1468, and signed by Edward IV in March. The Papal dispensation arrived in late May, and preparations to send Margaret to Burgundy began. There was little enthusiasm for it outside Burgundy; the French naturally detested this union between their two enemies, whilst the English merchants, who still suffered from restrictions on the sale of their cloth in England, showed their disapproval by attacking Dutch and Flemish merchants amongst them.

Margaret left Margate for Sluys on 23rd June 1468. Lord Scales and Richard Boyville were among those who escorted her to meet her future bridegroom. Despite Louis XI having ordered his ships to seize her on her journey, her convoy crossed without incident, reaching Sluys on the evening of the 25th. The following day, she met with her bridegroom’s mother, Isabella, and daughter, Mary. The meeting was a great success, and the three of them remained close friends for the rest of their lives. On 27 June, she met Charles for the first time, and the pair were privately married between 5am and 6am on 3 July, in the house of a wealthy merchant of Damme. Charles then left for Bruges, allowing the new duchess the honor of entering separately a few hours later.

The celebrations that followed were extravagant even by the standards of the Burgundians, who were already noted for their opulence and generous festivities. The bride made her Joyous Entry in a golden litter drawn by white horses, wearing a coronet. During this procession, she charmed the burghers of Bruges when she chose to wave to them rather than shut herself away from the wind and rain. In the city itself, wine spurted freely from sculpted archers and artificial pelicans in artificial trees; the canals were decorated with torches, and the bridges decked with flowers; the arms of the happy couple were displayed everywhere, accompanied by the mottoes of the pair: Charles’ Je l’ay emprins (“I have undertaken it”) and Margaret’s Bien en aviengne (“May good come of it”). The celebrations also included the “Tournament of the Golden Tree” that was arranged around an elaborately detailed allegory, designed to honor the bride.

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When the duke and duchess appeared there, both wore magnificent crowns: Margaret’s crown (made in about 1461) was adorned with pearls, and with enameled white roses for the House of York set between red, green and white enameled letters of her name, with gold Cs and Ms, entwined with lovers’ knots (it can still be seen in the treasury at Aachen Cathedral). The removal of the crown to Aachen was significant, since it allowed its survival from the ravages of the later English Civil War which involved the destruction of all the main English Crown Jewels. It thus remains the only medieval royal British crown still surviving.

Charles wore an equally splendid crown, accompanied by a golden gown encrusted with diamonds, pearls and great jewels. The parades, the streets lined with tapestry hung from houses, the feasting, the masques and allegorical entertainments, the jewels, impressed all observers as “the marriage of the century”. It is reenacted at Bruges for tourists every five years with the next event in 2017, the last one having taken place in August 2012.

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Although the marriage produced no children, Margaret proved a valuable asset to Burgundy. Immediately after her wedding, she journeyed with her stepdaughter Mary through Flanders, Brabant and Hainaut, visiting the great towns: Ursel, Ghent, Dendermonde, Asse, Brussels, Oudenaarde and Kortrijk were all impressed by her political shrewdness and capability. Less valuable, perhaps, were the family connections she brought. In 1469, her brother, Edward IV, attempted to present Charles the Bold with the Order of the Garter, an honor which would have made Charles guilty of treason against Louis XI had he accepted it. The dowager duchess, Isabella, warned her son to refuse the offer, which he did, in order not to give Louis XI an excuse for further machinations against Burgundy. In the same year, Edward IV and his brother the Duke of Gloucester were forced to flee England, when their brother the Duke of Clarence, and his father-in-law the Earl of Warwick, rebelled and drove the king into exile. Charles was forced to intercede on the part of his brother-in-law, ordering the London merchants to swear loyalty to Edward under threat of losing their trading rights in Burgundy, a threat that proved successful. But the next year, Margaret was left despairing when Clarence and Warwick supported a French-backed Lancastrian invasion of England: although she, together with her mother Cecily, Dowager Duchess of York, attempted to reconcile Clarence and Edward IV, the rebellion continued, and on 2nd October 1470 the Lancastrians were returned to power and Edward had to Margaret and Charles in Burgundy.

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Her brother’s overthrow lessened Margaret’s dynastic worth; this, together with regard for her brother, made her plead for her husband to support Edward and make measures to restore him. Nonetheless, Charles paid little attention to her and decided to support Edward only when it was in his best interests to oppose the Lancastrian rule of England, backed as it was by a France which had in early December 1470 been encouraged by the English situation to declare war on Burgundy. Even so, by 4th January 1471, Charles had agreed to support the King-in-exile in regaining the English throne, and this renewal of friendship between the two men was followed by Edward visiting Margaret at Hesdin until 13th January, the first time the pair had seen one another since Margaret’s departure from England.

By April, Edward was back in England: Margaret followed events carefully, requesting meticulous details of events in England, and was pleased to note the reconciliation between Clarence and Edward. She also provided her mother-in-law, Isabel, with information on the progress of Edward’s campaign to regain the throne. It was she, for example, who replied to Isabel’s questions over alleged disrespectful treatment of the Earl of Warwick, by explaining that Edward had “heard that nobody in the city believed that Warwick and his brother were dead, so he [Edward] had their bodies brought to St Paul’s where they were laid out and uncovered from the chest upwards in the sight of everybody.” Edward IV was successfully restored; Edward of Westminster, the son and heir of Henry VI, had died in battle, and Henry VI, who had been briefly restored, died in his cell in the Tower of London two weeks later. The two deaths brought to an end the direct line of the House of Lancaster.

By this time, Isabella’s health was beginning to fail; in June 1471, she drew up her will, in which she bequeathed her favorite residence of La-Motte-au-Bois to Margaret. Yet, at the same time, Isabella and Charles struck against Margaret’s family: with Henry VI and his son dead, Isabella was one of the most senior members of the House of Lancaster, and had a good claim to the English throne. She legally transferred this claim to Charles in July, which would allow Charles later that year to officially claim the English throne, in spite of the fact that his brother-in-law, Edward IV was king. Eventually he dropped the claim.

By 1477, Margaret’s position as duchess of Burgundy was no longer as brilliant as it had been. After Isabella’s death in 1471, Charles had become increasingly tyrannical and grandiose, dreaming of assembling a kingdom of Lotharingia from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. To accomplish this, he warred continuously with his neighbors, who responded by allying against him. Meanwhile, Louis XI had proved masterful at destabilizing the duchy: Edward IV had been detached from his alliance, Charles’ reputation and banking credit had been undermined by Louis, and Burgundian trade was choked by French embargoes. By 1476, the duke was regarded as a tyrant by his people, who were suffering from the French refusal to export their wine and bread to Burgundy, and who dreaded his terrible reprisals against rebels being unleashed on them. In 1476, he arranged for his daughter and heiress, Mary, to be betrothed to Maximilian of Habsburg. On 5th January 1477, he died in battle outside Nancy, in Lorraine.

It was in the wake of her husband’s death that Margaret proved invaluable to Burgundy. She had always been regarded as a skilful and intelligent politician; now, she went beyond even that. She gave guidance and help to her stepdaughter, Mary, now Duchess of Burgundy, using her own experiences in the court of Edward IV, where she had largely avoided being used as a pawn and contributed to the arrangement of her own marriage. She guided Mary in choosing a suitable marriage partner in the face of marriage offers that flooded the two duchesses in Ghent (especially from the recently widowed duke of Clarence, from the 7-year old Dauphin of France, Charles, and from a brother of Edward IV’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville). She stood firm, and advised Mary to marry Maximilian of Habsburg, the 18-year-old son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, to whom Charles the Bold had betrothed Mary, and who was ambitious and active enough, in Margaret’s opinion, to defend Mary’s legacy. She strongly advised Mary to accept Maximilian’s suit, and marry him immediately. He arrived in Burgundy on 5th August 1477, and by 17th August had arrived at Ten Waele Castle, in Ghent. He met Mary there – they were both “pale as death”, but found each other to their mutual liking – and Margaret took part in the traditional courtly games of love, telling Maximilian before the assembled nobility that his bride “had about her a carnation it behoved him to discover.” The carnation duly proved to be in the duchess’s bodice, from which Maximilian carefully removed it. The pair were married the next day, on 18th August.

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Burgundy was far from safe: the duchy of Burgundy itself had already been conquered by the French, who were continuing to attack from all sides, taking advantage of the state’s instability. Margaret now moved to secure military support from her brother, Edward IV. He sent enough support to allow Mary and Maximilian to resist the French advances any further, although the Duchy itself remained lost. Louis XI, recognizing the danger Margaret posed to him, attempted to buy her off with a French pension and a promise of personally protecting her. She contemptuously refused, and instead sailed in summer 1480 to London, where she was again attended by Richard Boyville and negotiated a resumption of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, and renewed trade. When, on 22 July 1478, Mary gave birth to a son and heir, Philip, Louis XI had rumors spread that the child was in fact a girl. Margaret, who was standing godmother to the child, matter-of-factly disproved the rumor: as the christening party left the church of St Donat, she conclusively proved that the child was an undoubted male, by undressing him and presenting him to the assembled crowd. In 1480, the next child of Mary and Maximilian was a girl: the duke and duchess named her Margaret, after the dowager duchess.

Margaret was however dealt a devastating blow in 1482: her stepdaughter, Mary, fell from her horse whilst hunting, and broke her back. The injuries were fatal, and Mary died on 27 March. From a personal standpoint, this was a harsh blow to Margaret because politically, Mary’s death weakened the Burgundian state further. The Burgundians were now sick of war, and unwilling to accept the rule of Maximilian as regent for his son, the 4-year old duke Philip, or even as guardian of the children. They forced his hand: on 23 December 1482, the Three Estates of the Lowlands signed the Treaty of Arras with Louis XI, granting him the Burgundian Lowlands, Picardy, and the county of Boulogne. Margaret was unable to secure assistance from Edward IV, who had made a truce with France. Consequently, she and Maximilian were forced to accept the fait accompli. Maximilian brokered a personal peace with Louis by arranging for his daughter, Margaret, to be betrothed to the young Dauphin of France. She was sent to be raised at the French court, taking with her the Free County of Burgundy and the County of Artois as a dowry.

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This was not the end of the problems for Margaret and Maximilian: the Netherlanders still disliked his rule of the territory. In 1488, he was taken prisoner in Bruges by the citizens, and was freed only upon making far-reaching concessions. The next year, he was summoned back to Austria by his father, the Emperor. Burgundy was left to be governed by Margaret together with the Burgundian Estates, both of whom also undertook the guardianship of the young Duke Philip, although Maximilian continued to take a distant interest in the country, and a greater interest in his children.

By this time, Margaret had already suffered more personal tragedies. Her brother, the Duke of Clarence, had been executed by Edward IV in 1478. Edward himself had died of illness in 1483 and finally, her younger brother Richard, who took the throne as Richard III was, in 1485, killed at the Battle of Bosworth by the leader of the House of Lancaster, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, a cousin and nephew of Henry VI, who went on to become Henry VII, and to marry the daughter of Edward IV, Elizabeth of York. With the death of Richard, the House of York ceased to rule in England. Margaret consequently was a staunch supporter of anyone willing to challenge Tudor, and backed both Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, even going so far as to acknowledge Warbeck as her nephew, the younger son of Edward IV, the Duke of York. Warbeck was probably an imposter, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London and subsequently executed by Henry VII. Henry undoubtedly found Margaret problematic, but there was little he could do, since she was protected by her stepson-in-law Maximilian. She died on 23rd November 1503, at the age of 57, shortly after the return of her step-grandson, Philip the Handsome, to Burgundy.

So much for royal politics in Europe in the 15th century. It’s all very complicated, but amounts, simply, to the fact that in England and on the continent, no one could ever agree as to what territory belonged to whom, and the nobility, all related to one another by blood, marriage, or both, seemed endlessly willing to fight it out. Margaret of York stands out in all of this as a strong and powerful woman always willing to look out for her own wellbeing.

Margaret died in Mechelen which is now in Flanders in Belgium, then part of the duchy of Burgundy.  For centuries it was the center of market gardening, and then as now produced white asparagus, for which it was famous. Here is a well-known recipe for Flemish white asparagus.

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Asperges op Vlaamse wijze

Ingredients

24 white asparagus stalks
4 eggs (2 hard-boiled and 2 poached or soft-boiled)
fresh, finely chopped parsley
150g clarified butter
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper

Instructions

Peel the asparagus stalks from the base of the tips to the end of the stalks using a vegetable peeler. Bundle them together with butcher’s twine and stand them upright in lightly boiling water with the spears out of the water. Let them cook for about 10 minutes (the tips are tender and will cook in the steam).

Meanwhile, gently heat the clarified butter in a small saucepan. Mash the hard-boiled eggs (do not purée) with a potato masher, as you would for egg salad. Place the mashed eggs in the clarified butter with a handful of fresh parsley leaves finely chopped. Do not use the parsley stalks. Season to taste with salt and finely ground black pepper.

Place the asparagus on a heated serving plate. Spoon the butter, parsley, egg mix over the asparagus and break the soft-cooked eggs over the lot so that the runny yolk mixes with the parsley sauce.  Finish off with a scattering of freshly ground nutmeg.

Serves 4 to 6

Sep 022015
 

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On this date in 1752 through enactment of the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750, Britain and the British Empire (including the eastern part of what is now the United States) adopted the Gregorian calendar. Up until that point they had used the Julian calendar which was 11 days ahead of sun time. Because of this they had to eliminate 11 days, so Wednesday, 2 September 1752, was followed by Thursday, 14 September 1752. For many years it was believed that people in England rioted demanding “Give us back our eleven days” as if somehow their lives had been shortened by 11 days. This is actually nothing more than an urban legend based on a misinterpretation of a contemporary William Hogarth painting. However, there were some real negative consequences to shortening the year. For historians, such as myself, interested in anniversaries, it is merely a simple curiosity that the dates 3 to 13 September 1752 do not exist. So, it would be a good pub quiz question to ask something like “what important event occurred in England on 10 September 1752?”

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The Gregorian calendar, also called the Western calendar and the Christian calendar, is internationally the most widely used civil calendar. It is named for Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it by papal bull in 1582. It was first used as a religious calendar whose primary purpose was to make sure that Easter was perpetually celebrated at the same time as in ancient times (more or less coinciding with Passover, when Jesus was crucified). It replaced the Julian calendar, created by Julius Caesar, whose calendar year was very slightly ahead of the sun because the solar year is very slightly shorter than 365.25 days (0.002% shorter). If you have a leap year every four years you add a day every four years (February 29th). But since the year is not exactly 365.25 days you are adding just a little too much. The Gregorian calendar corrects for this by making century years NOT leap years if the first 2 digits are not divisible by 4. Thus, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 2000 was.

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The Gregorian calendar was immediately adopted in European Catholic countries and their colonies, for both civil and religious purposes, but not by Orthodox and Protestant countries. Hence, when it came to buying and selling goods internationally there could be confusion about dates of billing, receipts, and so forth. Although it ought to have been simple for non-Catholic countries to shift into line with Catholic countries, it took a long time for the change to come about mostly because of prejudice. Some claimed, for example, that it was a papal plot to convert the world to Catholicism. It astonishes me how stupid and irrational prejudice can be. Greece did not change to the Gregorian calendar until 1923. I remember in the 1970s when the U.K. decided to stay on BST all year so that the clocks would align with those in continental Europe, thus making it easier to conduct international business and assuring that the stock markets opened and closed at the same time. I was amazed to watch the historian A.J.P. Taylor in an interview on television saying essentially, “we’re British damn it; we don’t have to do what foreigners do.” I used to like him up until that point. It’s one thing to be a maverick, it’s another to be an idiot. As it happens this change ultimately failed because it had a human cost. With the clocks advanced all year children in the north of England and Scotland were going to school in winter in the pitch dark.

Calendar reform in England in 1750 had two components. The first specified that the new year should begin on 1st of January (the old Roman new year). Previously there had been a welter of ways of marking the new year. The tax year and the civil year in general, for example, began on Lady Day (25 March). Many institutions, such as churches, calculated the years starting with the date when the current king or queen ascended the throne. Others used famous local events, or religious holidays such as Shrove Tuesday or Halloween. Having one official New Year’s Day for everyone was obviously beneficial. To bring everyone into line in England and Wales, the legal year 1751 was a short year of 282 days, running from 25 March to 31 December. 1752 began on 1 January. The change to 1 January had already been effected in Scotland in 1600.

The second component was meant to align the calendar in use in the U.K. to that on the continent, by adopting the Gregorian calendar which meant eliminating the 11 days from 3 to 13 September 1752. Thus the year 1752 was a short year (355 days) as well. The Act of Parliament, mindful of recent religious wars in Europe, adopted the Gregorian calendar without mention of pope Gregory or the Catholic church.

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Some history books say that some people rioted after the calendar change, asking that their “eleven days” be returned. However this is not true. The legend is based on only two primary sources: The World, a satirical journal by Lord Chesterfield; and a painting by William Hogarth. Chesterfield was the author of the calendar reform Act. He wrote to his son, “Every numerous assembly is a mob, let the individuals who compose it be what they will. Mere sense is never to be talked to a mob; their passions, their sentiments, their senses and their seeming interests alone are to be applied to. Understanding have they collectively none.” Here, he was boasting of his skill in having the Bill passed through the Lords; the ‘mob’ in question was his fellow peers, not some angry rioting mob protesting the changes.

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When the son of the Earl of Macclesfield (who had been influential in passing the Act) stood for Parliament in Oxfordshire as a Whig in 1754, dissatisfaction with the calendar reform was one of a number of issues raised by his Tory opponents. In 1755, William Hogarth produced a painting (and an engraved print from the painting) loosely based on these elections, entitled An Election Entertainment, which shows a placard carrying the slogan “Give us our Eleven Days” (on floor at lower right — detail below).

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An example of the resulting incorrect history is shown by Ronald Paulson, author of Hogarth, His Life, Art and Times, who wrote that “…the Oxfordshire people…are specifically rioting, as historically the London crowd did, to preserve the ‘Eleven Days’ the government stole from them in September 1752 by changing the calendar.” Thus the “calendar riot” fiction was born. The election campaign depicted by Hogarth concluded in 1754, after a very lengthy contest between Court Whigs and Jacobite Tories. Every issue between the two factions was brought up, including the question of calendar reform. The Tories attacked the Whigs for every deviation, including their alleged favoritism towards foreign Jews and the “Popish” calendar. Hogarth’s placard, part of a satire on the character of the debate, was not an observation of actual crowd behavior.

There were, however, legitimate concerns about tax and other payments under the new calendar. Provision 6 (Times of Payment of Rents, Annuities) of the Act stipulated that monthly or yearly payments would not become due until the dates that they originally would have in the Julian calendar, or in the words of the Act “[Times of Payment of Rents, Annuities] at and upon the same respective natural days and times as the same should and ought to have been payable or made or would have happened in case this Act had not been made”. In that way landlords would not get an extra 11 days rent for free.

Several theories have been proposed for the odd beginning of the British tax year on 6 April. One is that from 1753 until 1799, the tax year began on 5 April, which corresponded to 25 March Old Style (Julian calendar), that is, the old New Year’s Day. After the twelfth skipped Julian leap day in 1800, it was changed to 6 April, which still corresponded to 25 March Old Style. However it was not changed when a thirteenth Julian leap day was skipped in 1900, so the tax year in the United Kingdom still begins on 6 April. Now write and tell me why Tax Day is 15 April in the U.S. (Pub quiz question of the day).

The Gregorian calendar continued to use the previous calendar era (year-numbering system), which counts years from the traditional date of the nativity (Anno Domini), originally calculated in the 6th century by Dionysius Exiguus. This year-numbering system, also known as Dionysian era or Common Era, is the predominant international standard today. This is why I, and a great many other people, use the abbreviations C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E (Before the Common Era), rather than the ethnocentric A.D. and B.C.

What to give you for today’s recipe? I did find one or two ancient ones for wine that required a fermentation period of 11 days (which meant that if you followed the calendar wine begun on 2 September would be ready on 14 September – the following day). However, that is a bit of a silly joke. Instead here is an 18th century English recipe for “Asparagus dressed the Italian Way.” It seems appropriate in that it is from an English cook, allowing that the Italian way of cooking (home of the pope) has its merits. In those days, as now, the English were a xenophobic lot, so this recipe is a surprise.

Take the asparagus, break them in pieces, then boil them soft and drain the water from them; take a little oil, water, and vinegar, let it boil, season it with pepper and salt, throw in the asparagus and thicken with yolks of eggs. The Spaniards add sugar, but that spoils them.

Looks remarkably like asparagus with Hollandaise to me – which I love. Don’t be a Spaniard and add sugar. Wouldn’t want to spoil the asparagus – or you!

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Jun 302015
 

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Today is the birthday (1685) of John Gay, an English poet and dramatist, and member of the Scriblerus Club (whose core included Gay’s friends Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.). He is best remembered for The Beggar’s Opera (1728), a ballad opera that lampooned both Italian opera and contemporary English society. For a period of about three years I lived, breathed, and dreamed The Beggar’s Opera when I produced it for a Catskills (New York) opera company (my humble self playing Macheath). I felt the need to introduce contemporary audiences to the 18th century ballad opera through a series of stage productions I wrote – notably The Beggar’s Prologue (mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone) – before springing the full production on local audiences. Many, many of the tunes have a fascinating history in their own right. Take the tune for “Cease Your Funning,” for example, which I have in 56 settings from Purcell to Britten. It can be found as a hymn tune (Westminster), a string quartet, an aria, a morris dance tune (in at least 12 variants, major and minor), and so on. Why it was endlessly popular baffles me. Here’s Beethoven’s setting of it – mysteriously labeled a “Scottish Song” (op.156#5):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHVkYIo3neg

The work took satiric aim at the passionate interest of the upper classes in Italian opera, and simultaneously set out to lampoon the notable Whig statesman Robert Walpole, and politicians in general, as well as the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. It also deals with social inequity on a broad scale, primarily through the comparison of low-class thieves and prostitutes with their aristocratic and bourgeois “betters.” Gay’s essential point is that corruption is corruption whatever level of society you are looking at – the only difference being that the upper classes get away with it and the lower classes get hanged. Things haven’t changed much since Gay’s time !!

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The Beggar’s Opera opens with Peachum, a fence, justifying his actions by comparing them with those of politicians. Mrs. Peachum, overhearing her husband blacklisting of unproductive thieves, protests regarding one of them, Bob Booty (the nickname of Robert Walpole). The Peachums then discover that Polly, their daughter, has secretly married Macheath, the infamous highwayman, who is Peachum’s principal client. Upset to find out that he will no longer be able to use Polly in his business, Peachum and his wife ask how Polly will support such a husband “in Gaming, Drinking and Whoring.” Nevertheless, they conclude that the match may make sense if the husband can be killed for his money. They leave to carry out this errand. Meanwhile Macheath enters and in learning of her parents’ scheme to sell him to the authorities, decides to go into hiding (although, in truth, his main aim is to avoid the consequences of his marriage to Polly).

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Macheath goes to a tavern where he is surrounded by his gang and then by women of dubious virtue who, despite their class, compete in displaying perfect drawing-room manners, although the subject of their conversation is their success in picking pockets and shoplifting. Macheath discovers, too late, that two of them (Jenny Diver, Suky Tawdry) have contracted with Peachum to capture him, and he becomes a prisoner in Newgate prison. The prison is run by Peachum’s associate, the corrupt jailer Lockit. His daughter, Lucy Lockit, has the opportunity to scold Macheath for having agreed to marry her and then broken this promise. She tells him that to see him tortured would give her pleasure. Macheath pacifies her, but Polly arrives and claims him as her husband. Macheath tells Lucy that Polly is crazy. Lucy helps Macheath to escape by stealing her father’s keys. Her father learns of Macheath’s promise to marry her and worries that if Macheath is recaptured and hanged, his fortune might be subject to Peachum’s claims. Lockit and Peachum discover Macheath’s hiding place and agree to split his fortune.

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Meanwhile, Polly visits Lucy to try to reach an agreement, but Lucy tries to poison her. Polly narrowly avoids the poisoned drink, and the two girls find out that Macheath has been recaptured owing to the duplicity of the inebriated Mrs Diana Trapes. They plead with their fathers for Macheath’s life. However, Macheath now finds that four more pregnant women each claim him as their husband and declares that he is ready to be hanged. The narrator (the Beggar), notes that although in a properly moral ending Macheath and the other villains would be hanged, the audience demands a happy ending, and so Macheath is reprieved, and all are invited to a dance of celebration, to celebrate his wedding to Polly.

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The opera does not create the sensation these days that it did when it was first produced, largely because the language is difficult for modern audiences, and the tunes that were popular in their time are now not well known. But, with suitable staging, these difficulties can be overcome. The underlying story and themes remain current, and the opera has been reworked many times to a greater or lesser extent. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera is the most well known reworking. Go here for my appraisal: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-threepenny-opera/ Even Brecht and Weill are now rather stale although their “Mac the Knife” still has currency as a classic cabaret piece. Revivals of The Beggar’s Opera still fill theaters because its basic social and political critique – rather depressingly – never loses its force.

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Curiously Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1st ed. 1747) resonates with the class themes of The Beggar’s Opera. From her introduction:

I Believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet though worth their while to write upon … If I have not wrote in the high polite style, I hope I shall be forgiven ; for my intention is to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way … So as in many other things in cookery, the great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean.

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As Gay decried the high-flown style of Italian opera, so Glasse lampoons the manners of Frenchified chefs, preferring plain and simple cooking instead. However, most of her recipes are incomprehensible to the modern cook. Take this one – one of my favorites:

LARKS, roast them, and for Sauce have Crumbs of Bread; done thus: Take a Sauce-pan or Stew-pan and some Butter; when melted, have a good Piece of Crumb of Bread, and rub it in a clean Cloth to Crumbs, then throw it into your Pan; keep stirring them about till they are Brown, then throw them into a Sieve to drain, and lay them round your Larks.

Not a clue what she is on about. Best I can imagine is that you roast little birds whole and serve them with a pan gravy thickened with bread crumbs. Her meat pie recipes are hilarious. Something on the order of “put strips of bacon in a dish, layer on some steak, then more bacon, then a chicken if you feel like it (or possibly a hare), add gravy (not to mention more bacon), top with a crust and bake.”

I do like her recipe for asparagus, though, which I will paraphrase for you:

Peel the green part of a bunch of asparagus so that only the white part remains. Cut them all the same length and poach them gently so that they remain a little crisp. Toast thick rounds of bread with the crusts removed. Pour a little of the cooking water over the toast along with some melted butter. Lay the asparagus on top of the toast and serve with a dish of drawn butter on the side.