Feb 132018

Today is the birthday (1766) of Thomas Robert Malthus FRS, an English clergyman and scholar who was hugely influential in political economy and demography. Normally I would not post about two famous Englishmen in related fields, back to back like this; I like my posts to have some variety. In this case, however, having Darwin Day yesterday, on Darwin’s birthday, followed by Malthus today, almost works, and the two belong together. Darwin would probably never have come up with the idea of natural selection if he had not been reading and considering Malthus on population when he was sailing in the Beagle and considering the reasons for all the variety that he saw. It would have been better for me if they had shared a birthday, and I could have united them in a post that way. A day’s difference is a small inconvenience. I cannot always conjure up coincidences.

In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Malthus observed that an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth, which in turn restored the original per capita production level. That is, humans had a propensity to exploit abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living. This position has become known as the “Malthusian trap.” He added that populations had a tendency to grow until the lower class suffered hardship and want and greater susceptibility to famine and disease, a view that is sometimes referred to as a “Malthusian catastrophe.” Malthus wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible. He saw population growth as being inevitable whenever conditions improved, thereby precluding real progress towards a utopian society: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. As an Anglican cleric, Malthus saw this situation as divinely imposed to teach virtuous behavior. He remains a much-debated writer. Some economists contend that since the industrial revolution, humans have broken out of the trap. Others argue that the continuation of extreme poverty indicates that the Malthusian trap continues to operate. Others further argue that due to lack of food availability coupled with excessive pollution, developing countries show more evidence of the trap.

According to Malthus the propensity for population increase also leads to a natural cycle of abundance and shortages:

We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population…increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions, must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great, that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage; till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

Malthus has faced opposition from economists both during his lifetime and since. One of his most vocal critics several decades later was Friedrich Engels.

Research indicates that technological superiority and higher land productivity had significant positive effects on population density but insignificant effects on the standard of living during the time period 1–1500 AD.] In addition, scholars have reported on the lack of a significant trend of wages in various places over the world for very long stretches of time. In Babylonia during the period 1800 to 1600 BCE, for example, the daily wage for a common laborer was enough to buy about 15 pounds of wheat. In Classical Athens in about 328 BCE, the corresponding wage could buy about 24 pounds of wheat. In England in 1800 CE the wage was about 13 pounds of wheat. In spite of the technological developments across these societies, the daily wage hardly varied. In Britain between 1200 and 1800, only relatively minor fluctuations from the mean (less than a factor of two) in real wages occurred. Following depopulation by the Black Death and other epidemics, real income in Britain peaked around 1450–1500 and began declining until the British Agricultural Revolution. Historian Walter Scheidel posits that waves of plague following the initial outbreak of the Black Death throughout Europe had a leveling effect that changed the ratio of land to labor, reducing the value of the former while boosting that of the latter, which lowered economic inequality by making employers and landowners less well off while improving the economic prospects and living standards of workers. He notes that “the observed improvement in living standards of the laboring population was rooted in the suffering and premature death of tens of millions over the course of several generations.” This leveling effect was reversed by a “demographic recovery that resulted in renewed population pressure.”

Robert Fogel published a study of lifespans and nutrition from about a century before Malthus to the 19th century that examined European birth and death records, military and other records of height and weight that found significant stunted height and low body weight indicative of chronic hunger and malnutrition. He also found short lifespans that he attributed to chronic malnourishment which left people susceptible to disease. Lifespans, height and weight began to steadily increase in the UK and France after 1750. Fogel’s findings are consistent with estimates of available food supply.

The rapid increase in the global population of the past century exemplifies Malthus’ predicted population patterns, whereby expansion of food supply has encouraged population growth. “Neo-Malthusianism” may be used as a label for those who are concerned that human overpopulation may increase resource depletion or environmental degradation to a degree that is not sustainable.

A strict Malthusian approach is depressing, but it fails to take into account factors that could undermine natural processes. Humans, for example, can decide en masse to limit family size, or it can be limited by the government. This is the reason that Engels was opposed to Malthus. If you take human agency out of the equation, then there is no chance to escape the Malthusian trap. Some people argue that the Industrial Revolution caused sustained economic growth that led to a “breakout” from the Malthusian trap and is known as “unified growth theory.” It is hard to tell at the moment because the 20th century saw monumental changes in technology, 2 world wars, massive genocide campaigns across the globe, easily available birth control, and a host of other factors that radically shift a purely Malthusian outlook.

For centuries, including in Malthus’ time bread was the “staff of life.” Without bread people starved to death, as we know from the famous saying falsely attributed to Marie Antoinette. This video walks you through bread making in the 18th century using a variety of grains that were substituted for wheat when there were shortages:

Apr 252017

Today is celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of the Red Hat Society by members. In 1997, Sue Ellen Cooper, an artist from Fullerton, California, bought an old red fedora for $7.50 from a thrift shop during a trip to Tucson, Arizona. When a good friend was nearing her 55th birthday, Cooper was inspired to buy her a red hat as a present by the Jenny Joseph poem, “Warning”, which begins “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple, with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.” Cooper wanted to encourage her friend to grow older in a playful manner.  She repeated the gift on request several times, and eventually several of the women bought purple outfits as well and held a tea party on April 25, 1998, at which the Red Hat Society began. The idea spread, first by word of mouth and then through the internet and publications, so that now there are over 20,000 chapters in the US and numerous others in 30 countries worldwide.

I came across a Red Hat Society function about 10 years ago in New York. They’re hard to miss. The members all had on very elaborately decorated red hats. At the time I had no clue what it was all about, but got the basic drift from the members at the event, and then looked it up afterwards on the internet. What I found most noticeable is that the aims of the Red Hat Society and Jenny Joseph’s poem are a little at odds with one another. Here’s the full poem:


Jenny Joseph

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
And say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!

Jenny Joseph wrote this poem in 1961 when she was approaching 30. I can see how Sue Ellen Cooper was inspired by the poem – especially the first lines – but what Jenny Joseph is proposing is rather different from what the Red Hat Society became. I think that’s just fine; the poem is not a constitution nor some kind of founding document in total. My general mantra is that if people are having fun (and they are not being insanely destructive), it’s none of my business what they are doing even if it is not to my taste. What I will say is that the poem and the society are a little at odds in their stated aims.

Jenny Joseph wrote “Warning” in the post-war years in England when life could be very drab. Rationing continued well into the 1950s and the country was trying to rebuild itself in the aftermath of absolute calamity. Conformity to certain ideals of “success” were very much the norm. Good job, nice house, smart clothes, thrifty lifestyle etc. were the hallmarks of the successful life, and Jenny Joseph found all of this rather dreary and confining. She wanted to break free, but knew she couldn’t. Instead she fantasized an old age liberated from the strictures of youth, modeled on eccentric old English women, of which there were, and are, an abundance. A mere 2 years ago I spent a fascinating afternoon with a friend of mine in the cottage of a comfortably well off old woman in Oxfordshire who chain smoked, drank whisky, and kept a pet sheep in her kitchen. Her house was an utter riot of random clutter. She had asked my friend to come over to help her with her lawn which was overgrown and choked with weeds and wildflowers, because she wanted to use it for some kind of dog show that I never fully understood.

Jenny Joseph is, in fact, an old lady these days (she was born in 1932), and I have no idea what she is up to now apart from reading poetry now and again.  For a while she was a journalist in South Africa and then worked teaching ESL in London. She is certainly one of the most widely acclaimed living poets and has received numerous honors. I hope she is retired, but I wonder whether she spits, swears, and spends her pension on brandy and summer gloves.  The point of the poem is to stress a desire to break free from the norms of society, but, of course, since 1961 things have changed enormously. There was the decade of the 1960s, to begin with, which turned so many (not all) social norms on their heads. Many people, men and women, stopped wearing hats, for example, and the general rules of everyday street wear went south.  Were it not for the Red Hat Society, a woman wearing a purple dress and a red hat would go completely unnoticed these days

The Red Hat Society was inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem, but its aims are hardly the same. First, the privilege of wearing a red hat begins at age 50, not the retirement age for women in England in the 1960s which was 60. That’s the kind of age Jenny Joseph was thinking of — or older. Sue Ellen Cooper was imagining something quite different in the US of the late 1990s. She was looking at what was expected of women in their 50s at that time and balking. It’s true that Joseph’s and Cooper’s underlying philosophy is the same –  break the rules and have fun – but what breaking the rules looks like is rather different for each woman. The Red Hat Society is called a “dis-organization” but it looks pretty organized to me. Go to their website https://www.redhatsociety.com/ and you’ll find plenty of organization including a very extensive online store. Nonetheless, I imagine meetings for tea vary enormously from group to group. The thing is that I know full well as an anthropologist that every social rebellion, large or small, sooner or later gets codified and co-opted by the society it is rebelling against. If ONE old woman wears a red hat and a purple dress it could be considered eccentric; if tens of thousands of them do it, it’s another way of conforming. No matter; I’m sure the members have fun in their own way.

If you are going to break the rules, afternoon tea is a good place to start. I’ve talked about afternoon tea several times in my posts, including the annoying misuse of the term “high tea” for afternoon tea in North America. In England high tea (sometimes just referred to as “tea”) is a full meal, whereas afternoon tea consists of dainty sandwiches and little cakes, that was first popularized in Queen Victoria’s court as a stopgap between lunch at noon and dinner at 7. Regular working people (myself included) typically have a full meal after work, rather than having a tea time followed by a later dinner. In my family we referred to our evening meal as tea when I was growing up, and we had it at around 5 o’clock.

I suppose you could “eat three pounds of sausages at a go, Or only bread and pickle for a week” but Joseph’s more basic point is that you should eat what you want without respect for the standards of a healthy diet. When I was a schoolboy in England in the 1960s I was always the first home, and, because I was hungry I would often eat a tinned steak and kidney pudding plus toast and jam with clotted cream and some chocolate to tide me over until dinner time. Nowadays that would be a full meal for me, but when I was a teenager my stomach was bottomless.

So what are you going to have with your cup of tea this afternoon? Three pounds of sausages might be OK, or bread and pickles — or both. They would be unconventional enough for afternoon tea time. But your limit is your imagination. I’ll take steak and kidney pudding — only not tinned.



Aug 012013



In some English-speaking countries in the Northern Hemisphere, August 1 is Lammas Day (Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas, “loaf-mass”), the festival marking the beginning of the wheat harvest. On this day it was customary to bring to church a loaf made from the first fruits of the new crop. The loaf was blessed, and in Anglo-Saxon England it might be employed afterwards to work magic. A book of Anglo-Saxon charms directed that the Lammas bread be broken into four bits, which were to be placed at the four corners of the barn, to protect the garnered grain. In many parts of England, tenants were bound to present freshly harvested wheat to their landlords on or before the first day of August. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it is referred to regularly, it is called “the feast of first fruits.” The blessing of first fruits was performed annually in both the Eastern and Western Churches on the first or the sixth of August (the latter being the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ).  It is possible that the English custom of Lammas is a descendent of a pre-Christian Celtic tradition, one of which is the Irish celebration of Lughnasadh.


In Irish mythology, the Lughnasadh festival is said to have been founded by the god Lugh (modern spelling: Lú) as a funeral feast and sporting competition (Áenach Tailteann) in commemoration of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. The first location of the Áenach Tailteann gathering was purportedly at Tailtin, between Navan and Kells in Co. Meath, about 25 miles northwest of Dublin. Historically, the Áenach Tailteann was a time for contests of strength and skill, and a favored time for contracting marriages. The festival survived as the Taillten Fair, and was revived for a period in the 20th century as the Telltown Games.


It’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff (sorry!) when it comes to the history of British harvest festivals, and British folk customs in general. So many people have a romanticized sentimental view of them.  In The Festival of Lughnasa: a study of Lughnasadh  Máire MacNeill draws on medieval writings and on surveys and studies from throughout Ireland and Britain. Her conclusion was that the evidence testified to an ancient Celtic festival on 1 August that involved the following:

A solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries of which everyone must partake; a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh, with some ceremony involving its hide, and its replacement by a young bull; a ritual dance-play perhaps telling of a struggle for a goddess and a ritual fight; an installation of a head on top of the hill and a triumphing over it by an actor impersonating Lugh; another play representing the confinement by Lugh of the monster blight or famine; a three-day celebration presided over by the brilliant young god or his human representative. Finally, a ceremony indicating that the interregnum was over, and the chief god in his right place again.

I don’t really know what to make of such conclusions.  It’s so easy to conflate disparate sources into one gigantic mish-mash of things that actually took place in different regions in different eras.  Why, for example, would a harvest festival involve the sacrifice of a bull?  In many cultures that I know of worldwide, and historically, ritual animal sacrifice and the celebration of the harvest are quite distinct – the symbolism and meaning of each being worlds apart.  Chances are this description represents different traditions in different parts of Ireland all lumped together.

What I have no trouble imagining is that harvest time was a cause for celebration throughout Britain stretching back into antiquity. Having fresh grain from which to bake bread and brew beer was, and is, something to be happy about. In the days before industrialization when 80% of the population lived in farming areas, seasonal agricultural festivals would have dominated the annual cycle of life.  Nowadays with so few people involved in agriculture, and with agriculture largely under the control of massive factory farms, the importance of these festivals has faded.  But we should still try to keep in touch with the yearly cycle even if we work in climate controlled, fluorescent lit offices pushing paper.

Obviously we need a bread recipe for today.  I’m not much of a baker and, besides, I live in a country where bread is baked fresh twice daily at the local panaderías.  In my little corner of Buenos Aires (san Telmo) there is a panadería on every block, all doing a roaring business because they supply local restaurants and markets, as well as selling directly to the public. A common sight every morning is the bread delivery boy riding the streets with a special bicycle (pictured) laden with fresh bread. Incidentally, in Argentina the pannier (lit: bread carrier) is called a miriñaque which is also the word for a woman’s crinoline.


I’ve always loved the classic English cottage loaf. Because of its odd shape I always tear off the topknot, and cut both top and bottom into wedges, usually to eat with soup.  This loaf can be made with wholemeal or plain flour and, because it is baked in the traditional cottage loaf shape, you will not need a loaf tin but just a baking sheet.

lammas1  lammas2
English Cottage Loaf


½ oz (15 g) fresh yeast or 1 ½ tsp (7.5 ml) dried
½pint  (300 ml) warm fresh milk
1 lb (450 g) malted brown flour, strong wholemeal flour, or strong white flour
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
beaten egg, to glaze


Dissolve the fresh yeast in the milk. If using dried yeast, sprinkle it into the milk and leave in a warm place for 15 minutes, until frothy.

Put the flour and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the centre, then pour in the yeast liquid. Beat well together until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl clean.

Turn the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Place in a clean lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean tea-towel and leave in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size. It is proofed perfectly when you press in with your thumb and it springs back gently in a few seconds.

Turn the dough on to a floured surface and knead lightly. Cut off one-third of the dough and shape into a round. Shape the remaining dough into a round. Place the larger round on to a greased baking sheet and brush with a little water. Place the smaller round on top.

Push the lightly floured handle of a wooden spoon down through the centre of the loaf right to the bottom. Using a sharp knife, slash the dough at 2 inch (5 cm) intervals around the top and bottom edges to make a decorative pattern. Cover and leave in a warm place for about 30 minutes, until doubled in size.

Brush with a little beaten egg to glaze. Bake at 450°F (230°C) for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 400°F (200°C) and bake for a further 20-25 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Yield: 1 loaf