Sep 022015


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?”

11 days3

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.


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.


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.


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).

11 days2

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!


May 032014


Today is the birthday of Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, Florentine historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer during the Italian Renaissance, which had its birth and flourished in the Florence of Machiavelli’s day. He was an official for many years in the Florentine Republic, with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He was a founder of modern political science, and, more specifically, political ethics. He also wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. His personal correspondence is renowned in the Italian language. He was Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were out of power. He wrote his masterpiece, The Prince, after the Medici had recovered power and when he no longer held a position of responsibility in government.

“Machiavellian” is now a widely used negative term to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli described in The Prince. The book itself gained enormous notoriety and wide readership because the author seemed to be endorsing behavior deemed, even then, as immoral. Sadly, like so many other great thinkers, Machiavelli is often misread and misunderstood. I am not going to try to excuse the fact that he condoned the notion that the ends justify the means. He did say that if you have to murder a few people – or a lot – it was worth it if it produced peace and stability (although you might argue that murder is not the road to a peaceful and stable nation – I do!). The fact is, though, that Machiavelli lived in a time when murdering enemies was the norm among the rich and powerful of Florence. You could think of him, therefore, as a man of his times – making an argument that the political realities of his day were necessary evils. But it is also true that when you read more than just The Prince you can see that Machiavelli was a complex and profound thinker. The irony is that the man himself was far from Machiavellian.

Machiavelli was born in Florence, the third child and first son of a lawyer, Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli, and his wife, Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli. The Machiavelli family are believed to be descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany and to have produced thirteen Florentine Gonfalonieres of Justice, one of the offices of a group of nine citizens selected by drawing lots every two months and who formed the government, or Signoria. However, Machiavelli was never a full citizen of Florence, due to the nature of Florentine citizenship in that time, even under the republican regime.

Machiavelli was born in a tumultuous era—popes waged acquisitive wars against Italian city-states, and people and cities often fell from power. Along with the pope and the major cities like Venice and Florence, foreign powers such as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and even Switzerland battled for regional influence and control. Political-military alliances continually changed, featuring condottieri (mercenary leaders), who changed sides without warning, and the rise and fall of many short-lived governments.

Machiavelli was taught grammar, rhetoric, and Latin. It is thought that he did not learn Greek, even though Florence was at the time one of the centers of Greek scholarship in Europe. In 1494, Florence restored the republic—expelling the Medici family, who had ruled Florence for sixty years. Shortly after the execution of Savonarola, Machiavelli was appointed to an office of the second chancery, a medieval writing office which put Machiavelli in charge of the production of official Florentine government documents. Shortly thereafter, he was also made the secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace. In the first decade of the sixteenth century, he carried out several diplomatic missions: most notably to the papacy in Rome, in the Italian states. Moreover, from 1502 to 1503 he witnessed the brutal reality of the state-building methods of Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) and his father, Pope Alexander VI, who were then engaged in the process of trying to bring a large part of central Italy under their possession. The pretext of defending Church interests was used as a partial justification by the Borgias. Other excursions to the court of Louis XII and the Spanish court influenced his writings and appear in The Prince and several other of his non-fiction works.


Between 1503 and 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia. He distrusted mercenaries. He explained his distrust in his official reports, and then later in his theoretical works, as being grounded in the fact that mercenaries fought for money and not for any belief in the cause they were fighting for, making their allegiance fickle, and often unreliable when most needed. Instead, he staffed his army with citizens, a policy which proved to be successful many times. Under his command, for example, Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509. But his success did not last. In August 1512, the Medici, helped by Pope Julius II, used Spanish troops to defeat the Florentines at Prato, although many historians have argued that this was due to Piero Soderini’s unwillingness to compromise with the Medici who were holding Prato under siege. In the wake of the siege, Piero Soderini resigned as Florentine head of state and left in exile. This experience would, like Machiavelli’s time in foreign courts and with the Borgias, heavily influence his political writings.

The Florentine city-state and the republic were dissolved, and Machiavelli was deprived of office in 1512 by the Medici. In 1513, the Medici accused him of conspiracy against the Medici family and had him imprisoned. Despite having been subjected to torture (“with the rope,” where the prisoner is hanged from his bound wrists, from the back, forcing the arms to bear the body’s weight, thus dislocating the shoulders), he denied involvement and was released after three weeks.

Machiavelli then retired to his estate at Sant’Andrea in Percussina (near San Casciano in Val di Pesa) and devoted himself to study and to the writing of the political treatises that earned his intellectual place in the development of political philosophy and political conduct. Lacking the opportunity to remain directly involved in political matters, Machiavelli began to participate in intellectual groups in Florence and wrote several plays that (unlike most of his works on political theory) were both popular and widely known in his lifetime. Still, politics remained his main passion and, to satisfy this interest, he maintained a well-known correspondence with better politically connected friends, attempting to become involved once again in political life.

In a letter to Francesco Vettori, he described his exile:

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them.


Machiavelli died in 1527 at the age of 58, after receiving his last rites. He is buried at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. An epitaph honoring him is inscribed on his monument. The Latin legend reads: TANTO NOMINI NULLUM PAR ELOGIUM (loosely: “there is no eulogy suitable for so great a name”).

Machiavelli’s best-known book, The Prince (Il Principe), contains several maxims concerning politics, but instead of the more traditional subject of a hereditary prince, it concentrates on the possibility of a “new prince.” To retain power, the hereditary prince must carefully maintain the sociopolitical institutions to which the people are accustomed, whereas a new prince has the more difficult task in ruling – he must first stabilize his newfound power in order to build an enduring political structure. He asserted that the social benefits of stability and security could be achieved in various ways, including moral corruption. Aside from that, Machiavelli believed that public and private morality had to be understood as two different things in order to rule well. What works for the new prince in the pursuit of peace and prosperity for the state will not work on a personal level. A ruler must be concerned with his public reputation, of course, but also must be willing to act immorally at the right times. Thus, Machiavelli emphasized the occasional need for the methodical exercise of brute force and deceit.

Scholars often note that Machiavelli glorifies ruthless practicality in state building—an approach embodied by the saying that “the ends justify the means.” Violence may be necessary for the successful stabilization of power and introduction of new legal institutions. Force may be used to eliminate political rivals, to coerce resistant populations, and to purge the community of other men strong enough of character to rule, who will inevitably attempt to replace the ruler. Hence the term “Machiavellian.”

The Catholic Church banned The Prince, registering it to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books), and humanists also viewed the book negatively. Among them was Erasmus of Rotterdam, arguably the greatest humanist of his day. As a treatise, the book’s primary intellectual contribution to the history of political thought is its fundamental break with political idealism in favor of political realism. The Prince is a manual about acquiring and keeping political power. In contrast with Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli insisted that an imaginary ideal society, as in Plato’s Republic, is not a model by which a prince can or should be guided.

I find Machiavelli’s philosophy in The Prince and other works perfectly repugnant, but I will say a couple of things in mitigation. First, he was working with the political tools at his disposal. Go back to my post on Lucrezia Borgia (18 April 2014), and you’ll get the point. Second, we have to understand that the acts he described as necessary to secure peace and stability really were immoral in his eyes. But they were in service of the big picture. The goal of the new prince was not self promotion and self enrichment. The new prince was servant to the best interests of the people. In this context Machiavelli posed the ethical dilemma that we still argue about to this day: is it justifiable to torture and kill one person if it will save the lives of thousands? My answer is a firm and unequivocal no. You cannot build a moral state on immorality. Corrupt political methods breed nothing but corruption. If we have learnt nothing else from history we ought to have learnt that one by now.

To commemorate Machiavelli and his home city, I present you with my version of eggs Florentine. “Florentine” in a culinary context means “using spinach.” So, technically, any dish featuring eggs and spinach can be termed “eggs Florentine.” I’ve seen recipes for the dish, for example, that are basically scrambled eggs and spinach. But the classic version is essentially eggs Benedict with the ham replaced with spinach. That is a toasted muffin topped with steamed spinach with a poached egg on top bathed in hollandaise sauce. I prefer to put the muffin (or toast) on the side, because no matter how gently you steam the spinach it always leaks juice which makes anything under it soggy.

I’m not going to give you a formal recipe. If you are an experienced cook you can figure it out from my description and from this picture (I made this for breakfast this morning).


The only tricky part is the hollandaise, which I will be precise about. It’s not complicated to make but you have to know what you are doing. You’ll need a whisk, a double boiler of some sort, egg yolks and butter. A hollandaise is a semi-cooked emulsion of egg and butter, and all emulsions are tricky. You are trying to combine two things that don’t want to mix.

The proportions for hollandaise are ¼ cup of softened or melted butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a splash of water for each egg yolk. Place the egg yolks in the top of a double boiler on your counter top while heating water in the bottom to a simmer. If you do not have a double boiler suspend a stainless steel or heatproof glass bowl over simmering water so that the bowl does not come in direct contact with the water (otherwise the yolks will scramble). Whisk the yolks, water, and lemon juice together so that you have a smooth mix. Add a small amount of butter, place them over the steaming water and whisk vigorously. As the butter melts and begins to emulsify with the yolks add more butter, a little at a time at first, then increasing the amount as the emulsion forms and the sauce thickens. You should end up with a sauce slightly thicker than heavy cream. Keep it warm whilst you poach the eggs and steam the spinach.

To make the dish, spoon a portion of spinach on a serving plate (I use a lot). Top with a poached egg and pour over it the hollandaise. I get very generous with the sauce too because it goes well with the spinach. Serve with buttered toast.

Jun 022013



BBC announcer

On this date in 1896 Guglielmo Marconi applied for a patent on the wireless transmission of signals, “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor.” As suggested by the title, Marconi did not invent wireless transmission, but his system was the first one that actually functioned effectively. Thus he is considered the father of radio.  His interest at the outset was purely in the realm of long distance wireless telegraphy, which he steadily improved on in the subsequent decade.  He had begun his work in his native Italy but he had trouble getting sponsors there. One letter he sent to the ministry of Post and Telegraphs asking for research money was found later with an annotation on the front that essentially said, “he belongs in an insane asylum.” So he moved to England where he found backers.

Marconi was born in Bologna in 1874, second son of Giuseppe Marconi, an Italian landowner, and his Irish/Scots wife, Annie Jameson, daughter of Andrew Jameson of Daphne Castle in County Wexford, Ireland and granddaughter of John Jameson, founder of whiskey distillers Jameson & Sons.  Marconi was educated privately and spent most of his teen years in physics labs learning from the pioneers of the study of electromagnetic waves, such as Augusto Righi, who laid the foundations for the understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum, and was the first physicist to generate microwaves. These were the very early days of the study of electricity and magnetism and Marconi was in on the ground floor with help from the best.

Once established in England Marconi worked on improvements in his system so that he was able to go from sending a signal a few miles, to sending one across the Atlantic (although his earliest claims at success in this regard are disputed).  He established The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company in 1897 to manufacture wireless telegraphic equipment.  The company, eventually under the Marconi name, survived until 2006 when it was bought out by a Swedish corporation.

The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company had a major hand in developing wireless telegraphy for transatlantic shipping.  It was Marconi equipment and Marconi employees  aboard RMS Titanic that sent out distress signals when the ship hit an iceberg off Newfoundland.  The equipment was actually intended for the use of passengers primarily, but could be used for professional maritime purposes as well.  Marconi took more time than perhaps was necessary to branch out from telegraphy into audio broadcasts, although it can also be said that until he got into the field in 1915 the technology for audio transmissions was barely existent.  The Marconi Company was instrumental in setting up experimental audio broadcasts in 1920 (his first was a transmission of Nellie Melba singing which was heard as far away as Newfoundland). He registered a radio station in 1922 with the call sign 2LO in the Marconi Building in London. This station became the BBC.  Marconi is decidedly dressed down as he broadcasts in comparison with the first BBC  “DJ’s” — as pictured.

Almost from the start of public broadcasting, cooking shows were an intrinsic part of variety programming.  It is generally accepted that the first radio show on cooking was aired in Paris in 1923 featuring  Dr. Édouard de Pomiane, an eminent food scientist at the Institut Pasteur, and devoted foodie.  He hosted a weekly program on Radio-Paris, telling stories of his kitchen experiences and providing recipes suitable for home cooks. As a popular and respected cook, he was arguably the food world’s first media personality. His shows were not just recitals of recipes, but were  sprinkled with humor and anecdotes. Cooking with Pomiane is a cookbook that came out of his broadcasts (still in print). Here is his recipe for Hollandaise Sauce (in translation) taken from the book.  Although I just came across this recipe in researching this post, it is identical with the one I have used with zero failures for decades. Here I was thinking I invented it! I must have been channeling the spirit of the good doctor when I first made Hollandaise for eggs Benedict this way around 1979. It is dead easy and belies the general belief that making Hollandaise is so complicated that it is best left to professionals.  It is also amusing to note that if you search for “Marconi” and “recipe” on the internet, you will come across dozens of recipes for “Marconi and Cheese.” It’s not so much that the typo exists, and is hilarious when you conjure up an image of the dapper Guglielmo snacking on provolone as he operates his radio equipment, but that so many people mindlessly cut and paste other people’s recipes into their own sites without even bothering to check them.

Hollandaise Sauce

Put a spoonful of cold water, a little salt and two yolks of eggs into a small saucepan. Put this little saucepan into a large one containing boiling water, holding the smaller one firmly. Stir quickly, with a fork, the mixture of water and yolk of egg. This begins to thicken. At this moment lift the small saucepan out of the water, add two ounces of butter cut into pieces the size of a nut. Put it back into the hot water. Stir the mixture all the time with a wire beater. The butter melts and the sauce becomes creamy. Lift it out of the water a little. Add two more ounces of butter cut in pieces. Stir. Put it back into the water. The sauce thickens. Keep on stirring. Dip your finger into the sauce. If it burns, lift the saucepan out of the hot water. Stir fifteen seconds more. The sauce is ready. It should be thinner than mayonnaise. It should, however, coat a spoon which you dip in and lift out again. If you like the flavour of lemon, add a few drops at the beginning of the operation, before the butter. You are then much more likely to be successful with your sauce.

I have never succeeded in spoiling a sauce hollandaise. Follow my example.

This sauce is a luxurious accompaniment to boiled fish or tinned asparagus warmed in its own juice.