Category Archives: History

Jubilees – The Story Shofar

Until this year fifteen monarchs around the world had reigned for at least seventy years, the grand-père of them all being Louis XIV whose 72 years and 110 days on the French throne is the longest recorded of any monarch of a sovereign country. On February 6, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II became the sixteenth. A series of celebrations are being planned this year across the country and the Commonwealth to mark what is known as her Platinum Jubilee year.

Jubilee years were part of the cycle of days and years in Judaic tradition. Seven days made up a week, the seventh being the Sabbath, a day dedicated to rest and worship. There were seven years in a cycle, the seventh, the Sabbath year, was when the land lay fallow. According to the Book of Leviticus (25:10), after forty-nine years, a cycle of seven weeks of seven years, “you shall consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you”.

The jubilee year was a way of resetting the dial. All leased or mortgaged lands were to be returned to their original owners and all slaves and bonded labourers were to be freed. There were carefully crafted provisions to mitigate the economic mayhem that these strictures may have caused (Leviticus 25:15-16), but the underlying principle was that everyone should be free to enjoy the fruits of their own labour.

A blast on a shofar, a rudimentary trumpet made from a ram’s horn, marked the start of the Jubilee year. The Hebrew word for ram was “yobhel”, which may be the origin of our word “jubilee”, although it is just as likely to have been derived from the Latin verb “jubilare”, to shout out joyfully or to celebrate.

Jubilee years were introduced to the Christian world by Pope Boniface VIII in a Papal Bull, Antiquorum fida relatio, published on February 22, 1300. He promised that anyone who made a full confession and made a pilgrimage to Rome would be absolved of all sins. Once in Rome they were required to visit the basilicas St Peter and St Paul for fifteen consecutive days, or if they were Roman citizens, for thirty.

Pilgrims flocked to Rome, the chronicler Giovanni Villani observing that it was “the most marvellous thing that was ever seen, for throughout the year, without a break, there were in Rome, besides the inhabitants of the city, 200,000 pilgrims…and all was well ordered, and without tumult”. The Papal coffers received a welcome boost, and the jubilee was declared a success, so much so that Pope Clement VI overturned Boniface’s original intention of holding one every hundred years by organising another, in 1350.

In the 1380s Pope Urban VI decided that the jubilee years should reflect the duration of Christ’s earthly life and be held every thirty-three years, but by the mid-15th century the frequency had become once every twenty-five years as it is today. 2025 is the next jubilee year. From 1500 pilgrims entered the principal basilicas through special doors, known as “Holy Doors”, and temporary walls built behind them were ceremonially broken down by the Pope to mark the beginning of the year.

Twenty-Six Of The Gang

If you are looking for a different form of profane expression with which to vent your anger or frustration, why not try Lady in the straw. This was a popular oath and refers to the Virgin Mary who gave birth to her child in a stable. I think it is due a renaissance. And if you want to express your exasperation, how about leave them to fry in their own fat, an alternative to give him enough rope and he’ll hang himself?

Someone’s halitosis getting you down? Try lend us your breath to kill Jumbo. And looking for another way to call out someone’s humbug? Leather and prunella, according to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, was a corruption of lather, being whipped cream, and prunella, a sort of damson puree or plum jelly. It was initially used to denote flimsiness and by extension humbug.

London ivy was a pleasing euphemism for dust as it sticks to everything while London smoke described a yellowish-grey colour, popular as a paint colour as it hid the dirt. Making the best of everything and the desire to battle through adversity was known as best side towards London. It also reflected the desire of country folk to see London for themselves and even make their fortune. Its streets were not paved with gold, Ware sagely noted.

A long pull was something to be sought after, an over full measure of drink, either served by the publican as a favour or to attract trade. Either way, I am sure it was gratefully received. Unsubstantiated reports of such a custom may have been a long-tailed bear, an euphemism for a lie as bears do not have tails. If the barman was serving overly generous measures, the landlord may have looked through the fingers, an Irish phrase meaning to pretend not to see.

Plant-based Milks

A historical perspective gives a lie to the contention that plant-based milks are just a modern fad, whose fortunes will wane as quickly as they have risen. After all, the milk of a coconut has been drunk ever since man first worked out how to crack its hard shell. Etymologically, milk was used as a term to describe the milk-like juices or saps from plants from the early 13th century. Even more intriguingly, the earliest recipe books in English contain references to the use of plant-based milks.

The Forme of Cury, written in 1390, includes a recipe for blank maunger, probably a dish derived from the Arabs but blander due to the paucity of spices available. Along with rice and capons, sugar, salt, this dish, often given to invalids to strengthen them up, used almond milk as its base. Utilis Coquinario, a cookbook written at the beginning of the 14th century instructs the reader on how to make butter of almond milk. In the earliest German cookbook, dating from around 1350, Das Buch von Guter Spise, almost a quarter of its recipes use almond milk.

Almonds were an expensive commodity, even though they were widely grown in England, three times the price of a pint of butter, putting them ordinarily beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. Butter and milk made from almonds were especially favoured by those who wished to observe the letter, if not the spirit, of the Church’s restrictions on the consumption of meat and dairy products during Lent. As they were plant-based, they could be enjoyed with a clear conscience.

Soya milk, made from the soybean, has an equally long pedigree, initially in China, and is the most widely recognised of the plant-based milks. First mentioned in Chinese texts from around 1350 and in recipes in cookbooks from the 17th century, it was also served hot in tofu shops and drunk for breakfast. The bean was “discovered” by occidentals in the late 19th century, the term “soy-bean milk” first appearing in a report produced by the US Department of Agriculture in 1897, comparing its attributes with those of cow’s milk.

An early advocate of the benefits of soya milk was Li Yuying who established the first manufacturing unit in Colombes in France in 1910 and held British and American patents for production processes. What to call it, though, was a question which mired soya milk producers in contentious litigation with authorities and dairy farmers for decades. The issue was only resolved in the United States in 1974 when the courts ruled that it was a “new and distinct food” rather than ersatz milk, while in Britain in the 1970s it had to be called “liquid food of plant origin” and then “soya plant-milk”.

The 1970s and 80s saw improvements in production techniques, enhancements to taste and consistency, and the development of Tetra Pak packaging extended shelf-life, helping soya milk to establish pre-eminence amongst other plant-based milks. The emergence of strong challengers, though, in the form of oat milk and, the new kid on the block, potato milk, looks set to change that.

Potato milk, available from on-line providers and, since February 2022, in Waitrose stores, is even more sustainable than any other plant-based milk currently available. According to its manufacturer, Swedish-based DUG, winner of the “Best Allergy-Friendly Product” in the 2021 World Food Innovation Awards, potatoes are twice as land efficient as other plant-based options and use 56 times less water than almonds. Dairy-free, and minus gluten, casein, fat, cholesterol, and soy, potatoes are a good source of vitamins D and B12 and the milk, which is very creamy and tastes good in coffee, is fortified with important vitamins and minerals.

All nut, bean, or water-base plant-based milks are made using a similar process. The main ingredient is soaked in water for several hours, before being blended into a puree which is then filtered to separate the milk from the plant matter. The milk is then sterilised by boiling and flavours are added to enhance the taste.

Plant-based milks have long been with us and will continue to offer us an alternative for years to come. 

Typo Of The Week (2)

Typographical errors are the bane of the lives of all those associated with the production of books, journals, and newspapers. When Robert Barker and Martin Lucas printed 1,000 copies of their edition of the Bible in 1631, they had failed to spot that they had omitted the word “not” from the seventh commandment in Exodus 20:14.

They had produced what became to be known as the Adulterous or Sinners’ or just plain Wicked Bible. The error which encouraged the commission of adultery was only spotted a year later and while it did not exactly bring the wrath of God on the heads of the unfortunate duo, it did provoke the ire of King Charles I. Barker and Martin were summoned before him, were stripped of their printer’s licence, and were fined £300, which, fortunately for them, was suspended. Most, but not all, of the bibles were destroyed.

One has been discovered in New Zealand, Chris Jones, a medieval historian at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, announced a few days ago. It was unearthed in 2018 and is owned by the Phil and Louise Donnithorne Family Trust. It was in poor condition, with its cover and some end pages missing, and had suffered some water damage. It has just one illegible name in the frontispiece and this version uses red and black ink, unlike many of the other surviving copies. How it got to New Zealand is a mystery as is whether the typo was deliberate, an act of industrial sabotage, or just carelessness.

It has taken four years to restore the Bible, but the text is being digitised so that all, with internet access, can enjoy it, fortunately with the typo still there. It would be a shame to correct it.

Twenty-Five Of The Gang

The death penalty, execution by hanging, brought an end to many a criminal’s career. Those for whom such a gruesome ending could be foreseen were told hemp’s grown for you, meaning that their name was already on an executioner’s cord. The rope used to hang convicted felons was made from flax which, in turn, came from hemp.

To avoid a life of crime might be described as hill-top literature, sound advice. When cycling took of in the latter part of the 19th century, it was customary for boards to be positioned at the top of a steep hill warning cyclists of the steepdescent in front of them.James Ware, in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, tells the tale of a cyclist in Ireland (natch) who hurtled down a steep and dangerous hill and was surprised not to see a board with the usual warnings. When he got to the bottom of the hill, he found a sign proclaiming that “This hill is dangerous to cyclists”.

A phrase which I will endeavour to use when the occasion arises is to introduce the cobbler to the tailor, a marvellously vivid and inventive way to kick someone up the backside.

Kodaking is a fascinating example of the use of new technology to develop slang. It derived from what Ware described as the snap=shot photographic camera, named after its inventor, and was used to describe the practice of surreptitiously obtaining information. It was used in a theatre review of Sir Henry Irving’s performance in Richard III; “our eyes are riveted on his face, we are interested in the workings of his mind, we are secretly kodaking every expression, however slight”.