Lesson #342: The Speed of Earth

Usain Bolt, the fastest human on the planet, can run 23 miles per hour/38 kilometres per hour  (over some very short distances).*

The fastest a human has ever traveled without going into outer space is 2193 mph/3530 kph.

The fastest a human has ever traveled ever is 24,791 mph/39,897 kph.

The Earth is hurtling around the galaxy at 490,000 mph/788,579 kph

Tell me again how important you are?

*This is just basic algebra…if the world record is 9.58 seconds over 100m, that makes his run a 37.5782881 kph endeavour.


Nothing to see here. Move along!

There will be no lesson today. I’ve got plans this afternoon/evening that are fantastically social and not in the least bit studious.

(The football match is on; I’m going to the pub to watch with some friends.)

Lesson #339: The Irish Slaves in the West Indies

The early to mid 17th Century was not a good time for the Irish. It started with the Plantation of Ulster (which is the event at the root of the current Anglo-Irish question in Northern Ireland) in 1609 and ended with the English killing roughly half a million of them and James II and Oliver Cromwell selling 300,000 of them, of whom about 10% were political prisoners, into slavery in the West Indies. In the course of the decade(ish) between 1641 and 1652, the Irish population fell from just under a million and a half to 616,000.

By 1652, 70% (!) of the white population of Montserrat was Irish; through the entire decade of the 1650s, there were more Irish slaves living in the Americas than there were free citizens.

The first recorded instance of Irishmen being sold into slavery is 1612, when James II sold a group of them to a settlement on the Amazon. With the issue of a 1625 proclamation* that stated that Irish political prisoners (which considering the politics of the time, was all Irishmen) were to be banished overseas, the practice of selling the Irish into slavery became widespread.

In the 1650s, somewhere between 80,000 – 130,000 (depending on which source you read), Irish — many of whom were kidnapped — were sold into slavery in New England, Virginia, and the Caribbean. The reason for this? They were much cheaper than African slaves. African slaves cost between 50-60 pounds sterling; the Irish cost five. Turns out that the reason for this price difference is that the Africans weren’t tainted by Catholic dogma. Serio. As a result, they were treated a hell of a lot better than the Irish. For a while, realizing they could turn a sweet profit on it, slave owners bred Irish women (and, let’s be real, girls) and African men to create an entire generation of mixed-race slaves who brought more money than the Irish at market, but weren’t as expensive as the Africans. The practice was so widespread that in 1681 a law was passed outlawing “the mating of Irish women and African men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale,” not because it was immoral, but because it was cutting into the profits of the Royal African Company, which provided African slaves to the New World. 

Part of the reason the number of Irish slaves was so high is because Cromwell continued the work the Plantation of Ulster started, issuing a decree that stated that all Irish must relocate west of the Shannon River into Connaught (the westernmost of the four Irish provinces) or County Clare (part of Muenster, but the county immediately south of Connaught).** By 1657, he had issued a law that gave the Irish six months to abandon their lands east of the Shannon or be held as traitors and banished to America, never to return lest they “suffer the pains of death as felons by virtue of this act, without benefit of Clergy.”***

While the flow of Irish into the West Indies (and America) ebbed after 1660 (because the English had already sent off nearly everyone they could), there was still a continuous trade in Irish slaves throughout the rest of the 17th and into the 18th century. After the 1798 Irish rebellion, thousands were sent to be sold as slaves in the United States and Australia.

Transportation of Irish slaves finally ended in 1839 when Britain decided to end their involvement in the slave trade.

For more, see here, hereherehere, and here.

Interesting side note: there was a brief Irish uprising in the Barbados in 1649, which Cromwell quickly crushed. He had the perpetrators drawn and quartered and mounted their heads on pikes.

*I can’t find whatever proclamation these sources talk about, but there are a slew of sources cited (including Abbott Smith’s Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labour in America, 1607-1776), so at some point, someone actually read it.

**If you’ve ever been to Co. Clare, you understand why this is a bit of a problem. It’s super cool terrain, but, being mostly rock, not so good for farming.

***I also can’t find this law, but it’s also cited in a ton of places (including Rhetta Akamatsu’s The Irish Slaves: Slavery , Indenture, and Contract Labor Among Irish Immigrants), so ostensibly someone read that one too.

Lesson #338: The Cambridge Chimes

Out of the blue this afternoon, for absolutely no reason, my brain wondered, “hey, what’s that song that clocks play at the top of the hour?”*

You know, this one.

I associate this sound with two very distinct things; my grandparents’ grandfather clock and the clock tower at the prep school in the city where I was born, where my brother and I went to music camp in the summers.

So here’s the story:

The Cambridge Chimes are most famous for their use in the clock at Westminster (Big Ben) and are now more commonly known as the Westminster Chimes. But they were originally composed in 1793 for use at St. Mary’s church on the campus of Cambridge University and are believed to be a derivation from a pair of measures (reputedly, the fifth and sixth) of I Know that My Redeemer Liveth from Handel’s Messiah, although no evidence has ever been found to support that claim.** The chime is composed of five measures of four notes each and set in the key of E major (or F major depending on what you read and which score you’re looking at). Measure 1 is played at the quarter hour, measures 2 and 3 are played on the half hour, measures 4, 5, and 1 are played at the quarter to, and measures 2 – 5 are played on the hour, followed by a series of strikes that indicate the hour.

Officially, credit for the composition is given to the Reverend Doctor Joseph Jowett, who was a professor of law (because…of course?), but people who know about these things believe he was most likely assisted either by Dr. John Randall, who was a professor of music, or one of Randall’s undergrads, William Crotch.

Apparently, there are also lyrics to the four-measure on-the-hour chime. The traditional lyrics to the tune are as follows: O Lord our God/Be Thou our guide/That by thy help/No foot may slide. Funnily enough, when I read the lyrics that are associated with the UK/Canadian Brownies, I feel like I knew this when I was a kid because the last two lines are familiar.*** 

Fun Fact: Big Ben refers only to the chime that announces the hour. It does not refer to the clock face, the tower itself (which was renamed from just “the clock tower” to “the Elizabeth Tower” for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee in 2012), or any of the five measures of the Cambridge/Westminster chimes.

Autobiographical note: My favourite top of the hour clock chime is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul in Vyšehrad in Prague; it plays Smetana’s Vltava, which is both super appropriate and a wonderful piece of music — it’s the second of six pieces that make up  Má Vlast,  which, incidentally, he composed after he went completely deaf.

For more, see here, here, and here.

*Yes, sometimes a random question like this will pop into my head with zero connection to anything going on around me.

**Honestly, I don’t hear it, but I don’t have as good an ear as some.

***This also randomly just reminded me that 25 years later, for no reason, I still know the Brownie pledge  — “I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God, the Queen, and my country, to help other people every day, especially those at home.” I have (obviously) no idea if it’s still the same (probably not…I suspect God no longer makes an appearance), but there it is.

Lesson #337: Adelphoi, Desposyni, and Christianity

Autobiographical note: This is the most fun I’ve had doing research in a long while because it was the most challenging research I’ve done in a long while. The four hours it took me to get everything together and written (I don’t f**k around with my research) is time I rarely have to devote, but it’s a slow weekend in my world. This is also why yesterday’s post is as detailed as it is — though that took only half the time. 

Both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark acknowledge Jesus’ siblings. Four brothers by name, even. They’re called James, Joseph, Judas (or Jude depending on which version you’re reading), and Simon. They also make mention of at least two sisters, who aren’t named, but because the noun is plural, I’m sure you can do the (super basic) math.* 

If you never learned that in Sunday school, ever, that’s because modern Christianity sees the whole thing as a problem. Because Christianity on the whole likes to view Mary as pure as all get-out despite the fact that women of her time would never have had one kid and then been all, “yeah, that’s enough.”

There has been debate raging about the meaning of the word “brothers” in this context since pretty much the dawn of Christianity. Proponents of the perpetual virgin version of Mary — pretty much all of Christianity — choose to see this translation as a figurative association between Jesus and these four. Cousins, maybe.** Or brothers from another mother (literally…there’s discussion as to whether they might be Joseph’s children from a previous, completely unmentioned marriage). Or, you know, bros.

Here’s the problem with that argument: the Greek word from which we get the translation “brothers” is adelphoi, which literally means “from the same womb.”*** I’m not exactly sure how that gets misinterpreted because it’s pretty explicit.

Whatever the modern interpretation, early Christians didn’t doubt the consanguinity of Jesus’ brothers. The historian Josephus (who was Jewish, but that’s so very much not the point here) addresses James’ fate in Antiquities of the Jews. He notes in Book 20, Chapter 9, paragraph 1 that James, who was stoned to death, was “the brother of Jesus called Christ.”****

And they had a word for people who were Jesus’ blood relatives: desposyni, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” The word was widespread enough in its use that the early third century historians Sextus Julius Africanus and Hegesippus both addressed the concept in their writing. Hegesippus’ work is mostly lost, but large portions are quoted in Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiae. Book 3, chapter 20 makes reference to the grandsons of Judas, whom he calls a blood brother of Jesus. Julius Africanus’ work, which actually uses the word desposyni, is quoted in book 1, chapter 7 of the same Eusebius work. 

The concept of the adelphoi and desposyni fell out of favour by the time Third Synod of Carthage set the books of the Bible in 397, with help from major early Christian theologians like Hippolytus and Epiphanius, who held to the perpetual virgin doctrine that continues to exist today. There is, however, some scholarship that suggests that a meeting took place between Pope Sylvester I and Jewish Christian leaders in 318, wherein the Jewish Christian leaders, speaking on behalf of the desposyni, asked that the papacy a. recognize the bloodline of Jesus, b. make Jerusalem the mother church (and have the church’s money sent to Jerusalem), and c. revoke the authority of the Greek Christian bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Alexandria, and appoint desposynos bishops in their stead. Rome declined. This meeting is the last known communication between the Church and the desposyni.***** 

There is no doubt some political motivation in all of this. It’s unlikely that, with the papacy under Roman patronage by this time, the Church was ever going to agree to lose the money it was making in being the mother church and in being in control of bishopric appointments. And it’s not exactly good publicity to change your mind about the purity of your holiest saint. In canonizing the Bible not long after, Rome solidified its place as the power of Europe for the next 1125 years — until Martin Luther showed up and said “eine minuten, bitte” — and shaped the way modern Christianity believes without much question into the finer points. The Church, like every other ruling faction, became a political entity ahead of everything else. It just so happened their political interest was in saving souls. For money.******

And lest you think this is critical of Christianity, it is and it isn’t. I’ve long been critical of the unchecked political agency of the early and medieval Church. But I’m most impressed by people like priests and bishops, whose job it is to learn and know these things, but still manage to reconcile them with their faith (and then let me ask a million questions about it all like a petulant four-year-old who wants to know why she has to go to bed); it’s exactly these sorts of smaller details that, when taken as a collective, made me walk away from religion. As an academic, the whole notion of the Church saying, “just trust me!” without ever giving compelling evidence for why I should — especially when my scholastic motto is “sources or GTFO” — led to a wholesale mistrust in the fundamental tenets of the entire faith.

As an aside: There’s an interesting alternate history to be drawn if the mother church moves from Rome to Jerusalem.

*See here (verse 55) and here (verse 3)

**Unlikely. The Greek word for cousin is a distinct word, anepsios.

***The etymology of the word brother even identifies the as “Greek adelphos…meaning, specifically, “brother of the womb” or “brother by blood.”

****For the record, religious scholars agree that of the two references to Jesus in Josephus’ work (both in Antiquities of the Jews), this is the only one that is authentic. The reference in Book 18 to Jesus’ crucifixion is universally held to be a later addition by an outside source. For more on that, see Schrekenberg and Schubert’s Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature, Vol 1, Evans’ Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies, Wansbrough’s Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition, Dunn’s Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1, Wells and Hoffman’s The Jesus Legend, and probably half a dozen others.

*****See Malachi Martin’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church.

******See: tithing, which was required by law. And any number of shady practices employed by the medieval church to scare every last cent out of people in order to ensure their eternal salvation. But that fear-mongering and widespread abuse of power made the Church exorbitantly wealthy.

Lesson #336: Damnatio ad Bestias

Damnatio ad bestias is the Latin for “condemnation to beasts.”

As you may remember, if you’ve been reading long enough, the Roman Army was not especially tolerant of rebellion within its ranks, which led to the practice of decimation.

Turns out, they were even less a fan of desertion. At least if you took part in some sort of rebellion, you stood a nine in ten chance of surviving your failed attempt at change.

Deserters were sentenced to death by being thrown, woefully under-armed — if they were armed at all — into the arena with angry, hungry wild animals that wanted to, and did, tear their throats out. Sometimes, they were simply tied to a pole. Sometimes, they got their skulls crushed by elephants. Sometimes, if they were especially bad, smaller animals were introduced to kill them more slowly. Good times! The Romans certainly took their bloodsport seriously.

Damnatio ad bestias wasn’t strictly a sentence for deserters. It was also handed down to early Christians, but was most often the fate of criminals. Both the Codex Theodosianus (429-438 CE) and the Corpus Juris Civilis (529-534 CE) actually stipulate who may and who may not be sentenced to damnatio ad bestias. The list of those who were allowed to be executed by damnatio ad bestias includes: deserters, anyone hiring a sorcerer with the intent to harm another, plebian prisoners*, counterfeiters, political prisoners, anyone who committed patricide**, anyone instigating an uprising (!), and kidnappers.

The practice of damnatio ad bestias originated in Asia, where it was practiced from the sixth century BCE. One of the earliest recorded instances is the biblical story of Daniel being thrown to the lions (from which he was delivered, if you remember your Sunday/Hebrew school lessons).*** There is some question as to whether the earliest instances of damnatio ad bestias were actually human sacrifice rather than the punishment the sentence would later become, though by the time of Alexander’s campaigns in the fourth century BCE, the sentence was being carried out as punishment.****

According to historians Polybius and Pliny the Elder*****, damnatio ad bestias arrived in Europe in the second or third century BCE by way of the Punic Wars, and by the first century CE, the practice had become an entertainment event, including being part of the first games at the Colosseum in Rome (under the Emperor Titus). Nero became the first emperor to use the punishment as a way to persecute early Christians. His version involved simply wrapping Christians in animal skins and throwing them to the dogs******, but later emperors changed this practice to become more entertaining-bloodsport-in-the-arena and less guy-on-the-street-being-attacked-by-dogs. This aspect of damnatio ad bestias continued until the 313 CE Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion. However, the practice itself continued for another three hundred years, until it was (purportedly, I can’t find any evidence that this is true*******) outlawed in 681 CE.

For more reading (in case the citations above weren’t enough), see here (this one’s a whole book!), here, and here.

*Patricians were beheaded, slaves were crucified.

**Apparently, the usual punishment for any crime of parricide was drowning whilst sewn into a bag of snakes (poena cullei), but damnatio ad bestias was the fallback in case a sufficient body of water could not be found.

***The Tanakh version of that story is here. The Old Testament version is here. They’re exactly the same story in almost exactly the same words, but people are weird about acknowledging that the Tanakh and the Old Testament are nearly identical, so in the interest of fairness, I give you both. In the Old Testament link, I’ve provided the NIV text, but the link gives you a drop down menu that allows you to choose from 47 different English versions. And if that doesn’t suit you, there are options in 61 other languages.

****See Plutarch’s Life of Demetrius.

*****Polybius’ The General History of Polybius and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

******See Tacitus’s The Annals.

*******While I can’t speak to the legal accuracy of this, everything suggests that after the seventh century CE, the practice all but disappears, though there are a couple notable instances that take place much later.

Lesson #335: Dachshunds Are Badger Hunters

I randomly learned today that dachs is the German word for badger.*

I’m a pretty smart girl with some fairly decent language skills. I know the German word for dog (incidentally, the Swedish word is the same). I also have some fairly decent deductive reasoning skills. That makes those hilariously shaped Dachshunds badger hunters. Which makes total sense. Those ridiculously short legs and that long body? Perfect for diving into badger setts. That aggression that until today struck me as a bit off? Yeah…badgers aren’t exactly cuddly.

And apparently, the Dachshund was long a symbol of Germany, which led political cartoonists in the First World War and, to a lesser extent, the Second World War to use the dog as a representation of Germany. I also found a couple from the 20s that can be seen here and here. And one from 1934 here.

*This isn’t even close to the weirdest linguistic thing I’ve learned in the last week. As my linguistic life somehow revolves around bears (don’t ask), I learned to say something very odd about bears in American Sign Language at the weekend. On a street corner. Outside a bar. In a popular neighbourhood. In the middle of the day. If you saw a group of people on Sunday afternoon all dressed in navy and white, gesticulating wildly, and laughing hysterically, that’s what was happening.