Bling and Explosions: China & the Song Dynasty

Hello everyone, and sorry to have been a bit absent as of late. As many of you probably know I am desperately trying to finish my PhD so I don’t get a lot of time to write about anything other than Vikings, women, and fashion…yeah. However, I have been playing a lot of Total War: 3 Kingdoms, and as these things usually come about, my love for eastern cultures has resurfaced again. So, I decided to bring you something about one of the most fascinating periods of Chinese history: the Song Dynasty. Yes, I could be writing about epic China and Cao Cao and the Battle of the red Cliff instead, but that would be expected and therefore, boring. So, instead today we are going to talk about money and guns…:D

Why these two things? Well, because these were arguably some of the most important developments that the song contributed towards not just Chinese history, but the entire world. The Song succeeded in centralising power in China after a relatively turbulent period known as the 5 Dynasties and 10 kingdoms era. This was a series of upheavals and conflicts that followed the Tang dynasty which had primarily managed to keep Chinese civilization going thanks to their military prowess. This did not avoid their fall, though. So, after usurping power like any Asian drama would teach you was the norm in these parts of the world, The Song decided that invest their efforts in bureaucracy rather than the military. That said though, the Southern Song did make considerable improvement to their naval assets which gave them a solid backbone to stand against the Jin at the north. Their key pieces for this strategy were the paddle-wheel boats which became a quintessential part of their navy.

However, like I was saying, what really allowed the Song dynasty to excel was their economic development and scientific advancements. There are masses to talk about regarding this topic so I will attempt to give you a brief summary. The Song were arguably some of the most prosperous people in the medieval world. They had abundant trade thanks to their connections through the Yangze river which was well invested into joint stock companies that saw prosperity over this period. Kaifeng, the Northern song capital was a bustling city with merchants and artisans organised in guilds. According to Gang Deng Maritime trade, with its new naval developments did much for the growth of China allowing new connections that were not spoiled by the tartars and the Mongols such as south east Asia as well as east Africa. The iron industry was booming in this period too which was a greatly demanded resource, particularly with regards to the military. However, Rongxing Guo argues that one of the reasons behind the prosperity of the Song during the 11th century is due to the fact that there was a great shift in the government structure, removing regional military officials and replacing them with civilian scholars, which in return gave a lot of power back to the emperor. With this power and the influx of trade, the economy reached such stakes that the amount of minted copper skyrocketed to around 6 billion coins in 1085, which lead to the development of paper printed money. So, it is thanks to the Song Jiaozi as it was called that we use bank notes nowadays.

With all this money, opportunities came for the Song to develop other aspects of the society that perhaps have been a little neglected in previous times. What the Song decided to take away from their military output against the war tribes chipping at their frontiers, they decided to invest in technology to overcome their enemies. Alongside with the revolution that were the movable type printing innovations (not just for the sake of money) two other great technological advances came from the Song to change the world: the compass and firearms. Dieter Kuhn advises that, although the compass was perhaps not that revolutionary for the Chinese themselves, it had a huge impact in European societies and would eventually lead to the golden age of Western navigation and sea exploration. Gunpowder had been invented in China in the 9th century, but its application to the military had not been fully explored until he Song dynasty. The manuscript of 1044 known as Wujing Zongyao lists one of the first formulas for the use of gunpowder in the form of bombs for to be used as part of siege equipment. There were many other weapons that were developed during this time period, amongst which the flamethrower is one of my favourites. The Song repurpose the technology of Greek fire with a double piston hose gun to make this new weapon that became super useful and deadly.  But gunpowder was not the only thing that allowed the Song to have an advantage over their adversaries. The improvements done overall to their society stimulated learning and great engineering developments came from this particularly in terms of siege equipment. In the list of inventions that gave the Song this military prowess, Andrade includes the long-range catapults, new artillery crossbows and rapid-fire cartridges

But of course, this does not mean the world around the Song was not changing. They were partially forced to improve their military tactics due to the constant development of their warlike neighbours, particularly the Mongols and the states of Liao, Jin and XI Xia with which they had contested territories. So, when considering the success, at least I these terms, of this dynasty, one must not forget that the Far East was almost always in constant movement and that although the period of the Song is somewhat quieter in comparison to their predecessors, part of the reason behind this was because of the stalemate of forces between them and their rivals. This pushed for new methods, new techniques, and thus the Chinese states flourished to heights that the Europeans would not experience for a few hundred years.

This is my brief intro to the Song and their great history. If you are curious about the couple of sources I mention above, the details are below. Asian history is fascinated and seriously neglected in the west, so, if this inspires curiously, go to the library and get on with some learning 😉

Andrade – The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

Guo – An Introduction to the Chinese Economy: The Driving Forces Behind Modern Day

Kuhn – The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China

Olga of Kiev: Queen of the Rus

Vikings here, Vikings there, Vikings everywhere…! So today I take us back to one of my favourite women in history: an absolute kick ass queen who manage to take rulership of an old Norse state to a different level. Today, I bring you Olga of Kiev – or rather a summary of the things we know about Olga, because, as you know, I love me nothing better than dark characters and subjects in history that no one else seems to care about…Or that have hardly any research published in English…Oh Well!

So… Who’s Olga?

Good question! As far as we understand, Queen Olga of Kiev, ruled the realm after the death of her husband Igor, in the first half of the tenth century. Olga and Igor had only one son who was at the time of the death of his father, an underaged infant, which meant Olga acted as his regent…And the rest that we know about this incredible woman, is patchwork – at best. On a further note about the issue with the secondary sources- there is more availability of materials in other languages, mainly in Russian and other Eastern European languages. Even though, it is surprising how little in general has been written about her despite she was the first member of the royal family leave paganism behind and adopt Orthodox Christianity. Despite there are not many secondary sources about her, there was an increase in the amount of research done about her related to her conversion to Christianity and the millennium anniversary of her baptism In fact, Olga was the first member of the dynasty that became Christian; an event that had repercussions for the entire kingdom in the following years. This event was exposed in different ways in contemporary sources, which allowed the historical debate to begin.

According to Moseley, there are extensive materials for the study of middle- and upper-class women, such as personal correspondence and diaries; nevertheless, this does not apply to the Early Middle Ages where it was commonly the monks who recorded most events. Moreover, it was uncommon for women to write for it was seen as ‘exceeding society’s expectations. Apart from a few exceptions, like Christine of Pissan, the limited chances a woman had to influence written work were through patronage, as seen in the Encomium of Emma of Normandy. No sources written by Olga have been preserved or are known, although it has been suggested that the two Slavonic contemporary sources that remain could be based on a lost Encomium. Zemon Davis states that there are plenty of materials for research on European women, despite these might sometimes be under represented. However, we cannot be certain this applies to women that were not from mainland Europe. One of the very few sources we have availale that talk at lenght about Olga is the Russian primary Chronicle (which is super epic by the way, and if you have the time to read it, I thoroughly recommend it). Written in the twelfth century, this is nonetheless a controversial source: The text is meant to be a compilation of earlier manuscripts as well as oral traditions, although it is not disregarded it could just be the product of propaganda: both from the state and the Church.  Jesch defines it as an “apocryphal” and “legendary” text where the events are clearly manipulated by the author, but on the contrary Riha thinks that despite the religious bias it is the only remaining source of the early Russian past, so it cannot be disregarded. Thus, this source explains how Olga tricks the Derevlians, killers of her husband, and then leads the army to avenge the death of Igor and impose her rule over the neighbouring land .

According to Stafford, Olga was no exception as others like Aethelflead or Gerberga took active roles in siege and town defence. Furthermore, she states that ‘the struggles surrounding succession were often accompanied by propaganda wars’, a fact that fits in with the circumstances of Olga’s son’s minority and the political instability after the death of Igor. Moreover, it also reflects the Viking literary heritage presented in the sagas of the warrior maiden, that shows the perceptions of contemporary women by society. Finally, this source does mention other affairs related to the administrative power of the queen, like the economic prosperity reached since c.947 due to the building of several trading posts and the imposition of a tax on the goods transported through the Russian rivers. But, this does not say much about Olga’s personal life or experience of queenship. There is a passage of the Russian Primary Chronicle that perhaps reflects on this issue or maybe is just a remain of how she wanted to portray herself as a ruler. According to the events described, the Byzantine emperor fascinated by Olga proposes her marriage, for it is what she requires to be baptised. As he performs the rite, she eludes the proposal because of the formula used by the emperor, which calls her his daughter and therefore the incestuous controversy stands in Olga’s favour. It is interesting to know, though, that this is the only source that mentions this event. There is much debate amongst scholars regarding the truth behind this passage. Some consider that was the reality, some others that it never did happen. In addition, there are some that think that even if it happened it would not have been recorded elsewhere as it would have been a humiliation of the Emperor and, thus, too favourable for Olga, who after all was a widowed queen from a “lesser” kingdom. Perhaps that was her way to reinforce her position of widow, the one moment when women enjoyed more freedom and respect.

Related to that episode is the most celebrated part of Olga’s life: her baptism and conversion to the Christian faith. She was the first Russian Christian ruler who was the most inspiring figure for later tsar’s wives ‘who manipulated her image as intercessor for her people to legitimize their own roles as spiritual mothers of the realm and independent rulers’, according to Schaus. The importance of religion in life reaches its peak with her later beatification and sanctification. Interestingly, Schulenburg’s research shows how in the first half of the tenth century the number of female saints, all the clear example of piety, devotion and morality, increased by 20 per cent. Indeed, it is known women were a key part in the conversion process and spread of Christianity, and one of the few subjects where queens could get involved and develop their own affairs. Specifically, Norse women seem to have used this new opportunity that Christianity gave them to acquire more influence within their communities, just like Olga. Furthermore, women, and queens in particular, were the ones in charge of the spiritual protection of their families, which was very important for the well-being and prosperity of a dynasty. The importance of such matter is partially seen in a passage of Adalbert of Magdeburg’s Chronicle of Regino of Prüm that includes information regarding missionary work agreed between Olga and the court of Otto I. This is odd considering she was on good terms with Byzantium and she was converted to the Orthodox faith. However, it has been suggested that one of her multiple visits to Constantinople was intended to get a bishop for her realm but due to internal issues within the Byzantine administration this never happened, which may have made her get in contact with the Holy-Roman Empire.

 However, the German mission failed and with it the developments of Christianity in the Rus. Certainly Olga did not manage to convert her own son to the new faith, but the influence spread, reaching even a more important figure than the heir to the throne: Vladimir, Olga’s grandson. It was with Vladimir’s rule that Kiev became officially Christian, two decades after Olga’s attempt. Poppe suggests that this shows how important it was for female rulers to have support in different spheres and how religion was a way of gaining control and allies at the same time. Related to this, is the general question about status being so prominent and relevant in the study of these figures. There is one last source that deals with this subject, De Caeremonis: the book of ceremonies from the Byzantine court which provides details on the ceremonies Olga attended in Constantinople, and her dinners with the royal family, evidence of her high status and diplomatic abilities. Finally, Jesch mentions the large number of females from her family that had an active role in Olga’s court, perhaps suggesting a sort of female agency, and most definitely establishing the importance of household and family support for these individuals.

So, this is what we can comfortably talk about Olga. There is a very important issue that I need to address here which is something that Schaus points out and is the issue of romanticism with figures like Olga. There are extra difficulties to investigate characters like this due to the pagan-Christian controversy. After all, Kievan women suffered from the romanticism of the sources and their personas due to the Romantic and Nationalistic movements Kievan scholars experimented. Therefore, perhaps what we know about her must be taken with a pinch of salt? I am a little reluctant to believe it is all a fantasy or apocryphal. However, the lack of access to sources in different languages make this a very biased discussion.

Regardless, I still think that Olga is a well interesting figure that did a lot of great things for her people and that is still very under represented in her field.  

And here is the bibliography from where I pulled most of this research…So you can see it is archaic…However, I would like to point out that a few things have come out recently which will be worth examining…I just haven’t had the chance to get my hands on to them.

‘The Russian Primary Chronicle’, ed. T.Riha, Readings in Russian Civilization, Vol. 1, (Chicago and London, 1964), pp. 20-30.

Featherstone, J., ‘Ol’ga’s Visit to Constantinople’, Harvard Ukranian Studies, Vol. 14, No 3-4, (Dec., 1990), pp. 293-312.

Jesch, J., Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge, 1991).

Jewell, H.M., Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe c.500-1200 (Basingstoke and New York, 2007).

Moseley, E.S., ‘Sources for the New Women’s History’, The American Archivist, Vol. 43, No. 2, (Spring, 1980), pp. 180-190.

Poppe, A., ‘Once Again Concerning the Baptism of Olga, Archontissa of Rus’, Dumbaton Oak Papers, Vol. 46-Homo Byzantinus: Papers in Honour of Alexander Kazhdan, (1992), pp. 271-277.

Schaus, M., Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: an Encyclopedia (London, 2006).

Smith-Rosenberg, C., ‘The New Women and the New History’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1-2, (Aut., 1975), pp. 185-198.

Stafford, P., Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages (London and Virginia, 1983).

Zemon Davis, N., ‘“Women’s History” in Transition: the European Case’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3-4, (Spring-Summer, 1976), pp. 83-103.

On Medieval Parish Guilds in England

Today I bring you something I worked on a few years ago when I was doing my MA investigation: Medieval guilds and fraternities. I remember this was a very relaxed module – only 2 students! – but we had an amazing field trip to see some of the most spectacular gothic cathedrals of the south of England. As the topic for the module was the general development of the English church in the later middle ages, i found myself a little out of my depth..Yeah I know religious history and I are like bread and butter…But perhaps you missed the Later Middle Ages in England…So I decided to focus on something that was not so foreign territory. I had considered focusing my undergraduate dissertation in cults and sects in the later medieval period as well as societies and fraternities rising at this point in history. So, i decided to dust up some tomes, research and different bag of beans to put something on the subject together. This is very much condensed and edited from the general investigation, but I hope it sparks some interest. /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0cm; mso-para-margin-right:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:8.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0cm; line-height:107%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:”Calibri”,sans-serif; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:EN-US;} Introduction to The Religious Fraternities I guess you all would like to know what we consider guilds or parish fraternities. Well, here is the first issue: there are many words that refer to the same type of association. Farnhill provides several names such as guilds, brotherhoods, fraternities, charities, companies and confraternities. All these words seem to be synonyms of the concept of parish fraternities. Whatever the name of these associations may be, it seems clear that they originated from the efforts of the lay community to get more involved in their religious life. Most of them were created to help the building of cathedrals and other churches in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although the origin of these communities changed with time.  A good example of these Samaritans is the Brotherhood of St. Andrew at Wells. We also see the rise of these guilds in correlation to the period of the Black Death. They became means to obtain salvation, by founding a chantry where to perform prayers for the souls of the founders and benefactors. But as usual, there are other theories and it has been suggested that the origin of these fraternities goes far back to Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon times. Although these associations were predominantly formed by the laity, some included members of the clergy as well. In fact, the parishes tried to incentivise these organisations as they were beneficial for the church: the guilds provided with clerical funds, and they contributed to the pastoral work as well as to the acquisition of money for the altar fabrics. However, the guilds were not always welcomed by the clergy or the English society. At the beginning of the movement, it was considered by many that their practices were “pre-Christian” if not “un-Christian”. But eventually the clergy stopped their criticism and some joined in their local groups….If you can’t fight them…Right? I guess it was all for the benefit oftheir own pockets… There are other complications that muddle the investigation of these guilds; for instance, the dualism between religious and craft fraternities. Sometimes it is fairly difficult to identify them as separate beings. Barron suggests that at the core of every trade guild was ‘a religious brotherhood dedicated to the worship and promotion of a particular saint’. We have to consider that in many ways these associations were as much of a religious community as they were a social group. Brown actually questions in his work how much the actual legitimacy of the religious implication of craft guilds was. He does indeed consider that, although they would most likely profit from the spiritual intercession of their cult, perhaps there was more wealth and social status display involved in their activities than actual religious ritual. Another problem is that a lot of these societies seem to be rather ephemeral in nature. There is a definitive date of termination for these associations, as they were abolished in 1547 because of the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries. But before that not much can be inferred from the sudden termination of their activities. They seemed really active and involved whilst they lasted. Role and Function of the Guilds The guilds primary function was to provide for the souls of the laity that were part of these groups. However, they performed many other activities from which laity benefited, and in which they contributed. Let’s have a look at the case of the fraternity at St.Laurence in Reading. The records show that he churchwardens of the parish acquired ₤6, 2s and 4d from the guild of Our Lady to repair he chancel. Furthermore, the biggest achievement a fraternity could hope for was to provide with a perpetual chaplain for the guild, or even the parish, but this was expensive and not all associations could afford it. Primordially guilds oversaw providing lights for their saints’ altar and for the high altar on Sundays, as well as performing funerals for their departed brethren and commemorations. The guild was also in charge of organising their annual meal, and patron feasts, where all their members would gather. This was almost a process on its own, perhaps less ritualistic, where commensality and solidarity, bringing people from different background and status, were key factors. These were also opportunities to carry other other charitable events, for example, the members Saint Lawrance’s guild in Lincoln invited paupers to their feast to share their food and drink. Rosser argues that these activities apart from being para-liturgical, were a way of reclaiming the moral authority that the parishioners had and that the canons had denied to the lay members of society. It seems likely that this type of activity was one of the biggest appeals for the lay people to belong to a guild. Once again, Rosser argues that the proportion of members attending the guild meal was higher in smaller, more localized guilds, although the attendance level was satisfactory in general for most of the brotherhoods. Finally, it is likely that some guilds would have asked for their members to go on pilgrimage, although this sort of activities seem to decline in popularity by the end of the fifteenth century. Other guilds carried out more liturgical activities. Such is the case of the Kalendars. The Kalendars were an interesting and uncommon fraternity; there are barely three recorded in England, located at Bristol, Exeter and Winchester, and they met to celebrate the Kalends, from where their name comes from, on top of the usual intercessory masses. Nevertheless, the guild at Bristol acquired an evangelic function when Bishop Carpenter decided to fund a public library in the fifteenth century, to try and eradicate the seeds of Lollardy spread around the area. So, in this sense the members of these guilds were meant to behave not only like good citizens, but in general like good Christians. They were role models even. Their sense of communitas drove the brotherhoods to help maintaining good relationships with the city rulers as well, in addition to organising collective activities and being arbitrators in certain issues affecting the town. In some cases, fraternities would become shadow governments like in the case of the guild of St. George in Norwich, whose members acted as a parallel town authority and dispensers of the town’s law. On a final note, it seems that many of these associations could have acted as sources of credit, as well as patronage and employment. It is more than likely that many of these fraternities would have provided money for the poor, as well as for their sick members, but this type of transaction is not properly recorded in their official accounts, which suggests perhaps it was a more informal action that was not strictly regulated. This is my brief introduction to the topic. However, if this is something that interests you, here are some bibliographical references so you can dig in and find out more about these religious societies: Ken Farnhill. Guilds and the Parish Community in Late Medieval East Anglia, c. 1470–1550. York: 2001. Richard Goddard. ‘Medieval business networks: St Mary’s guild and the borough court in later medieval Nottingham’, Urban History, Volume 40, Issue 1, (February 2013) , pp. 3-27 Caroline Barron. London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500. Oxford: 2004 Andrew D. Brown. Popular Piety in Late Medieval England: The Diocese of Salisbury, 1250-1550. Oxford: 1995. Gervase Rosser. The Art of Solidarity in the Middle Ages: Guilds in England 1250-1550. Oxford: 2015. Nicholas Orme. Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. New Haven and London: 2006. – this one contains a fair bit of info about the guilds themselves like the Kalendars.

The Creation of Hangul

This post will focus on the creation of the Korean Alphabet, namely its creator, how it it is written and what was used before Hangul.

Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul. Note: King Sejong written in Hangul

The Creator-

Hangul was created by King Sejong the Great in the fifteenth century. He was the fourth King of the Joseon dynasty of Korea. It was a phonetic writing system to convey the Korean Language, in the hope that all social classes in Korea could read and write from the same script.
King Sejong wanted to encourage literacy amongst the lower classes in Korea who had little to no educational opportunities and to create a separate cultural identity for the Korean people.

How it is written-

When Hangul was created there were 28 letters, 17 consonants and 14 vowels. Over time this reduced to 24 in modern Hangul in South Korea. 
Hangul is written as syllabic blocks.  Each word that needs to be written is placed square dimension-ally with one symbol above/below the other. These texts were written right to left but nowadays the text is largely written left to right and western punctuation is common in some publications.

Here is an example of written Hangul today. Note: Seoul written in Hangul above the English term

What was used before Hangul?

Before Hangul was used the Upper classes used Hanja. Hanja uses Chinese characters to write. Chinese characters were borrowed and amalgamated to the Korean writing system. Hanja text was the means of written communication in Korea amongst the educated and elite. The less educated and lower classes could not read or write and did not use or understand Hanja.

The writing formation was very different to Hangul and 214 radicals were used. A radical is grammatical component which is a loose equivalent of the Latin alphabet. 

An example of Hanja. Note the differences between Hanja and Hangul.

There was some opposition when Hangul was introduced. The more privileged thought it was a threat on their positions in society. Some worried if more people from the lower classes were educated to use Hangul, it could diminish the influence of the minority elite. Nevertheless, the popularity of Hangul ensued, much to how King Sejong envisioned.

However, a century later in the sixteenth century Hangul was prohibited in publications when a document written in Hangul critised King Yeonsangun. He closed a temple and the royal university Seonnggyeongwang and converted it as a personal brothel. Not only this but he evicted large residential areas for hunting grounds and instigating involuntary labour for making these things possible. These actions made him very unpopular, particularly with those who used Hangul. His successor, half brother, King Jungjong closed a centre of research in Hangul, suggesting Hangul did struggle to gain acceptance amongst these rulers after King Sejong. This shows it was not a simple transition to Hangul without any problems.

Nonetheless, over time Hangul again became popular through a resurgence in poetry, increased Korean nationalism, government reforms and missionaries promoting Hangul literacy in education. It is now the official script in the Korean Peninsula as well autonomous regions in China and Baubau, a city in Indonesia in the Southeast Sulawesi province.

Photos courtesy of my sister.

The Diquis Spheres – (2019 Update)

Today we will move across the globe to discover the Diquis Spheres. These are some stone spheres found in the delta of Diquis, between the rivers Terraba and Sierpe, in the peninsula of Osa and the Isla del Caño (Costa Rica). They are unique archaeological finds due to their number of existing specimens (over 300!), as well as their sizes, formations and rounded perfection. Their dimensions vary from the 10 cm to 2.57 m of diameter. They can weigh as much as 16 tones and have been found in 34 different archaeological sites. These are the products of the Diquis culture: a pre-Columbian culture, indigenous from Costa Rica. Diquis means great waters or river in the Boruca language (the native speaking tongue), which seems to tie in with the locations of the finds. However, their meaning and origin is a mystery.

According to Ifigenia Quintanilla (University of Costa Rica), the spheres were most likely produced sometime between the 800 and the 500 B.C. However, local archaeologists investigating the subject have trouble dating and interpreting them as 90% of the spheres have been moved and found away from their original locations. The theories on their meaning and purpose get even more obscure and confusing. Most archaeologists and historians support the idea that these artifices had an astronomical function. Perhaps they were a way of timing agricultural cycles, or even maybe representations of constellations. Another supported hypothesis is that these could be used as markers of social status for the leaders of the indigenous tribes. Nevertheless, more fantastical explanations have been proposed:

-Some think these could have been done by the people of Atlantis, or even by extra-terrestrial beings!

-There is also the myth that the Diquis culture knew of a chemical product that could manipulate the physical state and shape of stone.

-Some more logical beliefs consider that perhaps these were used as territorial markers.

-More interestingly, many have found them to be an analogy of a pre-Columbian myth. This is related to the god of thunder Tara, or Tlachque, who used throw some spherical objects against the Serke, or the gods of wind and hurricane, to keep them away from these lands.

The Diquis Spheres in Modern Day Costa Rica:

The spheres were discovered in 1939 when the American company United Fruits made some moves over Costa Rica in order to clear some woodlands for the sake of banana cultivation. And then the mystery and fascination began.

They were first mentioned, and worthy of scholarly consideration, in 1943 when Doris Stone wrote an article for the magazine American Antiquity about them. Since then, many studies have been carried out to try to understand what these items actually are. And it seems that one of the most plausible explanation is that these spheres were used as some form of astronomical tool (Ivar Zapp, George Erikson, 1998). Other theories, such as the work produces by Patricia Fernandez and Ifigenia Quintanilla support the idea that these were public items; symbols of local power (2003). Perhaps this ties in with the theory that the stones were actually used by this society for funerary purposes, and that although no clear dating or chronology has been established yet, the society that produced them were likely to be a splinter group from the Aguas Buenas settlement (Roberto Herrera, 2017). This makes sense if we consider, as pointed out by some of the most striking pieces of goldsmithing does come from the Diquis area as well.

However, the research moves slowly. It took years for scholars to actually show a decent interest in the subject and try to solve the mystery. It seems that for several decades, the spheres lied out in this banana plantation, forgotten, catching the interest of occasional looters. Nonetheless, these stones are part of the collective memory of Costa Rica. They are a symbol of identity for the indigenous and local inhabitants, and they are commonly referenced in their popular culture and the media. Thanks to the superb work of archaeologists Francisco Corrales and  Adrian Badilla (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica) since 2002 to the area has gained some interest, to the point that, it is worth mentioning that the Diquis spheres have as of 2014 – a year after the original introduction to this piece was written – now been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the site, tourism and conservation of the area evolves slowly as this is a new field for the Costa Rican nation.

We can only hope that the new generations of archaeologist will bring us more answers as to the origin and faction of these items, and of course, how they were made!

The Struggles With Lesbian History

LGBT history as a whole is difficult to study, with both its legal and societal condemnation historically and today. The first attempts to study the history of homosexuality were not started until the 19th century and these were largely hampered by source scarcity and societal opinion. It was not until the mid 20th century that as a study it became more popular, and until the 1970s that all identities under the LGBT umbrella were included. The last several decades have seen a massive increase in scholarship, especially in gay male history; however other identities have struggled much more. Trans historiography has been hampered by how to define trans historical figures, particularly so in the issue of whether people were trans or if they were passing as another gender for other reasons, such as avoiding being drafted into military service. Bisexual history has languished similarly due to the issue of how to consider historical figures who appeared to be bisexual – were they bisexual or were they gay and their opposite sex relationships a requirement of the society they lived in, or were such relationships genuine? This, of course, has implications for same-sex history: are historical figures being labelled as attracted only to the same sex or could they have been bisexual? While the lack of definitively knowing hampers any study of history, LGBT history particularly struggles.  

Lesbian history has always struggled – even the term ‘lesbian’ to describe history has been considered by some to be a difficult descriptor. Some feel that lesbian refers to an identity that historically women would have not considered themselves to be. Sometimes the phrase ‘women who loved women’ has been used. Scholars such as Cook and Rich argued for the use of the term ‘lesbian’ to describe women who had relationships with other women. However other scholars prefer to avoid the term, arguing that lesbian as a concept did not exist, or that the term does not fit the historical reality of the women they are studying. Others have also argued that this term is too Western-centric. However, others have pointed out that terms such as queer are too broad and erase the specific experience of women. This issue on phrasing symbolises the difficulty that lesbian history has faced. 

While there has been little debate about male homosexual history, lesbian history has been much more problematic. The existence of lesbian history has always been harder to find, just because as the history of women in general has been difficult to source because of the domination of men in the historical written word, lesbians have often been written out of history – even more so than heterosexual women who generally have been only featured when, relevant to men. Lesbian behaviour was less likely to be prosecuted than gay male behaviour (not that lesbians were not prosecuted but they were caught less often or in some cases the sheer idea of lesbianism was so alien that legislation did not exist) which also reduces the amount of source material available, although what does exist is important. Prior to the 19th century lesbian history is fragmented, although some lesbian historians, like Emma Donoghue, have criticised historians for failing to notice mentions of lesbians due their own heterocentrisim. Debates over whether female historical figures had romantic and/or sexual relationships with each other or whether they simply had close platonic friendships plague lesbian history. Many lesbian historians have pointed out that they themselves, and those that came before them who clearly were, and often identified, as lesbian have been described as ‘platonic’ yet that there are often signs of such romantic and/or sexual relationships. Anne Lister’s diaries are an example of this; when her diaries were originally deciphered some declared them a hoax because of their explicitness’ and her frank understanding of her sexuality.  

Most sources we do have on lesbian history focus predominantly on upper class women as they were the most able to record their own experiences. This can be frustrating for two reasons: women in the lower classes made up higher proportions of the general population and therefore are more likely to make up a significant proportion of lesbian women; and also that working class women traditionally had more opportunity to socialise with other women and without as much scrutiny. Upper class women were far more likely to have limited social circles and limited opportunity to be able to conduct affairs privately. Not only does this limit the amount of available knowledge it also means we miss out on knowing about working class lesbian subcultures and communities prior to the 19th and 20th centuries.  

Oral history has been an important part of lesbian history and has provided a significant amount of source material, although this is mostly restricted to post 1920s, as lesbian oral history was not recorded until the 1970s and beyond.  Along with sources such as zines and photography, archive groups in the 1970s and 1980s attempted to construct archives focused on the lesbian experience, such as the Lesbian Archive – now housed at the Glasgow Women’s Library, and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. Other regional archives exist as does archives holding either LGBT history as whole or feminist/women’s history. 

So why is lesbian history so important to discover? Other than the general desire to uncover the past as much as possible, many lesbians find it important to connect to their forebearers and to demonstrate that their identity is legitimate and has existed for millennia. Lesbian erasure, historically and currently, is a major issue not just in society in general but also in the LGBT and feminist communities that claim to include and represent them. Erasure and ignorance of lesbian history helps exacerbate lesbian erasure. Many lesbians have been outspoken about society’s attempts to erase ‘lesbian’ as an identity, from claiming that ‘lesbian’ is exclusive or to that it doesn’t even exist – the tendency for some historians to deny lesbian history prior to the 19th century does just this.  

LGBT history often focuses on gay men while feminist history often focuses on heterosexual women. The fact that lesbians have often been both at the forefront of social movements is often ignored, even within these movements, and despite their presence they have been later ostracised or written out of these histories. Therefore their lesbian identity has been paramount to them. This importance also highlights the need for lesbian history to be inclusive of all lesbians. Recent scholarship has aimed to not only focus on white middle-class women in western societies but to expand our knowledge of lesbian history and how the diversity of these women are how we can broaden our overall knowledge.  

An Ancient History of Rugby

Now with the Six Nations competition in full swing and with the Rugby World cup  around the corner in Japan, this post will trace the Ancient origins of the sport that is played and watched around the world today. 

Often, the modern game of Rugby is attributed to the English town of Rugby, specifically by William Webb Ellis, a pupil from Rugby school who was said to have ran and carried the ball during a football match. However, this has been heavily debated by Rugby hisorians and is largely viewed as a myth. That being said, there is more to the origin of modern day Rugby and in some shape and form similarities can be drawn from ball games played in the Ancient World.

Ball games in the Ancient World-

It is no surprise that when the ‘Ancient World’ is mentioned, the Greeks and Romans are arguably the most popular civilisations studied in Ancient times. Much in the way of Art, Culture and Philosophy is strongly attributed to Ancient Greece and Rome. Ball games played a role in both cultures.

The Greeks played many ball games, whereby participants could use their hands and feet, although not much evidence survives of these ball games, one game in particular is an interesting pre cursor. 
The Greeks played a ball game called ‘Episkyros‘ and appears to be depicted on ceramics. The game was played by 12-14 with one side pitted against the other. The rules allowed players to handle the ball.
The aim of the game was to frequently pass the ball and to push one of the opposing team behind the line at their end of the pitch. The game was regarded as being violent in nature, with many players landing up on the ground. This violent nature of the game was particularly noted in Sparta with the limited source material available.

Elsewhere, further west from Athens in Sparta, teams were divided into two and two white lines were drawn onto the pitch, with one line in front dividing the teams along with another line behind either team. It is interesting to note, although the lines are not the same as what is displayed on a rugby pitch today, the lines are not difficult to figure out. This is especially the case with the line behind the two teams indicating where to score. This is the case today in Rugby as one way to score is for either side to bring the ball past the opposing goal lines ahead of them for a try.

Additionally, women as well as men played, albeit being rare.
Later, the Romans adapted the game ‘Episkyros‘ as well as another Ancient Greek game called ‘Phaininda‘.  ‘Phaininda’ was another ball game that the Romans were known to have adapted. There are limited sources about the game in question. However, from the small amount of source material on offer, it is similiar to ‘Episkyros‘. The game involved two teams pitted against eachother, there was a central line dividing both teams and that the game was again considered to be violent when either side were attempting to win the ball. In this game the ball was small in size and looked as if more balls were used.

The Romans named their version of the game, ‘Harpastum‘. This ball game was played with a small ball, much smaller than a modern day Rugby ball and was similar in size to a modern day cricket ball or base ball. Unfortunately, much with the Greek ball games discussed previously very little is recorded about the rules and style of play. Nevertheless, this game was documented in contemporary Roman writings. The Greek Polymath, Claudius Galenus (129 AD- c. 200/216 AD) lived in the Roman Empire commented, 

‘This exercise is a very heavy, vigorous one involving much use of the hold by the neck and many wrestling holds’.   

In addition, Sidonius Apollinaris ( c.130 – 489 AD) a poet, diplomat and bishop from Gaul in the Western Roman Empire commented,

‘Filimatus sturdily flung himself into squadrons of the players, like Virgil’s hero’.

These accounts are in actual fact reminiscent to modern Rugby in that the game requires much strength, resilience and agility to enable either side to intercept, run with the ball and score. 

Ancient and Medieval Board games

Board games have been a part of human society for thousands of years, and although most of them have been lost to the ages, there are still plenty that have survived either in some physical form, or described. Archaeological finds of various game boards and pieces that we may never know the rules to can be an interesting if frustrating source, but the combination of games that have survived to the modern day, written sources and artwork can often reveal how many of these old games are played. There is evidence to show that all levels of society would have enjoyed gaming in various forms, be you rich or poor, educated or not, old or young.

There are many examples in recorded history of people playing board games, such as Romans sitting in the forum playing Ludus Latrunculorum, Monks in Gloucester Cathedral playing Fox and Geese in their cloister, or even Queen Elizabeth I entertaining her courtiers by gambling with dice games. With all these games, we may know who played them but unfortunately there is little to no word on who designed them. Game design is a very commonly discussed and recorded topic amongst gamers today, but there isn’t really anything of this sort to look at in Historical games. But it is interesting to think how some of these very unique games came to be. A modern game usually undergoes a long process of design, starting with the creator’s first ideas and knowledge of game mechanics, and then going through rigorous testing and redesign. These historical games must have undergone a similar process, as games that are well balanced and play so well don’t get made by accident.

Roman Board games
Throughout the Roman Republic and Empire, there is evidence to suggest that Romans had a culture rich in board and dice games. Game boards have been found scratched into surfaces and pavements, and fragments of ceramic and even wooden boards have survived. Ludus Latrunculorum or Latrunculi is the ‘game of little soldiers’. This appears to have been a well-respected game in the early Empire. Unfortunately the game in its Roman form hasn’t really survived, so instead we must look at those related to it such as the Greek game Poleis, which was played throughout the 1st millennium AD in Asia Minor and the Near East. There is also the North East African game Seega, which appears to preserve some of the Roman game’s characteristics. It would be nearly impossible to fully recreate this game now, not least because a game that existed across an area the size of the Roman Empire was bound to have more than a few variations and houserules. Some Roman authors do give some information though, and these can usually be confirmed by the archaeological finds. Varro (116-27 BC) writes that the board was marked by orthogonally intersecting lines where the pieces moved on the squares between those lines. This sounds like a simple grid as you’d expect. Boards of this type that have been found from the Roman period appear to have varying sizes. For example there was a stone block of 9×10 squares excavated in Dover, 8×8 squares discovered in Exeter, as well as on the steps of the Parthenon in Athens and the Basilica Julia in Rome. And a roof tile from Mainz shows a 9×9 grid. So it appears that the number of squares on the board, and perhaps the number of pieces would have varied. Among other writers to mention the game, one anonymous author wrote a poem dedicated to Roman Senator Cnaeus Calpernius Piso, supposedly a famous player of the game. They mention that the pieces used by the two players would be of two different colours such as black and white, and at the beginning of the game “the pieces are cunningly disposed on the open board”. This suggests that the initial placing of the pieces requires some strategic thought, similar to nine men’s morris, and unlike a game such as chess which has fixed starting positions. An isolated piece was captured by flanking it on two sides, but as philosopher Seneca wrote it was still possible to find a way “the surrounded stone could go out”, before it was removed from play.

Another example of a popular Roman boardgame is ‘Five Lines’. It is one of the oldest known boardgames from ancient Greece where it was known as Pente Grammai. The poet Alkaios mentioned the game in one of his poems, and boards in terracotta with five parallel lines typical of the game have been found in graves of the same period. There are also similar boards to be found scratched into the surfaces of marble floors in temples the ruins of other Greek sites. In the time of the Roman Empire we can find more information about the game. Pollux in the 2nd Century AD wrote that “each of the players had five pieces upon five lines” and that “there was a middle one called the sacred line”. Based on other descriptions and archaeological finds, it appears that there would have been larger versions of the game as well.

Anglo Saxon and Viking Board games
As we go further through history, we can see some different games appearing. The Anglo Saxons and Vikings of the early Medieval period both played ‘nine men’s morris’ extensively. The game is much older though, and is one of the longest surviving board games to this day. There are Roman Examples, with boards carved into pavements and clay tiles, and the earliest dated example is a clay board dated to around 100 AD from Mycenae, but there are other boards resembling these from Egypt that may go back as far as 1400 BC. The game also spread through the Roman Empire and even ended up in 9th century India. Examples from the Viking world include those from the 9th century Gokstad ship burial in Norway. The game was also incredibly popular through the medieval period, as such it was recorded in Alfonso X’s ’Book of Games’ in 1283, and many carvings of it have been found in the cloisters of Cathedrals such as Canterbury, Salisbury, and Westminster Abbey. The origin of the name ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ is somewhat of a mystery, but it was possibly first recorded as such in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The most plausible theory for the name is that ‘Morris’ is not actually related to the English folk dance, but comes from the latin merellus, which means gaming counter. The game itself is a fairly simple two-player strategy game where each player attempts to capture their opponent’s men by making rows of three counters. A key aspect to the game is that it is played in two phases, with the first phase being about each player taking turns to strategically place all their men before the main phase starts. There are also many variations of the game with varying rules, inevitable for a game that has lasted thousands of years across multiple continents. Some versions differ in size, such as the smaller three men’s morris, or the larger twelve men’s morris.

Tafll Pieces found in a 9th Century grave in Birka, Sweden

One game that is most commonly associated with the Vikings is the Tafl family of games, most notably Hneftafl. There are many variations of this game, usually of differing sizes, and many examples come from England and Ireland, as well as Scandinavia. Most games date to the typical dates of the Viking period, from around 800 AD, but it could have originated much earlier. All Tafl games are asymmetrical, which is what makes it fairly unique when compared with most other historical games. It is a grid of an odd number such as 13×13, 11×11 or 9×9 squares. This allows for a central square on which a ‘king’ is placed. The concept of the game is that a king and his bodyguards are in the center, and a greater number of attackers on the opposing team surround them on all 4 sides of the board. The Goal for the attackers is to capture the king by surrounding him with 4 pieces, whereas the king’s team instantly wins if he reaches one of the 4 corners of the board. There are two particularly important writings about Tafl games, the earliest being a 10th century Irish gospel book which shows the starting positions for a game called Alea Evangelii, which is an 18×18 variant of Tafl. The second is a Welsh writing from the Tudor period which explains the rules of an 11×11 variant. Other variants of the game include Fitchneal which as a small 7×7 variant taken from Irish written sources, and with some physical examples such as the Balinderry peg-board, which is now at the National Museum of Ireland. Tablut is a 9×9 version which has a written observation of it in play from 1732 by Carl Linnè while travelling in Lapland. Hneftafl is the example that appears frequently in Norse literature and discovered in Viking Age sites. It is a 13×13 board with 32 attackers facing 16 defenders and a king.

Later Medieval Board games
Related to nine men’s morris, which would have still been popular at the time, is a game that is first named in 15th Century English documents, and that is Fox and Geese. Physical evidence for this game goes further back, as there are some carvings of the board in Gloucester Cathedral from the 14th Century. It may be even earlier, as it is also referred to as Marelles, which is related to the other name for nine men’s morris. The name ‘Fox and Geese’ itself is first found in 1633. It is also around this time when the game seemingly saw an increase in popularity. The basic rules are that there is a single ‘Fox’ against a gaggle of thirteen ‘geese’. Players take it in turns, with one moving a single goose at a time, and the other moving their fox. The geese have to trap the fox and prevent it from moving to win, whereas the fox has to remove all the geese, which is done by jumping over a goose if there is an empty space the other side. This means the geese must surround or corner the fox in multiple ranks before they have too few left. Variants of this game mostly include more geese, which may have been an attempt to balance the game. There are also double and triple size versions of the board that come about in the 17th century that increase the number of geese and foxes as well. An offshoot of the game is Asalto from the 18th century, which replaces the old theme for a more military emphasis, it being about two officers facing off against multiple enemy soldiers.

There are many many other board games that I could go into here, not least of all is chess, but that is perhaps the most famous board game of all time, so I needn’t explain it here. I will simple say that chess was originally a 6th Century Indian game known as Chaturanga. It reached Europe by the 10th Century. From the 13th century onwards there were many variants that would seem bizarre to us now such as four-seasons chess, which is a four player version, and there is also courier chess, which is played on a rectangular board, uses more pieces named the courier, counsellor and spy that move differently, and moves are taken in turn but four at a time. From the late 15th Century onwards we begin to see what would become modern chess, and it was fairly recognizable by the 17th Century.

1260: From Mongol to Mamluk Control in the Near East

The following update has been inspired by an article I read by Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) regarding the year 1260 and the incredibly important consequences that this date had for Europe and the Mediterranean world. Vincent declared this to be a dramatic year which is often overlooked despite the serious political change it brought to more than one civilisation, but particularly the changes to the Mongol empire. I have been in a very “oriental/Asian” mood lately – in fact I am writing this whilst listening to some Mongolian throat singing – so I decided to pick up on this topic which I had looked into a while back, so we can all share the mood.

Vincent’s article was mostly focus on the Battle of Ain Jalut, which took place in the Kezreel valley near Jerusalem the 3rd of September 1260. The result was the clash of two great fighting forces. By this moment in time the Mamluk had consolidated power very quickly in the area of Egypt and extended their area of influence all along the Mediterranean coast in the Near East. This was of great threat to the Mongols, who has already started suffering from this shift in power since their ransacking of Baghdad in 1258, thus ending 500 years of Abbasid rule. The leader of the Mongol army at this moment in time was Hülegü Khan – sometimes referred to as Hulagu Khan, who was the grandson of our dear friend Temujin. Hugalu is responsible for the formation of the Ilkhanate of Persia, which will lay the foundations for modern-day Iran. And he was also the man responsible for the siege of Baghdad and the following conquest of Syria. So, as you can see, it is not like the Mamluks were just going against any whatever general. Now the reasons why with this background the Mongols were caught off foot at Ain Jalut are multiple, and there are more than I could cover in a blog post – with intrinsic details I would leave to military historians, a field that as you know is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, I will give you an outline of the issues at this scenario that leads to the Mamluk control of the area and the reason why Vincent determines this was a decisive moment in history.

First of all, the army that Hugalu was commanding ranked around 20,000 people who needed to eat.  Reuven Amitai-Preiss discusses in his study of this period that this proves to be an issue and leads Hugalu to withdraw from Syria. Traditional viewpoints suggest this was due to the unrest that appears in the central domains of the Mongol empire following the death of Mongke Khan, who was Hugalu’s brother. This opens a window for the classic political manoeuvres of succession that end in civil wars. However, Reuven thinks that this was not so much Hugalu’s concern, but rather the fact that with such a big army, he finds himself in an area where supplies are scarce – Syria is not particularly well-known for its grazing fields! There is an exchange of correspondence between him and Louis IX of France where this is discussed. So, although there is evidence that food and graze for the horse was an issue, the fact that Iran was suddenly very exposed to the potential threat of the leader of the Golden Horde, and Hugalu was without his brother as protector, most likely led him to retreat part of his troops over to the eastern border of the Ilkhanate. In addition, it seems that, despite all his military might, Hugalu also made a strategic mistake: he completely undermined the threat that the rising powers in Egypt supposed to his realm. Turns out that the force that was marching over towards Hugalu on behalf of the Mamluk Sultanate was bigger – current estimates range from around 24,000 to the 100,000s…the reason for this disparity in the sources, however, escapes me. Regardless, the thing is the Khan simply did not take his enemy seriously, and the consequences were devastating. Baibars, commander of the Mamluk army, took advantage of the mobility of their units to exercise hit-and-run tactics to lure the Mongols to where the main force lead by Qutuz, the sultan of the Mamluk dynasty at the time. The first attack was gained by the Mongols and they did hurt the Mamluk forces significantly. However, the retaliation of the enemy was great, and their superior knowledge of the area – and presumably the considerably larger army – eventually turned the tables and destroyed Hugalu’s force. In the process of doing so, his designated deputy commander, Kitbuqa, was captured and his head was cut off and sent over to Cairo as a souvenir and proof of the Mamluk prowess.

The thing is, that with the defeat of the Mongols in 1260, and the growing tensions elsewhere in their domains in what is known as the Berke-Hugalu War (as you can see they really did not get along…), they were never able to secure back the area, with the resurgence of Egyptian power to extents that could be compared to the previous Abbassid rule. In fact, it only took the 30 years for the pressure from the Mamluks to be so prominent in the Near East that the Crusader armies started to give up and evacuate the area. This led the crusading efforts towards the Baltic and left the Mongols in a state of crisis and civil war. Interestingly, and despite his amazing victory, Qutuz did not enjoy his success for much longer. On his way back to Cairo, he was assassinated at El Salheya, seemingly due to the scheming of our ambitious friend Baibars, although it appears several Emir’s unhappy with Qutuz own raise to power and policies may have actually been the cause of his death. In any case, Baibars becomes the new sultan and with him a consistent rule, that lead to the consolidation of Mamluk power in the Levant area, and the defeat of the Seventh Crusade.

Christmas Desserts

As we come up to Christmas Day, let’s have a look at the history of several popular Christmas desserts.

Mince Pies

Dating from the Middle Ages this English dessert, like the name suggests, originally contained meat based mince. While meat disappeared from the pie in the 19th century (barring suet), the combination of ingredients in it today dates back from its origins which were inspired by Middle Eastern food that English soldiers experienced during the Crusades. It is not known exactly when they became associated with Christmas, but prior to the restoration of Charles II, their shape was oval and was thought to represent the manager; they also sometimes included a baby Jesus on top. During Oliver Cromwell’s rule mince pies were considered Catholic idolatry and were frowned upon. During the 19th century recipes for both meat based mincemeat and fruit based mincemeat existed but by the end of the century the sweet version, that is made today, dominated.

Yule Log

This popular cake is named and designed after the European Christmas tradition of the Yule Log – a log chosen specially to be burnt on a hearth on Christmas Eve through to Twelfth Night. This tradition happened throughout Europe. The cake itself dates back to at least 1615 with a recipe of the cake featured in The English Huswife. In the 19th century, Parisian bakers popularised the cake, known as bûche de Noël in French, creating the more elaborate designs like you see today. Today the cake itself is more well-known than the origins it is based on.

Christmas Pudding

As we know it today, Christmas Pudding did not appear until the 19th century although it had its origins in the 14th century as pottage – a broth using many of the ingredients that are still in it now, alongside meat. It was served as a starter rather than a dessert. Its association with Christmas did not come until the 18th century. The Victorians were originators of the Stir Up Sunday tradition – the making the pudding on the fifth Sunday before Christmas where each family member took a turn to stir the mixture from east to west. This was meant to represent the journey of the Magi and bring the family good luck for the year. Like Twelfth Night Cake, it was also customary to hide small items within the mixture to symbolise what the future would hold for the person who found that item. A coin could signify future wealth, while a thimble would signify spinsterhood.

Christmas Cake

Like the Christmas Pudding, the Christmas Cake originated from pottage but also from the traditional Twelfth Night Cake. During the 19th century Christmas cake mostly supplanted the Twelfth Night cake and began to use elements such as marzipan for decoration. The expanding British Empire and migration to the colonies – hence the popularity of Christmas Cake outside of Britain – and within Britain itself, also meant that many people began to boil their Christmas Cake with alcohol to preserve the cake during travel. Like mince pies and Christmas Pudding, the spices of a Christmas Cake are meant to represent the Magi.


This German fruit bread has its own festival in Dresden and like those above has developed over its history. Originally it was much less sweet due to restrictions by the Catholic Church during Advent on the use of butter. Eventually Pope Innocent VIII 1491 allowed the Prince Elector of Saxony, his family and household to use butter for Stollen while bakers were allowed to as well as long as they paid a fine that was used to fund churches. This stopped several decades later when Saxony became Protestant. The festival around Stollen dates back to when the rulers of Saxony were presented with a Stollen by the bakers of Dresden. This stopped with the fall of the monarchy in 1918 but was resumed in 1994. The shape of the Stollen is meant to represent the swaddled baby Jesus.