Nu History Podcast – Episode 8: Legal Records and Bear Gardens

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by Dr. Dan Gosling, the Early Modern Legal Records Specialist at the National Archives. He’s here to talk to us about using legal records as a source, and all the untapped potential that is there through the example of a London bear garden!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Confucius: A Brief History of Master Kong

Today I am writing about a long overdue historical figure that I have admired for a long time: Confucius. The name itself is actually the latinisation of the title he was known by Kǒng Fūzǐ (which means something like Master Kong – Kong was his family name). His given name was Qiu. However, the Jesuit priests that got to China during the 16th century adapted it to their ears and languages, like it often happens with so many Asian names in Western culture.

I could write loads about him, but I will try to keep it to a brief overview, where I am mostly using the work of Michael Schuman as a reference. According to his research, there I a possibility that the great master may have been an illegitimate child. Confucius’s father, Kong He, die when the child was barely a couple of years old. Kong He was a lot older than Confucius mother, Yan Zhengzai, who was only a teenager at the time of the child’s birth on the 28th of September 551 BC. Schuman is of the idea that Zhengzai was shunned by the Kong family which is why Confucius was raised essentially in poverty. According to Burton Watson, it is evident from Confucius writing in his Analects that this experience of living a life of struggle and misery is what gave him a particular understanding and viewpoint of wealth and class. The child, perhaps guided by a higher purpose, or in an attempt to restore his family’s honour and glory, dedicated himself to the relentless study of history, literature ad philosophy.

A little context is needed here to understand the strive and goal Confucius set for himself as he was growing up. The 6th century BC in Chinese history is dominated by the existence of petty kingdoms and fiefdoms. Master Kong was a subject to the ones powerful Zhou of western China, that since 771BC had struggled to impose their authority after a failed attempt to keep their borders safe against non-Chinese invaders and raiders. According to Watson, this forces the Zhou to leave their capital in the west and consolidate their power in the east around the area of Luoyang, starting a new period in their history known as Eastern Zhou, which lasted until roughly 256BC. Because of this, the real power of China, and the Zhou in particular, resided in large state holders and feudal lords, like Confucius father (even if he was only a lesser noble he still was part of this socio-political system), which unfortunately meant a lot of intrigues, trifles and instability. Schuman says this is why Confucius wanted to encourage rulers of his time to put down their weapons and rule with benevolence, one of the most precious doctrines of Confucianism. He truly believed if everyone tried to behave and do their best society could only prosper.

Because of this, Confucius dedicated all his efforts to obtain an office at the government so that he could one day become a top adviser for the mighty rulers of his country. However, there were many bumps in the road for his success, which account to Michael Burgan were a combination of several factors. First of all in order to hold an office, you normally had to come from an established noble family (which was already something against him). Confucius morals of right and wrong which he adhered to without hesitation were something he expected everyone else to follow, often clashing and even leading him to oppose openly the actions of those of higher rank than him (not a great prospect for a political career back in Ancient China as it is today…something never change). But things eventually fell into place. Master Kong started as the farm manager of an influential family of Lu, where his skills brought him to the attention of the government officials. His hard work finally paid off and he reached the position of Minister of Justice or Crime depending on the source, in his local area of Lu. By this time, Confucius wisdom has also cultivated him a reputation as a venerable teacher and he had started to amass a small following of students to whom he imparted the knowledge he had acquired from reading ancient texts and his life experiences. And, this was probably for the best because, due to a twisted turn of fate, and despite all his efforts, Confucius’s political career was simply not meant to be. Following several quibbles (more than I have the space to explain here), in 497BC, he leaves Lu with some of his students.

 The exact reason or how this happens is still very much open to interpretation. Schuman says that he fell out of favour with the leaders of Lu. Watson says that, in fact, according to the Analects, it is hard to say whether Confucius actually held any significant position of power in Lu at all to begin with and frustrated or disheartened with the lack of interest for the lord he decided to leave. In other sources, such as the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) Master Kong sent himself into exile after becoming extremely disappointed at the behaviour of his master (in this instance, the Shiji suggests Confucius was in fact becoming quite influential and neighbouring states were concern of how much better Lu was doing with him as a minister). The “wrongful” behaviour by the lord of Lu seems a political ploy instigated by the neighbouring Qi supposedly aimed to bother Confucius and cause tension. If the Shiji is correct, the Qi were successful, and this is was leads Master Kong to gather his students and seek better fortunes elsewhere. Confucius spends 13 years spreading his teachings which could be summarised as follows: benevolence as previously mentioned, leadership, filial piety, good government, justice, reciprocity, self-cultivation, and learning. During this time of “exile” or otherwise sagely wandering across China, not only did he acquire an even larger following, but it is believed he was himself looking for a ruler worthy of his values to employ him.

Yet, much to his dismay once again, no offers came, and no one seemed worthy. Fate would have it that the lord of Lu (sometimes one of the ministers instead, according to the Zuozhuan) eventually invites Confucius back to the court, where once again it is dubious whether he actually had a job or if he acted more as an ad-hoc consultant or adviser. What seems clear is that at this moment of his life, already in his 60s he was mostly devoted to the teaching of his disciples and focused on study. It is believed that he had thousands of students, most of which came from Lu, however he did accept anyone from any social and political background and anywhere from the other states. He did not charge or turned anyone away. Despite his political failure which seemed terribly heavy in his heart, his teaching was incredibly successful, even beyond his years. Crucial to the development of China and most of Asian history, centuries later, Confucianism was the essential ideology of the Han Dynasty (206BC to 220AD) and still holds great following across the continent and beyond.

What became of Master Kong? He died a couple of years after his 70th birthday, some say by illness, some say by natural causes, others suggest it was because of grief and old age. He was buried t what now is known as the Kong Lin Cemetery at Qufu, his hometown, where several others of his followers also rest in peace with their master.

Nu History Podcast – Episode 7: Classical Art and Architecture

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by special guest Analisa from Accessible Art History, as well as returning guest James, to talk about Greek and Roman art and architecture, focusing on a few particular themes and examples.

Find more from Analisa at Accessible Art History:
accessiblearthistory.com
youtube.com/AccessibleArtHistory
instagram.com/accessible.art.history/

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

I’m not saying it was Aliens…

History of the meme along with its place in the historian’s professional landscape

Tabby's Star faded substantially over past century.

Aliens have become somewhat infamous in the world of history writing. Every historian from the armchair variety through to the academic professor has more than likely come across that  one particular meme. The one featuring Giorgio A. Tsoukalos  standing there with his style of hair in its usual kind of crazy way an holding his hands out stating the words “aliens.” And honestly, it doesn’t matter what style or period of history one is exploring. The meme seems to have made its way into all of them. The infamous image itself comes from the 2010 Ancient Aliens TV series that Tsoukalos, himself an Alien expert,  was the host for. Spinning out of the concepts raised in the Ancient Aliens series, one of the key ideas that made this program notable is the wide variety of historical phenomena that it attributes to aliens. That is to say, iconic historical products of civilizations and peoples such as the Nazca Lines or Baalbek become attributed to extraterrestrials instead of the cultures that produced them. This concept is termed conversely “ancient astronauts” and “paleocontact” and can be defined through the attributing of great and sophisticated works of the past to extraterrestrials.

Ancient Astronauts and Colonial Psychology

The concept of ancient astronauts is not dissimilar from the effects of colonial propaganda. Briefly, colonial empires would create and impose an image of inferiority onto the peoples it colonized, and likewise, an image of ascendancy for the colonizing peoples.  From this standpoint, the colonial entity would project outward, through its arts and literature, the idea that its cultural developments were inherently superior to those they colonized.  Concerning notions of cultural works, the concept of superiority shown through technology still exists and is tied to the lingering colonial psychology. Indeed, within the 19th, 20th and continuing into the 21st century, western society underwent a massive degree of technological revolution in a relatively short span of time. That, further, this time period has brought with it unprecedented forms of technology and social issues. While the same could be said to be true of any technological revolution, from the perspective of those within it the past must be, by definition, less capable. For instance, the 20th century has seen technology develop from the assembly line to splitting the Atom, being able to propel humans into space to having wireless communication networks spanning the globe. While the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th centuries certainly had its technological advances (the functional button of the 13th century, for example), there is the mentality that the current developments are more progressive largely because they are more pertinent to us. Outside the sense of temporal pertinence, the past must be lacking the sophistication of technology the contemporary enjoys.

I often argue that western society has lost their colonial empires (to greater or lesser degrees), but has maintained the colonial psychology of perceived and projected inferiority. The current perception of technology as equating with superiority falls into that colonial mentality and for 21st century capitalism, is part of the colony’s legacy.  Yet, there are products of other cultures that present a compliment to or empathize with that sense of pertinence. Items such as the Saqqara Bird, Machu Picchu, the Moai and others are routinely attributed to extra-terrestrials.    As an examples of objects that can be situated into contemporary western perceptions about technology, the ancient astronaut notion offers an easy method of situating the sophistication of past and non-western societies. Thus, lacking the precise same means, the products of another time or culture become attributed to aliens as a source of equivalency of method and psychology. The ancient astronaut, the alien, becomes the appropriate stand in: A technologically advanced helper from somewhere far away, a benevolent invader, a colonist.  

Continue reading “I’m not saying it was Aliens…”

Nu History Podcast – Episode 6: The Origins of Warfare

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined once again by James to talk about a favourite topic of his and Alex’s; Warfare. We specifically get into the possible origins of warfare in prehistory, how it may be distinct from other forms of early human conflict, and how it may link into the concept of civilization itself. We also take a look at Sparta as an example of a highly militaristic society.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

A Brief Intro to Greek Tragedy & Comedy

Today we come to talk to you about some more classical and ancient history. This time I will be giving you a quick introduction to the subject of Greek tragedies and comedies. The arts and the entertainment industry by proxy find themselves under a lot of tension these days, particularly since the Covid pandemic has threatened so many artistic venues to close forever. With this I hope to keep you all engaged with this sad reality of events, but also to remind you that the arts have been a crucial part of human history since the dawn of civilisation.

Greek Tragedies: Origin & Development

We have evidence that Greek tragedies have been performed since the 6th century BC though record for most of these pieces don’t appear to have survived until c.472BC. Of these early plays, we do not have a lot of information, but we have some records from Aristotle in his Poetics that seem to indicate it may have evolved from choral song. Tragedies back then were not necessarily what our expectation of the same word is. Most of the Greek tragedies have varied themes, often covering things like mythology, but these aren’t necessarily sad stories: they often work to present some form of dilemma or controversies to the audience of the time; things that people could in one level or another relate to. According to Laura Swift, it seems that these pieces would have been about major or serious events, but they did not have to be catastrophic. It seems that, so long as they were describing some form of human suffering, the tragedy box was checked. Also, I think it is important at this stage to clarify that actually when we say Greek tragedies, we really ought to say Athenian tragedies. According to Simon Goldhill most of these compositions took place in Athens. The importance of these performances is remarked by the annual celebration of a kind of competition during the festival of the Great Dionysia, taking place towards the end of February/beginning of March. These plays were often specially created for this event.

Continue reading “A Brief Intro to Greek Tragedy & Comedy”

Female Pharaohs: Khentkaus I & Sobekneferu

Today I want to talk about some women often forgotten about in your ordinary history books, and even some academic books depending on the accessibility to materials. These are some of the precursors to later and more famous female pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, and their names are Khentkawes I and Sobekneferu. Why? Because there is such a thing as being cool before being cool – no offence Nefertiti or Cleo. More importantly, these women actually start defining what the reality of female pharaohs was in a much earlier time period, therefore opening the possibility for further historical revisionism and a better understanding of the role of women in ancient history.

Female Pharaoh: More than a Queen

Manetho, the egyptian advisor of the Ptolemies created the royal dynasty system that we use nowadays. There he named 5 female pharaohs, and it is recorded that these existed as early as the 3rd millennium BC.We reckon that there are at least 7 female pharaohs in the Egyptian record, showing that this wasn’t a title exclusive to men. In fact, Aidan Norrie states that the title of pharaoh unlike in the case of traditional European ruling titles, the term pharaoh didn’t have a specific gender assigned. Unfortunately, the fragmentary evidence for these female rulers is a big hinderance to understand their roles and reigns in comparison to those of their male counterparts. Moreover, Joanne Fletcher is of the opinion that this title of pharaoh when associated with women, has traditionally appeared to be downgraded or dismissed despite the blatant exercise of power that these women had. Often, they are referred to as “queens” when, in fact, they were pharaohs in full right.

Continue reading “Female Pharaohs: Khentkaus I & Sobekneferu”

Nu History Podcast – Episode 5: Late Medieval Kings and Kingmakers

Here’s another podcast for you!

In this episode we talk to Alex Brondarbit, Academic Analyst in the division of Academic Affairs at University of California, and author of two books on late Medieval nobility, power and advancement. We discuss his recent work particularly around English kings and power brokers. We also talk about the experience of getting history books written and published in this day and age.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Tasty History: Chocolate

Hello guys! It has been a really long time since we have had time to write a proper blog entry. But now hat we have got the podcast up and running and the team is reconfigured, it is time to deliver. And, our first topic since the formation fof Nu History couldn’t be more delicious: Chocolate! Whether you like it dark, with milk, hot, cold, as a bar or a drink, I believe there is a chocolate for every kind of person. So, today I will give you an insight into how chocolate came to be. For this, we must first travel thousands of years into the past to one of my favourite historical areas: pre-Hispanic Meso America.

The Origins of Cacao

Just to clarify; chocolate is a product derivate from cacao or cocoa beans. The actual word for chocolate comes from the Aztec xocolatl, which meant bitter water. However, cacao was used way before the Aztecs to create indeed bitter tasting beverages made with cocoa and often used for either ritual or medicinal purposes. In a recent study (2018) published by Sonia Zarillo et al. trace back the earliest recorded used of cacao to 5300 years ago, in the area of Santa Ana, (Ecuador). Coe and Coe also state that the Olmecs had domesticated cacao plants and used its produce for medicinal purposes and religious rituals, and we have ample evidence of this from the area of Veracruz (1900–900 BCE). But the most extensive knowledge of Meso-American culture that we have regarding cacao comes from the Mayan culture, (500-800CE) where there is an abundance of ceramics that depicts its varied uses. It is also the Mayans from who we get the word cacao as kakaw. Kakaw was essentially a gloop of cacao made into a drink and the most renown discovery of this type of product is found at Rio Azul. This is the site where in the 90s the scientists from Hershey Corporation first identified the original chemical signature of cacao. By the time the Aztec empire took control of most of Meso America, things had changed. It seems that the Aztecs didn’t actually grow their own cacao already by the 1400s, and instead they used to obtain it as an import, often paid as a tax from areas they conquered. They also started drinking it cold and branching its uses, so that in Aztec culture cacao was an aphrodisiac according to Szogyi.

Cocoa Beans Comes to Europe

The beans were brought back to Europe by the cargo ships from the Americas. It was in fact Columbus who originally shipped them to Spain, however they got little interest from the public until much later when chocolate was introduced to the Spanish court. Despite it being first found by the Spaniards, the success of cocoa and chocolate in Europe would come from other nations, two main rivals of Spain in fact: the English and the Dutch. Cocoa was prominently imported during the reign of Charles I and during the 16th century, it was actually used as a drug to solve tooth decay and dysentery. Moreover, one of the physicians for Queen Anne, Hans Sloane, seemingly saw Jamaican workers during his visit to the island back in 1680 mixing cocoa powder with breast milk as a form drink, so he decided to borrow the concept (but with cow’s milk) for medicinal purposes once more. At this stage, the history of chocolate takes a dark turn as during the early modern period many African slaves were used in the cocoa plantations that the English, Dutch and French had in the transatlantic colonies. And so, with cheap labour and the invention of the first mechanic cocoa grinder in Bristol (1729) the European obsession with chocolate – and slavery – continued all the way to the 19th century when things changed once again.

Dutch Production, English Consumerism: Cocoa in the 19th Century

The transformation of cacao into the product that we could recognise nowadays only happened in the 19th century thanks to a clever Dutch chemist. Coenrad van Houten came up with the idea of removing cacao butter and added baking powder to the mix all successfully achieved by his creation: the cocoa press (1828). He had previously invented a alkaline solution that made chocolate less bitter to the taste, so the “Dutch Cocoa” invention made it a lot more marketable. Interestingly most the cocoa consumed in the UK during the 19th century was produced in the Netherlands, making this a very profitable industry for the Dutch. In Victorian Britain the first chocolate houses opened in the area of Mayfair and the concept drove English society into an absolute craze. In fact, at the royal apartments in Hampton Court we know that Willian III, as well as George I and II had a dedicated chocolate kitchen. Lizzie Collingham argues however that during this period much of the cocoa powder used in these establishments was heavily adultered with other products. Amongst these feature things like lentils or tapioca, which actually made what they served more similar to a cocoa soup rather than a cocoa drink.  However by then, the price of cocoa dropped becoming more affordable and an easily available product in many houses. Cadbury’s chocolate in the UK was a great conduit for this phenomenon. Still popular today, the first shop was opened in Birmingham in 1824 by John Cadbury. Collingham again adds that the most influential brand that contributed to the popularisation of cocoa amongst the working clasess was not Cadbury, but the now forgotten Dr Tibbles’ Vi-Cocoa. Vi-Cocoa distributed a blend of cocoa, kola nut, malt and hops that made it incredibly popular between 1895 and 1910. In her book The Hungry Empire, she says that Cadbury’s target audience would have most likely been middle classes women, whilst Vi-Cocoa was targeting the working class man with an alternative to tea.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Daniel Peters enhanced Victorian chocolate by using powdered milk in the beverages and therefore creating milk chocolate, and instant national favourite. Dutch cocoa balanced bitterness reached a new height when the Swiss chocolatier Rodolpe Lindt (1879) used his conching machine to turn cocoa butter into an improved product, with better texture and flavour. The manufacturing advances of the time also allowed for Lindt’s product to be easier to distribute and reach new markets, so Lindt was a key player in changing chocolate into a food item rather than a drink. Meanwhile in America? Cacao beans were also used as a currency up until the 19th century in Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Brazil. Funnily enough, these were easy to fake: empty casks were often filled with soil to pretend they were ripe cacao beans.

So as you can see the journey of cacao, cocoa, and chocolate is a varied and multicultural one. From its origins in America to its developments in Europe kakaw has adopted many forms and purposes. And, although I certainly believe most of us don’t use it as a medicine for tooth decay…I think we can probably agree it is a medicine for the soul and, as recent scientific research confirms, good for our mental health. With this history of chocolate, and the many more to come articles and podcasts regarding food history, I am trying to send a message of hope and unity. I truly believe that food brings people together, and in this day an age of conflict and division, humans and human history could do more with interconnectivity and hope.

I hope you join us on the next one 🙂

Nu History Podcast – Episode 4: Beowulf and the Anglo Saxons

The fourth episode of our podcast is here!

For this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by Elton, a historian and “nerd guy about Beowulf” (his own words), who is here to talk about some of his recent work and projects, mostly relating to Beowulf of course!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.