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.

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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.

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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.

Nu History Podcast – Episode 3: Historical Videogames

Episode 3 of the podcast!

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined again by James for a conversation about the crossover of two of their favourite things, Videogames and 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.

Nu History Podcast – Episode 2: Vikings and Slavs

The podcast returns for episode 2!

Lilly and Alex are joined this time by Natalia Radziwiłłowicz who is currently working on a PhD on Scandinavian and Slavic interactions during the Viking age around Pomerania/the southern Baltic coast.

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

Nu History Podcast – Episode 1: History in a Pandemic

Introducing the Nu History podcast! A key feature of our newly re-branded blog!

Our aim with these podcasts is to simply get together and talk about any given topic relating to history! And usually we will plan to have a special guest or two to learn from about their area of expertise.

For our first episode, hosts Lilly and Alex are joined by James to talk about our different perspectives on how the Covid-19 pandemic has and will effect history, particularly in museums, academia and reenactment!

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

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.