Reader Questions: L-l-l-lightning round!

Today we’ll be answering some questions that I ignominiously begged for received over on G+.

Reader Paul of The Scatterbrained Gamer asks:


OK, um … sadly, I get the impression that most of the fun things you hear about speakeasies are probably not true — the tables flipping over and so on. Or at least they were not that common.

What’s interesting to me about speakeasies is that they’re this very direct encounter that many people have with criminality, with breaking the law. And it was a law that was, at least in many places, routinely flouted. If you read contemporary discussions of it, they’re pretty funny. Here’s Ring Lardner on the subject:

It seems like about the biggest difference between now and 7 or 8 yrs. ago in big cities at lease is that in them days most cities had a law that you must close your saloon at 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock. Now days according to the law, they ain’t no saloons so they can and do stay open as long as they feel like.

Which may strike a telling parallel to contemporary debates about legalisation of what-have-you; you tell me.

However, there are some odd people who join in the fight for or against the right to get your drank on. Here is shameless scandal-monger Herbert Asbury in his lesser-known oeuvre Gangs of Chicago:

Interspersed among the marchers were many elaborate floats, graphically condemning vice of every description. … Another, equipped by the Norwegian churches of Chicago, was occupied by twelve young men in armor, and a thirteenth in pink tights, representing the god Thor. About his neck hung a placard saying: “The Great God Thor with his hammer. The Norwegians will help smite the saloons.”

Thor, do you like speakeasies?


Reader Adam asks:

Cultural appropriation of Roman deities once the Romans settled in Britain?

Boundaries between “religions” were pretty permeable back in the day. The Romans, in particular, liked to decide that local deities were the same as the ones they worshipped back home. This makes sense if you think of the Roman religion as already having tons of distinct little local cults, each with its own sacred sites, traditional festivals and so on. So when they arrived in Britain, the Romans blended their religion with the religion of the locals easily enough.

Consider if you will Sulis Minerva.


The Roman name for Bath is Aquae Sulis, and Sulis seems to have been the local deity of the springs. When the Romans turned up, they identified Sulis with Minerva, and everything went great from there.

But not every local deity prospered in the same way as Sulis Minerva. Many of them are known from a very small number of inscriptions or artefacts. Here is one from Nettleton:


(“To the god Apollo Cunomaglus, Corotica son of Iutus, willingly and deservedly fulfills his vow.”)

This is the only source we have, as far as I know, for Cunomaglus (“hound lord”). Some have suggested that he was some kind of hunting deity, which is not crazily inconsistent with Apollo, but we’re really just speculating.

So there are lots of combinations of British and Roman deities, and this is pretty standard practice for the Romans. It’s only when the Romans encounter a culture that is dead set against assimilating (Judaism, for instance) that things start to go a bit awkward.

Paul asks once again:

Powers behind the throne — from evil viziers to royal stewards.


Powers behind the throne are a weird facet of certain monarchies. I teach a fair amount of Tudor history, and it’s something you see a lot in the reign of Henry VIII, with people squabbling over access to the king and targeting the various “powers behind the throne” like Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. And it’s very odd, because it’s … it’s neither the case that the monarch is a helpless puppet nor that the favourite/minister is merely a royal servant. Once Cromwell gets taken out, he’s not replaced by someone else so much as he’s just replaced with nobody, and government gets very confusing.


In another way, the “evil vizier” is a very convenient fiction in a monarchy. If you’re opposed to the crown’s policies, you can blame them on “evil counsellors” and not have to confront the fact that the king is a dickhead. And if you’re the king and people are very unhappy with you, you can blame it on being misled by your ministers, throw them off the proverbial balcony and escape with your skin. In my mind, I associate this with the Byzantine Empire?

I have more questions to answer, but I will save them for another day!


Reader Questions: L-l-l-lightning round!

A quick link

OK, I know I said this earlier, but it was a long time ago so I’m going to repeat it. If you like history, and you like stuff that’s free, you need to be subscribed to the ONDB Life of the Day. Every day, a new biography appears in your inbox or feed reader, and sometimes it’s some tennis player and you just scroll past and sometimes it’s a guy whose profession reads “assassin” and you learn something new and awesome.

It kind of challenges a lot of our assumptions about the social proprieties in past ages, actually, but that’s another story. Check it out.

A quick link

The Everyone’s a Fucking Loony Principle

You know who I like? I like S.F. Cody. Cowboy, rodeo performer, expert marksman, playwright, actor, Buffalo Bill impersonator, bigamist, giant kite inventor, pathological liar, aviation engineer, zeppelin pilot.

If you are not thinking about your CV right now and feeling a little down, you are very unlike me.


Look at those whiskers!

Samuel F. Cody (not his real name) is a fantastic instance of the Everyone’s a Fucking Loony Principle, which basically states that whenever you start to investigate people’s backstories — especially in any kind of “fringe” area — you will find out that they are totally bizarre. In turn-of-the-century Britain, that applied to heavier-than-air flight, which was a new field and still open to characters like “Colonel” Cody, who embody that combination of rock star and crackpot that we love so much here at the GHP.

I first came across old S.F. in 2003 or so when I found a copy of Garry Jenkins’s book on him in Galloway and Porter. O Galloway and Porter, how we mourn you. Anyway, there is a more recent book out on him now, The Flying Cowboy. I have not yet read it, but I intend to.

My favourite thing about Cody — and it is hard to choose — is that he went to the trouble of getting his “son,” Leon Cody, British citizenship. I say “son” because a) Leon was Mrs Cody’s son by a previous marriage, and b) S.F. and Mrs Cody weren’t really married at all — she was his common-law wife, but he had an existing wife elsewhere. So Cody went through the process of getting Leon British citizenship despite the fact that Leon was British in order to keep up the front. That’s commitment, and I appreciate commitment.

Don’t forget that the banner design competition is still going! Entries are due next Friday and I will be packing up the prize bags some time this weekend.

The Everyone’s a Fucking Loony Principle

Pisse not upon their ashes


When you study the funerary practices of Anglo-Saxon England, sooner or later you’re going to come across Sir Thomas Browne. This is weird because, although Thomas Browne wrote about the funerary practices of the early English, he didn’t know shit about them. His work on the subject, Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, is really just (I say “just”) about memory and mortality, together with an overview of the burial customs of what I do not feel unjustified in calling “the ancients”.

Now, the photo above is of my copy of this book in the Penguin Great Ideas series, but that is not where I first read it — that was in a much older version, which made the crucial point of including the “Epistle to the Reader” that goes with this. I say crucial because it is the Epistle ( you can read it here) which includes this utterly fascinating quote:

When the bones of King Arthur were digged up, the old Race might think, they beheld therein some Originals of themselves; Unto these of our Urnes none here can pretend relation, and can only behold the Reliques of those persons, who in their life giving the Laws unto their predecessors, after long obscurity, now lye at their mercies. But remembring the early civility they brought upon these Countreys, and forgetting long passed mischiefs; We mercifully preserve their bones, and pisse not upon their ashes.

Now, when reading this, you’ll be bumbling along, thinking “silly old Browne thinks the ashes in the urns are Roman rather than Anglo-Saxon so he thinks that they’re not his ancestors, unlike King Arthur, whereas actually he’s probably more closely — wait, what?!

Pisse upon … what?

“Pisse not upon their ashes” is one of those “don’t do it” phrases that isn’t at all comforting. It’s like if you were sitting next to a guy on a bus and he turned to you and just slowly said “don’t worry. I’m not gonna eat your eyes.” Well, I wasn’t worried until just now. Did Thomas Browne know a lot of people whose first thought when they saw a funerary urn was “yep, I bet a smart fella could pee on that”?

Well, possibly.

(I could swear I’ve written this all somewhere before. It’s not unlikely; I do love Thomas Browne.)

Anyway, as you may know, my PhD thesis was about something called charcoal burial, which is where you get a body laid on a thick layer of charcoal. You also find burials lined with ash in the middle ages. Now, it may be that these are symbols of penitence — St Martin was big on lying on a bed of ashes, for instance — but it may also be that it has a hygienic purpose, with the idea of the ashes or charcoal being to absorb fluids from a decomposing body and keep the grave clean. Late Anglo-Saxon culture was very big on keeping everything clean, clean, clean.

So could it be that what Thomas Browne is saying is that an urn full of ashes looks like a chamber pot to him? I mean, it would make sense to line the interior of a chamber pot with a layer of some kind of absorbent (technically adsorbent, and you can thank that PhD for my knowing that fact) material like ash? Like a cat’s litter box, in fact. In a lot of ways, it seems like it would be a good idea.

The problem is that we know, for instance, that chamber pots sometimes had the faces of politicians people didn’t like, or Napoleon or whoever, on the inside (those are later than Browne, but I imagine the tech remained pretty unchanged). Here, for instance, is one with Captain Basil Hall, the guy who pissed off (hah!) 19th-century Americans by writing a rude book about their country (I imagine Isabella Bird was aware of this). Here is a slightly weirder one: “congratulations! I sent you a chamber pot with a picture of a little man who looks up at your genitals!”

Additionally, I can’t, in my admittedly unscientific quick search, find any reference to the practice of ashes being put in chamber pots, except for a little one here. And yes, I love the fact that there exists not only a chamber pot glossary but a chamber pot glossary so huge it has to be broken down into individual letters.

I’m not sure that means there weren’t ashes in what was known as “the article.” There may have been. If there isn’t, we’re back to square one with Thomas Browne, Pee Weirdo.

Pee Weirdo or not, Thomas Browne wrote some amazing sentences. Every time I hear someone writing something that’s supposed to sound old-timey, going all theesy-thousy and coming out sounding like The Mighty Thor, Thomas Browne leaps into my head and gives them a kick in the area. Observe:

To be knav’d out of our graves, to have our sculs made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials.

Personally, I think modern funeral directors should play that point up more: if you get cremated, your enemies will never turn your bones into a flute!

Although their bulk be disproportionable to their weight, when the heavy principle of Salt is fired out, and the Earth almost only remaineth; Observable in sallow, which makes more Ashes than Oake; and discovers the common fraud of selling Ashes by measure, and not by ponderation.

Some bones make best Skeletons, some bodies quick and speediest ashes: Who would expect a quick flame from Hydropicall Heraclitus?

That’s right, it’s a sly dig at market traders, then an effortless shift into a groan-worthy joke about pre-Socratic philosophy. You can’t fuck with that. Also, this passage sounds best if you put a long pause in before “ponderation,” then hit it with a knowing emphasis.

Right, OK. Hopefully I have convinced you that Thomas Browne is amazing and also maybe that chamber pots were like a kind of human litter tray. My work here is done.