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Saturday, 29 February 2020

Money, money, money . . .

In an increasingly cashless society, it is time to consider what we are in danger of losing.  In the great financial crashes of the future, we’ll no longer see pictures of men carrying wheelbarrows of money into shops to buy a tomato aka the German hyperinflation of 1923. They’ll be replaced by wheelbarrows of bytes. And what visual poetry we will have lost.

The first coin minted by an English King was the Silver Penny of Alfred The Great in the C9th

For a long time minting coin was decentralised, the responsibility of licensed moneyers and crafted by hand. Unfortunately for them in 1125 Henry I was on the throne. Known as ‘The Lion of Justice’ in a non-PC world, he was so outraged by the bad coinage in circulation he decided to take measures. People were losing faith in his coins, some light on weight, others with large nicks taken from them by moneyers squirreling away the gold and silver for themselves. The moneyers were rounded up, had their right arm chopped off and for good measure suffered castration. This was met with approval by the church and their chroniclers. Bishop Roger of Salisbury personally rounded up the moneyers of Winchester and handed them over to their fate. When money was at stake, the medieval church knew its priorities. 
These 'nicks' were hardly subtle. Looks like the mice have been at them

As a historian, a reader and a writer of fiction, I’ve always been fascinated by references to groats and testoons, and now for the first time I could see them for myself. They didn’t disappoint.

1) The Henry III Long Cross Penny 2) The Henry VII Groat. 
It was Henry VII who introduced the life like profile of the monarch on a coin. In 1791, Louis XVI  of France met his downfall by this. Escaping from revolutionaries he was recognised at the border by a village postmaster who recognised his face from a coin.

The Noble and the Half Noble, introduced by Edward III when he wasn't attacking France.

9) The Henry VIII Groat  10) The Henry VIII Testoon  11) Edward VI Half Sovereign. Edward's coin is unique, being the only coin with a child's face on its front. It's because he came to the throne in 1547  aged nine and died in 1553 - so frozen in time.

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 the currency had been debased by Henry VIII and Edward VI by adulterating the gold and silver content with copper. She set about restoring it's purity. It's regarded as one of her finest achievements, which when set against the Armada, ruling as a woman in a man's world and avoiding all the plots to kill her, says a lot about how bad the coinage must have been. This is a the Elizabeth silver shilling, the larger  one, a medal. 

In 1279 the ‘Mint’ was centralised and relocated in the Tower of London, where it stayed until 1810 before moving to new purpose built premises on Tower Hill. There and using the latest steam driven machinery, coinage was revolutionised. And not just coin.

Medals had been designed and struck as early as the C17th but after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, it was decided to award a medal to every single soldier who had fought in the battle. It began a tradition that has continued for British campaigns ever since. What was incredible was the fact that they were, in a very short time scale, able to individually engrave the names of the 40,000 eligible soldiers, and that we still have the bound medal roll of the soldiers awarded.

Even Wellington had his medal

What I find striking is the immaculate copperplate handwriting of the bureaucrat/s involved.

Another striking medal is the Ashanti war medal of 1874,

A medal of Lawrence of Arabia

 In fact the entire collection of war related medals is a potent and evocative reminder of Britain’s imperial past. Undue pride or indeed shame is fruitless, an intellectual dead-end. It had its moments but amounts to a blink in world history. A case in point, is the origins of the iconic Britannia. It was first coined by the Romans to celebrate their conquest of Britain. It was resurrected by Charles II in 1672 when Britain began its own slow conquest of the world.  

The Gold Sovereign - a long way from Alfred's silver penny

And the coin that illustrates this best is the gold sovereign, introduced by Henry V11 to boost the image of the new Tudor dynasty. After a short eclipse by the guinea in the late C17th it was re-introduced in 1817 and in the heyday of Victorian splendour became the symbol of empire.

Paying contactless may be more useful but this is more beautiful and in itself tells a story. This is probably the first period in our history since the Norman Conquest of 1066 when all the coins in circulation feature one monarch. The Queen.

And what I would like under my bed, if I could carry it.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Covid 19

So, the great cull has begun. Covid 19 targeting those in their seventies (8% mortality rate) and eighties (15% mortality rate) and solving social care and pensions in a stroke. A conspiracy theory but one that resonates – like the medieval belief that the Jews were behind the black death ie a human agency with an agenda was responsible. In the case of Covid 19 it’s the belief that bats and pangolins are useful covers for the proximity of a secret biological laboratory located close to the official source of the outbreak.

Nearly seven hundred years ago, in Basle, Jewish people were herded into barns and burnt alive, at Speyer their dead forced into great wine casks and pushed into the turbulent Rhine. Today a few Chinese people were pelted with tomatoes by the enlightened people of Brighton. Progress of sorts, no doubt.

The medieval church, faced with the obvious question as to why God allowed it came up with the obvious answer that God was punishing us for our sins - the response of some fringe evangelists today - until priests, too, began dropping like flies. 

What’s fascinating are the parallels in our response to Plague  then and Covid 19 now. Children are fascinated by pictures of C16th Plague doctors, who in turn would be envious of their C21st equivalents. 

It’s easy to laugh at those earlier plague doctors but faced with an unknown disease their apparel was entirely logical. The smoked lenses were to ward off the evil eye rather that microbes, the beak stuffed with fragrant herbs allowed them to work surrounded by the stench of corruption and decay. The waxed leather coat was hydrophobic, which made it impervious to blood, mucus, or saliva and pus and protected the wearer within.

Our newfound interest in face masks mirrors earlier beliefs that infection was airborne. Then, people walked around sniffing aromatic pompadours in the belief that a ‘good’ smell would drive out the  ‘bad’ smell of disease. The equivalent today, I suppose, is the belief amongst some that garlic, rubbing yourself with Sesame oil, or a good saline mouthwash offers similar kinds of protection.

In the past, people were forcibly incarcerated in their homes with a red cross painted on the door. For the moment we are merely encouraged to ‘self-isolate’ – though by all accounts the Chinese response is more robust.

During the great plague of London many shops refused to handle money, demanding  that their customers placed their coins in vinegar laden bowls. Now, it’s reported, Chinese banks are irradiating and briefly quarantining money before recirculating it.

The Black Death of the Middle Ages was followed by an economic bounce and social improvement. Covid 19 might result in an ecological bounce — or the whole thing might just go away. 

Thursday, 13 February 2020

I hope my bones are better behaved

Founded in the C9th but largely C13th.

Nave and Altar

One of the few churches with its own landing stage!

St Dubricius Church and graveyard had a wonderful atmosphere that photographs can only hint at. Even so, this post is largely one of photographs to give that kind of hint. 

For those who, probably rightly, think a post of photographs is a kind of cheat, I’ve also included a brief history of the man himself. Its source is Celtic* where a good story necessarily trumps truth, but then again it happened so long ago . . . 

A snowdrop drift.

A C6th king of Ergyng* called Pebiau had an incurable disease which involved a steady froth of the mouth which necessitated two servants to wipe it away. On returning home from a series of battles, he discovered his beloved daughter pregnant, and because she was his beloved daughter ordered her to be drowned with the as yet unborn infant. This she survived, and so he ordered her to be burned alive. The following day he sent his guards to check she was finally dead, but instead of a charred crisp, they discovered her nursing her newborn baby. On seeing this Pebiau came to his senses and embraced both mother and child. The baby wiped his hand over Pebiau’s frothing mouth and he was immediately cured.

Thus began the career of St. Dubricius who went on to change water into wine, drive a ferocious demon from an otherwise placid young woman, and found an oratory and place of learning on the banks of the Wye. The site of his oratory was chosen for him via the voice of an angel. It directed him to build where he found a white sow nursing her piglets. Predictably he stumbled upon said white sow and piglets and there built his oratory.

The base of a 300 year old Tulip Tree. I so wanted to believe that the meshing was to keep tree goblins in their place. The reality was that mournful parishioners were scattering ashes into the hole, which presumably was not good for the tree. 

The entire area became a centre of learning and piety but all things come to an end, even St Dubricius. Worn down by infirmity, he resigned as Bishop and retired to the holy island of Bardsey where he died in 612 AD.

By 1120 his reputation was such his bones were dug up and reburied at  Llandaff with much pomp and ceremony. But even in death, St Dubricius continued to surprise. Before reinterring the much-travelled bones, they were ritually washed before witnesses in  Llandaff Church. To everyone’s surprise the water bubbled furiously and became piping hot, the event lasting more than an hour. I hope my bones are better behaved when I die.

And for those who believe in Ents

* S. Herefordshire/Monmouthshire
*The Liber landavensis. ed. by the Rev. W. J. Rees. The Welsh MSS. Society. Llandovery, W. Rees, 1840.