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The Vertue of the Coffee Drink [c.1652]

July 30, 2013


“It is a simple innocent thing,” says this very first English-language advertisement for coffee.  There the document stands on solid ground.  Today there are some indications—possibly too eagerly seized upon by the likes of me, maybe—that coffee is a wonder drink.  However no present-day claim can come even close to the wonders and “vertues” of […]

Are You Smart Enough to Vote in Louisiana?

July 2, 2013


Set your timers and put your perfection shoes on, and see if you can answer the following 30 questions flawlessly and thus qualify to vote in Louisiana.  This test comes to you courtesy of the Supreme Court of the United States who have legally declared racism to be over and effectively repealed the Voting Rights […]

Flagellants in London, 1349

May 7, 2013


Sir Robert of Avesbury, Keeper of the Registry of the Court of Canterbury, recounts the following visit of flagellants to London in 1349.  Flagellants, who became relatively common in Europe at the time of the Black Death, were attempting to repel the plague with acts of horrific ritual purity—one of many responses to that most […]

The Black Death in European Art

May 6, 2013


When the Black Death came to Europe in 1348, it brought a plague Europeans had never seen before, slaughtering far and wide with unprecedented ferocity.  Before it left, after that first sweep through (it was to return again and again through the centuries) one third of Europe was dead. It was a kind of collapse […]

Boccaccio – The Black Death Comes to Florence

May 6, 2013


The Decameron, from which the following passage is taken, was written in the middle of the 14th century while the Black Death–a particularly deadly form of the bubonic plague–was still raging.  The pandemic was to eventually kill one person in three in Europe.  The author of the passage, Giovanni Boccaccio, certainly witnessed the epidemic himself […]

Genetics and the Decline of Sparta

May 3, 2013


The quest for genetic purity may have been Sparta’s Achilles heel. When I encountered Plutarch’s Lives a decade or two ago, I was surprised to find an old history lesson embedded there.  I was surprised because Plutarch is not what I would call a reliable source.  He presents Romulus and Remus (who were supposedly raised […]

The People Who Invented the Wheel

April 16, 2013


Once upon a time there was a guy named George.  He was a real guy.  He really lived.  Maybe his name wasn’t George. The thing about George is that one day he invented the wheel.  That was the really special thing about George.  He was the only guy who ever invented the wheel.  Not that […]