She Who Dares

07 22 hoorayI started this blog on July 23rd last year, with the hope of finding something interesting to tell you about each day of the year, so today’s post will be my last one, for the foreseeable future at least. It’s been difficult to find something that I’m happy to finish on. Looking back at some of my favourite recurring themes over the last twelve months, I probably wouldn’t be happy with anything less than a daredevil hoaxer, with a side interest in alchemy, who also happened to be a woman. Unfortunately, no such person exists, but if I ever write a work of fiction, I know what the central character is going to be like. In the mean time, here is a picture of me celebrating my achievement with a cake and a massive sword..

07 22 maria spelteriniBut I do have a daredevil to tell you about. On this day in 1876, Maria Spelterini, walked over the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. It was the last of four crossings that she made as part of the celebration of the US centennial. If you’re thinking this story might have a tragic end, it doesn’t. She lived until 1912. Several people crossed the gorge in the second half of the nineteenth century but Maria was the only woman. She made four crossings between the 8th and the 22nd. She walked across and she danced across. She crossed it backwards, she crossed with a paper bag on her head and she crossed with large peach baskets strapped to her feet. Honestly, you can see them in this photograph. On July 22nd, she crossed with her ankles and wrists manacled.

Unfortunately, I can tell you very little else about Maria. Most sources insist that she was Italian, but there is one that suggests she was German. She seems to have begun her career in her father’s circus at the age of three and to have performed around Europe and Russia. I also found a report that she crossed the bay at Jersey City, on a wire 125 ft high, in a thunderstorm.

The bridge that you can see in the background is was once used by the Underground Railroad to secretly transport enslaved African Americans to freedom in Canada. The Niagara Suspension Bridge was the first permanent bridge to cross the gorge and it opened in 1855. But before that, there was a temporary bridge, which is worth a mention. It was built by a rather flamboyant character called Charles Ellet Jr. In order to bridge the gorge, he first had to get a rope across. He thought about towing it across on a steamer, he though about attaching it to a cannonball or rocket and firing it across. In the end, he decided to run a competition.

The first child to fly a kite across the gorge and tie the kite string to the other side would win $5. Young people flocked from nearby towns to participate. The $5 was won by sixteen-year-old Homan Walsh, who flew his kite from the Canadian side of the river. The kite string was used to pull increasingly heavy lines over the gorge until they managed to secure a cable that was almost an inch thick. Charles wanted to use the cable to transport materials across without having to take them down to the river. They tested it with an 07 22 ellet's basketempty metal basket, but it kept getting stuck halfway. The whole operation had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers so, to assure them it was going to work, he climbed into the basket himself and was hauled across. He spotted that the cable had been flattened and the basket’s rollers were getting stuck. He fixed it and was pulled over to the other side. So Charles Eller Jr was the first person to cross the gorge. The basket worked very well after that. In fact, people used to pay him a dollar to ride in it. Even though he had been expressly forbidden to do so, he sometimes took around a hundred and twenty-five passengers a day.

When the bridge was finished, he was the first to cross it, in his horse and buggy, standing, like a gladiator. The 700 ft bridge only had railings along one third of its length. In the first year of its operation, $5,000 had been collected in tolls. Charles and the bridge company fell out over the money. He ended up mounting cannons on the bridge and claiming ownership of it. Eventually he was paid off and someone else built the permanent bridge.

07 22 mary toftAs I couldn’t find the ideal candidate for my last post, I’d like to leave you with a hoaxer and an alchemist, neither have birthdays that I can celebrate, but both are women. Firstly, Mary Toft was born about 1701 in Godalming, Surrey. When she was about twenty-five, she managed to convince some fairly eminent physicians that she had given birth to rabbits. At first she brought forth only parts of animals, but later seemed to produce whole rabbits. I won’t go into the details of how she did this, because it’s fairly disgusting and it’s a wonder she didn’t develop some sort of infection. Mary had been pregnant, but had miscarried after, she claimed, she had seen a rabbit whilst out working in the fields. After that, she had become obsessed with rabbits and couldn’t think of anything else. There was, at that time, a widely held belief that a child could be physically affected by what its mother had seen during her pregnancy. A similar story was ascribed to the mother of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Many thought a woman capable of producing a small, mouse-like creature known as a ‘sooterkin’. Some doctors believed Mary, others were more sceptical, especially when she later gave birth to a pigs bladder that smelled of urine. When she finally admitted the hoax, it ruined the reputations of those who had believed her. Mary was imprisoned for a while, but then released, as no one could think of anything to charge her with.

Finally, I want to tell you about a lady who is variously called Mary or Maria the Jewess or, alternatively, Mary or Miriam the Prophetess. According to tradition, Mary was the sister of Moses, but she could have lived at any time up the the first century AD. She is known as the first alchemist of the western world. None of her writing survives. But it is referred to in the works of later alchemists, in connection with the first description of acid salt and 07 22 bain marierecipes for turning plants into gold. She in credited with having invented several items of chemical apparatus, including a sort of double flask. The outer flask in filled with liquid that can be used to heat whatever is in the inside flask. So if you put water in the outside flask and heat it up, whatever is on the inside can never get any hotter than the boiling water. It is still used today by chemists who require gentle heat for their experiments. And by me, for melting chocolate. This type of apparatus still bears her name. It is a ‘bain marie’, Mary’s bath.

Unmentionable

07 21 artemis of ephesus 2Today, I want to tell you something that is, on the face of it, not brilliant. On this day in the year 356 BC, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus was burned to the ground. But it does give me a chance to tell you about the Artemis of Ephesus, and she’s quite unusual. Here she is, on the right. The Greeks were a bit like the Romans. As they expanded their territories, they met with new gods. But rather than try to replace them with their own, they chose a god from their own pantheon that they thought it most resembled, and renamed it. Artemis was their goddess of the hunt, of animals, of the wilderness and also somehow of both childbirth and virginity. There are certainly lots of animals in this image, but I can’t see her doing much hunting in that frock. Having a column instead of legs isn’t really that uncommon in Greek statues, but those things all around her torso are a bit more mysterious. They have been interpreted variously as breasts, eggs, bulls testicles or some sort of elaborate jewellery. But we don’t really know what they’re meant to be. We know nothing about her cult before the arrival of the Greeks. I can’t even tell you her name.

Artemis, like the two saints I mentioned yesterday, did not have much time for men. It seems she was once in love with Orion, but then accidentally killed him. The river god, Alpheus, loved her but she didn’t love him. He tried to capture her, but she disguised herself by covering her face in mud. There are a couple of other stories about mortal men who tried to rape her. One, she shot with poisoned arrows and the other, she turned into a little girl.

The temple of Artemis was huge and it was famous. It was the most magnificent building in the city and possibly the first Greek temple ever built from marble. It had been built to replace a previous temple which was destroyed by a flood some time in the seventh 07 21 amazons 1century BC. The first temple was reputed to have been built by the Amazons. Not the ones from South America though the, possibly mythical, tribe of warrior women. It was dedicated to their goddess, who later became identified with the Greek goddess Artemis. Little has been found of the original temple, but some gourd shaped drops of amber have been recovered, which may be the breast shaped ornaments that decorated her original statue.

The site was certainly an important one, as archaeological evidence shows that it has been occupied since the Bronze Age. Also, people kept building there despite the fact that it was clearly prone to flooding. The building of the new temple began around 550 BC and held a wooden effigy of the goddess. If you’re wondering, as I was, how a marble temple got burned up in a fire, I understand the roof beams were also made from wood and it possibly contained a library. The whole building was about 377 ft long and 115 ft wide. It was an impressive building that was visited by sightseers, merchants and kings, many of whom paid homage to the Artemis. Ephesus was a large and prosperous city, and it was all due to the protection of their goddess

So when it burned down, it was a disaster. But, even worse than that, someone had set fire to it on purpose. Worse still, he wasn’t sorry. He set fire to his city’s splendid temple because he knew it would make him famous. Afterwards, he went around telling everyone he had done it. He was sentenced to death for his crime, but that was not his only punishment. The Ephesians didn’t want him to be remembered at all. They forbade anyone to ever mention his name again, on pain of death. I’m rather with the Ephesians on this. People who do such things are still a problem to us nearly two and a half thousand years later. Someone who does something spectacularly wicked just so that they will be raised from anonymity deserves to have that snatched from them. Mentioning them over and over and putting them on the front page of every newspaper only encourages others. Unfortunately, not everyone was governed by the laws of Ephesus and it’s perfectly easy to find out his name, but I’m not going to tell you it.

Instead, I’ll tell you that the Ephesians built themselves an even bigger temple. It was around 450 ft by 225 ft and 60ft high. They commissioned a new statue of their goddess from a sculptor named Endoeus, who was a apparently a pupil of Daedalus, the man who built a labyrinth for the Minotaur and made a pair of wings for his son Icarus. So there’s one in the eye for the unmentionable pyromaniac. The new temple was so magnificent that it became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

07 21 temple of artemis

Of the Seven Wonders, all are now gone, except the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria were all destroyed by earthquakes. The statue of Zeus at Olympia was taken to Constantinople and perhaps lost in a fire. No one is completely sure whether the Hanging Gardens of Babylon really existed. The Temple of Artemis seems to have fallen into disuse with the arrival of Christianity. Perhaps it was destroyed by the Goths. If we believe early Christian sources, it was John the Apostle. He prayed there and cast out all the demons. The altar exploded and half the temple fell down. But if we’ve learned anything in the last year, it is to take the stories told to us by the early Christians with a pinch of salt.

Ephesus, which had once been a thriving port, became less important after the river there silted up. By the fifteenth century, it had been completely abandoned. It is now far from the coast. The temple was probably dismantled to build other things. Some of its columns were taken and used in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the sixth century. So they became part of a Christian church which was made a mosque in 1453. The temple of the Lady of Ephesus, whoever she was, has time travelled from the ancient Greeks, through the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman one. The Hagia Sophia is now a museum.

Under the Feet of a Woman

07 20 saint margaretToday, I have not one, but two female saints to tell you about. There is absolutely no evidence that either of them existed, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good story.

Firstly, I want to tell you about Saint Margaret of Antioch, who was supposedly martyred in the year 304. Margaret was an extremely popular saint in medieval England. This was because, before she died, she promised that she would forgive any sin, and assist anyone in times of trouble, but particularly women in childbirth. This was providing that they read, or had read to them, the details of her life. So there are quite a lot of copies of her legend. Some are written on long strips of parchment, which were fastened around the bellies of women in labour.

She is often pictured, as above, in the act of hitting a devil on the head with a hammer. But she is also the only female dragon slaying saint that I have come across. Margaret was the beautiful daughter of a pagan priest in Antioch. When she became a Christian, she was denounced by her father and adopted by a nurse. Whilst tending sheep for her stepmother, she was spotted by a Roman governor called Olybrius. He wanted her for his wife, if she was a free woman, or his concubine if she was a slave. He also wanted her to renounce her faith. Obviously, she refused, and he had her arrested and thrown in prison. Then, he had her body beaten with rods and her flesh torn with metal combs. When she still refused, she was returned to prison.

There, she was visited by two devils. The first, in the form of a dragon, swallowed Margaret whole. But the cross she was carrying irritated its insides so much that it exploded, and the saint was free. The second devil appeared in the form of a man. Margaret grabbed him by the head, threw him to the ground and then stood on his neck saying:

“Lie still, thou fiend, under the feet of a woman”

The devil was pretty embarrassed about it and, eventually, the earth swallowed him up. I can’t tell you about Margaret, without showing you this fantastic image of her riding the dragon. The picture below belongs to the Wellcome Collection, who have been extremely useful to me it the last year as they have generously uploaded some fantastic images to Wikimedia Commons. It’s a brilliant dragon, covered in flowers and with at least three pendulous breasts. Honestly, Wellcome aren’t paying me, but I wanted to return the favour by telling you that they have a brilliant cafe, an amazing shop and some really fascinating exhibitions. Check them out if you’re visiting London, they’re just near Euston Square tube station.

V0032585 Saint Margaret. Engraving by P. Galle after J. Stradanus.
image credit: wellcome images licensed under creative commons

But, back to Margaret. The next day, she was tortured again. She was burned, and then thrown into a pot of water. But God intervened and lifted her out of the water. The man whose job it was to finally chop off her head refused to do it. Margaret told her he must and also that she forgave all her torturers, giving the speech that I mentioned at the top of this article. He beheaded her and then fell down dead. As is often the case with early martyrdom tales, many witnesses were instantly converted. Five thousand people became Christian and were immediately beheaded as well. Even by the tenth century, there were people who were quite sceptical about her existence, particularly the dragon part.

If you look at the picture at the top, with Margaret and the devil, you might notice that she has a bit of a five o’clock shadow around the chin. But that’s nothing compared with our second saint. Today is also the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis, who is known in Britain as Saint Uncumber. Her saint’s day, along with Margaret’s, was dropped from the calendar in 1969 on the grounds that she never existed. Their stories start in a remarkably similar way. Saint Uncumber was born in Portugal and was the daughter of a nobleman. She was promised in marriage to a pagan king. As she was a Christian who had taken a vow of chastity, she prayed to God for help. She prayed that she could be made repulsive so that her prospective husband wouldn’t want to marry her. Her prayers were answered when she sprouted an enormous beard. Her father was so angry that he had her crucified.

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image credit: gugganij licensed under creative commons

She is often pictured with one shoe off and a fiddler at her feet. This is also rather odd. It illustrates a story connected with one of her statues. It seems that a poor fiddler came to play a tune to her image. The Statue was so pleased by this that she let one of her golden shoes fall to the ground as a gift to the musician. The fiddler was immediately accused of theft and was sentenced to death. He begged to be asked to play in front of the statue again. This time, in front of an audience, the statue kicked off her other shoe.

It is thought that her totally fictitious life story came about because of a mistake. In the east, representations of the crucifixion tend to show Jesus in a full length tunic. In the west, people looked at the long dress and immediately saw a woman. They just made up a story that fitted with what they thought they were looking at.

Saint Uncumber is the patron saint of women who want to be freed (disencumbered) from abusive husbands. Both are wonderful stories about independently minded women, so I think, even if they are made up, they’re worth hanging on to.

Happy in Her Work

07 19 florence foster jenkinsToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Florence Foster Jenkins who was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868. Florence became a New York socialite and founder of the ‘Verdi Club’, a society dedicated to the advancement of American artists and musicians. She was greatly valued by charitable organisations for the concerts she arranged. But Florence also really loved to sing, and it is for this that she is most remembered. Unfortunately, she was completely tone-deaf and had no sense of rhythm or pitch.

Florence took piano lessons as a child and was something of a prodigy, performing all over her home state. She really wanted to study music abroad but, although her father was wealthy, he refused to pay. She retaliated by eloping. Shortly after her marriage, she contracted syphilis from her husband which probably lead to partial deafness. None of this deterred her though. In truth, she was blissfully unaware, until the very end of her life, of her shortcomings.

After separating from her husband she scratched a living teaching piano until an arm injury forced her to give it up. When her father died she inherited enough money to allow her to pursue her dream. She began to take singing lessons.

In 1912, she gave the first of many annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City. Her concerts were immensely popular, people came along for the unique experience. The audiences were strictly by invitation only and she would interview people before allowing them to buy the $2.50 ticket, just to make sure that they were true music lovers. What she didn’t know was that the tickets were often being sold on for ten times their face value. Her concerts were always a sell-out and every year the police had to chase away gatecrashers.

She also designed her own elaborate costumes for her performances, and would change them frequently throughout. Probably her favourite outfit was a tulle gown which she wore with a halo made from tinsel and a pair of massive gold wings. She called it her ‘Angel of Inspiration’ costume. Most of her repertoire was made up from operatic arias which she was ill-equipped to perform. Her rendition of ‘Cavelitos’ from Carmen, which is a song about carnations, she sang whilst dressed in a lace shawl with jewelled combs in her hair. She carried a basket of roses and randomly clicked a pair of castanets. At the end she would fling the roses out into the audience, sometimes also the basket and the castanets would follow. Her audience knew it was her favourite piece and would loudly demand an encore. Then her accompanist would have to head out into the audience to collect the flowers, basket and castanets to give back to her. Then the whole thing would start again.

Among the regular attendees of her concerts were Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso. There are a few surviving recordings of her singing. You can hear her massacring Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ here. Her recordings were self published and intended for friends, but quickly sold out. This only added to her complete conviction that she was an excellent singer. When she heard people laughing during her performances, she just assumed that they were ‘hoodlums’ sent by rivals to undermine her. In fact, her audience were so appreciative of her awful singing that they would try to drown out their laughter with applause and stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths in order to avoid hurting her feelings.

Sadly her downfall came at the age 76, when she hired the Carnegie Hall for a public performance. No one could keep out the critics and obviously the reviews were awful. Previous reports of her singing had been ambiguous such as “Her singing, at its finest suggests the untrammelled swoop of some great bird.” which is lovely. Florence had this to say to her critics “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Which is true enough.

Florence suffered a heart attack shortly after her last performance and died a month later. Although her singing was absolutely terrible, it really can’t be denied that she brought joy, however unwittingly, to a lot of people. Also she clearly loved doing it. One of her obituaries read “She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are.”

Curious

07 18 rudolph ii portraitHoly Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, was born on this day in 1552 in Vienna. Rudolph was also King of Germany, King of Bohemia and King of Hungary. He became something of a recluse, rarely leaving his palace in Prague. He ruled at a difficult time when, as Holy Roman Emperor, he was meant to be Catholic, but a lot of his subjects were not. He tried to occupy the middle ground and it didn’t really work out too well for him. He was eventually deposed by his more ambitious brother. All this makes him sound rather dull, but he really wasn’t.

Rudolf was an enthusiastic patron of both the arts and sciences. This meant his court harboured all sorts of interesting people. Under his rule, Prague had a reputation for being full of dissidents, heretics and heliocentrists. The idea that the earth might go round the sun, instead of the other way round was not a popular one. In 1599, he made Tycho Brahe, who is probably my favourite astronomer ever, his court astronomer, after he was exiled from his home country of Denmark. But Rudolph was also fascinated by alchemy and the occult. Both of these subjects were, at the time, every bit as credible as astronomy. In the 1580s, he was visited by the famous mathematician and alchemist John Dee along with his questionable friend Edward Kelley, who Rudolph later locked up in a castle.

07 18 rudolf IIThe Emperor was an extremely keen collector of both art objects and scientific instruments. As well as collecting well-known artists like Dürer and Brueghel, he commissioned many new pieces. This unusual portrait on the left is Rudolph as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. The artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he did a lot of paintings like this, but mostly they have titles like ‘winter’ or ‘the librarian’. This is the only one I could find that is of a specific person.

Rudolf amassed an amazing ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ that included one hundred and twenty astronomical and geometrical instruments and more than sixty clocks. His collection was the finest in Europe and it occupied three large rooms of his palace. As the private collection of a recluse, not many people got to see it, so we can’t be sure of everything that it contained. Certainly he kept a live lion and a tiger, which roamed freely about the castle. We know this because there are documents relating to the payment of compensation to those who had been attacked by them or, if it had gone particularly badly, to their families. Rudolf himself insisted that he owned a grain of earth from which God made Adam, two nails from Noah’s Ark, a basilisk and some dragons.

Rudolf never married, but it is rumoured that he had numerous affairs at court with both men and women. He had several illegitimate children, one of whom seems to have suffered from schizophrenia and did some terrible things. Rudolf was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, who suffered terribly from inbreeding and do not have a happy history of mental stability. Rudolph himself seems to have suffered from bouts of melancholia, which was common in his family. Two of his favourite objects were a cup made of agate, which he believed to be the Holy Grail, and a six foot long horn, which came from a narwhal, but Rudolf thought it had belonged to a unicorn. When he was at his lowest he liked to take these two things, draw himself a magic circle with a Spanish sword, then just sit in it.

Some believe him to be one of the owners the Voynich Manuscript, a very interesting document which I mentioned briefly when I wrote about Edward Kelley. It has been carbon dated to some time in the early fifteenth century and is written in an unknown language. It has defied all attempts to translate it. Most of the illustrations are botanical and there are some with what look like star charts. But some are really weird. There are a lot of drawings of naked women that also feature an elaborate system of pipes. They seem to be conveying something really specific, but we have no idea what. So, naturally, they make everyone who sees it really want to know what it says. It seems to contain information about plants, medicine, biology, astronomy and cosmology. It doesn’t appear to be written in code, but rather in some, now lost, language that is possibly Middle Eastern in origin, but no other examples of the language have ever been found. If you’ve never come across it before, you can find a facsimile here

07 18 voynich cropped by me.

Rudolf, as you may gather, was a deeply superstitious man. Tycho Brahe once informed him that he shared a horoscope with his favourite lion cub. When it died, years later, the Emperor shut himself up in his rooms and refused all medical attention. He died three days later. His successors were less enthusiastic about his collection. It was packed away and forgotten about. Later, much of it was stolen when Swedish troops attacked Prague Castle in 1648 and many of its items later ended up in the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Beggars Banquet

07 17 death of a miser heronimus boschYesterday, I wrote about money and how it is worth nothing until you exchange it for something else. Today, I want to look at some of the people who didn’t get round to spending what they had while they were alive. Writers have long been fascinated by misers. Aesop, writing in the seventh or sixth century BC, tells us a story of a miser who buried his gold. But he came back to look at it every day and someone saw him, dug up the gold and stole it. The miser was distraught at the loss of his wealth. His neighbour consoled him by telling him that he might just as well bury a stone instead, or even just come back each day and look at the empty hole. Because he wasn’t using his gold, it would really be exactly the same thing. Buried gold is as useless as stone or an hole in the ground.

There are loads of examples of misers in literature, in theatre and in art, but there are also plenty of real life hoarders. I’ve mentioned a couple of them over the past year, and I have found that they are not necessarily greedy people, but they are not well people and are often profoundly eccentric. A true miser will live in apparent penury, in detriment to their comfort and their health so, often, their wealth is only discovered posthumously. Some, although they inherited huge sums, were assumed by the casual observer to be beggars. But some of them actually were beggars. Certainly, their accumulated riches were not as vast as those of John Camden Neild or John Elwes but were, nonetheless, remarkable. Robert Chambers, in his entry for July 17th, mentions Mary Wilkinson, who he describes as a ‘beggar and bone grubber’, who had £300 sewn into her ragged clothing. He also mentions Frances Beet who was found to have hidden £800 in her bed and rickety furniture and a character called ‘Poor Joe All Alone’ who had made his living selling matches and ballads and performing magic tricks yet he managed to amass a fortune of £3,000 by the time he died in 1767. Joe left the money he had saved to help support widows and orphans.

Both Robert and I have a particular reason for telling you about rich beggars today, because July 17th is the anniversary of the death of William Stevenson, who died at Kilmarnock in 1817. I have no idea when he was born, possibly some time around 1730. Stevenson was trained as a mason, but spent the greater part of his life begging. Up until his last illness, the only thing we know about him was that he and his wife had separated. They must had hated each other a lot, because they had made an agreement that if one of them ever proposed they got back together, they would pay the other £100. As far as we know, they never saw each other again.

Stevenson fell ill at the age of eighty-five and was confined to bed. His chief concern was that what little money he had scraped together would not last. But it did. When he knew he was close to death, he began to make arrangements for a grand send off. He sent for a baker and ordered twelve dozen funeral cakes and a great quantity of sugar biscuits. He ordered wine and liquor in correspondingly large amounts and said that more of both should be purchased if that proved to be insufficient. Next, he sent for a joiner and ordered himself an expensive coffin. Then the gravedigger, and asked for a roomy grave in a dry and comfortable corner. He told an old lady who had been looking after him where she might find £9 hidden in his home to pay for all the expenses, and assured her that she had been remembered in his will. He died shortly afterwards and, when his room was searched they found a bag of silver pieces, more coins hidden in a heap of old rags and £300 hidden in a trunk. They also found bonds and securities. His fortune amounted to around £900. To the old lady, he left £20, which may not sound like much but, in today’s money, that’s close to £1,800.

William Stevenson lay in state for four days while his distant relatives were gathered to attend his funeral. But it was not a sombre affair. It was a party. Whole families were invited. He was visited by the young and the old, by beggars and poor tradesmen. The older attendees found they had each been left sixpence, the younger ones, threepence. After the burial, everyone repaired to a barn, where most of them got so drunk that they had to be helped home. Some did not make it home at all, but fell asleep on a pile of corn sacks. The only account I could find of William’s funeral was by someone who clearly didn’t approve of it. It uses words like ‘wicked’, ‘careless’ and ‘waste’. It also goes on to say that those who missed the celebrations threatened to dig up his body so that they could give him another send off. They left him where he was, but apparently, the party continued for several weeks. That doesn’t sound like a waste to me. I think when a funeral is such fun that you want to do it all over again – that’s a pretty good funeral.

Silly Money

07 16 chinese paper moneyToday, I am told, is the date that the first European banknotes were issued by the Swedish bank, Stockholm Banco, in the year 1661. Banknotes are quite a weird thing, if you think about it, so I thought we might take a look at how we came to accept what is essentially just a piece of paper in place of something that has any intrinsic value. Paper money had been used in China for around eight hundred years. The Ancient Chinese also produced some of the earliest known coins. They were generally round, though there are older coins that are shaped like spades or knives. The coins had a rectangular hole through the middle so they could be strung and worn around the neck. The problem was, if you had a lot of them, they were a bit heavy. So people started leaving their coins with a trustworthy person which was exchanged for a slip of paper stating how many coins had been deposited. These slips of paper could then be used later to retrieve the money. Eventually the notes began to be passed from person to person instead of the coins.

07 16 kublai kahnTravellers from Europe such as Marco Polo brought back tales of the strange paper money. In fact in his ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ he devotes a whole chapter to it. He describes how the Emperor, Kublai Khan, had notes made from the bark of mulberry trees, which he had plenty of. He paid for everything with the notes and they were used by all his subjects in place of coins. No one was allowed to refuse the notes, on pain of death. Furthermore, merchants coming to China from abroad, bringing gold, silver, jewels or pearls were allowed to sell to no one but the Emperor. They were paid with his notes, which could be exchanged for anything in his Empire. If there was anyone else left who happened to have any gold, silver, gems or pearls, they could take them to the Royal Mint and get a good price for them, but they were paid in notes made from mulberry bark. So that was how the Emperor ended up with all his empire’s wealth, yet it cost him almost nothing to acquire it. “He hath”, said Polo, “ the Secret of Alchemy in perfection”. The idea of issuing promissory notes travelled to medieval Italy and Flanders and they began to be used as an alternative to transporting cash over long distances, which was both impractical and dangerous.

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As in China, the notes that were issued in Sweden were also due to the difficulty of carrying heavy money around. Their problems however, were much bigger. Basically there were two currencies that were both called the daler, but one was made of copper and the other of silver. This was a problem because they were both meant to be worth the same amount. Copper was much cheaper than silver, so the copper coins needed to be bigger. Then suddenly copper got really, really cheap. The coins became enormous, huge slabs of copper weighing several kilograms. The largest denomination, the ten daler weighed almost 20 kilograms, that’s 44 lb. Unsurprisingly, people didn’t much want to carry them around, they wanted to deposit them at the bank. The promissory notes they received in exchange were much easier to use. A note could be put in an envelope and posted whereas even a single coin might require a horse and cart.

Sadly, Stockholm Banco decided it would be okay to print more notes than the value of the copper that they held. That didn’t really work out. They went bankrupt after three years. Swedish banks did not issue paper money again until early in the nineteenth century. The Bank of England began to issue paper notes in exchange for real money in 1695, when it was trying to raise money to rebuild the country’s navy after a particularly disastrous war with France. Eventually, paper money became pretty normal everywhere. Coins made from gold, from silver, from copper, could be often too dangerous, and sometimes massively inconvenient to carry around, so everyone was persuaded to accept little pieces of paper, that are essentially useless until you exchange them for something else. Now, of course, we don’t often have the pieces of paper either, just a small plastic card. Money feels even more imaginary but, unfortunately, our world would grind to a halt if we stopped believing in it.