Not Going to Take It Anymore

November 14th, 2010 by De oppresso liber

During the past week, British students flooded into the streets of London to protest a dramatic change in the pricing of university education.  For those old enough to remember, the scene looked very much like the summer of 1968 when students in Germany, France, and England (among other places) took to the streets to express their anger over Vietnam, their parents’ behavior during World War II (especially in Germany), and other issues.

Rioting has a long history.  Prior to the nineteenth century, English riots represented the only way for average people to let their voices be heard.  In contrast to what many of us might imagine, rioting was well organized and extremely disciplined.  For example, when bread prices climbed beyond a range deemed acceptable, rioters made their way into the street to target specific bakers.  They broke windows and baking equipment, but never targeted those not implicated in the increasing prices.  Elites accepted the riots and sometimes even punished the bakers whose prices had risen faster than any yeast should allow.  To learn more, check out E.P. Thompson’s famous article “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.”

Today, the Guardian offers a photo retrospective of “The 10 best mass protests.”  You’ll find everything from an early Vietnam protest in the United States when protesters placed flowers in the barrels of guns to a 1913 women’s suffrage protest when Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the hooves of King George V’s horse (she died) to demand votes for women.  There’s a nod to Prague Spring in 1968 and coverage of both the Chartist strikes of the 1840s and the British miners’ strike in 1985.  The article is well worth a look.

While you’re at it, have a listen to Neil Young’s brilliant song “Ohio” about the Kent State shootings in May 1970.

Guardian Newspaper Guides to Ancient World

November 5th, 2010 by De oppresso liber

Britain’s Guardian newspaper is doing a series of guides to the ancient world—starting with Egypt.  It is well worth a look.

Trading in Death, Black Death, That Is

November 1st, 2010 by De oppresso liber

The New York Times reports that new research by two separate teams of scientists confirms that waves of plague during the Roman, Medieval, and Victorian periods came from China.

The research “reported conclusively . . . that the causative agent of the most deadly plague, the Black Death, was the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis,” a disease carried on flea-infested rats.

Scientists studied DNA extracted from mass graves and not only discovered tell-tale signs of the disease, they were able to genetically match the illness found in pits located hundreds of miles apart in different countries.  The evidence suggests that the plague reached Marseilles in France in 1347, then spread north, reaching Hereford, England in 1349.

Likewise, the new findings also show that the Justinian plague (during the 6th century) made its way from China, as did a less deadly outbreak of disease in 1894.  In each case, trade provided the vector whereby disease traveled from Asia to Europe.

There are two items that should be added to this story.  The first is fairly minor.  The “Black Death” is a name assigned to the fourteenth century outbreak much later.  We should more correctly call it the “Great Mortality” or the “Pestilence” as contemporaries did.

Second, the Times article did not address the fact that separate research on northern English and Scottish burial pits suggest that there was at least one additional killer at work: anthrax.  During the fourteenth century, rising affluence in Europe (brought partly by the same trade that led to the outbreak of Yersinia pestis) generated a widespread taste for beef.  Huge tracts of land were clear-cut to raise cattle.

Anthrax spores can live for long periods in the ground and are then easily ingested by cattle.  The disease passes from beast to man quite efficiently and apparently wiped out whole monasteries in England and Scotland.  Contemporaries did not distinguish between plague and anthrax because the symptoms often seemed similar.

These teams have undoubtedly added a great deal to our understanding, but the only thing that is ever truly “conclusive” (historically speaking) is that life is fatal!