Monthly Archives: June 2017
The UK now has a female prime minister and Elizabeth II has been queen for more than six decades, but few would associate Anglo-Saxon England with powerful women. Nearly 1,100 years ago, however, Æthelflæd, “Lady of the Mercians”, died in Tamworth – as one of the most powerful political figures in tenth-century Britain.
Although she has faded from English history, and is often seen as a bit-part player in the story of the making of England, Æthelflæd was in fact a hugely important figure before her death in 918, aged around 50. Indeed, the uncontested succession of her daughter, Ælfwynn, as Mercia’s leader was a move of successful female powerplay not matched until the coronation of Elizabeth I after the death of her half-sister Mary in 1558. So, while Bernard Cornwell’s novels and the BBC series The Last Kingdom are cavalier with the historical facts, perhaps they are right to give Æthelflæd a major role.
Æthelflæd was born in the early 870s. Her father, Alfred “the Great” had become King of the West Saxons in 871, while her mother, Eahlswith, may have been from Mercian royal kindred. At the time, Anglo-Saxon “England” was made up of a series of smaller kingdoms, including Wessex in the south, Mercia in the Midlands and Northumbria in the far north. All faced encroachment by Viking forces that were growing in strength and ambition, as outlined in Charles Insley’s article The Strange End of the Mercian Kingdom and Mercia and the Making of England by Ian Walker.
Æthelflæd spent most of her life in the Kingdom of Mercia married to its de facto ruler, Æthelred. Mercia had seen some dark days by the time of her marriage. In the eighth and early ninth centuries, the Mercian kings had had good cause to consider themselves the most powerful rulers in southern Britain. But by the 870s, the kingdom had suffered dramatically from the Viking assaults which had swept across England.
One king, Burgred, had fled to Rome, and his successor, Ceolwulf II, was seen as a mere puppet by the West-Saxon compiler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and disappeared between 878 and 883. Soon, the East Midlands were ruled by Scandinavians – what became known as the “Danelaw” – and so the kingdom ruled by Æthelflæd and Æthelred was by then just the western rump of the old Mercia.
Nevertheless, Æthelflæd and Æthelred together engaged in massive rebuilding projects at Gloucester, Worcester, Stafford and Chester, overseeing the refounding of churches, new relic collections and saints’ cults. Famously, in 909, the relics of the seventh-century saint, Oswald were moved from Bardney, deep in Scandinavian-controlled Lincolnshire, to a new church at Gloucester. Perhaps appropriately, for a couple facing the Vikings, Æthelflæd and her husband had a great attachment to the saint, a warrior king and Christian martyr. Æthelred was buried alongside Oswald in 911, and Æthelflæd joined him seven years later.
Powerplay and politics
At the time, Athelred and Æthelflæd did not call themselves king or queen, nor do the official documents or coins refer to them as such. Instead, they used the title “Lord/Lady of the Mercians”, because Alfred had extended his authority over Mercia and styled himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons”.
But they acted like rulers. Æthelflæd, with her husband and her brother Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons, launched a series of military campaigns in the early tenth century. These brought all of England south of the Humber and Mersey river under Anglo-Saxon control and rolled up the Scandinavian lordships which had been established in the East Midlands and East Anglia.
These advances were backed up by an energetic programme of fortification, with burhs (fortified towns) built in places such as Bridgnorth, Runcorn, Chester and Manchester.
But while she called herself a “lady”, outsiders, especially the Welsh and Irish, saw Æthelflæd as a “queen” and she surely wasn’t just her husband’s subservient wife. As Alfred the Great’s daughter, the role Mercia and the Mercians would play in the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons was at stake.
A potent widow
But Æthelflæd really came into her own following her husband’s death in 911, although it seems that he had been in poor health for the best part of the previous decade. The Mercian Register in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, certainly celebrates her deeds from 910 onwards.
In 915, she successfully campaigned against the Welsh and the major Welsh kings, and in England she began further to expand her kingdom. In 917-8, her army took control of Viking-occupied Derby and Leicester, and just before her death, the “people of York” – that is, the Scandinavian lords of southern Northumbria – also agreed to submit to her.
For a brief moment, she had authority not just over her own territory in Mercia, but over the Welsh, the Scandinavian East Midlands and possibly part of Northumbria, making her perhaps one of the three most important rulers in mainland Britain – the others being her brother Edward king of the Anglo-Saxons and Constantin II macAeda, King of the Scots.
This made her a major political actor in her own right, but also a respected and feared figure. Even more remarkably, she passed her authority on to her daughter, Ælfwynn, who was around 30 when her mother died. The rule of Ælfwynn in Mercia, which attracts virtually no comment at all from historians, lasted about six months before her uncle Edward launched a coup d’état, deprived her of all authority and took her into Wessex.
Æthelflæd’s legacy is enigmatic, wrapped up in the “making of England”. But she was a ruler of consequence in an era defined by male authority. Indeed, her project to rebuild the kingdom of Mercia and the Mercians might have placed midland England at the heart of later history.
Philip Morgan, Senior Lecturer, Keele University; Andrew Sargent, Lecturer in Medieval History, Keele University; Charles Insley, Senior lecturer, University of Manchester, and Morn Capper, Lecturer in Archaeological Heritage, University of Chester
As the Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) celebrates its 50th birthday, it’s actually being used less and less to withdraw cash in Australia. There are currently more than 32,000 ATMs across Australia and cash withdrawals in February 2017 were A$9,924 million, down 10% from the previous year and just above the total of February 2005.
ATM’s (Automatic Teller Machines) were first introduced at the end of June 1967 and were welcomed by both bank customers and the banks themselves. This “hole in the wall” enabled customers to access their cash 24/7. The ATM’s self-service nature enabled the banks to reduce their costs, by closing bank branches, reducing opening hours and laying off staff.
But the Reserve Bank of Australia’s 2016 Consumer Payments Survey reported that cards were used more often than cash for in-person payments, as well as online payments. This is facilitated by Australian consumers and merchants’ rapid adoption of contactless.
The July 2017 changes to the level of merchant service fees for accepting payment cards might even further reduce our reliance on these machines. The changes should reduce surcharging and minimum spends for accepting cards (in theory) and we will then have even less reason to carry cash.
ATMs will need to evolve to remain relevant, perhaps taking on other services entirely.
Lots of cash, just not from ATMs
Paradoxically, there has never been so much cash available in Australia. By April 2017 there were 1.5 billion individual banknotes on issue, an average of 62 notes for every Australian. The RBA has recently opened a new super bank vault to store its contingency reserves of banknotes.
There are similar patterns in other countries. For example, the Bank of England notes in circulation rose by 10% in 2016, the fastest pace in a decade. This is despite technological advances that now allow people to pay by contactless cards and digital devices, such as mobile phones.
Why then is cash still so popular? The RBA’s 2016 survey concluded that cash is widely held as a store of value. If found 70% of respondents to the survey held cash in places other than their purses and wallets.
The government’s Black Economy Taskforce estimates that the Australian black economy is around 1.5% of GDP, or A$25 billion per year. Much of this is enabled by the use of hard cash, as opposed to electronic payments.
Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff wrote that physical cash can facilitate corruption and tax evasion. In his view, many of the disadvantages of cash could be reduced if larger denomination notes were withdrawn from circulation.
As an example, the Euro 500 note is due to be withdrawn from the end of 2018, however it may take more than this to reduce the underlying attraction of cash.
There are many assumptions, attitudes and beliefs which legitimise and perpetuate participation in the black economy. Questioning these will require behavioural change from all citizens, according to the Black Economy Taskforce’s interim report. As an example, if someone else is avoiding GST by paying in cash, others might think “well if they are doing it, I would be a fool not to do it myself”.
Other uses for the ATM
These are services available to bank customers through their ATMs in countries other than Australia. For example, ATMs could be made more efficient by encouraging more customers to deposit cash into the ATM and then recycling that cash in the machine to be used by those seeking to withdraw cash. This would remove many of the costs and security risks of constantly replenishing ATMs with cash.
Additional functions could be added to the ATM. In the United States you can buy postage stamps at the ATM; in Spain tickets to football matches; in Dubai bars of gold; in California fresh cupcakes and elsewhere fishing licenses and tax bills can all be accessed through ATMs.
As regards customer security to ward off identity theft, biometric measures could make access to the ATM more secure. In Japan finger vein scanning is already in use in many ATMs.
These developments could put ATMs in the forefront of an enhanced customer experience, giving the ATM reasons to survive for another 50 years.
The claim that immigrants or minorities are more criminal than the general population is a common trope. From Donald Trump’s claim that Mexicans in the US were “bringing drugs … bringing crime. They’re rapists”, to the frequent portrayal of African-Americans as having a criminal mentality, to how black men are disproportionately stopped by the police under “stop and search” laws in the UK. Other studies have explored how “driving while black” can increase a drivers’ likelihood of being charged with a traffic offence.
People have long blamed those unlike themselves. Are immigrants and minorities more criminal than locals, or just more likely to get caught – or even just more likely to be blamed? An example of Irish living in London at the beginning of the professional police era shows that who ends up in front of the judge is more dependent on how the crime is policed than on who is responsible. If police tactics unduly target minority groups, then this inflation of the criminal statistics can, and has, been used to paint minority groups in a negative light.
Bank notes not worth the paper
London experienced a massive crime wave between 1797 and 1821, linked almost entirely to counterfeiting and forgery. The problem got so bad that people began to worry if the cash in their pocket was real – aware that they could be executed for knowingly spending bad money. Bank notes had only recently been introduced in England and, as historian Randall McGowen has remarked, they were “scarcely more than a printed form with a number, a date and a clerk’s signature”. Forgers even had the gall to produce the fake bank notes in prison, selling them onward for a fraction of their face value to anyone brave enough to attempt to pass them off in the city’s shops.
Even coinage, then comprised of actual silver and gold, was at risk. Talented button makers and engravers turned their attention to the technically similar processes of making false coins, which would be made with a cheaper metal and rubbed with aqua fortis (nitric acid) or aqua regis (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids) to make the fake appear either silver or gold respectively.
Soon the city was crawling with fake money, including more than 250,000 forged banknotes. Patrick Colquhoun, a magistrate of the era, estimated 120 sellers were each distributing hundreds of false coins onto the city’s streets. He singled out the Irish as one of the problem groups behind the crime wave.
Peter King’s previous research on Irish crime claimed the justice system did not show an anti-Irish prejudice and that the Irish criminals got what was coming to them. Certainly there are records from London’s courtrooms to support this.
For example, Irishmen John Fennell and James Gillington were arrested in 1799 after having allegedly forged more than 600 bank notes with a home-made printing press. But at the other end of the spectrum the records are filled with Irish such as John Brown, who tried to pay for his glass of gin at the pub with a false coin. Looking at the numbers alone the Irish do seem to have been a problem – but these numbers hide the extent to which policing strategy affected who got arrested in the first place.
Initially, the authorities relied almost exclusively on tips from shopkeepers who had been offered false money. It fell to them to detain suspects and call for the watchman who would make the arrest. This meant people spending false money had a far greater chance of getting arrested than those involved in the more profitable aspects of manufacture and wholesale.
The Irish were more involved in the petty but very public act of spending the money – those aspects of the crime most associated with poverty. As new arrivals, the Irish were at a further disadvantage, and cunning locals were only too happy to trick their new “friends” into buying a round at the bar with the false coins they supplied. With the system of policing set up to almost exclusively target these minor players, the courtrooms filled with poor Irish which led to their reputation for criminality.
Enter the detectives
Despite these arrests the problem of forgery worsened. So, in 1812, the Bank of England changed its strategy, encouraging specialist detectives to hunt for the real counterfeiters. With generous rewards as incentives, these detectives soon managed to infiltrate the criminal networks. This often involved using accomplices in the crime to trick the counterfeiters and wholesalers into selling to an undercover agent, in exchange for a reduction in their own sentence.
For the first time the Bank was encouraging local criminals to “out” other local criminals and, as they did so, the ethnic makeup of defendants appearing in the court began to change: the number of English defendants rose 27-fold in the years immediately after the change in policing strategy.
This research highlights what gets missed when policing focuses on crime perpetrated by ethnic minorities. No one at the time noticed the dramatic reduction in Irish defendants but, by the 1810s, the claim that the Irish were behind the forged currency crime wave was unsupportable. This wasn’t because the situation had changed for the criminals, but because the police had changed where they were looking for them – and discovered that the real culprits behind the crime wave were the local English, and probably always had been.
28 June 1838 – At the age of 19, Queen Victoria was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom. pic.twitter.com/AAafuowmVE
— History (@HistoryTime_) June 28, 2017
Surgeries and treatments come and go. A new BMJ guideline, for example, makes “strong recommendations” against the use of arthroscopic surgery for certain knee conditions. But while this key-hole surgery may slowly be scrapped in some cases due to its ineffectiveness, a number of historic “cures” fell out of favour because they were more akin to a method of torture. Here are five of the most extraordinary and unpleasant.
Trepanation (drilling or scraping a hole in the skull) is the oldest form of surgery we know of. Humans have been performing it since neolithic times. We don’t know why people did it, but some experts believe it could have been to release demons from the skull. Surprisingly, some people lived for many years after this brutal procedure was performed on them, as revealed by ancient skulls that show evidence of healing.
Although surgeons no longer scrape holes in peoples’ skulls to release troublesome spirits, there are still reports of doctors performing the procedure to relieve pressure on the brain. For example, a GP at a district hospital in Australia used an electric drill he found in a maintenance cupboard to bore a hole in a 13-year-old boy’s skull. Without the surgery, the boy would have died from a blood clot on the brain.
It’s hard to believe that a procedure more brutal than trepanation was widely performed in the 20th century. Lobotomy involved severing connections in the brain’s prefrontal lobe with an implement resembling an icepick (a leucotome).
Antonio Egas Moniz, a Portuguese neurologist, invented the procedure in 1935. A year later, Walter Freeman brought the procedure to the US. Freeman was an evangelist for this new form of “psychosurgery”. He drove around the country in his “loboto-mobile” performing the procedure on thousands of hapless patients.
Instead of a leucotome, Freeman used an actual icepick, which he would hammer through the corner of an eye socket using a mallet. He would then jiggle the icepick around in a most unscientific manner. Patients weren’t anaesthetised – rather they were in an induced seizure.
Thankfully, advances in psychiatric drugs saw the procedure fall from favour in the 1960s. Freeman performed his last two icepick lobotomies in 1967. One of the patients died from a brain haemorrhage three days later.
Ancient Greek, Roman, Persian and Hindu texts refer to a procedure, known as lithotomy, for removing bladder stones. The patient would lay on their back, feet apart, while a blade was passed into the bladder through the perineum – the soft bit of flesh between the sex organ and anus. Further indignity was inflicted by surgeons inserting their fingers or surgical instruments into the rectum or urethra to assist in the removal of the stone. It was an intensely painful procedure with a mortality rate of about 50%.
The number of lithotomy operations performed began to fall in the 19th century, and it was replaced by more humane methods of stone extraction. Healthier diets in the 20th century helped make bladder stones a rarity, too.
4. Rhinoplasty (old school)
Syphilis arrived in Italy in the 16th century, possibly carried by sailors returning from the newly exploited Americas (the so-called Columbian exchange).
The sexually transmitted disease had a number of cruel symptoms, one of which was known as “saddle-nose”, where the bridge of the nose collapses. This nasal deformity was an indicator of indiscretions, and many used surgery to try and hide it.
An Italian surgeon, Gaspare Tagliacozzi, developed a method for concealing this nasal deformity. He created a new nose using tissue from the patient’s arm. He would then cover this with a flap of skin from the upper arm, which was rather awkwardly still attached to the limb. Once the skin graft was firmly attached – after about three weeks – Tagliacozzie would separate the skin from the arm.
The were reported cases of patients’ noses turning purple in cold winter months and falling off.
Today, syphilis is easily treated with a course of antibiotics.
Losing blood, in modern medicine, is generally considered to be a bad thing. But, for about 2,000 years, bloodletting was one of the most common procedures performed by surgeons.
The procedure was based on a flawed scientific theory that humans possessed four “humours” (fluids): blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. An imbalance in these humours was thought to result in disease. Lancets, blades or fleams (some spring loaded for added oomph) were used to open superficial veins, and in some cases arteries, to release blood over several days in an attempt to restore balance to these vital fluids.
Bloodletting in the West continued up until the 19th century. In 1838, Henry Clutterbuck, a lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians, claimed that “blood-letting is a remedy which, when judiciously employed, it is hardly possible to estimate too highly”.
Finally, one medical procedure, dating from one of the earliest Egyptian medical texts, that isn’t used anymore – and I can’t for the life of me think why – is the administration of half an onion and the froth of beer. It cures death, apparently.
For centuries, the bloody gladiator conflicts that the Romans staged in amphitheatres throughout the empire have engrossed and repelled us. When it comes to gladiators, it is almost impossible to look away. But the arena is also the place where the Romans feel most foreign to us.
The gladiator was the product of a unique environment. He can exist only within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances. It is not surprising that this is a form of spectacle we have not seen either before or since the Romans. To acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that they are only ever going to be partially comprehensible to us.
Sadly, this is not a view shared by the Queensland Museum, which last week opened its new exhibition, Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum. The exhibition brings together 117 objects from Italian museums, most notably the collection of the Colosseum at Rome. Highlights include some extremely well preserved and intricately decorated gladiatorial helmets and pieces of armour from Pompeii, as well as some very fine carved reliefs depicting scenes of combat.
Yet, while the quality of the individual objects is without question and certainly worth the price of admission alone, the intellectual framework of the exhibition is far more problematic.
This is not an exhibition that is plagued by doubts or uncertainties. It firmly knows who gladiators were and what they stood for – gladiators, the opening panel of the exhibition proclaims, were the “elite athletes” of the ancient world. The antique equivalent of today’s fighters in the popular sport MMA, if you like.
Sporting analogies pepper the exhibition. Spectators are routinely referred to as “fans” and the catalogue promises that this is an exhibition that “touches on many issues that have parallels with modern day sport and sporting culture”.
At times, the exhibition also feels like it has taken its cues from contemporary videogame culture. The special weapons of the various types of gladiators are spelled out and visitors are invited to contemplate who would win between a gladiator fighting with a net (known as a retarius to the Romans) and one heavily armed (secutor). A videogame spinoff from the exhibition is easy to imagine.
Rogues not heroes
Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.
These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.
These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, the execution of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.
The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, it is an analogy that causes more problems than it solves.
The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low; violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.
Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).
The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.
At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.
Gods and monsters
Representing gladiatorial combat as sport also inevitably underplays the religious dimension of the fighting. The exhibition includes some fabulous tomb paintings from the city of Paestum, which illustrate the origins of gladiatorial combat in the funerary rites for the dead. These are wonderful works that deserve to be much better known; however, they are a rare intrusion into an otherwise secular narrative.
Gladiatorial combats never stopped being religious events. Every day of the games would begin with a “solemn procession” with sacrifices on altars. The gladiators themselves were deeply implicated in the Roman theology of the divine, death, and the relationship between mortal and immortal. These spectacles were Roman sermons written in blood.
The final problem with focusing on gladiators as sporting heroes is that it tends to isolate their combat from the other elements that made up the games. Beast hunts and the execution of criminals were just as popular, possibly even more so. They were not precursors to the main event or entertainment for the intervals.
The execution of criminals could involve extravagant mythological tableaus. Prisoners were dressed as Hercules and burnt alive. The fatal flight of Icarus towards the sun might be re-enacted for the audience.
Certainly, these elaborate, gruesome affairs captured the attention of ancient writers far more than the gladiators who accompanied them. Wealthy Romans seem far more preoccupied with obtaining suitably rare fauna for their spectacles.
For the poorer members of the audience, the beast hunts had an added attraction. Often the animal meat was distributed to the audience members to take home. They were literally watching their dinner being butchered in front of them.
One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition doesn’t relate to gladiatorial combat but to one of these beast hunts. It is a second-century CE mosaic that features what appears to be a female hunter facing off a giant tiger. Who is this woman? Evidence for female hunters (like female gladiators) is practically non-existent. Is she part of some mythological tableau? A woman pretending to be an Amazon? Or a man dressed up as a woman? Is this a scene from real life at all?
She is an enigma and a worthy reminder that the real secret of the appeal of Roman combat spectacle is that it raises more questions than it answers.
Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum will be on at the Queensland Museum until January 28 2018.