Medieval Crafts

Would You Rather Find a Job or
Be a Vagabond 500 Years Ago?

If you’ve been feeling left out of this so-called gig economy, imagine how you’d fare in another time. As in traveling back in time to, say, 500 years ago, just to check one of London’s job listing boards circa 1550. In fact, who hasn’t imagined, from the safety of one’s mind, of course, how Medieval townsfolk went about their business?
You could meet Cornelis Bos, for instance, who enjoyed drawing what looks like taxis driven by satyrs. Have a chat with Willielmus de Lench, a grain thresher, or try a brew with Matild de Grafton, an alewife, all common names and occupations of the time. Or you could find easier pickings as a jarkman, another word for vagrant.
There are plenty of records about that particularly gruesome time to be alive anywhere, but as the saying goes, history is told by the powerful. So while you may be wise to King Arthur and his gallant knights, there’s no word about their ostler, the guy who’d take care of their horses. Which, as most occupations of poor people, would run in families.
Don’t be discouraged though. Even if we may not find a suitable position for a person of your qualifications, you still may learn a thing or two about how people would make a living then, some of the common surnames that have survived to these days, and the surprisingly variety of outlaw types populating the era.
Oh, and throughout this post, check the exquisitely elaborated 1550 art of Cornelis Bos. You may as well pick a few interesting subjects to use in your next job interview, so to give the recruiter a bone to chew, while you think about how to answer that minefield of a question they all love to throw at you: so, what have you been doing all this time?

As anyone may have already noticed, a lot of traditional surnames have originated from common occupations, geographical locations and even physical characteristics. In English, that’s likely the case if your last name is Baker, Brown, Blacksmith, Coleman, Taylor, White and so on.
But you’d be surprised with the bulk of professions still relevant, five centuries and a whole universe of technological advances later. People still work in government, or for someone, have their own business, or simply own a crooked idea of what it means to make a honest buck.
One could argue, though, that few thieves or professional criminals would’ve dressed up as wealthy people then, while now, heyday of sorts for the lying business, we may have one at the White House. But really? What when they’d pillage and burn to the ground a whole country? That’d assure them graces and riches from aristocracy and royal titles to boot. So, it all always comes down to being humans.
For the government, you could be a catchpole, a ‘chicken catcher,’ a hayward, an officer in charge of fences and hedges, and a liner, who’d set property boundaries. You wouldn’t want to mess with a bailiff, who could arrest and execute you, but you could be friends with reeves, which was how church wardens were called, and wouldn’t hurt you to know a master of the revels, those in charge of court entertainment.

At large, there were military and religious occupations, sailors and scholars, flora and fauna laborers, your usual share of artists and entertainers (we heard that a bard, some Shakespeare dude, is quite good), and an infinitude of craftsmen and merchants, a category to which alehouse keeper Matild belonged to, as did olde pal de Lench.
But perhaps it’s under the ‘regular folk’ lists where demand for a variety of skill sets would get you by, as well as some of those names could be found. Did some traveling? you could be a palmer, someone (more)
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Victorian Secrets

U.K. Celebrates Two Queens;
the World Respectfully Yawns

For many British citizens, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee is a reason to be jolly, as their monarch completes 60 years as a mainly relic of the U.K.’s gilded past. But while the English don’t mind being called ‘subjects’ of a fading empire, the rest of the world is unmoved. In the U.S., which since its independence has completely upstaged its former lords, the anniversary is a moot point.
Elizabeth Regina took the opportunity to mark another Jubilee, that of Alexandrina Victoria, by posting her last female predecessor’s diaries online. It’s hours of minutia of interest mostly to historian and Anglophiles, and pretty much almost no one else, about the inside-palace goings of life in the 1800s, which the queen was, even if unwittingly, a dominant figure.

Which is not to say that the U.K. for what it represents to the world has become irrelevant. Not yet, anyway. The cradle of a language that’s still vibrant enough to be considered a universal tongue, this tiny island had indeed an oversize role in shaping the world as it came to be, and no other empire since the Romans was as powerful.
It thrived through the Dark and Middle Ages, and wound up dominating the seas during the Discovery Era, defeating all the great fleets of the time, including the Spanish Armada. At the dawn of the 20th century, Great Britain was still controlling a fifth of the world’s population, with the equivalent power to boot.
Before that, Queen Victoria presided over a period of material prosperity and population explosion throughout the empire, although the times are better encapsulated by the grim social tales of Charles Dickens. They mostly portray a reality of great hardship for the poor, Continue reading

Counting Glyphs

Three Outstanding Numbers &
a Century of the Voynich Enigma

For budding mathematicians, the Number Pi is sacred territory. For mystics, there’s the cryptic Belphegor’s Prime. Some social pundits give currency to the Dunbar Number. But after one hundred years, no one has come even close to decipher the Voynich Manuscript.
While Pi is called an ‘irrational number,’ Belphegor is a palindrome with a religious cipher at its core, and a glyph lifted from the Voynich. Now, about the Dunbar, guess what? is not even a number.
We’ll go over each one in more detail, of course. But we do love this sort of thing, even without quite fully understanding their implications. So what? Does anyone need to be an astronomer to admire the stars at night? OK, that was a cheap shot.
But there are definitely ways of immersing oneself in the beauty of these mysterious landmarks of the human thought, without necessarily being current with quantum semantics and the intricacies of code-breaking and algorithmic calculations.
One of them is, naturally, shut the hell up and just enjoy them. But we, dilettantes and amateurs of all stripes, fancy ourselves to be able to Continue reading

Doting on His Absence

Who Wrote Shakespeare’s
Works & Who Really Cares?

As conspiracy theories go, the one about William Shakespeare’s authorship has lost much of its controversial edge. Short of a blockbuster, scholarly breakthrough, and even then, the issue may never be settled to anyone’s satisfaction.
As such, Anonymous, the new Hollywood flick about the possibility the Bard’s works were created by an aristocrat, Edward de Vere, most likely won’t be adding any substance to this discussion.
So here’s at where this heated, often irrational, continuously virulent, and ultimately irrelevant discussion now stands:
The main theory against the existence of a playwright named William Shakespeare is not just the lack of written proof connecting him to his works.
There’s no officially accepted portrait of the man, only one signature Continue reading

Sunken Ships

Scientists, Astronomers & Women:
Things You Didn’t Know About Pirates

When it comes to pirates, certain die-hard notions have little to do with the historical record, and romanticize what was essentially a brutal time, before, during and after the Discovery Era. For besides the pillaging and mass murdering attached to their lore, paid-for and generously rewarded by the crown to which they served, many a no-less sanguinary brute managed to leave contributions to the sciences and nautical arts that were obscured by their flashier feats.
Take William Dampier, who wrote about Galapagos almost 200 years before Darwin. Or, a century later, Capt. Cook’s detailed notes on the transit of Venus. What about Grace O’Malley, Anna Bunny and Mary Read, fierce female pirates who fought enemies and potential rapists with equal ferocity? With considerable delay, even the MIT got into the buccaneering trail, as it’s been issuing ‘pirate certificates’ for 20 years. And don’t let us get started on the so-called ‘last American pirate.’
To be sure, beyond literature and Hollywood’s caricatural portrayals of pirates along the years, most people have heard of some of real-life scourges of the sea, such as Blackbeard, Capt. Kidd, Barbarossa, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry Morgan, Calico Jack, and others, whose lives were alternately celebrated, persecuted, rewarded or simply sent to the gallows and bodies disposed at will.
Many were graced, officially pardoned, chronicled in verse and prose alongside their royal protectors but still, as was often the case and despite all of that, unceremoniously beheaded, either by their enemies, Continue reading