Category Archives: History

The Knight vs. The Snail

Image from the Gorleston Psalter (14th Century)

This is a doodle from a medieval manuscript. Such manuscripts were written by monks (who, other than nobles and clergy, were really the only ones that could even read after all) and usually included some sort of doodle or artwork in the margins. But some are pretty strange. Like this one. Do you know why the knight is fighting a snail? Because if you read enough 14th century literature this image turns up everywhere. And nobody knows why.

Perhaps its a weird joke – the knight finally facing an equally-armored foe – or maybe it’s a metaphor. Some people have proposed that the snails are references to biblical passages, or political groups, or sex. Here’s a tip – if you don’t know what something represents, sex is always a good guess. Maybe the monks just really hated snails, but then why do the knights always look so worried?

Maybe they know something we don’t. I’m not saying knights battled giant snails in medieval Europe. But I’m not not saying it either.

To see more images, go to the Medieval Manuscripts blog at the British Library. Thanks to and reddit for the heads up.


Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Anthropology, History


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A Short Survey of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a tricky subject for me. One the one hand, it often stands apart from western medicine and science, roughly in the same area as homeopathy or other alternative medicines. Untested cures based on tradition, rather than evidence. On the other hand, not a lot of study has flown the other way, either. With such an array of history, it’s quite likely that some if not many of the cures are actually effective in some manner, but not a lot of research has been done with regards to Traditional Chinese Medicine and a number of interesting compounds are now being discovered thanks to these cures. That said, I think I’ll stick with vaccines and vitamins.

But Traditional Chinese Medicine also has a societal aspect to it too, one that is just as complex as the scientific aspect. Demand for rare animal parts has fueled decades of poaching and destruction. A major fraction of tiger and rhino poaching goes directly into the black markets of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But on the other hand, this is a rich tradition that goes back thousands of years and the philosophies it has been based on have long been a cornerstone of how China viewed the world.

Tricky. Tricky.

Well, enough of opinions and hard thought. It’s time to point out some of the more interesting ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Now, most of the time you’ll see things like ginger or ginkgo. Maybe a lotus root or two in there somewhere, but these ingredients are substantially weirder.

  • Ophiocordyceps sinesis A parasitic fungus that grows out of the heads of subterranean caterpillars high on the Tibetan plateau. The price of this aphrodisiac and cancer treatment has exploded. A pound can cost up to $50,000.
  • Dried seahorse – Seahorses tend to arrive on the market as bycatch from shrimp trawlers around the Phillipines and India, although some are specifically hunted by lamplight. Dried seahorse can be used for impotence and incontinence, aiding circulation, and relieving swelling.
  • Turtle shell – Invigorates the blood and attacks malaria.
  • Silkworm feces – Used to treat diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Also apparently keeps your stomach from growling.
  • Scorpions – Clears the liver and relieves headaches.
  • Cinnabar – A vibrant red ore, actually a natural form of mercury sulfate, ground into a powder. It’s taken to calm the heart and reduce anxiety. Just like in European alchemy, Chinese Taoists believed that mercury was essential in creating their elixir of immortality. Mercury is, of course, highly toxic and neurological symptoms can develop if taken incautiously.
  • Realgar – Also known as ruby sulphur, these bright red crystals are taken for sore throats, swellings, and to kill intestinal parasites. And it certainly will kill those, realgar is actually a form of arsenic and like cinnabar should be taken with care.
  • Cicada moultings – Clears rashes, relieves visual obstruction, and ‘disperses wind’.
  • Pangolin scales – Used to keep menses regular and prevent period cramps.
  • Hornets nests – Relieves pain and toothaches and clears up ringworm.
  • Centipedes – Prevents lock jaw and seizures as well as counteracting toxins.

Yeah, I don’t think I need any centipedes, thanks.

Sources: seahorse-australia, yinyanghouse

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Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Anthropology, History, Medicine, Modernity


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Polio Caused by Ice Cream!

It was the first half of the twentieth century and polio was blooming. Historically rare, infection rates started to steadily rise as the decades moved on. Children would develop fever, headache, and muscle weakness. Most of the time the fever would break and strength would return, but not always. Permanent paralysis and deformity were common, leaving thousands regulated to crutches, canes, wheelchairs, or even the iron lung.

Fears grew as the numbers did. During the 1952 pandemic 58,000 American children were infected. More than three thousand died with over 20,000 left paralyzed. A cause was needed. Something we could be warned against, something we could prevent. Well during this polio scare, some scientists stumbled into what has become one of history’s most famous examples of jumping to conclusions.

They declared that ice cream was the problem.

It happened because some watchful experts noticed an interesting correlation. The yearly rates of polio infections seemed to rise in fall in lock step with the consumption of ice cream. The peak summer ice cream season fell during the exact height of polio infections. Studies were performed. Could the virus survive pasteurization? Could it be spread? One Dr. Benjamin Sandler publicized this theory, cautioning parents against feeding their children frozen confections. The excess sugar, he proclaimed, was the cause.

Ice cream sales plummeted.

Now it was true that polio rates did rise during the summer. But looking back, the idea that ice cream causes polio seems absurd. It turns out that the polio outbreaks were actually due to improved sanitation, of all things. As cities and towns became cleaner, children lost early exposure to the polio virus and the valuable immunity it conferred. The summer spike was simply coincidence with natural exposure rates. The scientists had seen a correlation and assumed it was the cause.

Luckily the polio pandemic died off with Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin’s twin polio vaccines. The disease rates suddenly plummeted as children artificially regained the immunity flush toilets had inadvertently taken away. We can only assume ice cream shops were among the most relieved.

Sources: NYTimes, Wikipedia, Smithsonian Magazine, The Hidden Dangers In Polio Vaccine


Posted by on August 21, 2012 in History, Medicine, Modernity


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Shackleton’s Third Man

“She’s going down!” the men yelled, scrambling away. Their ship, The Endurance, was sinking. Antarctic ice had entrapped her for more than ten months and finally, on the 21st of November, 1915, she slipped away for good. The expedition’s leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton, was forced to watch as his men’s last connection with the civilized world disappeared underneath the stark polar ice. Stuck on the winter ice pack, Shackleton could do little but order his twenty-seven men to march for the nearest land, Elephant Island, over 300 miles away. And even after they reached solid land, the nearest civilization was little more than a scattering of whaling stations on the island of South Georgia, another 800 miles distant.

Shackleton didn’t hide from the hard truth. If they were to save themselves, South Georgia would have to be their goal. Choosing a handful of skilled men to accompany him, Shackleton sailed, rowed, and hiked the last 800 miles. He survived starvation, frostbite, and polar hurricanes, but found the whalers and returned to Elephant Island four months later to rescue those left behind.

Save your Scotts and Roald Amundsen’s. I can think of nothing that embodies the spirit of polar exploration, in all its grim determination, boundless hope, and humanity more than the story of Shackleton’s hardship. Shackleton recorded his experience in the book South: The Endurance Expedition.

But South doesn’t just represent the explorer’s spirit, hidden within its pages is an evolutionary puzzle. This book, in fact, presents one of the first recorded instances of a bizarre psychological phenomenon known as the Third Man Factor. Read:

“When I look back at those days,” writes Shackleton, “I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snow fields, but across the storm-white sea… I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels ‘the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech’ in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.”


The Third Man Factor is that feeling Shackleton describes, an unseen spirit or companion. Its often seems to happen to explorers and travelers who have reached the grimmest peaks of desperation. The mountain climber Reinhold Messner, aviator Charles Lindbergh, and the geologist Stephanie Schwabe all reported feeling a friendly and comforting figure guiding them out of impossible situations. Thousands of others have experienced it as well. Some have attributed to divine intervention or guardian angels.

Biologically, this poses an interesting question. It doesn’t seem to be a fluke – why should this one particular phenomenon crop up again and again in perilous situations? It could be dismissed as hallucinations or delirium, but if it was, why do the affected continue to maintain their grip on reality? Why don’t they fall into flights of fancy? Why are the visitors universally helpful? And why did every single one of Shackleton’s men all feel their phantom companion?

The answer may be a behavioral switch, long-buried in our own psyches. Scientists in Switzerland have replicated this same phenomenon by electrically stimulating the temporo-parietal junction of an epileptic woman. The junction is part of the brain that organizes sensory information. When they activated the switch, the woman became convinced of a benevolent, calming presence. When the switch was turned off, the spirit disappeared.

It’s been suggested that some of our emotional idiosyncrasies may actually be naturally evolved tools. An article from Scientific American points out that depression makes us self-reflective, analytical, and cautious in stressful situations, exactly the qualities you might want if your life was on the line. Perhaps the Third Man is another one of these evolutionary tools, a self-created guide for the conscious mind through the worst of hardships, pointing out advice that we had always known and simply forgotten.

If this is true I have a hard time thinking of anything more beautiful than a creature evolved to invent angels.


After the Endurance expedition, Ernest Shackleton went home to England and volunteered to serve in World War I. In 1921 he returned to exploration, but suffered a fatal heart attack less than a year later. He was buried on South Georgia island.

Of the crew the Endurance left stranded on Elephant Island, Shackleton did not lose a single man. All survived.

Sources: The Endurance Expedition, by Ernest Shackleton, Wikipedia


Posted by on July 29, 2012 in Anthropology, Biography, History, Modernity


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The Archer’s Bones

In 1346, Edward III, King of England, attacked the French at Crécy. Edward III was known as a brash, calculating, and above all ambitious man. The conquest of Normandy was his goal in France and to win it Edward brought with him a new and terrible technology. Alongside his lines of men-at-arms, knights, and longbowmen, Edward III brought the first regiment of European gunmen in history. Trained commoners, they stood, guns in hand, ready to fire upon the advancing French cavalry. And while their guns were laughably inaccurate compared with the longbowmen, the sheer destructive power of gunpowder would more than prove itself on the battlefield. Soon the era of the archer would be over.

In some ways, this was a shame, because while the history of gunpowder is itself endlessly fascinating, the archer has left an inerasable mark on the history of warfare, culture, and even on the very bones of the men themselves.

The first thing to understand that, no matter what popular culture would have you believe, bows were in no way a weapon for willowy, weak characters. These weapons, especially the ultra-high load bows drawn by English longbowmen and Mongolian archers, delivered incredible power. An account from 12th century Wales illustrates the damage an arrow could do.

… [I]n the war against the Welsh, one of the men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron cuirasses, and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal. -Gerald of Wales, 1191

These arrows could puncture plate armor. In order to use these weapons the archers often had to train for their entire lives. Edward III formally declared: “Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practise archery –… that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows… and so learn and practise archery.” He liked to experiment with gunpowder, but Edward III knew the power of the bow.

This lifelong training left its mark on the archer. We can actually identify a longbowman’s skeleton by the damage they have done to their bones; otherwise rare defects show up along the shoulder blades, wrists, and elbows. The act of drawing back hundreds of pounds of force every day, hundreds of times per day, strained ligaments and bones to such an extent that some skeletons even started growing extra bone to compensate. Their devotion to their skill permanently changed their bodies enough that we can still identify them hundreds of years later. Few other professions can so easily claim the same.

Sources: Gunpowder by Jack Kelly, Human Bones in Archaeology by Ann Stirland, Dutour (2005), Wikipedia

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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in History


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Lost in the Amazon

Nobody believed Gaspar de Carvajal. Carvajal was a Dominican missionary, sent to the New World by his Spanish peers. He ended up in Quito, Peru, under the governance of the conqueror Gonzalo Pizarro. Pizarro invited Carvajal along in his search for La Canela, a mythical land of spices to the east of Quito. In 1541, the men marched bodily across the Andes and plunged into the Amazon basin.

No wealth of spices waited for them. Instead the vast expanse of the Amazon jungle spread out before them. The terrain proved difficult, hostile, and treacherous and, in a drastic effort to secure needed supplies, Pizarro ordered his second in command, an imposing sharp-cheeked man named Francisco de Orellana, to take a boat down the Napo River. Carvajal, along with fifty other men, were to accompany Orellana on this scouting trip.

But Orellana never returned to Pizarro. The currents proved too strong, the boat too clumsy, and the entire expedition was swept down river on what ended up being the first cross-continental exploration of the Amazon ever. Three men ventured out to find Pizarro, who had in the meantime taken his few remaining survivors and returned to Quito. The journey would take more than two years. In the meantime Carvajal recorded everything he saw.

Strange plants and stranger creatures. Gluts of food and the haunting presence of predatory animals. Warrior women, who’s Spanish-given moniker of ‘amazons’ would come to name the region. Walled cities, their tops rising out of the distant trees, just out of reach. Highways of carved stone, sixty feet wide, winding their way through the jungle.

Eventually the expedition finished their trek, meeting the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Amazon. The survivors, and their stories, returned to civilization. Of course, few believed the accounts.

We do now know that Carvajal was telling the truth. Archaeological evidence shows that the Amazon, rather than being the dark heart of an uncivilized continent, may have supported as many as twenty million people in a vast network of city-states. The remains of roads and planned developments have been discovered, although the political power behind these cities seems to have disappeared sometime shortly after the arrival of the Spanish, for uncertain reasons. It was likely the result of untenable agriculture.

Either way, the dream of an accidental expedition, navigating their way down a river to an uncertain salvation is such a Conrad-esque idea that one cannot help but imagine oneself there, alongside Carvajal, staring into the jungle.

Wondering what was staring back.

Sources: Wikipedia, A Blog About History (1), (2),, Image credit goes to

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Posted by on June 19, 2012 in Biography, History


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The Demon Star

Even the name sounds bad. In Hebrew it’s known as Rōsh ha Sāṭān, in Latin: Caput Larvae. The Chinese know it as dieshi, ‘pile of corpses’. The star system’s modern name, Algol, is derived from ancient Arabic ra’s al-ghūl, literally ‘the ghoul’s head’.

Also, just have to point out: tried to kill Batman

It’s been associated with misfortune, curses, and violence. What could a star do to earn such a horrible reputation? To put it simply, it blinks. Algol the one of the most noticeable variable stars, which means it’s brightness expands and dims in a set rhythm. Imagine what ancient astrologers and astronomers must have felt seeing this thing growing and dying unlike any other star. Few other stars do this and none as visibly as Algol. We think that people knew of this behavior as early as 1,000 BC, probably earlier.

Algol blinks for an interesting reason. Notice at the beginning of the article I used the term star system not star. Algol is actually a set of three stars orbiting around each other in what is known as a trinary star system. They’re just so far away that they appear as a single point of light to anyone without a telescope. One interesting thing about the system is that the axis of rotation is actually perpendicular to our point of view (imagine watching a top spin in front of you at eye level). This arrangement of angles means that occasionally one star will pass in front of another one, eclipsing it’s light and causing Algol to ‘blink’.

In theory the stars should eventually lose momentum and slow down their rotation. And, thanks to the Egyptians, we know that this is actually happening. It takes 2.867 days for the stars to complete an orbit around each other today, but the Egyptians kept such detailed records that we know that around 1200 BC it only took the stars 2.85 days. This means that in the interim three millennia they gained about an extra twenty-four minutes.

Let me just put it this way. We kept such good records that we know down to a matter of seconds how fast a star system ninety-three light years away was spinning three-thousand years ago. Awesome.

Sources:,,, Wikipedia


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