Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Blood Libel – and Sarah Palin

Shots were fired in Tuscon, Arizona, on 8 January – and within a week, people around the world were learning about a concept – the ‘blood libel’ – that most of them had never heard of before.

When I taught a week on Jews in medieval and early modern Europe to my first year history students, almost none of them had encountered the term before.  I suspect that Sarah Palin had only the vaguest notion of its meaning herself.  But following her infamous video clip on 12 January, journalists and the general public have been scrambling to catch up with a concept that carries an enormous emotional charge for Jews (my own, very secular husband included) yet has so utterly faded from memory for most of the rest of us.

It’s at moments like this that it is nice to have been a teacher, to have given many hundreds of young people an insight into the meaning of anti-Semitism, as it was practised in Europe for many centuries.  It’s nothing to be smug about, but at least, as the result of a tutorial on Jews in Europe, my ex-students are ahead of the game now, even if about 95% of them probably forgot most of what they learned there within a few hours or weeks.  I hope it’s vaguely coming back to them now.

Briefly, the blood libel was a widely held belief amongst many Christians that Jewish communities stole Christian children, killed them and drained their blood to mix with the matzo meal that was made into unleavened bread at the time of the Passover (Pesach).  Dates are vague; the belief was certainly widespread by the 12th century, and it lingered on, particularly in Eastern Europe, until scarily recently.

The story incorporates garbled ideas about eating the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and the ritual slaughter of the Paschal lamb in the days leading up to Passover.  Easter usually occurs at roughly the same time as Passover.  Both are based on the lunar calendar, and the Last Supper was probably a Pesach meal.  This coincidence of Christian and Jewish rituals no doubt increased the tension and possibility of conflict between the two communities.

The belief was widespread, but never officially sanctioned by the Church.  On the contrary, the church hierarchy tried, repeatedly, to intervene.  So Pope Gregory X, for instance, wrote in the 13th century that:

most falsely do these Christians claim that the Jews have secretly and furtively carried away these children and killed them, and that the Jews offer sacrifice from the heart and blood of these children, since their law in this matter precisely and expressly forbids Jews to sacrifice, eat, or drink the blood, or to eat the flesh of animals having claws.

Very logical, no doubt, though it’s a bit worrying that Gregory X bases his argument that the Jews are innocent of eating children on the fact that children aren’t Kosher.

In any case, folk beliefs are seldom debunked by the application of reason, and several children who went missing, presumed killed and eaten, were made into local saints, such as William of Norwich, 1132-1144, and Little St Hugh of Lincoln, 1246-55  (to be distinguished from Big St Hugh, a perfectly respectable bishop who kept a pet swan).  Because these were saints created by popular acclamation and without official recognition by the Church, there is no way subsequently of stripping them of their haloes.  They remain something of an embarrassment.

Which brings us, I guess, to Sarah Palin, whose position within the Republican party seems rather similar.  My hunch is that, like most of the general population in America, she had very little idea of what a ‘blood libel’ meant.  It is a belief that usually flew under the radar, and remains so, a concept giving great offence to those who know the background story, but mystifying the rest of the population who do not.  Ironically, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik’s complaint that Arizona had become a ‘Mecca’ for ‘hatred and bigotry’ was an equally unfortunate appropriation of the language and symbols of another religion.

But there is a rule of thumb that says: in any public dispute, whoever first claims that their opponents are behaving like Nazis has, ipso facto, lost the argument.  Perhaps in the same way, whoever first claims to have been victimized to the extent that medieval Jews were victimized has lost the argument too.

Juden Schwein (Jewish Pig)

This is not a good photo, I’m afraid.  I took it from ground level of a carving on the wall of the town church in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther lived.  It shows (trust me!) a Jewish rabbi, distinguished by his pointed hat, about to kiss the pig’s arse, while other Jews suckle from her teats.

Carmine at the end of the world

My aunt was a wonderful artist.  I most decidedly am not, but I’m enough of a hobby painter to have been struck by an advertisement I came across in the Sydney Gazette for 11 September 1808, as I was trawling through its pages looking for clues as to what happened during the aftermath of the Rum Rebellion (203rd anniversary last Wednesday).

“Carmine. – Any person having a small quantity to spare, will be treated with liberally for the same, by J.W.Lewin, professor of Painting.”

Not a particularly significant ad, you might think – unless you are a painter.  But for anyone who has mixed colours on an artist’s palette, those words, in that place and at that time, point to a real tragedy.

Carmine is a red pigment.  Before the development of the cadmium pigments later in the 19th century, there were three basic sources of red: animal, vegetable or mineral.  Vermillion was based on cinnabar, a mercury compound.  You see it used in the religious art of the Renaissance.  It is poisonous, and also very expensive – not a problem for a religious patron, for whom the price (and perhaps the danger) added to his objective of glorifying God in the most extravagant way possible, but not ideal for a travelling watercolourist.

The vegetable alternative was madder, made from a root vegetable.  Known as Turkey Red, it was used by the Ottomans in carpet making, but the secret of its manufacture only reached Europe during the 1780s, so it was still comparatively rare.  Rose madder is a lovely colour, but a fugitive pigment, liable to fade.

The final and preferred option was carmine, or crimson, lake (originally lac, from lacquer), which was made from boiling insects, most successfully the cochineal beetle from the New World, which feeds on cactus.  Carmine was a basic tool in the painter’s kit at the turn of the 19th century – so what did you do if, the advertisement seems to suggest, you were about to run out?

John Lewin was the first professional artist to arrive in New South Wales, in 1800.  Put differently, he was the first artist to arrive in the colony as a free man, and to make a living from painting rather than putting his artistic skills to other uses such as forging, like the convict artists Francis Greenway or Joseph Lycett.   Lewin was sent to New South Wales by scientific patrons to record the new country’s plants and animals.  Artists were important auxiliaries in the pursuit of science, and Lewin was put on the government payroll, and given a gun.  (In the days before photography, shooting it was the only way of ensuring your still life stayed still.  The French term nature morte seems more accurate than still life, in the circumstances.)

Lewin worked hard at his art, as far as we can tell, supplying the visual record that scientists and administrators back in England needed to make sense of their new colonial possession.  In 1808 he published Birds of New Holland in London.  But he seems to have been a hopeless businessman and he was desperately isolated from his artistic peers.  He was also isolated from any possibility of replacing his equipment when supplies ran out.  The nearest market where European pigments were available was probably Calcutta (Kolkata).  There was an outside chance of ordering them from Batavia (Jakarta) or Manila, but neither port traded directly with Sydney.  It has been estimated that it took up to 2 years to send a letter to London and get a reply.

All the colours in a painting are mixed from just 3 primary colours – red, blue, and yellow.  Ideally artists use a minimum of 2 each of the primary colours, one warm, one cool, but at a pinch you can manage with just 3.  But without a red, you are virtually at a standstill.  An 1808 painting by Lewin shows Sydney with a few patches of red on the roofs, but he must already have been husbanding his supplies.  Ironically, the red coats of the soldiers he saw all around him were dyed with cochineal, but none appear in this painting.

John Lewin, Sydney Cove, 1808

According to my aunt, who knew these things, the greens of Australian foliage have a lot of red in them too.  But for Lewin, isolated in a settlement of a few thousand convicts and red coats at the end of the world without access to one of the essential primary colours, that red might as well have been a million miles away.

References: Philip Ball, Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour (2001)

For a wondrous, searchable database of Australian newspapers, right back to the Sydney Gazette in 1802, the National Library of Australia’s Trove: Digitised Newspapers and More

Groundhog Day

Next Wednesday, 2 February, is Groundhog Day.  Is there anyone, anywhere, who hasn’t seen the movie yet?  If so, do yourself a favour, take it out of the local video shop, and enjoy Bill Murray’s performance as the grumpy weather man who learns to be a nicer person by constantly repeating the same day until he finally gets it right.

The 1993 film has given Groundhog Day the meaning of something endlessly repeated – think ‘going forward’, or ‘a great big new tax’, or a whole election campaign, for that matter – but its initial meaning was a reference to the groundhog himself, Punxsutawney Phil, whose alleged ability to predict the weather provides the basic plot.

Punxsutawney Phil is one of a number of groundhogs/gophers/beavers across North America who perform this task, by coming out of their winter quarters on 2 February to check on the weather.  Counter-intuitively, a sunny day, which casts a shadow, is bad news, indicating that winter will continue for another 40 days, whereas if there’s no shadow, the weather will be milder and spring is on the way.

Wiarton Willie Statue, Ontario. Photo by Shari Chambers

2 February is 40 days after Christmas.  In traditional Christian practice, the day is the festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary, a good Jewish girl, went to the temple to be ritually cleansed after bearing a male child 40 days earlier, and to give thanks to God.

Feminists may baulk at the link between childbirth and pollution that this practice implies, but perhaps it made more sense in a world where post-partum infections were deadly and could be caught from exposure to the wider community.  A woman who survived these 40 dangerous days had plenty of good reasons to head to the temple to give thanks.

In Britain, 2 February was known as Candlemas, the day when the priest blessed the candles that would be used during the year ahead. The day was important as the last festival in the cycle associated with Christmas.  Together with St Blaise’s Day the next day, these days marked the passing of winter, the moment when spring might – perhaps – be finally on its way.

Hibernating animals were beginning to stir and, according to Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (Carnival at Romans), on St Blaise’s Day ‘the bear’s resounding fart of dehibernation celebrated the primordial rite of spring’.

This time of the year, then, was associated with hibernation and rebirth, and with the arrival of spring and the beginning of the agricultural year.  As the planting began, a reliable weather forecast was much needed. Punxsutawney Phil and his American mates come from a long European tradition of springtime predictions, often based on the same concept: sunny bad, cloudy good. An English poem, for instance, says:

If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and rain
Winter will be gone and not come again.

Immigrant farmers brought the Candlemas traditions with them to North America, probably from Germany, and the first record of a predictive groundhog dates from 1841.

Unfortunately, if the Wikipedia entry is to be believed, Punxsutawney Phil’s record is not good, with an accuracy rate of less than 40%.  When geographically specific weather lore is transferred to a new location, it doesn’t work as well, or needs to be reinvented in some way.

And what about us, here in the southern hemisphere?

‘The North Wind doth blow,
And it will bring snow’

You’ve got to be kidding.  They’ve just announced another cyclone off the Queensland coast.

Reference: Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, John Lindow (eds.), Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs (2002) – which contains the Ladurie quote, p.32.

On weather lore in an Australian context, look at the Bureau of Meteorology’s website, Indigenous Weather Knowledge

Floods and memory

My mother told me only last week of a memory that came back to her during the recent flood in Brisbane.  She says she clearly remembers sitting on a table, eating bread and golden syrup, and looking out at floodwaters spreading across the valley between her house and the railway line.  My grandparents lived in a wooden Queenslander, low at the front, high at the back, on a ridge in Taringa.  Mum was born in 1926, so this memory must come from 1931, when she was 5.  That valley – the large block of land bordered by Burns Rd and Moggill Rd – is now densely packed with units.

Queen St Brisbane flood 1893

Queen St, Brisbane, January 1893

Floods are not new in Brisbane.  Discussion of natural disasters in Australia tends to swing between two extremes.  On the one hand, there is a lot of Dorothea Mackellar-influenced rhetoric, about the droughts and flooding rains of this sunburnt country.  This may be linked to some twaddle about national character, pioneering spirit, stoicism, yada yada yada, and associated blah.

On the other hand, there’s also a point of view that these natural disasters – bushfires in Victoria and Canberra, the recent Queensland floods, whatever – are exceptional, a consequence of environmental catastrophe and climate change.  Both perspectives come with too much baggage, too many hidden agendas.  It’s time for historians to join the debate.

We know quite a lot about floods in the Brisbane River, even if our written sources only go back so far.

On 17 May 1770, as Cook sailed the Endeavour up the east coast of Australia, naming Cape Moreton along the way, Joseph Banks noted in his diary that the sea was a ‘dirty clay colour, appearing much as if charged with freshes’.  Banks guessed that there must be a large river mouth nearby.  The colour of the water suggests the river was running strongly, perhaps in flood.  This would fit in with current theories that 1770 was a La Nina year in Australia.  Both Cook and Banks wrote glowing accounts of the verdant land they saw, whereas when Governor Phillip and the First Fleet arrived in 1788, 18 years later, they found a much drier and more difficult land, typical of an El Nino pattern.

In late 1823, the NSW Government Surveyor, John Oxley, explored the river (which he named after the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane) as far upstream as Goodna, and the following year the first European settlement was established, first on Moreton Bay at Redcliffe, then upstream in what is now Brisbane’s Central Business District, in 1825.

When Europeans first arrived, the river was a slow moving, shallow, meandering river, with wide mangrove banks. The first post-colonial flood occurred in 1841.  Some people think this was as high as later, more famous floods, but the river has changed so much since then that comparison with later floods is impossible.

In the 1850s, the river bar was less than 2 metres at low tide, and needed dredging if ocean going ships were to enter the river.  In 1866, the first major reshaping of the river took place when a 5m. deep channel was dredged across the river mouth, the Francis Channel.  This allowed deep keeled sailing ships to come upstream as far as Petrie Bight.  Further channelling took place during the late 19th century, and in 1896, they used gelignite to blast a 6 m. channel near Lytton.

As the river was pummelled into shape, the current became faster, and the river more turbid.  Early visitors, including Oxley, describe the river as transparent, with the sand and shale bottom clearly visible; by the end of the 19th century, it was fast moving and opaque, full of silt from grazing, logging, and degraded riverbanks.

There have been many floods since European settlement began in 1824 – in 1869, 1890, 1893, 1931, 1974, 2011 – and there will be more.

The 1974 flood was caused by Cyclone Wanda, which crossed the coast on 24 January, and became a heavy rain depression.  Brisbane had 317 mm. of rain on 26 January, the wettest day since 1887.  Off the coast, the low pressure system caused a storm surge and unnaturally high tides.

There was no cyclone in 2011.  The pattern of the recent flood seems close to that of the floods of 1893, when three floods occurred – on 5, 12, and 19 February.  The 1893 flood, like our recent one, began with a cloudburst in the catchment area behind Brisbane, in this case the Conondale Ranges.  36 inches (900mm.) of rain fell in 24 hours, and led to flash flooding.  Henry Somerset of Caboonbah described it:

‘…I heard a roaring sound, and looking west towards Mt. Beppo … I heard a louder noise quite different, so looking eastward I saw a WALL OF WATER fully fifty feet high coming round the bend.  Astonished, I watched it pass the gum tree, and saw it submerge (i.e. exceed) the 1890 flood mark knob, and, while observing the tree, I felt the verandah floor lifting me, as the wall of water struck the cliff nearly two hundred yards away; the doors and windows rattled, the house shook as by an earthquake…. ‘

Shades of Grantham.

Somerset was concerned enough to send his servant to Esk with a telegram for the postmaster general in Brisbane: ‘Please warn inhabitants Brisbane, Goodna, Ipswich, Lowood, other centres, of tremendous flood, 1890 level already exceeded several feet.  Stanley River only, Brisbane to follow.’  Nobody did a thing, except to paste the telegram to a blackboard outside the GPO.  That was about it for flood warnings in 1893.


Peter Davie, Errol Stock, Darryl Low Choy (eds.), The Brisbane River: A Source-Book for the Future (1990)

J. G. Steele, The Brisbane River (1976)