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Blobs of Bog Butter

We adore alliteration around here, so bog butter gets extra points for it’s alliterative name. But, what is it?

You may have heard earlier this year that a 22-pound chunk of the churched dairy product was dug up in Ireland. But, finding bog butter happens far more often than you might think. There are hundreds in museums across Ireland and the UK. They are found submerged in peat bogs in Ireland and Scotland. When folks go out to harvest peat to use a fuel for fires they may end up with bonus bog butter which was laid down in the peat bog hundreds or thousands of years ago.

A peat bog.

No one is quite certain why folks felt a need to submerge butter in the peaty swamp, but considering the practice seems to have begun at least around 1,500 BCE and continued into the 17th century, it is reasonable to assume that people did it for different reasons as the times changed. The practice was spread (see what I did there) throughout cultures in the north, from Ireland to Mongolia.

Bronze Age Irish may have done it as a ritual sacrifice, but later, in the early Middle Ages, butter was accepted as a way to pay taxes, so those folks might have stored it in the bogs for safe keeping (or to avoid paying taxes?) Some historians have theorized that there may even have been time the butter was hidden ahead of raids. See, the peat bogs are cool, low in oxygen, and high in acid, making them nature’s refrigerators.

I mean, I look at it and I certainly think “Let’s chuck stuff in there.”

Bog butters have been found wrapped in animal skin or stuck instead wooden vessels.

Some of the globs of fatty spread have been tested and it was determined that most bog butter is indeed animal milk (as opposed to beef tallow or such). So, people are storing it. And testing it. We know what you’re thinking…are they TASTING it?! Sort of.

It is, apparently after all this time, edible, but the experts say it is not really advisable to dip into this dated dairy. However, there are some folks who have made bog butter. People lucky enough to live near peat bogs and have a surfeit of time and curiosity have plunged their buttery blobs into bogs and left them for various amounts of times. Which has lead to another insight…people might have done this to chemically change the flavor of the butter on purpose. Folks who have made and sampled bog butter describe the taste as being like aged cheese, or tasting “mossy”, or like “salami” depending on how long the butter bathed in bog juice.

If you’ve got the time, you can check out one such experiment here:

Whether aged 6 months or 600 years, it is safe to say this dairy delicacy won’t be showing up on grocery shelves. More’s the pity. We’d love to at least try some Kerry’OLD.

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History’s Weird Moments

History is full of epic moments, tragic moments, triumphal moments, and shameful moments. But, it’s also pretty chock full of some pretty odd occasions. Here are a handful of those unexpected, and maybe a little bit baffling, bygone events.

535 CE

It’s something we just don’t see much in modern human history, volcanic activity so extreme that it plunges the world into a deep winter. This one lasted about a year and was documented by many historians, including Procopius who said “…the sun gave forth its light without brightness.” The sad side effect of this event was a season of crop failure and famine. It may also have been the reason why so many gold hoards have been found related to 6th century Scandinavia (appease the gods!) as well as the final death knell for Teotihuacan (failed to appease the gods?).

897 CE

Okay, that first one was just to whet your appetite. It is rare, but maybe not so much ODD. So, let’s jump ahead over 300 years to “The Cadaver Synod”. The name has already got you wondering! This one has a convoluted history, but the short of it is that a bishop named Formosus went around converting folks all over to Chrisianity and generally looking politically good to the church. The Pope at the time, John VIII, excommunicated Formosus for empire building and being too keen on becoming Pope. John VIII was murdered shortly thereafter. A series of Popes came and went (with the coming and the wenting often being under questionable circumstances). In that time Formosus was reinstated and ultimately became Pope. He managed 5 years (shock!) and died of natural causes (double shock!) in 896. About a year later, Pope Stephen had Formosus dug up, dressed up, and seated for trial. Pope Stephen ranted and raved at the corpse in the chair, and, despite an ominous earthquake during proceedings, declared Formoses guilty, desecrated his corpse, and threw him in Tiber. Pope Stephen would be murdered in a jail cell just a few days later.

1233 CE

On to summer of 1233, when Europe is jumpy about witches. In Germany, one particular jumpy fellow, Conrad of Marburg, claimed there was a particularly nasty cult brewing in his region and asked the church to intercede. Pope Gregory IX created a papal bull, the Vox in Rama, to deal with the situation. The situation being, according to the bull, that the devil was half-cat/half-man and cavorting with German women. This was the first document to link cats to witches. This caused a panic about cats, specifically black cats and beginning in the district of Conrad of Marburg and spreading across Europe there was a wholesale slaughter of cats. But, these were people who neither knew of nor understood such things as food webs, epidemiology, or karma. By the 1300s there was such a significant decrease in the cat populations that the rats were running rampant … which may have led to Europe’s widespread bubonic plague.

1357 CE

I feel some of our readers may be very upset by the previous story about cat executions, so let’s go back to corpses. Like anything involving corpses, this has a bit of backstory. Pedro of Portugal, heir to the throne, took a shine to his new wife’s maid (the wife was new … and I guess so was the maid). As soon as his bride kicked off, he secretly married the maid, Ines de Castro. His dad tried to marry him off and eventually the jig was up and the couple announced their 8-year marriage publicly. King Pedro was furious and had Ines locked in a monastery and murdered in front of her child. King Pedro ALSO did not get the karma memo and popped his clogs less than 2 years later. This next bit is unsubstantiated, but widely circulated. It’s said that when King Peter 1 took the throne, he had his dead wife exhumed and her corpses placed on the throne next to his, requiring those who approached to kiss her hem. True or not, that’s a helluva story.

1487 CE

Royals giving other royals exotic animal gifts has a deep and strange history (see last week’s blog to check out that time a polar bear swam in the Thames). On this occasion, Lorenzo de Medici was gifted a giraffe by the Sultan of Egypt, al-Ashraf Qaitbay (most likely). Medici had a large menagerie and had wanted a giraffe and now he had one! She was fed treats by visiting nobles and her head could be seen passing by first-floor windows (second-story for Americans).

1518 CE 

One day in 1518 in Strasbourg (in the Holy Roman Empire), Frau Troffea was walking along having an uneventful day. Until she went to cross the street and in the middle of the road began turning and shaking and generally looking as if she was turning the lane into her own personal dance floor. Her “dance” continued for a week. During that time many others joined in this random, flash-mob rave party. Physicians blamed it on overly hot blood and variously tried cooling people off or having encouraging them to move until the problem cured itself. The church marched people to holy ground to pray for their souls. Some people died dancing, but most seem to have simply stopped as mysteriously as they had begun. No one is really sure what caused this and it was not the only incident in Europe of spontaneous, protracted prancing. Perhaps a shared stress-induced neurotic break? Ergot poisoning? It’s a mystery. You can read more about it in Renaissance Magazine Issue #118.

1629 CE

In March of 1629, King of England, Charles I, was having a conniption. He felt he should get to make decisions without approval or input from Parliament. He convinced the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir John Finch, to adjourn. Three Members, Elliot, Holles, and Valentine, leapt up to physically hold the Speaker in his chair to prevent him for rising and therefore concluding the session. While Finch was held immobile, the House went on to pass several measures in defence against the King’s actions. For anyone following the news in England, this may sound very similar to an event which just transpired on September 10th.

1640 CE

Dr. John Wilkins, clergyman, scientist, and Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law, at the age of 26 and during a period of both scientific zeal and confusion, sought to put people on the Moon. It was held that other planets must also have people and, if they didn’t, then they were created by God for people to move. It was also reasoned that space was full of atmosphere. So, Wilkins designed the first space shuttle designed to travel to the Moon. Wilkins called it a “flying chariot” and it had everything a 17th century Moon rocket should have. It was gunpowder powered (say that three times fast), had feathered wings which flapped, and consisted of many cogs, gears, and springs. Basically, this thing would be right at home at Burning Man. Sadly, his idea never got off the ground because he could never quite get the funding and interest.

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A Brief History of England…by way of the Thames

A river runs through it. Well, technically LOADS of rivers run through it. But, of all of England’s rivers, the Thames is the most widely known. Turns out you can learn a lot about England’s history without ever leaving the river. So, let’s go for a swim!

The Thames has been around longer than people have been around it, obvs. But, it’s name goes back aways. When the Romans arrived and started documenting life on the isle (because no one documented minutiae quite like the Romans….and those of us who live on social media…anyway where was I?). Ah, yes. Before the Romans the river was called “Tems” which is basically how it is pronounced today, so you are basically speaking Briton when you say it. Back then there was just a wee village next to a wide river across from a swamp.

The Romans showed up and, like they do, changed the name to Tamesis.

Oh, and changed the town’s name to Londinium.

They kindly built the first bridge over the river in Londinium (round about where London Bridge stands today), probably to much Briton head scratching because why would we want to be connected to the swamp?

Eventually the Romans scarper and the Anglo-Saxons settle in and call the river “Tamyse”. Sure. Why not?

Speaking of the Anglo-Saxons, the oldest weapon ever to be mudlarked off the foreshore is this 9th-century spearhead. Dropping crap in and around the river is a time-honoured tradition.

Then the Normans show up and, like any corporate takeover, just start rearranging and rebranding. William the Conqueror tried to cross the Thames at Southwark. The town blockaded the bridge that wasn’t London Bridge but was near where London Bridge is now so he burnt the town in spite and crossed upriver instead.

The first official London Bridge was built in 1176 by Henry II. Well, not BY Henry II, but you know what I mean. See, King Harry had epically goofed up, making an irritated, off-handed comment about how his best-bud slash irritating thorn in his side, Thomas a Becket, should be taken out and shot, well not shot, but you know what I mean, for getting in the crown’s way with all his God and the Power-of-the-Church rhetoric. And, well, Thomas a Becket was dispatched by some loyal soldiers and Henry realised this had probably cheesed off God and damned his soul, in other words he ROYALLY effed up. So, Henry did what anyone would do…he started building apology-chapels across England, and apparently an apology-bridge. (I only get flowers, what’s with that?!)

As we all learned from the song, London Bridge didn’t fare well. It needed to be rebuilt a handful of times. Here it is in the 17th century.

Here’s the 19th century version….in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Yeah, you read that right. Long story.

Henry’s youngest son, King John I, apparently liked the Thames as a Spot to Sign Things. In 1217 he signed a peace treaty with France called the Treaty of Kingston on an island known as Ravens Ait. Two years before that he MIGHT have sealed the Magna Carta while on Magna Carta Island. The document say “Runnymede” but the ait now known as Magna Carta Island sits at the weir there, so…

In 1252 Henry III, John’s son, was gifted a polar bear by the King of Norway because royal people are weird and he let it swim in the Thames because royal people are weird.

Then blah blah plague. Blah blah poll tax. Blah blah Peasants Revolt. Blah blah War of the Roses. Blah blah Henry VIII. (All that stuff that gets covered everywhere all the time)

So, basically a bunch of stuff happened and cranky Europeans set sail for new lands and brought crap back. Around 1586 tobacco arrived in England and people quickly got themselves an addiction. One of the items most fished out of the Thames is late 16th-century pipes.

Periodically the Thames would freeze over. A combination of The Little Ice Age and large bridges slowing the river’s flow meant during hard freezes people could take to the river for some frosty frivolity. The height of these Frost Faires was during the 17th century, occurring on average around 1 in 10 years. (The earliest Frost Faire recorded was in the 7th century and it is said that in the early 12th century that Empress Matilda made her escape from Oxford to London along the frozen Thames) During these faires, Englishfolk took to the river to play games, shop, get haircuts, watch plays, race horses, and all manner of nutty fun, like bowling on the ice.

Various bowling games have long been popular in England. Around 1635 a bowling alley was installed on Eel Pie Island. I bring this up solely because I wanted to mention Eel Pie Island. There is in fact an island in the Thames named after Eel Pie. Eel Pie is a thing Londoners named an island after.

Along with whimsical history notes, the Thames also gets pretty dark. One such note is that of Execution Dock in London. Without TV or Xbox, people got easily bored and liked to wander off to watch executions. Right at the tailend of our timeline one such famous execution to take place there was that of the possible pirate, William Kidd. He was hung twice then his body displayed over the Thames at Tilbury Point for THREE YEARS! (OG definition of overkill)

Anyway…Thames the breaks!

Class dismissed.

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