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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

THE END OF THE WORLD - AGAIN


I believe the world came to an end on April 5, 1761. If you haven’t heard about it, well, your ancestors were just not paying attention. In a world where most still believed in the literal history of a real Adam and a real Eve, a certain William Bell, a trooper in the Life Guards, went about London, England telling anybody and everybody who would listen that doomsday was nigh. And thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people listened and believed him. And what is amazing is that Corporal Bell was right. The world did end on Sunday, April 5, 1761. But Mr. Bell was right for the wrong reasons. And reason made all the difference.February 8, 1761 dawned cold, as was to be expected in a world still in the grip of “The Little Ice Age”. Most winters the Thames froze over allowing people to cross the ice. And the great city was chocking on her own coal smoke to keep warm. This Sunday The “Picadilly Butchers”, as the members of the Life Guards Household Cavalry were called, were gathering for their parade, set then, as now, for 11:30 A.M.Then, from Greenwich below London on the south bank, to Richmond, on the upstream north shore, the entire Thames valley shuddered. In Hampstead and Highgate houses shook. Amongst the ship construction ways in Limehouse the chandler’s tools were vibrated off their frames.In the tiny village of Poplar across from the Isle of Dogs in the great bend of the Thames River, chimneys were shaken apart, their bricks crashing to the ground. In ‘The City’ itself pewter keepsakes slipped off mantles and chairs were upended. It was over in a few seconds. The dust settled. Nerves calmed. Normality returned.On Sunday, March 8, 1761, between five and six on in the morning, the Thames valley shuddered again. This time the shaking was stronger and lasted longer, roiling from north to south and back again.In St. James Park a section of an abandoned canal in the private gardens behind Buckingham House collapsed. In the churches of London, words of reassurance offered after the first quake, now fell on deaf ears.Reason and logic were forgotten. All that people could think of was their fear. Panicked, the richest and poorest citizens of central London ran from their beds at the slightest suggestion of another quake, convinced their homes were about to collapse around their heads, as some already had.But the most well known collapse caused by the twin London earthquakes of 1761 was the collapse of sanity in the person of William Bell. He was one of the “Tinned Fruit”, aka a “Picadilly Butcher, a corporal in the Household Cavalry. And he became convinced that the shaking of February 8 (the second Sunday in the month) and March 8 (the second Sunday in that month), would be followed by a truly catastrophic shaker on the second Sunday in April - the twelfth.
Bell, in his mind,  saw the earth split open. The mighty Thames River boiled and roiled. The bridges cracked and fell. The fires of damnation burst forth from the bowels of the earth. Sinners and Saints were cowed before the angels of the Lord. Spirits of the dead rose up. And the earth was laid bare, swept clean of the sins and works of man. Corporal Bell's visions became so intense and detailed, that he began to share them with any and all who would listen. He related them with such passion that Bell's visions took hold of the entire city like a fever.Charles Mackay’s excellent book, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (Harmony Books – 1843) records that, “…all the villages within a circuit of twenty miles …(were) crowded with panic-stricken fugitives, who paid exorbitant prices for accommodation to the housekeepers of these secure retreats. Such as could not afford to pay for lodgings at any of those places, remained in London until two or three days before the time, and then encamped in the surrounding fields…...and hundreds who had laughed at the prediction a week before, packed up their goods, when they saw others doing so, and hastened away. The river was thought to be a place of great security, and all the merchant-vessels in the port were filled with people, who passed the night between the 4th and 5th on board, expecting every instant to see St. Paul’s totter, and the towers of Westminster Abby rock in the wind and fall amid a cloud of dust.”One enterprising chemist even advertised pills which he claimed to be “good against earthquakes”, although exactly how the pills proposed to save the swallower, was never fully explained.Needless to say, the world did not end on Sunday April 12, 1761, at least not in the way Corporal Bell had anticipated. As Mackay recorded, “The greater part of the fugitives returned on the following day, convinced that the prophet was a false one; but many judged it more prudent to allow a week to elapse before they trusted their dear limbs in London.”Corporal Bell became a man scorned, a repository for all those angry with themselves for having believed his prediction. And although he tried his hand at other doomsday prognostications, Corporal Bell was soon confined for some months in an insane asylum, probably, in part, for his own protection. Edward W. Brayley recorded in his book “Londoninania” (Hurst, Chance and Company – 1829) that Bell “…afterward kept a hosier’s shop in Holborn Hill during many years, and …retired to the neighborhood of Edgeware where he died a few years ago”.Some things did change because of the twin quakes. His royal highness King George II picked up the damaged Buckingham House at a bargain price.He kept the gardens but filled in the collapsed canal behind the structure and turned it into the Parade for the Household Cavalry. He renamed the residence “The Queen’s House”, but over the years, as additional wings were added, the old name returned and it became known as “Buckingham Palace”.The channel between the Isle of Dogs and the hamlet of Poplar was bridged at two points and eventually the inside of the bend in the Themes became the East End of London (above). But something more fundamental had changed with the Earthquakes of 1761, and while the superstitions of William Bell were largely forgotten, another man was inspired to a vision which indeed gave birth to a new world.His name was James Hutton, an ugly little man with a great big brain who was trained as a lawyer, a chemist, a doctor of Medicine, a businessman, and late in his life, a farmer. But the earthquakes of 1761 had awakened his curiosity as to what had caused them.He had already come to the observation that the forces of erosion he saw on his farm, (streams and rivers, wind and rain) must be have been working in the time of Adam and Eve. But how long ago was that? Hutton didn’t know - nobody did -  but Hutton was curious and sure enough of his God given brain to believe that he could understand the process. He allowed the idea to percolate in his mind until 1788, when he went sightseeing with the mathematician John Playfair. And while walking at the cliff edge at Siccar Point in Scotland, Hutton saw a single formation of rock that utterly lifted the veil of superstition from his eyes.There, in front of Hutton (above), was a bed of schistus, (to the right) thrusting up vertically from below. And sitting directly on top of this was a bed of sandstone, (left side of picture) lying in opposition to the schist. The junction point between the two kinds of rocks came to be called an “Angular Unconformity.” They were different kinds of rock and they could not have been formed in the same place or the same time, or even close to each other in time or place. Something between them must be missing; that something was the unconformity.Sandstone is produced by compressing desert or beach sand under tons of more dessert sand. Any water present will chemically alter the rock, so we know this particular sandstone had to be formed when England was at the same latitude as the Sierra Desert is today, and looked very similar.The schist was created by lava cooling deep under water, then reheating the rock almost to the melting point and forcing it to cool quickly, but again under pressure. Each of these processes take millions of years by themselves. And the angular junction of the two beds was like the missing pages in a book, missing pages that tell a story of other mountains perhaps rising and wearing down but leaving no record behind; of seas and valleys and millions of years whose record has been destroyed; all lost between the crystals of the schist and the grains of the sandstone.The Angular Unconformity that Hutton stood over that day hinted at why earthquakes happen in England; not because God is seeking to destroy a sinful humanity, but because that is how God made the world,And how she is remaking it every day, out of the remains of the day before, a single grain of sand and a single crystal of schist at a time - the same way our minds were formed, and out of the same stuff. It is a world without end, because everything in it is reused, time and time again,
- 30 -

Sunday, December 16, 2012

HERE WE COME A WASSAILING

I don't know if you know this, but the Christmas carol started out as a dance, and then became a song. Whereas wassailing started out as a libation and then became a song and then darn near disappeared. Both traditions suffered their original metamorphoses for the same reason – Puritan kill-joys. The carol was revived and survives as a gentle Victorian anachronism. Still, most of the music and some of the words remain recognizable. But if somehow you could transport a 12th century English Celtic villain into a modern wassailing, the first words out of their mouth would be the medieval equivalent of “where is the booze and the broads?” Call it the cost of Christianity, or progress, or even just the march of time, but clearly we've lost some things in reaching the 21st century. And one of those some things was wassailing. Song
“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.”
During the 2nd century C. E. when you the walked into any Inn or Public House in that far flung corner of the Roman Empire called England, you were greeted by your fellow vandals with the phrase, “Waes hael”, or “good health”. And your proper response would be “Drinc hael”, or “A drink to your health”. And what the Celtic holi-poloi would be drinking might be Mead, made from fermented honey, or a fermented version of whatever else grew locally – beer in rye growing areas, or in the hilly west counties, where the Celts grew apples, hard cider. Everybody drank these concoctions because the alcohol killed most the pathogens in the local water supply. That's why we still call consuming alcohol, drinking. Getting bombed was just a happy side effect.
“We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors' children
Whom you have seen before.”
The Inn keepers kept their mixture in a large “wassail bowl” as a centerpiece on the common table, so after dinner the paying guests could use their now empty food bowls to dip themselves an after-dinner drink. It is an oddity of these original pubs that the food cost money but the drinks were free. As the food supply increased, this pricing scheme would be reversed. On special occasions, the Mead would be added to the beer or cider, which improved the flavor and the alcohol content. And so taking a holiday drink from the wassail bowl became “wassailing”.
“Good master and good mistress,
As you sit beside the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who wander in the mire.”
All of this was ancient enough to be a Celtic tradition long before Rome was Christian. And about a month after the winter solstice the pagan Celts were even wassailing in their fields and apple orchards. They called it in Old English La Mas Ubhal (mangled into modern English as, “lambs wool”), or the celebration of the apple. On the Twelfth Night of Christmas (see these pages for Twelve Days of Christmas) apple farmers would lug a large milk container filled with cider and cider soaked cakes into their fields. In the dark and cold they would build a fire, drink and eat and dance. In song the men would threaten the trees and the women would plead the tree's defense, all to encourage them to produce apples in the coming year.
We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.”
It was called “An Apple Howling” or a “Luck Visit”. In Devonshire, standing under each tree, the farmers would sing “Stand fast, root! Bear well, top! Pray God send us a good howling crop: Every twig, apples big; Every bough, apples now! Hats full! caps full! Bushel-bushel-sacks full, And my pockets full, too, huzzah!” The cakes were placed in the forks of the trunk, baked apple splices were tossed into the crown, and cider splashed on the bark. It seems as if the farmers were trying to give the trees the idea of what they were supposed to produce come spring.
“Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a cheese,
And of your Christmas loaf.”
And then midway through the 5th century the Anglo-Saxons defeated the native Celts at the battle of Crayford, and over the next 600 years these invaders squeezed the Celts back into the Welsh highlands and the far west counties, which, by chance, included the apple growing regions. So, wassailing in Wales and Devon became associated more with cider, while in Anglo-Saxon England, beer and ale were what filled the wassail bowls, and the post- solstice celebration morphed into a fund raising venue. Originally, the English village leaders went house to house, singing a Wassail song at each door and offering the residents a drink from their Wassail bowl. In response, the residents were expected to make a donation to the poor. Eventually, the leadership lost control of the process and the poor themselves stepped in to fill the vacuum. You can imagine how happy the wealthy were to share their money with a bunch of dirty, young “urban types”, who came begging at their front door, something forbidden the rest of the year. Wassailing door-to-door became frowned upon, mostly by those best able to donate.
“God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too;
And all the little children
That round the table go.”
In 1066, King Henry and his Normans conquered Anglo-Saxon England. The Normans not only brought French to the island, but they also brought a militant brand of Christianity. And that religion would prove to be wassailing's most determined foe. We know wassailing was still popular in 17th Century London, because just after New Years in 1625 the anal retentive Sir John Francklyn made a notation in his account book of 1 pound 6 pence he paid for “the cup”
“Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.”
But after the Puritans chopped off the head of Charles I in 1649, they began to remake Britain in the their image of God. And it was a dull, dull God they envisioned. The Puritans were suspicious of wassailing, of all that drinking and dancing in the dark, and they disapproved of peasants directly asking their “betters” for money. So laws were passed, and punishments metered out. Some who celebrated the pagan days were even burned at the stake. The impact of their moral divide survived even until the end of the 20th century, as evidenced by the laws allowing advertising of wine and beer on television, but restricting the same for the sacrilegious “hard” liquors.  So if, at your next Christmas party you should find a wassail bowl bubbling away on the stove, dip a cup, and enjoy. It is a tiny taste of our shared pagan past, a harmless reminder that before Christianity, there was a god in every tree and stone, as well as every soul.
"Wassail, wassail, out of the milk pail
Wassail, wassail as white as my finger nail
Wassail, wassail in snow, frost, and hail,
Wassail, wassail that never will fail.”
- 30 -

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