Archive | October, 2011

The Ancient Art Form of Spooning and Eating

13 Oct

A lot of the times, I think Romans are pretty awesome (indoor toilets! crosswalks on the street! art!). There are, however, occasions when I think Romans are really strange people, with some interesting and questionable customs. You may be familiar with how Roman houses work. Atrium, gardens, etc. (Maybe you’re not as familiar- its okay. They have atriums…and gardens…) Here’s a picture of a typical Roman house (House, not villa…those are for the countryside):


Getting closer to the point of this post- Romans are really big on eating. They like to have a nice early dinner (those Romans are early to bed, early to rise). Seriously, they would think you’re crazy for eating at the incredibly late hour of 8pm. Anyways, so they love to eat. Romans take their dinner in the triclinium (dining room), which is lined with couches. Okay, so it isn’t at all weird to eat dinner while sitting on a couch (I eat dinner sitting on the couch.), but the Romans aren’t sitting…they’re laying. I suppose reclining and eating isn’t all that radical, but I’m a little weirded out by the Roman’s methods. In order to fit big parties of folks laying down, they had people line up along the couches and cuddle with each other. Check out this diagram:


They are spooning. And eating. Spooning and eating at the same time. It seems like a very uncomfortable way to do dinner. What if you don’t like you you have to lay next to? What if you don’t like the person laying behind you? I’m just imagining how awkward Roman dinner parties are. Maybe that’s why they were drinking so much wine?For those people who love pictures/need a reconstruction of everything, here’s one artist’s view of how it might look:


Thoughts? Comments? Concerns?


That’s Really Going to Ruin Someone’s Whole Day

11 Oct

When I think of 18th century royal courts, lots of things immediately spring to mind: grand palaces done up as ornately as humanly possible, huge poofy dresses (panniers and bustles!), and staid, slightly inbred folks with awesome titles, like the Duke and Duchess of Whatnot and the Baron and Baroness Blah d’Blah. I’m sure Peterhof Palace, in St. Petersburg, Russia, once had all those things, but it also had something else up its proverbial sleeves.

Construction of Peterhof palace was begun in the early 18th century by Peter the Great (hugely surprising, considering the name and all). Good old Peter, who I’m pretty sure had a personality disorder (seriously, look him up, Pete could be one nasty dude), had some palace envy for the grand fountains he had heard about in France (he’d never been to France, but heard they were snazzy, so of course he wanted some for himself). Thus, Peterhof palace has over a thousand fountains, ranging from the very impressive Samson. fountain (meant to symbolize Russia’s victory over its rival, Sweden) to the devious trick fountains.

Two views of the Samson fountain. Upper: facing Peterhof palace (Grand Cascade). Lower: facing the Bay of Finland.
By the mid- to late- 18th century, the fountains and parks had expanded to its 1000+ fountain peak, and were impressing the courtly Russian masses (few). If you were a courtly lady/gentleman of the 18th century, stuffed into the overwarm entertaining halls for balls or dinners of state or kissing the Tsar’s feet or whatever, wouldn’t you want a nice refreshing walk in the gardens? Well, Personality-Disorder Peter is one step ahead f you. He thought it would be hilarious to have trick fountains installed throughout the park to drench unsuspecting courtiers (ah, those people of lower rank). One trick fountain looks like a circular bench, with an umbrella covering it for shade. As soon as someone sits on the bench, the “umbrella” starts dumbing out sheets of water, trapping people under it. Another one looks like a tree with benches and cobbles around it, but as soon as you step on one of the trigger stones, the tree starts shooting water crazily. If you try to escape by sitting on one of the benches, that might trigger a new fountain of water to come up from behind the bench, further drenching you.
Now, If I spent four hours being dressed and prepared every morning (early afternoon- courtiers weren’t morning people), I would be pretty ticked off that some hydraulic engineer with a peevish sense of humor thought it would be funny to drench me and all my court finery. That stuff is mostly silk! Think of all the rubles wasted just so the Tsar can have a laugh at his courtiers expense (Are you starting to see what I was saying about the personality disorder? He also was afraid of high ceilings and liked to have people killed on a whim)! Court dress is nothing to sneeze at. Take this ensemble, on Empress Elizabeth Petrovna:
Elizabeth Petrovna, by Ivan Yakovlevich Vishnyakov, 1743.
The powdered wigs, the arsenic-laden cosmetics, the crinoline and layers of silk! All of it drenched and ruined by these sneaky trick fountains at Peterhof. You’d be out of courtly commission for at least the rest of the day (and you better hope you don’t catch a cold- this is the 18th century we’re talking about).

Really Unfortunately Named Person of the Day: Æthelred the Unready

5 Oct

Poor Æthelred- he is unfortunately named for two reasons. First, that whole letter A and E together thing is really hard to do (I may or may not have to copy/paste it in every time I type his name). The letter thingy is common among early kings of England (it also freaks out all automatic spellcheckers, just saying). What kind of nickname do you give someone named Æthelred? “Reddy”? But then you’d be forced to call him Reddy the Unready, which would be weird.

The second unfortunate part of his name is pretty clear: who really wants to be reminded constantly that they’re unready? Especially when you’re the King of England? If I was the king and people were always calling me unready, there would be a lot of beheadings. Also, “unready”? Was Æthelred some sort of high-maintainence diva who was always running late?

Well, that isn’t exactly how he got the name “unready”. That is a slightly more complicated story beginning at the end of the 10th century. Æthelred was the second son of King Edgar of England. He was, however, the first son of Ælfthryth, Queen of England (told you the A-E letter combo was popular. Also, how do you pronounce that name?). Æthelred’s illegitimate older brother (Edward) took the throne after much contention following Edgar’s death. Not long after Edward took the throne, he suffered a “mysterious” death while visiting the castle of Queen Ælfthryth. With Edward out of the way, Æthelred took the throne in 978 at the age of 10 (you can see at this point why he might seem “unready”).

Throughout his reign, Æthelred had a lot of problems with Danish Viking raiders. He even fled to Normandy in 1013, relinquishing the throne (ninny). Luckily for him, he got the throne back after the Sweyn (the Danish guy who took the English throne) died only a year later.

Linguists, being the spoilsports (or cool, awesome people, whatever) that they are, decided that this translation of Old English is wrong, and that all of the historical record is wrong. According to them, our homeboy Æthelred isn’t “unready”, he is “without noble council”. Lame. I think that in this case, we should ignore the linguists and go with what he is called historically: Æthelred the Unready