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Slandering the Past
Some years back I attended a Jewish wedding, part of which was the signing of the ketubah. The Rabbi commented that in the old days the ketubah would specify how many chickens and goats the groom was paying the bride's father for his daughter, whereas this modern ketubah stated the promises of bride and groom to each other.
Jewish religious law is an extraordinarily well documented system, perhaps the best documented of all the legal systems I have looked at, with detailed interpretation going back to the Mishnah, written nearly two thousand years ago. In everything I have seen, the ketubah is described as a contract stating the husband's obligations to the wife. The one essential term is the amount that goes to the wife from the husband's property if he dies or divorces her.
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Further, under Jewish religious law, parental consent was not required for the marriage of an adult — and a woman became an adult at twelve and a half, provided that she had shown some signs of puberty at least six months earlier. This became an issue during the Middle Ages, when Jewish communal courts tried to impose additional requirements in order to permit parents to prevent their daughters from imprudent marriages but faced difficulties due to the fact that the marriage rules were considered part of religious law (Issur) over which they had no authority.
An additional oddity to the Rabbi's account was the idea of a contract specifying a payment in chickens and goats when, as is clear by reading texts on the religious law, payments were routinely specified in money, sometimes with explanations of exactly what sort of money was to be used.
My conclusion was that the Rabbi's view of the history of the ketubah fitted a pattern I have seen in other contexts — moderns believing in bogus history that supports their self image of superiority to those ignorant and unreasonable people in the past.
My favorite example is the Columbus myth, the idea that the people who argued against Columbus were ignorant flat-earthers who thought his ships would sail off the edge. That is almost the precise opposite of the truth. By the time Columbus set off, a spherical Earth had been the accepted scientific view for well over a thousand years. Columbus's contemporaries not only knew that the Earth was round, they knew how big around it was, that having been calculated by Eratosthenes in the third century B.C.
By the fifteenth century they also had a reasonably accurate estimate of the width of Asia. Subtracting the one number from the other they could calculate the distance from where Columbus was starting to where Columbus claimed to be going and correctly conclude that it was much farther than his ships could go before running out of food and water. The scientific ignorance was on the side of Columbus and those who believed him; he was claiming a much smaller circumference for the Earth and a much larger width of Asia, hence a much shorter distance from Spain to the far end of Asia. We will probably never know whether he believed his own numbers or was deliberately misrepresenting the geographical facts in order to get funding for his trip in the hope that he would find land somewhere between Spain and Japan, as in fact he did.1
Another example of the same pattern shows up in discussions of medieval cooking, one of my hobbies. Quite a lot of people believe that medieval cooks over spiced their food in order to hide the taste of spoiled meat. A few minutes of thought should be enough to see the consequences for a cook of routinely giving his employer and the employer's guests food poisoning. Also that, with meat available on the hoof, there was no need to keep it until it spoiled and that it made little sense to save on meat, a local product, at the cost of spices that had to be transported over thousands of miles.
I like to ask people who claim the food was overspiced how they know, given that medieval European recipes almost never give quantities. One possible source for the belief — the overspicing, not the reason for it — is a passage in the introduction to Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books, a collection published by the Early English Text Society.
Our forefathers, possibly from having stronger stomachs, fortified by outdoor life, evidently liked their dishes strongly seasoned and piquant, as the Cinnamon Soup on p. 59 shews. Pepper, Ginger, Cloves, Garlic, Cinnamon, Galingale, Vinegar, Verjuice, and Wine, appear constantly in dishes where we should little expect them; and even Ale was frequently used in Cookery.
“The cinnamon soup on p. 59” is not a recipe but an entry in a menu, so what the editor is complaining about is not the amount of cinnamon but the fact that it is there at all, and similarly for the rest of his list. That tells us more about English cooking of the 19th century than that of the 15th.
As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that medieval food was overspiced, only that they used spices in different ways than modern European cuisine. I have twice come across evidence on the question. There is a recipe for Hippocras, a spiced wine, in Le Menagier de Paris, a household manual dated to 1490. It is one of the rare recipes with quantities, sugar and spices by the ounce, wine by “quarts of Paris measure.” When I first made it I found the result too sweet and too highly spiced, so cut sugar and spice in half to fit my taste.
Many years later, when I mentioned the recipe in an online discussion, someone asked me whether I had checked the units. I had not, just assumed that a quart was a quart and an ounce an ounce. I was wrong — the period ounce was about an ounce but the quart by Paris measure was about twice our quart. In adjusting the recipe to my taste, I had gotten back to about the original proportions.
My second test was based on my wife’s translation of Du Fait de Cuisine, a 1420 cookbook written by Master Chiquart, chief cook to the Duke of Savoy, describing a very large feast, running for two days. The recipes do not have quantities but the shopping list
And first: one hundred well-fattened cattle, one hundred and thirty sheep, also well fattened, one hundred and twenty pigs; and for each day during the feast, one hundred little piglets, both for roasting and for other needs, and sixty salted large well fattened pigs for larding and making soups.
… of nutmeg six pounds, of cloves six pounds, of mace six pounds, and of galingale six pounds; again, 30 loaves of sugar, 25 pounds of saffron, 6 charges of almonds, one charge of rice, 30 pounds of amydon, 12 baskets of candied raisins, 12 baskets of good candied figs, 8 baskets of candied prunes, a quintal of dates, 40 pounds of pine nuts, 18 pounds of turnsole, 18 pounds of alkanet, 18 pounds of gold leaf, one pound of camphor …
I calculated, with the help of a friend who is a wholesale butcher, the total amount of boned meat, using rough estimates of the size of medieval animals, added up the weight of spices. The ratio of meat to spice was about a hundred to one. I then went through our collection of medieval recipes we had worked out by trial and error and did the same calculation. The ratio was about the same.
Finally, consider the success of H.L. Mencken's bathtub hoax, a story designed with the dual objectives of sounding real and supporting the readers’ sense of superiority.
On December 28, 1917, an article titled "A Neglected Anniversary" by H. L. Mencken was published in the New York Evening Mail. Mencken claimed that the actual anniversary of the first American bathtub, the alleged 75th, had gone unnoticed the previous week. This was supposedly in spite of the fact that the Public Health Service of Washington, D.C., had prepared for celebrations several months prior, which were ultimately quashed by the intervening enactment of Prohibition in that city.
The article claimed that the bathtub had been invented by Lord John Russell of England in 1828, and that Cincinnatian Adam Thompson became acquainted with it during business trips there in the 1830s. Thompson allegedly went back to Cincinnati and took the first bath in the United States on December 20, 1842. The invention purportedly aroused great controversy in Cincinnati, with detractors claiming that its expensive nature was undemocratic and local doctors claiming it was dangerous. This debate was said to have spread across the nation, with an ordinance banning bathing between November and March supposedly narrowly failing in Philadelphia and a similar ordinance allegedly being effective in Boston between 1845 and 1862. After Brooklynite John F. Simpson was claimed to have invented the zinc tub in 1847, the price of bathtubs was said to have plummeted and much of the criticism against them was said to have abated. Around the same time, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was claimed to have campaigned for the bathtub against remaining medical opposition in Boston; the American Medical Association supposedly granted sanction to the practice in 1850, followed by practitioners of homeopathy in 1853.
According to the article, then-Vice President Millard Fillmore visited the Thompson bathtub in March 1850 and having bathed in it became a proponent of bathtubs. Upon his accession to the presidency in July of that year, Fillmore was said to have ordered the construction of a bathtub in the White House, which allegedly refueled the controversy of providing the president with indulgences not enjoyed by George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Nevertheless, the effect of the bathtub's installation was said to have obliterated any remaining opposition, such that it was said that every hotel in New York had a bathtub by 1860. Fillmore's bathtub was said to have remained in operation until the first administration of Grover Cleveland, when it was supposedly replaced by a bathtub that was still in operation at the time of the article's publication. (Wikipedia)
More than thirty years later, Mencken wrote:
The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity ... Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.
P.S. A commenter suggests www.historyforatheists.com as a source for many other examples of popular bogus history.
There is disputed evidence that he visited Iceland and might have heard about the existence of North America there, also speculation that he might have gotten the information from European fishermen. There were European ships harvesting Cod off what is now Newfoundland not long after Columbus, but earlier dates are speculative.