Our grisly history

History isn’t often pretty. Archaeologists have been excavating a site called Towton, where a major battle was fought in the Wars of the Roses in 1461, and in which 28,000 people died and were buried in mass graves scattered about the battleground. It’s a fascinating story of the soldiers involved in the battle, and they were both diverse and contradicting certain stereotypes about medieval citizens.

The men whose skeletons were unearthed at Towton were a diverse lot. Their ages at time of death ranged widely. It is easier to be precise about younger individuals, thanks to the predictable ways in which teeth develop and bones fuse during a person’s adolescence and 20s. The youngest occupants of the mass grave were around 17 years old; the oldest, Towton 16, was around 50. Their stature varies greatly, too. The men’s height ranges from 1.5-1.8 metres (just under five feet to just under six feet), with the older men, almost certainly experienced soldiers, being the tallest.

This physical diversity is unsurprising, given the disparate types of men who took the battlefield that day. Yet as a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall–just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel. Their health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate pretty healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too.

I can identify: the oldest there were up around my age, and certainly in much better physical shape, and there they were battering each other to death. And then there are bits I can’t identify with at all — they shredded each other with savagery. Some of the dead weren’t simply killed in the heat of battle, they were butchered by repeated blows to the head. This was far more brutal than was necessary to fell an enemy.

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Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.

The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head—picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25’s brain, felling him.

His enemies were not done yet. Another small blow to the right and back of the head may have been enough to turn him over onto his back. Finally another blade arced towards him. This one bisected his face, opening a crevice that ran from his left eye to his right jaw. It cut deep: the edge of the blade reached to the back of his throat.

Yeesh. These were people so much like us, and we can’t have evolved much beyond that point biologically, yet this is an ugly story of what we often call inhumanity, but is probably more typically human.

How authoritarians treat art

Somebody needs to grab Bill Donohue by the ear and drag him to the Neues Musem in Berlin — all the way to the airport, during the long transatlantic flight, and on the taxi ride to the museum. Pinch hard, too, and make him squeal all the way.

While digging a subway tunnel in Berlin, construction workers discovered a cache of buried expressionist sculptures, hidden survivors of the Nazi campaign to destroy what they considered “degenerate art”.

Researchers learned the bust was a portrait by Edwin Scharff, a nearly forgotten German modernist, from around 1920. It seemed anomalous until August, when more sculpture emerged nearby: “Standing Girl” by Otto Baum, “Dancer” by Marg Moll and the remains of a head by Otto Freundlich. Excavators also rescued another fragment, a different head, belonging to Emy Roeder’s “Pregnant Woman.” October produced yet a further batch.

The 11 sculptures proved to be survivors of Hitler’s campaign against what the Nazis notoriously called “degenerate art.” Several works, records showed, were seized from German museums in the 1930s, paraded in the fateful “Degenerate Art” show, and in a couple of cases also exploited for a 1941 Nazi film, an anti-Semitic comedy lambasting modern art. They were last known to have been stored in the depot of the Reichspropagandaministerium, which organized the “Degenerate” show.

I’ve found one small collection of photos of these works, and of the “Degenerate” show. They’re interesting, not great masterworks or anything, but it’s amazing how a touch of harsh history imbues them with much greater meaning.

Mr Donohue should contemplate how history regards people who try to dictate what art means, and that the person who is thought to have hidden these works from the hammers of the Nazis, Erhard Oewerdieck, is now considered heroic.

The myth of a Christian nation

Smithsonian has a fine article on the real history behind America’s status as a “Christian nation”: it just isn’t so. Religion is a poison our European ancestors brought to these shores, and it’s been a source of trouble and stupidity since the beginning.

From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”

We are a nation of diverse and competing faiths. And we’ve been made weaker because of it.

“to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel”

A reader, Sam, sent some fascinating excerpts from a court decision in 1824, Updegraph v. Commonwealth. It was a small case that prompted the judge to write a seventeen page furious rant, and reading it will make you realize what Glenn Beck’s America would like to return to — no, thanks, I wouldn’t like it.

This was a blasphemy trial. The guilty party (and yes, he was found guilty), had said this one terrible, awful, horrifying sentence:

“That the Holy Scriptures were a mere fable: That they were a contradiction, and that, although they contained a number of good things, yet they contained a great many lies.

Mild stuff, I know; much ruder things are said about the Bible here every day. Yet here in the judge’s summary is the context: this was a point made in a debating society, where I’d think such a discussion would be fair game, but here the judge rants that not only were such words far beyond the pale of civilized discussion, but that the purpose of such a group was “to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel”.

This verdict excludes every thing like innocence of intention; it finds a malicious intention in the speaker to vilify the Christian Religion, and the Scriptures, and this court cannot look beyond the record… that the words were uttered by the defendant, a member of a debating association, which convened weekly for discussion and mutual information, and that the expressions were used in the course of argument on a religious question. That there is an association in which so serious a subject is treated with so much levity, indecency, and scurrility, existing in this city, I am sorry to hear, for it would prove a nursery of vice, a school of preparation to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel, and there is not a skeptic of decent manners and good morals, who would not consider such debating clubs as a common nuisance and disgrace to the city. From the tenor of the words, it is impossible that they could be spoken seriously and conscientiously, in the discussion of a religious or theological topic; there is nothing of argument in the language; it was the out-pouring of an invective so vulgarly shocking and insulting, that the lowest grade of civil authority ought not to be subject to it, but when spoken in a Christian land, and to a Christian audience, the highest offence [harmful to the moral welfare of society]…

I feel sad that the judge is not alive today to witness the internet. I’m also curious about the circumstances of the arrest — did some Christian prig attend the debating society meeting and rush out in horror to call the police?

The judge had to act to prevent the erosion of moral restraints.

It is sometimes asked with a sneer, Why not leave it to Almighty God to revenge his own cause? Temporal courts do so leave it. ‘Bold and presumptuous would be the man who would attempt to arrest the thunder of heaven from the hand of God, and direct the bolts of vengeance where to fall.’ It is not on this principle courts act, but on the dangerous temporal consequences likely to proceed from the removal of religious and moral restraints…

And here’s a part that hasn’t changed a bit in 186 years:

…it is the purest system of morality, the firmest auxiliary, and only stable support of all human laws. It is impossible to administer the laws without taking the religion which the [defendant] has scoffed at, that Scripture which he has reviled, as their basis.

The only parts of the law that seem to be derived from Scripture are some of the more prudish laws restricting behavior on the Sabbath and, well, blasphemy laws. I think we can dispense with them all.

By the way, the accused was fined 5 shillings and court costs.

6 August 1945

History is not going to judge us kindly for this crime against humanity. Never again.

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In the following waves [after the initial blast] people’s bodies were terribly squeezed, then their internal organs ruptured. Then the blast blew the broken bodies at 500 to 1,000 miles per hour through the flaming, rubble-filled air. Practically everybody within a radius of 6,500 feet was killed or seriously injured and all buildings crushed or disemboweled.

Japanese doctors said that those who had been killed by the blast itself died instantly. But presently, according to these doctors, those who had suffered only small burns found their appetite failing, their hair falling out, their gums bleeding. They developed temperatures of 104, vomited blood, and died. It was discovered that they had lost 86 percent of their white blood corpuscles. Last week the Japanese announced that the count of Hiroshima’s dead had risen to 125,000.

I am completely unswayed by the argument that the bombing saved American lives by convincing the Japanese that their cause was hopeless. If that were true, why not bomb a nearby deserted atoll as a demonstration? Why bomb two cities over the course of several days? Why not pick a military target rather than a civilian center? This was an act of callous terrorism.


Still arguing? Go watch this fabulous dialog between AC Grayling and Christopher Hitchens, discussing Grayling’s book, Among the Dead Cities. Grayling makes the same argument I do, that the bombing of civilians was immoral and to little material effect. The surprising thing, though, is that I expected Hitchens to go all militaristic, but he doesn’t; he actually deplores the area bombing campaign. He draws a stronger conclusion — he thinks the complete and unambiguous defeat of Nazi Germany was necessary to allow rebuilding of the country, but he thinks the attempts to destroy the German culture with devastating firebombing was not a rightful act.

On the etymological association of atheist and scientist

I’d known for a long time that the term “scientist” had been coined in the early 19th century, but I just ran across a first-hand account of the event by the fellow who came up with it, William Whewell. The context is this: many in the science establishment of the day had been chafing at the premier British institution, the Royal Society, which had grown stodgy and was infested with politicians, bishops, and other such hangers-on, and they formed a new institution, the British Association for the Advancement of Science. As part of the process of establishing their identity, they struggled with coming up with an appropriate noun to describe their membership.

Formerly the ‘learned’ embraced in their wide grasp all the branches of the tree of knowledge, mathematicians as well as philologers, physical as well as antiquarian speculators. But these days are past… This difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the BAAS at Cambridge last summer. There was no general term by which these gentlemen* could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits.

‘Philosophers’ was felt to be too wide and lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr Coleridge, both in his capacity as a philologer and metaphysician. ‘Savans’ was rather assuming and besides too French; but some ingenious gentleman [Whewell!] proposed that, by analogy with ‘artist’, they might form ‘scientist’ — and added that there could be no scruple to this term since we already have such words as ‘economist’ and ‘atheist’—but this was not generally palatable.

That is so familiar: the deference to a classical scholar, poet, and ‘metaphysician’ (although, actually, Coleridge was no dummy and did provide thoughtful contributions), and the use of French as an insult. I would warm to the analogy with ‘atheist’, but apparently, that comparison almost sank the word. To be tangled with atheism…oh, my. Adam Sedgwick, the geologist and devout Anglican, was in a fury about “scientist”.

Better die of this want [of a term] than bestialize our tongue by such a barbarism!

It was a natural extension of the word, though, and was rapidly adopted — it was in the OED by 1840.

Sedgwick, by the way, was an interesting fellow despite being encumbered with an excess of faith. He was an important contributor to modern geology who named the Devonian and Cambrian. He was also an adamant creationist who vehemently opposed that whole new-fangled theory of evolution when Darwin proposed it…but Darwin was a former student, and they remained friends throughout their dispute. He also made this well known statement about conflicts between science and the Bible, which I rather like for reasons other than Sedgwick’s.

No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true… Conflicting falsehoods we can comprehend; but truths can never war against each other. I affirm, therefore, that we have nothing to fear from the results of our enquiries, provided they be followed in the laborious but secure road of honest induction. In this way we may rest assured that we shall never arrive at conclusions opposed to any truth, either physical or moral, from whatever source that truth may be derived.

It’s a statement that is simultaneously scientific and anti-scientific. He’s saying that we should follow the evidence whereever it may lead, confident that we will arrive at the honest truth, which is good; however, he’s saying it to reassure himself and the audience that science will never be in conflict with the Bible. He was wrong. His problem was in failing to administer the same standards of truth and robust reason to his holy book that he was applying to science.

He wrote a review of Robert Chambers’ book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, that was a pre-Darwin evolutionary account of the history of life. Sedgwick did not like it, no sir, not one bit.

…If the book be true, the labours of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for the black people of Africa were works of madmen; and man and woman are only better beasts!

I would remind him that “No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true”, and that if a consequence of the examination of the natural world was a revelation that “religion is a lie,” then so be it. Atheist, scientist, there isn’t necessarily a heck of a lot of difference.


*It was initially set up as a boys’ club. Women were not allowed to be members until 1853; however, about a quarter of the attendees of the early BA meetings were women. They were only allowed to attend special sessions that had been reviewed to determine if they were suitable for women, however.