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In 1344, disaster struck the populous agricultural lands between the Huai and Yangtze Rivers in China. Crops not withered by drought were devoured by locust swarms.  Plague stalked the starving masses.  Among the many victims of the catastrophe were the Zhu family, destitute peasant farmers who had already given away the majority of their children to adoption or concubinage. Father, mother, and eldest son died of plague, leaving their teenage son Zhu Yuanzhang penniless, starving, and surrounded by the decaying bodies of his family.  He begged the landlord for a small burial plot but was angrily rebuffed; only with help from a kindly neighbor was he able to dress his dead kin in rags and inter them in a shallow grave.  It was a miserable start to what was arguably the most meteoric social climb in history.

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With a long chin and pocked face, Zhu Yuanzhang was regarded as exceptionally ugly.  As a newborn he was unable to eat and nearly died. His father had promised Zhu to the Buddhist monastery at Huangjue should the baby somehow survive.  When his family perished, sixteen year old Zhu remembered this promise (and possible source of livelihood) and set out to take up a monk’s life.  Yet drought meant that there were not enough rations for new novices: the monks gave Zhu a bamboo hat and an earthenware bowl and sent him off to wander China as a beggar.

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It was a time of tumult. A century earlier the Mongols had conquered all of China and installed themselves as a supreme caste atop the ancient culture, however, by the mid 14th century, Mongol hegemony was coming undone due to factional political quarrels. As the last Mongol emperor fretted in his palace in Dadu (Beijing), rebels and bandits sprang up everywhere.  Through this broken land, Zhu wandered as a mendicant. He slept in outbuildings and ate scraps or lived rough and hungry in the wilderness. However during these ragged years he also began to make friends among the “Red Turbans,” a diverse network of rebels who identified themselves with red banners and headwear.

These Red Turbans had started out as a network of secret societies based on religious concepts imported along the Silk Road from Western Asia. They were incorporated into a larger messianic anti-Mongol movement by Monk Peng, a firebrand rebel who won many ordinary farmers and workmen to his cause before being captured and killed.  Ostensibly the Red Turbans sought to reestablish the Song dynasty (which had ruled before the Mongols) and they hung their hopes on the putative last heir to the Song, Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance”.  In reality, the movement’s identity and aims were a front for several different factions vying for power not just with the Mongols and grasping warlords, but with each other.

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Red Turban warrior fighting a Mongol.

Zhu made friends with some northern Red Turban sympathizers before he returned to the monastery to become literate, but the government (perhaps not unreasonably) feared that the monks were consorting with rebels and burned the temple.  At the age of 24, Zhu Yuanzhang left monastic life and joined the Red Turbans with the not-very-exalted rank of corporal, yet the rebel army offered unparalleled opportunity for advancement.

One of the leaders of the Red Turbans was a grandee named Guo Zixing. Guo’s father had been a fortune-teller (i.e. a con-artist) who had married the blind and not-very-marriageable daughter of a landlord and then shrewdly used the resultant dowry to build a fortune. Guo recognized similar potential in Zhu—the ugly ex-monk was not only relentless and brave in battle, but also had a knack for judging men and convincing them to follow him.  Guo acted as Zhu’s patron and helped the young man take command of larger and larger groups of rebels.  While Guo’s actual sons died of war and ill fortune,  Zhu wisely married Guo’s adopted daughter and became the second in command of their faction. When Guo himself perished, Zhu, the former peasant, became general.  Zhu’s ever expanding army twice assaulted Nanjing, cultural and economic center of southern China, and the second time they successfully took the city.

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Once Zhu captured Nanjing, victory followed victory thanks to his political wiles and administrative prowess. He forbade his men from taking plunder and sternly enforced standards of good conduct. This adherence to Confucian principles made him more popular than other upstart warlords, whom he and his generals defeated one by one. Zhu’s greatest problem during this period of ascendency was how to leave behind the Red Turban movement without losing his own followers.  Although it had provided him with a ladder to national power, his affiliation with the red Turbans was preventing China’s elite literati and aristocrats from supporting him.

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Additionally, Zhu’s most powerful military competitor was Chen Youliang, leader of the multitudinous Red Turban faction in the west.  Their conflict came to a climax in 1363 with a thrilling battle on Lake Poyang, China’s largest lake.  Zhu Yuangzhang’s smaller fleet utilized fireships, gunpowder explosives, trebuchets, and boarding tactics against Chen Youliang’s fort-like tower ships. The battle was the largest navy battle in history and lasted for over a month but ended with Chen’s death and a resounding victory for Zhu, who thereafter ceased to participate directly in fighting. The only figure left who could pit the Red Turbans against Zhu Yuangzhang was Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance,” pretender to the Song throne who drowned in highly suspicious circumstances when he was under Zhu’s care in 1366 (which allowed Zhu to officially denounce the violence and mayhem of the Red Turbans).

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By 1367, through force of arms, Zhu Yuangzhang had defeated all other likely contenders for the throne. The last Yuan emperor fled north and Badu fell in 1368.  Zhu Yuanzhang, son of the lowest peasants, assumed the mandate of heaven and proclaimed himself the Hongwu Emperor—first emperor of the Ming dynasty, the longest lasting and most stable dynasty in Chinese history.  The Ming dynasty was one of the high-water marks of Chinese society. Not only was the dynasty known for military conquest, agricultural innovation, and artistic greatness, but in the early 15th century it was at the forefront of science and exploration. Vast Ming fleets comprised of 400-foot long sailing junks explored as far as India, and Africa. Had Zhu Yuangzhang’s empire kept its initial impetus, who can say what would have happened?  As it is, the spirit of his reforms long outlived the Ming dynasty and remains an integral part of Chinese statecraft.

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The Mausoleum of Zhu Yuanzhang in Contemporary Nanking

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A Shamrock is a bright green spring clover–the species is unclear….but probably common clover (Trifolium dubium) or white clover (Trifolium repens), just like your garden variety pony eats. The shamrock has been an instantly recognizable symbol of Ireland for a long time…or maybe not. Anecdotally Saint Patrick utilized the humble plant in order to explain the nature of the trinity to his nascent flock in the fifth century AD (in which case they were the only people to ever understand the incomprehensible mystical unity-yet-separation of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost).

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More realistically, however, the association between the Irish and the plant is less clear. English sources from the 16th century mention Irish “shamrocks”– but largely in the context of destitute Irish eating field plants (once again the species in unclear, but it seems like it might have been wood sorrel or watercress). Edmund Spenser, who lived among the Irish (and hated them), wrote approvingly of seeing Irish people starving to death after a failed rebellion left them with no crops, “…they spake like ghosts, crying out of theire graves; they did eat of the carrions …. and if they found a plott of water cresses or shamrockes theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time, yett not able long to contynewe therewithall.” Of course, since Spenser reportedly starved to death himself he might have later found occasion to eat these harsh words (literally and figuratively).

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All of this leaves (!) us no closer to understanding how the shamrock became so indelibly affiliated with the Irish. Increasingly it seems like it may be a connection which was made in the early modern era. However, pre-Christian Irish were known to hold the number 3 in greatest esteem. Certain Celtic deities had three aspects and the number 3 was obviously sacred. This is strongly reflected in pre-historic Celtic art. Some of these mystical gyres and whirls do indeed look oddly like shamrocks…so you will have to judge the merit of the little green plant on your own. In the mean time I am going to head down to the great Irish restaurant, McDonalds, and see if I can find a shamrock shake. Usage maketh the myth and by that token there is nothing more Irish than a three-leafed clover.

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It should additionally be noted that in the modern world, “shamrock” has become the name of a bright Kelly green color.  You may even see it today reflected in spring foliage, or jaunty banners, or on a furtive leprechaun or two (although, leprechauns traditionally wore red until they became standardized and bowdlerized in the early twentieth century).  Have you ever wondered whether everything you know if blarney made up by marketers less than a lifetime ago?

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Wha…? That is clearly a four-leaf clover!  Curse you infernal tricksters!

The ancient Greeks reserved their most ardent and heartfelt prayers for the gods of the mystery cults.  Among these mysterious deities of the underworld–great gods like Hecate, Cronus, and Persephone–one entity stood out: Triptolemus was not a god at all but a mortal.  Unlike the other heroes and demigods the Greeks worshipped, Triptolemus was neither a warrior nor a doer of great deeds.  He never seduced a goddess or slew a monster. The goddess who favored Triptolemus was not all-conquering Athena, or the dark sorceress Hecate. Yet a trip to an art museum with a good Greek collection will reveal that he was much on the minds of the Greeks: Triptolemus appears more often in actual Greek sacred art than do many figures much more familiar to us today.

Demeter Mourning Persephone (Evelyn De Morgan, 1906)

Triptolemus owed all of his fame and respect to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, seasons, and growing things (known as Ceres to the Romans). When Demeter’s daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, Demeter aged from a beautiful woman into a horrible crone.  The world lost its fertility as Demeter’s attention wavered away from keeping the world fecund.  She stumbled through a desolate world of famine, death, and cold looking for her lost daughter.  Most people turned away the desperate crone but Triptolemus’ father Ceulis, the King of Eleusis in Attica, was kind to her and asked her to raise his sons Demophon and Triptolemus.  In the midst of the dark season which befell the world, Ceulis remained a charitable and generous host, and Demeter noted his kindness. To reward Ceulis’ family she decided to make his firstborn son Demophon into an immortal god.  Nightly she smeared Demophon with ambrosia, the food of heaven & the balm of the gods, and then she placed him in the fire to burn his mortality away.  One night as she was blowing her divine breath on the glowing child, Demophon’s mother Metanira entered the room.  Horrified by the spectacle before her, the Queen flew into a frenzy and began screaming.  Demeter grew angry at the Queen’s histrionics and decided to withdraw her boon from Demophon–who burst into flames without her divine protection.  She went back out into the ravaged land and resumed her search for Persephone.

Demeter Holding Cereal and Serpents

When Demeter finally found Persephone and orchestrated her annual return from the underworld she still did not forget the kindness of Ceulis’ family.  She saw that the transition from summer’s abundance to winter’s scarcity was difficult for humans and was killing many of them. Demeter taught Ceulis’ younger (still living) son Triptolemus the art of agriculture.  She gave him a flying chariot drawn by magical serpents (who, like Demeter, knew the secrets of the land) and sent him forth to teach the crafts of planting and harvesting grain to the rest of humankind. These lessons made Triptolemus sacred to the Greeks.  Growing grains allowed them to cease their eternal foraging and pursue the fruits of civilization.  Since Triptolemus was so dear to Demeter and Persephone, he became a focus of the Eleusinian Mystery cult, which sought to provide its initiates with an eternal place in the most pleasant fields and gardens of the underworld (which were of course the bailiwick of Persephone).

Triptolemus riding a winged chariot (Athenian red-figure skyphos 5th B.C.)

Triptolemus was portrayed as a beautiful youth with a diadem on his brow. He rode a winged snake-drawn carriage and in his hands were a plate of grain, ears of barley & wheat, and a scepter.  Since Triptolemus’ agricultural outlook was entirely based around sowing and reaping grains,   he recommended a pro-animal point of view somewhat at odds with the herdsmen and hunters of ancient Greece.  According to Porphyry, Triptolemus’ three principles for living a simple godly life were 1) honor one’s parents; 2) honor the gods with grains and malted beverage, and 3) spare the animals.

Mixing Vessel with Triptolemos (Athenian, ca. 470 BC)

The Sugarloaf Folly in East Sussex (early 1820s)

Yesterday, in reaction to the many follies in the world news, I decided to write a post about architectural follies–remarkable ornamental buildings commissioned by nobles to add beauty and interest to their estates.

the Forever Incomplete Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville (1760s-1770s)

Many follies were towers, fake ruins, or ersatz foreign structures (pagodas, minarets, wigwams and so forth) however some follies were heavy-handed allegories about the nature of life.  Nick Ford, an architectural blogger describes two famous allegorical follies in England writing, “The temple of philosophy at Ermenonville was not completed–to symbolize that knowledge would never be complete, while the temple of modern virtues at Stowe was deliberately ruined, to show the decay of contemporary morals.”

The Temple of Modern Virtue at Stowe (built as a ruin)

Other follies actually had a practical purpose.  Connolly’s Folly in Ireland was created to provide gainful employment for the vast numbers of unemployed workers during the Famine of 1740-1741 (unlike the potato famine a century later, the famine of 1740-1741 was caused by a dreadfully cold two year period in Ireland—one of the last severe cold snaps which marked the end of the Little Ice Age).  Other philanthropists in 18th century Ireland commissioned similar projects such as roads to nowhere and great piers built in swamps. In a way follies were the economic stimulus package of the 18th century.  After the workers were paid, the lordly benefactor at least had a pretty building to show for their charity.

Connolly's Folly (1740)

It will be obvious to the practical reader that I have somehow come full circle.  Yesterday to escape the grim news of economic mismanagement and greedy grandstanding elites, I escaped into the fantasy world of eighteenth century gardens.  Today I am writing about how the opulent structures within those pleasure gardens were the attempts of eighteenth century leaders to aggrandize their status while ensuring an economic “trickle-down” would benefit the struggling workers at the bottom of society (who were starting to feel the first pinches from globalism and industrialization—while simultaneously groaning beneath of the ancient regime).  The little historical digression leads to an uncomfortable truth about the economy of the rich world–much of what we do and strive for is really only status ornamentation.

Burj Khalifa (2010)

Walk around today and you will start seeing garden follies a thousand feet tall built of steel (especially if you in Dubai or Shanghai or Manhattan) but with purposes as murky as those of the temple of modern virtues.  You might be reading this as you pretend to work in one!

The Bitter Vetch (Vicia ervilia)

I have written about the first domesticated animal—but what about the first domesticated plants? Nobody is currently sure which exact grain or bean was first farmed but there is a list of eight Neolithic “founder crops” which seem to have come into cultivation more or less at the same time (about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago). Of the 8 original crops, three are grains: Emmer wheat, Einkorn wheat, and good old Barley. One of the crops was flax (which provided both linen and flaxseed). The four remaining Neolithic crops were all pulses (legumes, when used for food) namely lentils, peas, chickpeas, and bitter vetch.

These crops are surprisingly familiar. Just last summer I was sitting in my garden drinking beer (barley) and eating chickpea curry on flatbread (wheat—albeit a descendant of the first cultivars) while wearing a linen shirt. Peas and lentils are equally universal. However, there is one founder crop which has faded almost entirely from the modern world’s consciousness–bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). I am writing this post because I was reading a 2nd century Roman text and came across mention of the vetch. Unfamiliar with the plant I looked it up and found out its ancient lineage. Vicia ervilia has been found at Neolithic and Eneolithic sites across Eastern Europe, the trans-Balkan, and the Levant. The bitter vetch is a small green plant with delicate frond-like leaves and lovely purple flowers. It bears tiny irregular grains which somewhat resemble lentils when split. The grain is exceedingly bitter—when cooked for human consumption the bitterness must be leached out with multiple changes of boiling water (a process which must be followed to prevent poisoning oneself–see more below).

Bitter vetch may have been a staple crop at the dawn of civilization and it was for sale in the markets of the first cities but it fell from favor as tastier starchier grains were discovered. The Roman reference which I encountered was in The Golden Ass by Apuleius, and, because of the narrative peculiarity, of that text it was unclear whether the bitter vetch was meant for people or for livestock. Ascetics ate it throughout the middle ages as a proof they were turning their back on the world, and, because it was easy to grow, it found use among the abjectly poor. To quote, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s The History of Food, bitter vetch “featured in the frugal diet of the poor until the eighteenth century, and even reappeared on the black market in the South of France during the Second World War.”

Bitter Vetch Grain (I think--the image was kind of obliquely labeled)

I have never tried bitter vetch (commenters, I’d love to hear from you regarding this) but it doesn’t sound very good or very nutritious.  In fact it seems like it might be dangerous.  As with Taroc and faba beans, unless one carefully follows a paticular preparation process, the bitter vetch seeds contain toxins.  In an era where everyone is questioning monoculture, factory farming, and transgenic grains it is worth thinking about Bitter vetch. It is a reminder of how good we have it now.

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