Knight of the Medieval Umbrella

It was at the tail end of August in 1839, after a year of planning and rehearsing, that thirteen valiant knights took to a muddy field near Eglinton Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, and pretended to joust. Identified by silly names, such as “Knight of the Burning Tower,” “Knight of the Dolphin,” and “Knight of the Saturday Fever” (only one of which I made up), the men were all that remained of the original one hundred and fifty volunteers.

runwayknights
Thus began a long tradition of the very serious portrayal of Medieval knights throughout British culture.

Decked out in their Medieval-est finery, the knights wore period-appropriate armor while battling a torrential downpour and knocking fruit from one another’s helmets with mops and broomsticks. One participant even carried a not-so-medieval umbrella.

The Eglinton Tournament was the project of Archibald Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton, who wished to raise interest in the Romanticism of Britain’s past at a time when the Whigs sought to stamp out any idealization of the monarchy.

Thanks to the uncooperative weather, the event was not the success it could have been. Lord Eglinton himself admitted to “the manifold deficiencies in its exhibition,” but the tournament undoubtedly left a lasting impression on the imaginations of the British people. It attracted more than 100,000 period-clad spectators from all walks of life and sparked a surge of Romantic art, Gothic writings, and reenactments of a more chivalrous age, which presumably went a little more smoothly than the Eglinton Tournament. But probably yielded just as much giggling.

Cass River Colonial Reenactment poncho
We attended our reenactment in period-appropriate plastic ponchos.

In fact, this somewhat failed instance of a historical reenactment may have even been an important catalyst in the rise of a kind of quirky, vaguely ridiculous hobby for the most fascinating of amateur historians here in the United States as well.

I attended my first reenactment a few weeks ago as my family and I road tripped our way through Michigan. My youngest son is a connoisseur of all things military history and so when we realized we would be passing through the town of Frankenmuth during the weekend of the Cass River Colonial Encampment, we couldn’t pass it up.

Reenactment Celebration
Huzzah!

And I’m glad we didn’t. Though I can honestly say I have never had a particular desire to see one, I found the whole thing fascinating. It was as wonderfully absurd as I thought it might be, with otherwise regular people camping out using replica 18th century tents and tools, eating Subway sandwiches around the campfire, and loading the muzzles of their muskets with gunpowder poured from plastic packages.

But despite the anachronisms and general goofiness, I found a lot to love. My son wandered the grounds and met the camp physician who offered to balance his humors, talked with General George Washington who attempted to recruit him, and marched to the rhythm of the drum and fife as a friendly British officer invited him to fall in. The re-enactors were kind and knowledgeable and very much aware that they looked a little silly in their wool uniforms on a drizzly, 85-degree afternoon in 2018.

fallen reenactor
Most of the fallen soldiers managed to stumble into the shelter of the covered bridge before breathing their last, but others were especially devoted to their craft. And wearing authentic orange, plastic ear protection.

We watched several demonstrations of military drills, musket firing, and a couple of full battles from two different conflicts in American history. We cheered as the American rebels surged and wrested control of the covered bridge from their British enemies, and we applauded the re-enactors dedicated enough to their craft to play dead in a puddle in the middle of the road. Sure there were manifold deficiencies in the exhibition, but we left better informed and more curious. And maybe giggling just a little.

It’s just 28 days until the publication of Gentleman of Misfortune, my debut historical novel! You can get a peek at a book trailer here: https://www.facebook.com/sangletonwrites/

Copper Clues, Rubber Stamps, and Fancy Pants Treasure

In 1947 in the West Bank, not far from the site of the ancient city of Jericho, some teenage shepherds made an exciting discovery while tending their flocks and maybe also behaving a little like teenagers. One of these young men tossed a rock into an opening on the side of a cliff and heard a suspicious crashing sound. When the young man and his companions investigated, they discovered a collection of large clay jars, at least one of which contained the teenager’s rock, and seven of which contained the first texts discovered in the collection that came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Dead_Sea_Scrolls_Before_Unraveled
Even without gold and silver, that’s a pretty fancy find. By Abraham Meir Habermann, 1901–1980 – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The discovery sparked a race of both Bedouins and archaeologists to scour the area for more, and eventually eleven nearby caves yielded hundreds of ancient texts that include portions of nearly every book in the Old Testament (and a complete copy of Isaiah), additional prophecies, descriptions of sectarian rules, military strategy, and poems of thanksgiving, among numerous other writings that have kept archaeologists geeking out for the last 65 years.

That’s all pretty great stuff, but I think the most intriguing discovery is what’s known as the Copper Scroll, found in March of 1952. It’s appropriately named because while all the other manuscripts found in the caves are written on parchment, this one is etched into copper sheeting. Its contents are pretty different from the other scrolls, too, because this one describes the world’s greatest treasure hunt, claiming to lead to what some estimate is over a billion dollars in silver and gold.

If you happen to be a first century Middle Easterner, familiar with the area, the clues are pretty simple. Each includes a general whereabouts (on the island that can only found by those who already know where it is), a specific spot (in the cupboard under the stairs), a depth for digging (as specified on a medallion last seen in a tavern in Nepal), and the treasure to be found (your body weight in gold, assuming you weigh the same as a duck). If you are a fluent reader of ancient Hebrew sprinkled with a little bit of Greek and a few typos, you might find they resemble a list of modern day letterbox clues.

In case you’re unfamiliar with letterboxing, it’s a treasure hunting hobby, in which people hide small, waterproof containers planted in clever outdoor (mostly) hiding spots and post clues online to help others find them. The containers each include a unique hand-crafted rubber stamp and a log book. When the seeker finds it, they stamp a personal book with the find and mark the box’s log book with their trail name signature stamp. Then they record the find online where they also warn the next letterboxer of the nearby nest of rattle snakes.

us letterboxing
Letterboxing has become a world wide hobby, but I imagine it will take me some time just to hunt down all of these. Protonk at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A friend of mine introduced me and my boys to the hobby last spring. We’ve had a lot of fun with it, but if you happen to speak letterbox, you’ll probably have an easier time. I’ve found about ten boxes, and failed to find several more. Most of my successes have come when my friend is with me because having planted many herself, she knows the lingo and has hiked most of the trails already, not to mention she possesses a significantly sharper sense of direction than I do.

Some of the clues are straight forward (once you learn some of the basics, like that SPOR is an acronym for Suspicious Pile of Rocks); others consist of word puzzles or are written in Elvish. Some clues are visible only to those who’ve logged a certain number of finds or who are personally acquainted with the planter and have been given a code word. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some clues were even etched into copper and hidden in a cave somewhere in the West Bank.

golden eagle
A pretty fancy pants find.

I’m sure I hike past five or six for every one I discover. But I have a good time, and though I’ve never found a duck’s weight in gold, I did once find a particularly fancy pants eagle stamp with a gold ink pad.

And I’ve had way more success than those who have attempted to find the Copper Scroll treasures. Despite plenty of expeditions and a few unverified claims, no one has found any of the treasure yet. There’s debate among scholars about whether or not the treasure truly exists, and if it does, who planted it, and maybe even whether it can be found at all by someone who doesn’t already know where it is. But if anyone ever does find this fanciest of treasures, I bet the finder will be a letterboxer.

Dancing with the Squares

In 1923 America’s dance floors were headed for trouble. Ladies were just beginning to wear almost sensible clothing that allowed them to move and swing, jazz was emerging as a fast-paced and exciting music style, and the kids were snuggling close with a good fox trot or waltz and then dancing themselves silly with the Lindy Hop and the Charleston. The morals of a bygone era were fast crumbling away.

Henry Ford. This man knows his way around a Virginia Reel. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Ford, who once famously said, “You can dance any way that you want, so long as it’s square.” [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One man decided he was going to do something about it. The father of the auto industry and master of the assembly line, Henry Ford, figured if he could put together a car one piece at a time, then he could put wholesome American culture back together the same way, one dance step at a time. And so he set out on a crusade to bring back the good old-fashioned square dance.

American square dance has a muddy history, but it generally traces its roots back to the coordinated group dances of England in the early 1600s. Of course when settlers brought it with them to the new world, it took on a uniquely American flavor. A caller announced the moves, which were given French names (because that seemed likely to irritate the English) like “promenade,” “allemande,” and dos-à-dos” (which quickly became “do-si-do,” because that seemed likely to irritate the French).

As America became more urbanized, square dancing faded, but Ford saw the dance as a way to promote exercise as well as genteel manners. He hired a square dance caller by the name of Benjamin Lovett to teach square dance full time in Dearborn, Michigan and required his employees to engage in the activity. He also sponsored square dance programs in many public schools, on college campuses, and over the radio waves.

It worked. The dance started to catch on. Soon ladies and gentlemen were lined up in groups on the dance floor to bow to their partners and perform coordinated dance steps with very little touching and plenty of room for the Holy Spirit. The dance’s popularity continued through World War II and the following decade before it began once again to fade. But I think it’s going to surge again, led by an army of enthusiastic Missouri 4th graders.

My kids are officially out of school for the summer now, but these last few weeks leading up to the last day have been busy.

Making car parts for the American working square dancer, because that's who they are and that's who they care about. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Making car parts for the American working square dancer, because that’s who they are and that’s who they care about. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There’ve been awards ceremonies and book fairs and pizza parties and field days. And, yes, square dancing.

Last week, my fourth grader (now officially a 5th grader!) participated in Missouri Day at school. I don’t know if this is a state required thing or if it’s just something our school does, but the kids were taken through a series of activities to help them learn about all things Missouri. Because I am a sucker who can’t say no dedicated parent, I volunteered to help.

It turns out the official state folk dance of Missouri is the square dance (as opposed to other kinds of American folk dances….go on, try to name one). In fact, twenty-four states have declared the square dance their state folk dance, and it would be twenty-five if Minnesota would just bite the bullet and make it official since it was proposed in both 1992 and 1994, but I suppose something this important shouldn’t be rushed.

Go ahead. Just try to do this without making any physical contact with your partner. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Go ahead. Just try to do this without getting cooties. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So I went to the school to help the fourth graders learn to square dance. Of course I don’t believe I’ve ever square danced. I went to fourth grade in the state of Illinois (where the square dance is also the state folk dance) and no one seemed to care whether or not I learned this critical life skill.

Basically my job was to try to help two groups of eight kids interpret the instruction given by the elderly square dance caller. Allegedly.

What I really did was attempt to convince a bunch of ten-year-olds that they probably won’t die from touching another ten-year-old of the opposite sex, and failing that, how they might effectively swing their partner without actually coming into contact with him or her.

And I think once they figured it out, the kids  had a pretty good time. Henry Ford would have been proud.

Get a Bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.

In 1963, a leader for the Ozark Area Council of American Youth Hostels, Dick Leary, decided it would be a fun idea to take a nighttime bike ride through the city of St. Louis. He organized the event for a night in October and set it up to begin at midnight at Union Station. Unfortunately (because most people probably thought he was joking) Leary was the only rider to turn up.

Determined that it was still a good idea (and because I’m guessing he battled insomnia), Leary completed it himself and the next year managed to recruit a few more riders. Word started to get out and by the early 1970s thousands of participants were showing up to complete the ride every year.

Eventually, the event became known as the Moonlight Ramble, the longest-running nighttime cycling event in the world. Organized now through the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the route has changed a few times over the years, but the full course is always around 18 to 20 miles through the heart of downtown St. Louis on the early Sunday morning in August that occurs closest to the full moon.

And despite the addition of a premier riding group (personally I’m not sure how anyone can take themselves all that seriously while sporting glow necklaces snaked through their bicycle spokes), the Ramble is NOT a race (shoe clips are not allowed, nor are they advisable). It’s a ride. All ages, all ability levels, and even all manner of wheeled, human-powered vehicles are welcome. I (typically sound asleep by no later than 10:30) rode in the Ramble for the first time this year, along with my sister and a handful of her cycling buddies, most of whom had participated in the event before.

Okay, so maybe "human-powered" isn't a strict requirement.
Okay, so maybe “human-powered” isn’t a strict requirement.

It was a gorgeous night, under the nearly full moon. The first riders took off from Busch Stadium at 12:10 (after a slight delay for traffic from the preseason Rams game). As there were probably four thousand riders, it took a while to get us all going and even with the best efforts of the St. Louis police department and an army of volunteer ride marshals, it took a bit for the remaining downtown traffic to adjust to the onslaught of bicycles (most drivers smiled to see us; a few were cranky). Once we were really going, though, I have to say it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in the city.

Now, I realize that this is generally a (sort of) history blog and that this particular post has thus far come up a little short in that area (unless you’re really easily satisfied and a brief reference to 1963 is enough for you), but I think I can make a case for why it still fits. And to do so, I am going to direct your attention to the expertise of Professor Kenneth Jackson who teaches the History of the City of New York at Columbia University (and who is a much more reliable source of all things history than is yours truly).

Since he began teaching the class in the late 1970s, Professor Jackson has led his students on a nighttime, five-hour bicycle tour from Columbia University to the Brooklyn Promenade. Along the way, Jackson stops at various points of interest to deliver lectures through a bullhorn to the now hundreds of students that come along for the ride.

The professor admits, however, that it is not so much the knowledge shared in his lectures that sticks with the students, but simply the experience of seeing the city in this strangely intimate way, when the moon is bright and the streets are quieter (a little bit anyway, but of course this is New York we’re talking about). One student had this to say about standing in front of Federal Hall at 4:30 AM: “In this sleepy blur I catch myself imagining that I’m there, imagining that [Professor] Jackson is Washington and we’re getting ready to start this new republic.” Another student commented: “This is the first time I feel like I’m really living in the city.”

That's a lot of people "really living" in the city of St. Louis.
That’s a lot of people “really living” in the city of St. Louis.

I get that. I grew up not so far from St. Louis and I have been delighted to be back again, nearer still to what I consider “my city.” Since moving here this past February I have taken my children up in the Arch, explored the Zoo, wandered through the Botanical Garden, enjoyed the theater at both the Fabulous Fox and the outdoor Muni, and been to Busch Stadium to watch the Cardinals play more often than I should admit (I lived two entire baseball seasons in Oregon and apparently distance really does make the heart grow fonder).

After riding the Ramble, all of these different places found a home in that mental map that I always wish I was better at carrying around with me (you may recall that in a previous post I mentioned that my sense of direction is, well, okay so I don’t actually have one). I may not have learned a great deal about the history of my city on this ride, but I did get to know St Louis itself better and be a part of it in a way I never had before.

Bill Emerson said it well in 1967 when he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post: “A bicycle does get you there and more…. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.”

Nighttime cycling is not perfect. The Ramble attracts all kinds of folks, the serious cyclists and the families out to make lasting memories together, but also the rowdies whose frequent beer stops make it best to avoid them.  I also certainly wouldn’t recommend a nighttime ride outside of an organized event. But late night ride events and tours are popping up all over the world (Paris, London, and Moscow are just a few of the cities that I discovered offer similar experiences).

I don't know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.
I don’t know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.

But even if you don’t own a bike (often they can be rented), haven’t ridden since you were a kid (you never forget how), or for some reason would prefer sleeping to rambling in the moonlight, consider taking some advice from Mark Twain who once learned to ride one of the old-timey high-wheeled bicycles of his day and had this to say of the experience: “Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.”

The Trouble with Wallabies

A week or two ago, a suspiciously happy circle cropped up on a hillside near my home. This constitutes my only first-hand experience with a crop circle so I was delighted to discover that in the great state of Oregon where I live, this is not a terribly uncommon occurrence.

Though the vast majority of crop circles in the 20th century have been located in southern England there are examples from 26 nations throughout the world. Circles have been reported in forty-seven out of the fifty US states. And yes in 1991, Puerto Rico even got into the action when a group of concentric rings turned up on a rocky plateau near the city of Ajuntas.

Oregon ranks 11th among the fifty states with 19 reported circles by 2008 (Not quite as impressive as the 23 boasted by my native home state of Illinois, but not too shabby). Ohio claims the title for most reported crop circles in a single US state with a whopping 42, confirming what researchers have long suspected: there really is very little to do in Ohio.

This data comes from the Independent Crop Circle Researchers’ Association (ICCRA) which describes itself as a cooperative of researchers with a wide variety of interests in crop circles dedicated to objective data collection, independent of individual theories about crop circle formation. And it’s a good thing it exists because it’s a heated debate, contributed to (according to Wikipedia) by paranormal enthusiasts, ufologists (I can’t help but wonder if this field of study requires post graduate work), and anomalistic investigators. For some reason practical historians didn’t make the list.

Many of these enthusiasts, investigators, and ‘ologists have come to different conclusions as to the cause of crop circles. Which makes me wonder how exactly the large happy face appeared because there are a number of possibilities to consider.

The first good picture we have of crop circles comes from a 17th-century English woodcut pamphlet entitled Mowing-Devil on which appears the story of a farmer who said he’d rather have the devil himself mow his field than to pay the high price demanded by a laborer. Apparently no one ever told him to be careful what he wished for because that night, his field appeared to catch fire and the next day it was perfectly cut (at a rather higher price I assume). The accompanying picture includes the image of the devil cutting a circle into the field with a scythe. Of course, since he went on to cut the entire field, and because I don’t usually think of the devil as a particularly happy chap, I don’t think this explains my mystery circle.

1678 pamphlet on the "Mowing-Devil".

The more modern crop circle phenomenon took off a few years after a curious event near the city of Tully in Queensland, Australia. In 1966, a farmer by the name of George Pedley reported hearing a strange hissing noise. Looking toward the sound, he saw a saucer ascend from the nearby swamp. When he investigated the area, he found a circular depression in the vegetation, about 30 feet in diameter. Officials determined the cause to be vaguely related to a dust devil. The saucer sighting was “officially” overlooked.

Then in the 1970’s, circles began popping up all over the English countryside. Most of these would turn out to be the handiwork of pranksters Doug Bower and Dave Chorley who patterned their initial circles on the Tully “saucer nest.” The two later claimed over 200 circles, many of which sparked at least a little bit of serious scientific study.

In 1980, a meteorologist and physicist by the name of Terence Meaden weighed in with a complicated theory that the circles were caused whirlwinds bouncing around the unique topography of the southern English countryside. The theory gained some momentum, even garnering a tentative endorsement from Physicist Stephen Hawking who said that it was a plausible explanation if  the circles weren’t just part of some elaborate hoax. When Bower and Chorley finally came clean, I imagine Meaden’s response was something like: “Or it could all just be part of some elaborate hoax.” It is, however, worth noting that a lot of cereologists (one who has a post graduate degree in the study of crop circles, or maybe Cheerios) claim that crop circles which can be attributed to hoaxes are in fact promoted by governments as a way to discredit the true origin of others.

My favorite explanation for the appearance of crop circles, though, comes from Lara Giddings, then Deputy Premier of Tasmania, whose theory appears in a June 2009 article from the BBC. To give a little background here, Australia produces about 50% of the world’s legally grown poppies for use in the pharmaceutical industry. Australia also has wallabies. Giddings apparently said the following: “We have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting high as a kite and going around in circles. Then they crash. We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high.”

So I guess that explains it.

Except as far as I know, there are no wild (high as a kite) wallabies in Oregon. And while I can’t completely discount alien visitation, this particular hill is highly visible from a pretty busy road and I haven’t heard any reports of UFO sightings in the area. So maybe, just maybe, there’s a mystery artist or two out there having a little fun and spreading a little joy. But I should probably report it to the ICCRA just to be safe.

Red necked wallaby (picture taken in Australia)

Note: I know that some of you are probably still thinking about the Mowing-Devil and just can’t let it go because technically a crop circle is created by bending crops and not mowing them. I understand your concern, but the way I see it, if visitors from another planet decide to use lawn mowing equipment to communicate with us then who are we to cry foul? Just to be clear, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea for gorked wallabies to be operating heavy machinery.