“Knights” Didn’t Exist in the Dark Ages

So you’re in your friend’s Dungeons and Dragons campaign, set in a fantasy version of medieval Europe. You haven’t come across any guns, feudalism is everywhere, there have been Monty Python and the Holy Grail references every ten minutes for the last three hours. Your character is a paladin, a holy knight in shining armor. Sure, there are plenty of anachronisms to be expected in this situation, but one of them you might not expect is the existence of a knight in shining armor at all.

“Knight” as a word started out meaning “servant,” and didn’t even necessarily mean a soldier until 1100 AD, 700 years after the beginning of the dark ages and only a couple hundred years out from the Rennaissance. Even then, it was a loosely-defined word, basically just “cavalryman,” and didn’t carry any connection to nobility until the medieval period was already ending in the 1500s. That is after Columbus discovered America. There are similar timelines for chevalier and caballaro and other translations, too. If you ever imagine a person getting “knighted” and then insisting on being called “sir” like a title, and that person doesn’t know where Florida is, you’re picturing history wrong.

Image Source: By Saffron Blaze [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons


Meaning “military follower of a king or other superior” is from c. 1100. It began to be used in a specific military sense in the Hundred Years War, and gradually rose in importance until it became a rank in the nobility from 16c.
Online Etymology Dictionary: Knight

 

cavalier (n.): 1580s, “a horseman,” especially if armed, from Italian cavalliere “mounted soldier, knight; gentleman serving as a lady’s escort,” […]
Online Etymology Dictionary: Cavalier

 

chivalrous (adj.): mid-14c., “pertaining to chivalry or knight-errantry,” from Old French chevaleros “knightly, noble, chivalrous,” from chevalier (see chevalier; also compare chivalry). According to OED, obsolete in English and French from mid-16c. Not revived in French, but brought back in English 1770s by romantic writers with a sense of “having high qualities (gallantry, courage, magnanimity) supposed to be characteristic of chivalry.” 
Online Etymology Dictionary: Chivalrous

Trial By Combat: It May Be Legal

Trial by combat may technically be legal in the United States. Like Schrödinger’s Cat, it both is and isn’t while it waits for someone to try it in the courts.

When the 13 English colonies in North America formed the United States of America, they needed a starting point for their judges to work from while they got to passing all their laws. So unless specified otherwise, they went off of English common law as it was in 1776 when they declared their independence. 

One little-used – but not yet outlawed – piece of English common law was the right to determine your guilt or innocence in a case by fighting for it and letting God decide the winner. This was legitimately legal in England at the time (though, again, like, never used). We know for sure, because it was successfully used to get a man acquitted in 1818. The outrage over this led to it being outlawed in 1819, but – fun fact – 1819 is after 1776.

Therefore, until a US court reviews a case that attempts to use this piece of English common law and finds it unconstitutional (probably under the 5th amendment right to due process, unless fighting your accuser to the death is considered due process), it is technically an option open to anyone accused of a civil charge. 

Try it next time you get a traffic ticket. Let us know how it goes.

ImageBy Jörg Breu d. Jüngere (died 1547), Paulus Hector Mair (died 1579) (Bayrische Staatsbibliothek Cod. icon. 393) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 


[…] a British man tried to invoke his “ancient right to trial by combat” in 2002 to avoid paying a £25 fine for a traffic ticket […] with “samurai swords, Ghurka knives, or heavy hammers.” Court Magistrates for the town of Bury St. Edmunds disagreed […]
American Bar Association

 

At the times of the independence in 1776, trial by combat was still legal in the United Kingdom, and the United States inherited British common law on independence. The question of whether trial by combat remains a valid alternative to civil action has been argued to remain open, at least in theory.
Wikipedia entry on Trial by Combat

 

While the U.S. Constitution does not specifically mention trial by combat, some scholars argue citizens should possess rights until the government specifically limits them. […] a defendant in the U.S. could at least make an argument for trial by combat. […] no United States citizen has yet attempted to invoke the right of trial by combat to win their freedom.
The Bowen Law Group

On the Origin of Cuss Words

Language Warning


Cuss words are fun. But misconceptions abound about where they come from. Ever heard the “ship high in transit,” “pluck you,” or “fornication under consent of the King” myths? Total bogus. That being said, here’s a handy guide to when naughty words were first uttered (or at least written).

  • Fuck – a tough one to track down, but c. 1500. Side-note, there was a guy named John Le Fucker in 1278, but that’s probably just a (hilarious) coincidence. First appearance with this spelling was 1535, in the following passage: “Bischops … may fuck thair fill and be vnmaryit” (Bishops may fuck their fill and be unmarried), which continues to be hilarious.” 
    • Fucker – 1590 (Bonus Round! Duck-fucker – 1796)
    • Motherfucker – 1928 in concept, 1956 in all its modern glory
  • Shit – oddly enough sharing an origin with “science” and “conscience” because it comes from a word for “to split off from.” This one goes back to Proto-Indo-European, English’s great-grandaddy, so I don’t have a specific year for you.
    • Bullshit – 1915
    • Chickenshit – 1947
    • Horseshit – 1935
    • Jack-shit – 1968
    • Batshit – 1967
    • Pigshit – 2017? Let’s make it a thing.
  • Damn – meaning “to condemn or convict” comes from the late 1200s. But the source can be traced back to a Proto-Indo-European prefix “dap-” which goes back well beyond ancient Rome.
    • Goddamn – late 1300s
    • Dang – 1781
  • Hell – Another one with a Proto-Indo-European ancient root going back millennia, this one coming from an ancient word meaning “to conceal.” The word is actually a Germanic pagan one, adapted by Christians while Christianity was spreading.
  • Bitch – as a curse instead of just a description of female dogs, it comes from around 1400.
    • Sonofabitch – literally comes from 1707, but the concept has been around since Old Norse, who had “bikkju-sonr,” or “bitch’s son.” So it’s been a while.

Image By David Lee from Redmond, WA, USA (Please stop yelling, I’m trying to think) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

All word origins sourced from http://www.etymonline.com/

Low-level Bureaucrats Prevented Britain from Getting the Tank (Before WWI)

Over 10 million soldiers died in WWI, many because of outdated tactics. In 1912, an Australian, Lancelot de Mole, invented the tank and submitted it to the Munitions Inventions Department, but it was rejected three times.

First, they wouldn’t consider looking at it without a working model. He tried to get a working model, but an official on the local inventions board didn’t wouldn’t fund it because he didn’t get the idea, saying “it might fall in a hole,” leaving him with nowhere to go. He sent it again in 1915, but they failed to pass it on to the group currently working on a new tank.

After the war, the British government admitted it was better than what they came up with and apologized, lied that the plans had just gotten lost, and awarded him an honorary rank by way of thanks.

Image by Anonymous photographer, via Wikimedia Commons


The New York Times archives, May 10, 1950.
https://1drv.ms/b/s!AGyyTXi8fLtcqtwz

 

Perhaps it was all too complicated for the British War Office as they returned some of his sketches in 1913 with a letter rejecting his idea and the comment that they were no longer experimenting with chain rails… [NOTE: chain rails <> tank]
In any case, the British authorities failed to pass on his design to the Landship committee. One can only speculate why the plans were not made available to the people who were working on the tank. It’s possible the Munitions Inventions Office knew nothing of the Landship Committee because of great secrecy that surrounded what they were doing or perhaps there was some form of inter-departmental rivalry. […]
The official in charge could not understand the plans. The idea was rejected with the weak excuse that there might be a hole and the vehicle might fall in it.
http://net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/comment/DeMole/designnotpassedon.htm [Includes image & model]

 

[…] the commissioners considered he was entitled to the greatest credit for having made and reduced to practical shape as far back as 1912, a brilliant invention which anticipated, and in some respects, surpassed that which was actually put into use in the year 1916. The commissioners went on to say that it was the claimant’s misfortune and not his fault that his invention was in advance of its time and failed to be appreciated and was put aside because the occasion for its use had not yet arisen [in 1912].
Google Books

 

De Mole’s plans were not merely received and then pigeonholed. They were, on the contrary, examined, and deliberately rejected at least three times – once before the war and twice during the war, or, to be exact, in 1913, 1916, and 1918.
http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/37627874

Walking Barefoot in Human Poop Held the American South Back for Centuries

Hookworm is a parasite that causes lethargy and lower performance. It is transmitted when human waste (used as a fertilizer on fields) comes into contact with human feet (barefoot field workers) in climates where it can survive (the American South).

Almost half of the American South was infected with this parasite as of 1910, causing stereotypes about lower-class Southern people being lazy and dumb. It was only around then, after centuries of lives held back from their potential, that someone thought to figure out why and discovered hookworm.

Despite some pushback from Southerners who were offended by the accusation that they were all infected by parasites, improving conditions and a big campaign by the Rockefeller Foundation eventually wiped out the parasites, but only in the mid 20th century.

Image Attribution: Marion Post Wolcott [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


[…] as recently as the 1950s, hookworms were an intimate and ever-present threat for those living in the South. It was nearly impossible for the rural poor—the majority back then—to avoid hookworms […] Because iron is critical for brain function, hookworm infection could also lead to irreversible cognitive and intellectual defects. A 1926 study of Alabama school children found that the greater the number of worms that students harbored, the lower their IQ. 
PBS

 

Areas with higher levels of hookworm infection prior to the RSC experienced greater increases in school enrollment, attendance, and literacy after the intervention. This result is robust to controlling for a variety of alternative factors […]
The NIH

 

Hookworms live in the small intestine. Hookworm eggs are passed in the feces of an infected person. If the infected person defecates outside (near bushes, in a garden, or field) of if the feces of an infected person are used as fertilizer, eggs are deposited on soil. They can then mature and hatch, releasing larvae (immature worms). The larvae mature into a form that can penetrate the skin of humans. Hookworm infection is mainly acquired by walking barefoot on contaminated soil.
The CDC

 

Southerners initially distrusted RSC efforts. Many were offended by accusations of infection and refused to accept testing and the treatment of Epsom salts and thymol. Others believed that the disease simply did not exist. Regional newspaper editorials also strongly criticized RSC employees and viewed them as a Northern imposition.
The Rockefeller Foundation

The Dark History Behind the High Five

If you were born in or after the 1980s, you may take the “high five” for granted. I certainly did. But the high five has a much more recent (and sordid) history than you might think.

Despite several myths, the true origin of the high five is a spontaneous celebratory gesture from the charismatic baseball player Glenn Burke.

Burke adopted the high five as his personal greeting, high-fiving people all over the place for the rest of his life. A life that was made quite difficult afterward. Burke was gay, and in the late 1970s, that was trouble for professional sports. Homophobia led to an abrupt trade from the Dodgers to the lackluster Oakland As. The discrimination followed him there, and eventually forced Burke into retirement. His life spiraled out of control, leading to a drug habit. He died of complications related to HIV/AIDs in 1995. 

Meanwhile, the high five had been adopted as a symbol of gay pride, and as a promotional trademark of the Dodgers – Burke’s old teammates. As Burke’s life fell apart, the gesture that became his legacy took off. 

Photo Source Copyrighted, under fair use for visual identification of the person in question, at the top of his/her biographical article 


Burke, waiting on deck, thrust his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet his friend at the plate. Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it. “His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” says Baker, now 62 and managing the Reds. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”
ESPN: History of the High Five

 

He couldn’t hold a job. He went broke. He did some time at San Quentin for grand theft. Then in 1993, he tested positive for HIV. He passed away on May 30, 1995, after a sharp and grisly decline. One obituary noted that, at the end, the man who invented the high five “could barely lift his arm.”
ESPN: History of the High Five

 

Podcast on Glenn Burke and his life from The Dollop.

The Founder of the Red Cross (Almost Died in Forgotten Poverty)

The intellectual founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant was an idealistic reformer to the end. So much so that he brought ruin onto himself. Not only did he isolate himself from his cofounders with his refusal to compromise on his vision of a neutral agency to care for all wounded soldiers, but his neglect of his own personal business left him bankrupt and deeply in debt.

He was booted off of the Committee by political rivals, socially isolated, bankrupt, and left home in disgrace to quickly be forgotten. While moving around Europe living on park benches and couch-surfing with friends, he advocated for disarmament, a world library, and an international court to settle disputes (and was an abolitionist and feminist). Meanwhile ending up living off the charity of family in a hospice in Heiden.

Luckily for Dunant, a journalist “rediscovered” him in that hospice, writing a piece on his life that restored Dunant’s place in the history books and earned him supporters across Europe. As a result of his efforts, he was one of the two first recipients of the Nobel Peace Price, though he never touched his prize winnings, and remained in Heidel in paranoia for the rest of his life. His last act was selfless, donating funds to keep a free bed in the hospital to always be open for someone too poor to afford it.

Photo By Time Life Pictures [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


An international congress for the ” complete and final abolition of the traffic in Negroes and the slave trade ” opened in London on 1 February 1875, on Dunant’s initiative. There followed years of wandering and utter poverty for Dunant: he travelled on foot in Alsace, Germany and Italy, living on charity and the hospitality of a few friends.
Finally, in 1887, he ended up in the Swiss village of Heiden, overlooking Lake Constance, where he fell ill. He found refuge in the local hospice, and it was there that he was discovered in 1895 by a journalist, Georg Baumberger, who wrote an article about him which, within a few days, was reprinted in the press throughout Europe.
International Committee of the Red Cross

 

In September 1895, Georg Baumberger, the chief editor of the St. Gall newspaper Die Ostschweiz, wrote an article about the Red Cross founder, whom he had met and conversed with during a walk in Heiden a month earlier. The article entitled “Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross”, appeared in the German Illustrated Magazine Über Land und Meer, and the article was soon reprinted in other publications throughout Europe. The article struck a chord, and he received renewed attention and support. 
Wikipedia