October 08, 2010

Notes from the Ground, Benjamin R. Cohen

I didn't have time to actually read this, so this is not really a review, let alone a fair review. TIME: the early American republic, extending into the 1840s. PLACE: mostly Virginia, synechdochal for that republic. PLAYERS: the systematic farmers, and their silent interrogatory, the soil. THE ACTION: to use science to make farming a stouter support for the young nation.

Which, obviously, it did, although we also already know that it identified some problems and left them for later.

Consider the Georgic as an alternative to the Pastoral ideal. The Georgic, like the man with the stercorary himself, dreams of earning a comfortable life by hard, moral, sensible labor. (Is there a name for the urban idyll?) Still useful, still contested.

I did not finish this because I am having a field season of my own, so I was pleased to skim past this, in a discussion of the first complete map of Virginia:

Fatigue, privation, and roadless miseries are classic problems of field scientists. But to establish a viable survey system one had to acquire information from the field and incorporate it into a presentable report at the home base, a process that gave no attention to the work of the assistants, or their travails...

Find in a Library: Notes from the Ground

So wrote clew.

January 12, 2008

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Edward Gibbon

And a final batch of snippets:

The sensual appetites of Maximin were gratified at the expense of his subjects. His eunuchs, who forced away wives and virgins, examined their naked charms with anxious curiosity, lest any part of their body should be found unworthy of the royal embraces. Coyness and disdain were considered as treason, and the obstinate fair one was condemned to be drowned. A custom was gradually introduced, that no person should marry a wife without the permission of the emperor, "ut ipse in omnibus nuptiis praegustator esset." Lactantius de M. P. c. 38.

Beginning of the myth?

As a very regular series of the Imperial laws commences about this period, it would not be difficult to transcribe the civil regulations which employed the leisure of Constantine. But the most important of his institutions are intimately connected with the new system of policy and religion, which was not perfectly established till the last and peaceful years of his reign. There are many of his laws, which, as far as they concern the rights and property of individuals, and the practice of the bar, are more properly referred to the private than to the public jurisprudence of the empire; and he published many edicts of so local and temporary a nature, that they would ill deserve the notice of a general history. Two laws, however, may be selected from the crowd; the one for its importance, the other for its singularity; the former for its remarkable benevolence, the latter for its excessive severity. 1. The horrid practice, so familiar to the ancients, of exposing or murdering their new-born infants, was become every day more frequent in the provinces, and especially in Italy. It was the effect of distress; and the distress was principally occasioned by the intolerant burden of taxes, and by the vexatious as well as cruel prosecutions of the officers of the revenue against their insolvent debtors. The less opulent or less industrious part of mankind, instead of rejoicing in an increase of family, deemed it an act of paternal tenderness to release their children from the impending miseries of a life which they themselves were unable to support. The humanity of Constantine; moved, perhaps, by some recent and extraordinary instances of despair, engaged him to address an edict to all the cities of Italy, and afterwards of Africa, directing immediate and sufficient relief to be given to those parents who should produce before the magistrates the children whom their own poverty would not allow them to educate. But the promise was too liberal, and the provision too vague, to effect any general or permanent benefit. The law, though it may merit some praise, served rather to display than to alleviate the public distress. It still remains an authentic monument to contradict and confound those venal orators, who were too well satisfied with their own situation to discover either vice or misery under the government of a generous sovereign.

The laws of Constantine against rapes [...] was applied not only to the brutal violence which compelled, but even to the gentle seduction which might persuade, an unmarried woman, under the age of twenty-five, to leave the house of her parents. [...] The virgin's declaration, that she had been carried away with her own consent, instead of saving her lover, exposed her to share his fate. [...] and if the sentiments of nature prevailed on [the parents] to dissemble the injury, and to repair by a subsequent marriage the honor of their family, they were themselves punished by exile and confiscation. [...] As the crime was of a public kind, the accusation was permitted even to strangers. The commencement of the action was not limited to any term of years, and the consequences of the sentence were extended to the innocent offspring of such an irregular union.

Apparently even Constantine couldn't bring himself to enforce that law consistently (the details are even more gruesome).

...it was unanimously affirmed, that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity. These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony. The ties of blood and friendship were frequently torn asunder by the difference of religious faith; and the Christians, who, in this world, found themselves oppressed by the power of the Pagans, were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph.

Resentment and pride exemplified by Tertullian, particularly against the secular games.

But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. Some indulgence might, perhaps, be allowed to those persons who, before their conversion, were already engaged in such violent and sanguinary occupations; but it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes. This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect. To this insulting question the Christian apologists returned obscure and ambiguous answers, as they were unwilling to reveal the secret cause of their security; the expectation that, before the conversion of mankind was accomplished, war, government, the Roman empire, and the world itself, would be no more.

So the tactics have reversed completely -- in the case of some Christians only -- with the justification (and many of the reproaches) the same.

The community instituted by Plato is more perfect than that which Sir Thomas More had imagined for his Utopia. The community of women, and that of temporal goods, may be considered as inseparable parts of the same system.

Was it Engels, who, faced with this charge, commented that he knew women were human rather than chattels, however confused the bourgeois might be?

But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world, to those evidences which were represented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendor. The season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age.

Much discussion in the footnotes; the apologists retreat (?) to the claim that in Jerusalem, in April, a cloud might be noteworthy even if it had "nothing contrary to the laws of nature".

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I; Project Gutenberg etext #731; try the HTML version, the footnotes upon footnotes are ill-served by this strictly plain-text one.

So wrote clew.

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Edward Gibbon

More mere snippets, slightly annotated.

The true interest of an absolute monarch generally coincides with that of his people. Their numbers, their wealth, their order, and their security, are the best and only foundations of his real greatness; and were he totally devoid of virtue, prudence might supply its place, and would dictate the same rule of conduct. Severus considered the Roman empire as his property, and had no sooner secured the possession, than he bestowed his care on the cultivation and improvement of so valuable an acquisition.

Well, that's a nice thought, that a monarch should seek his "real" greatness; this follows closely on remarks on the dreadful Persian absolutism; presumably the whole is as close as one could safely get to admonishing any monarchs reading.

the officers of the revenue already began to number the Roman people, and to settle the proportion of the new taxes. Even when the spirit of freedom had been utterly extinguished, the tamest subjects have sometimes ventured to resist an unprecedented invasion of their property; but on this occasion the injury was aggravated by the insult, and the sense of private interest was quickened by that of national honor. The conquest of Macedonia, as we have already observed, had delivered the Roman people from the weight of personal taxes.

Julia Domna (for that was her name) deserved all that the stars could promise her. She possessed, even in advanced age, the attractions of beauty, and united to a lively imagination a firmness of mind, and strength of judgment, seldom bestowed on her sex. Her amiable qualities never made any deep impression on the dark and jealous temper of her husband; but in her son's reign, she administered the principal affairs of the empire, with a prudence that supported his authority, and with a moderation that sometimes corrected his wild extravagancies. Julia applied herself to letters and philosophy, with some success, and with the most splendid reputation. She was the patroness of every art, and the friend of every man of genius. The grateful flattery of the learned has celebrated her virtues; but, if we may credit the scandal of ancient history, chastity was very far from being the most conspicuous virtue of the empress Julia.

But when the last enclosure of the Roman constitution was trampled down by Caracalla, the separation of professions gradually succeeded to the distinction of ranks. The more polished citizens of the internal provinces were alone qualified to act as lawyers and magistrates. The rougher trade of arms was abandoned to the peasants and barbarians of the frontiers, who knew no country but their camp, no science but that of war no civil laws, and scarcely those of military discipline. With bloody hands, savage manners, and desperate resolutions, they sometimes guarded, but much oftener subverted, the throne of the emperors.

If we credit what should seem the most authentic of all records, an oration, still extant, and delivered by the emperor himself to the senate, we must allow that the victory of Alexander Severus was not inferior to any of those formerly obtained over the Persians by the son of Philip. The army of the Great King consisted of one hundred and twenty thousand horse, clothed in complete armor of steel; of seven hundred elephants, with towers filled with archers on their backs, and of eighteen hundred chariots armed with scythes.

Armor of steel, so early? Even in Persia? ... But perhaps the whole thing was made up by a ruler who wished to boast of a victory where he had suffered a distant defeat:

Far from being inclined to believe that the arms of Alexander obtained any memorable advantage over the Persians, we are induced to suspect that all this blaze of imaginary glory was designed to conceal some real disgrace.

The Persian nobles (so natural is the idea of feudal tenures) received from the king's bounty lands and houses, on the condition of their service in war.

Geography, history, and climate change (attributed to deforestations) -- because the Persians are fading, by this point in the narrative, and the Germanic tribes becoming irresistible:

Modern geologists have rejected this theory of the depression of the Baltic, as inconsistent with recent observation. The considerable changes which have taken place on its shores, Mr. Lyell, from actual observation now decidedly attributes to the regular and uniform elevation of the land. - Lyell's Geology, b. ii. c. 17 - M.]
Some ingenious writers have suspected that Europe was much colder formerly than it is at present; and the most ancient descriptions of the climate of Germany tend exceedingly to confirm their theory. The general complaints of intense frost and eternal winter, are perhaps little to be regarded, since we have no method of reducing to the accurate standard of the thermometer, the feelings, or the expressions, of an orator born in the happier regions of Greece or Asia. But I shall select two remarkable circumstances of a less equivocal nature. 1. The great rivers which covered the Roman provinces, the Rhine and the Danube, were frequently frozen over, and capable of supporting the most enormous weights. The barbarians, who often chose that severe season for their inroads, transported, without apprehension or danger, their numerous armies, their cavalry, and their heavy wagons, over a vast and solid bridge of ice. Modern ages have not presented an instance of a like phenomenon. 2. The reindeer, that useful animal, from whom the savage of the North derives the best comforts of his dreary life, is of a constitution that supports, and even requires, the most intense cold. He is found on the rock of Spitzberg, within ten degrees of the Pole; he seems to delight in the snows of Lapland and Siberia: but at present he cannot subsist, much less multiply, in any country to the south of the Baltic. In the time of Caesar the reindeer, as well as the elk and the wild bull, was a native of the Hercynian forest, which then overshadowed a great part of Germany and Poland.

on the east of the Tigris, the empire acquired the large and mountainous territory of Carduene, the ancient seat of the Carduchians, who preserved for many ages their manly freedom in the heart of the despotic monarchies of Asia. The ten thousand Greeks traversed their country, after a painful march, or rather engagement, of seven days; and it is confessed by their leader, in his incomparable relation of the retreat, that they suffered more from the arrows of the Carduchians, than from the power of the Great King. Their posterity, the Curds, with very little alteration either of name or manners, acknowledged the nominal sovereignty of the Turkish sultan.

The Kurds, isolate and intractable.

A secret but irrevocable sentence of death was pronounced against the usurper; he obtained only the same favor which he had indulged to Severus, and it was published to the world, that, oppressed by the remorse of his repeated crimes, he strangled himself with his own hands.

Is that exactly possible? ...maybe he had an accessory rope.

A numerous army of Italians was assembled under the lieutenants of Maxentius, in the plains of Turin. Its principal strength consisted in a species of heavy cavalry, which the Romans, since the decline of their discipline, had borrowed from the nations of the East. The horses, as well as the men, were clothed in complete armor, the joints of which were artfully adapted to the motions of their bodies. The aspect of this cavalry was formidable, their weight almost irresistible; and as, on this occasion, their generals had drawn them up in a compact column or wedge, with a sharp point, and with spreading flanks, they flattered themselves that they could easily break and trample down the army of Constantine. They might, perhaps, have succeeded in their design, had not their experienced adversary embraced the same method of defence, which in similar circumstances had been practised by Aurelian. The skilful evolutions of Constantine divided and baffled this massy column of cavalry.

The beginning of Western heavy cavalry? There's (at least one) extremely English book on the classical Roman roots of English horsemanship, with high medieval forms sort of assumed.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I; Project Gutenberg etext #731; try the HTML version, the footnotes upon footnotes are ill-served by this strictly plain-text one.

So wrote clew.

November 20, 2004

Jacquard's Web, James Essinger

Bruce Sterling divides technology into string and glue, doesn't he? String is older. Information technology was first a child of string (some children were lost).

Most people who care already know that the Jacquard loom used punch cards to store the amazingly complex patterns of fashionable brocade and damask cloth; Essinger can only stretch that out into a few chapters, mostly related to the economic importance of cloth, because not a lot is known about Jacquard's life and what is mostly comes before his inventing. The rest of the book is about the currently-more-interesting descent of computing, of which Jacquard's looms were parents twice: once to part of Babbage's machines, d.s.p., again to telegraphic paper tape, most fruitfully to Hollerith's punchcards. Hollerith was related to a weaver/industrialist who used Jacquard looms.

Quite a lot of this book is devoted to the history of I.B.M., descended mostly from Hollerith's company but also some others, including one that made cheese-slicers... Remington Rand is a more suitable example, since it was a powerful maker of typewriters partly from its experience in making sewing-machines, which required speed, precision and enough reliability to run without a dedicated maintenance team. It's not actually very surprising that clothing should have several times impelled a technological leap. It's a tempting use of capital, since so much money is spent on it at all times, and the standards are high; really good handwork is still better at some things than what machines can do. If the next industrial revolution is 'mass customization', it will probably start in clothes again. I hope so, because it's an offense to aesthetics that so many people have so many clothes that don't really fit.

I wonder if Hollerith's cards were the first time data lived naturally in a database. It's an error-inviting pain to fill out even a two-dimensional table by hand, let alone a deeper one.

It's a pity that information never went from cloth back into the machines; I imagine it as long-term storage: punch the cards until the design is right, weave a reference sample, and when the cards wear out unweave the sample through a machine that generates cards from cloth: then save the first weaving from those cards as the new reference. This wouldn't be a good idea, since punching more cards from cards is easy.

I also wonder where Jacquard got the idea for punched cards. (Or where one Falcon, who built the first but worse punchcard loom got it, if Jacquard got the idea from Falcon.) I have a Theory, actually; bobbin-lace patterns. Bobbin-lace was as expensive and slow to make as brocade, and the patterns changed with fashion much faster than one person could make up a suit of lace. Complicated patterns require pinholes punched into stiff card, which give a skilled lacemaker enough direction to make up the pattern. Middlemen made up many many cards corresponding to small pieces of a fashionable pattern and handed them out to lacemakers as they picked up the finished pieces from the last pattern. It would have been important that the patterns lined up well to be invisibly sewn together, although the threads did not weave from one piece into the next. I think there must have been a lot of these cards around, especially in a town as devoted to luxury clothing as Lyons was. It's still a big intellectual jump to switch from a human feeling with a pin to know where thread-crossing should go, to a machine that always crosses in the same places feeling a card to decide whether a crossing should happen; but it would explain why sheaves of punched cards 'looked like' information storage.

Online glossaries give 'lace cards' as a synonym for punchcards, but they also sometimes suggest that that only refers to a card with all possible holes punched out, giving it a resemblance to simple lace. On the other hand, that resemblance would provide an easy false etymology.

I can't find an online picture of how the early automatic lacemaking machines work, although Nottingham has a promising history of mostly-Nottingham lace machine inventions; the Jacquard idea came in after decades of improving knitting-frames to approximate the action of lace-twisting.

ISBN: 0192805770

August 31, 2004

A Calculating People, Patricia Cline Cohen

Subtitle: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America

The spread of numeracy is reasonably interesting if you're interested in economic history, or in how skills travel between "rote skills" and trade schools, and "knowledge" and liberal schooling. Reckoning was a practical, even embarrassingly practical, skill for hundreds of years of the rise of commerce; the first colonialists weren't especially numerate, since the Puritans believed in theological studies instead, and the tobacco planters were above such petty things. (I overstate.)

Some people found argument by number irresistible as soon as it was imaginable, though; for instance, the Virginia Company got into a long brangle over how many of its colonists had died, and of what. Also, of course, the rise of the organized state and of mercantilism paid for surveying, muster-lists, etc. Reckoning became a strength of the state. Around this time the rhetorical claim that women couldn't do arithmetic was swept under the rug in the interest of hiring math teachers out of a cheap labor supply.

My favorite chapter is on the Census of 1840, though, and most of that is about an error in the census, probably exacerbated by difficult form design, which followed a decade of brangling in the courts and had results that probably lasted through Jim Crow.

The most controversial "finding" was that the black population of the North appeared to be beset with epidemic rates of insanity, which suggested to some that "science," as revealed by tables of figures, had proved freedom to be detrimental to blacks.

By 1840 physicists had learned that you can't carry out chains of calculations on bad data and get good results; but most number-enthusiasts apparently started with the belief that a number, however arrived at, had more credibility than words. Sir William Petty, for instance, was more precise than accurate.

What was measured by the 1840 census was already skewed by interest. The age groups for blacks and whites were different, possibly to preclude comparing mortality. Insanity was to be measured to judge outlay for the support of dependents, employment was measured in more categories than the 1820 census had needed, the president wanted to know about military pensioners, education and literacy took up another several columns.

Each schedule contained seventy-four columns, with headings in microscopic type printed across the tops of two pages.

It would be only mildly interesting if a complex form had produced randomly untrustworthy data; but this one probably invited a particular error. Because the error was pleasant to racists, it became a popular claim even though it was inconsistent with the rest of the data in the same census, and was often explicitly disprovable.

So Jarvis checked for internal consistency and was mortified to find that many of the towns reported to harbor insane blacks in fact had no black population at all! A study of the printed statistics of other northern states turned up the same pattern...
...individual assistant marshals had indeed entered digits in the columns for "insane and idiot" blacks in families where there were no blacks.

This Jarvis, who was a member of both the American Statistical Association and of the Massachusetts Medical Society, worked out with his colleagues that it was common in the North for "insane or idiot" white family members to be listed in the column for black family members. The Census had already gone through a conflict, or even scandal, over who had the right to print it; and the printer Weaver made an excellent front for the political interest, i.e. John C. Calhoun, who wanted to use the results. Much I'm-rubber-you're-glue was printed, and I would guess that most of the country was already tired of the whole issue. Jarvis got no traction.

Cohen consulted the manuscript returns on microfilm, and has a theory as to why the error was systematic:

Suppose, then, that a certain number of senile whites were considered idiots in the common parlance but not insane; suppose that some fraction of them were entered in the column for insane and idiot blacks merely because the word "idiot" was not prominent in the section for whites, while the word "colored" was not prominent in the section for blacks. It stands to reason, then, that a series of ratios comparing insane blacks to the total black population would exhibit an interesting gradient from North to South and from East to West, because there was an excess of elderly people in the East and a deficiency of black people—the denominator of the ratio—in the North. In regions with large black populations, such as the South, the small numbers of errors recording senile whites would fade into insignificance.

Parallells to ballot design and climate data crunching are an exercise for the reader.

Genealogists use census data, so if you're willing to pay a modest sum, you can buy online access to images (of the microfilms of?) the census returns. Where the data is available as a database, I haven't found the categories relevant to this error listed at all. It looks as though many large libraries have the censuses in microfilm, at least the local censuses; but I admit I'm probably not going to hunt down an actual image of an inconsistent return, having failed to find one online.

ISBN: 0226112845

July 14, 2004

Cruel Delight, James A Steintrager

Subtitle: enlightenment culture and the inhuman

Nice work on a nasty subject, the conflation of pity, power, reason, and science with cruelty in the Enlightenment. It doesn't just remind one that science, medicine especially, developed with cruelty, but makes an argument that the delight in cruelty was more of the scientific impulse than one would like to think. I only skimmed it, as (one) I really ought to be working on a dozen other things, and (two) it draws lots of its evidence from Hogarth and de Sade. I accordingly noticed mostly the surgery & sex parts, which jump out because of the illustrations. I didn't do any justice to the arguments from the Scottish Enlightenment, which had most of the claims for kindness and sympathy as natural states; from Adam Smith, among others.

I did notice, among a dozen more things I want to read, a reference to a novel Melmoth the Wanderer by one Charles Maturin, which has a shipwreck in it; I want to read that and look for Patrick O'Brian's Maturin's slightly creepy scientific detachment.

Slightly later in the day, again distracted from those dozen things, I was drawn into Love at Goon Park; also about slightly creepy scientific detachment with results that were probably a boon to human suffering. Goon Park is the nickname of the psych lab where Harry Harlow did the paradigm-shattering experiments with wire-mother monkeys, and many follow-up experiments; all showing with great clarity that affection, even a pale simulacrum of affection, is as necessary for primate development as food.

The first experiment showed that baby macaques preferred a terry-cloth 'mother' to an equally warm wireframe 'mother', even if the latter had the milk. Follow-ons demonstrated that affection and socialization are needed for monkey development. This overturned a congeries of accepted theories, among them that babies had no particular attachment to their parents except as a source of food, that maternal affection led to needy stupidity, etc etc. The three amazing things in the summary of the experiments and the theories they overthrew are, first, that anyone could have had such cruel beliefs about humans or monkeys; second, that monkeys at least can develop well-enough given the least, barest, pathetic simulacrum of care - terrycloth is almost enough by itself; third and most relevant to Cruel Delight, that anyone who had the insight to start these experiments could be cruel enough to do them. Some of it was good old clinical detachment, some the knowledge that only controlled experiments would convince experts to stop prescribing cruelty in real life, and some was probably related to his own deep and repeated unhappiness. How would that heart weigh against a feather?

ISBN: 0253343674 (Cruel Delight)
ISBN: 0738202789 (Love at Goon Park)

September 21, 2003

Madame de Pompadour, Nancy Mitford

Pompadour was a long-term mistress of Louis XV of France; Louis XV was stuck with the court set up by his great-grandfather Louis XIV; France was therefore stuck with a government run far too personally. Mitford makes a case for Madame de Pompadour being personally a charming woman, and one who wanted to see the country run well and worked hard to help do so. Still, an education heavy on playwrights and singing did more to make her likable to her king than useful to her country.

He [Louis XV] grew up to be a charming man and an intelligent ruler with a high sense of duty, loving and, for many years, loved by his people. But the machinery by which he was expected to govern was long since worn out, and neither he nor his counsellors had the genius to devise anything better. He knew that something was wrong somewhere, but he was for ever caught in the terrible web spun by his terrible ancestor.

The "terrible ancestor" is Louis XIV, great-grandfather of Louis XV, and the terrible web is the centralization of power and status in the court. Mitford repeatedly has to remind us that an aristocrat of the period, however beautiful his or her estate, would wither if exiled from court - literally; they generally became either very fat or very thin, and departed life rather quickly. She didn't get across to me why this should be so, although some of the force must have been the closed society judging itself on its own rules, and another part the luxury of a court that had a state department of Les Menus Plaisirs.

Oddly, the king at the top of the closed society was not cut off from non-aristocratic France. Madame de Pompadour was born a bourgeois with scant noble connections, and iffy banking ones. She was probably first noticed by the King when driving her carriage to follow his hunt; the affair came to a point at the balls celebrating the Dauphin's marriage, where anyone arriving properly dressed was admitted. Fortunately her elocution and grace were enough to make her acceptable at court; she seems to have been kindly to almost everyone, though not always tactfully so, especially to the poor dull Queen.

Also, of course, she was devastatingly pretty in an age that loved prettiness. Not beautiful, nor was she sensual; it seems she always found sex exhausting enough to damage her health, and maybe never liked it, and anyway she had a long reign as his official mistress and obvious comforter after she and the King stopped committing adultery. Her great talents were also prettifications: she sang and acted well enough to support rôles by the great writers of the day; she designed lovely comfortable little houses, with little home farms; she commissioned artworks made of fragile pretty precious materials. Hardly any of this survives, as Mitford explains (with late-English-aristocrat regret).

Mitford's writing is light and charming, good at explaining the unspoken that 'everybody knows' and breezily asserting the unlikely - The Princess of Hesse Rhinevelt would have done very well if her mother had not been in the habit of giving birth alternately to daughters and hares. It's all a prettification of minor pleasures; the Continental wars that made way for the English empire, laid out as personal struggles between potentates mostly related to each other; unbelievably ornate parties, some of which came off; improbable minor characters, like the comfortable and luxurious exiled King of Poland.

United Europe has seldom been so nearly realized as it was after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748. The King of England was a German, the King of Spain was French. The Empress of Austria was married to a Lorrainer with a French mother, the King of France was half Italian and his Dauphin was half Polish with a German wife. ... During the last campaign of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1747 ... it so happened that none of the generals engaged was anative of the country for which he fought. ... the peace...left Europe divided by allegiances into two halves, the Austrian Empire, Russia, England, Holland and Sardinia, against France, Spain, the Two Sicilies, Prussia and Sweden; since it would clearly be an unprofitable venture for one of these halves to make war on the other, a long peace might have ensued, had it not been for a new factor. America and Asia were now entering into the calculations of statesmen. The English, who were determined to possess as vast an Empire in these continents as possible, were very anxious to keep their only rivals, the French, fully occupied in Europe while they acquired it.

Mitford, Nancy. Madame de Pompadour, New York: Random House, 1954.

June 11, 2003

Again, the Scots

A while ago I was dubious that How the Scots Invented the Modern World proved its claim. Ken MacLeod's The Early Days of a Better Nation today describes early eighteenth-century Scotland as the hinge "between the empires of capitalist England and absolutist France". This is his summary of Neil Davidson's Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692 - 1746, q.v.

April 19, 2003

Scientist, Soldier, Statesman, Spy: Count Rumford, G. I. Brown

A perplexingly thin book about a perplexing man. In so short a book, I don't know why we got summaries of both the American Revolution and Humphrey Davey's career: I can't imagine an English-speaking audience for Rumford's bio that hadn't a grasp of either.

Rumford was a Loyalist Ben Franklin; he spied for England during the American Revolution, left before the war was over, and surprisingly soon was a colonel in Bavaria. There, he wrote, he would 'endeavor to unite the interest of the soldier with the interest of civil sociey', which he did by treating the common soldiers more generously, with pay and leave and education. Here he started doing research into food and warmth (to efficiently keep the army fed & clothed) as well as the manufacture of guns. Changing the uniforms to make them seasonable required setting up manufacturies; since Bavaria had a beggar problem at the time, he staffed the factories by rounduing up all the beggars in Munich - but providing them with better food, clothing, education and healthcare than jobs there usually did. This was apparently a solid success in less than a decade, both in manufacturing clothes and in reintegrating beggars into respectable working society, 'on the principle of making the inmates happy before trying to make them virtuous'.

I would like more supporting evidence about that, and comparisons to orphanages and workhouses and settlement houses earlier and latr, because he seems to have been rather ahead of his time.

It wasn't popular with the powerful in Bavaria. Back in England, he published his research into effective nutrition and heating. He also had a complex and never restful private life, not very private and overblessed with extramarital children. He had money partly because he invented useful things: better lamps, stoves, fireplaces - including the damper - pressure cookers, institutional kitchens. Not only did he want food to be cooked well and at a low expense in fuel, but he thought out how to make the vast kitchens comfortable and efficient for the cook. That was way ahead of its time, though not before need. Also: portable field stoves for armies; drip-pots for coffee; and an awful cheap recipe for breadline soup. Not even the coffeepot is the foundation of his fame; that's because he proved the kinetic, vs. the caloric, theory of heat, by observations from boring cannon.

With these successes, and philanthropical intent, he set the foundation of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (applied science) but he still wasn't a master of politics, and it was soon left to others. Rumford dwindled into an unhappy marriage to Lavoisier's widow and died in France.

I want to know what he actually thought of people, because it is much less clear from his biography than most. It seems odd that he was socially so attached to the nobility while pursuing the comfort of soldiers and servants. Did he get, or get away with, the latter because he was an American and therefore not an aristocrat? Did he sleep with everyone, but only the noblewomen published their letters about it? Was he kindly to the poor to make the lower orders stronger cogs, or because that was the other form of social interaction he was good at, or what?

Baking-powder isn't mentioned at all, although his name and silhouette are on Rumford baking powder. It's just the sort of thing he might have invented, in order to have biscuits with coffee for five hundred, and it seems a proper honor that the baking powder gets the name because its inventor once held the Rumford Chair for achievements in science and cooking.

ISBN: 0-7509-2674-0

So wrote clew.