Tuesday, 28 October 2008

How The Word 'Beggar' Came Into Being.

A 12th century Flemish priest Lambert le Bègue, (d c1187), was deeply perturbed by the pitiful sight of the many destitute wives and children of men who had lost their lives during the Second Crusade. He made it his special mission to assist such homeless widows and orphans. To house them, he established refuges all over the area. It did not take long for them to be called after the priest who had done so much for them, to be referred to as a Bèghard. That is how the word “beggar” came into the world.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Biggest Ever Win

This little piece about the biggest ever winning margin in a football game is taken from an article I did for the Scotland Magazine titled "50 Things You Didn't Know About Scotland."
Arbroath F.C. holds the world record for the largest winning margin in a senior football match, 36-0, in their Scottish Cup match against a scratch team from Aberdeen Bon Accord. On a wet day at Gayfield, 13-goal John Petrie led the rampant home team, a feat which is still recognised as the highest by one man in a single game.
Meanwhile 20 miles away Dundee Harp ran them close by beating Aberdeen Rovers 35-0 on the same day.
The man who refereed the Bon Accord game, Dave Stormont, revealed in a newspaper article many years later, that the Lichties could actually have won 43-0. He said: “My only regret was that I chalked off seven goals, for while they may have looked doubtful from an offside point of view, so quickly did the Maroons carry the ball from midfield, and so close and rapid was their passing, that it was very doubtful whether they could be offside”.

An Anglican Worshipper's View of Mary the Mother of Jesus

This is a talk I gave at my Anglican church on 21st March 2004, which was Mother's Day.

Through the many centuries of church history, the mother of Jesus has achieved a status second only to Jesus himself in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other churches. She has been the focus of much debate and the subject of some of the greatest art in the Western world. Many of the finest medieval cathedrals are dedicated to her—including the Gothic masterpiece in Chartres, France.
In some denominations she has been venerated and worshipped, while in others she has been almost entirely ignored.
(1) Mary was young, poor and female, all characteristics that to the people of her day would make her unusable by God for any major task. But God chose Mary for one of the most important acts of obedience he has ever demanded of anybody.
A young unmarried girl who became pregnant risked disaster. Unless the father of the child agreed to marry her, she would probably remain unmarried for life. If her own father rejected her, she could be forced into begging or prostitution in order to earn her living. And Mary, with her story about being made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, risked being considered crazy as well. Still Mary said, despite the possible risks, “May it be to me as you have said”. When Mary said that, she didn’t know about the tremendous opportunity she would have.” She only knew that God was asking her to serve him & she willingly obeyed. Mary was obedient to God.
God’s announcement of a virgin born was believed by Mary. She believed the angel’s words & agreed to bear the child, even under humanly impossible circumstances. Mary was a woman of faith.
Mary worshipped God in a beautiful way. In Luke 1 v46-55 we see the Magnificat, when Mary proclaimed “My soul glorifies the Lord & my spirit rejoices in God my saviour”. This beautiful lyrical poem is called the Magnificat as that is the first word in the Latin translation of the passage and her song of praise to the Lord has been used as the basis for much choral music and hymns. The Magnificat also shows that despite being just a young country woman, Mary had a good knowledge of the Old Testament as it corresponds to the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 v 1-10 and it also quotes liberally from various Psalms. William Wordsworth declared this to be what all lyrical poetry should be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling”. Mary knew the Old Testament thoroughly and many portions especially the lyrical portions such as the song of Hannah, of by heart. That is why their language became the natural vehicle of her praises.
(2)Mary had confidence in her Son. An example being when Mary plus Jesus and his disciples were attending a wedding in Cana. When they ran out of wine, an embarrassing situation, which broke the strong unwritten laws of hospitality Jesus’ mother, looked to her son to solve this major problem. She said to the servants “Do whatever he tells you”. As I’m sure you recall from your Sunday school days Jesus solved the problem by turning water into wine.
(3) Mary was the one person to be with Jesus from birth to death. We see in John 19 v 25-26 at the cross of Jesus stood Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, his aunt and Mary herself. When Jesus saw his mother there and John standing nearby he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son", and to John “Here is your mother” and from that time on John took her into his home. Even after the ascension, Mary along with other women joined together with the disciples in the upper room to pray.

So how did Mary come to be so venerated and indeed worshipped in some denominations? Probably the earliest allusion to Mary in Christian literature is the phrase “born of woman” in Galatians 4:4, which was written before any of the Gospels. This was the only vague reference to Mary that St Paul made. The term itself was intended to establish that Jesus was fully human in contrast to the teaching of some that he did not have a completely human life. Both Luke and Matthew tell of the birth of Jesus in detail (Whether or not the story of the Annunciation in the first chapter of Luke is intended to suggest a similar parallel between Eve and Mary, this did soon become a theme of Christian reflection.) Writing at about the end of the 2nd century, the Church Father Irenaeus elaborated the parallel between Eve, who, as a virgin, had disobeyed the word of God, and Mary, who, also as a virgin, had obeyed it.
Of Mary's later life nothing is known. There is a tradition, probably from the 2nd century, that she went to live in Ephesus in Asia Minor. The veneration of the Virgin Mary possibly started there when the worship of the Roman goddess Diana, or Greek Artemis, whose great temple stood in Ephesus was transferred to Mary. This may have happened when paganism was outlawed and pagan temples destroyed in the 4th century.
The first widespread theological controversy over Mary had to do with the propriety of applying to her the title of Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer” or “mother of God.” The title seems to have arisen in devotional usage, probably in Alexandria, sometime in the 3rd or 4th century; it was a logical deduction from the doctrine of the full deity of Christ, which was established as a dogma during the 4th century. The original aim of the title “bearer of God” for Mary was to honour the divine son. By the end of the 4th century, the Theotokos had successfully established itself in various sections of the church. Because it seemed to him that the supporters of the title were blurring the distinction between the divine and the human in Christ, Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, objected to its use, preferring the less explicit title Christotokos, meaning “Christ-bearer” or “mother of Christ.” Along with other aspects of his teaching, Nestorius' objections were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 & Mary was solemnly declared to be the mother of God. In the Eastern churches this doctrine played a major devotional role and became a favorite subject for icon painters.
After Mary was declared to be mother of God at the Council of Ephesus, most theologians began to doubt that one who had been so close to God could have actually experienced sinful acts. In the 12th century the British theologian Duns Scotus asserted that she was free of sin from the moment of conception. Hence arose the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which became a dogma (something that must be believed) in the Roman Catholic Church in 1854.
The growth of popular devotion in the 12th century greatly advanced the role of the Virgin Mary. She became the “universal mother” the great intercessor with her divine son. The story of mother and son had great human appeal. Mary’s appeal was as the beloved mother and protectress of all men. No sin was too dreadful, no transgression too vile to escape her compassionate pleading with her son on behalf of the sinner. The introduction from the East of the rosary with its prayers to the virgin gave additional support to her cult in the West. Peasants, knights and kings begged her help and she became a romantic obsession. With the rise of the tradition of chivalry, Mary became the focus of a romantic cult that is difficult for the modern mind to appreciate. The great Gothic cathedrals cannot be fully understood until it is recalled that they were built partly as trophies for a beautiful woman, forever young, for ever kind.
In late medieval Europe religion became more personal, more individual. The suffering Christ replaced God, the stern judge. The pitiful Virgin Mary became more human and the cult of the Virgin became increasingly popular. Shrine after shrine was dedicated to her throughout Europe. The use of the rosary, the “Hail, Mary” and feasts of the Virgin became increasingly popular.
The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is the most recent dogma to be proclaimed. about Mary. Again around the 12th century most Roman Catholics had come to believe that Mary was taken up to heaven body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. By the 1860s many were petitioning that this belief be stated as a dogma. The church was at first reluctant to do so because there is no evidence for such a teaching either in the New Testament or in early church history. In 1950 Pope Pius XII finally confirmed the dogma, leaving open the question as to whether she had died first.
With the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century came the teaching that the believer came into direct relation and union with Christ, as the one, only all-sufficient source of grace. His grace is available to the penitent believer by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Word of God. This meant Protestant churches could do away with the need for the Virgin as mediator between the sinner and Christ.
In 1993 I had the privilege of spending four months working with Catholics in Ireland. Before I went I thought of Catholicism as being an idolatrous denomination where Mary is worshipped and placed on the same level as Christ. However I found the true believers in the Catholic Church, those who seeked the Scriptures for themselves and were open to the leading of the Holy Spirit still greatly respected and indeed venerated Mary to a degree very few Protestants do without crossing the line into worship. It was a respect for a poor young country woman who was chosen by God for a quite scary task- to father his son, the saviour of the world and redeemer of mankind. It was veneration for someone who proved equal to this mammoth task, who despite the potential social suicide in those days of giving birth whilst still single with doubts about the father remained obedient, faithful, soaked up the scriptures and was a trusting and loyal mother to her son. On this mother’s day I would like to salute Mary the mother of Jesus.

Love is the End

I purchased this week, Keane's new album Perfect Symmetry. In the main I'm disappointed, as I feel it doesn't have the melodies of their first two albums though I admire them for developing their sound. My favourite track is the last one "Love is the End," which features the eerie sound of a musical saw. I've sent off to www.Songfacts.com some information on each one of the album's tracks including this little snippet on the musical saw.

The musical saw is a regular hand saw used as a musical instrument, which produces an ethereal sound similar to a theremin. They have been used for over a century, Marlene Dietrich, for instance performed with a musical saw when entertaining the troops during World War II. Among contemporary artists who play it are Tom Waits, Eels and Sarah McLachlan. Additionally Mercury Rev used it extensively on their Deserter’s Songs and All is Dream albums. In Britain its popularity increased thanks to the success of a young sawist named Austin Blackburn on ITV’s talent reality show Britain’s Got Talent. Its best known use in the cinema was in the French black comedy Delicatessen, where Louison (Dominique Pinon) plays the saw accompanied by Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) on the cello.
The Andean Mountains of South America is the birthplace of the white potato. By around 2000BC The Aymara Indians had developed over two hundred varieties on the Titicaca Plateau at elevations above 10,000 feet.
The influence of potatoes permeated the Incan culture in medieval Peru. For instance Incan units of time correlated to how long it takes for a potato to cook to various consistencies. Potatoes were even used to divine the truth and predict weather.
The Incas stored their potatoes and other food crops on the Andean mountain heights. The cold mountain temperature freezed the food and the water inside slowly vaporised under the low air pressure of the high altitudes. This was the first instance of freeze drying food.
The 16th century Spanish invaders in South America first came across the potato when entering a Colombian village from which the inhabitants had fled. They originally thought they were truffles.
The Spanish introduced the potato to Europe but most Europeans were originally suspicious of them, in part because people realized that the potato is a member of the nightshade family, all of which are very poisonous. Though they became a standard supply item on the Spanish ships as it was noticed that the sailors who ate potatoes did not suffer from scurvy, for the next 200 years it was generally damned as an evil food in Europe. The Scots refused to eat the potato because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible and in other European countries they were blamed for starting outbreaks of leprosy and syphilis.
By the late 17th century the Irish had recognised the food value of potatoes and became the first country in Europe to plant potatoes as a staple food crop rather than using it primarily as animal fodder. And in 1719 the first permanent potato patches in North America were established near Londonderry, New Hampshire.
In the Mid 18th century the Prussian ruler, Frederick the Great ordered his people to plant and eat potatoes, as a deterrent to famine. The people's fear of poisoning forced him to enforce his orders by threatening to cut off the nose and ears of those who refused. Unsurprisingly, this was effective and with a decade potatoes became a basic part of the Prussian diet.
Later in the 18th century a young French agriculturist and chemist, Antoine Augustin Parmentier, made it his mission to popularise the potato after his experience as prisoner of war in Prussia the spud was part of his diet. He wrote books and pamphlets to dispel the beliefs of many that potatoes cause leprosy and fevers and even persuaded the queen, Marie Antoinette to wear potato flowers to ornament her dress. Parmentier achieved his goals, and by the 1780s potato dishes were being created in great variety and the humble spud had become a delicacy enjoyed by the nobility. Meanwhile the French populace was coveting potatoes for themselves and by the end of the century most of Europe were eating them.
In the late 18th century Belgian street vendors were selling thin fried potatoes called "Belgian fries" from pushcarts and soon the French adapted the idea and their version became known as "French Fries". In 1789 Thomas Jefferson brought back with him to America the joys of fried potatoes after sampling them in Paris. He described them as "potatoes, fried in the French manner" with beefsteak. In the 1860s the popularity of chips in England increased as a result of the opening of fish and chip shops such as Joseph Malin’s in London.
In early 19th century Ireland, potatoes were the mainstay of the diet of poor peasants. However between 1845-48 there was a crop crisis caused by potato blight and the ensuing famine was extreme. The famine devastated the crop and depopulated the island. Some 750,000 people died and over one million emigrated, most of them to the United States. As a result the Irish adopted a more cautious attitude toward dependence on potatoes.
In 1852 a part Native Indian chef George Crum invented potato crisps by accident, thanks to a fussy customer. Industrialist Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt came to the Moon Lake House Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Crum was a chef and ordered "thinner than normal French fried potatoes." Vanderbilt kept sending them back to Crum, protesting that they were too thick. Finally, out of spite the chef sliced the potatoes paper-thin, so that he wouldn’t be able to eat them with a fork then, fried them to a crisp in oil, and splashed salt on them. The fussy industrialist loved them. These "potato crunches" as Crum called them became a regular feature of the hotel’s menu.
During the 1898 Alaskan Klondike gold rush, potatoes were virtually as valuable as gold. Potatoes were so esteemed for their nutritious content that miners were trading gold for potatoes. In Britain during the Second World War there was a Ministry of Food campaign which used the slogan, " potatoes are good for you." This proved so successful that a new campaign had to be started saying "potatoes are fattening."
In 1995 the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space. NASA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison created the technology with the goal of feeding astronauts on long space voyages, and eventually, feeding future space colonies.
Extracted from Food For Thought: Extraordinary Little Chronicles of the World by Ed Pearce

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Why Alexander the Great Never Conquered Jerusalem

By 333BC Alexander of Macedon had unified the city states of Greece and his army was now sweeping down the Mediterranean coast towards Egypt. On the way he turned toward Jerusalem, planning to lay siege to it. Word reached the Jews there that the Macedonian army was on its way. Well aware of the danger, the high priest, a godly old man by the name of Jaddua, asked the people to pray to God for his mercy and protection.
Then Jaddua clad in his white priestly robes and carrying the sacred writings of the Jewish prophet Daniel formed a procession to meet Alexander outside the city together with his fellow priests.
The Macedon king unexpectedly left his army and hurried alone to meet this body of priests and greet them warmly. Alexander told the high priest that back home in Macedonia, when he'd been considering how he might obtain control of Asia, God had shown him an old man, robed in a white garment, who told him not to delay. God added that the old man would show him something of great significance to himself. Hearing this Jaddua opened the prophecies of Daniel and read them to Alexander. When Jaddua reached the scripture that prophesied a shaggy goat, the king of Greece, who would come from the West and destroy the power of the Persians and conquer the world, Alexander was so overwhelmed that not only did he declare he would leave Jerusalem alone, but he accompanied the high priest to the Jerusalem temple where he offered sacrifice to God, as directed by the high priest.
If you are interested in finding out more on Alexander the Great- check out this: Alexander The Great Trivial Biography

Sunday, 19 October 2008


I gave this message on the topic of forgiveness on September 11th 2005.
When Mehmet Ali Agcan shot and wounded Pope John Paul 2nd on 13/5/1981, it was the culmination of a lifetime of bitterness and hatred. He was locked up in Rome’s Rebibba prison. One late December day, two and a half years later, the pope in an act of Christian forgiveness sat for over 20 minutes in Mehmet’s cell holding the hand that held the gun.
The call of Jesus is to walk in forgiveness.
The power of forgiveness is amazing. It melts hearts.
We can choose to receive forgiveness or not. We can choose to forgive or not. The language of forgiveness and reconciliation is not primarily the language of the world. However as William Blake wrote “In Heaven, the only art of living is forgetting and forgiving.”
(a) It's not forgetting about something. Or justifying something. (Maybe he was right when he made that nasty comment.) That doesn’t deal with the issue of the heart.
(b) It’s not making excuses
(c) It’s not condoning that which is wrong. (Luke 17 v 3 says “If your brother sins, rebuke him and if he repents, forgive him.)
(d) It’s not cheap or superficial.
A Sunday school class was being quizzed on the prodigal son. The teacher asked one youngster, “who was sorry when the prodigal son returned home?” The boy gave it a lot of deep thought then said “The fatted calf”
We have seen over the last fiveteen years or so many heroic men and women who despite suffering terribly have forgiven their enemies such as Gordon Wilson who lost daughter in the Eniskillen bombing and Nelson Mandela
(a) Forgiveness is a conscious decision. It often involves deeds and words. In Genesis we see Joseph forgiving his brothers who sold him into slavery. He tells them "I will you provide for you, because five years of famine are still to come. Then he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Joseph forgave them with deeds and words."
(b) Forgiveness is something that God does in our heart
My Wordsworth Concise English Dictionary describes forgiveness as “To pardon, to overlook”. If you forgive in your heart any grievance resulting from the act with which the other person wronged you is erased and disappears."
We can put forgiveness into compartments. We can forgive A but not B. But Jesus said in the Lords prayer everyone is to be forgiven. (In the NIV version Luke 11v4 “Forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone who sins against us").
The book Miracle on the River Kwai tells how for three years prisoners of war were tortured and ridiculed by the Japanese. Many died at their hands. At the end of the war some defeated Japanese soldiers were herded onto a train, without water on their way home. The ex prisoners of war came up to them and bathed their wounds and gave them their water from their rations to drink. Even in those extreme circumstances the allied ex prisoners of war forgave their enemy.
(a) Everything should be forgiven. During World War II, a group of Belgian teenagers were in a church together repeating the words of the Lords prayer. After they had said “Forgive us our trespasses”, they hesitated before going onto the next phrase as they were deeply incensed against those who had overrun their country and devastated so much of it. During the pause, a voice behind them said, "As we forgive those who trespass against us”. They turned and saw the speaker was the deposed King Leopold III of Belgium who had lost everything except his soul.
(b) We should forgive whether it is big or small. On the night of 14/11/1940 much of Coventry city centre was destroyed by Nazi bombers including the cathedral. A wooden cross was placed on the original altar which is now part of the approach to the new cathedral. Behind the cross is an inscription, “Father, forgive”.
(c) What people have done to us or omitted to
(a) We should forgive everytime. Oscar Wilde once quipped “Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.”
In Matthew 18 v21-22 Peter asked Jesus how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." The rabbis taught that people should forgive those who offend them-but only three times. Peter, trying to be especially generous, asked Jesus if seven (the ‘perfect’ number was enough times to forgive someone.) But Jesus answered “Seventy-seven” times, meaning that we shouldn’t even keep track of how many times we forgive someone. We should always forgive those who are truly repentant, no matter how many times they ask.
(b) We should forgive now or ASAP before resentment starts festering inside you. The longer you leave it, the harder it becomes.
(c) It is the responsibility for us to act and not for the other person to come to us first
(a) Matthew 6 v14-15 "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you don’t not forgive men their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.”
Not to forgive is rejecting what Jesus did on the cross. A man said to John Wesley, “I’ll never forgive you." Wesley replied, “then pray that you’ll never sin.” If we confess our sins to God and forgive those who upset us, God will forgive us. This cycle of confession and forgiveness maintains our relationship with God.
(b) Proverbs 3 v3-4 “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, wrote them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favour and a good name in the sight of God and man."
Bruce Olsen was called to minister to the Motilove Indians in the Columbia jungle. They shot him down with an arrow and kept him virtually as a prisoner with minimum food for a month and ill-treated him in many other ways before he escaped. But he forgave them, went back and a few years later most of the tribe were converted to Christianity.
(c) Unforgiveness breeds resentment, which breeds bitterness. When Ramon Naverez, a Spanish 19th century General and Prime Minister was on his deathbed, his priest asked him if he’d forgiven his enemies. Naverez replied, “I do not have to forgive my enemies. I have had them all shot.”
(d) Unforgiveness gives an avenue for the devil and makes us capable of anything.
“Revenge at first though sweet, bitter ere long back on itself recoils” Paradise Lost Book 9.
"Current medical research indicates that persons who are unforgiving are more susceptible to a variety of illnesses than are their more tolerant counterparts. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that type A personalities (long thought to be particularly prone to cardiovascular illness) are NO MORE LIKELY than anyone else to suffer heart attack or stroke. The culprit, researchers say now, is anger. Type A persons are in danger only if they carry around unresolved hostility. It is anger, not activity, that places a person at risk." (The Abingdon Preaching Annual 1996 - edited by Michael Duduit, page 307)
A woman who disliked a singularly obnoxious neighbour was put in a bad mood every morning when, standing at her sink fixing breakfast, she would see him driving off to work. Finally one morning she watched him drive away, and as the familiar feeling of resentment began to rise, she whispered to herself "He is a person for whom Christ Jesus died". That morsel of theological insight - applied to her neighbour - was the antidote to her resentment.
Dwight Eisenhower said “I make it a practice to avoid hating anyone. If someone’s been guilty of despicable actions especially towards me, I try to forget him. I used to follow a practice to write the man’s name on a piece of scrap of paper, drop it in the lowest drawer of my desk and say to myself, “That finishes the incident”."
(a) Forgiveness is an act of will. Think of all that God has forgiven you Luke 6 v 36 "Be merciful, just as your father is merciful." Colossians 3 v13 “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you have against each other. Forgive as the Lord forgave you."
(b) You sometimes need God’s grace-the Holy Spirit to forgive. As CS Lewis said “everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”
(c) We should ask God for the right opportunity to forgive. When a person doesn’t receive forgiveness from us, we need to pray for them.

Alton Ellis

Yesterday I sent to http://www.songfacts.com/ this contribution concerning the 1965 song Get Ready- Rock Steady by the late Alton Ellis.
This song featured the pianist Jackie Mittoo and was recorded for Arthur "Duke" Reid's Treasure Isle label. The innovative rocksteady beat came about because the scheduled bassist didn't show up for a session and Mittoo was consequently forced to play the bass part himself. The pianist’s left hand couldn't keep up with the frantic ska beat, so he decided to slow down the tempo. This resulted in a choppier rhythm, which enabled Ellis to stretch out more.
This genre-defining song was the first number to use the term ‘rocksteady’ and was arguably the first rocksteady single. Ellis recalled: "I spearheaded that sound without a doubt! I was off the scene for a while during the ska period and when I returned and joined the Treasure Isle studio, I came there with a different mood. The musicians picked up on that and we kept on going in that direction. The music became slower, which gave the bass player the time to play more notes. In 1965 I named it rocksteady."
Alton Ellis was a Jamaican musician who was known as the "Godfather of Rocksteady." His songs slowed down to rocksteady the frantic ska beat that was the popular sound in Jamaica in the early 1960s. Between 1965 and 1967 rocksteady dominated the Jamaican airwaves and Ellis, with the help of a backup vocal trio called the Flames, scored a number of hits. Subsequently this emphasis of the slower tempo evolved into reggae. One of his 1960s hits "I’m Still in Love" formed the basis for Althia and Donna’s 1978 UK chart-topping "Uptown Top Ranking". Ellis moved to England in the 1970s as his career declined, but he returned to popularity in the 1990s because of a rocksteady trend in Jamaica and Europe. In 2006, Ellis was inducted into the International Reggae and World Music Awards Hall of Fame. He died in London on October 10, 2008 and was survived by his wife and over 20 children.

Why The French Eat Snails

For some reason I've been asked to give a talk at the Cranbrook & Tenterden Food & Drink Festival on the culinary history of snails. I have never eaten a snail in my life & know nothing about escargots except they are slow and the French eat them. However as I've been promised an opportunity to sell my book Food For Thought in a book signing at the same event I thought I'd give it a go. So for those who are interested here's a precis of my talk.
Snails have been eaten for thousands of years. Presumably they were an easy animal for the prehistoric hunter/gatherers to catch. Discarded roasted snail shells are a frequent component of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean area. Some food historians have argued that the snail was the first animal to be herded and bred for food. The reason for this is that they are relatively easy to cultivate. They are an efficient food, self-packed in a shell, which serves as a plate, the waste is small, the nutrition excellent. The snail was the very first ready meal!
It was the Romans who really developed the industrial breeding of snails. In the same way that Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone and the Wright Bros, the first aeroplane, you might be wondering, who was the snail-farming equivalent of Johan Gutenberg or John Logie Baird? Pliny tells us that Fulvius Hirpinus was the first to engage in snail-farming at Tarquinium, a Tuscan city not far from Rome about the year 50 B.C. Fulvius’ snail garden had varied species of snails with separate sections for each species and he fed them on wine and cornmeal. As time went on, the Romans developed ‘snaileries’ where a species of large snail, probably the Burgundy snail were kept in special farms, fattened on a diet of bran, flour, herbs, milk and wine dregs and bred for such characteristics as size, colour and fertility. When they were almost full-grown, they were transferred to jars with airholes. When they were so fat that they could not retreat into their shells, they were fried and served with wine and a fish sauce condiment known as liquamen. The latter, which was the Roman equivalent of tomato ketchup as it was served with everything, was made from the gills, blood and the inside of the fish and was then left with salt to stew in the sun.
Now I’d like you to imagine you are a guest at a Roman aristocrat’s banquet, which would include snails. Before eating you will have changed clothes putting on a woollen tunic provided for this purpose. The dishes will be presented first to the master of the house, accompanied by music and a servant executing a dance step. Meanwhile the guests, both men and women, will eat reclining with a crown of flowers over their head. If one of you becomes too full to eat anymore, a servant will be called over to tickle your throat. You will then vomit into a special bowl kept for that purpose, and proceed with the rest of the meal. Don’t worry if you belch, belching at the table is a sign of politeness. The banquets will be livened up by performances of acrobats, dancers, flute players and theatrical performances. Knives and spoons are only occasionally used, most people will eat with their fingers despite the prevalence of sticky sauces, however when it comes to the snails, which will be one of your favourite dishes, you will use a spoon with a pointed handle that can be used as a prong to extract the snails from their shells.
During the expansion of the Roman Empire snail culture was introduced into the countries that came under its control. It was of course the Romans who introduced snails to Britain, but when they left 500 years later, they took with them their recipe for snail a la liquamen leaving the Brits to feast on vegetable gruel, pottage and other delicious medieval recipes.
But how did snails catch on in France? After all today the French consume 40,000 metric tons of snails each year, which is a lot of escargots.
When Caesar invaded Gaul, his legionnaires munched on snails, introducing this gastropod to the French, where it became a culinary sensation. The Gauls, it seemed, enjoyed them as a dessert. In medieval France, monasteries and convents had a monopoly on snail farming. They had special snail parks there, where the escargots were stock-piled in barrels and brought out during festivals and in times when food was scarce.
By the sixteenth century it is clear that they were being served at banquets and snail sales were going through the roof. Monsieur or mademoiselle would cook them in a variety of ways, fried with oil or onion, cooked on skewers or simply boiled. Just as according to Sir Jimmy Saville, the 1970s was the age of the rail or train, so the 16th century was the age of the snail in France. In fact dining on snails was so fashionable that the Catholic Church classified them, along with frogs and turtles, as “fish” and they were therefore allowed to be devoured on Fridays, Lent and other meatless days without incurring the wrath of the church.
Of particularly interest is their inclusion in a little booklet published in 1530, with the catchy title of “Noteworthy Treatise Concerning the Properties of Turtles, Snails, Frogs and Artichokes” by Estienne Laigue. The author criticised four foods that he felt were all equally bizarre but popular with his contemporaries. Of the four, he was kindest to the snail. He wrote “I know snails are ugly, but not so hideous as turtles, nor so vile, and nothing like as poisonous; I also know that the ancients ate them, but I can’t accept people’s eating them daily, since other foods are more nourishing and of better substance.” The association of the three newly classified fish, that is turtles, snails and frogs was to be a constant in French cookbooks virtually from then. This was not only because they could be eaten on meatless days but also, there have always been people, like Laigue, who consider these foods unconventional. I’ve not been able to come up with an intelligent suggestion as to why Laigue particularly highlighted artichokes as well as the three supposed fishes, so as this blog is on snails rather than artichokes I’ll think I’ll just move on...
After 1560 snails went into a decline, culminating in a virtual banishment from refined tables in France for around 250 years. The evidence for this is abundant. If a cookery book gave a recipe for snails, it would be with an apology for introducing such a distasteful food-stuff. The 17th century French writer Nicolas de Bonnefons, who was also a valet at the court of Louis XIV, for instance was “astonished that the odd tastes of man had led him as far as this depraved dish in order to satisfy the extravagance of gluttony.”
In Paris in 1815, not one of the best restaurants had snails on the menu. There is, however, evidence that, although snails were absent from Parisian tables at the turn of the 19th century, they were being eaten in provincial France, particularly in Alsace and Lorraine
After the Napoleonic wars, the great snail comeback began after Talleyrand asked the celebrated French chef Careme to prepare some for the dinner which he gave for the Czar of Russia.
Meanwhile French wine merchants who went to eastern France each year on buying trips had to stay at the local inns where they were frequently served snails that had been gathered from the surrounding vineyards. The mollusc meal was commented upon in a complimentary manner by the merchants when they returned to their homes in Paris. An early 19th century Michael Winner might have reviewed the snail as an unusual but savoury dish. Enough interest was gradually aroused to the point where one of the coaches that travelled between Auxerre and Paris was hired to bring the first baskets of snails to the markets of the French capital.
The comeback sped up in the middle of the 19th century with the advent of the railroad meaning snails were not transported at snail pace any longer. Now they could be transported greater distances by train while still fresh. In this way new markets were developed not only in France but also in Italy and Spain.
The comeback was sealed by the spread of brasserie cafes to Paris by refugees who came from Alsace-Lorraine after the 1870 war. The snail-loving refugees incorporated the molluscs onto the menus and achieved so complete a reinstatement of the escargot that it has stayed in place ever since. Vive l’escargot!