Monthly Archives: May 2014

A Baker’s Dozen: Avoiding Serious Punishments

Hello everyone. I hope you all had a good long weekend.

Here we go.

For the most part, bakeries sell their food by the dozen, or batches of twelve, but many continue to advertize sales which call for a baker’s dozen. When you ask for this, you’ll always get thirteen pieces of whatever you ordered, for the price of twelve. At first thought, it may seem like an arbitrary number, but the idea are well founded, & probably saved more than a few lives.

To figure out what in the world the tradition means, we have to go back about four thousand years & work our way forward.

One of the earliest milestones of human civilization was the city of Babylon. It was located on the site of modern day Baghdad & as such an important city in our history, it gave birth to many ideas, which we still use variations of today. One of these fundamentals to society was one of the first comprehensive codes of law ever written. Bakers just happened to fit into this set of laws in a very strict way.

Here’s how:

A bustling city needs its inhabitants to be fed & Babylon was no different. So, what did they turn to to feed the population? Bread. Historical records show that because wheat is easy to grow & grind into flour, foods made from the grain have been a primary food source since he dawn of mankind. Because of this need for food & the widespread knowledge of how to cultivate wheat, bakeries were prominent around early cities.

While most of the shopowners were honest, some of them were sneaky & took advantage of their patrons. At the time, the baker’s standard was to give them a box of twelve loaves of bread. This was before any laws were put into practice to protect the customers’ interests, so bakers would produce smaller loaves, or if they were feeling exceptionally audacious that day, they’d short them a loaf. More money could be made because people would unknowingly spend the same amount for less bread.

Well, people started to catch on & quickly became sick of being cheated out of food, so much so that laws were passed to prevent it from happening. If you were a baker in Babylon & you cheated someone out of bread, your hand would be chopped off. Fast forward to Ancient Egypt, & your ear would be cut off & nailed to your bakery door. That’s how important bread was to those early societies.

Rules like this remained the same for almost two thousand years, until they faded into obscurity. Once this happened, the bread based conning started to become an apparent problem again. Slowly, people started to notice again & just like before, became upset. In fact, the issue became so prominent, that King Henry III of England, tired of being shorted, himself, lost his patience. In the 1260s, he called his court into session, specifically to address this. Out of this meeting, a law was passed, which stated that the weight of a wheat kernel in relation to the weight of a coin had a direct correlation on what to charge for loaf of bread & a gallon of wine. The law was called the Assize of Bread and Ale Act & it went something like this:

By the consent of the whole realm of England, the measure of the king was made; that is to say: that an English penny, called a sterling round, and without any clipping, shall weigh thirty-two wheat corns in the midst of the ear, and twenty-pence do make an ounce, and twelve ounces one pound, and eight pounds do make a gallon of wine, and eight gallons of wine do make a London bushel, which is the eighth part of a quarter.

 

This was groundbreaking, as it regulated the standard weight of a loaf, while letting the price of a loaf to fluctuate based on the market price of wheat. Before long, penalties for cheating customers were brought back into play, with various claims as to what they were. Some historians advocate that the punishment was flogging, while others claim that the Babylonian loss of a hand was the retribution.

Regardless of what the actual punishment was, most bakers didn’t think he extra dollar or two was worth it. Flogging often resulted in death & so did hand-removal, so to combat the risk & to assure mistakes weren’t made (you could also get nailed for an accident), bakers would throw in an extra loaf. It assured that the original dozen would still be there, in case something rendered one of the loaves inedible. This would push the weight of the basket over the legal requirement, even if bread accidentally came out of the oven too light. It was a win-win situation for everyone because customers would walk away happy they had an extra piece of bread & bakers were happy they were able to keep their hands. All in all, I’d say it was a good trade.

800px-Medieval_baker

A medieval bakery. Notice the baker’s dozen batch of bread on the table (Image in Public Domain).

The act only lasted a few because the king decided that sitting in a jail cell was a better alternative to losing the country’s bakers to whippings & blood loss, right?

Wrong. The law remained unchanged until 1863, when England passed one of its Statute Law Revision Acts,  Parliamentary act which nullifies or revises past laws that have become obsolete. That’s six hundred years of on-the-books flogging & be-handing as a remedy for lying to customers.

So, my friends, the next time you walk into a bakery, take some time to think of all those poor souls who sacrificed their hands so you could get a free cupcake with your twelve others.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Mead Drinking on Your Honeymoon

Hello everyone!

I have weddings on my mind because my friend is getting married in a few months & as his best man, I’ve been busy planning & preparing with him. So, Scott & Laura, this one is for  you.

As celebrations of two people sharing their lives together, weddings are always fun times. The party does have to come to an end, though, & once everyone goes home, the bride & groom get to extend their own festivities by going on vacation. Planning & preparing for the wedding can be tiring & stressful, so a break from life & time to enjoy the company of each other is well deserved. We call this the honeymoon.

It’s a weird word when you think about it. The word as we use it doesn’t have anything to do with honey or the moon, but hey, it’s a hell of a lot easier than saying “the vacation the bride & groom take after the wedding.” So, honeymoon, it is. Despite its apparent meaninglessness, the word has been part of our language for centuries & we use it without thinking. So, what does it mean? Does honey actually have anything to do with it? What about the moon, for that matter?

Luckily, you read this blog because I’m going to let you know.

There are a few vaguely connected theories as to how this word came to be. I learned the first one independently from researching for this entry, way before I even had the idea to write about the bologna.

In 2012, my family & I went to Ireland. It was one of the best trips of my life & if I ever get the chance to go back, I will in a heartbeat.

We spent a few days Dublin & quite a bit of time in the beautiful countryside. On our last full day there, we went to Blarney Castle, kissed the Blarney Stone & walked around the town. After a little ways, my father & I came across a little shop which sold various odds & ends. That’s when I saw the bottle. It was full of a golden brown liquid that looked like alcohol, & hoping it was something very Irish, I picked it up. It was mead, a liqueur made from honey. It’s not Irish in particular; it comes from all over Europe & is traditional in some form in almost every country. This brand was Irish mead, so I decided to buy it.

I flipped the bottle around & on the back was a little paragraph, which told of the origin of the word “honeymoon.”

The text explained that in Medieval England & Ireland, mead was thought to make couples fertile. Paired with the notion that a full moon also increased fertility, newlyweds would take a trip to the countryside, so they could try to conceive. That was the entire reason for going away. They’d shack up for a month, drink mead, & when the moon was full, try to have a child.

Other variations of this history include having the wedding on a full moon for luck, followed by a month of mead drinking, while trying to conceive. Either way, mead played an important role with Irish wedding couples.

A bottle of Swedish mead, or honey wine. (Photo courtesy of Tobias Radeskog)

The Online Etymology Dictionary describes it a little differently, breaking up the word into its parts. It strictly describes the etymology & doesn’t give much insight into the tradition. According to the site, honeymoon was originally two words spelled, “hony moone.” It referred to “indefinite period of tenderness and pleasure experienced by a newly wed couple.” When broken down, “hony” described the the “new marriage’s sweetness” & “moone” described how long the period of tenderness was to last, as dictated by the changing lunar phase.

During my research, I stumbled upon an Indian resort’s website. The Pavilions advertises itself as a honeymoon destination, & on one of their pages page, they give a history of the word. Here’s where it gets a pretty dark. The page claims that the honeymoon is a remnant of bridal kidnapping, which is exactly what it sounds like. The tradition was apparently started by Attila the Hun. His men would kidnap women, & force them into marriage. The period of time the bride was held captive eventually evolved into the honeymoon. The story is a bit morbid for a resort that wants to be romantic, huh?

Anyway, The Pavilions didn’t cite any sources, so I dug into it myself. It turns out that bridal kidnapping did occur fairly frequently, especially in South Eastern Europe. Many historians do, in fact, believe that this was the honeymoon in its first stage of evolution. By the beginning of the Middle Ages, marriage had become legally & religiously binding, & the outing had naturally transformed into something willful for both parties.

Thankfully, today, it’s is a much lighter & happier tradition. The bride can spend time with her new husband because she wants to & not because she has no choice. Thankfully we don’t live in the Dark Ages, huh?

 

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Chess: A Game Full of Foreign Languages

I’ve never been good at chess. It’s one of the most challenging & mentally taxing games in history. The amount of strategy & it takes a lot of hard thinking to outsmart your opponent. Some people are very good at it.

Games can take hours or days & those who play professionally take it extremely seriously. They have every right & whether you’re good at it or not, the game deserves the recognition & respect.  Putting strategy aside, it’s extremely old. “How old? The Dark Ages?” you might ask. Nope. It’s way older. Reports of a Japanese version of chess date back five thousand years, but for the purpose of this entry, we’re going to stick with the variant we know.

Chess as Westerns play it, is believed to have been invented in the Second Century in the middle of the Gupta Empire in India. The game consisted of the same basic principle, with a few different pieces & rules, reflecting life in India, rather than the West. The pieces were:

Raja: King
Mantri: General (later the Queen)
Ratha: Chariot (later the Rook)
Gaja: Elephant (later the Bishop)
Ashva: Horse or Knight
Padati: Foot Soldier (now known as the Pawn)

By the Sixth Century, the game was being called chaturanga, which is Sanskrit for “having four limbs.” As you can assume from the name, it was a four player game. After spending a good chunck of time circulating around the Indian nobility, merchants who did business with the high classes picked it up. Any history buff can tell you that trade & the spread of culture go hand in hand & chaturanga was no different. Chess had begun its global popularization.

Chaturanga

The layout of a four player Chaturanga board. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user MSouza)

By 1000 AD, chess had split into two branches. The first, known as Asiatic chess, spread North & East, through Asia, no doubt lending influence to the ancient Japanese game I mentioned before. The other version is the one we know, & it’s called Occidental or European chess.

As awareness of the game traveled through Western Asia & the Middle East, cultures accepted it very quickly. The original Indian words were absorbed into the hundreds of new languages they were meeting & rules were added. For example, two fundamental changes, which made European chess unique, have their origins in Persia. The first is that chess started to be a two-player game, instead of requiring four. Players also started to warn their opponents of their king’s danger. The changes stuck & once people in England started playing, they began using the word “check” to make the other player aware of the king’s jeopardized safety. In the Middle Ages, the word referred to a temporary stoppage, as nothing can be done until the king is moved out of harm’s way.

Chaturanga_board_and_pins

The two person Chaturanga board. It resembles European chess quite a bit. (Photo released into public domain by Wikipedia user Adhe)

Now for everyone’s favorite part: victory. Upon realizing that the rival player had no moves left, the winner would say, “shah mat.” Though the common though among the general public is that this means, “The king is dead,” that’s not true. It’s understandable, though because, upon hearing the words, the loser lays the king piece on its side. The death allusion is just coincidence, though; shah mat’s literal translation is, “The king is stumped/helpless/ambushed.” Coupled with the fact that the word “check” was already being used, English ears heard an Anglicized version of the phrase, & adopted “checkmate.”

Chess_Moors

An illustration showing Moorish nobility playing European chess. (image is in public domain)

The name chess, itself, comes from the old French word for the game, “echecs.” The French used this word because the board resembled an accounting table called an eschequier, a word which has survived to become a term we use to describe an agency set up to collect royal revenue. Interestingly enough, it’s also where we get the term “checkered,” when we describe the color pattern & obviously the name of the game checkers.

 

Chess has a much more interesting complicated history than you’d expect. Its popularity & the fact that it’s held in such high esteem is a wonderful testament to the game’s rich history. It’s been around for a good portion of human civilization & I expect it to stick around for a long time in the future.

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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David Berkeley Hasn’t Forgotten His Fans

As you all know, I’ve been waiting on a record by David Berkeley called The Fire in My Head. For those of you who don’t know, Berkeley is an independent artist who has a bunch of really great records.

I ordered this one back in February, & gave it some time because vinyl most likely makes up a smaller percentage of his sales & is expensive to press. I figured that they probably press the records in batches, so they had to wait until they met the number they press at once. Well, the date the tracking number gave me came & went, & I became a little nervous.

I knew it wasn’t a problem on Berkeley’s end because the record had shipped & the tracking information followed it to my building. I just never received it. No one had seen it; it was just gone.

Jump to May. I was just about to ask Amazon to get my money back, so I could try to reorder it through Berkeley’s site instead, when the man who works in the mail room dropped a package on my desk. It looked like a record. He told me that it had been delivered by one of his colleagues to the wrong Bill, whose last name is vaguely similar to mine. When I opened it, I found that it was what I had been waiting for.

The meaning of this post is to acknowledge David Berkeley & his crew working at his store. See, when I opened the package the packing slip fell out. On it was a nice, handwritten note thanking me for buying the record & for being a fan. They said if I order through his website next time, they’ll be sure to give me some deals.

Whether or not the deals are there for anyone who purchases through his site doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that someone in his camp wrote a note to let a fan know he’s appreciated. This is the way it should be done, but unfortunately, you never see it. Granted, a musician who makes the celebrity list probably can’t do it because if you answer one, you have to answer a million more, but this just makes me appreciate the efforts of a passionate artist trying to make a living. Doing that isn’t an easy thing to do & I guarantee it took his sweat, blood & soul to get where he is. Small gestures like thank you notes make fans realize this & make it easy for them to support his work. I have never had a problem doing that, & this just reinforced it.

So, Mr. Berkeley, in the off chance you stumble upon this tiny corner of the internet which contains a blog about music & life’s little details, thank you to you & your wonderful support staff at your store. Your efforts don’t go unnoticed, I promise.

As for the rest of you, check out David Berkeley. It’s definitely worth your time. If you’re interested, you can buy his albums & other merchandise here.

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