No Time Like the Present

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis points out a phenomenon he calls “chronological snobbery,” “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited”:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

“History does not always repeat itself,” wrote John W. Campbell. “Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.”


Captured at the Battle of Edessa, the Roman emperor Valerian spent the rest of his life as a footstool, used by the Sassanian emperor Shapur I to mount his horse.

The story may be only propaganda, but it inspired Hans Holbein the Younger to compose this sketch in 1521.

Practical Philosophy,_RP-P-2015-26-1764.jpg

Immanuel Kant held up his stockings using suspenders of his own devising. From his friend Ehregott Wasianski:

On this occasion, whilst illustrating Kant’s notions of the animal economy, it may be as well to add one other particular, which is, that for fear of obstructing the circulation of the blood, he never would wear garters; yet, as he found it difficult to keep up his stockings without them, he had invented for himself a most elaborate substitute, which I shall describe. In a little pocket, somewhat smaller than a watch-pocket, but occupying pretty nearly the same situation as a watch-pocket on each thigh, there was placed a small box, something like a watch-case, but smaller; into this box was introduced a watch-spring in a wheel, round about which wheel was wound an elastic cord, for regulating the force of which there was a separate contrivance. To the two ends of this cord were attached hooks, which hooks were carried through a small aperture in the pockets, and so passing down the inner and the outer side of the thigh, caught hold of two loops which were fixed on the off side and the near side of each stocking.

“As might be expected, so complex an apparatus was liable, like the Ptolemaic system of the heavens, to occasional derangements; however, by good luck, I was able to apply an easy remedy to these disorders which sometimes threatened to disturb the comfort, and even the serenity, of the great man.”

(Ehregott Andreas Wasianski, Immanuel Kant in seinen letzten Lebensjahren, 1804, via Thomas De Quincey, “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant,” 1827.)

Tally Sticks
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Until 1826, the British Royal Treasury recognized notched sticks as proof of payment. In a practice that had begun in medieval times, a debt would be recorded on a “tally stick,” and then the stick would be split lengthwise, with the shorter portion, the “foil,” given to the debtor and the longer portion, the “stock,” held by the creditor. Because the two halves of the stick could be matched together, this gave both parties a record of the deal, and the valuable stock could then be traded on a secondary market.

Accumulated tally sticks might have given us a valuable record of British monetary transactions, but unfortunately most of them have been lost. In 1834, after the advent of paper ledgers, it was decided to burn 600 years of accumulated tally sticks in a coal-fired stove in the House of Lords. A chimney fire resulted, destroying most of the Palace of Westminster.

In a Word

n. a leisurely walk

In the ancient world, distances were sometimes measured by pacing. Specialists known as bematists were employed for this purpose in both Egypt and Greece, and their accuracy could be startling: In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder notes that two bematists employed by Alexander the Great had measured the distance from Hecatompylos to Alexandria Areion on the Silk Road at 851 kilometers. The actual distance is 855 kilometers, a deviation of just 0.4 percent. In general, according to Pliny’s records, Alexander’s bematists showed a median deviation of just 2.8 percent from the true distances; a separate account by Strabo shows a median deviation of only 1.9 percent.

This accuracy suggests that the bematists may have been using an early odometer, such as one described by Heron of Alexandria, though the records don’t mention this.

12/30/2023 UPDATE: Reader Charlotte Fare has made a data visualization. (Thanks, Charlotte.)


The late Mr. Dawson Damer — ‘Hippy’ Damer, afterwards Lord Portarlington — was one of the most deservedly popular men in London and a great favourite of Queen Victoria. The Prince of Wales gave a garden party at Marlborough House to his mother, and to this gathering ‘Hippy’ Damer came — but came very much under the influence of ‘la dive bouteille.’ Spying the Queen he went up to her offered his hand cordially and said: ‘Gad! How glad I am to see you! How well you’re looking! But, I say, do forgive me — your face is, of course, very familiar to me; but I can’t for the life of me recall your name!’ The Queen took in the situation at once, and as she cordially grasped the hand extended to her, said smiling: ‘Oh, never mind my name, Mr. Damer — I’m very glad to see you. Sit down and tell me all about yourself.’

— Julian Osgood Field, Uncensored Recollections, 1924

Below: “Her Majesty has been the recipient of some remarkably addressed envelopes,” reported the Strand in 1891.

Not Guilty

The Swedish courts took up a perplexing case in 1656: Småland maid Karin Svensdotter claimed to have had a sexual relationship with the King of the Fairies. She said she’d met a beautiful man in golden clothes who called himself Älvakungen and courted her with gifts. She’d borne him seven children, which he’d taken away to the land of the fairies. She said she’d given birth during recurring fits, from which she was known to suffer, and her employer testified that he’d heard her searching for her children in the forest.

In the 17th century the church acknowledged the existence of mythical creatures, and consorting with nature spirits such as Älvakungen would have constituted bestiality, for which a human might face a death sentence. After some consideration, though, it was determined that Svensdotter had been driven mad by Satan’s magic. The congregation was ordered to pray for her, relatives gave her a silver cross, and Älvakungen never troubled her again.


Excerpt from a letter by Lt. James Simmen, 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry (Mechanized), in Vietnam, to his brother Vern, a parish priest:

You’d be surprised how similar killing is to hunting. I know I’m after souls, but I get all excited when I see a VC, just like when I see a deer. I go ape firing at him. It isn’t that I’m so crazy. I think a man who freezes killing a man would freeze killing a deer. I’m not perverted, crazy, or anything else. Civilians think such thinking is crazy, but it’s no big deal. He runs, you fire. You hunt so I think you’d feel the same way. It isn’t all that horrifying.

When you see a man laughing about it, remember he talks the same about killing a deer. Of course, revenge has a part in wanting him just like you want a deer for a trophy and meat. I know I’m not nuts. If I killed a man in the U.S., everyone would stare. Last night I killed and everyone has been patting me on the back, including the battalion commander. What do you think?

That’s from Bernard Edelman’s Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (2002). In The Fate of a Nation (1975), Hugh Rankin quotes Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin describing an experience at the Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778:

When within about five rods of the rear of the retreating foe, I could distinguish everything about them, they were retreating in line, though in some disorder; I singled out a man and took my aim directly between his shoulders (they were divested of their packs,) he was a good mark, being a broad shouldered fellow; what became of him I know not, the fire and smoke hid him from my sight; one thing I know, that is, I took as deliberate aim at him as ever I did in my life. But after all, I hope I did not kill him, although I intended to at the time.

A few months after his Vietnam experience, Simmen wrote, “[I] feel kind of ashamed of the way I’ve thought and acted over here. I realize that I’ve actually enjoyed some of the things I’ve done which would be repulsive to a healthy mind. … When one starts to enjoy the sickness of war, he is sick.”

Higher Things

Winston Churchill published a surprising essay in March 1942: “Are There Men on the Moon?”:

I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets and, therefore, that our little earth is unique. Once we admit that the other stars probably also have planets, at any rate a goodly proportion of them, it is more than likely that a large fraction of these will be the right size to keep on their surface water and, possibly, an atmosphere of some sort; and, furthermore, at the proper distance from their parent sun, to maintain a suitable temperature. Do they house living creatures, or even plants? The answer to this question may never be known.

“[T]he odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible,” he concluded. “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

(Winston Churchill, “Are There Men on the Moon?”, Sunday Dispatch, March 8, 1942.)

The Machine
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The first life-size obstetrical mannequin was invented by French midwife Angélique du Coudray, who was using it to demonstrate the process of childbirth as early as 1756:

I announced that I would gladly give my advice to poor women who needed it. … I took the tack of making my lessons palpable by having them maneuver in front of me on a machine I constructed for this purpose, and which represented the pelvis of a woman, the womb, its opening, its ligaments, the conduit called the vagina, the bladder and rectum intestine.

The upholstered model included a womb and an extractable baby doll with which her students could practice. The skin and soft organs were made of flesh-colored linen and leather stuffed with padding, and some of the bones were assembled from real skeletons, though wood and wicker later took their place.

“The model is meant mostly for maneuvers that, as others confirm, allow her students to gain confidence, be ‘encouraged, and succeed perfectly,'” writes Nina Rattner Gelbart in The King’s Midwife (1998). “Delivering babies from every conceivable position and presentation will prepare her students for all eventualities. … This machine, as the midwife’s followers will continue to testify, makes an ‘impression that can never be erased,’ ‘an advantage all the more essential because this class of surgeons and these women [of the countryside] do not have the resource of reading … [so] these daily continual maneuvers … [must be] vividly impressed on their senses.'”