Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Slandering the Past

I recently attended a Jewish wedding, part of which was the signing of the ketubah. At one point the Rabbi commented that in the old days the ketubah would specify how many chickens and goats the groom was paying the bride's father for his daughter, whereas this modern ketubah stated the promises of bride and groom to each other.

It struck me as an unlikely claim, for at least two reasons. Jewish religious law is an extraordinarily well documented system, perhaps the best documented of all the legal systems I have looked at, with detailed interpretation going back to the Mishnah, written nearly two thousand years ago. In everything I have seen, the ketubah is described as a contract stating the husband's obligations to the wife. The one essential term is the amount that goes to the wife from the husband's property if he dies or divorces her.

Further, under Jewish religious law, parental consent was not required for the marriage of an adult--and a woman became an adult at twelve and a half, provided that she had shown some signs of puberty at least six months earlier. This became an issue during the Middle Ages, when Jewish communal courts tried to impose additional requirements in order to permit parents to prevent their daughters from imprudent marriages but faced difficulties due to the fact that the marriage rules were considered part of religious law (Issur) over which they had no authority.

An additional oddity to the Rabbi's account was the idea of a contract specifying a payment in chickens and goats when, as is clear by reading texts on the religious law, payments were routinely specified in money, sometimes with explanations of exactly what sort of money was to be used. 

My conclusion was that the Rabbi's view of the history of the ketubah fitted a pattern I have seen in other contexts--moderns believing in bogus history that supports their self image of superiority to those ignorant and unreasonable people in the past.  

My favorite example is the Columbus myth, the idea that the people who argued against Columbus were ignorant flat-earthers who thought his ships would sail off the edge. That is almost the precise opposite of the truth. By the time Columbus set off, a spherical Earth had been the accepted scientific view for well over a thousand years. Columbus's contemporaries not only knew that the Earth was round, they knew how big around it was, that having been correctly calculated by Eratosthenes in the third century B.C. 

By the fifteenth century they also had a reasonably accurate estimate of the width of Asia. Subtracting the one number from the other they could calculate the distance from where Columbus was starting to where Columbus claimed to be going and correctly conclude that it was much farther than his ships could go before running out of food and water. The scientific ignorance was on the side of Columbus and those who believed him; he was claiming a much smaller circumference for the Earth and a much larger width of Asia, hence a much shorter distance from Spain to the far end of Asia. We will probably never know whether he believed his own numbers or was deliberately misrepresenting the geographical facts in order to get funding for his trip in the hope that he would find land somewhere between Spain and Japan, as in fact he did.

Another example of the same pattern shows up in discussions of medieval cooking, one of my hobbies. Quite a lot of people believe that medieval cooks overspiced their food in order to hide the taste of spoiled meat. A few minutes of thought should be enough to see the consequences for a cook of routinely giving his employer and the employer's guests food poisoning. Also that, with meat available on the hoof, there was no need to keep it until it spoiled and that it made little sense to save on meat, a local product, at the cost of  spices that had to be transported over thousands of miles. 

I should probably add that, as best I can tell, there is no evidence that medieval food was overspiced at all, only that they used spices in different ways than modern European cuisine. But discovering that would actually require a little effort.

Finally, consider the success of H.L. Mencken's bathtub hoax, a wildly implausible story widely believed, at least in part because it made moderns feel superior to their ancestors.

I expect that other readers with historical interests can add other examples.

22 Comments:

At 4:03 PM, February 14, 2018, Blogger Isak Czeresnia Etinger said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 4:05 PM, February 14, 2018, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Brazil, it is widely believed that the country was discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500 when he was trying to go to India but *got lost* in the way.

 
At 5:13 PM, February 14, 2018, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In his essay "A Reply to Professor Haldane," written in response to Haldane's criticism of That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis quotes a line from a collection of Haldane's essays that "five hundred years ago . . . it was not clear that celestial distances were so much greater than terrestrial." Lewis goes on to point out that Ptolemy's Almagest, the standard medieval astronomy textbook, and written in the ancient world, explicitly says that the distance from the fixed starts to the Earth is so great that the Earth must be treated as a mathematical point; and that this was well known to educated medieval people such as King Alfred.

 
At 11:49 PM, February 14, 2018, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

Anonymous says that Brazil "was discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500 when he was trying to go to India".

Why is it wrong?

Wikipedia agrees. In fact, in Portugal, we study in History classes that Portugal already knew about Brazil well before Pedro Álvares Cabaral and Colombus!

This is why the Treaty of Tordesillas was designed to include Brazil. Wikipedia says some historians believe Portugal already knew about Brazil before Cabral discovered it. "The easternmost part of current Brazil was granted to Portugal when in 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral landed there while he was en route to India. Some historians contend that the Portuguese already knew of the South American bulge that makes up most of Brazil before this time, so his landing in Brazil was not an accident."

 
At 4:21 PM, February 15, 2018, Blogger John Wentworth said...

The book "Cod", by Mark Kurlansky, claims that ships from Bristol were fishing off the coast of Newfoundland at least a century before Columbus (and that the Basque were there even earlier). It also offers some mild evidence that Columbus knew this, though I forget the details. Under that interpretation, Columbus knew his supposed calculations were wrong, but also knew that there was probably more land waiting to the West.

 
At 5:08 AM, February 17, 2018, Blogger Jonathan said...

A nice collection of stories, thank you. If time travel ever permits discovering the facts of history, there will doubtless be many surprises!

 
At 1:05 AM, February 18, 2018, Anonymous Alex said...

"By the time Columbus set off, a spherical Earth had been the accepted scientific view for well over a thousand year"

It is likely that at that time of Columbus the overwhelming majority of the people did believe that the earth was flat. In 1492 most people were illiterate with no access to National Geographic or anything of the kind. Their only source of knowledge was the local priest who obviously supported geocentrism and most likely a flat earth theory. A spherical earth is actually counterintuitive and children have to be taught about it. Professional sailors did understand that the earth was spherical but they were very exceptional people with exceptional skills for those days.

 
At 9:27 AM, February 18, 2018, Blogger hat said...

With regard to "spoiled" meat, a possibility is fats turning rancid, which is presumably harder to avoid without refrigeration and ziplock bags to store them in cool airtight places, which is not going to give you food poisoning, but does taste/smell bad.

 
At 5:03 PM, February 18, 2018, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Their only source of knowledge was the local priest who obviously supported geocentrism and most likely a flat earth theory."

He obviously supported geocentrism, which had been the dominant theory at least since Ptolemy--but that had a spherical Earth in the center. Why would you expect a local priest to support a flat Earth theory when the Catholic church didn't?

 
At 10:03 PM, February 18, 2018, Anonymous Alex said...

I didn't know the Catholic Church believed in a spherical Earth, you may be right on that one.
But our ancestors did believe some absurd things until not to long ago, like blood letting to treat infections.

 
At 1:22 PM, February 21, 2018, Anonymous Edmund said...

Not only did the Catholic Church believe in a spherical earth, a round earth was a central part of the cosmology of the middle ages, which was itself quite important in the medieval mind, lay and clerical alike. Thus to even moderately educated Medievals, the roundness of the earth was simply part of the cultural assumptions of their society. For example, Dante's Divine comedy has a number of literary devices and references which all assume a round earth.

 
At 12:23 AM, February 22, 2018, Blogger ErolB1 said...

Another possible reason for heavily spiced food at medieval feasts (assuming that such over-spicing ever did happen) is conspicuous consumption: Showing off the host's ability to afford those extremely expensive imported spices.

 
At 10:45 AM, February 22, 2018, Blogger David Friedman said...

Erol offers a possible reason for overspiced food, but what is the reason to believe that the food was overspiced?

 
At 4:01 PM, February 24, 2018, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

I wonder if this is another example of "slandering the past": people claim that aristocrats had worst hygienic habits than the common people. That they didn't bath, and that because of that they used wigs in order to hide the lice, and all sorts of things. Even educators propagate this. Does anyone know for sure what truth is there behind such claims?

 
At 12:48 PM, February 25, 2018, Blogger David Friedman said...

So far as bathing is concerned, there are bathing scenes in medieval art and I remember seeing the claim somewhere that Paris had more bath houses than whorehouses. But I don't know beyond that.

 
At 3:36 PM, February 25, 2018, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

David, something my History teacher would also tell us is that during the Medieval ages, the King (and his companions) would only eat meat and would use his hands, that it was very unhygienic and the diet was actually worse and less diversified than the plebe. Also, that being fat was a sign of wealth, and that men would seek women that were a little stronger. Do you know how many of these points are true?

A common belief here in Portugal - which I suspect is highly exaggerated - was that Portuguese royalty got incredibly rich during the discoveries and colonialism. But that they blew it all buying expensive fabric and spices to impress their friends -- were this not the case, and the Crown were good guardians and statesmen, then Portuguese would be the most spoken language today, and the domain of the seas would not have been lost so soon. This is a recurring meme here, which I suspect is way overblown because Portuguese were less than 5 million. By shear numbers alone, it's impossible they'd not be surpassed by other countries.

Another case of people slandering the past is when people claim that in hunter-gathering societies, you would be considered an old man when you reached the age of 30. I was told that in school and I sometimes ask people this, just to tease them, and they believe this to be true. They are surprised when I explain them that the low longevity estimated at birth is a statistical artificial caused by higher infant deaths which greatly skews the statistics, and that the longevity after childhood was over 60 years of age.

PS: By the way, much could be written in how people slender other cultures as well, even today...

 
At 10:58 AM, February 26, 2018, Blogger David Friedman said...

It's true that the rich ate more meat than the poor, meat being generally more expensive than bread or vegetables. I don't know a lot about Portuguese practices, but we have recipes and menus from England from the 14th and 15th centuries. The feast menus tend to be very meat heavy, but the recipes from the royal cooks include vegetable dishes as well, and bread seems to have been part of everyone's diet.

Also, remember that Catholics were forbidden meat on fast days, which there were a lot of–every Friday plus Lent and a variety of other periods. I wouldn't be surprised if the total came to something like one day in three, but I don't have an actual count.

 
At 2:19 PM, February 26, 2018, Anonymous Bruce said...

The text of a traditional ketubah is only a few paragraphs and is readily available online, and an entire tractate of the talmud (appropriately named "ketubah') is devoted to issues arising from divorce and the ketubah. It is really surprising that any rabbi -- who presumably prepared for the ceremony -- would have that level of misunderstanding.

 
At 2:00 PM, March 01, 2018, Anonymous Anton Sherwood said...

I read a recent novel (The Cathedral of the Sea) set mostly in 14th century Barcelona, in which a priest of the Inquisition accuses a converso of backsliding into Judaism because he shows signs of recent bathing.

(I enjoyed both the novel and a visit to the church of the title, Santa Maria del Mar.)

Incidentally, Issur is the birth-name of Kirk Douglas, and I don't think I've ever seen the word otherwise; is it the same word?

 
At 5:19 PM, March 27, 2018, Blogger Jacob said...

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ketubah

"The rabbis in ancient times insisted on the marriage couple entering into the ketubah as a protection for the wife. It acted as a replacement of the biblical mohar – the price paid by the groom to the bride, or her parents, for the marriage (i.e., the bride price). The ketubah became a mechanism whereby the amount due to the wife (the bride-price) came to be paid in the event of the cessation of marriage, either by the death of the husband or divorce."

So I think in this case you're being unjust to the Rabbi in question - if wikipedia is right, which it usually is, then what he was saying is pretty much correct, except that the older payment had a different name.

 
At 7:59 PM, March 27, 2018, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jacob:

The context of our conversation was the signing of the ketubah for a wedding the Rabbi was officiating at. Her statement was explicitly about what the ketubah used to be, not about the existence of a custom of bride price that was replaced by the ketubah something over two thousand years ago.

 
At 3:16 AM, March 30, 2018, Anonymous Candide III said...

Now you could well be perpetuating the stupid-or-cynical-Columbus myth. Columbus most likely relied on the figure for the length of the meridian stated by Ptolemy, for many centuries treated as the supreme authority on astronomy and theoretical geography. E.g. Lucio Russo writes in his excellent "The forgotten revolution" (ch. 3.2, p. 69):

The study of geography was taken up again in the imperial age, in close connection with astronomy and spherical geometry, by Marinus of Tyre, whom we know only through Ptolemy’s criticism, and by Ptolemy himself (both second century A.D.). But whereas Eratosthenes had found one degree of meridian to be worth 700 stadia, a quite accurate number also accepted by Hipparchus a century later, Marinus and Ptolemy adopted instead the value 500 stadia. [note continues] Apparently this was not just a matter of inconsistent units: Ptolemy really did believe the meridian was shorter than formerly thought. That the shorter value had already been adopted by Marinus is mentioned in Ptolemy, Geography, I, xi. Using Ptolemy’s data, a person setting out to travel westward along the latitude of (say) Palos, Spain, would expect to cover 17,000 km (57% of the actual value of 24,000 km) before returning home. If his goal were to reach Asia by traveling due west from Spain, he would estimate the length of the voyage by subtracting from 17,000 km the breadth of Eurasia (about 10,000 km). It turns out that Ptolemy’s error did not affect the size of the known continents, which he reports with reasonable accuracy; thus the calculated difference (17,000 − 10,000 = 7,000 km) would be about half the true value (24,000 − 10,000 = 14,000 km). This helps explain why Columbus grossly underestimated the length of a westward route to Asia.

 

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