Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Blood and Spices

Last spring Harvard Magazine reported on a recent (2010) translation of a thirteenth-century German illuminated manuscript, De Regimine Mensium, that provided brief monthly instructions on how to maintain one's health. The manuscript, held by Houghton Library, included this advice for the month of January: “It is healthiest (sumere sanum) to eat warm food.” I guess most of us can check that off the list, though I'm not sure how effective this would be as a treatment for, say, influenza. The author provided similar dietary advice for other months: “Eat roasted meat and take baths”* (March), “Eat lettuce leaves with apples and drink from fountains” (June), “Avoid warm food, this month you have no need of it” (August), and “Drink cattle or curdled sheep's milk” (October). Demonstrating attachment to the humoral theory of illness, the manuscript sometimes recommended bloodletting - “Avoid frost and let blood flow from the thumb” (February), “Fill your belly with fluids and drain the foot of blood” (April) – though the entry for July recommends “Do not slash the veins...avoid them altogether,” which is good advice for any month. 

The entries for May and November are of particular interest to yours truly, because they both recommend spices such as cinnamon**, evincing the medieval and early-modern European belief that spices had great medicinal value. (The entry for September is a two-fer: “Bloodletting is good, and then you ought to eat spices.”) This is probably a consequence of the Eurasian belief that spices, such as pepper (“the grains of paradise”), were literally otherworldly, and it explains why European aristocrats were willing to spend such large sums of money on them – and thus why mariners like Columbus, Verrazano, and Hudson spent so much time seeking a short all-water route to China and Indonesia. (See William Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World [Grove Press, 2008], 112-113; Peter Mancall, Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson [Basic Books, 2009], 21-25.)

Anyway, if any of my readers plan to spend February filling their bellies with generic fluids and draining the blood from their feet, they will have to let me know how that works out.

* Perhaps not at the same time, though.
** According to a late sixteenth-century author cited by Mancall, "cinnamon soothed upset stomachs, strengthened the brain and liver, helped prevent dropsy...eradicated pain in the lungs, guts, and breast...[and] could both freshen breath and whiten teeth" (Fatal Journey, 22).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Through the 18th-Century Midwest with Monsieur Sabrevois, Part Three

(For the previous entry in this series, see here.)

Leaving Detroit, however reluctantly*, our guide to the early eighteenth-century Midwest takes us up the Detroit River into the heart of the Great Lakes region: Lake Huron, the Mackinac Strait, and Lake Michigan. Twelve leagues (24-36 miles) above Detroit, Sabrevois pauses to point out a town of 250-400** Mississaugas, members of the Anishinaabe ethnic group, residing on an island in the Detroit River. Thirty-eight leagues further, off the eastern shore of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, he notes another village of Odawas on an island at the mouth of Saginaw Bay. Both of these communities raise crops, presumably with corn as their main staple; both hunt and fish; and both, like the Odawas and Potawatomis at Detroit, make “a great many bark canoes” for transportation (p. 370). These vessels, constructed of birch bark on a light cedar wood frame, are sometimes considered stereotypical Native American vessels, but in the 1700s their use was confined to the Anishinaabeg. In The Eagle Returns (Michigan State University Press, 2012, pp. 7-9), Matthew Fletcher notes that these canoes were up to 30 feet long and could carry hundreds of pounds of cargo, and allowed the Odawas (whose name means “traders”) to travel hundreds of miles to trade. Sabrevois provides an additional detail here about canoe manufacture: both genders contributed to the finished product, with men cutting the bark and fashioning the frames and women sewing and gumming the hulls. The canoes thus represented a familial and communal effort, and one may presume the Anishinaabeg considered them an important part of their overall wealth.

Sabrevois bypasses the Indian towns and French settlement at Michilimackinac - “it would be possible, if one desires, to dispense with going” there, he writes (371), and so he does. His memoir proceeds instead to La Bay, known today as Green Bay, Wisconsin, which French missionaries and traders had been visiting for over 80 years. Its Indian residents in 1718 were the Ho-Chunk, known to their enemies as the Winnebagos (a derisive term, translatable as “stinkers”); the Menominees or Folles Avoines (“wild rice people”); the Sauk, who built their settlements on the Fox River 15-18 leagues (30-50 miles) above the Bay; and the Fox or Mesquakie Indians, “Renards” as the French called them, another 18 leagues further upriver, toward the Fox-Wisconsin River portage. He estimates these nations' respective populations, or at least that of their communities in eastern Wisconsin, at 300-500 each for the Ho-Chunk and Menominees, 400-600 Sauks, and 2000-2500 Mesquakies. The first three of these nations, Sabrevois asserts, have lifeways and languages similar to the Odawas', a curious assertion given that the Ho-Chunks belonged to a different language family (Siouan) from most of the other Lakes Indians'. I can think of two explanations for this discrepancy: either Sabrevois was misinformed, or the Ho-Chunks, a relatively small Indian nation by this time, learned to speak one of the more common Algonquian languages in order to communicate with their neighbors. If the second is true, I suspect the language they learned was Odawa, given the Odawas' extensive trading connections.
The most distinctive Indian group in the Green Bay region, according to Sabrevois, was the Fox or Mesquakie nation, whose language bore little resemblance to the Anishinaabe languages, though it was similar to those of the Kickapoos and Mascoutens (or Fire People). The Fox sustained their larger population with “extraordinary crops of Indian corn” and an “abundance of meat and fish” (371-372). Most likely they ranged into central Wisconsin, an ecological boundary zone (ecotone) between woodland and grassland, to hunt. They were less reliant on European trade than their neighbors to the east, at least as far as one can tell from their sartorial habits: Mesquakie men wore garments of fur and hide, while women wore a combination of woven blankets (as wraps) and deerskin waistcloths. One should note that they did fringe these waist-cloths with small metal bells or ornaments, obtained from the French in trade. Does Sabrevois mention, by the way, that France has just fought a war with the Mesquakies, in which its Indian allies slew or enslaved 1,000 Foxes near Detroit, and which ended with the capture of the principal Fox town in Wisconsin? He does not, except to note that the Mesquakies' towns are “well fortified” (371). Since the first Fox War ended in a treaty (1716) guaranteeing peaceful trade with the French, Sabrevois was presumably writing under the assumption that the Mesquakies were now friends and trading partners. However, this assumption would not last another decade.

Coming next: the tattooed multitudes of northern Illinois.

* Sabrevois was fired as commandant of Detroit for executing several Lakes Indians who had traded with the English.

** The author has estimated Indian population figures by multiplying Sabrevois's estimate of the number of men in each community or nation by 4-5. Sabrevois estimates that in the Wisconsin Indian towns women outnumbered men by 4 to 1, which may be slightly exaggerated.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

An Utterance of Superfluous Coin

Earlier this month economist Paul Krugman proposed that President Obama adopt an unorthodox solution to the interminable debt-ceiling crisis: rather than default on the national debt or cave in to Republican lawmakers' demands, the president could use his statutory authority to mint platinum coins to issue a single one-trillion-dollar coin, deposit it with the Federal Reserve, and "thereby avoid...the need to issue debt" to pay the federal government's bills. This sounds like a crackpot idea, but it is less cracked than threatening a sovereign default to force the Democrats to dismantle what's left of the American social safety-net. The main defects in Krugman's plan, it seems to me, are twofold: 1) he only proposes minting one coin in one very high denomination, eliminating the possibility of selling a few slightly smaller high-denomination coins to eccentric billionaires, and 2) he doesn't indicate whose image(s) these coins should display. Politically, it might be wise for the president to exploit Republicans' obsession with Ronald Reagan by stamping his image on the anti-debt-ceiling coins.  But that's no fun. Coins, after all, provide an opportunity for nation-states to express their values and celebrate their people's achievements, and there are an awful lot of obscure American leaders, artists, and heroes one could take this opportunity to celebrate.

My own proposal for new high-value platinum coin denominations, and whose visages they should display, follows.  Feel free to propose your own, bearing in mind that U.S. coins should display persons who are a) more or less American, and b) more or less deceased.

$1 million: Emily Dickinson, poet (1)
$5 million: Eugene Debs, presidential candidate
$10 million: Mercy Otis Warren, historian
$20 million: Percy Julian, inventor (2)
$50 million: Jeannette Rankin, pacifist Congresswoman
$100 million: Duke Ellington, musician and composer
$1 billion: Jane Addams, social activist
$5 billion: Carl Sagan, astronomer (3)
$10 billion: Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee principal chief
$20 billion: William S. Burroughs, author (4)
$50 billion:Victoria Woodhull, activist, presidential candidate
$100 billion: Herman Husband, populist and pacifist
$1 trillion: Lori Ann Piestewa, soldier

(1) Obverse: something with feathers.
(2) Of synthetic steroids.
(3) For obvious reasons, given the denomination.
(4) Warning: coin may contain heroin.