Literary Archaeology: The Unexpected Night: Eclipses and HistFic

By Jon Black

2017 Eclipse at totality. Steelville, Missouri.

On August 21, 2017, millions of people in the United States witnessed a total solar eclipse. In the days leading up the event, eclipse-talk dominated watercooler conversations, social media, and even the national news. That eclipses command such attention in a scientific and technological era, when their processes and mechanics are fully understood, testifies to the grip such displays of cosmic forces have on us. One can only imagining how profound such events were during times and places lacking the paradigm to understand what was transpiring in the heavens above them.

All of that is a long, flowery way to say that the recent eclipse gave me an easy topic for this fortnight’s HistFic blog. Because of the significance ascribed to them, eclipses can be a powerful element in historical fiction. They, of course, offer an unforgettable backdrop for events. But it would be easy to take them one step further, making them a major plot point within a story.

At the Beginning

The ruins of Ugarit, site of the earliest known record of a solar eclipse.

For peoples with no understand of celestial mechanics, the disappearance of the sun was, understandably, an awe-inspiring, profound, and often terrifying event. Eclipses were often intended as divine omens or portents. The context of an eclipse recorded by Herodotus was a battle between the Lydians and Medes. Interpreting the eclipse as the gods’ displeasure with their warring, the armies sat down their weapons and made peace (to whatever extent we can take Herodotus at face value). An eclipse witnessed in China during 1302 BC was interpreted to mean the emperor had lost divine favor. He had abstain from meat and engage in other rituals to restore the sun … and his favor with the Celestial Court.

While it would take us beyond HistFic into the realm of time travel, historical fantasy, or alt-history … a character with foreknowledge of an eclipse (or the ability to accurately predict one) would appear to wield phenomenal and likely supernatural powers in pre-modern world before heliocentrism, the scientific method, or calculus.

The first conclusively recorded solar eclipse, written in cuneiform on clay tables from ancient Mesopotamia, occurred on May 3, 1375 BC (Coincidently, 3,090 years to the day before the first verifiably predicted eclipse).

Predicting Eclipses

Diagram of Eclipse, Georg von Peurbach, 15th Century

Herodotus (an entertaining but not always reliable source) alleges that the philosopher Thales of Miletus successfully predicted an eclipse (see above). No information is offered by Herodotus regarding how the prediction was made and considerable skepticism exists regarding this assertion. But, if true, it was likely the eclipse of May 28, 585 BC.

Early Chinese astronomers placed considerable emphasis on eclipses. Attempts to understand them were underway by the Warring States Period of the First century BC. The Chinese deduced the cause of Solar Eclipses by 20 BC and there is evidence they could predict eclipses with some reliability by the Third century AD and could even estimate the fraction of coverage by the Fourth century. 

The first absolutely verifiable prediction, however, was by Edmond Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame) who predicted a May 3, 1715 event visible over Britain and northern Europe.

Map of Halley’s 1715 Eclipse.

A Selection of Eclipses

The historicity of some of the eclipses presented below is debatable. Nevertheless, because they were (or are) widely believed in and constituted part of a cultural worldview for various peoples at various points in time they have been included along with their better documented counterparts.

July 31, 1063 BC, China. Another eclipse recorded by Chinese astronomers (no word if the emperor had to go vegetarian this time).

June 15, 763 BC, Mesopotamia. Documented by Assyrian astronomers at Nineveh.

33 AD, the Levant:  The darkness described as occurring during the Crucifixion of Jesus has long been interpreted by some people as referencing a literal solar eclipse. From the 16th to 19th centuries, it was fashionable among amateur (and not so amateur) astronomers and theologians alike to try to establish Good Friday’s exact date by dating the eclipse.

569 AD, Arabian Peninsula: The Quran records a total solar eclipse at the birth of Mohammed. Interestingly, Muslims traditionally do not ascribe any special portent to the celestial event, with Mohammed himself ascribed to have said “the sun and moon do not suffer eclipse for anyone’s life or death.”

1100 AD, North Africa. A total solar eclipse was described by Arab scientist and astronomer Ibn Yunus from his observatory near Cairo.

1131 AD: A solar eclipse is associated with the death of Henry I of England. Historian William of Malmesbury wrote that the “hideous darkness” unnerved the English people. More contemporary historians have speculated that chaos and social unrest sparked by the eclipse may have caused or deepened the civil war following Henry’s death.

June 8, 1918: Japan, the Pacific, and Western US. Occurring amidst the Spanish Influenza Epidemic and with WWI still in full swing, even a thoroughly modern person might be forgiven for thinking this eclipse a dire portent (Attention writers of period horror!).

[PHOTO 5: Painting of 1918 event by American Artist Howard Russel Butler. 

Painting of 1918 event by American Artist Howard Russel Butler.

May 29, 1919: South America to Africa. Occurring at a time when causes of eclipses were understood and their prediction well established, this event remains notable for helping confirm Einstein’s theory of general relatively. With the sun’s light obscured, scientists were able to measure the distortion of light from other stars caused by the sun’s gravity.

February 26, 1979: US Pacific Northwest and Northern Great Plains. The last total solar eclipse visible in the US prior to 2017, this event created unprecedented multi-state traffic jams along interstates and highways as Americans took the roads to journey toward to totality. For writers, such a situation provides a fertile ground for Kerouacian chance encounters with almost every type of person possibility on the road, yet not going anywhere fast.

Leading up to the 2017 eclipse, speculation was rife that a larger population (nearly 90 million greater than in 1980) and ease of access to online information about the eclipse might lead to even more titanic traffic snarls. This proved not to be the case. One plausible interpretation is that the internet was an actually an asset rather than a liability. Dependent only on limited media coverage and word of mouth about the eclipse and with no equivalent of online maps or navigation apps, the 1979 event may have put more people onto fewer roads compared with today.

Photo of 1919 Eclipse taken by the expedition of Sir Arthur Eddington from the island of Principe.

Literary Archaeology: Uncurling the Armadillo: Reflections from ArmadilloCon

By Jon Black

The first weekend in August, I had the privilege of attending ArmadilloCon, an annual literary convention in Austin aimed specifically at writers and serious fans. While focused on Science Fiction and Fantasy, many of its sessions and panels can benefit HisFic writers as well. This week’s blog post is a distillation of take-aways from some of my favorite sessions from the convention.

Your author at ArmadilloCon 2017

Writing Golden Age Fiction Today

The Future We Think We Deserve

One of the panelists observed (I’m paraphrasing here) “Golden Age sci-fi is set ‘in the future we think we deserve’ not ‘the future we actually get.’”

That kind of emphasis on tone applies to writing about the past as well as the future. Certain eras naturally lend themselves to certain tones. As with Golden Age Sci-Fi, the Renaissance, for example, is easy to paint as a hopeful period of unlimited opportunity. Ditto the Industrial Revolution, though it often comes with the question of “Progress at what Price?” Examination of that era’s environmental, social, and other consequences makes it virtually a mirror of our own era. Conversely, with the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, it is easy to revel in tales of the center not holding, of disintegration and despair.

That having been said, a tale that bucks the natural tone of an era (for example, a Dark Ages tale, focusing on what can be salvaged or on bringing light forth from the darkness) can be very rewarding, but requires a steady hand and masterful execution.

Social Media for Writers.

I’ve been to tons of sessions on this topic. We all have. But this was the best I’ve seen, notably for the straightforward, unambiguous feedback from panelists. Two big takeaways: First, rather than rushing to maximize the number of friends/followers, focus on quality of online relationships. One hundred people with whom you meaningfully interact are more important that 5,000 people who scroll past your posts. Second, none of the panelists found the returns on paying to boost social media posts worth the expense.

Frodo had Samwise, Han had Chewie

Buddies, Sidekicks, or Ensemble Cast?

This session focused on buddies, sidekicks, and ensemble casts. The primary distinction between the first two is a question of capability and liability. The third category depends largely on how challenges are overcome. Buddies are relatively equal both in terms of capabilities and liabilities. A sidekick is clearly less competent than his or her main character. This can be a question of liability rather than competence. The intellectually brilliant academic who requires constant rescuing by the man/woman of action may still be a sidekick.

In Ensemble Casts, regardless of the number of protagonists and their overall level of competence, they regularly alternate “saving the day.”

Many writers have discovered themselves in the positon of finding sidekicks more enjoyable and entertaining to write than main characters. Panelists stress that perfectly normal, and not every such character is suitable for a main protagonist or antagonist.

Libraries and Librarians as Protagonists

Amazing stories.

This panel discussed at length the role of librarians (and archivists) as gatekeepers and dispensers of knowledge. I was more interested by the discussion of libraries themselves. Panelists advanced the idea that libraries remain popular in fiction because discovering a lost text in some musty old repository is inherently more atmospheric than finding the information online. I’m not sure I agree. Even more importantly, in 2017, I don’t think having characters always discovering their vital clues in that matter rings true. As authors, we need to develop techniques for making our characters’ online research and discovery exciting, too.

Planning and Writing a Series and Serial Killers: Books that Ended a Series  

I’m combining two panels with similar themes. I attended with considerable enthusiasm as I currently in the midst of navigating my way through the second novel in the Bel Nemeton series and finding that a second book presents some challenges that are new to me.

There was little consistency between panelists regarding what had worked for them in planning and writing their series. All the usual differences between pantsing and planning, for instance, emerged: now on the scale of an entire series rather than a single work. One point of agreement was the importance of ensuring that editors/publishers are on the same page as the author regarding the overall vision for the series.

Over the course of the session, panelists concluded that a “series” could really refer to three different things. First are books with a consistent universe and cast of characters but that are otherwise completely stand-alone narratives. Examples include much of Star Trek and Dr. Who cannon (both TV and novelizations). Second are series where each book presents a related but largely independent story arc, such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Third are series where each book tells one part of a single multi-book plot arc. The most celebrated example of the later is the Lord of the Rings.

While not arguing that any one definition of series was superior, they agreed it was best to choose one and stick with it throughout a series.

Another pitfall discussed was increasing focus on secondary characters at the expense of main characters as the series progresses. Panelists agreed that, while it was possible to transform secondary characters into new main characters over the course of a series, it was an extremely challenging thing to do.

Religious Horror and Horrific Religion

Pea soup, anyone?

Some of the most influential (and just plain terrifying) horror deals with explicitly religious themes. Think The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. This session put forward the fascinating notion that one reason religion and horror work so well together is that they utilize nearly identical narrative vocabulary to tell diametrically opposed stories. Elements such as returning from the dead, mysterious events defying presumed laws of physics, and omniscience or precognition are staples of both religion and horror. And, of course, an author aware of this duality can deploy it deliberately to his or her advantage. 

Cartography and Maps in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Howard’s Map of Hyperboria

Maps have often been the icing on the cake for many great fantasy works. The renderings of Tolkien’s Middle Earth or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia are as instantly recognizable as they are beloved. Even authors not interested in incorporating them into works may find them useful tools for plotting action and keeping it consistent. Robert E. Howard used this approach, creating a functional map of Hyperboria (later reproduced in a fancier version sometimes included in Conan novels) as well as his lesser known map of El Borak’s Central Asia. The fussily precise Lovecraft produced a similar map of Arkham for his own use in keeping his tales consistent.

Sci-Fi has been less fertile for maps, various maps Herbert’s Arrakis being the most notable exception. One reason for the sparsity of sci-fi maps may be the lack of conventions for interplanetary and interstellar cartography.

On a personal note, I have to add this was the most enjoyable and professional useful con I’ve attended, if you’re remotely in the area, I would encourage you to seriously encourage attending next year.

HistFic in the Weird West: An Interview with Jeff Oberg 

By Jon Black

Recently, I had the pleasure of receiving an Advance Review Copy of Desecration, the new HistFic/Weird West novel by Miami-based author Jeff Oberg. Not only is it a great story, it is a great example of how to write HistFic. Jeff was kind enough to sit down with me (electronically speaking) to discuss his book and process for writing historical fiction.

1) Tell us a little about Desecration? What inspired you to write the story?


One night I was online and stumbled across a clickbait list about the five most badass lawmen in the Old West.  It was an honest list and included none of the usual suspects popular culture has made symbols of the old west.  Number two on that list was a Deputy Marshal named Bass Reeves.

Marshal Reeves became the inspiration for Ulysses Bowden.  I’m a speculative fiction writer and enjoy hard science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  In this case the idea of a freedman, taken in by the displaced tribes of Indian Territory serving as a US Marshal gave me the kind of iconic hero it’s fun to tell stories about.

In Desecration, Ulysses, his cook Jim, and his friend Che, are doing what US Marshals did, finding and arresting criminals in Indian Territory.  The story starts to go off the rails when a talking raven finds Ulysses and adopts him.  The further Ulysses gets from the Dead Line (what the historical Fort Smith marshals called the boundary where the outlaws would post wanted posters for the marshals) the more the world he knows is changed by the man on Raven Hill.  The story contains a lot of traditional western elements, chuck wagon cooking, horseback chases, tracking, homesteaders, ghouls, six-guns, and mindless horrors from beyond space and time.  It was a lot of fun to write, and I hope people find it fun to read.     

2) What was your research process for the historical elements? Were there resources you found particularly useful.

U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves, inspiration of Ulysses Bowden.

There is a reference to Marshal Bass Reeves and the excellent book about him, Black Gun, Silver Star, by Art Burton, at the end of Desecration.  Mr. Burton dug deeply into court documents and newspaper accounts for stories about Marshal Reeves.  Like many people of color, Marshal Reeves was not well documented during his life.

I have some family friends from Arkansas who I talked to about dialect and history.  Then I started looking at the records of the Marshal’s service and maps.  The real treasure trove turned out to be the National Park Service.  When writing about American history, the NPS keeps huge amounts of information online, including monographs, papers, photos, and reports.  The Fort Smith Court House is a National Historical Site administered by the National Park Service.  I found floor plans, photos of court in session, reports about the jail (which appears in the sequel coming this Fall), pictures of furniture, criminals, marshals, and the people of Fort Smith.

I’m even more convinced the National Park Service is a national treasure.  I tried to use as many primary sources as I could, without the NPS this would have been a much poorer book.

3) What are some of the challenges, expected or unexpected, you encountered either in the research or the writing for Desecration?

There were a few that were minor.  I made some choices with dates, Winchester didn’t offer a .45 option in its rifles until 1876, so I pushed that back a year after debating it a bit just to simplify my book keeping and because Marshal Reeves was an early adopter of the .45 Winchester so he only had to carry one type of cartridge.  Fort Arbuckle closed in 1870, but in Desecration it’s still open in 1875.  I’ll be closing it in the course of the series, and there will be an appropriately weird reason for it.  For the most part, people attached to real places in the novel are historically accurate.  Due to the great, white man school of history, most of them are famous white men.  As I learn more, I’m sure that will change.

The biggest challenge turned out to be language.  One of my alpha-readers, chosen because I’m a middle aged white guy writing about a black protagonist, told me, “Dude, black people, we don’t talk to each other that way.”  It was in reference to an early draft of the conversations between Ulysses and Ernie that take place in the first two chapters.  He went on to tell me that the slang used between black people is a way to indicate that they haven’t forgotten where they came from.  It started a whole new line of research.

Fortunately, there is a treasure in the Library of Congress.  In the first half of the 20th century, a group of researchers and grad students lugged a 200-pound mobile recording studio around the south and recorded conversations with some of the last living people who had been enslaved before the 13th Amendment.  There is a link to those recordings in the back of Desecration as well.  One thing I learned from those recordings is that all of them refer to emancipation as “The Break”.  Of course, I had to include it in Ulysses’ speech patterns. Getting the language right is important to me.  I don’t like including phonetically spelled dialect, so the cadence, rhythm, and word usage needs to be right.  I’ve probably spent a hundred hours listening to those recordings at this point.  You can find them at the Library of Congress site, under Voices of Slavery.

4) You’ve got a nice touch for incorporating the fine details of 19th century life in ways that are interesting and don’t slow down the narrative. Can you talk about your process for this?  

Authentic chuckwagon cooking.

To be honest most of it has to do with writing what I know.  Jim’s cooking rings true because I’m a classically trained chef who grew up in Texas.  I know how to cook because I’ve spent thousands of hours practicing and studying it.  I was a Boy Scout and learned outdoor cooking in Texas.  Part of my decision to make Jim from Texas was to let me use my knowledge of Texas cooking to enrich the book.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to take a traditional blacksmithing class.  Travis’s forge has the feel it does in part because of that class.  For me it’s a very tactile thing.  As writers, we get accused of living in our heads.  I find the more I get out and do, the more things I touch and try, even if I am terrible at them, seriously the results of my blacksmithing class are kept as an object lesson to keep writing, the more it informs my writing. 

The other piece is to not write what I don’t know.  I don’t know how to make a horse shoe, so I don’t include a detailed description of a horse shoe being made.  My experience is that if I can get a few details exactly right, it makes it much easier to evoke the feel of the time and place than if I try to throw everything at the wall and hope some of it sticks.  I will always have readers who know much more about history than I do.  I just try to get the things right that I include.  If I am not certain, I don’t use it.

5) What advice would you offer to those interesting writing HistFic and related genres?

For me it’s about the unexplored corners of history.  Everyone knows about Washington crossing the Delaware.  Don’t write about it unless you have a truly new and unique take on it.  You might, but I know I don’t.  It’s more fun to find the stories that haven’t been told.  Mansa Musa was the King of Timbuktu and possibly the richest man in history.  The Varangians were Norsemen who served as the personal body guard of the Byzantine Emperor from the 10th to the 14th centuries.  Bass Reeves was the greatest law enforcement officer of all time, but almost no one knows his name.  The Silk Road was in use for centuries before Marco Polo.  If you find the history that no one is talking about, you can tell amazing stories that are new to most of your readers.  That makes the stories more interesting and new, even though they are set in history.

6) Tell us a little bit about the man behind the keyboard?

Oh heck, umm, I have a web site? You can visit me at  Beyond the web site, I grew up mostly in Texas and have ADD.  I have a ton of interests and along with the cooking and the blacksmithing, I do some woodworking, I read a lot, I am a gamer of the pencil and paper RPG variety, I’m a terrible geek that loves some western in my Sci-Fi.  I have a beard that borders on wizardly.  I have two huge dogs, three kids, and I’ve been married for nineteen years.  As a side note you officiated at my marriage, which turned out to be a good choice.

Jeff Oberg’s new novel, Desecration, is now available on Amazon . Find him online at and @Jeffobergwrites.

Literary Archaeology: Books within Books – Part 2

Jon Black

This is the second part in a series I began back in March ( examining real books that may be useful for writers of HistFic or other genres.

Not only are books excellent vehicles for exposition and an intriguing element of stories in their own right, they play on the inherent bibliophilia of most readers. We love not just good stories in books but good stories about books.

I contrasted this with classic fictional tomes such as the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or Cultes des Goules. There is nothing wrong with using such devices (I recently submitted a shorty that prominently features the later tome). The purpose of this series is to highlight the existence of actual works which offer backstories, mysteries, and possibilities every bit as rich as their fictional counterparts.

My first article focused on three works largely academic or scholarly in nature: Frazer’s Golden Bough, Murray’s Witch Cult in Western Europe, and Fry’s Pantographia. This time, we will examine three texts that are more esoteric: Donnelly’s Atlantis, Jung’s Red Book, and the anonymous Voynich Manuscript. As a caveat, these books may be better suited for historical fantasy or weird tales and pulp with a historical setting than conventional HistFic.

Atlantis: The Antediluvian World

Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World

Author: Ignatius Donnelly. Congressman and Lt. Governor from Minnesota. Author of a variety of unconventional works on topics ranging from Atlantis, to the Great Flood being caused by comet colliding with Earth, to Shakespeare’s plays actually being written by Francis Bacon.

Publication: 1882, Second Printing 1920.

Summary: The book sets forth Donnelly’s theories about the O.G. of lost continents. Much of the “New Age” conception of Atlantis originates in this book with Donnelly’s ideas of Atlantis as a cradle of lost ancient wisdom as well as an imperial power whose subjects (including Mayans, Egyptians, and all the usual suspects) retain “hidden” evidence of their Atlantean colonizers/overlords. He uses archeological evidence that was groundbreaking (pardon the pun) in the late 19th century but now appears highly suspect. Donnelly theorized the catastrophe destroying Atlantis was the same one responsible for the Biblical Flood and that the Irish are decedents of the original Atlanteans.

I probably don’t need to add that nearly every word in Atlantis has since been dismissed as pseudoscience.

TANGENT ALERT: The inside covers of my copy of Atlantis are stamped with “Grace Baptist Church,” making me wonder that particular place of worship was getting up to back in the day (Was there a Grace Baptist Church in Innsmouth, MA?).

Possible Uses in HistFic: The tomb becomes a source of inspiration (or places to insert interesting information) for stories about sunken continents and civilizations, kaiju, Cthulhu, R’yleh, Deep Ones, and underwater weirdness in general. The various works of the British explorer, occultist, and eccentric James Churchward are the usual go-to in this capacity. Donnelly offers writers a fresh alternative.

Text Online:

The Red Book

Carl Jung’s The Red Book

Author: Carl Jung (yes, that one)

Publication: Compiled circa 1915-1930, not published until 2009.

Summary: The Red Book began in the years following Jung’s final split with Freud. During that association, Jung actively suppressed his mystical bent and fascination with myths and mythmaking. Finally free from his domineering Austrian mentor, Jung’s interest in dreams, myths, and mysticism returned with a vengeance.

In addition to carefully recording his dreams, Jung actively plumbed the deepest depths of his psyche through exercises which combined aspects of meditation, guided visualization, and actual auto-hypnosis. Scholars often tamely refer to these exercise as “imaginative journeys” but, based on Jung’s descriptions, it seems appropriate to describe them as mystical journeys or even vision quests.

Frequently, Jung met “beings” on these journeys and would not let them go without asking who they were and what the purpose of their crossing paths was. The results of many such encounters were recorded in the Red Book.

The book is also remarkable for its physical characteristics. Arguably, nothing like this folio had been created since the popularization of the printing press. The text was hand-written on sheets of parchment by Jung in elaborate calligraphy using German, Latin, Green, and English. It is hand illuminated with multi-colored inks and gouache paints. Jung’s original Red Book was bound in hand-stitched red (obviously) leather accented with actual gold.

Possible Uses in HistFic: Any sort of mystical, occult, or illuminated secret might be concealed within the Red Book. Jung’s elaborate illustrations could include clues to magic spells, the lost temples of the masters, or even something as prosaic as a cache of Swiss gold. Through stories of Jung’s encounters, information about who knows what beings might be available. Finally, parallels between Jung’s journeys preserved in the Red Book and Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are self-evident. As such, it may contain practical “how-to” information on entering the Dreamlands or similar parallel realms.

Text Online: (scroll to bottom of page).

The Voynich Manuscript

A page from the Voynich Manuscript with its mysterious language and distinctive illustrations.

Author: Unknown (possibly Wilfrid Voynich)

Publication: Unknown. Materials carbon dated to early 15th century. First mention, early 17th century.  Continuous provenance from 1870. Purchased by Voynich in 1912.

Summary: The Voynich Manuscript may be the most mysterious book in existence … assuming the whole thing isn’t an elaborate forgery or hoax.

The codex is handwritten using an unknown alphabet or cipher. A translation or decryption remains elusive, despite a century of attention from linguists and cryptographers. This leads some to speculate that the characters may be a written form of glossolalia (the technical term for the phenomenon known as “speaking in tongues”) and have no actual meaning. That interpretation is far from universally accepted.

The Voynich Manuscript is equally known for its elaborate, colorful, and diverse illustrations that include plants, astronomical or astrological images, animals, mythological creatures, images suggestive of occult themes, and, of course, a considerable number of nude women.

Many believe the manuscript is a pharmacopeia, medical text, or treatise on natural science. Though why such a text should need to be made so inaccessible remains unexplained. As an interesting twist, a few experts allege the codex depicts New World plants that should have been unknown at the time of its composition. Conversely, plant illustrations combined with astrological imagery might make it a grimoire or book of magic. Certainly, that would better explain the author’s need for secrecy.

Possible Uses in HistFic: Almost anything could be contained within the codex. An actual grimoire is an obvious possibility for historical fantasy. Preserving a record of pre-Colombian contact with the New World is another. It may contain information about forgotten herbs or medicines offering a “miracle cure” for a medical crisis confronting the modern world. The manuscript might be full of information deemed dangerous, damaging, or heretical but the Church a la Dan Brown. Or maybe the whole thing is just an elaborate red herring.

Text Online: or, if you really want it, on .pdf at

Literary Archaeology: Slang Shots

By Jon Black

So, I have a new crush. A new book crush, I should specify. At a second-hand bookstore in San Antonio, I discovered copy the Dictionary of American Slang: With Supplement, edited by Dr. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner (Crowell, c.1967). Since then, I have been utterly enchanted by this look into American slang of precisely half a century ago.

My New Crush.

So, rather than starting with some overarching theme, as most of my Literary Archeology posts do, I’m going share some of the thoughts and reflections this book has prompted and see where we go from there.

Revolving around slang, this post explores some of the same themes as my Words, Words, Words post from April. While that post dealt with mainstream language, this focuses on slang. It should be recognized, of course, that there is a revolving door between the two. Many words come into mainstream usage from the slang of some demographic or subculture. Less commonly, a specific population will retain a word (possibly with its original meaning, possibly not) long after it has fallen out of common use.

Slang offers all the advantages and pitfalls for HistFic that period language does in general. It also allows for the representation of specific subcultures or regional or ethnic demographics. A short listing of sources for the words appearing Dictionary of American Slang include “hobos and tramps,” immigrants, jazz musicians, the military, “narcotics addicts,” “show-business workers,” students, and “the underworld.” Interesting how even the names of those categories show the passage of time and evolution of language.

For all slang’s ability to bring sub-groups to life, it can be a double-edged sword. Even more than most period language, overuse of slang can slide into stereotype and caricature (How many books/movies/TV shows have we seen featuring one-dimensional portrayals of characters speaking Cockney, Jive, Valley-Girl, etc. that are a subtle as an iron maul to the brainpan?).

In fairness, the Dictionary of American Slang is not the beginning of my love affair with period slang. It’s something I’ve dabbled with in writing HistFic before.

In my novel Gabriel’s Trumpet (scheduled for release later this year from 18thWall), an entire chapter revolves around a group of Hep-Cat musicians teaching the protagonist the elaborate slang of jazz-age Harlem. It is more than just a colorful interlude or fish out of water moment, the lesson is essential if the protagonist to be able to communicate and make sense of the alien (to him) environment in which he now finds himself.

In another recent project, I found myself dealing with the slang of two different (if often interconnected) subcultures in 1910s Paris: the bohemian set and the criminal underworld.

reefer, gage, Indian hop, pot, tea, etc.

Most of us know the anecdote about the Inuit/Eskimos have X number of words for snow. Depending on who’s telling the anecdote, the number of words varies. The real point is that each of those words has a slightly different meaning. And that those (to us) relatively trivial differences are worth communicating indicates how important snow, and being able to describe very specific properties of snow, are to the Inuit.

A similar process is at work with slang. Early jazz culture had a seemingly endless number of terms for marijuana and its aficionados. Likewise, I lost count of Montmartre’s euphemisms for prostitutes and places where alcohol was served. And these weren’t synonyms; each term had very specific connotations setting it apart from the others. Likewise, the underworld argot of the ladies and gentlemen of the Parisian milieu used terms that were often frighteningly specific for thieves, murders, etc. (The word for a thief who stole watches was entirely different from one who stole goods from unattended wagons, etc.)

And, because I’ve got a little space left over, I thought I would share some of my favorite discoveries from Dictionary of American Slang.

Some Ham-And-Eggers in their Meat Grinder.

Beard: an intellectual or egghead; conversely a beat, bohemian, or other “far out” person.

Bug Man: A circus or carnival concessionaire who sells lizards, turtles, or insects.

Ham-And-Egger: an average or dull person, a worker competent only at routine tasks

Know one’s beans/Know the beans: to be well-informed on a subject or skilled in one’s chose field.

Meat Grinder: an automobile (1940s, student slang).

Red-light or Redlight: To push a person out of a moving locomotive, specifically to intentionally kill someone by doing so.

Suffering Cats! A socially acceptable expletive (allegedly in place of Suffering Christ!).

Sunday Thinker: A self-proclaimed genius, an impractical person, or an eccentric.

Yesterday, Today, and Forever: lunch-counter slang for the house hash (implying that the daily leftovers had been added to the same hash pot since the establishment’s opening).

Literary Archaeology: Food for Thought

Jon Black

As writers of historical fiction, we are always looking for tools which provide information about settings by showing rather than telling and that allow us to engage a readers’ other senses when bringing worlds to life.

The First Thanksgiving, an example of the powerful connection between food and history.

Food is distinctive by time and place, but eating is universal. All of us require sustenance. That means that eating is something readers can relate to … which is important in a genre like HistFic where relatable events and activities cannot always be taken for granted. At the same, because eating is universal but what is eaten and how it’s eaten are not, food allows HistFic writers pair the familiar with the exotic. In addition, I think there’s at least a little bit of a foodie in all of us and, therefore, we are fascinated by descriptions of what and how people at in the past.

As long as it is not overdone, descriptions of food and eating offer writers a very powerful tool. While not HistFic, consider the scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo and the Dwarves meet for the first time as an example of how a meal can powerfully set mood and atmosphere.

Below, I’ve expounded on a few thoughts about using food in HistFic.

The Columbian Exchange

For most of history, many foodstuffs we today think of as universal were known only to the Eastern or Western hemisphere. And those barriers did not instantly come down in 1492. Except as rare novelties, it is not realistic to have a food from one hemisphere impacting large swaths of society across the ocean until (generously) 1500 or (more conservatively) 1525 or even 1550. Potatoes and tomatoes, two of the ultimately most successful, took centuries to catch on after being labeled poisonous, un-Christian, or actively satanic.

Beware the “Devil’s Fruit.”

Select List of Foods Exclusive to One Hemisphere, Pre-1492

Eastern Hemisphere Foods: barley, cattle, chickens, coffee, cultivated honey, goats, millet, oats, okra, olives, onions, oranges, peaches, pears, peas, pigs, rice, sheep, sorghum, sugar cane, wheat.

Western-Hemisphere Foods: beans, coca, chilies, maize (corn), manioc, paprika, peanuts, pumpkins, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys.

It should be noted the above lists are somewhat deceptive. In the century and millennia before the Columbian exchange, a given food was not necessarily known throughout its hemisphere. For example, the potato was unknown to North American groups and coffee generally unfamiliar outside of Arabia and parts of Africa. A regional breakdown of foods is, however, beyond the scope of this humble blog post.

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Descriptions of food and dining in HistFic are often portray opulence or at least variety. Conversely, they can be shorthand for poverty, privation, or oppression. Consider the weevil-infested hardtack and salt pork (skin and hair often still attached) of the pre-industrial sailor. Or Oliver Twist’s celebrated gruel. Or the perpetually simmering porridge (“peas porridge hot”) that was standard fare for medieval peasantry.   

Eating Local

For most of history, food has been an intensely local affair except for the very wealthy. Refrigeration and improved transportation have conspired to gradually change that, making foods from around the around available to most people. For we who take such things for granted, therefore, it is worth briefly examining the history of refrigeration and transportation.

Ice harvesting in Massachusetts, circa 1850.


The use of snow cellars and iceboxes used to preserved food dates back at least 3,000 years, with the earliest discovered examples coming from northern China. The systemic, widespread use of this process (known as ice harvesting) dates from the 1830s in North America. Inefficient and a largely experimental refrigeration machines, actually predate ice harvesting back to 1755. Such machines did not achieve commercial viability until the 1850s and didn’t really take off until the turn of the 20th century, when costs came down and concerns about pollution in naturally harvested ice grew.


An expansive global shipping industry begins in the 18th century and accelerates drastically with the industrialization and advent of the steam ship in the 19th century. Effective inland transportation networks date from the construction of country-wide rail systems in the mid-19th century (slightly earlier in Britain, slightly later in some other locations) and enhanced by the emergence of comprehensive highway systems in the 1930s.

Home Cooking

On a practical level, what did all this mean for food before refrigeration and effective transportation? Canning and other forms of preservation like smoking and salting were practiced nearly ubiquitously. During winter months, such preserves could represent a significant portion of local diets. Unless preserved, meats and, especially, seafood were very much localized. The old maxim about “Only eating shellfish in months with an ‘R’ in them,” was not a quaint bit of folk wisdom. It was good way to avoid getting potentially lethal food poisoning (notice that months with ‘R’ tend to cluster in cold months and scrupulously avoid summer).


Let’s admit it, part of the fun of using food in HistFic is researching the recipes, drooling over them, and wondering “Hey, could I make that at home?” I’ll conclude with three good online resources for historical cooking.

The Historic American Cookbook Project:

Historic Cookbooks Online:

Savoring the Past:

Literary Archeology: Forgotten Festivals


Jon Black

“Frost Fair of 1814” by Luke Clenell

Last fortnight’s post dealt with, in part, the Frost Fairs … periodic London revelries occurring whenever the Thames froze solid. A semi-regular part of London life in the 16th – 19th centuries, the Frost Fairs stopped when the global climate warmed and the Thames stopped freezing. Since writing that post, I’ve been curious about other lost or forgotten holidays and festivals that might make a colorful backdrop for historical fiction. Here are five:

Akitu/Zagmuk (Ancient Mesopotamia)

Marduk and Tiamat

The Mesopotamian New Year Celebration, it was known as Akitu in Akkad and Zagmuk in Babylon, its celebration is attested to at least 4,000 years ago. Lasting 12 days and culminating on the Spring Equinox, Zagmuk celebrated the victory of Marduk, god of the city and civilization, over Tiamat, the embodiment of primordial chaos. The centerpiece of Zagmuk was a passion play reenacting Marduk’s triumph, with the role of Marduk played by city-state’s king. In some versions, Marduk was slain by Tiamat on the festival’s first day and resurrected on the 12th day (with obvious similarities to the story of Osiris in Egyptian mythology).

This passion play was accompanied by daily religious rites and pageantry as well as feasting and drinking by the rest of the populace.

Traditionally, planting began on the first day after the conclusion of Zagmuk. Some scholars have suggested that aspects of Zagmuk/Akitu can still be found today in Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Festival of Drunkenness (Ancient Egypt)

Harvesting Grain for Beer

This annual (or possibly biennial) revelry gets points for honesty and cutting to the heart of things. At the end of the day, isn’t this is a big part of what most festivals are really about?

Yet at its heart was the serious purpose of commemorating humanity’s salvation from destruction. To make a long myth as short as possible: the gods were angry with humans (again) and sent the goddess Hathor (in some versions, Sekhmet) to wipe them out. At the last minute, Ra took pity on humanity. He commanded 7,000 jars of beer to be brewed and mixed with hematite so it resembled human blood. Seeing the ruddy beer poured out in a field, Hathor mistook it for human blood (Why? Who knows?) and consumed it all. Becoming intoxicated, she fell asleep and humanity was saved.

To commemorate their deliverance, at the festival Ancient Egyptians would emulate the goddess by getting absolutely sloshed and falling asleep. Other participants would dance wildly with torches in hopes of receiving an ecstatic vision from Hathor. The following morning, revelers were awoken by musicians playing drums and horns (not, I expect, to everyone’s great delight).

Some scholars suggest the festival has its roots in an older agricultural celebration; its biennial occurrence corresponding to the harvesting of summer and winter crops along the Nile.

Plough Monday (England)

Plough Monday

Up through the early 19th century, Plough Monday, celebrated on the Monday of the first full week in January, marked the beginning of the English agricultural calendar. While that might sound relatively dull, many traditions surrounding Plough Monday were not. Villages hosted processions led by a young boy dressed as an old woman (called Bessy) and an old man dressed as an animal (simply known as The Fool). Accompanied by musicians, Bessy and the Fool dragged a plow from house to house while asking for gifts and money for the harvest (It has been suggested that, originally, such gifts were intended as offerings to secure a bountiful harvest).  Celebrations continued until the next morning with drinking and dancing. Some dancing was ritual, in the fashion of Morris Dancing, including a very specific variation, Sword Dancing.

St. Crispin’s Day (England)

Now known primarily through Shakespeare’s Henry V, St. Crispin’s Day (October 25th) once served as a vehicle for social sanction in communities throughout England. In traditions persisting until the 1880s in some areas, on St. Crispin’s day villages fashioned an effigy in the image of a resident who was particularly ill-behaved or notorious over the past year. The dummy would then be hung from a tree, signpost, or other high point as way of expressing communal displeasure with that individual. The effigy was left hanging until November 5th (which happens to be a Guy Fawkes Day, another holiday in which an effigy plays a significant role … so I can’t help wondering if there is a connection).

Evacuation Day (New York and Surrounding Areas)

Let Your Freak Flag Fly (Evacuation Day 1783)

The curiously named Evacuation Day was an annual celebration of British soldiers’ November 25, 1783 withdrawal from New York at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. Evacuation Day was celebrated with parades, martial displays, flying flags, formal dinners, and speeches by local officials.

A more unusual aspect of Evacuation Day, flagpole climbing contests, had its roots in an apocryphal story that the British had left their flag flying over New York but greased the flagpole in hopes of making it impossible for the Americans to remove their banner. After several failed attempts by others, a young man succeeded in shimming up the pole, removing the Union Jack, and raising the Stars and Stripes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Evacuation Day waxed in direct proportion to the increasing popularity of Thanksgiving, another late November holiday. It’s a shame about the flagpole climbing contests, though.

Literary Archaeology: Writing the Wind: Weather, Climate, and HistFic

Jon Black

The Frost Fair of 1814 by Luke Clenell

This started out as a post about the promise and peril of writing HisFic in which I used the recent Doctor Who episode “Thin Ice” as a case study. But watching the episode, seeing the Frost Fair over the Thames and the elephant making its way its way across the thick ice, I kept veering off into reflections about the possibilities for using weather and climate in historical fiction. Ultimately, I surrendered to these tangents.

The Frost Fairs, fetes held in concurrence with irregular freezings of the Thames (which largely brought London to a standstill anyway) were a real thing. Even the elephant was liften from the pages of history, homage to an actual pachyderm who bravely crossed river near Blackfriars Bridge in 1814.

Another aspect of the 1814 Frost Far was disappointingly omitted by Dr. Who writers: the production of a commemorative book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State by printer George Davis. As an added gimmick, with modern aficionados of meta will appreciate, all the books were typeset and printed in a stall erected over the frozen river.

The Frost Fairs occurred, in years the Thames froze solidly, across a broad swath of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Unsurprisingly, these dates coincide with a period known as the Little Ice Age when mean seasonal temperatures in most parts of the globe fell significantly.

That makes Frost Fairs the kind of exotic yet specific element that brings historical fiction to life for readers … and is fun for authors to write. The Little Ice Age is hardly the only distinctive weather/climate event with potential for writing HistFic. I have expanded on it, and provided a few others, below.

Event of 535 A.D.

What remains of the Ilopango Volcano today

A brief but devastating period of global cooling and violent weather that is now tied by many scientists to a Volcanic Winter caused by the catastrophic eruption of either El Salvador’s Ilopango Volcano or Indonesia’s Krakatoa.  Consistent cloud cover and cooler temperatures created famine in locations as diverse as China, Ireland, Mesoamerica, and Peru. Famines begat plague as well as touching off a wave of often violent migrations as hungry populations went off en masse search of sustenance. Among the civilizations believed to have fallen or been weakened at least in part by the Event of 535 A.D. are the Byzantine Empire (largely from the Plague of Justinian), India’s Gupta Dynasty, Mexico’s Teotihuacan, sub-Roman Britain (as consequence of the movement of hungry Saxons and Vikings), and the Sassanid Persians.

The Little Ice Age

Depending on the specific location, the Little Ice Age might have begun as early as 1300 or ended as late as 1850.  Several explanations have been advanced for the age and, operating over so long a period, it likely resulted from multiple interrelated factors. Whatever the causes, the effects were dramatic.

That one could sometimes walk from Manhattan to Staten Island over the ice seems unremarkable when the parts of the Bosporus and the Bay of Galveston occasionally froze solid. Snow was taken for granted in Lisbon, Portugal.

Further north, effects were more serious. Frequent flooding altered coastlines and river courses in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. Iceland was isolated, famished, and lost half its population. Norse populations in Greenland vanished entirely. In Asia, China saw its agricultural zones shift southward and its coastal regions battered by intense typhoon activity.

Blame it on the Rain.

All this had profound social consequences. The hungry, displaced, and weary populations of the Little Ice Age have been linked with everything from increased political radicalization (English Civil War, American Revolution, French Revolution, Revolutions of 1848, etc.) to witch hunting panics stretching from Salem to the Harz Mountains.

Of course, every Little Ice Age has its silver lining. A number of musicologists have suggested that that the old, dense woods of Little Ice Age forests may explain (at least in part) the superlative acoustic properties of instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius.

Year Without a Summer (1816)

As with the Event of 535 A.D., the Year without a Summer was caused by a Volcanic Winter, in this case resulting from the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora. Piggybacking on the effects of the Little Ice Age, it overtaxed already strained agricultural systems. Europe saw shortages and food riots in France, Switzerland, and the UK. A typhus outbreak occurred in Ireland. Freezes occurred as late as August while severe storms and torrential rain flooded major rivers. In North America, crops in New England and Canada failed. While there was no widespread famine there, food prices (and social unrest) rose sharply. China saw regional famines accompanied by widespread desertion from the army.

William Turner’s sunset paintings were made possible by a disaster half a world away.

Conversely, the dense atmospheric particulates of the Year Without a Summer led to brilliant sunrises and sunsets, captured in landscape paintings of the period. It also stimulated widespread interest in scientific agriculture such as mechanization and chemical fertilizers.

A few parting thoughts about how climate might play into historical fiction:

First, as the above examples indicate, climate has a significant impact on the rise and fall of civilizations, cultures, and nations. This is true of gradual long term change as well as cataclysmic occurrences like the Event of 535 A.D. or Year without a Summer. With the glacial (see what I did there?) pace of climate change, land is often settled which is cultivatable under favorable climate conditions. When climate shifts again, however, the land proves to be inhospitable. This kind of sudden decline in carrying capacity has been pointed to as a factor in the fall of the Anasazi (or, if you prefer, Ancestral Puebloans), classical Mayan civilization, and civilization’s first blush in Mesopotamia (possibly catalyzed by widespread deforestation).

Don’t Have to Be a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind is Blowing.

Second, humans have always understood weather … but they haven’t always understood meteorology. A Neolithic farmer might actually be a better weather prognosticator over his or her little bit of dirt than a trained 21st century meteorologist. But the Neolithic farmer (and, indeed, most humans until the early 20th century) don’t really see the big picture and don’t understand what drives weather. For much of history, extreme weather is likely to be viewed as divine omen, direct evidence of God’s/gods’ displeasure, or the work of the black magic or infernal forces.

Literary Archaeology: Words, Words, Words

Jon Black

Language changes over time. Consider the following examples:

  • “The very first thing I noticed was my awareness of the susurrus of the house and rock, now one with the sea’s slow movement.” August Derleth, The Mask of Cthulhu (1958).
  • The word whisky signifies water and is applied by way of eminence to ‘strong water’ or distilled liquor. The spirit drunk in the north is drawn from barley … it is strong but not pungent and was free from the empyreumatick taste or smell.” Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands (1775) (Not fiction, but it’s what I happen to have at hand.)
  • “When I did hear the motley fool thus moral on the time, My lungs began to crow like chanticleer, That fools should be so deep-contemplative, And I did laugh sans intermission.” Shakespeare, As You Like It. (1599).

Go back much farther and you’ll bump into questions of mutual intelligibility…already thorny and ponderous by the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and absolutely opaque by the time we hit Beowulf.

The point to all of this is that different times and places have very different methods of speaking–and ones that we as readers can identify even if we don’t know all the rules.

Using archaic or obsolete words, phrases, or manners of speaking are a potent tool for writers of historical fiction and historical fantasy. It adds color, flavor, and can provide useful shorthand. Dropping period vocabulary or idioms into conversation or description help set time and place.

While some authors (and their loyal fans) will disagree, for most readers a little period language goes a long way. Remember the goal is to draw readers into your work and make the setting more colorful and vibrant. Your goal is not to send your readers scrambling for reference material after every third word, like Middle Schoolers encountering Shakespeare for the first time!

For me, the most effective formula is to lay it on a little thick at the beginning but then only periodically afterward (and ramp it up a little bit whenever there is a scene change that would feature a similar shift in language).

Fortunately, a number of resources are available to help you get the most of out of period dialogue and vocabulary … with minimum investment of time and money.

Online Resources                                                                     

A search will turn up any number of clickbait articles with headlines like “You won’t believe these 20 shocking words nobody uses anymore.” They’re fun, they’re not necessarily wrong, but caveat emptor, baby! A more targeted search, including the name of the era and possibly a few weightier terms such as “lexicon” or “vocabulary” will bolster the quality of your results. Of course, if you want the platinum standard, it’s hard to get more authoritative than the OED, which maintains its own lexical graveyard at


If you’re willing to lay out a little cash, a number of books on the topic are available as well. I have a fondness for W.R. Runyan’s 1,001 Fun and Fabulous Forgotten Words and Phrases and, especially, Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English. The latter takes a quality-over-quantity approach, drawing on Kacirk’s talent for tale telling as it digs deeply into the etymology of each word presented.

You can also try a more targeted search leading you to things like Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words From the Fourteenth Century.

Getting really deep into it.

Remember, most of the books are written with a broad audience in mind. Any serious writer or philologist will look at some of the entries in these books and say “People don’t know what that means?”

Period Resources

There’s no reason to limit yourself to what other contemporary writers and historians have said about the era you’re writing in. You can go directly for sources from the period in question.

Period Books

When trying to use period language, an obvious angle is to look at the books of the time. Want the sound of a world-wise, and rather world weary, nineteenth century American? Look at Twain’s words. Hoping to cop the elegant language and sharp slang of Lost Generation dilatants? Dive into Fitzgerald, Barns, Joyce, or, for a more harrowing take, Elliot. Need to channel the feverish musings of a brooding intellectual in the last days of Tsarist Russia? Look no further than Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Journals and Diaries

Of course, there is a limitation on using period books in this fashion. All fiction and most non-fiction presents a stylized reconstruction of natural speech that is designed to impact the reader in some way. For a real emphasis on authenticity, focus on journals and diaries. These sources are the most felicitous to the way people of a given time period actually thought and spoke.

The Samuel Johnson quote above is instructive in this capacity. Nothing beats Johnson and Boswell for capturing the tone of a witty erudite gentleman of eighteenth Britain, especially one believing his words are relatively private.

A surprising number of such texts are available without having to dive into a distant archives (though, if you want to, go right ahead).

A special variation on this theme are transcripts. If you want to know what a meeting of the Royal Geographic Society in 1837, and the kind of people who attended it, sounded like, you can go look it up! But remember, any event that merits a transcript was probably sufficiently formal for that to be reflected in how people spoke as well. Don’t confuse it for casual conversation or the language of the street–any more than people using Robert’s Rules of Order would be a good insight in twenty-first century colloquial English.


Peter Mark Roget, creator of the modern Thesaurus

One of my favorite possessions is a 1962 Thesaurus that I consult regularly for sheer novelty value. Without it, I never would have known that a “standpatter” was an obstinate person or that “green good” could refer to either groceries or counterfeit. If you can’t find a thesaurus that perfectly matches your project, do not despair. Because the goal of a thesaurus is to present a reader with all the optional synonyms, words often continue to appear in a thesaurus for a decade or two after they’ve fallen out of common use. Modern thesauri date only from the mid-19th century, you’ll need to look at one of the sources above.

Literary Archaeology: It’s Writing Cats and Dogs

Jon Black

They loved their owners very much

The use of domesticated animals is nearly universal across human culture. Nevertheless, the specific uses of such animals, preferences regarding species and breed, and attitudes toward such animals shift across time and place. As such, they can be a wonderful part of the background in HistFic. No domesticated animals are more useful for writers, and more interesting to readers, than those that blur that line between work animals and companions: cats and dogs. Even when treated realistically, these creatures can very nearly become characters in their own right. As pets, they provide a goldmine of opportunities to convey information about their owners. The kind of animal chosen as a pet, what it is named, and how it is treated say a great deal about a character.

This week’s column looks at those two delightful species. It examines the where, when, and how of their domestication as well as offering a few fun facts which might prove useful or inspirational to HisFic writers. Obviously, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what could be said about cats and dogs…so this may turn out to be first in a periodic series of articles.

To head off any angry feedback from either the dog-people or cat-people, I’ve presented them alphabetical order.

CATS (Felis catus)

Origins: Evolved from the near-eastern Wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica). The earliest confirmed archeological evidence for domesticated cats dates from 9,500 years ago in Cyprus. Genetic evidence suggests slightly older origins, around 10,000 years ago in Middle East. Interestingly, there is evidence that the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis, closely related to the Wildcat but, its name notwithstanding, not the leopard) was undergoing the process of domestication in China by 7,500 years ago (and possibly as early as 10,000 years ago) but, for whatever reason, the process was never completed and no semi-domesticated populations survive today.

How the Relationship Started: The initial interaction of humans and cats likely began when after the former started engaging in systematic agriculture that produced significant surplus. The humans’ stored grains and seeds attracted rodents which, in turn, attracted the ancestors of domesticated cats. A symbiotic relationship developed, with the cats benefiting from plentiful food and the humans benefitting from reduced grain loss as well as, although they didn’t know it, reduced their susceptibility to rodent-borne pathogens.

Everybody Loves a Cat Lady

In popular culture, “cat lady” has evolved from a term disparagement to one that is often a self-proclaimed badge of honor. While the term is of relatively recent vintage, the archetype itself is not; although, there seems to be no academic consensus on when it first emerged. Certainly, it was alive and well by the Victorian era, when multiple cat ownership and spinsterhood were already linked. (Fun Fact: Florence Nightingale was a real-life a cat lady, owning as many as 60 felines throughout her life, most of them named after popular political figures of the day).

Cardinal Richelieu, one of history’s great “Cat Ladies.” (Image credit: Detroit Institute of Arts via The History Blog)

Other alleged historical Cat Ladies include Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, all three Bronte sisters, Vivian Leigh, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (It would appear that something about authors and nurses overlaps with cat fancying). If one takes a non-sex/gender specific approach to the term then Cardinal Richelieu, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemmingway must be added to the ranks of Cat Ladies. Catherine the Great was another famous Cat Lady…look for the descendants of her pets to appear in one of my upcoming stories.

A Plague on Both Your Mouses

For centuries, cats had an ambivalent relationship with organized religion. This goes at least as far back as the Black Death, when priests often labeled cats as argents of darkness who brought plague. It was an ironic conclusion. Rather than causing plague, by feeding on rodents that carried plague flees, cats were one on the medieval world’s only effective anti-plague measures. In 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum, the church’s handbook for witch hunting, identified cat ownership as possible evidence of witchiness. Today, things appear more amicable. The gentle Gertrude of Nivelles is the patron saint of both cats and cat lovers.

Feline Hall of Fame: Unsinkable Sam

Unsinkable Sam served as ship’s cat on three separate ships that were torpedoed during WWII, surviving each time and living out the rest of his long life on land. Sam, however was something of a turncoat. He began his career on the German battleship Bismark, after being plucked from the water by crewmen from the HMS Cossack, he spent the remainder of his military career with the Royal Navy.

Unsinkable Sam on patrol

DOGS (Canis Lupus Familiaris)

Roman State of Hounds

Origins: Domesticated from the Gray Wolf (Canis Lupis), there are two differing hypothesis regarding the time and place. The first is in Europe, at least 15,000 years ago (and possibly as far back as 36,000 years ago). The second is Central Asia or Western China 12,500 years ago. Recently, it has been suggested that both may be correct and the domestication process may have occurred independently twice. Even the latest date would make the dog the first species domesticated by humans and, notably, predates the practice of agriculture and occurred back when all humans were hunter-gatherers.

How the Relationship Started: There are multiple non-exclusive theories behind the domestication of wolves into dogs. Opportunistic wolves may have found scavenging human trash made an easier meal than hunting and begun following the strange bipeds around. While humans may have experienced some benefit from the wolves consuming their rubbish (though not as much as sedentary humans later would), their primary benefit may have been the animals’ superior senses…serving as an alarm system for the approach of wild animals or other groups of humans.

Hunting likely played a significant role as well, though whether this occurred concurrently with or after other factors is debated. As social, group-oriented species, the hunting styles of humans and wolves were highly compatible. Though too long to go into here, there is a fascinating body of research regarding behaviors and communications that may have jumped between the two species early in the relationship.

Packed Animal

Before the arrival of the horse, outside of the Andes (with its llama) the dog was the only draft animal in the New World. A healthy dog can carry approximately one-quarter of its own weight for sustained periods. Dogs selectively bread for such purposes can carry about one-third of their weight. Using a travois (a simple drag-sled constructed from three wooden poles) pushes that half or even two-thirds of its weight, while introducing terrain limitations. Dogs in a snow sled team can pull one-and-a-half to two times their combined weight.

Bark Like An Egyptian

While often overshadowed by their veneration of cats as symbols of the goddess Bast, the ancient Egyptians were extraordinarily fond of dogs. They could be found as household pets of everyone from peasants to pharaohs and were used for hunting, guarding, and even military purposes.

Fido, J’Accuse!

While not receiving quite so much ecclesiastical condemnation as cats, dogs have faced their share of trouble with religious officials and accusations of being in league with dark forces. The list of individuals accused during the Salem Witch Trials included two dogs. Conversely, dogs were sometimes used to ferret (see what I did there?) out alleged witches. Regional folklore in Britain features many examples of black dogs with red eyes (sometimes spectral, sometimes tangible) that are often viewed as fiendish or, at the very least, uncanny.