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Miscellany

Miscellany Animals

Beaver fur can contain between 12,000 and 23,000 hairs per square centimeter, and it is particularly good for making thick, pliable, water-resistant felt. In 1733 the Hudson Bay Company valued one prime-quality beaver skin at the same worth as one brass kettle, two pounds of Brazilian tobacco, one gallon of brandy, or a pound and a half of gunpowder.

Miscellany Revolutions

For a 2005 British TV program, a full-size replica of the House of Lords was built in order to determine what damage would have been done had Guy Fawkes ignited the explosives during the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Everyone in the House, including King James I, and anyone within about three hundred feet, would have died.

Miscellany Happiness

A late nineteenth-century concern for the nerve-racking speed of modern life prompted neurologist George Beard to introduce the term neurasthenia for a sickness whose symptoms include headaches, anxiety, impotence, insomnia, and lack of ambition. The condition was so prevalent in the United States that William James—who received the diagnosis along with his sister, Alice—referred to it as Americanitis.

Miscellany Spies

When asked why he didn’t use intelligence agents, Alp Arslan, sultan of the Seljuq Empire in the 1060s, replied that his favored subjects would trust the spies, while his opponents would curry favor and bribe them; he’d end up hearing damaging reports about his friends and positive ones about his enemies. “Reports good and bad are like arrows,” Arslan said. “If you shoot enough of them, at least one will hit the target.”

Miscellany Communication

Papal indulgences were brisk business for early printers, since they were single sheets and the type did not need to be reset. Between 1498 and 1500, the Benedictine monastery in Catalonia commissioned more than 200,000 indulgences from printers in the area. A total of two thousand single-sheet items survive from the whole of the fifteenth century; over one-third are indulgences.

Miscellany Intoxication

Overworked and suffering from chest and stomach conditions, Emperor Marcus Aurelius took a prescription from his physician, Galen, for opium. According to Galen, the emperor did not like that the drug made him drowsy, so he stopped taking it. Then he found himself unable to sleep, so he started taking it again.

Miscellany Trade

Before leaving his post as Qi chancellor in 193 bc, Cao Can gave advice to his successor: “If you stir up the markets and empty out the jails, then evil men will have no place to stay and will make trouble for you elsewhere.” A footnote in the English text from translator Burton Watson explains: “It was an assumption among Han officials and intellectuals that most, if not all, men engaged in trade were swindlers.”

Miscellany Music

Michel de Montaigne’s father believed “it disorders the tender brains of children to awake them by surprise in the morning, and suddenly and violently to snatch them from sleep”; he preferred to rouse his son from slumber “by the sound of some instrument of music,” likely an early form of harpsichord called an epinette. Montaigne recalled later that he “was never without a musician for that purpose.”

Miscellany Time

“History is more or less bunk,” Henry Ford told the Chicago Tribune in 1916. “It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

Miscellany Home

In the fourteenth century the communality of monastic life was on the decline. A 1360s remodel of Westminster Abbey’s infirmary added individual chambers and parlors. Though they were intended only for the “transient sick,” healthy monks soon occupied the spaces permanently, claiming nooks by decorating them with cushions and curtains.

Miscellany Animals

“I am his highness’s dog at Kew; / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?” reads an epigram that Alexander Pope wrote in the 1730s and had engraved on the collar of one of his puppies, whom he gave to Frederick, Prince of Wales. 

Miscellany Youth

Paul Cézanne’s father, a banker, was fond of telling his son, “Young man, young man, think of the future! With genius you die, with money you live.” At least this is according to Émile Zola, who recalled the words of admonishment in one of his letters to his friend Paul. The two had first met as teenagers at boarding school in the 1850s.

Miscellany Luck

Thomas Jefferson never wrote or said, “I’m a great believer in luck. The harder I work the more I seem to have.” The quip was crafted by San Francisco humorist Coleman Cox for a 1922 collection titled Listen to This.

Miscellany Memory

According to film director Joe Swanberg, a significant number of people believe that an obscure 1985 film about mind control was not in fact real, and that they had dreamed the particulars of the Quebecois film. “The Peanut Butter Solution,” wrote Swanberg, “successfully convinced young viewers that they dreamed it rather than watched it.”

Miscellany Night

Setting grim tales during nighttime was critiqued as a cliché in 1594 by Thomas Nashe. “When any poet would describe a horrible tragical accident,” he wrote, “to add the more probability and credence unto it, he dismally begins to tell how it was dark night when it was done.”