The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

48. Inconspicuous, unostentatious, but hardly insignificant

"Insects do not play so conspicuous and ostentatious a part in Europe as in some of the warmer regions of the globe ; it is only in special localities or exceptional seasons that their destructive or irritating influence becomes formidable to man. There are not many towns like Fasano, where the inhabitants have in summer to leave their usual residences to the occupancy of flies ; and if the European horticulturist has a hard battle to fight with caterpillars, earwigs, and wasps, he generally succeeds in gaining a fair crop after all.

[...]The three insects of the greatest economic importance are the silk-moth, the bee, and the cantharis. The silk-worm, since its introduction in the 6th century, has become an important object of cultivation in Italy, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain, and Portugal, and has even proved remunerative in Prussia, Bavaria, and central Russia ; and recently a new species from Japan, which feeds on the oak and not on the mulberry, has been successfully reared in the Baltic provinces. Bee-keeping is an extensive industry in Italy, France, Switzerland, Russia, and Sweden ; and in Greece, the tax on bees furnishes £1600 to the revenue. The cantharis is a native, not only of Spain, as its popular name of Spanish fly imports, but also of France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, and South Russia, and even occurs in the south of England."

I hope that the above extract from the extensive EUROPE article, by H. A. Webster, in volume 8, can be of practical use to regular readers of this blog. You will now be able to remark, should the occasion justify, that the town of Fasano is given over to the occupation of flies in summer. If conversation is lagging, or idleness threatens mischief, ask your companions, charges, or fellow passengers on the omnibus, whether they can name the three most profitable insects in Europe. They are sure to struggle to think of the Spanish fly, and should they name the bee, you can concur with the observation that it has on occasion furnished a significant contribution to the Greek exchequer.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

47. A sufficient residuum of sea-serpents

Readers contemplating a sea voyage may be reassured by the accompanying figures from the article SEA-SERPENT by W. E. Holmes, M.A., of the "Challenger" Expedition Office. Figure 2 is (Admiral?) Bing's drawing of the sea-serpent reported by the "well-known missionary to Greenland" Hans Egede ; figure 3 shows how a squid rearing out of the water and spouting a jet of water could easiy be mistaken for the same.

Mr Holmes' article, complete with numerous footnotes referencing a wide selection noted journals and publications, offers nine explanations for the sea-serpent phenomena. Seven of these rely upon the observer mistaking some other creature for a giant aquatic worm (porpoises, basking sharks, a flight of sea-fowl skimming the surface, ribbon fish, sea-lions, sea weed, our friend the giant squid), options eight and nine are more intriguing.
"(8) A pleiosaurus, or some other of the huge marine reptiles usually believed to be extinct, might certainly have produced the phenomena described, granting the possibility of one having survived to the present time. Newman and Gosse have both supported this theory, the former citing as evidence in its favour the report of a creature with the body of an alligator, a long neck, and four paddles having been seen by Captain Hope of H.M.S. "Fly" in the Gulf of California. (9) No satisfactory explanation has yet been given of certain descriptions of the sea-serpent ; among others of this class may be mentioned the huge snake seen by certain of the crew of the "Pauline" in the South Atlantic Ocean, which was coiled twice round a large sperm whale, and then towered up many feet into the air, and finally dragged the whale to the bottom. Perhaps the most remarkable, however, is Lieutenant Hayne's account of a creature seen from H.M. yacht "Osborne." Two different aspects were recorded,-the first being a ridge, 30 feet in length, of triangular fins, each rising 5 to 6 feet above the water, while the second view showed a large round head 6 feet in diameter, with huge flappers, which moved like those of a turtle. It would thus appear that, while, with very few exceptions, all the so-called "sea-serpents" can be explained by reference to some well-known animal or other natural object, there is still a residuum sufficient to prevent modern zoologists from denying the possibility that some such creature may after all exist."

Thursday, 1 January 2009

46. The octave of Christmas Day

"NEW YEAR'S DAY. The first day (calends) of January, as marking the beginning of the year, was observed as a public holiday in Rome from at least the time of the Julian reformation of the calendar. Ovid (Fas., i. 63 sq.) alludes to the abstinence from litigation and strife, the smoking altars, the white-robed processions to the Capitol ; and later writers describe the exchanges of visits, the giving and receiving of presents (strenae), the masquerading, and the feasting with which the day was in their time celebrated throughout the empire. [...]

"When about the 5th century the 25th of December had gradually become a fixed festival commemorative of the Nativity, the 1st January ultimately also assumed a specially sacred character as the octave of Christmas Day and as the anniversary of the circumcision of our Lord, and as such it still figures in the calendars of the various branches of the Eastern and of the Western Church, though only as a feast of subordinate importance. The practice of giving and receiving "strenae" for luck about the beginning of the year survives in such institutions as the French "jour d'├ętrennes" and the Scottish "Handsel Monday." The Persians also, it may be mentioned, celebrated the beginning of the year (nev-ruz) by exchanging presents of eggs."

From vol. 17 (Motanabbi - Ormuzd) of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1884).

Henceforth I will be celebrating the octave of my birthday on the 1st of November, and will be expecting strenae, thank you.