Police History: Constable vs. Paramilitary

Calls to abolish or massively reform America’s police sound new and radical. Yet history offers a very old model for those reforms: an alternative to our current military style of policing. In the world of the Founding Fathers, civilian constables enforced the law. They had done so for 150 years in the American colonies — and for longer in England. And they would continue well into the 19th Century.

police history: a constable or beadle
An English constable (technically, a beadle)

In America today, local police wear army-style uniforms, give and receive orders, and use military ranks such as sergeant and lieutenant. They also train like soldiers, practicing drill formations, snapping to attention before superiors, and even polishing boots. In other words, they operate a lot like soldiers — like troops in a “standing army.” How did we get here? Continue reading “Police History: Constable vs. Paramilitary”

This Week in History: the Ashmolean Museum

This week in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology opened in Oxford. It was the world’s first university museum and was named after Elias Ashmole, who in 1677 had given Oxford University what became the museum’s first collection. Construction also began in 1677. The current museum building was finished in 1845.

Ashmolean Museum

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Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives

A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting
The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

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This week in history: Huaynaputina

This week in 1600, South America experienced the most violent volcanic eruption in its recorded history. The volcano known as Huaynaputina, in Peru, exploded, and the impact was global. The surrounding area was devastated, of course – much of it buried in six feet of volcanic ash and rock. But the eruption also altered global climate, as major volcanoes sometimes do – with ash and other particulates flung into the sky blocking sunlight around the world, leading to falling temperatures. That in turn brought famines, floods, droughts, and waves of cold weather to various regions in the northern hemisphere. In fact, the eruption of Huaynaputina and other volcanoes around the same time probably contributed to the Little Ice Age: a period of historic cold weather around the world, from the 1600’s to, arguably, the 1800’s. Continue reading “This week in history: Huaynaputina”

This week in history: the Diet of Worms

This week in 1521 saw the opening of the Diet of Worms: the great meeting of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire to address the turmoil created by Martin Luther. Luther was a clergyman and professor who had repeatedly criticized the Church and attacked its doctrines. His aggressive and outspoken writings had found sympathetic ears across Germany and the rest of the empire, striking fear in the Catholic establishment. Emperor Charles V presided over the Diet, in the city of Worms in the German Rhineland, and he summoned Luther to answer for his views. Luther naturally feared that attending the Diet would lead to his death, but his patron and protector, Elector Frederick III of Saxony, negotiated safe passage to and from the meeting. Continue reading “This week in history: the Diet of Worms”

This week in history: Captain Cook

This week in history, the United Kingdom’s Captain James Cook celebrated two accomplishments. In 1773, he led the first known expedition to sail south of the Antarctic Circle. Cook and his crew were trying to find an imagined continent called Terra Australis – or to prove that it didn’t exist. Scholars had long believed the Earth must be “balanced,” with the same amount of land in the northern and southern hemispheres. The south had too little, so there had to be a missing continent. But Cook sailed to every predicted location of Terra Australis (“southern land”) and found nothing but open water, more or less disproving the theory. (Cook did not find Antarctica, though he suspected its existence. But this actual southern continent was too small to support the Terra Australis “hemisphere balance” theory.) Continue reading “This week in history: Captain Cook”

This week in history: Ceres

Ceres

This week in 1801, astronomer-priest Giuseppe Piazzi discovered a new astronomical body between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. He named it Ceres FerdinandeaCeres was the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and motherhood – the Latin version of the Greeks’ Demeter, mother of Hades’ wife Persephone. So in choosing Ceres, Piazzi followed tradition: naming astronomical bodies after Roman gods (e.g., Venus, Jupiter, Saturn). In choosing Ferdinandea, however, Piazzi departed from tradition. The name honored Ferdinand III, king of Piazzi’s homeland, Sicily – who was also Ferdinand IV of Naples. The astronomers of other nations declined to honor King Ferdinand, so only the name Ceres stuck. Piazzi originally reported Ceres as a comet, but he suspected it was a planet, and other astronomers soon agreed. By the 1850’s, however, star-watchers had discovered many other small astronomical bodies orbiting between Jupiter and Mars, and they coined a new terms for the whole group: asteroids. Ceres has been considered an asteroid ever since. But Ceres stands out from its crowd, since it’s the biggest asteroid and the only one to be rounded (globe-shaped), due to its own gravity. As a result, Ceres’ status changed again in 2006, when astronomers demoted Pluto from planet status and created a new category: dwarf planet. Dwarf planets are globe-shaped bodies that don’t orbit a planet – they’re not moons – but that have not cleared their orbit of other objects, the way full planets do. Pluto’s demotion outraged many astronomy fans, but Ceres had been promoted. Today, it’s the only object classified as both an asteroid and a dwarf planet. Continue reading “This week in history: Ceres”