Monthly Archives: June 2010


Prejudice against the Welsh


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In 2004, an official map published by the European Union, “The Eurostat Statistical Compendium”, dropped Wales off into the Irish Sea.

At the time, the Welsh were pretty philosophical about it, and they have a long history of learning to be so.  You can see a larger image of the map here:

As a sequel, the BBC reported in January of 2005, three months later, that an insurance company had failed to insure someone in SE Wales–“Sentinel Card Protection told 71-year-old Bernard Zavishlock, from Abergavenny, last month that it could not renew the insurance policy he had held for 10 years because Wales was ‘an unknown country’.”

These are examples of computer error, compounded by individuals who didn’t notice that Wales was missing.  Real prejudice, however, has existed against Wales since the Norman conquest.   Prejudice in and of itself is a problem, but it is compounded by a power relationship.  So when the Welsh tell the joke:  “God said to the Welsh: ‘I am going to give you this glorious land of lakes and mountains.’ So where’s the catch, asked the Welsh? ‘Wait until you see the neighbours,’ replied God.”  This is very different from an English joke  which says, “What’s the only good thing to come out of Wales? The M4” because Wales was conquered by England in 1282. 

Prejudice against the Welsh–and in particular, the speaking of Welsh, was embedded in the Acts of ‘Union’ of 1534 and 1543:  “if and when they abandoned their own language and learned English, . . . the pressures of education and the law were added to those of commerce, therefore all combined to convince Welshmen that they had no civilised or ambitious future ahead of them except by claiming equality on those terms.”

I meant to write about prejudicial statements in the past, but the present is just so full of them, it only highlights the 1000 year history that divides the English and the Welsh:

“Television presenter Anne Robinson felt the Welsh nation was fair game in 2001 when on Paul Merton’s show Room 101 she branded them ‘irritating and annoying’. She called Wales ‘useless’ and posed the question: ‘What are they for?'” 

A.N. Wilson opined: ‘The Welsh have never made any significant contribution to any branch of knowledge, culture or entertainment. They have no architecture, no gastronomic tradition, no literature worthy of the name.’

AA Gill, the restaurant and TV critic, went further: ‘You can travel from Cardiff to Anglesey without ever stimulating a taste bud.’ He took particular exception to Rhyl, calling it ‘a town only a man driving a crane with a demolition ball would visit with a smile.’

Even David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, felt licensed to make a joke last year when he said that Colin Jackson, the world champion hurdler, had ‘succeeded despite being Welsh’. Welsh nationalists condemned Blunkett’s ‘flippant and imbecilic remarks’.


Height in the Middle Ages

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According to the report, “Mean Body Weight, Height, and Body Mass Index (BMI) 1960-2002: United States,” from the CDC (Center for Disease Control), the average height of a man aged 20-74 years increased from just over 5’ 8” in 1960 to 5’ 9 ½” in 2002.  At the same time, the average height for women increased from slightly over 5’ 3” in 1960 to 5’ 4” in 2002.

If you visit houses built in the 18th century, however, door frames were much lower than they are now.  The obvious assumption, then, is that people were much shorter then, than they are now.  And they were.   But according to Richard Steckel, a professor at the Ohio State, it hasn’t been a steady change over time.  From his research, the average height of people who lived in the 9-11th centuries was comparable to ours today.  It then declined slightly during the 12th through 16th centuries, and hit an all-time low during the 17th and 18th centuries–when those doorframes were made.

By the 1700s, Northern European men had lost an average of 2.5 inches of height compared to the Dark Ages, a loss that was not fully recovered until the first half of the 20th century.

He came to this conclusion by analyzing height data from skeletons excavated from burial sites in northern Europe dating from the ninth to the 19th centuries.

The real question is . . . Why?

It has to do with health, primarily.  According to  Steckel, height is an indicator of overall health and economic well-being.  From the study of human growth, “average height reflects the overall health of a population-its diet, wealth, quality of housing, levels of pollution, disease, and stress-particularly for infants and adolescents.”

Over the last 50 years, according to statistics kept by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the average height of Japanese 11-year-olds has increased by more than 5 1/2 inches. The height of girls, who grow faster at that age, meanwhile, has increased even more.  This is attributed to general better health, less disease, and the doubling of protein intake by the average Japanese person since 1960.

Further, “The Dutch are currently tallest, measuring about two inches taller than Americans,” Steckel states. “Why? They have very high income levels, they have perhaps the best pre-natal and post-natal care in the world, and they have a relatively equal distribution of income.”

Height research conducted with European populations appears similar to American studies. A study of nearly 10,000 5-to-11-year-old English and Scottish children found a clear connection between a child’s height and whether the father had a job. In each social class group, children with unemployed fathers were shorter.

People reached heights comparable to ours during the Dark Ages because, despite our  lack of information about those years (thus, the term, ‘dark’), people were healthier in terms of food quantity and quality of life then they were later.  The 17th and 18th centuries were the beginning of the industrial revolution.  If you think about the squalor and poverty of London, for example, in the 1800s, that conclusion is not at all surprising.

Thus, a man born in the Middle Ages would have been equally likely to reach the height of 6 feet as a child born in Wales today.


Gladiators in York


Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Romans came to Britain in the 1st century AD.  Julius Caesar invaded what is now England twice, in 55 and 54 BC but didn’t leave legions and never gained any actual territory.  Britain Express amusingly called this ‘Caesar’s summer vacation’.  It wasn’t until 100 years later, in 43 AD, that they invaded for real, and began a systematic conquering of what is now England, Wales, and Scotland.  For a good summary of the chronology, see:


What has always been harder to pin down is the cultural effect the Romans had on England, since after they left in the early 5th century, the remains of their culture seems to have been wholly swept away.  Within a generation or two, little trace of them, except for their roads and ruined forts–and their religion, Christianity–remained.  Everything had fallen into disrepair.  The ‘Saxons’ descended from the east, the Scots from the North, and the Irish from the West, driving the original Britons west, into what is now Wales.

That’s the story.  And it seems, on the whole, relatively ‘true’.

But then an article like this appears:  World’s best-preserved gladiatorial relics are discovered in the suburbs of York 

What is fascinating about this find is that it reveals that this powerful aspect of Roman culture was alive and well in Britain for several hundred years.  As an anthropologist, it leaves me with so many questions:  what is the cultural impact of watching/participating in events like these on the British culture of the day?  were regular Britons allowed to watch these events, or were they only for the ruling elite (unlike in Rome)?  did the Britons continue/adopt aspects of the Roman culture after the Romans left?  If so, what traits and artifacts and for how long?

David Mattingly in his book, An Imperial Possession writes (2006) that ampitheatres had been found so far at Silchester, Circencester, and Dorchester.  Somewhere, is there a legend of a British gladiator?

Highlights include:

“Eighty skeletons have been unearthed at the site in Driffield Terrace, south west of the centre of York, over the past decade. One man appears to have been killed by a large carnivore – almost certainly a lion, tiger or bear. Others have weapon impact damage and many of them have specific features, including marks on their bones, consistent with tough training regimes.

“Our lead theory is that many of these skeletons are those of Roman gladiators and others who died in the arena. So far, a number of pieces of evidence point towards that interpretation or are consistent with it,” said the archaeologist leading the investigation, Kurt Hunter-Mann of York Archaeological Trust.”

Current evidence from scientific tests and cranial data analysis indicates that the men came from many different parts of the Roman Empire, probably including central and eastern Europe and North Africa.

“We don’t have any other potential gladiator cemeteries with this level of preservation anywhere else in the world,” said Dr Michael Wysocki, a senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire, who examined the York skeletons. “The material is particularly significant because it includes such a broad spectrum of injuries associated with interpersonal violence.”

One of the most puzzling aspects of the cemetery is that most of the men were decapitated. Although some may have sustained injuries in the period immediately before death, in most cases decapitation appears to have been the act which killed them.

It is known that defeated gladiators were often “executed” in the arena by their opponents – but scholars have always thought that it was done by a sword stab to the throat. The York decapitations are from the back of the neck, suggested that a wider range of arena coups de grâce were employed.

Several of the York skulls had holes that may have been caused by terminal hammer blows – a feature also seen in the fragmentary remains at a Roman cemetery in Ephesus, Turkey, where it was interpreted as a sign that the dead were gladiators.”