Cities

post at a blog called A Fine Theorem contains an interesting nugget:

The Romans famously conquered Gaul – today’s France – under Caesar, and Britain in stages up through Hadrian. Roman cities popped up across these regions, until the 5th century invasions wiped out Roman control. In Britain, for all practical purposes the entire economic network faded away: cities hollowed out, trade came to a stop, and imports from outside Britain and Roman coin are near nonexistent in the archaeological record for the next century and a half. In France, the network was not so cleanly broken, with Christian bishoprics rising in many of the old Roman towns.

Here is the amazing fact: today, 16 of France’s 20 largest cities are located on or near a Roman town, while only 2 of Britain’s 20 largest are. This difference existed even back in the Middle Ages. So who cares? Well, Britain’s cities in the Middle Ages are two and a half times more likely to have coastal access than France’s cities, so that in 1700, when sea trade was hugely important, 56% of urban French lived in towns with sea access while 87% of urban Brits did. This is even though, in both countries, cities with sea access grew faster and huge sums of money were put into building artificial canals. Even at a very local level, the France/Britain distinction holds: when Roman cities were within 25km of the ocean or a navigable river, they tended not to move in France, while in Britain they tended to reappear nearer to the water. The fundamental factor for the shift in both places was that developments in shipbuilding in the early middle ages made the sea much more suitable for trade and military transport than the famous Roman Roads which previously played that role.

This prompted an interesting comparison from Steve Sailer:

Maybe this is analogous to the recent shift from landline telephone networks to wireless telephone networks. Landline networks, like Roman roads, required a lot of social organizational capital to build and maintain, as Americans had in the AT&T era, but many other countries did not. Lots of cultures, such as the 20th Century Italians, had a hard time maintaining a landline system.

In contrast, cell phone networks don’t require a society to be good at cooperating, so even anarchic Somalia can have decent cell phone service. You just have to have a few people who knew what they are doing.

Similarly, medieval shipping networks required concentrations of technically advanced shipwrights here and there, but didn’t require a giant Roman-like state to keep the roads repaired. The ocean repairs itself.

It is striking how land-oriented Roman culture was despite emerging on the Italian peninsula where no place is very far from the sea, the land is mountainous, and the sea is relatively calm and warm. In contrast, England has fairly mild terrain and the Atlantic ocean is more tumultuous than the Mediterranean sea.

Maybe the explanation is that British rivers were better for transport than Italian rivers south of the Po due to more rain and less severe slopes, so it was easier to get started with inland shipping and then continue out into the ocean as your technique improved. But Italian rivers tended to be short and steep and go dry now and then, so they weren’t as good launching pads for eventual saltwater navigation.

Maybe, but Venice and Genoa did dominate maritime trade on the Mediterranean in the high and late Middle Ages…

For my part I am interested in how little influence the Roman Empire ultimately had on Britannia, certainly when compared to Gaul. I assume this is one reason why French is a Romance language while English is a Germanic one.

Paducah

Stopped by Paducah, Kentucky on our way to St. Louis on Saturday. We thought we would visit the National Quilt Museum, which was very nice. We then stayed for lunch and ended up discovering Paducah’s flood wall murals. Paducah is on the Ohio River, which drains close to 200,000 square miles of United States territory and is thus prone to occasional flooding. As a result of a particularly devastating flood in 1937, the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed floodwalls to protect the city from the river; they seem to have worked. What is most interesting is that since 1996 the walls have been decorated with mural paintings illustrating Paducah’s history. What a great idea! You’ve got a flat surface – why not use it to burnish local pride? Unfortunately none of my photographs turned out, but you can see examples on the Internet. Chief artist Robert Dafford has produced a series of paintings that are interesting, edifying, accessible, and professionally done. It’s worth a look if you’re ever passing through.

Although river traffic isn’t what it once was, the Ohio is still a major transportation thoroughfare, as you can notice from the numerous barges on it. If you want to learn more about the industry, visit the River Discovery Center.

Paducah seems to be thriving, it its way. What I would like to know is why Cairo, Illinois is not. We pass through there from time to time; the place looks like a miniature Detroit.

Adairsville

Some more local tourism: the town of Adairsville, Georgia, through which Andrews’ Raiders passed in 1862 in the commandeered General.

The historic downtown looks nice.

adairsville

adairsville2The old station is now a museum, temporarily closed.

station

The mural on the side depicts the Locomotive Chase, with the Texas in pursuit, running backwards.

mural

The Chase is immortalized in the city seal. It only depicts the Texas though.

seal

The city sponsors a Great Locomotive Chase Arts and Crafts festival in September and October.

UPDATE: I have discovered that the City of Kennesaw also has a train-seal, featuring the General!

l_kennesaw

Local Tourism

Hosting guests this weekend took me to the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia. It has been a while since I last visited and I’m pleased to say it remains great. The showpiece is the General, the locomotive hijacked by Union troops under the command of James Andrews on April 12, 1862, thereby inaugurating the Great Locomotive Chase: the rightful conductor, William Fuller, first pursued on foot, then by handcar, and then using successively the engines Yonah, William R. Smith, and Texas (which will be put on display at the Atlanta History Center later this year).

IMG_2246The chase itself began quite close to the where the Museum now is, although Lacy Motel is no longer there.

Something else we saw: Cooper’s Furnace, one of the best preserved of the Etowah Iron Furnaces which Ken Wheeler has become an expert on.

IMG_2252

Mary Celeste

From History Today:

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The Mary Celeste: ‘A curiosity that has never been satisfied’

The true story behind the much-mythologised ship and its vanished crew.

In 1884, the ‘phenomenally successful’ literary journal Cornhill Magazine published, anonymously, J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement. Purporting to ‘subjoin a few extracts’ from an article that appeared in the Gibraltar Gazette, it began:

In the month of December in the year 1873, the British ship Dei Gratia steered into Gibraltar, having in tow the derelict brigantine Marie Celeste, which had been picked up in latitude 38 degrees 40′, longitude 17 degrees 15′ W. There were several circumstances in connection with the condition and appearance of this abandoned vessel which excited considerable comment at the time, and aroused a curiosity which has never been satisfied.

The Gibraltar Gazette is fictional, Marie a variation on Mary, and the discovery takes place a year late, but otherwise, the above represents a fairly accurate summary of fact: on December 4th, 1872 a small cargo ship carrying 1700 barrels of alcohol bound for Genoa from New York was found by the Dei Gratia adrift in the Atlantic ocean. As is now well known, the Mary Celeste was completely abandoned. Speculation as to what happened to its crew has been a renewable source of debate ever since.

From hereon in, however Jephson’s statement on the fate of the ship and its crew enters the realm of fiction and, arguably, has stayed there ever since. It was the first work to be published in a major publication by Arthur Conan Doyle, most famous as creator of Sherlock Holmes and victim of the Cottingley Fairies hoax. Most writers could only dream of creating such an legacy with their first notable work. Conan Doyle’s sensational solution to the mystery (the culprit is a mutilated stowaway on a cutthroat jihad against all white men) captured public attention to such an extent that the British and American governments were prompted to respond with formal denials and official investigations. In something approaching a self-fullfilling prophecy, the Statement created an interest in the Mary Celeste that has endured, unsatisfied, for well over 100 years becoming a genre in its own right.

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More at the link. Or perhaps not: see the Wikipedia article for more information, including the detail that Dei Gratia was not British, but Canadian.