A Double-take for Lent: Sin Eaters

8 Apr
An English funeral scene, 1733. WELLCOME IMAGES, LONDON/CC BY 4.0

WHEN A LOVED ONE DIED in parts of England, Scotland, or Wales in the 18th and 19th centuries, the family grieved, placed bread on the chest of the deceased, and called for a man to sit in front of the body. The family of the deceased watched as this man, the local professional sin eater, absorbed the sins of the departed’s soul.

So begins Natalie Zarrelli’s fascinating brief history of sin eaters. You may read her entire Atlas Obscura 2017 post here.


Holiday Supply Chain Issues of Ancient Rome

21 Dec
The Journey of the Magi by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni), c. 1400-1450
 via JSTOR

If you haven’t yet finished your holiday shopping, chances are you are aware, more so than usual, of issues with the global supply chain. Whether it’s shipping delays, container shortages, or workforce disruption, we have all become armchair experts in the logistics of delivery.

The myths around Christmas have always been lessons in supply chain management. The three wise men (or Magi) bring to the manger gold, frankincense, and myrrh: tokens of kingship, divinity, and humanity, and of wealth gathered from the ends of the earth. Frankincense, an expensive fragrance, came from India and Arabia; myrrh, an embalming oil, came from bushes in Ethiopia and Arabia. While Christmas shopping as we know it began in the early nineteenth century, gift-giving has long been part of the holiday imaginary, and Santa Claus’ sleigh ride across the globe now offers an optimistic vision of a world unified by the economies of transportation—a vision that the COVID-19 pandemic is both exposing and unraveling.

So begins Ayelet Haimson Lushkov’s seasonally-tied summary of historian Matthew Fitzpatrick’s article “Provincializing Rome: The Indian Ocean Trade Network and Roman Imperialism.” You can read Lushkov’s entire JSTOR piece here.


2 Sep
Office workers at the Chrysler Corporation in Detroit, 1942. “Automation” promised ease for workers, but usually just created more work. Courtesy of Library of Congress / Arthur S. Siegel, photographer

The world confronts “an epochal transition.” Or so the consulting firm McKinsey and Company crowed in 2018, in an article accompanying a glossy 141-page report on the automation revolution. Over the past decade, business leaders, tech giants, and the journalists who cover them have been predicting this new era in history with increasing urgency. Just like the megamachines of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries—which shifted employment away from agriculture and toward manufacturing—they say that robots and artificial intelligence will make many, if not most, modern workers obsolete. The very fabric of society, these experts argue, is about to unravel, only to be rewoven anew.

So it must have come as a shock to them when they saw the most recent U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report, which debunks this forecast. The agency found that between 2005 and 2018—the precise moment McKinsey pinpointed as putting us “on the cusp of a new automation age”—the United States suffered a remarkable fall-off in labor productivity, with average growth about 60 percent lower than the mean for the period between 1998 and 2004. Labor productivity measures economic output (goods and services) against the number of labor hours it takes to produce that output. If machines are taking over people’s work, labor productivity should grow, not stagnate.

So begins historian Jason Resnikoff’s fascinating post at Zocalo Public Square. You may read his entire piece here.

First Nations Version translates the New Testament for Native American readers

1 Sep
“First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament” and Terry Wildman. Courtesy images

(RNS) — It’s a Bible verse familiar to many Christians — and even to many non-Christians who have seen John 3:16 on billboards and T-shirts or scrawled across eye black under football players’ helmets.

But Terry Wildman hopes the new translation published Tuesday (Aug. 31) by InterVarsity Press, “First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament,” will help Christians and Indigenous peoples read it again in a fresh way.

“The Great Spirit loves this world of human beings so deeply he gave us his Son — the only Son who fully represents him. All who trust in him and his way will not come to a bad end, but will have the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony,” reads the First Nations Version of the verse.

So begins Emily McPharlan Miller’s post at Religion News Service about a new Indigenous translation of the New Testament. You may read the rest of the story here.

On “Stagecoach Mary” Fields

25 Mar
Mary Fields c. 1895

Stories of “Stagecoach” Mary Fields always note the gun she carried, the cigar she smoked, the fights she got into (and usually won). Born in Tennessee in 1832 or 1833, Fields would make her way to Montana where she became, at various times, a mission worker, a restaurant owner, a laundry owner, and the first Black woman to be a Star Route Carrier for the United States Post Office Department.

So begins Ashawnta Jackson’s concise overview of the life of Mary Fields. You may read the entire JSTOR Daily story here.

Reconsidering the Past: Again and Again; a Nebraska case of perspective.

24 Feb

At the History Nebraska Blog, David L. Bristow helps readers consider the issue of historical interpretation. He does it through considering the case of a 1929 policing and race incident in North Platte, NE. You can read Bristow’s concise yet thoughtful piece here.

On the word “esquire” and its uses and misuses; a history

5 Feb
The English justice system has a certain style.
The English justice system has a certain style. SMITH ARCHIVE / ALAMY

THE MINOR DEBATE OVER FIRST Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s title, which came up shortly after her husband’s election, may seem completely ridiculous and insulting, which it is, but it’s also the latest in a line of kerfuffles relating to how people in power in the United States present themselves. The extensive intricacies of British titling, and the power those titles conferred (and to a lesser extent, still confer), have left a lasting residue in some of the empire’s former colonies.

Those who think Dr. Biden should not use her earned title suggest she simply go by “Mrs.,” which signifies only that she is married, or “Madam,” which signifies only gender. The unstated goal of all this talk is a gross collection of sexism, elite gatekeeping, anti-elitism in general, and a simple partisan attack on the Biden administration. The idea of attacking someone in power by attacking a title is not a new phenomenon, and “Dr.” is not the only target.

So begins Dan Nosowitz’s fascinating tale about some of the history of the word “esquire”. You may read his entire Atlas Obscura post here.

On Recovering Evangelicals, a.k.a. Exvangelicals

26 Jan
Evangelical pastor Joel Osteen delivering a sermon in Houston’s 16,800-seat Lakewood Church (Julian J. Rossig/iStock)
Evangelical pastor Joel Osteen delivering a sermon in Houston’s 16,800-seat Lakewood Church (Julian J. Rossig/iStock)

Heather left the charismatic movement the night after she walked through a “fire tunnel” and pretended that the Holy Spirit had knocked her down. A fire tunnel consists of two parallel lines of eager Christians and looks like a Virginia reel. People walk through the tunnel one by one as the others pray for them. The idea behind this is that when godly Christians pray actively, particularly when they pray together with noise and energy—when they “shout to the Lord,” as a popular song by former Hillsong Worship leader Darlene Zschech puts it, reworking Psalm 100—the Holy Spirit comes, and then spiritual current flows from the hands of those who pray into the bodies of those for whom they pray. Sometimes, those who pray feel their hands grow warm and tingle with power. Often, those who walk stumble and fall, zapped by God’s power, drunk on God’s love. They fall because when the spirit comes in force, it feels so overwhelming that their knees give out. They lie on the ground, grinning with joy. But when Heather fell down that evening, the way everyone expected, she knew she was faking it. She never went back to the charismatic church again.

So begins Stanford University anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann’s essay on “recovering evangelicals”. You may read her entire American Scholar piece here.

The First U.S. Vice President of Color: Charles Curtis

20 Jan
Vice President Charles Curtis (1860–1936) casts a vote in the US Senate in 1929.
Vice President Charles Curtis (1860-1936) casts a vote in the US Senate in 1929. 
kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply

Since the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, journalists, scholars, and activists have celebrated Harris as the first vice president who is a woman and of Asian American and African American heritage. She is not, however, the first person of color to hold the office. For many people, this comes as a surprise. However, for scholars of Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS), as well as many US historians whose work focuses on the executive branch of the federal government, Charles Curtis’s name is already well-known. Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation and the first person of color to serve as vice president, is suddenly a figure of popular interest.

So begins Kiara M. Vigil’s concise examination of the complexities of Kaw Nation member and U.S. Vice President Charles Curtis. You may read the entire essay at the AHA Perspectives on History here.

Art and Whaling

13 Jan
Whaling logbook illustration

The 19th-century whale hunt was a brutal business, awash with blubber, blood, and the cruel destruction of life. But between the frantic calls of “there she blows!”, there was plenty of time for creation too. Jessica Boyall explores the rich vein of illustration running through the logbooks and journals of Nantucket whalers.

You can Boyall’s entire essay, with its stunning illustrations, at The Public Domain Review here.

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