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Connections

Forty-odd years ago, James Burke came up with a book and a television series called Connections.  The back jacket reads “He explains, for instance, how the arrival of the cannon led eventually to the development of movies; how the popularity of underwear in the twelfth century led to the development of the printing press; how the waterwheel evolved into the computer.”

On page 157, he pointed out “Among the earliest references to the change comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, kept by monks, for the year 1046: “And in this same year after the 2nd of February came the severe winter with frost and snow, and with all kinds of bad weather, so that there was no man alive who could remember so severe a winter as that, both through mortality of man and disease of cattle; both birds and fishes perished through the great cold and hunger.”  . . . At the start of the thirteenth century, what is now called the ‘Little Ice Age’ had set in.  It was to last for nearly two hundred years.”

“The first innovation to come to the aid of the shivering communities was the chimney.  Up to this time there had been but one central hearth, in the hall during winter, and outside in the summer.  The smoke from the central fire simply went up and out through a hole in the roof.  After the weather changed this was evidently too inefficient a way of heating a room full of people who until then would have slept the night together.”

On p.159 the concept of social change because of the chimney appears.  “The open patio-style structure had been replaced by a closed-off building, built to withstand the violent meteorological changes.    The new chimney . . . also produced structural changes in the house.  The use of a flue to conduct away sparks meant that the center of the house was no longer the only safe place for a fire . . . buildings were less fully timbered so that the risk was less, and the flue permitted setting a fire in a corner or against a wall . . . the chimney began to act as a spine that could be used to support more than one room – which, in any case, could now be heated by separate fireplaces.”

“The primary effect of the introduction of these new rooms was to separate the social classes.  The first chimneys in royal residences were constructed in rooms to which the king could withdraw, at first with his immediate family, later with officials.  The English Privy Council did not come into existence (in 1300) before there was a place to be private. . . Courtly love-poetry may have first been written during the long periods of abstinence on the Crusades, but it would not have flourished in the cold of northern Europe without some help from the chimney.”

The chimney didn’t directly lead to Britain’s wood shortages – the move from open, patio-like construction to houses of many rooms first led to a demand for windows . . . then to a  glass-making industry, then to cleared forests by around 1600.    “ . . . a glass-making furnace was even set up in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608, only a year after the colony had been founded.”

Later, we’ll examine the connection between medieval underwear and the printing press.

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