Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY, GRAPHS FROM Science, April 3, 2020, displayed trends of medieval English taxes on silver and lead with those of lead traces found in a Swiss ice core. Today in Part 2, we see how historians and glaciologists work together in matters both recent and medieval.

[Image from Science, April 3, 2020.

Recent Comparisons. Researchers identified spikes of lead in the core from between 1170 A.D. to 1219 A.D. Gibbons writes, “Lead levels matched those recorded in 1890, the height of the Industrial Revolution. (Lead in the core peaked in the 1970s, spurred by leaded gasoline.)”

Medieval History. Researchers compared English records of lead and silver taxation during medieval times with their findings of lead levels in the ice core. Gibbons notes, “For example, when Mayewski showed on a graph that lead pollution plummeted in 1170, Loveluck and Harvard historian Michael McCormick immediately knew why: ‘1170 was the year that Henry II’s assassins killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry was excommunicated.’ Loveluck said, ‘Nobody paid any taxes.’ Mining stopped.”

The assassination of Thomas Becket, 1170. Fresco from the 1300s in the parish church of St. Peter ad Vincula, Oxfordshire, England. Image by Motacilla.

Ten years later, having made up with the pope, Henry “began to bankroll the rebuilding of the Cistercian abbeys,” Loveluck said. “He had massive lead orders, for building roofs, gutters, and cisterns, which are reflected in taxes…”

“Lead in the core surged again in 1193,” Gibbons writes, “ when Richard I (the ‘Lionhearted’) was imprisoned in Germany by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who demanded a ransom.” Then came a significant boost in silver mining (and lead).

Signing the Magna Carta, 2015. Image from BBC History Extra.

The Magna Carta in 1215 reduced King John I’s ability to tax. “During a rocky transition to his son, Henry III, coins were not minted and mining stopped. Lead levels in the core plummeted,” Gibbons writes.

Thanks, Science, for this diversion from its (excellent and factual) Covid-19 coverage. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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