It Wasn’t the Lead in the Roof that Killed Him: Thomas Becket and England’s Pollution Legacy

A fascinating study has shed light on air pollution in 12th century Britain. By taking ice cores from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Swiss-Italian Alps, it has been possible to use lasers to examine the air composition from 800 years ago by focusing on air bubbles trapped in the ice.

A chemist holds a sample ice core during previous research at the Swiss glacier

Analysing this data in tandem with atmospheric modelling, the study team has been able to identify a rapid build up in lead dust during the 12th century, which coincided with a lead mining boom in Britain. The particles are likely to have been swept across into Europe on the wind.

Lead had long been mined for its use in water pipe construction and the Romans, who were key proponents of this, were aware of the potential health risks associated with the metal. Mining of lead greatly expanded in Western Europe during the 11th-13th centuries as a pious church-building boom fuelled its use in ecclesiastical roofs and stained glass windows. Lead was also used in alchemy experiments and face whiteners (something that may have contributed to Elizabeth I’s death), as well as for adulterating wine. All healthy stuff.

Remnants of a Roman lead mine in Somerset, England

An additional finding of this new research is how the levels of lead pollution in the atmosphere seem to correspond with significant political events. For instance, during times of upheaval (e.g. wars or the death of a monarch), the levels of lead pollution seem to have declined, suggesting a disruption in production.

One such dramatic event is interpreted to be the assassination of Thomas Becket. Becket was the archbishop infamously murdered in his cathedral at Canterbury after falling out with Henry II. Having served as the king’s chancellor, Becket was moved into the archbishopric by Henry, who was keen to limit the influence of the increasingly powerful Catholic Church and potentially siphon off some of its millions of acres of land.

Becket, however, was not about to abandon his religious duty and defied Henry’s wishes, prompting the king to utter the apocryphal plea: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Of course he didn’t really say this but it makes for a nice story and whatever he did say, whether it was a direct order or a misinterpretation of a vague complaint, resulted in Becket’s bloody murder.

Possibly the most infamous murder in English history

Becket’s martyrdom in 1170 coincided with a drop in lead pollution, at least so says the study, with pollution ramping up again a few years later, possibly due to Henry’s church-building surge to appease Rome after Becket’s murder had led to his excommunication.

Whilst the study doesn’t shed any more light on Becket’s actual death (despite the suggestion of a misleading title in the BBC article linked at the start of this piece) it is a good reminder that man-made pollution is not confined to the past couple of centuries.

Nor, despite its proven toxicity, has lead become a less desirable commodity. Indeed, global production has sky-rocketed in the past couple of decades, mainly a result of China’s massive increase in mining lead for use in electronics, machinery, chemicals, light industry and pharmaceuticals. It has created plenty of health incidents, albeit there are probably far more that have been hushed-up by Beijing.

China continues to mine lead on a vast scale, despite the obvious health risks

It is already being said that the partial global shutdown prompted by Covid-19 is reducing pollution levels in the atmosphere, perhaps one of the few obvious benefits to spring from the pandemic as it moves into more vulnerable countries in Asia and Africa.

Perhaps in 800 years time some more enterprising scientists will look back at this moment in history and correlate the sudden dip in atmospheric pollution to a virus that was ultimately quickly consigned to the annals of time (we hope). That is, of course, if there is any ice left from which to obtain useful data.

What’s in a Name? North Macedonia Joins NATO as Greeks Concede

NATO gained its 30th member this week as North Macedonia, a landlocked country of 2 million people in south-eastern Europe, was admitted into the alliance. It is an important step for one of the continent’s poorest nations and a boost to prospective EU membership, the country having applied back in 2004, with petitions for formal talks rebuffed as recently as November 2019.

Members of an honor guard raise the NATO flag in front of North Macedonia’s parliament to mark the ratification of accession to the alliance in Skopje on February 11
Source: Radio Free Europe

One of the biggest stumbling blocks on the path to North Macedonia’s political and diplomatic advancement is in its name. What’s in a name? A lot in this case, just ask the Greeks.

There are multiple ways to define the region known as ‘Macedonia’, and it has many historical antecedents. It holds a special place in the Greek national consciousness in particular, being a powerful kingdom during the Classical period of Antiquity and a forerunner to the dominant Hellenistic state.

Greece’s northernmost provinces are still administered as ‘Macedonia’ and herein lies a problem that until recently seemed unsolvable. How could a country detached from the body politic of modern Greece carry the Macedonian name? Well, quite reasonably it would seem to this writer.

North Macedonia – i.e. the country that has just received NATO membership and whose capital is Skopje – was incorporated into that ancient powerful kingdom of Macedon around 356BC. Its land was subsequently a staging post as Roman forces launched south-eastwards during the Second Punic War, where Philip V famously held back the invading troops before the Romans turned the tide during the 2nd century BC, making Macedonia its first province.

Philip V of Macedon. He couldn’t hold the Roman tide back indefinitely

Slavic tribes arrived in the region around the 6th century and by the 10th century had been Christianised. North Macedonia fell under Bulgarian influence in the 12th century before it was swallowed up by the rampaging Ottoman Empire in 1371, in whose grasp it would remain until the Balkan Wars preceding World War One. At this point the country became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, what would later be Yugoslavia.

North Macedonia was one of the poorest constituent parts of Yugoslavia, its destitute rural populace not helped by the triumph of communism post-World War Two. In 1991 the territory declared independence after Croatia and Slovenia left the Yugoslav federation and it was largely freed the horrors of the wars that tore apart the Balkans over the next decade.

In order to join the global pantheon of nations, however, Skopje was forced to adopt the rather clumsy title of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Greece would not allow its accession into any organisations of which it was a member (and this is pretty much any body of significance for Skopje) using the simple sobriquet ‘Macedonia’.

Greek Macedonians rally against their northern, Slavic neighbours’ use of the term

What seemed like a rather petty Greek quibble was only resolved in February 2019 when ‘North Macedonia’ was officially sanctioned as the new name of the nation. That Greek ‘Macedonia’ comprises that country’s ‘northern’ provinces seemingly doesn’t add any confusion.

Nevertheless, this tiny successor to an historically rich and once all-conquering name can now firmly set its sights on the future. NATO membership provides strong assurances against invasion, a big bonus in the troubled Balkan region. EU membership is now a possibility, especially if the North Macedonians can solidify their democratic credentials and take advantage of Lonely Planet’s naming the country its #1 destination to visit this year by ushering in a tourist boom (Covid-19 notwithstanding) that further diversifies the sources of national income.

For a country dealt a bad geographical hand and trampled upon for centuries by great powers and aggressive neighbours, hopefully the coming decades will relaunch the Macedonian name into the heart of European politics, allowing its patient population to prosper.