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Research and Roman Cabbages
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A new issue of The Orphan Scrivener is online. Mary editorializes and recounts some tales from The Newgate Calendar. There's also a bit of news from the writing front. As for me, I write about cabbages.


When you write historical fiction you can't take anything for granted. Even a detail as seemingly simple as cabbages rolling off the back of a cart can cause a problem.

In this case, the problem turned out to be that sixth century Roman cabbages didn't roll.

The round, hard-heading cabbages with which we're familiar today didn't grow in the Mediterranean climate. They were probably developed in northern Europe and were likely not known until sometime after the reign of Charlemagne, who died in 814.

In fact, the first irrefutable description of a hard-heading cabbage dates only to 1536, long after the final demise of Eastern Roman Empire.

The wild cabbage native to the Mediterranean consists of stalks and leaves, rather like kale, and it is cabbage of this sort which is referred to by Roman writers. Far from rolling off a cart, imperiling passerby in an chaotic avalanche of speeding produce, Roman cabbages would have just...well...flopped.

So much for the cabbage scene.

Research can suck all the drama out of your writing!

I'm relieved I looked into the cabbage matter, even if I am still peeved at the inconvenient wimpiness of Roman cabbage, although I'm not sure why I did. After a while you begin to develop a feel for things that seem obvious but might be wrong.

Horticulture is always worrisome. Everyone's aware that Europeans had never laid eyes, or teeth, on such common crops as potatoes and tomatoes until visiting the New World. Foods that are everywhere today were geographically confined in the past.

Even when it ruins your brilliant ideas, research is never boring. I learned that Cato was a great believer in cabbage for what ails you. It was, he wrote, an aid to digestion, good for colic, and in combination with various other ingredients efficacious for cleaning sores, easing joint afflictions, restoring hearing, and removing nasal polyps. Feeble children could be made stronger by being bathed in the urine of a perpetual cabbage eater.

He also reckoned if you're going to a party you should eat a lot of cabbage beforehand. You'll be able to eat and drink as much as you want.

Then there was Cato's recipe for a laxative. Mix cabbage, boiled pigs' feet, beets, mussels, snails, lentils, and a scorpion (just one scorpion will do the trick) and take with some wine. Presumably you'd have to drink the wine first to get that concoction down.

Thinking about all this I will probably never be able to face sauerkraut again. However, at least now I have proof Romans had constipation concerns, in case that might work as a plot point sometime. Otherwise you know cabbage has to turn up in one of our books or stories now for sure.

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