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Gorbachev, Reagan and the End of the Cold War

This is one of the better books on the end of the Cold War. Unlike many American accounts, it is not – at least until its very last paragraph – triumphalist in tone. Wilson recognises that Mikhail Gorbachev was by some distance the most important political actor in the dramatic sequence of events between 1985 and 1991. On the American side he rightly identifies Ronald Reagan, George Shultz and George H.W. Bush as the people who mattered most. He is particularly good at giving Secretary of State Shultz his due.Read more »
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Tattooed Britannia

Ancient and Modern: tattooed Britons model contemporary fashionsJoseph Banks, patron of the natural sciences and a president of the Royal Society, did not approve of tattoos. As a young man on Captain Cook’s first great voyage into the Pacific, he was baffled by the sight of the illustrated peoples of Polynesia. Musing on the reasons for their tattoos, he observed in 1769 that:

possibly superstition may have something to do with it. Nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom.

Though tattoos had an aristocratic moment during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods – Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother, had a snake etched on her wrist, which she would cover up discreetly with a diamond bracelet – they were long associated in the West with criminals and sailors. At the beginning of the 20th century around 90 per cent of men serving in the Royal Navy were tattooed, usually with symbols that marked – literally – a particular rite of passage: a turtle for having passed the Equator, an anchor for crossing the Atlantic, a dragon symbolising a posting on a China station. One could track the arc of a sailor’s service from his tattoos. Yet outside of ports and prisons the tattoo, in Britain at least, was a rare sighting.

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today. He is the author of a book on the late Protectorate.

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Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey

The closest we armchair travellers normally get to the olfactory sensation of walking through the globe’s most fragrant souks is opening the doors of our spice cupboards. The bottles may be sealed shut but the aroma of their contents —cardamom and cumin, cinnamon and saffron, turmeric and vanilla — wafts towards our nostrils and for a brief moment we are not in our kitchens but strolling through the spice markets of Arabia, Asia or Africa.Read more »
More articles by Gary Paul Nabhan

Though we share a common humanity with people of the past, their world can seem alien to us, says Mathew Lyons. Was it just as disconcerting for them, too?

David Gentilcore describes responses to a hideous epidemic that affected the rural poor of northern Italy, from the mid-18th century until the First World War, the cause of which is attributed to a diet dependent on maize.

Peasants toiling over a maize crop in 'September Sun' by Giovanni Muzzioli, c.1886. Getty/Da AgostiniIn March 1814 a London-based periodical called the Pamphleteer published the ‘Narrative of the Cruxifixion of Mattio Lovat, Executed by his Own Hands at Venice’. It took the form of a startling medical case-history of religious mania, as written by a Venetian surgeon, Cesar Ruggieri. The protagonist, Lovat, was a pious young shoemaker from a small village in the Dolomite mountains around Belluno. Lovat’s ambition to become a priest had been thwarted because of his family’s wretched condition. He became ill ‘subject in the spring to giddiness in his head, and eruptions of a leprous appearance showed themselves on his face and hands’. The first sign of insanity appeared in July 1802, when Lovat, perhaps feeling the ‘stirrings of the flesh against the spirit’, ‘performed upon himself the most complete general amputation’– a castration – throwing ‘the parts of which he had deprived himself from his window into the street’.