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Saturday, 19 September 2015


Sorry, I have been rather busy, finishing a couple of books, so I can sell them. I'm back, now...

Charcoal is almost pure carbon, a name we get from the Latin name for this substance, carbo. Originally, the English knew only one sort of coal, and that was the stuff made from wood. In Old English, a col was a piece of carbon glowing but not flaming, making the expression 'glowing coals' tautologous. By the time people spoke Middle English, this had become charcoal, but nobody seems to know why the prefix was added.

One theory takes us to the Old English cerr, or cerran, meaning to turn, which became 'char' in more modern English, the idea being that charcoal was wood turned into coal, but this seems to have little backing. Oddly enough, 'char' still exists in two quite different forms: as a word that survived in America, to spread over the world.

Daily 'chores' are ordinary tasks that turn up again, day by day and must be done, and come from cerr. So does the charwoman ('charlady' if you have pretensions to gentility), who does the chores, if you can afford to pay somebody to do them.

Charcoal was an excellent fuel for weight, and unlike timber, it came in small manageable lumps. It was made in wooded areas by independent craftsmen, who were always individualists, if we are to believe Aristophanes, who features elderly charcoal burners as the chorus in his comedy The Acharnians, men who made what the Greeks called anthrax (which gives us 'anthracite'), just a few kilometres out of Athens at Acharnae, where they made charcoal from holm-oak (ilex) and maple. 

Once they had made it, the charcoal could be shovelled into sacks and carried from place to place.
Until coke was made from mineral coal, and the right ways of smelting metals and making glass with coke were found, all metal and glass needed charcoal for fuel, so charcoal burners, the blackened individualists, were always a necessary part of pre-industrial society. 

The verb 'to char' is a more recent usage, and though many houses were left as charred ruins in the Great Fire of London, it would be another 13 years before anybody would use that term in print.

Charcoal burners, 1879, Wikimedia
In Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare has Hostess Quickly of the Boar's Head in Eastcheap telling Falstaff "Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire . . ."   

This sort of fire must have been to Quickly's taste, for we find her speaking again of one in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in the only other reference in Shakespeare to this form of coal.

By Shakespeare's heyday, Spain's Armada had failed, but there was still a threat, and the oak tree, long used to make charcoal, suddenly took on a new value as a material for making ships. The average ship consumed a thousand trees, and new laws were brought in to ensure that good timber was not wasted on fuel. Now sea coal became the fuel of choice.

The coal of Britain had been mined as surface deposits from the time of Roman Britain, and used for domestic heating, but now it was mined in a more systematic way, and carried by ship to London, where it was known as sea coal, to distinguish it from the more normal coal, and it became more common. 

In fact, there are records of complaints of the pollution and smoke caused by sea coal in Britain as early as the 13th century, and in the 17th century, the diarist John Evelyn wrote of a 'hellish and dismall cloud of sea-coal' over London.

In the 19th century, a far cleaner form of heating from coal, in the form of coal gas, formed by heating coal to make a gas with enough carbon monoxide in it to make it an effective killer, and certainly less painful than Porcia's way of dying: tradition says that the wife of Brutus, committed suicide, after her friends had removed all other means of killing herself, by swallowing live coals.

Coal gas production also gave us coal tars, from which we got artificial dyes, an understanding of organic chemistry that led to plastics and the biological stains that reveal the intimate structures of cells. The switch from charcoal to coke, to allow more fighting ships changed our lives more than anybody could have guessed, but we lost the independent charcoal burners.

But I won't discuss the Carbonari here, because that's another story...

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