April 24, 1915 Armenian Genocide

“The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation.” – Enver Pasha

In the waning years of the 13th century, Osman Gazi led a relentless conflict against the Byzantine empire centered in Constantinople, for control of western Anatolia in modern day Turkey.

In 1453 the empire founded by Osman I captured Constantinople itself, seat of the Byzantine Empire and now known as Istanbul.

At the height of its power in 1683, the Ottoman Empire under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent ruled over an area spanning three continents. From the shores of north Africa to the gates of Vienna, east to the modern Russian Federation state, of Georgia. Nearly 4% the landmass of the entire planet, was under Ottoman rule.

In the early 19th century, the Ottoman empire entered a period of decline. Serbia went to war for independence from the Sultan in 1804, followed closely by Greece, Crete, Bulgaria and others.

As yet one of the Great Powers of the Eurasian landmass, the Ottoman Empire was now “the Sick Man of Europe”. By mid-century, many minority populations were pushing for independence.

Punch cartoon dated November 28, 1896, caricatures the weakend state of the Ottomans, under Sultan Abdul Hamid II

One such were the Armenians, an ancient people living in the region for some 2,000 years. Mostly Christian, Armenians were among the earliest to adopt the new faith as their own having done so, even before Rome itself.

Mid-19th century reforms such the repeal of the “Jizya”, the tax on “unbelievers,” brought about a measure of equality. Even so, non-Muslims remained second-class citizens. Without the right to testify at trial, for all intents and purposes it was open season on Armenian Christians and other religious minorities. In some locales, such treatment rose to the level of officially sanctioned public policy. By 1860, Armenians began to push for greater rights.

Where his subjects saw the righteous quest for equal rights the Sultan saw, insurrection.

Obsessed with personal loyalty to the point of paranoia, Sultan Abdul Hamid II once told a reporter that he would give his Armenian Christian minority a “box on the ear” for their impudence. The Hamidian massacres begun in 1894 and lasting until 1897 killed between 80,000 and 300,000 Armenians, leaving in their wake, 50,000 orphaned children.

It was but a prelude of what was to come.

“An Armenian woman and her children who were refugees of the massacres and sought help from missionaries by walking great distances.” H/T Wikipedia

In military planning, a “decapitation strike” is an action, designed to remove the leadership of an opposing government or group. The Ottoman pogrom began with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals, a decapitation strike intended to deprive Armenians of the Empire, of leadership.

The order came down from Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha on April 24, 1915. “Red Sunday”. By the end of the day an estimated 235 to 270 Armenian intellectuals were arrested, in Istanbul. By the end of May, their number reached 2,345. Most, were eventually murdered.

“Some of the Armenian intellectuals who were detained, deported, and killed in 1915:
1st row: Krikor Zohrab, Daniel Varoujan, Rupen Zartarian, Ardashes Harutiunian, Siamanto
2nd row: Ruben Sevak, Dikran Chökürian, Diran Kelekian, Tlgadintsi, and Erukhan” – H/T Wikipedia

The “Tehcir” Law of May 29, a term derived from an Ottoman Turkish word signifying “deportation” or “forced displacement”, authorized the forced removal within the empire, of such detainees.

When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact. . . . I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.

US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr.

Able bodied males were exterminated outright, or worked to death as conscripted labor. Women, children, the elderly and infirm were driven on death marches to the farthest reaches of the Syrian desert. Goaded like livestock by military “escorts”, they were deprived of food and water, subjected at all times to robbery, rape, and summary execution. By the early 1920s, as many as 1.5 million of the Ottoman Empire’s 2 million Armenian Christians, were dead.

The Turkish historian Taner Akçam has examined military and court records, parliamentary minutes, letters, and eyewitness reports to write what may be The definitive history of the whole episode entitled, A Shameful Act, The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. In it, Akçam writes of:

“…the looting and murder in Armenian towns by Kurds and Circassians, improprieties during tax collection, criminal behavior by government officials and the refusal to accept Christians as witnesses in trial.”

Taner Akçam

The Armenian spyurk, an Aramaic cognate deriving from the Hebrew Galut, or “Diaspora”,  goes back some 1,700 years.  Today, the number of ethnic Armenians around the world tracing lineage back to this modern-day diaspora, numbers in the several millions.

Since 1919, Armenians around the world have marked April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Adolf Hitler

To this day it remains illegal in Turkey, to speak of the Armenian genocide.  The New York Times declined to use the term, until 2004.

In April 2019, President Donald Trump received a furious response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for this seemingly-benign statement: “Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.  I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many”.

April 9, 1940 A Dish Best Served Cold

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.


The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Croton oil as a “poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree…”  Highly toxic and a violent irritant, the substance was once used as a drastic purgative and counter-irritant in human and veterinary medicine, but is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. Applied externally, Croton oil is capable of peeling your skin off.  Taken internally, the stuff may be described as the atomic bomb, of laxatives.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or subject to Nazi occupation.  France fell to the Nazi war machine in six weeks, in 1940.  The armed forces of the island nation of Great Britain were left shattered and defenseless, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

On the Scandinavian Peninsula, longstanding policies of disarmament in the wake of WW1 left the Nordic states of Denmark and Norway severely under-strength, able to offer little resistance to the Nazi invaders.

On this day in 1940, German warships entered Norwegian harbors from Narvik to Oslo, as German troops occupied Copenhagen and other Danish cities.  King Christian X of Denmark surrendered almost immediately.  To the northwest, Norwegian commanders loyal to former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling ordered coastal defenders to stand down, permitting the German landing to take place, unopposed.  Norwegian forces refused surrender demands from the German Minister in Oslo, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Nazi Germany responded with an airborne invasion by parachute.  Within weeks, Adolf Hitler could add a second and third scalp to his belt, following the invasion of Poland, six months earlier.  The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, were out of the war.

Norway was out of the war, but not out of the fight.   One Nazi officer passed an elderly woman on the street, who complained at the officer’s rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized, and scurried away.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.

Norwegian Resistance was quick to form, as patriotic locals united against the Nazi occupier and the collaborationist policies of the Quisling government.

“Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940”. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The Norwegian secret army known as Milorg and led by General Otto Ruge, was at first loath to engage in outright sabotage, for fear of German reprisals against innocent civilians.  Later in the war, Milorg commandos attacked the heavy water factory at Rjukan and sank a ferry carrying 1,300 lbs of heavy water, inflicting severe damage to the Nazi nuclear research program.

Sven Somme, tree
Norwegian Resistance member Sven Somme demonstrates one of the techniques by which he evaded capture in the mountains.

In the beginning, Resistance activities centered more around covert sabotage and the gathering of intelligence.  One of the great but little-known dramas of WW2 unfolded across the snow covered mountains of the Scandinavian peninsula, as the civilian-turned-spy Sven Somme fled 200 miles on foot to neutral Sweden, pursued by 900 Wehrmacht soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

Operations of all kinds were undertaken, to stymie the Nazi war effort. Some actions seem like frat-boy pranks, such as coating condoms destined for German units, with itching powder.  Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers (and presumably Norwegian women) showed up at Trondheim hospitals, believing they had contracted Lord-knows-what kind of plague.

Other operations demonstrate a kind of evil genius.  This is where Croton oil comes in.

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As dedicated as they were, Norwegian resistance fighters still had to feed themselves and their families.  Many of them were subsistence fishermen, and that meant sardines.  For centuries, the small fish had been a staple food item across the Norwegian countryside.  It was a near-catastrophic blow to civilian and Resistance fighters alike, when the Quisling government requisitioned the entire sardine crop.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in full-swing by this time, as wolf packs of German submarines roamed the north Atlantic, preying on Allied shipping.  Thousands of tons of sardines would be sent to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, to feed U-Boat crews on their long voyages at sea.

U-864
German Type X Submarine, U-864

Norwegian vengeance began with a request to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Great Britain, for the largest shipment of Croton oil, possible.  The “atomic laxative” was smuggled into canneries across Norway, and used to replace vegetable oil in sardine tins.  The plan worked nicely and no one suspected a thing, the pungent taste of the fish covering the strange flavor of the oil.

From midget submarines such as the BiberHaiMolch, and Seehund models to the behemoth 1,800-ton “Type X“, the Kriegsmarine employed no fewer than fifteen distinct submarine types in WW2, including the workhorse “Type VII”, of which some 700 saw service in the German war effort. 

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.

Revenge, it is said, is a dish, best served cold. Excepting the participants in this tale, no one knows what it looks like when ten thousand submariners simultaneously lose control of their bowels. It could not have been a pretty sight.

February 5, 62AD End of the World

There were other signs of what was to come. Tremors. Springs dried up. Fish died and floated on the river Sarno, victims of increased acidification of the water.


On February 5 in the year AD 62, an earthquake estimated at 7.5 on the Richter scale shook the Bay of Naples, spawning a tsunami and leveling much of the coastal Italian towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum and surrounding communities.

pompeii-2

Massive though the damage had been, the region around Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples had long been a favorite vacation destination for the upper crust of Roman society. Crowds of tourists and slaves bustled in and out of the city’s bath houses, artisans’ shops, taverns and brothels, adding their number to some ten to twenty thousand townspeople.

There were other signs of what was to come. Tremors. Springs dried up. Fish died and floated on the river Sarno, victims of increased acidification of the water.

And yet, these are only “signs”, in hindsight. Pompeiians of 62AD didn’t even have a word for Volcano. That would come much later with the eruption of Mt. Etna. The word is derived from “Vulcan”. The Roman God of fire.

So it was reconstruction began and continued, for the next seventeen years.  Until that day the world, came to an end.

Long dormant and thought to be extinct, nearby Mount Vesuvius had been quiet for hundreds of years.  Historians have long believed Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79AD but recently discovered graffiti referring to the calends of November more likely put the date, at October 17. 

The day dawned as any other, the first plumes of white smoke appearing, sometime around breakfast. By that afternoon the 4,203-foot stratovolcano was belching fire, propelling a scorching plume of ash, pumice and super-heated volcanic gases so high as to be seen for hundreds of miles.

The Melbourne Museum has created a stunning, eight-minute animation, of the event.

For the next eighteen hours the air was thick with hot, poisonous gases, as volcanic ash rained down with pumice stones the size of baseballs.  No one who stayed behind stood a chance, nor did countless animals, both wild and domestic.

Citizens tried to save themselves using tunics, as makeshift masks. Then came the pyroclastic surge, that ground-hugging pressure wave seen in test films of nuclear explosions.  Gasses and pulverized stone dust raced outward at 400 miles-per-hour in the “base surge” phase carrying gases super-heated to 1000° Fahrenheit. The bodily fluids of anyone left alive at this time burst instantly, into steam.

Pompeii 2
The victims of Mt. Vesuvius’ wrath left their imprints in the ash and rock which would be their tomb.  2,000 years later, remarkably life-like plaster casts, depict the final moments of these unfortunate men, women and children.

The suffocating, poisonous clouds of vapor and rock dust pouring into the city, soon  put and end to all that remained.  Imagine putting your head in a bag of cement, with someone pounding the sides.  Walls collapsed and roofs caved in, burying the dead under fourteen feet or more of ash, rock and dust. Neither Herculaneum, Pompeii nor their surrounding communities would see the light of day, for nearly two thousand years.

dsc_0128

Today we remember the Roman author, naturalist and military commander Gaius Plinius “Pliny’ Secundus for his work Naturalis Historia (Natural History). We see his work in the editorial model of the modern encyclopedia.

With the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum already destroyed, Pliny raced to the port of Stabiae some 4½km to the southwest, to rescue a friend and his family. The sixth and largest pyroclastic surge trapped Pliny’s ship in port, killing the author and everyone in the vicinity. That we have an eyewitness to the event is thanks to two letters written by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger), Pliny’s nephew and a man he had helped to raise, from boyhood.

800px-Destruction_of_Pompeii_and_Herculaneum
Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Property owners and thieves returned over time to retrieve such valuables as statues. The words “house dug” can still be found, scrawled on the walls.  And then the place was forgotten, for fifteen hundred years.

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An underground channel was dug in 1562 to redirect waters from the river Samo, when workers ran into city walls.  The architect Domenico Fontana was called in and further excavation revealed any number of paintings and frescoes, but there was a problem.

This stuff was downright pornographic.

According to the Annus Mirabilis written by English poet Philip Larkin, sex wasn’t even until 1963, in the British Isles.

“…So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP…”

800px-Pompeii_-_Casa_dei_Casti_Amanti_-_Banquet
Pompeian artwork ranges from the merely hedonistic, to the pornographic

The ancients seem to have been rather more uninhibited.   In fact, life in some quarters was nothing if not hedonistic.  Pompeii itself has been described by some, as the “red-light district” of antiquity.  I’m not sure about that, but the erotic art of Pompeii and Herculaneum were WAY too much for counter reformation-era sensibilities. 

The place was quietly covered up and forgotten. For another two hundred years.

Pompeii was first excavated in earnest in 1748 but it took another hundred years for archaeologists’ findings to be organized, cataloged and brought to museums.  In 1863, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realized that occasional voids in the ash layer were in fact the long since decomposed bodies of the doomed victims, of Vesuvius.

A technique was developed of injecting plaster.  Today we can see them in excruciating detail, exactly where they fell.  Men, women and children, the dogs, even the fresh-baked bread, left out on the counter to cool.

Roman_fresco_Villa_dei_Misteri_Pompeii_006

Today you can tour the lost city of Pompeii, from the baths to the forum, to the Lupanar Grande, where the prostitutes of Pompeii once “entertained” clients.  Ongoing excavation is all but a race with time, between uncovering what remains, and preserving what is.  Walls surrounding the “House of the Moralist” collapsed in 2010, so-called because its wealthy wine merchant owners posted rules of behavior, for guests to follow: “Do not have lustful expressions and flirtatious eyes for another man’s wife“.

Fun fact: A majority of Ancient Pompeiians had near-perfect teeth due to naturally occurring fluorine and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

There were other signs of what was to come. Tremors. Springs dried up. Fish died and floated on the river Sarno, victims of increased acidification of the water. Heavy rains were blamed for the collapse of the Schola Armatorium in 2010, the House of the Gladiators.  Fierce recriminations have followed and doubt has been cast on local authorities’ abilities, to properly preserve what has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Be that as it may, 2,000-year-old buildings do not come along every day.  There is no replacement for antiquity.

January 30, 1889 If Only

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still…

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still. How might the 20th century have played out, for example, had it not been for that day in Sarajevo, in 1914.

Perhaps the tinderbox already building by 1914 would have been lit, on some other day. But what if? Maybe two World Wars never happened, after all. Adolf Hitler remained a mediocre artist living in a flop house, in Vienna. All China became a free market, and not just Taiwan. What if the cold war, communism and everything that stemmed from that malevolent ideology was nothing more than the unpublished, nightmare imaginings of some crazy novelist?

In the wake of World War 2, a bipolar structure emerged in the world political order and remained so, for 40 years.

America was a minor player in pre-WW1 affairs, a period about which Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck once explained: “All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers.”

After the downfall of French Emperor Napoleon I, 1814-’15, the Great Powers of Austria, Britain, France, Russia and Prussia met in Vienna to settle old issues and rebalance national boundaries in order to bring long-term peace, to Europe.

Austria declined over the next half-century leading to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, an accord between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. Ostensibly a constitutional union, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a kaleidoscope of fifteen distinct ethnic groups speaking at least as many languages and divided, along no fewer than six religious lines.

After the 1889 suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Franz Josef, the emperor’s younger brother Karl Ludwig became heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Ludwig’s death in 1896 left his eldest son, Franz Ferdinand, the new heir presumptive.

Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic missteps, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August there was no turning back. The “War to End all Wars” would shatter a generation, lay waste to a continent and erect the foundation, for the rest of the 20th century.

So, what about Rudolf and that “suicide”, in 1889. He was supposed to succeed Ludwig, not Ferdinand. What if the Emperor’s only son, had lived?

Political alliances came and went among the dynastic families of Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages.  On May 10, 1881, Crown Prince Rudolf married Princess Stéphanie, daughter of King Leopold, of Belgium.

Crown Prince Rudolf and his wife, Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, daughter of King Leopold II

A child was born in 1883, Archduchess Elisabeth, but the union soon soured. Rudolf began to drink and pursue women, not his wife. He wanted to write to Pope Leo XIII to annul the marriage. The formidable Franz Josef, would have none of that.

Three years later, Rudolf bought a hunting lodge in the Austrian village of Mayerling. In 1888, the 30-year old crown Prince met and began an affair with 17-year-old Marie Freiin (Baroness) von Vetsera.

Marie Freiin von Vetsera preferred to go by the more fashionable Anglophile version of her name, Mary

On January 30, 1889, the bodies of the Crown Prince and the Baroness were discovered in the Mayerling hunting lodge, victims of an apparent suicide pact.

Mayerling

Emperor Franz Josef went on to reign until 1916, one of the longest-serving monarchs of the 19th century.

Now without male heir, succession to the imperial throne passed first to the emperor’s younger brother Ludwig and later to Franz Ferdinand, best remembered for his assassination, in 1914.

Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria, Rudolf’s mother, went into deep mourning.

She wore the colors of her grief, pearl gray and black, every day until her assassination at the hands of 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, in 1898.

132 years later we can only ponder. It may be the ultimate counterfactual. What if Crown Prince Rudolf had lived to succeed Franz Josef. Politically, the son was far more liberal, than his father. Rudolf would surely have held more conciliatory views toward the forces, tearing at the empire. The same could be said of Franz Ferdinand, so who knows. Perhaps a rock in a stream once moved, alters not the flow of events yet to come.

But maybe that fork in the road met on June 28, 1914, would have led to a road less traveled and perhaps, the history of the last century, never happened.

Afterward,

By special dispensation, the Vatican declared Rudolf to be in a state of “mental imbalance” as suicide would have precluded church burial. The Emperor ordered Mayerling transformed into a penitential convent and endowed a chantry ensuring that prayers would rise up daily, for the eternal rest of his only son.

Vetsera’s body was smuggled out in the dark of night and quietly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz, her funeral so secret even her mother was forbidden to attend.

Stories of poison gave way to reports of murder-suicide. Rumors have surrounded the Mayerling incident, for 100 years. Such stories went unchallenged until 1946 when occupying Red Army troops dislodged the stone covering the crypt and opened Vetsera’s coffin, looking for jewels. Repairing the damage some nine years later the fathers of the monastery observed the small skull and noticed, the absence of bullet holes. Physician Gerd Holler examined the remains in 1959 and concurred. No bullet hole.

But Maria von Vetsera was shot by the Crown Prince who later took his own life. That was the story, right?

Stories came to life of defensive wounds. Of evidence the pair had been murdered, after all.

Obsessed with the tale, Linz furniture store owner Helmut Flatzelsteiner disturbed the remains yet again, in 1991. Rumors went wild but in the end, results were inconclusive. Flatzelsteiner paid the abbey €2,000, in restitution.

In 2015 a letter was found in a safe deposit box, in an Austrian bank. A suicide note from a young girl, to her mother

“Dear Mother
Please forgive me for what I’ve done
I could not resist love
In accordance with Him, I want to be buried next to Him in the Cemetery of Alland
I am happier in death than life”.

October 16, 1793 Let them eat Cake

At first the people liked their new Queen-to-be, but the Royal Court was another story. A shark tank of grasping ambition, this crowd had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match and called the Dauphine “The Austrian Woman”. She would come to be called far worse.

Political alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770. Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Queen Maria Theresa, the formidable Sovereign of Hungary and Bohemia, married their little girl to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France. Her name was Maria Antonia. She was twelve years old.

The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was carried out by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna with the groom near-800 miles away, in Paris. She was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, pre-teen wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

Marie_Antoinette_girl

There was a second, ceremonial wedding held in May, after which came the ritual bedding. This wasn’t the couple quietly retiring to their own private space.  Ohhhhh, no. This was the bizarre spectacle of courtiers crowding into the bedchambers, peering down at the frightened couple to be sure the marriage was consummated.

Unsurprisingly, it was not. In time, that failure would do damage to both their reputations.

At first the people liked their new Dauphine, but the Royal Court was another story. A shark tank of grasping ambition, this crowd had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match and called the French Queen-to-be “The Austrian Woman”.  She would come to be called far worse.

The stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naïve of the vicious circles into which she was cast. Relations were especially difficult with the King’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry, and Antoinette was somehow expected to work them out. The King’s daughters on the other hand, didn’t care for du Barry or their unsavory relations, with their father. She literally couldn’t win. The sisters bellyached about feeling “betrayed” one time, when Antoinette commented to the King’s mistress: “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”.

Court intrigues were accompanied by reports to Antoinette’s mother in Vienna, the Empress responding with her own stream of criticism. The Dauphin was more interested in lock making and hunting she wrote, because Antoinette had failed to “inspire passion” in her husband. The Empress even went so far as to tell her daughter she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

Marie_Antoinette_by_Joseph_Ducreux

Louis-Auguste was crowned Louis XVI, King of France, on June 11, 1775. Antoinette remained by his side though she was never crowned Queen, instead remaining Louis’ “Queen Consort”.

With her marriage as yet unconsummated, Antoinette’s position became precarious when her sister in law gave birth to a son and possible heir to the throne. Antoinette spent her time gambling and shopping, while wild rumors and printed pamphlets described supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

The French government was staggered by debt at this time, the result of endless foreign wars, but Antoinette received more than her share of the blame. As first lady to the French court, Antoinette was expected to be a fashion trendsetter. Her shopping was in keeping with the role but rumors wildly inflated her spending habits. Her lady-in-waiting protested that her habits were modest, visiting village workshops in a simple dress and straw hat. Nevertheless, the Queen Consort was rumored to have plastered the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds.

The difficult winter of 1788-89 produced bread shortages and rising prices as the King withdrew from public life. The marriage had produced children by this time, but the legend of the licentious spendthrift and empty headed foreign queen had taken root as government debt overwhelmed the economy.

French politics boiled over in June 1789, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Much of the French nobility fled as the newly formed National Constituent Assembly conscripted men to serve in the Garde Nationale, while the French Constitution of 1791 weakened the King’s authority.

Bastille

Food shortages magnified the unrest. That October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. They attempted to flee the escalating violence the following June, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

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Unrest turned to barbarity as Antoinette’s friend and supporter, the Princesse de Lamballe, was taken by the Paris Commune for interrogation. She was murdered at La Force prison, her head fixed on a pike and marched through the city.

Louis XVI was charged with undermining the First Republic in December 1792, found guilty and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793. He was 38 years old.

Marie-Antoinette was now prisoner #280, her health deteriorating in the following months. She suffered from tuberculosis by this time and suffered frequent bleeding, possibly as the result of uterine cancer.

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14 and subjected to a sham trial whose outcome was never in doubt. She was accused of molesting her own son, a charge so outrageous that even the market women who had stormed the palace demanding her entrails in 1789, spoke out in her support. “If I have not replied”, she said, “it is because nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

marie-antoinette over the years

On October 16, 1793, Marie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off. She was paraded through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. On mounting the scaffold, she accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot.  The last words of the most hated woman in Paris, were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

“Let them eat cake” is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but there’s no evidence that she ever said it. The phrase appears in “Les Confessions”, the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which the woman was subjected, it’s easy to believe this was just more of the same.

May 23, 1928 Wreck of the Airship Italia

The little fox terrier Titina would accompany Captain Nobile on his every mission. This time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried some 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, a crew of 13, two journalists, three scientists and an expedition mascot.

A favorite of the rising Fascist party in Italy, Captain Umberto Nobile was never far from his beloved dog, a little Fox Terrier he called Titina.

Before each mission, Nobile would pay close attention to the mood and demeanor of the terrier.  Some said even more so, than to that of his men.

Titina would accompany Nobile on his every mission but this time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.ItaliaTwo years earlier, the Norge (“NOR-gay”) had demonstrated that such an airship, could reach the north pole.  This time they were coming back, for further exploration.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near-blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in virtually perfect weather conditions with unlimited visibility.  The craft covered 4,000 km (2,500 miles), setting the stage for the third and final trip.

At 04:28 on May 23, 1928, the airship Italia departed on her final voyage.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen.

Though wind conditions prevented scientists from descending onto the ice sheet, the midnight arrival was itself, a victory.  Nobile dropped an Italian flag at the pole and a cross, personally given him by the Pope.  Jubilant radio messages were sent as the triumphant crew polished off a bottle of cognac, in celebration.

Trouble began almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds heading south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle complicated the task. Seconds later, the airship hit the jagged ice below, smashing the control cabin and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier, onto the ice.

“The wide 50-meter-long red strip of aniline paint that had seeped from the spherical containers the airship’s crew used for measuring altitude resembled a bloodstained trail left by an injured beast”. – Czechoslovakian physicist, Frantisek Behounek

With a broken leg and feeling as though his intestines were damaged beyond repair, Captain Nobile thought to himself, at least he wouldn’t have to witness the prolonged death agonies, of his comrades.  Senior Cecione likewise suffered a broken leg.  Engine operator Vincenzo Pomella was already dead.

Now relieved of the gondola’s weight, the envelope of the ship began to rise with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a pure act of selfless heroism, a remarkable display of calm under the most extreme sort of pressure. As the airship italia-crashfloated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino threw everything he could get his hands on, down to the men on the ice. These were supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death.

Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Ten men and a dog were stranded on the drifting ice pack.

Those who were able to  do so immediately set about, searching for supplies.  They scavenged across the ice and found a radio, and jury-rigged a mast from crash debris.  A tent was set up and dyed a bright red, using that same aniline paint.

A colt revolver was found along with a box of cartridges.  Five days later, Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren would use it to kill a polar bear, adding considerably to their food supplies.

The aftermath of the Italia disaster is a story in itself, a rescue unfolding over nearly two months and involving six countries, 18 vessels, 21 aircraft and 1,500 men.  Many would-be rescuers became stranded themselves or vanished into the arctic, never to be seen again.  Rescue operations were brought to a halt with seventeen dead, between Italia’s crew and her rescuers.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

The American woman Bess Magids, engaged to be married to Amundsen, was already on the way to Norway, for the wedding that would never take place.

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Forty-nine days would come and go, before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers, would be found.  The red tent was relocated several times to avoid getting wet, on the shrinking ice pack

Umberto Nobile was a subject of scorn, for allowing himself to be rescued before his men.  And for bringing Titina, thus elevating the life of the dog over the lives of his men.   Titina herself was sick with scurvy when rescued from the ice and went to a dentist, to have several teeth removed.  Rumor has it that Nobile had them replaced, with gold teeth.

The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia remains a mystery, to this day.

April 1, 1957 The Fabulous Swiss Spaghetti Tree

In Poland, “Prima Aprilis” is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I, signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31.

April Fools. The ancient Roman festival of Hilaria, held on March 25, may be a precursor. The Medieval Feast of Fools, held December 28, is still a day on which pranks are played in Spanish-speaking countries.2019_CKS_17294_0141_001(william_james_webbe_chanticleer_and_the_fox)

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “March 32” of 1392 is the day the wily fox tricked the vain cock Chanticleer. The fox appealed to the rooster’s vanity and insisted he would love to hear the cock crow, just as his amazing father had. Standing on tiptoe with neck outstretched and eyes closed, the rooster obliged.  with unfortunate, if not unpredictable results.

april-fishIn 1582, France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian moving New Year to January 1 as specified by the Council of Trent of 1563. Those who didn’t get the news and continued to celebrate New Year in late March/April 1, quickly became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.

Paper fish were placed on their backs, as these “poisson d’avril” (April fish) were said to symbolize the young, naive, easily caught fish of Spring.

The Flemish children of Belgium lock their parents or teachers out, letting them in only if they promise to bring treats that evening or the next day.

In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on fool’s errands on April 1.

b59b43022c5e5078d8b3c860306b989fIn Scotland, April Fools’ Day is traditionally called Hunt-the-Gowk Day. Although it’s fallen into disuse, a “gowk” is a cuckoo or a foolish person. The prank consists of asking someone to deliver a sealed message requesting some sort of help. The message reads “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile”. On reading the message, the recipient will explain that to help, he’ll first need to contact another person, sending the victim to another person with the same message.

In Poland, “Prima Aprilis” is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I, signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31.

festival-of-foolsAnimals were kept at the Tower of London since the 13th century, when Emperor Frederic II sent three leopards to King Henry III. In later years, elephants, lions, even a polar bear were added to the collection, the polar bear trained to catch fish in the Thames.

In 1686, John Aubrey referred to the holiday as “Fooles holy day”, the first British reference.

On April 1, 1698, citizens were invited to the Tower of London to see the “Washing of the Lions” in the tower moat. Quite a few were sucked in. The April 2 edition of Dawks’ News-Letter reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” The “annual ceremony of washing the lions,” lasted throughout the 18th & 19th centuries, always held on April 1st.

The prank became quite elaborate by the mid-nineteenth century. Tickets were printed and distributed for the event, specifying that attendees be “Admitted only at the White Gate”, and that “It is requested that no Gratuities will be given to the Wardens on any account.”washing-of-the-lions-ticketIn “Reminiscences of an Old Bohemian”, Gustave Strauss laments his complicity in the hoax in 1848. “These wretched conspirators”, as Straus called his accomplices, “had a great number of order-cards printed, admitting “bearer and friends” to the White Tower, on the 1st day of April, to witness…the famous grand annual ceremony of washing the lions”.

Pandemonium broke out when hundreds showed up, only to realize they’d been pranked. “In the midst of the turmoil” Strauss wrote, “some one spotted me to whom I had given an order of admission, and he would have set the whole mob upon me. Knowing of old that discretion is, as a rule, the better part of valour…I had to skedaddle, and keep dark for a time, until the affair had blown over a little”.lefthandedwhopperIn 1957, (you can guess the date), the BBC reported the delightful news that mild winter weather had virtually eradicated the dread spaghetti weevil of Switzerland, and that Swiss farmers were now happily anticipating a bumper crop of spaghetti. Footage showed smiling Swiss, happily picking spaghetti from the trees.spagtree (1)An embarrassingly large number of viewers were fooled, calling BBC offices asking how to grow their own spaghetti tree. Callers were told to “Place a piece of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce, and hope for the best.”

Warby-Barker-Canine-Sunglasses-April-FoolsThe Warby Parker Company website describes a company mission of “offer[ing] designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses”.

On April 1, 2012, Warby Parker released a new line of eyeglasses for dogs, appropriately called “Warby Barker”.

For only $95, your hipster pooch could be sporting the latest styles in canine eyeware, in irresistible dog treat shades like “Gravy Burst” and “Dusty Bacon.” There was a monocle option too, for those partial to that Prussian Field Marshall look.

Anyone falling for the gag, got an “April Fools!” message on the on-line shopping cart.

Two days ago, Burger King announced the introduction of a new, Whopper flavored mouthwash, for those who just can’t get enough of a good thing. I know it’s true because I read it on-line, but it should be mentioned here. There is no “White Gate” at the Tower of London. Never was.

8-Spore-April-Fools-Pranks-That-Will-Make-You-Smile-Amid-The-Grim-Covid-19-Outbreak

March 17, 432 Saint Patrick

Today we know him as “Patrick” but his birth name was Maewyn Succat in his native Brythonic. 

“Celtic languages are traditionally thought to have originated in central Europe and spread across vast areas of Europe, being gradually replaced by Germanic, Romance, or Slavic languages in most areas. The Continental Celtic languages, such as Gaulish, Hispano-Celtic, and Lepontic, are all now long extinct.” – Oxfordbibliographies.com

download - 2020-03-17T203213.007Today, the “insular” Celtic languages are all that’s left, relegated to two sub-groups:  the Goidelic (or Gaelic) spoken by Irish and Scots speakers and once on the Isle of Man, and the Brythonic or Brittonic once spoken in Wales, Brittany and Cornwall.

Today we know him as “Patrick” but his birth name was Maewyn Succat in his native Brythonic.  His father was Calpornius,  a Deacon of the Church and an officer in the Roman Army.  As a boy, Maewyn Succat had little time for religion.

He was a late fifth-century Roman teenager living in Great Britain when he was kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16, and brought to Ireland.  There he found religion during six years as a slave, tending sheep and hogs in county Antrim.  He would escape in time to rejoin his family before traveling to France, to join a Monastery.  In twelve years he returned to the shores of Ireland,  this time as a Bishop, with the blessing of the Pope.

There he came to be known as Patricius in the Latin (“nobleman”) or Pádraig (Gaelic), a simple priest ministering to Irish Christians and converting the pagan, to Christianity.  In time, “Patrick” would go on to become Bishop of all Ireland, and one of its primary Patron Saints.

Saint PatrickInterestingly, Patrick is listed among the 10,000 or so Roman Catholic Saints though it seems he never was actually canonized, by a pope.

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date generally agreed to be the date of his enslavement in 432 and his death in 460.

The date is celebrated in Ireland as both a liturgical and non-liturgical holiday, where in some diocese it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation. Outside of Ireland, the day has become a general celebration of all things Irish.

The legend that St. Patrick banished the snakes likely springs from his work converting the pagans of his day, many of whom wore snake tattoos on their arms. This idea is supported by a Gallic coin of the time, which carries on its face the Druidic snake.

Be that as it may, Ireland has no snakes today, a trait it has in common with Antarctica, New Zealand, Iceland, and Greenland.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAnother legend involves a walking stick of ash, which Patrick carried with him wherever he went. He would thrust this stick into the ground wherever he would preach. At a place now known as Aspatria, (ash of Patrick), the message took so long to get through to the people that the stick took root.

The shamrock which came to symbolize the day was seen as sacred by many in pre-MedievalMonkChristian Ireland, with its green color evoking rebirth and eternal life.

The three leaves symbolize the “triple goddess” of ancient Ireland. Patrick is said to have taught the Irish about the Holy Trinity, using the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God:  the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Most of the rest of Europe would suffer barbarian invasion from the fifth century onward, plunging into what are known today as “The Dark Ages”.  Almost alone, cloistered monks in the monasteries of Ireland, spiritual descendants of St. Patrick, acted as repository for Christian civilization, at a time when such advancement was almost extinguished elsewhere.

It’s been said of this period that the Irish saved civilization. Who knows.  They may have done just that. On this day it’s said that everyone’s Irish.  Here in the US some some 33 million really are according to census data, nearly seven times the population of Ireland itself.

So here we are.  A parade dating back to 1737 here in Boston is canceled, as we all hide from the Wu Flu.   So lift a glass to Saint Patrick, though the streets be empty and the bars be closed.  “May your glass be ever full. May the roof over your head be always strong. And may you be in heaven, half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead”  Sláinte.l_irish-pub-signs-slainte-metal

March 3, 1817 Land of the Vine and Olive

Thus begins one of the more romanticized chapters in Alabama folklore.  The noble heroes of the Napoleonic wars, carving a new world of French language and culture from the wild frontier.

In the Treaty of Paris in 1783,  the British Crown formally recognized American Independence, ceding vast territories east of the Mississippi, effectively doubling the size of the fledgling United States and paving the way for westward expansion. north_america_1670Those first ten years of independence was a time of increasing unrest for the American’s French ally, of the late revolution.  The famous Storming of the Bastille of July 1789 led to the Women’s March and the abolition of the French monarchy the following year.  King Louis XVI was beheaded by guillotine in January 1793 followed ten months later by the execution of the Queen Consort of France, Marie Antoinette.

The orgy of violence known as “The Reign of Terror” killed nearly twice as many Frenchmen over the next two years, as that of Americans killed during the entire seven years of the Revolution.

A certain Corsican corporal emerged from this mess, with designs on La Louisiane.  Napoleon envisioned a vast north American empire stretching from the gulf of Mexico to the modern state of Montana and east to the Great Lakes, all of it centered on a vast trade in Caribbean sugar.napoleon_bonaparte_promoIt wasn’t meant to be. The slave insurrection of Toussaint Louverture in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) put a strain on French finances, to say nothing of the never-ending series of wars on the European landmass.  By 1803, Bonaparte needed to cash his chips and move away from the American table.

Robert R. Livingston, one of the committee of five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, was minister to the French Republic.  President Thomas Jefferson instructed Livingstone to open the way for commerce on the western frontier, authorizing the diplomat to pay up to $2 million for the city of New Orleans and lands on the east bank of the Mississippi river.

French Foreign Minister Talleyrand surprised the American diplomat, asking how much the Americans would pay for the Entire Louisiana territory.  The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 added 828,000 square miles of new territory at a cost of fifteen million dollars.louisiana-purchaseNapoleon Bonaparte, crowned Emperor the following year, would fight (and win) more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

It was all for nothing.  The first fall of the Napoleonic dynasty brought about the restoration of the Bourbon monarchs in 1814, leading to the “100 days” and Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, at a place called Waterloo.

Philadelphia and New Orleans both, would soon become sanctuaries for French refugees of the Napoleonic wars, and the Haitian Revolution.

download - 2020-03-04T061100.354 Jean-Simon Chaudron founded the Abeille Américaine in 1815 (The American Bee), Philadelphia’s leading French language newspaper.  Himself a refugee of Santo Domingo (Saint-Domingue), Chaudron catered to French merchants, emigres and former military figures of the Napoleonic era and the Haitian revolution.

The idea of a French agricultural colony in the old southwest (now the central southeastern states) first came about in 1816 and Chaudron used his newspaper to promote the project.

The Colonial Society came about that November (later renamed the Society for the Cultivation of the Vine and Olive), with General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, at its head.

Congress soon took an interest in the project as did important politicians of the era including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

The project made sense.  Many viewed these French refugees as fellow republicans, oppressed by a monarchy.  What better way to consolidate hold on western territories while at the same time building a domestic wine-making industry.  Furthermore, the work would prevent these people from forming yet another hotbed, of Napoleonic military insurrection.

m-5392In January 1817, the Society for the Vine and Olive selected a site near the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers in west-central Alabama, on former Choctaw lands.  On March 3, 1817, Congress passed an act “disposing of a tract of land to embrace four townships, on favorable terms to the emigrants, to enable them successfully to introduce the cultivation of the vine and olive.”

The act granted 92,000 acres, specifying a 14-year grace period in which to dedicate a ‘reasonable’ portion of the land to cultivation at a deferred cost of $2.00 per acre.

Thus began one of the more romanticized chapters in Alabama folklore.  The noble heroes of the Napoleonic wars, carving a new world of French language and culture from the wild frontier.

The reality wasn’t quite so romantic.  Grape vines and olive saplings were ordered from Europe but many of the plants, died en route.  The grape varieties selected were a poor match for the hot and humid climate of the region, the olive trees, a dismal failure.  Congressional stipulations were relaxed over time and farmlands converted, to cotton.

m-5391General Charles Lallemand, who joined the French army in 1791, replaced Lefebvre-Desnouettes as President of the Colonial Society. A man better suited to the life of an adventurer than that of the plow, Lallemand was more interested in the wars of Latin American independence, than grapes and olives.  By the fall of 1817, Lallemand and 69 loyalists had concocted a plan to sell the land they hadn’t yet paid for, to raise funds for the invasion of Texas.

In the end, only 150 of 347 original grantees ever came to Alabama. Some died, many fled.  Most were unwilling to trade comfortable lives in Philadelphia and New Orleans, for the hardship of life on the frontier. By the planting season of 1818, there were only 69 settlers in the colony.

583b24b42a4c7_115727bLittle is left of the Vine and Olive Colony but the French Emperor lives on, in western Alabama.  Marengo County commemorates Napoleon’s June 14, 1800 victory over Austrian forces at the Battle of Marengo.  The county seat, also known as Marengo, was later renamed Linden.  Shortened from the Napoleonic victory over Bavarian forces led by Archduke John of Austria, at the 1800 battle of Hohenlinden.

 

Hat tip Rafe Blaufarb of Florida State University, for a great write-up of this subject. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org

 

 

March 1, 1420 Reformation

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it may never have happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church at this time. This was an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate. 

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497.  There the boy learned the so-called “trivium”: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at the age of 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505. The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer. Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, his University a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.

Martin Luther was not cut out for that world.

He entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out almost immediately. His father was furious over what he saw as a wasted education. Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

download - 2020-03-01T075128.41316th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built a surplus of good works over a lifetime, sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin. Monetary contributions to the church could, so it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.

As he studied the bible, Luther came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity. The Grace of God wasn’t traded as a medium of exchange, he believed, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.

Papal “commissioner for indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome.  A saying attributed to the Dominican friar, went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences. He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.

cc-1509034747-1xk2ppowve-snap-imageA popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it may never have happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church at this time. This was an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate.

Be that as it may.  Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.

Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Luther. In 1520, the papal bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded Luther to recant under pain of excommunication.

download - 2020-03-01T073858.558Luther stood on dangerous ground. Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for such heresy, back in 1415. On this day in 1420, Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against the followers of the Czech priest, the “Hussieten”.

The Italian reformer Girolamo Savonarola confessed under torture to any number of inventions and then recanted, and confessed again. Savonarola was ritually stripped of his Dominican garments and hanged in 1498, while fire was ignited from below to consume his body.  Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was still years in the future in 1521, the year Henry was named “Fidei Defensor” (“Defender of the Faith”). Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin would be forced to flee a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians. Jan Matthias, Bernhard Rothmann and Bernhard Knipperdolling would be tortured to death with white-hot pliers in the Münster marketplace in 1535, their corpses placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church.

The bones of the three were later removed but those three cages remain there, to this day.lambert-cages-700x438The papal bull had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions. He publicly burned it, on December 10. Twenty-four days later, Luther was excommunicated. A general assembly of the secular authorities of the Holy Roman Empire summoned Luther to appear before them in April, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms. The “Edict of Worms” of May 25, 1521, declared Luther an outlaw, stating “We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”. Anyone killing Luther was permitted to do so without legal consequence.

Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle. In 1516, Erasmus had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”. It was there that Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.

Radical sects took Luther’s teaching far beyond his intent.  Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers. The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the holy spirit. The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, sounding more like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.

Martin Luther’s reformations plunged Europe into a series of wars. The Peasant’s War of 1524-25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution. The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.

On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-millennium old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.