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.

January 18, 532 Nika Riot

Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales into docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races. Imagine the worst fan violence of the modern era combined with aspects of street gangs and political organizations, each faction holding positions on the issues of the day and attempting to sway public policy by shouting slogans, between races.  

Chariots go back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic, coming down from the ancient Greeks by way of the Etruscan empire. The mythical abduction of the Sabine women was carried out, while the Sabine men watched a chariot race. While Romans never used them as weapons of war, chariots were used in triumphal processions, pulled by teams of horses, tigers or dogs, even ostriches.

What the Greeks regarded as an opportunity for talented amateurs to rise within their chosen sport, the Romans saw as entertainment. A class of professional drivers rose to meet the demand.

roman-chariot-raceLook up the Highest Paid Athlete of All Time and you’ll be rewarded with the knowledge that Michael Jordan amassed career earnings of $1.85 Billion, according to Forbes Magazine.  Steve Forbes and Michael Jordan alike may be surprised to know.  Spanish driver Gaius Appuleius Diocles amassed an astonishing 35,863,120 sesterces, equivalent to $15 Billion, today.  Not bad for a man whose name suggests he probably began as a slave, freed by a guy named Gaius Appuleius.

The Hippodrome of the Byzantine era (from the Greek Hippos: Horse and Dromos: Path, or Way) was already the center of sport and social activity in 324.  That was the year Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the Roman Empire east to Byzantium, calling the place, Nova Roma. New Rome.  The name failed to catch on and the city came to be known as Constantinople.

f285a884c132221b7abbb5958de2452dThe age of Constantine saw enormous expansion of the city which bore his name, including enlargement of the Hippodrome to an impressive 1,476-feet long by 427-feet wide with a seating capacity of 100,000.  By way of comparison, the Empire State Building is 1,454-feet from sidewalk to the very tip of the spire.  Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of Super Bowl LIII, has a rated capacity of 71,000 spectators.

There were four teams or “factions” (factiones), distinguished by the color of their uniform: Red, Blue, Green and White, and echoed by the colors worn by their fans.  Twelve chariots would enter each race, three from each faction. Golden-tipped dolphins were tipped over, to count the laps. Each race ran seven.f9fb0a187c6e429d1e9b2c84e723043bA raised median called a spina ran down the center, adorned with stone statuary and obelisks. Ganging up to drive opposing handlers into the stone median or the stands, whipping opponents and even hauling them out of their chariots was not only permitted, but encouraged.

It was the racetrack, or circus and the sport of chariot racing, that truly put the Fanatic in Fans. There are tales of poisoned horses and drivers. Lead tablets and amulets inscribed with curses, spiked through with nails and thrown from the stands. One such curse read:

I call upon you, oh demon, whoever you are, to ask that from this hour, from this day, from this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the green and white factions and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Calrice, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.

Racing chariots were as light as possible and extremely flimsy, to increase speed. With no suspension, even a bump could throw a driver into the path of oncoming teams. Clogs were built into lattice floors, to hold the driver’s feet. Teams of two (biga), three (triga) and four (quadriga) horses were common, but teams as large as six were not unheard of.

Though rare, ten-horse teams were known to take the field.

While Greek drivers held the reins in their hands, Roman charioteers wrapped them around the waist. Unsurprisingly, any driver thrown out would be dragged to death or trampled, unless able to cut himself free.

Crashes were frequent and spectacular, often killing or maiming driver and horse alike. Such wrecks were called naufragia, a Latin word translating as ”shipwreck”.  As many as forty chariots crashed in one catastrophic pile-up, near Delphi.ba90ba114005e082444846ca7ff751f7Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales into docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races. Imagine the worst fan violence of the modern era combined with aspects of street gangs and political organizations, each faction holding positions on the issues of the day and attempting to sway public policy by shouting slogans, between races.

Distinctions between politics and sport, all but disappeared.  Emperor Vitellius, a fan of the Blue faction, had citizens put to death in the year 69 for talking trash about his team. Ten years later, one fan threw himself on the funeral pyre of his favorite driver.

In 531, fans of the Blues and Greens were arrested for murder, following riots which broke out during a chariot race. The killers were sentenced to death and most were executed but two, escaped. On January 10, 532, the two men one Blue and one Green had taken refuge in a church, surrounded by an angry mob.

Emperor Justinian, a supporter of the Blues, was beset with problems. The war in the east was not going well with the Persians and at home, rampant corruption and public fury over confiscatory tax policy.  Now this.  Justinian resorted to that time honored technique to pacify the turbulent masses.  Bread and Circuses.  He announced a chariot race.

Bad idea.

It was a tense and angry crowd that arrived at the Hippodrome on January 13.  By race #22 chants of “Blue” and “Green” were changed to angry shouts, directed at the Emperor.  “Nίκα! Nίκα! Nίκα! (“Nika” translating as “Win!” “Victory!” or “Conquer!”).

Fury boiled over and anarchy turned to Riot.  The Royal Palace was laid siege over the next five days and the city, laid waste.  Even the magnificent Hagia Sofia, the foremost church in Constantinople, was destroyed.

Hagia_Sophia_Mars_2013
Now a mosque in Istanbul, the beautiful Hagia Sofia was destroyed during the Nika riots of 532 and later rebuilt, by Emperor Justinian.

Rioters proclaimed the Senator Flavius Hypatius as their new Emperor and demanded the dismissal of key advisers.  Soon Justinian himself prepared to flee for his life.  He surely would have done so if not for his wife, the formidable Empress Theodora.

“Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss”, she declared. “Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.  Who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how could an Emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive.”

The avenue of escape lay open to the Emperor but Theodora’s words, cut deep.  Not to be deterred, the Empress closed the door on escape.  “Royalty is a fine burial shroud” she said.  “The Royal color Purple makes a fine winding sheet.”

Dwzr7yJUUAEA9MYWith spine thus restored, Justinian formulated a plan.  The popular eunuch Narses was sent with a bag of gold, into the lion’s den.  Small and slight of build, unarmed but for those coins, Narses entered the Hippodrome and went directly to the Blue section.  On this day in 562 Hypatius was in the very act of coronation when the eunuch spoke.  Narses reminded the Blues that Hypatius was a Green while Justinian himself, supported their team.

Gold was distributed among the Blues and the trap was sprung.  As Blue team supporters streamed out of the Hippodrome, Imperial troops led by the Generals Belisarius and Mundus fell upon the crowd, killing some 30,000 Blue and Green alike.jerusalem-distrThus ends one of the great “backfires” in political history.  Senator Hypatius was put to the sword and those who had supported the pretender, sent into exile.  Justinian I would rule another 33 years, rebuilding Constantinople, muzzling the Senatorial Class which had caused him such grief and reconquering lost territories, in Italy.

Wealthy estates were confiscated outright and races were suspended for a period of five years.  None were left to stand against this Emperor for a long and fruitful reign.

January 2, 1819 Time Me, Gentlemen

Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing, “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus (all else being the same) the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness”.

With the invention of gunpowder in the year 142, the Chinese of the Eastern Han Dynasty had a handy if somewhat noisy way, to scare off evil spirits.

The first millennium of the common era was a time of ever improved and more efficient ways for humans to slaughter one another, from the gunpowder slow match of 919 to the fire bombs and gunpowder propelled fire arrows of the Southern Tang, of 975.

The Wuwei Bronze Cannon of 1227 may be the first such weapon in all history.  By 1453, the terrifying bombard of the Ottoman Turks were capable of hurling stone balls up to 24.8-inches in diameter, more than enough to shatter the formerly impregnable Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.

Huge siege cannon used in the final assault
Ottoman siege cannon, 1453

For a thousand years, gunpowder weapons large and small businesses and a inflicted massive injury to the human frame, resulting in damage beyond even the skills of the modern surgeon.  Often the only answer was amputation, seemingly by the bushel basket.

sickles_lg
General Dan Sickles leg, destroyed by a 12-pound ball at Gettysburg, 1863

The carnage of the gunpowder era experienced something of a golden age in the 19th century.  Projectiles traveled at a bone-shatteringly slow pace compared with the high velocity weapons of today while innovations such as percussion caps, shrapnel shells and breech loading weapons geometrically increased the rate of fire.

It’s been said the most common objects removed from the bodies of front-line soldiers, were the shattered bones and teeth of the next man in line.

This was a time before anesthesia, when the speed of the surgeon’s knife spelled the difference in the pain experienced by the patient, to say nothing of the poor unfortunates’ chance of survival.  Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing:  “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus” (everything else being the same) “the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness“.

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Robert Liston’s surgical instruments

First came the burly assistants, to hold down the writhing victim


.  In skilled hands the surgeon’s knife could cut all-round in a single stroke, through skin and muscle and sinew clear down to the bone before the saw completed the work of separation.  Screams of agony rent the air as veins, flesh and arteries were cauterized with red-hot irons, vitriol (sulfuric acid) or boiling hot tar.  Should the victim survive the experience the wound would then be sewn shut.  God help the poor soul if there was any infection left after all that.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 –’71, one surgeon amputated 200 shattered limbs in one 24-hour period, a nearly unbelievable average of one every seven minutes.  Perfectly healthy fingers were occasionally severed in the gore and confusion.

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A 19th-century surgical illustration detailing amputation at the thigh. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. H/T Military-History.org

This was the world of the “Fastest Knife on West End”, a Scottish-born physician who, on this day in 1819, had just embarked on the first year of a medical career which would last until his death, in 1847.

Robert Liston, always the showman, would stride into the operating theater and call out, “Time me Gentlemen.  Time me”.  English surgeon and author Richard Gordon, an expert on Robert Liston, describes what that looked like:

“He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth”. 

16944174-0-image-a-45_1565084128752Liston once amputated a leg in 2½ minutes from incision to suture but accidentally severed the poor bastard’s testicles, in the process.

On another occasion, he amputated a leg in 2½ minutes while severing the fingers of one assistant and piercing the coat of an observer.  The spectator was so terrified at the blood and so certain that his own vital organs had been pierced, he died right then and there from heart failure.

Both patient and assistant later died from hospital gangrene, a common problem in the days before Joseph Lister.  To the best of my knowledge, Robert Liston remains the only surgeon in history to achieve 300% mortality, on a single procedure.

October 7, 1571 Lepanto

Cross and Crescent met on this day in 1571, near a place called Lepanto. It’s been called “the Battle that saved the Christian West”. The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

Following the Islamic Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire  massively expanded under the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, “Selim the Grim”.  1516 – ’17 alone saw an expansion of some seventy per cent of Ottoman landmass, with the conquest of large swaths of the Arabian peninsula, historic Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.

Selim’s son and successor would become the tenth and longest-ruling Ottoman Sultan in 1520, until his death in 1566. He was “Süleiman the Magnificent”, in Turkish the “Law Giver”, a man who, at his peak, would rule over some fifteen to twenty million subjects, at a time when the entire world population numbered fewer than a half-billion.

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Suleiman I, “The Magnificent”

By 1522, Süleiman had managed to expand his rule to Serbia, placing the Ottoman Empire in direct conflict with the Habsburg monarchy, early predecessor to what we remember from WW1, as the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Catholic states of Europe were plunged into a morass of their own at this time, wracked by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, and by a series of wars for hegemony over the formerly-independent city-states of the Italian peninsula.

Italy_1494_AD.pngThe “Italian wars” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pitted no fewer than eight separate Christian alliances against one another, between forces of the Valois and Habsburg monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian republics. In time, republican Venice was alone in retaining her independence, aside from minor city-states such as Lucca and San Marino.

Venice attempted to check Ottoman expansion into the eastern Mediterranean until 1540 when, exhausted and despairing of support, signed a humiliating capitulation with Suleiman I.

This, the second of three conflicts between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, left the republic without her former buffer territories in Greece and the Serbo-Croatian territories of Dalmatia.

Hurrem Sultan, better known as “Roxelana”, was probably kidnapped from the Polish principality of Ruthenia, and sold into the slave markets of Istanbul, given by the Valide Sultan (legal mother of the Sultan and chief consort to Selim I), to her son Süleiman.

Roxelana-Wife-Of-SuleimanRoxelana is unique in all Ottoman history, rising from Harem slave and Sultan’s concubine, to Süleiman’s legal wife and “Queen of the Ottoman Empire.” It was she who began a 130-year period of female influence over the male line known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, though born to slavery, the wives and mothers of the Sultan wielded extraordinary political power over  affairs of the Ottoman Empire.

She was instrumental in driving the unlikely ascension of her son Selim II to the Sultanate, following the death of his brother Mehmed from smallpox, and the murders of his half-brother Mustafa and brother Bayezid, in coordination between himself and his father.

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The Walls of Famagusta

Surrounded as it was by Ottoman territory, the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus had long been “in the wolf’s mouth”, as one contemporary historian described it.

The island had long been a major overseas possession of the Venetian republic. The Turkish invasion force of 350-400 ships arrived on July 1, 1570, carrying somewhere between 80,000 to 150,000 men. First capturing the coastal cities of Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca, the Ottoman force moved inland to lay siege to Nicosia, the largest city on the island. The siege would last forty days, resulting in the death of some 20,000 residents and the looting of every church, public building and palace.

By Mid-September, the Ottoman cavalry arrived outside the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus, the east coast port city of Famagusta.

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Marcantonio Bragadin

At this point, Venetian defenders numbered fewer than 9,000 men with 90 guns, pitted against an invading force swelled by this time to over 250,000 with some 1,500 cannon.

The heroic defense of Famagusta would hold out for eleven months, led by the Venetian lawyer and military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. By the following August, five major assaults had cost the lives of some 52,000 invaders, including the first-born son of the Turkish commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha. Bragadin’s command was reduced to 900 sick, starving and injured defenders who, like local civilians, were begging him to surrender.

According to the customs of the time, negotiation before a city’s defenses were successfully breached allowed for terms of surrender, whereas the lives and property of a city taken by storm, were forfeit.

Terms of safe passage were agreed upon by the survivors yet, on presentation of the city, Bragadin was seized by Lala Mustafa Pasha, his ears and nose cut off, and thrown into a cell.

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1570-1576 Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. Researchers speculate that Bragadin’s flaying provided the inspiration for this painting.

A massacre followed in which every Christian left alive in the city, was murdered. Bragadin himself was later removed from his cell, his untreated wounds raging with infection.  He was skinned alive in the public square and his hide stuffed with straw, reinvested with full military insignia and sent with the heads of his officers to Istanbul, as a gift to Sultan Selim II.

Pope Pius had tried since 1566, to put together a “Holy League” to oppose the Ottoman invasion. In the end, Marcantonio Bragadin was betrayed, put to death in the most hideous manner, imaginable. Yet, the heroic defense against impossible odds of September 17, 1570 to August 5, 1571 gave a coalition of Christian maritime states time to assemble naval forces, in numbers sufficient to defend the Mediterranean coast.

The Crescent met the Cross on this day in 1571 near a place called Lepanto, in what’s been called “the Battle that saved the Christian West”.  The European side was outnumbered, with 212 ships and as many as 40,000 soldiers and oarsmen, to a Muslim force numbering 278 vessels and as many as 50,000 soldiers and oarsmen.

The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

What the Holy League lacked in numbers however, was made up in equipment, and experience. The Christians possessed some 1,815 guns, to fewer than half that number on the Ottoman side.

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Ten thousand would be lost to the Christian side, compared with four times that number, for the adversary.  The Ottoman fleet was crushed, losing 200 ships burned, sunk or captured, compared with 17 for the Europeans.

While the European victory at Lepanto put a halt to Muslim expansion into the western Mediterranean, zero lost territory was regained while the Sultan solidified his control, over the east. The Ottoman fleet was rebuilt within six months, including some of the largest capital ships, then in existence.

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Ottoman Empire, Expansion. H/T Britannica.com

Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, Chief Minister to Sultan Selim II went so far as to taunt the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro, that the Christian triumph at Lepanto amounted to little:  “You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor”.