June 24, 1535 The Cages of Münster

Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. Subsequent events would harden Luther’s attitudes toward the Church but for now, this was but ninety-five propositions, framed and submitted for scholarly debate.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now regarded as the beginning, of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such issues were matters of life and death. The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time was dug up and burned, his ashes cast upon the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and from a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20 percent of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, amid “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warned those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city, about 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed in a vain attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Prince-Bishop of Münster Franz von Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm. Before long a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534. Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy thus shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a pike for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

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The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster on the evening of June 24, and into the early morning hours, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square some six months later, chained to posts and literally torn to pieces with white-hot pliers.

Imagine the scene. The sentences encompassed precisely sixty minutes of such treatment. Two executioners and four sets of tongs lest the other two be out of the coals for too long. Leiden endured an hour of such treatment as first his flesh and then sinew, was torn from his frame. He never made a sound.

Knipperdolling struggled frantically against the spiked collar which held him fast for he knew, he was next. Finally it was Krechting’s turn. Should a man pass out from the agony the clock would be stopped and the prisoner, revived. Then the process would begin, anew. Sixty minutes with those white-hot tongs and not a moment, less.

Finally a dagger was thrust into each man’s heart to end his appointed hour. Three hideously mutilated corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

Some fifty years later their bones were removed, but not those cages.  In 1880 the old steeple was torn down and a new one built in its place. The cages were reinstalled.

On November 18, 1944, British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church, knocking the highest cage, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third hanging only by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Three decades ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, hanging from the steeple at St. Lambert’s, to this day.

June 9, 721 Odo the Great

In history as in life, time and place is everything.  Today, “Odo the Great” is all but forgotten. We remember Charles “The Hammer” Martel as the savior of western civilization, as well we should. And yet, we need not forget the man who made it possible, who gave Martel time to gather the strength, to forge the fighting force which gave life to such an unlikely outcome. 1,301 years ago, today.


In AD732, a Frankish military force led by Charles Martel, the illegitimate son of Pippin II of Herstal, met a vastly superior invading army of the Umayyad Caliphate, led by Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi.

The Islamic Caliphate had recently defeated two of the most powerful militaries of the era.  The Sassanid empire in modern day Iran had been destroyed altogether, as was the greater part of the Byzantine Empire including Armenia, North Africa and Syria.

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As the Caliphate grew in strength, European civilization faced a period of reduced trade, declining population and political disintegration characterized by a constellation of small kingships evolving and squabbling for suzerainty over the common people.

The “Banu Umayya”, the second of four major dynasties established following the death of Muhammad 100 years earlier, was already one of the largest, most powerful empires in history. Should the Frankish defenders fail, no force remained sufficient to prevent a united caliphate stretching from the Atlantic coast of Spain to the Indian sub-continent, from Sub-Saharan Africa to the North Sea.

Carolingian Empire Map

With no cavalry of his own, Charles faced a two-to-one disadvantage in the face of a combined Islamic force of infantry and horse soldiers.  History offers few instances of medieval armies withstanding the charge of cavalry, yet Charles had anticipated this moment. He had trained his men, they were ready.

The story is familiar.   Charles “The Hammer” Martel met the invader at a spot between the villages of Tours, and Poitiers.  Despite all odds the Frankish force and their Aquitanian allies emerged victorious from the Battle of Tours, also known as the Battle of Poitiers. Western civilization would remain free to make its way into an uncertain future.

Battle of Tours, 732

Forgotten in this narrative is the story of the man who made it all possible.

Twenty years earlier, a combined force of 1,700 Arab and North African horsemen, the Berbers, landed on the Iberian Peninsula led by Tariq Ibn Ziyad.  Within ten years the Emir of Córdoba ruled over most of what we now know as Portugal and Spain, save for the fringes of the Pyrenean mountains and the highlands along the northwest coastline.

In AD721, Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, wali (governor) of Muslim Spain, built a strong army from the Umayyad territories of Al-Andalus and invaded the semi-independent duchy of Aquitaine, a principality ostensibly part of the Frankish kingdom but for all intents and purposes ruled as an independent territory.

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Duke Odo, I

Duke Odo of Aquitaine left his home in Toulouse in search of help from the Frankish statesman and military leader, Charles Martel.  This was a time (718 – 732) of warring kingdoms and duchies, a consolidation of power in which Martel preferred not to step up on behalf of his southern rival but to wait, and see what happened. Odo, Duke of Aquitaine, was on his own.

At this time, Toulouse was the largest and most important city in Aquitaine.  Believing Odo to have fled before their advance, the forces of al-Andalus laid siege to the city, secure in the belief that their only threat lay before them.  For three months, Odo gathered Aquitanian, Gascon and Frankish troops about him, as his city held on.

Overconfident, the besieging army had failed to fortify its outer perimeter, or to scout the surrounding countryside.  On June 9 with Toulouse on the verge of collapse, the armies of Duke Odo fell on the Muslim rear as defenders poured from the city gates, an avenging army.    Sources report Duke Odo’s forces numbered some 300,000, though the number is almost certainly exaggerated.

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Caught at rest without weapons or amour, the surprise was complete.  Some 350,000 Umayyad troops are said to have been cut down as they fled, but again, the number is probably inflated.  Al-Samh himself was mortally wounded, and later died in Narbonne.

Be that as it may, the battle of Toulouse was an unmitigated disaster for the Arab side.  Some historians believe that this day in 721 did more to check the Muslim advance into western Europe, than did the later battle at Tours.  For 450 years,  Arab chroniclers at Al-Andalus described the battle as Balat al Shuhada (‘the path of the martyrs’), while Tours was remembered as a relatively minor skirmish.

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One of those to escape with his life was a young Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi.  Eleven years later in 732, the now – governor of Al-Andalus would once again cross the Pyrenees, this time at the head of a massive army of his own.  Al Ghafiqi’s legions laid waste to Navarre and Gascony, first destroying Auch, and then Bordeaux.  Duke Odo “The Great” was destroyed at the River Garonne and the table set for the all-important decision of Tours.

In history as in life, time and place is everything.  Today, “Odo the Great” is all but forgotten. We remember Charles “The Hammer” Martel as the savior of western civilization, as well we should. And yet, we need not forget the man who made it possible, who gave Martel time to gather the strength, to forge the fighting force which gave life to such an unlikely outcome. 1,301 years ago, today.

May 7, 1945 Victory in Europe

General Alfred Jodl came to Reims to sign the document including the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“.

Beginning on May 5, reporters from AP, Life magazine, and others began to sleep on the floor of Eisenhower’s red brick schoolhouse headquarters, for fear of stepping out and missing the moment. Adolf Hitler was dead by his own hand, the life of the German tyrant extinguished on April 30.

General Alfred Jodl came to Reims to sign the document including the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“.

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The signing of the instruments of surrender ending the most destructive war in history took place on Monday, May 7, at 2:41am, local time.   In Europe, World War II had come to an end.The German government announced the end of hostilities right away to its own people, but most of the Allied governments, remained silent.   It was nearly midnight the following day when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed a second instrument of surrender, in the Berlin headquarters of Soviet General Georgy Zhukov.

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had his own ideas about how he wanted to handle the matter while the rest of the world, waited.

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In England, May 7 dragged on with no public statement. Large crowds gathered outside of Buckingham Palace shouting “We want the King”. Bell ringers throughout the British Isles remained on silent standby, waiting for the announcement. The British Home Office issued a circular, instructing Britons how they could celebrate: “Bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.” And still, the world waited.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill finally lost patience in the early evening, saying he wasn’t going to give Stalin the satisfaction of holding up what everyone already knew. The Ministry of Information made this short announcement at 7:40pm: “In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday”.

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The news was greeted with reserve in the United States, where the first thought was that of the Pacific. Even now, many months of savage combat lay ahead. President Harry Truman broadcast his own address to the nation at 9:00am on May 8, thanking President Roosevelt and wishing he’d been there to share the moment.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died on April 12 in Warm Springs, Georgia. President Truman’s speech begins: “This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe. For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity”.

So it is that most of the world celebrates May 8 as Victory in Europe, “VE Day”, the day of formal cessation of all hostilities, by Nazi Germany. And yet in some sectors, the fighting continued.

German military operations officially ceased on May 8, a day celebrated as VE Day in in the United States, Great Britain, Western Europe and Australia. VE Day occurs on May 9 in the former Soviet territories, and New Zealand.

Even so isolated pockets of resistance continued to surrender day through May 14-15. The “Georgian uprising” of some 400 German troops and 800 allied Georgian soldiers under German officers continued until May 20 on the Dutch island of Texel (pronounced “Tessel).

The last major battle in Europe concluded on May 25 between the Yugoslav Army and Croatian Armed Forces. One contingent of German soldiers lost radio communications in Spitsbergen in the Norwegian archipelago and surrendered to a group of seal hunters, on September 4. Two days after the formal surrender of Imperial Japan and the end of war, in the Pacific.

December 30, 1610 The Blood Countess

She’s the most prolific female serial killer of all time. The Guinness Book of World Records, says she is.

The “Blood Countess” Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory is the most prolific female serial killer in history. The Guinness book of World Records says she is, bathing in the blood of as many as 650 virgins to keep her skin looking young.

Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory

Servants were convicted of killing 80 while Erzsébet herself was neither tried nor convicted, due to her rank. She was walled up in prison and left to die, the most prolific female murderer, in history. A woman whose bestiality has elevated from mere mortal to semi-supernatural, vampiric ghoul.

So…was she?

According to one story a servant girl once noted a few hairs out of place on the countess’ head. The noblewoman struck the girl so hard that great gouts of blood sprayed across her ladyship’s face. Báthory noticed how the blood seemed to rejuvenate the skin. Thus began the murder of 650 maidens to bathe, in their blood.

Other versions describe the blood landing on the skin of her hand and still others a belief on the countess’ part that only the blood of noble women, would have such rejuvenating effects.

A problem arises, with the absence of contemporary accounts. The tale of the blood bath first came out over a hundred years, after her death. Secondly, we all know how quickly the stuff clots and congeals, once leaving the body. Aside from the repulsiveness of the act does such a goopy coagulated mess seem suitable, for a bath?

Elizabeth lived from August 7, 1560 to August 21, 1614, a member of the powerful Báthory clan of Transylvania, an area which now includes parts of Hungary, Romania and the Slovak Republic. Her uncle was the King of Poland, her nephew, a voivode (prince) of Transylvania.

The future Hungarian war hero Ferenc Nádasdy was betrothed to Báthory when he was fourteen and she, ten rears old. The couple wed when he was nineteen and she fifteen and, as the Báthory clan outranked the Nádasdy she kept her name and he added it, to his own.

Theirs was a time and place closer to the fall of Constantinople than World War 1 is, to our own. It was an age of ever aggressive expansion of the Ottoman Empire. A time and place not so greatly removed from that of Vlad (The Impaler) Țepeș, a man of such freakishly extreme cruelty as to spawn the legend, of Count Dracula.

The Ottoman-Hungarian wars were never ending at this time and Ferenc spent more time fighting abroad than at home. He soon earned the sobriquet “Black Knight”, likely for excessive cruelty extended, to Ottoman prisoners.

Back at home Elizabeth managed the family estates including no fewer than seventeen villages and living at the Nádasdy castles at Sárvár, Hungary and Čachtice in what is now, the Slovak Republic.

Due to Ferenc’s frequent absence the marriage would fail to produce a child, for the first ten years. In time there would be five, two daughters dying in infancy with two more daughters and a son, growing to adulthood.

According to some stories, Elizabeth would write to her husband asking for the gruesome details of the torture, inflicted on prisoners. She was seen for a time as a benevolent ruler but that began to change, in 1602.

The stories make for difficult reading, tales of servant girls smeared with honey and left to be devoured by insects. Tales of stark naked girls made to stand in pails of water until they froze to death and mutilations carried out with scissors, knives and hot pokers and even Elizabeth’s own, teeth.

The higher ranking members of the servants’ corps would fan out across those seventeen villages to recruit a never ending supply of young girls, to the castle. None of it bothered the authorities all that much as even treatments so gruesome as these were alright, so long as they were carried out among the lower classes.

In 1604 the Black Knight died while in battle allegedly, of some unknown disease. Despite the rumors Elizabeth’s henchmen fed an ever increasing stream of young girls to the castle, increasingly, girls of the lesser nobility.

Now if the murder of a peasant girl is alright, killing a member of a Family of Rank™, is not. Questions asked about disappearances were met with implausible yarns about murder-suicides and sudden illness always conveniently followed, by the rapid disposal of the corpse.

Count György Thurzó was the Lord Palatine of Hungary, the personal representative of the monarch and as such, responsible for investigation. On December 29, 1610 according to some stories he surprised the blood soaked countess in the very act of tormenting, one of her victims. The following day, December 30, she was arrested.

Whether there were 36 victims or 50 or 650 all depended, on whom you ask. Judicial proceedings decided on the number, eighty. Accused of being accomplices servants Dorothy Szentes, Helena Jo and John Ujvary were all sentenced to death for helping Báthory to lure and murder her victims. The women had their fingers pulled off with hot pincers before being burned alive. John was beheaded and then, burned.

Ever obsessed with rank, the authorities didn’t try Báthory herself but instead walled her up in a small space in the Castle Čachtice, with only openings, for food and water. There she lingered for another four years until the morning of August 14, 1614 when she was found dead, on the floor.

Today, Castle Čachtice is just a ruin

Was Elizabeth Báthory guilty of the crimes laid against her? There is too much consistency among too many stories, to absolve her of her misdeeds. Not entirely. There were too many tales telling the same story for the woman to be entirely innocent but two things can be true at the same time, right?

Báthory was at odds with some powerful people. Her support of her cousin Prince Gábor Báthory of Transylvania put her in conflict with the mighty Habsburg Empire who just happened to owe the woman, money. A LOT of money and, happily, Báthory’s exile made it all, go away. It is reasponsible to view with jaundiced eye any story, told under torture. Furthermore, 250 of the 289 eyewitness accounts used against her contained nothing more than hearsay with no real information, whatsoever. Many witnesses owed Count Thurzó personally and he had exclusive authority, over the proceedings. Lastly, the testament of the widow Báthory left her estates, to her children. The Báthory-Nádasdy offspring were banished from Hungary following her incarceration. Some would return in 1640 but by that time the family name had lost, its former nobility.

More than a tale of cops and robbers this one seems more like two scorpions in a jar and only one coming out, alive. A story about bad guys vs other bad guys not unlike certain current events, of today. Unless of course you’re one who believes that Jeffrey Epstein, really did kill himself.

October 19, 1778 The Road to Independence

Over the course of the Revolution, the Patriot cause received aid from sources both sought after and providential.

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress declared a break from Great Britain. The former colonies were to be a free and independent nation. That same day and an ocean away, a business was formed to aid in the pursuit. An enterprise formed between the French House of Bourbon, and Spain.

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The Rodrigue Hortalez Trading Company was a ruse, a fictitious outfit organized by the French playwright, politician and spy, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

In May of 1776, Beaumarchais obtained one million livres from France and the same amount from Spain, weeks before the committee of five put pen to paper, to compose the Declaration of Independence. In addition to all that money there were muskets, cannon, gunpowder, bombs, mortars, tents and enough clothing for 30,000 men, traveling from French ports to the “neutral” Netherlands Antilles island of St. Eustatius.

The delivery could not have been more timely. When General Washington took command on July 3, 1775 the Continental Army faced the most formidable military on the planet with enough powder for something like nine rounds per man.

Here’s a great trivia question for you…what foreign government first openly recognized the fledgling nation? It was little St. Eustatius who first acknowledged American Independence, firing the traditional “First Salute” on November 16 of that year, an overt recognition that an independent nation state in the form of the brig Andrew Doria, had entered its harbor.

Hortalez & Co. was one of four channels of Spanish aid. New Orleans Governor Luis de Unzaga began providing covert aid to the American rebels in 1776, expanding the following year under his successor, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez.  

It is he for whom Galveston Texas, bears that name.

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Meanwhile, the Spanish port at Havana was opened to the Americans under Most Favored Nation status, and further Spanish aid flowed in from the Gardoqui family trading company in Bilbao whose Patriarch, Don Diego de Gardoqui, would become Spain’s first Ambassador to the United States. According to the Ambassador, the House of Gardoqui alone supplied the American patriots with 215 bronze cannon, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, 51,314 musket balls, 300,000 pounds of powder, 12,868 grenades, 30,000 uniforms, and 4,000 field tents. The Spanish Prime Minister, José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca wrote in March 1777, “the fate of the colonies interests us very much, and we shall do for them everything that circumstances permit”.

The American Victory at Saratoga in October 1777 opened the door to more overt aid from the French, thanks largely to the tireless diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis du Lafayette. Representatives of the French and American governments signed the Treaties of Alliance and Amity and Commerce on February 6, 1778.

The “Southern Strategy” of 1778-80 cost the British army and its Hessian allies more casualties from disease, than from Patriot bullets. About 1,200 Hessian soldiers were killed in combat over the course of the war. By contrast, 6,354 more died of disease and 5,500 deserted, later settling in the fledgling United States.

In February 1781, General Washington sent Lafayette south at the head of a handpicked force of 1,200 New England and New Jersey troops, and 1,200 French allies.  Washington himself lead an army he himself described as “not strong enough even to be beaten”.

5,500 French Army troops led by the Comte de Rochambeau landed in Rhode Island that summer, linking up with General Washington’s Patriot army. Meanwhile, Lafayette harassed and shadowed Cornwallis’ much larger force as it moved north through North Carolina and east toward the Chesapeake Bay.

Cornwallis was looking for a deep water port from which to link up with his ships. It was at this time that Lafayette received help from a slave named James, on the New Kent Armistead Farm. James pretended to serve Cornwallis in Yorktown while sending valuable military information to Lafayette and Washington, who was now moving south through New Jersey with Rochambeau. The man would later legally change his name to James Lafayette.

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“To the generous help of your Nation and to the bravery of its troops must be attributed in a great degree to that independence for which we have fought, and which after a severe conflict of more than five years have been obtained”.

Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse, was in Santo Domingo, meeting with the representative of Spain’s King Carlos III, Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis. De Grasse had planned to leave several warships in Santo Domingo, now capital of the Dominican Republic, to protect the French merchant fleet. Saavedra promised assistance from the Spanish navy, enabling de Grasse to sail north with all of his warships. He needed those ships.  The crucial Naval battle of the Revolution took place on September 5 when de Grasse defeated the British fleet of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves cutting Cornwallis off, from the sea.

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French Admiral de Barras arrived from Newport a few days later, carrying vital siege equipment, while de Grasse himself carried 500,000 silver pesos from Havana to help with the payroll and siege costs at the final Battle of Yorktown.

If there was ever a “window of opportunity”, the siege of Yorktown was it. Fully ½ of Cornwallis’ troops were sick with Malaria during the siege, a disease to which the Americans had built some degree of immunity. Most of the French were newly arrived, and thus had yet to encounter the disease’ one-month gestation.

Now out of options, General Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, the day his relief force finally sailed out of New York Harbor.

Over the course of the Revolution, the Patriot cause received aid from sources both sought after and providential. Ben Franklin, John Jay and John Adams would negotiate through two more years and four British governments before it was done. The Treaty of Paris was at last signed on September 3, 1783. The American war for Independence, had come to an end.

October 9, 768 The Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

In Medieval Europe, most of the government powers that mattered were exercised by a chief officer to the King, called the “Mayor of the Palace”. This Maior Domus, or “Majordomo” was created during the Merovingian Dynasty to manage the household of the Frankish King. By the 7th century, the position had evolved into the power behind the throne of an all but ceremonial monarch.

In 751, the Mayor of the Palace forced King Childeric III off the throne and into a monastery.  He was the younger son of Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his wife Rotrude, destined to become sire to the founding father of the European Middle Ages.  He was Pepin III, “The Short”.

The Hammer
Charles “The Hammer” Martel who Saved Europe from an Invasion by the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours

Pepin’s first act as King was to intercede with King Aistulf of the Lombards, on behalf of Pope Stephen II. Pepin wrested several cities away from the Lombards, forming a belt of central Italian territory which would later become the basis for the Papal States. In the first crowning of a civil ruler by a Pope, Stephen anointed Pepin “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans) in 754, naming his sons Charlemagne and Carloman as his heirs. It was the first vestige of a multi-ethnic union of European territories which would last until the age of Napoleon – the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin died on campaign at age 54, his sons crowned co-rulers of the Franks on October 9, 768. Three years later, Carloman’s unexpected and unexplained death left Charlemagne undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom.

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Charlemagne led an incursion into Muslim Spain, continuing his father’s policy toward the Church when he cleared the Lombards out of Northern Italy.  He Christianized the Saxon tribes to his east, sometimes under pain of death.

Pope Leo III was attacked by Italian enemies in the streets of Rome, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue. For the third time in a half-century, a Pope had reached out to the Frankish Kingdom, for assistance.

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor” on Christmas day in the year 800, in the old St. Peter’s Basilica. The honor may have been mostly diplomatic, as the seat of what now remained of the Roman Empire, was in Constantinople. Nevertheless, this alliance between a Pope and the leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, was nothing short of a tectonic shift in western political power.

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne was “Pater Europae”, the Father of Europe. German and French monarchies alike have traced their roots to his empire from that day, to this.

The title fell into disuse with the end of the Carolingian dynasty, until Pope John XII once again came under attack by Italian enemies of the Papacy. The crowning of Otto I began an unbroken line of succession, extending out eight centuries. Charlemagne had been the first to bear the title of Emperor. Otto I is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, the date of his coronation in 962, as the founding.

Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000
Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000

Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.

Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection.  After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.

The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years.  Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities.  Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.

Schism and excommunication followed.  Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088.  The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.

HRE 1500

The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties.  It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family.  Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

The Holy Roman Empire became bogged down in struggles of succession in the 18th century. There was the War of Spanish Succession. The War of Polish Succession. The Wars of Austrian Succession and of German Dualism. The Holy Roman Empire peaked in 1050, becoming increasingly anachronistic by the period of the French Revolution. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Franz II, Emperor of Austria and Germany, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the 3rd Coalition by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz, in 1804.

Napoleon sarcastically commented that the German states were always “becoming, not being”. Ironically, the policies of that “little corporal” directly resulted in the rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870, a polity which would go on humble the French state, in two world wars.

August 25, 1212 A People’s Crusade

The first to respond was not the elite force of avenging knights envisioned by the pope but a “peasant’s crusade” led by the charismatic monk Peter the Hermit, and an impoverished knight known as Walter sans Avoir. Walter the penniless.

In the 100 years following the death of the Prophet Muhamad, Islamic conquests established the largest pre-modern empire up to that time stretching from China in the east to the Iberian Peninsula, in the west.

The Sasanid Empire in what is now Iran ceased to exist under the Muslim conquest as did much of Byzantium, seat of the Roman Empire in the east. Europe itself narrowly escaped subjugation when Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the army of Abdul Rahman al Qafiqi at Poitiers (Tours) in October, 732.

islam-territoryEstimates suggest the Umayyad Caliphate based in Damascus was over 5 million square miles, larger than any modern state with the solitary exception of the Russian Federation.

The Council of Clermont was a mixed synod comprised of laymen and clergy, of the Catholic Church. The meeting convened for ten days beginning November 18, 1095, to discuss the threat. No contemporary transcription survives from the speech delivered, by Pope Urban II. Those in attendance took the pontiff’s remarks, as a call to arms.

Urban was responding to an urgent request for assistance by Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenus, against the Seljuk Turk. Now the pope urged all Christendom to lay down doctrinal difference between east and west and come to the aid of their fellow Christians, in Byzantium.

The first to respond was not the elite force of avenging knights envisioned by the pope but a “peasant’s crusade” led by the charismatic monk Peter the Hermit, and an impoverished knight known as Walter sans Avoir. Walter the penniless.

It was the first of five such ‘popular crusades’ over the following centuries and not to be confused with the major ‘Prince’s Crusades’ we’ve all heard about. The latter were well trained and well armed forces of knights and warrior monks who fought with the sanction of the Church and left us with names like the Knights Templar, Hospitaller and others.

Untrained, unsanctioned and poorly armed the ‘popular crusades’ were nothing of the sort. More like a pickup basketball game, compared with an NBA season.

Millenarianism was a powerful force at that time, a belief in the imminent End of Days spurred on by years of drought-caused crop failures and signs of divine blessing including meteor showers, aurorae and a lunar eclipse.

As 100,000 peasants including women and children took up farm implements and set out to reconquer the Holy Lands in this first and best documented, of the popular crusades.

A map of the peasant’s crusade, of 1096

The abuse of European Jewry was nothing new in 1096, but now began a new phase to set the tone for the next thousand years and culminate, in the Nazi holocaust. One non-believer was as good as another it would seem, and the Saracen was so far away.

Massacre of the Jews of Metz during the First Crusade, by Auguste Migette

Anti-Jewish violence committed by this crowd throughout parts of modern France and Germany ranged from pillage, to the massacre of thousands. The population was so terrorized by the mere appearance of Peter the Hermit on his donkey they readily agreed to give him and his followers, most anything they asked for. In Regensburg, virtually the entire Jewish population was herded into the Danube and forced to undergo “baptism”.

Once in the Serbian city of Zemun, a dispute broke out over the price of a pair of shoes resulting in a riot and the murder, of 4,000 Hungarians. Seven days later at the city of Niš, the military commander promised food, and military escort. Peter agreed but a group of Germans got into an argument with some locals and set fire, to a mill. The entire garrison at Niš responded and routed the mob. 10,000 were killed by the time it was over, nearly a quarter of their entire number.

Once in Constantinople, Alexios had not the slightest idea what to do with this ragtag bunch and quickly ferried them across the Bosporus with instruction to wait for the main Crusader force, then on the way.

These people were having none of that.

An argument broke out between French and Italians on one side and the Germans, on the other. Each elected their own leader and the former set to pillaging the suburbs, all the way to the Turkish stronghold of Nicomedia.

Not to be outdone, 6,000 Germans marched on the fortress at Xerigordos where they quickly subdued the garrison and prepared to use the fort as a base, for further raids. Within days Xerigordos was itself surrounded by a Turkish force loyal to Kilij Arslan, the Seljuk Sultan of Rûm. With no provisions and no water the besieged crusaders took to drinking their own urine and the blood, of their animals. The siege was over in eight days. Some Crusaders converted to Islam, on the spot. The rest were put to the sword.

Back at the main camp, two Turkish spies spread rumors the Germans had taken Xerigordos and defeated, Nicaea. Eager to join in the plunder some 20,ooo set out leaving women and children, back at camp. The rowdy procession entered the narrow road three miles outside of camp, when the trap was sprung. The waiting Seljuk force unleashed a torrent of arrows at a disorganized and undisciplined rabble, quickly put to flight. Most were slaughtered. A few thousand took refuge in an abandoned castle itself, then taken under siege.

Sometime later, a Byzantine force under Constantine Katakalon sailed across the narrow channel and lifted the siege, returning the survivors to Constantinople. This small remnant was all that remained, of the Peasant’s Crusade.

Church sanctioned Crusades took and then lost the ancient city of Jerusalem over the next 100 years. A “Lion-hearted” King would fight to a draw and return home to protect his kingdom from an ambitious little brother leaving Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub in possession of the city. A man we know today, as Saladin.

A fourth crusade set out in 1202 to retake the holy city and inexplicably ended up sacking…Constantinople. Ten years later it was time for civilians to try, once again.

In the Spring of 1212 a French youth called Stephen of Cloyes began to attract, a following. At the same time a German boy, Nicholas of Cologne, was preaching the same message. It’s hard to know if the two ever heard of each other but the message, was the same. Talk would succeed where weapons had failed. They would discuss it all with the Muslims who would then convert, peaceably.

Together, Stephen and Nicholas attracted some 20,000 children with a few adolescents and some adults and set out across Germany, and France.

Many starved to death with no money and yet they came, a Children’s Crusade destined to succeed where professional Crusader armies, had failed.

That’s not the way things worked out.

On August 25, 1212, the rabble appeared outside of Genoa. Whether they expected some kindly Genoese ship’s captains to take them on board or the Red Seat to part as for Moses, remains unclear.

A hoard of young beggars with no training and no weapons were of no use, save to be sold, for slaves. So it went, according to most accounts. In some versions of this story the children made it to Rome where the Pope told them all, to go home. Some simply turned and trudged, back where they came from.

There would be three more popular crusades each following the same path, as the first. Violence against the Jews and squabble with the locals. None ever made it, outside European shores.

August 17, 1661 Party Like it’s 1661

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Having once been rolled by two officers of the “law” in a certain neighbor to our south (it was a very polite mugging), government graft is near and dear to my heart. History is replete with official avarice on levels great and small, far more than a couple meagerly compensated cops, looking for a “gratuity”.

New York’s own Boss Tweed elevated graft to heights previously unknown in American politics, to where construction of a single courthouse cost taxpayers more than the entire Alaska purchase. Nearly twice as much.

Tammany Hall’s kickbacks were so lavish a single carpenter billed the city $360,751, for a month’s work. One plasterer billed $133,187 for two days’ work.

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Rodrigo de Borja served as Pope Alexander VI, at a time when the job of Bishop of Rome was not always that of a pious man. Rodrigo bribed his way to the top and used the papacy to benefit family and friends making the name Borja synonymous, with licentiousness and greed. A man utterly devoid of morals the man sold his beautiful and fair-haired daughter Lucrezia no fewer than three times, to cement alliances. He openly fathered seven children by two married mistresses appointing one of their brothers Cardinal, who then went on to be known as “Cardinal of the Skirts”. Alexander’s October 30, 1501 “Banquet of Chestnuts” was an all-night feast and orgy featuring no fewer than fifty prostitutes Italian officialdom remains happy to sweep under the rug, to this day.

When the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola chided Alexander for his behavior the Pope is said to have laughed, out loud.

And yet, these are all as amateurs compared with French finance minister Nicolas Fouquet, a man who made King Louis XIV, the “Sun King” himself, blush.

Europe’s longest reigning monarch once commented “l’état, c’est moi”. I Am the state. Such arrogance is hard to understand for the political descendants of the generation, who threw King George’s tea over the side. It wasn’t at all difficult for the hoi polloi of Louis’ France who were expected to pay up, and shut up. Such was the world of Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île, vicomte de Melun et Vaux and Louis’ minister, of finance.

In 1651 Fouquet married his not inconsiderable wealth to that of Marie de Castille, herself the daughter of a wealthy Spanish family. The interminable wars of the age and the greed of courtiers frequently caused the new minister to borrow, against his own credit. Public and private accounts soon became so intertwined as to become indistinguishable from one another. Fouqet came to wield even greater wealth than his own chief benefactor Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister to Kings Louis XIII and XIV.

The minister completed construction in 1661 of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, his own personal palace of Versailles before there was, a palace of Versailles. That’s him and his modest little three room bungalow, at the top of this page. The man even used three of the same artists for the Château’s lavish appointments, as Louis himself would later use for that most famous, of royal shanties.

Worried that he might have gone a little too far, Fouquet bought himself and fortified a place off the west coast of France, a modest little island some 5 by 15 miles across called Belle-Île-en-Mer. You know, just in case of…disgrace.

But none of it stopped the party of parties, a celebration for the ages held on August 17, 1661, at Fouquet’s petit Château .

There were 6,ooo guests including the Sun King himself. Gifts were given to party goers, a diamond brooch for the ladies and a thoroughbred horse, for the gents. A performance was presented specifically written for the occasion by none other than the playwright, Molière.

A spectacular fireworks display lit the skies above lavish gardens and splendid paths. Fouquet’s little soirée was supposed to impress the King but instead turned him into, a party pooper. Apparently, such “unashamed and audacious luxury,” is what it takes to embarrass, a Sun King. Louis ordered his finance minister, arrested.

The trial stretched on for three years. The judges found the defendant guilty and ordered banishment but, Louis would have none of that. For the first and last time in French history a King overruled the verdict and ordered, imprisonment for life. The Mrs. was exiled and Fouquet’s crib snatched up, by the state.

EVENING OF AUGUST 17, 1661, ARRIVAL OF LOUIS XIV ACCOMPANIED BY THE COURT, hat tip Daniel Druet, sculptor

Fouquet spent the rest of his life in prison and died in his cell at Pignerol on March 23, 1680. His remains weren’t removed for another year. Just in case…I guess.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson stated, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Since that time the American taxpayer has plunked down $22 Trillion on Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Even with Social Security and Medicare excluded that’s still three times the cost of every military war from the Revolution to the unfolding collapse of Afghanistan, combined.

Rates of poverty as measured by the United States Census Bureau remain basically, unchanged.

So hey, never you mind a conga line of public “servants” leaving offices of trust wealthier, than when they went in. You don’t need to worry about who’s paying the kid $500,000 for those finger paintings either, or government debt your grandbabies’ grandbabies will never pay back. Just pull out the credit card & have a party. Like it’s 1661.

August 15, 1057 The Real Macbeth

History collides with legend when you peer a thousand years into the past, but one thing is certain. Shakespeare’s Macbeth bears little resemblance to the man, for whom the story is named.

Them that strut and fret their hours upon the stage are a superstitious lot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Apologies to the Bard for that bit of word butchery).

In the world of theater it is high praise to present the performer with flowers, in token of appreciation for a fine performance. Be warned though, never give a performer flowers, before the play. That would bring bad luck. Never bringing a mirror on stage may be more practical than superstitious as you can never account for the reflection of set lighting, but then there’s the tradition, of the graveyard bouquet. Yeah. When a production closes, it is considered good luck to steal flowers from a graveyard and present them, to the director. Go figure. And whatever you do you are never to utter the name, Macbeth. Trust me. It’s “ the Scottish play”.

Act I. General Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, chances upon three witches who prophecy that he, Macbeth, is to be Thane of Cawdor and even more, King of Scotland.

Spurred on by his wife the ruthless and ambitious Lady Macbeth, he slips into the bedchamber of the good King Duncan and plunges the dagger, then frames the King’s bodyguards, for his murder. Now himself King in fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth and his Lady descend into a world of guilt and madness, duplicity and murder in the fruitless attempt to cover for his crime.

So sayeth William Shakespeare but what of the real Mac Bethad mac Findlaích?

11th century Alba

History collides with legend when you peer a thousand years into the past, but some things are certain. 11th century Scotland was not the nation we know today, but a collection of warring kingdoms. Máel Coluim mac Cináeda (Malcolm II) came to power after defeating and killing his cousin King Kenneth III in 1005 at the battle of Monzievaird, near Crieff.

Malcolm was a fearsome ruler who immediately set about eliminating (read…killing), potential claimants to the throne. Information is scant but Malcolm appears to have fathered, three daughters. All three married well giving rise to yet more rivals but it was Duncan, Malcolm‘s grandson who would rise to power after his grandfather was killed in battle, in 1034.

Macbeth’s cousin murdered his father Findlaích and took for himself the title of Mormaer (Earl), when the boy was barely in his teens. Macbeth had his revenge in 1045 when found his cousin in a hall, with fifty of his warriors. Macbeth burnt the place to the ground, took the title for himself and, astonishingly, married his cousin’s widow, Gruoch.

The first Scottish Queen whose name we actually know, the real Lady Macbeth turns out to be hardly the avaricious harpy of the Bard’s portrayal but a saintly woman, best known for funding the production of illustrated manuscripts by the monks of a tiny friary, in Loch Leven.

Now himself Mormaer of Moray Macbeth proved a powerful fighter against the Vikings coming down from the north and a key ally, of King Duncan.

Duncan I ruled for five years and was indeed killed by Macbeth, but there the similarity ends. Duncan’s peaceful accession to the crown was the exception to the rule in 11th century Scotland. His death in battle was not, the killing blow delivered on August 14, 1040 at the battle of Pitgaveny, at the hands of Macbeth’s forces if not Macbeth, himself.

Victorious, Macbeth had a strong claim to the crown. According to modern descendants of clan Duncan stronger than Duncan, himself. The real lady Macbeth was the granddaughter, of Kenneth III. Macbeth was a direct relation to Malcolm himself, through his mother’s line. So it is the powerful Mormaer of Moray himself became King, ruling over Scotland, for the next seventeen years.

Scottish coronations were different at this time, than you might think. There was no physical crown, that wouldn’t come about, for another 200 years. Macbeth would have sat upon the 236-pound “Stone of Destiny” as the list of Scottish Kings, was read aloud. He was then given a sword with which to defend his kingdom and proclaimed King, by the assembled nobles.

While Shakespeare’s Macbeth was steeped in blood and treachery, the real King Macbeth seems to have been, well liked. There was blood, yes, Macbeth lived in a time of savagery when scores were settled with edged weapons but, much of his reign, was enjoyed in peace. Like the Bard’s Macbeth whose past would come back to haunt him, Duncan I’s father, Crinán, abbot of Dunkeld challenged the peace, in 1045. This was a brief but bloody struggle much smaller than the epoch-changing battle of Hastings, ten years after the death of Macbeth. When it was over Crinán lay dead along with 180 of his followers.

Macbeth was the first of the Scottish Kings to take a pilgrimage to Rome, to meet with Pope Leo IX. This demonstrates not only a sense of security against usurpers at home but the wealth, to scatter “money like seed to the poor”. For the first time a United Scotland, stood before the world.

Macbeth was the first to bring Normans into his service in 1052 indicating a new openness, to international trade.

Trouble came from the south in the form of Siward, the powerful Earl of Northumbria, a Danish chieftain who rose to power under the Viking King of England , Cnut the Great. The year was 1054, the battle taking place north of the Firth of Forth near a place called Dunsinane. When it was over 3,000 of Macbeth’s forces were dead. Siward lost 1,500 and his own son, Osbjorn.

Early 19th-century depiction by John Martin of Mac Bethad (centre-right) watching Siward’s Northumbrian army approaching (right)

His Norman mercenaries now eliminated Macbeth was forced to give up, much of his southern Kingdom. Macbeth retained his kingship for now his reign came to an end a year later near Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire. The son of the man Macbeth had killed some seventeen years earlier came for his father’s killer on August 15, 1057.

Macbeth, King of Alba, was dead. Malcolm III Canmore would rule through the Norman Conquests until he himself was ambushed and killed, in 1093.

August 12, 1865 The Shoulders of Giants

Today, the idea that microorganisms such as fungi, viruses and other pathogens cause infectious disease is common knowledge, but such ideas were held in disdain among scientists and doctors, well into the 19th century.

In the 12th century, French philosopher Bernard of Chartres talked about the concept of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”. The idea is familiar to the reader of English as expressed by the mathematician and astronomer Isaac Newton, who observed that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

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Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

Nowhere is there more truth to the old adage, than in the world of medicine. In 1841, the child who survived to celebrate a fifth birthday could look forward to a life of some 55 years. Today, a five-year-old can expect to live to eighty-two, fully half again that of the earlier date.

Yet, there are times when the giants who brought us here are unknown to us, as if they had never been. One such is Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, one of the earliest pioneers in anti-septic medicine.

Semmelweis  studied law at the University of Vienna in the fall of 1837, but switched to medicine the following year. He received his MD in 1844 and, failing to gain a clinical appointment in internal medicine, decided to specialize in obstetrics.

In the third century AD, the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon first described the “miasma” theory of illness, holding that infectious diseases such as cholera, chlamydia and the Black Death were caused by noxious clouds of “bad air”.  The theory is discredited today, but such ideas die hard.

miasma-theory

The germ theory of disease was first proposed by Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546 and expanded by Marcus von Plenciz in 1762. Single-cell organisms – bacteria – were known to exist in human dental plaque as early as 1683, yet their functions were imperfectly understood. Today, the idea that microorganisms such as fungi, viruses and other pathogens cause infectious disease is common knowledge, but such ideas were held in disdain among scientists and doctors, well into the 19th century.

InfectiousDisease16_9

In the mid-19th century, birthing centers were set up all over Europe, for the care of poor and underprivileged mothers and their illegitimate infants. Care was provided free of charge, in exchange for which young mothers agreed to become training subjects for doctors and midwives.

In 1846, Semmelweis was appointed assistant to Professor Johann Klein in the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, a position similar to a “chief resident,” of today.

300px-AAKH-1784

At the time, Vienna General Hospital ran two such clinics, the 1st a “teaching hospital” for undergraduate medical students, the 2nd for student midwives.

Semmelweis quickly noticed that one in ten women and sometimes one in five, were dying in the First Clinic of postpartum infection known as “childbed fever”, compared with less than 4% that of the Second Clinic.

The difference was well known, even outside of the hospital. Expectant mothers were admitted on alternate days into the First or Second Clinic. Desperate women begged on their knees not to be admitted into the First, some preferring even to give birth in the streets, over delivery in that place. The disparity between the two clinics “made me so miserable”, Semmelweis said, “that life seemed worthless”.

He had to know why this was happening.

Puerperal Peritonitis 1912 MA

Childbed or “puerperal” fever was rare among these “street births”, and far more prevalent in the First Clinic, than the Second. Semmelweis carefully eliminated every difference between the two, even including religious practices. In the end, the only difference was the people who worked there.

The breakthrough came in 1847, following the death of Semmelweis’ friend and colleague, Dr. Jakob Kolletschka. Kolletschka was accidentally cut by a student’s scalpel, during a post-mortem examination. The doctor’s own autopsy showed a pathology very similar to those women, dying of childbed fever. Medical students were going from post-mortem examinations of the dead to obstetrical examinations of the living, without washing their hands.

Midwife students had no such contact with the dead. This had to be it. Some unknown “cadaverous material” had to be responsible for the difference.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis

Semmelweis instituted a mandatory handwashing policy, using a chlorinated lime solution between autopsies and live patient examinations.

Mortality rates in the First Clinic dropped by 90 percent, to rates comparable with the Second. In April 1847, First Clinic mortality rates were 18.3% – nearly one in five. Hand washing was instituted in mid-May, and June rates dropped to 2.2%.  July was 1.2%. For two months, the rate actually stood at zero.

The European medical establishment celebrated the doctor’s findings. Semmelweis was feted as the Savior of Mothers, a giant of modern medicine. 

No, just kidding.  He wasn’t.

The imbecility of the response to Semmelweis’ findings is hard to get your head around and the doctor’s own personality, didn’t help.  The medical establishment took offense at the idea that they themselves were the cause of the mortality problem, and that the answer lay in personal hygiene.

Yearly_mortality_rates_1841-1846_two_clinics

Semmelweis himself was anything but tactful, publicly berating those who disagreed with his hypothesis and gaining powerful enemies.   For many, the doctor’s ideas were extreme and offensive, ignored or rejected and even ridiculed.  Are we not Gentlemen!?  Semmelweis was fired from his hospital position and harassed by the Vienna medical establishment, finally forced to move to Budapest.

Dr. Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical community, and began to write open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians.  He went so far as to denounce such people as “irresponsible murderers”, leading contemporaries and even his wife, to question his mental stability.

Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was committed to an insane asylum on July 31, 1865, twenty-three years before Dr. Louis Pasteur opened his institute for the study of microbiology.

Semmelweis bust, University of Tehran

Barely two weeks later, August 12, 1865, British surgeon and scientist Dr. Joseph Lister performed the first anti-septic surgery, in medical history. Dr. Semmelweis died the following day at the age of 47, the victim of a blood infection resulting from a gangrenous wound sustained in a severe beating, by asylum guards.

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