March 1, 1420 Protestant Reformation

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497, where the boy learned the so-called “trivium”:  grammar, rhetoric, and logic.  He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at age 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, and his University as a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.  I guess Martin Luther wasn’t cut out for academics.
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.”
16th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built up 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, it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.
As Luther studied the bible, he 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-lutherMartin 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”.  A popular story has him nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened.  Luther appears to have had no intention of confronting the Church.  This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly disputation, but Martin 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.
cages-of-st-lambert
Luther stood on dangerous ground.  In 1415, Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy.  On this day in 1420, Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against the followers of the Czech priest, the “Hussieten”.  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”), a title awarded him by no less than Pope Leo X. 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.  Their bones were later removed, but those three cages remain there, to this day.
The 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.
95-thesesLuther 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, and 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, many 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-century old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.
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February 21, 1431 Joan of Arc

History has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of Taylor Owen’s comment on the subject of leadership: “An army of donkeys led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a donkey.” So it was in the days after Jeanne’s arrival at Orléans

The Hundred Years’ War began as a succession dispute over the French throne, with an alliance of Burgundians and English on one side, against a coalition of Royalists led by the Armagnacs on the other.

Europe was not far removed from the latest outbreak of the Black Death at this time, as the scorched earth tactics employed by the English army laid waste to the countryside and devastated the French economy.

Charles, Dauphin and heir apparent to the French throne was up against a wall, when a teenage peasant girl approached him in 1429.

joan_of_arcFor the 14-year-old boy-king, even listening to her was an act of desperation, borne of years of humiliating defeats at the hands of the English army. Yet this illiterate peasant girl had made some uncanny predictions concerning battlefield successes.  Now she claimed to have had visions from God and the Saints, commanding her to help him gain the throne. Her name was Jeanne d’Arc.

The siege of Orléans was six months old at this time, when the Dauphin decided it couldn’t hurt to let her take part. She dressed herself in borrowed armor and set out, arriving on the 29th of April, 1429.

History has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of Taylor Owen’s comment on the subject of leadership: “An army of donkeys led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a donkey.” So it was in the days after Jeanne’s arrival at Orléans.

Though repeatedly excluded from war councils, Jeanne managed to insert herself anyway, putting the French back on the offensive and handing them one victory after another.

Nine days after her arrival, Orléans turned into an unexpected victory for the French, despite Jeanne’s being shot through the neck and left shoulder by an English longbow, while holding a ladder at the siege of Tourelles.  The Dauphin granted her co-command of the army with Duke John II of Alençon. The French army enjoyed a string of successes, recovering Jargeau on June 12, Meung-sur-Loire on the 15th, and Beaugency two days later, leading to a humiliating English defeat at the battle at Patay on the 18th.

Several more Armagnac victories followed.  On July 17, 1429, Charles was consecrated King Charles VII of France, fifth King of the House of Valois, with Jeanne at his side.  Despite her loyalty, Charles’ support began to waver.  Court favorite Georges de La Trémoille had convinced the king that she was becoming too powerful.  An archer pulled Jeanne from her horse during the siege of joan_of_arc_interrogationCompiègne in May, 1430, and her allies failed to come to her aid.  Left outside the town’s gates when they closed, she was captured and taken to the castle of Bouvreuil.

Some 70 charges were made against her by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, including witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man.

Representatives of the judge were dispatched  to Jeanne’s home village of Domremy, to ascertain the prisoner’s virginity, character, habits and associations.  Nicolas Bailly, the man responsible for collecting testimony, reported that he “had found nothing concerning Joan that he would not have liked to find about his own sister”. This Bishop Cauchon must have been some piece of work.  The report so angered the man, that he called Bailly “a traitor and a bad man” and refused to pay him for his work.

Jean Le Maistre, whose presence as Vice-Inquisitor for Rouen was required by canon law, objected to the proceedings and refused to appear, until the English threatened his life.

Interrogation of the prisoner began on February 21, 1431. The outcome was never in doubt. Transcripts were falsified and witnesses intimidated.  Even then, trial records reveal this illiterate peasant girl to be brighter than all her inquisitors, combined.

One example from her third interrogation, was the Question: “Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?”. The question was a trap.  Church doctrine stated that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace, yet a “no” answer would have been held against her.  “If I am not”, she said, “may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”

After fifteen such interrogations her inquisitors still had nothing on her, save for the wearing of soldier’s garb, and her visions. Yet, the outcome of her “trial” was already determined.  She was found guilty of heresy, and sentenced to be burned at the stake.  On May 24, Jeanne was taken to a scaffold.  Threatened that she would be immediately burned alive if she didn’t disavow her visions and abjure the wearing of soldier’s clothing, Jeanne agreed to sign such an abjuration, but recanted four days later.

jean-darc-executionThe death sentence was carried out on May 30, 1431, in the old marketplace at Rouen. She was 19.  After she died, the coals were raked back to expose her charred body.  No one would be able to claim she’d escaped alive. Her body was then burned twice more, so no one could collect the relics.  Her ashes were then cast into a river.

Guillaume Manchon, one of the court scribes, later recalled: “And she was then dressed in male clothing, and was complaining that she could not give it up, fearing lest in the night her guards would inflict some act of [sexual] outrage upon her; and she had complained once or twice to the Bishop of Beauvais, the Vice-Inquisitor, and Master Nicholas Loiseleur that one of the aforesaid guards had tried to rape her.”

Her executioner, Geoffroy Therage, later said that he “Greatly feared to be damned”.

An inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Calixtus III re-examined the evidence, 25 years later. The court exonerated her of all charges, pronouncing her innocent on July 7, 1456, and later declaring her a martyr.

A National Heroine to the French, Joan of Arc was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1920.  It was small consolation for this child who had been set up for a fall by her enemies, and abandoned to be incinerated alive, by her friends.

February 16, 1804  The Shores of Tripoli

Even a former adversary couldn’t help but admire the feat.  Days later, British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called it the “most bold and daring act of the age.”

Historic accounts differ as to the early success of the Islamic conquests.  Contemporary Christian sources saw them as God’s punishment for the sins of fellow Christians.  Early Muslim sources describe them as evidence of divine favor, reflections of the religious zeal of the conquerors.  Be that is it may, Islamic expansion enveloped the Arabian Peninsula in the last ten years of the life of Muhammad (622-632), at the expense of the Roman Byzantines and the Sassanid Empire of the Persians.  Syria fell in 634, followed by Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia.  By 750 the Umayyad Caliphs had subjugated much of the Balkan states, part of the Indian sub-continent, all of North Africa, most of Spain, and parts of Southern France and Sicily.  By the age of Columbus, the Mediterranean was a place where you traveled at your own risk.

Those of us of European ancestry owe our heritage, if not our existence, to the warriors who defeated the Jihadist time after time. There was Pelagius, who stopped a military force of the Umayyad Caliphate at Covadonga in 722, without which there would be no Reconquista, no Ferdinand and Isabella, and we wouldn’t know the name of Christopher Columbus.

The father of Charlemagne, Charles “The Hammer” Martel, blocked the Muslim advanceislamic-conquest into Western Europe at the Battle of Tours, in 732.

If Marcantonio Bragadin is remembered at all, it is for being betrayed, tortured and skinned alive by Lala Mustafa Pasha. Yet, it is Bragadin’s stubborn defense of the eastern Mediterranean outpost of Famagusta in 1571, which gave European principalities time to assemble naval forces in numbers sufficient to defend the European coast, near a place called Lepanto.

The 1683 Battle of Vienna, at the crossroads of eastern and western Europe, was a hard fought contest which could have gone either way, until the arrival of a Polish army under King Jan Sobieski. The Ottomans were defeated and turned back from the conquest of Eastern Europe on a date which grates the Jihadist memory to this day: September 11.

“Saracens” plundered everything that could be carried away: animals, provisions, fabrics, precious metals and money, especially men, women and children who could be sold for a good price at the slave markets.  Redemption of captives being among the corporal works of mercy, the “Mathurins” Order of the Holy Trinity was founded in 1198 for the purpose of paying the ransom of Christians held captive by non-Christians, as a consequence of crusading and pirating along the southern European coastline.

Even Ireland, with its northern latitude, wasn’t immune from these raids. Murat Reis attacked the village of Baltimore in County Cork in June 1631. With him were pirates from Algiers and armed troops of the Ottoman Empire, who captured all the villagers they could find and took them away to a life of slavery in North Africa. They lived out their lives chained to oars as galley slaves, or spent long years locked away in harems or inside the walls of the sultan’s palace. Only two of them ever saw Ireland again.barbary_coast

The fledgling United States found itself under attack by the “Barbary States” of North Africa almost immediately following the Revolution, and the subsequent lifting of France’s protection.  Spain, France and other European Powers advised the US to pay tribute.
Sidi Muhammad ibn Abdallah, Sultan of Morocco, added the United States of America to a list of countries for which his ports were open in December 1777, making Morocco the first country whose head of state publicly recognized the United States.  Abdallah saw the future for his country in foreign trade, and actively sought a treaty relationship with the US, well before war ended with Great Britain.  The treaty signed by Thomas Barclay and Sultan Muhammad III in 1786, and ratified by the Confederation Congress in July 1787, is still in effect today, the longest continuous treaty relationship in United States history.
Diplomacy had succeeded with Morocco, but not with Algiers, Tunis or Tripoli, each of which demanded $660,000 in tribute.

Algeria captured the schooners Maria and Dauphin in 1785, the captured crews held in conditions of slavery for over a decade. The sum negotiated for their release exceeded $1 million, more than 1/6th the entire budget of the United States.  Eleven American ships were captured in 1793 alone, their crews and stores held for ransom.

Yusuf Karamanli, Pasha of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 in tribute on President Jefferson’s inauguration, in 1801.  At this time, Federal revenues were barely over $10 million.  Jefferson refused, resulting in the first Barbary War, a conflict memorialized in a line from the Marine Corps Hymn “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli”.

capture_philadelphia
The grounded USS Philadelphia is captured, October 31, 1803

 

Limited to small confrontations for the first two years, more sustained combat began in June 1803 when a small American force attacked Tripoli Harbor in modern Libya.

While giving chase and firing on a pirate vessel, USS Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef, two miles outside of Tripoli.  Fearing the 1,240 ton, 36-gun frigate would be captured and added to the Tripolitan navy, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured vessel.

burning_of_the_uss_philadelphia
Burning of the USS Philadelphia

On the evening of February 16, 1804, Decatur entered Tripoli Harbor with a force of 74 Marines.  With them were five Sicilian volunteers, including pilot Salvador Catalano, who spoke fluent Arabic.  Disguised as Maltese sailors and careful not to draw fire from shore batteries, Decatur’s force boarded the frigate, killing or capturing most of its Tripolitan crew, before the remainder jumped overboard.  Decatur and his marines had hoped to sail Philadelphia out of harbor, but soon found she was in no condition to leave.  Setting combustibles about the deck, they set the frigate ablaze.  Ropes burned off, setting the Philadelphia adrift in the harbor.  Loaded cannon cooked off as the blaze spread, firing random balls into the town. It must have been a sight, when gunpowder stores ignited and the entire ship exploded.

By that time Decatur and his men had slipped away, without the loss of a single man.  Even a former adversary couldn’t help but admire the feat.  Days later, British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called it the “most bold and daring act of the age.”

February 13, 1542 The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Catherine of Aragon was destined to die alone in a convent, possibly the only class act in this whole, sorry story.

Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, came to England to marry Arthur, the eldest son and heir to the throne of Henry VII, in 1501. Arthur died the following year and his younger brother took the throne, asking Catherine to marry him in 1509.

She was by all accounts a devoted wife, but the marriage bore no sons. Henry came to believe, or said he believed, that it was punishment from God for marrying his brother’s wife. By this time he had fallen hard for Thomas Boleyn’s daughter, Anne. The king was in a pickle. His wife wouldn’t agree to a divorce, and Anne Boleyn was not about to give it up as a mere mistress.  She was going to be the King’s wife, or nothing.

The problem was, the Pope refused to grant the divorce.  Henry launched the Reformation so that he could divorce his wife and marry this young French girl, getting his divorce the following year and going on to become Supreme Head of the Church of England.  Catherine of Aragon died alone in a convent three years later, possibly the only Class Act in this whole, sorry story.henryviii_wives

Catherine was popular with the people, but this second wife was not. To many, she was ”the King’s whore”.  Many believed she was a witch who had cast a spell on the king. The marriage produced one daughter, Elizabeth, but again no sons. Anne miscarried a male child on the day that Catherine of Aragon was buried at Peterborough Abbey.  The Savoyard ambassador Eustace Chapuys commented that “She has miscarried of her saviour.”  There would be no divorce this time, the king concocted a plot based on a story, and Anne was convicted of incest, adultery and treason.  Anne Boleyn was executed by decapitation in 1536.  She would not be the last.

Henry married Jane Seymour 11 days later.  Though she bore him a son, she died two weeks after the birth. Years later, Henry would request on his deathbed that he be buried next to her.

Anne of Cleaves would be wife #4, an arranged marriage with a German Princess intended to secure an alliance with the other major Protestant power on the continent, especially after England’s break with Rome over that first divorce. Henry was put off by her appearance however, as if Henry himself were a prize.  The marriage went unconsummated. They were amicably divorced after 6 months.henryviii

Catherine Howard was 19 and Henry 49 when she became wife #5. He was hugely fat by this time, with festering ulcers on his leg that never healed. Henry’s suits of armor reveal a waistline that had grown from 32″ to 54″.  The man weighed 400lbs on his passing, five years later.  Catherine was young and flirtatious, preferring the company of young courtiers to that of the fat old guy she was married to.  She would be tried and convicted of adultery two years later.  As with her predecessor, execution was by the headsman’s axe.  Catherine Howard lost her head on, February 13, 1542.

Katherine Parr was the 6th and last wife of Henry VIII. Henry died in January 1547, Parr going on to marry Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron of Sudeley, six months later. Katherine died in September 1548, as the result of complications of childbirth.

kell-positiveIronically, Henry himself may have been the problem, when it came to the inability to produce a male heir.  Researchers revealed in 2011 that Henry’s blood group may have been “Kell positive”, a rare condition which would have initiated an auto-immune response in the mother’s body, targeting the body of the baby inside of her.  It’s unlikely that first pregnancies would have been effected, but the mother’s antibodies would have attacked second and subsequent Kell-positive babies as foreign objects.

The science to prove or disprove the theory didn’t exist in the Tudor era, but it may not matter.  Anyone who tried to bring that bit of news to Henry VIII, very likely would have paid for it, with his head.

January 23, 1795 Cavalry 1, Navy 0

The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for mirth, yet there are times when the irony has risen to the level of the sublime

War and warfare has never been the source of a great deal of humor.  The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for mirth, yet there are times when the irony has risen from the ridiculous to the sublime.

In 585BC, the battle between the Medes and the Lydians was stopped in its tracks, on account of a solar eclipse.  In the 3rd Mithradatic War of 76-63BC, a meteor was enough to do the trick.

In the middle ages, a handful of French soldiers once saw fit to mouth off to an Italian woman on her way home from church, and France ended up losing Sicily, to Spain.

At least one WWI battle was called, on account of an amphibious landing force being attacked, by bees.

120,000 Chinese troops poured into North Korea between November 27 and December 13 1950, overwhelming 20,000 American and United Nations forces at the Chosin Reservoir.  Desperately low on ammunition, one Marine Corps mortar division called in re-supply, by parachute.  The battle of the “Frozen Chosin” might have ended differently, had some supply clerk understood that the code-name for mortar shells was “Tootsie Rolls”, and not sent candy into the combat zone.  At least those guys had something to eat, as they broke through their encirclement and retreated south.

zuiderzeeIn all the annals of warfare, there may be nothing more ironic, than the time a naval force was defeated by men mounted on horseback.

In early 1793, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic formed the first of seven coalitions, that would oppose the French Republic over the next 23 years.  France declared war on its neighbor to the north.  By the end of the following year, many of Holland’s provinces as well as those of the Austrian Netherlands, had been overrun.

The winter of 1794-95 was particularly severe.  A number of Dutch ships sought shelter near the North Sea village of den Helder, becoming icebound near the mouth of a shallow bay called the Zuiderzee.capture

General Johan Willem de Winter, a former Dutch naval officer, had been in service to the French since 1787.  On the night of January 23, de Winter arrived at the head of a regiment of French light cavalry.  The following morning, a number of these “hussars” rode out over the ice, to the Dutch ship-of-the-line “Admiraal Piet Heyn”, demanding its surrender.   The surgeon aboard another ship, the “Snelheid”, later wrote “On Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood an hussar.”

This was a significant part of the Dutch fleet, 15 ships, 11 of which were manned and seaworthy, and it was now in the hands of French horsemen.

capture-of-the-dutch-fleet-frozen-in-at-den-helder-by-the-french-hussarsAt least one source will tell you that this event never occurred, or at least it’s an embellished version, as retold by the hussars themselves.   I guess you can take your pick.  A number of 19th century authors have portrayed the episode as unvarnished history, as have a number of paintings and sketches.

In February 1846, French Lieutenant-General Baron Lahure published a letter in the newspaper “Echo de la Frontière”, describing the event.  “I departed immediately with a company of tirailleurs in wagons and a squadron of light cavalry; before dawn I had taken position in the dunes. When the ships saw us, they prepared their defences. I sent some tirailleurs ahead, and followed with the rest of my forces. The fleet was taken. The sailors received us ‘de bonne grace’ on board… This is the true story of the capture of the Dutch fleet, devised and executed by a 23 year old Chef de Bataillion”.

Archibald Gordon Macdonell included the episode in his 1934 “Napoleon and his Marshals”.  It’s one of those stories that I Want to be true, even if it isn’t.  “(when) the ragged men” Macdonell  wrote, “thundered on their horses across the ice to capture with naked swords the battlefleet of Holland”.  The only time in recorded history, when a naval fleet was captured, by a cavalry charge.

December 31, 1695 A Tax on Windows

Tax revolts are nothing new. Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes

Somewhere in the English midlands, during the reign of Edward the Confessor, there lay the Kingdom of Mercia. It was 1054 or thereabouts, and Leofric, Earl of Mercia, had a problem. Leofric was the kind of ruler who never saw a tax he didn’t like, his latest the “Heregeld”, a tax to pay for the King’s bodyguard. His wife was Godgyfu, in the Olde English, meaning “Gift of God”.  Today we call her “Godiva”. Take pity on the people of Coventry, she said, they are suffering under all this oppressive taxation.

A guy can only take so much, even if he is an Earl. Tired of her entreaties, Leofric agreed tolady-godiva-statue repeal the tax on one condition; that she ride a horse through the streets of town, dressed only in her birthday suit and her long hair. Lady Godiva took him at his word.  She issued a proclamation that all townspeople stay indoors and shut their windows, and then she took her famous naked ride through town.

The story probably isn’t true, any more than the one about Tom, the guy who drilled a hole in his door so he could watch and lost his sight at what he saw.  But a thousand years later, we still use the term “Peeping Tom”.

Tax revolts are nothing new.  Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes.

bricked-up-windowOn December 31, 1695, King William III decreed a 2 shilling tax on each house in the land. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to “stick-it-to-the-rich”, there was an extra tax on every window over ten, a tax that would last for another 156 years.

It must have been a money maker, because the governments of France, Spain and Scotland followed suit with similar taxes. To this day, you can see homes where owners have bricked up windows, preferring darkness to the payment of yet another tax.

In Holland, they used to tax the frontage of a home, the wider your house the more you

singel-7
Singel #7

paid. If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, narrow houses rise several stories, with hooks over windows almost as wide as the building itself. Those are used to haul furniture up from the outside, since the stairways are too narrow. The narrowest home in Amsterdam can be found at Singel #7, the house barely wider than its own front door.

You can find the same thing in the poorer quarters of New Orleans, where the “shotgun single”, a home so narrow you can fire a shotgun in the front door and pellets will go out the back, and the “Camelback” (second story out back) are the architectural results of tax policy.

 

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Shotgun Single, Camelback

The Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69 to 79AD, levied a tax on public toilets.

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Vespasiani

When his son, the future Emperor Titus wrinkled his nose, Vespasian held a coin under the boy’s nose. “Pecunia non olet”, he said.  “Money does not stink”.  2,000 years later, his name is still attached to public urinals. In France, they’re called vespasiennes, in Italy vespasiani.  If you need to piss in Romania, you could go to the vespasiene.  History fails to record the inevitable push-back on Vespasian’s toilet tax, but I’m sure that ancient Romans had to look where they walked.

Environmentalists in Venice, Italy have been pushing a tax on tourism, claiming that the city’s facing “an irreversible environmental catastrophe as the subsequent increase in water transport has caused the level of the lagoon bed to drop over time”. Deputy mayor Sandro Simionato said that “This tax is a new and important opportunity for the city,” explaining that it will “help finance tourism”, among other things. So, the problem borne of too much tourism is going to be fixed by a tax to help finance tourism. I think. Or maybe it’s just another money grab.

As of December 2015, state and territory tax rates on cigarettes ranged from 17¢ per pack in Missouri to $4.35 in New York, on top of federal, local, county, municipal and local Boy Scout council taxes (kidding).  Philip Morris reports that taxes run 56.6% on average, per pack. Not surprisingly, tax rates make a vast difference in where and how people buy their cigarettes.  There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, measuring a few miles square and home to a few hundred people. Tax rates are close to zero there, on a pack of butts.  Until recent changes in the tax law, they were selling 100 million cartons per year.

If all those taxes are supposed to encourage people to quit smoking, I wonder what income taxes are supposed to do?

antarctica-icebound-ship-1Back in 2013, EU politicians were discussing a way of taxing livestock flatulence, as a means of curbing “Global Warming”. At that time there was an Australian ice breaker, making its way to Antarctica to free the Chinese ice breaker, that got stuck in the ice trying to free the Russian ship full of environmentalists.  They were there to view the effects of “Global Warming”, before they got stuck in the ice.

Honest, I wouldn’t make this stuff up.

December 25, 1914 Christmas Truce

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything”.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

It was different 25 years earlier, at the outbreak of “The Great War”. Had you been alive in August of 1914, you would have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent.  France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse.  27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.  The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.  In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers.  Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture.  Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another.  It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives.  All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year.  The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear.  The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard Germans singing Christmas carols.  They saw lanterns and small fir trees, and messages were shouted along the trenches.  In places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs.

The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land and calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries. Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.

christmastruce2Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang
syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire ofChristmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News. December 24-25, 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but they were warned off by the British opposite them.

German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, that the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible.  Yet there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season.  Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

ronald-mckinnon
Private Ronald MacKinnon

Even so, there is evidence of a small Christmas truce occurring in 1916, previously unknown to historians. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.