October 10, 732 The Hammer

Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer”.

In the early middle ages, the Mayor of the Palace of the Frankish Kingdom was the power behind the throne, King in all but name, controlling the royal treasury, dispensing patronage, and granting land and privileges in the name of a figurehead monarch.  In 688, Pepin of Herstal was Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia; the Frankish domain occupying what is now northern France, Belgium and parts of Germany.

Pepin kept a mistress, a noblewoman named Alpaida, with whom he had two sons, Childebrand and Charles. The former went on to become Duke of Burgundy, best remembered for expelling the Saracens from France.  The latter went on become the founding father of the European Middle Ages.

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“St. Hubert of Liege offers his services to Pepin” – H/T Wikimedia

Pepin’s only legitimate male heir predeceased his father in 714, and touched off a succession crisis when he his 8-year-old grandson Theudoald, his True Successor. The child’s grandmother, Pepin’s wife Plectrude, threw Charles in prison to nullify any threat, but he escaped and rose to power in the Civil War which followed.

Charles proved himself a brilliant Military tactician when he crushed a far superior army at the Battle of Ambleve.  He returned victorious in 718, and then did something unusual for the time. He showed kindness to the woman responsible for his incarceration, and the boy for whom she had acted.

Charles-Martel-PicCharles consolidated his power in a series of wars between 718 and 732, subjugating Bavarians Allemanii, and pagan Saxons, and combining the formerly separate Kingdoms of Nuestria in the northwest of modern day France with that of Austrasia in the east.

At this time a storm was building to the west, in the form of the Muslim Emirate of Cordoba. The Umayyad Caliphate gained control of most of Hispania (Spain) beginning in 711, before invading eastward into Gaul. Umayyad forces suffered a setback in 721, when forces under Odo the Great, Duke of Acquitaine, broke the siege of Toulouse.

The Emir responded with a strong force out of Yemen, Syria and Morocco and, in 732, invaded again. This time, Odo was destroyed in a crushing defeat at the Battle of the River Garonne. So great was the slaughter of Christians that the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 said “God alone knows the number of the slain”.

Odo fled to Charles asking for help.  The table was set for one of the most decisive battles in world history.

The Umayyad Caliphate had recently defeated the two most powerful military forces of its time. The Sassanid empire in modern day Iran had been destroyed altogether, as had the greater part of the Byzantine Empire, including Armenia, North Africa and Syria.
Other than the Frankish Kingdom, no force existed, sufficient to stop the advance of the Caliphate. Historians believe that, if not for the Battle of Tours, the Islamic Conquest would have overrun Gaul and the rest of Western Europe, resulting in a single Caliphate stretching from the Sea of Japan to the English Channel.

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Estimates vary regarding the size of the two armies. The forces of Abd Ar-Rahman al Ghafiqi are estimated to have had 80,000 horse and foot soldiers on the day of battle. There were about 30,000 infantry on the Frankish side, and no cavalry.

Each of Charles’ tough, battle hardened soldiers wore up to 75lbs of armor. They’d been with him for years, and every one of them believed in his leadership. Outnumbered two to one, Charles had one decisive advantage.  He was able to choose the ground on which to give battle.

The Frankish army took to high ground between the villages of Tours and Poitiers, and drew itself into a great, bristling square formation to withstand the shock of the cavalry charge. For seven days, the two armies faced one another with little but skirmishes between them. Finally, the Emir could wait no longer. It was late in the year and his men were not equipped for a northern European winter. On the seventh day, estimated to be the 10th of October in the year 732, al Ghafiqi ordered his cavalry to charge.

History offers few instances when a medieval army was able to withstand the charge of cavalry, but Charles had anticipated this moment. He had trained his men for years, and they were prepared. The Mozarabic Chronicle reports:

[I]n the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”

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Charles de Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732 depicts Charles Martel (mounted) facing Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right) at the Battle of Tours.

A few Umayyad troops succeeded in breaking into the square and went directly for Charles, but his liege men surrounded him and would not be broken. The battle was still in flux when rumors went through the Muslim army that Charles’ men had broken into the Umayyad base camp. Afraid of having the loot they had plundered at Bordeaux taken from them, many broke off the battle to return to camp. Abdul Rahman tried to stop the retreat, when he was surrounded and killed.

Wary of a “feigned flight” attack, the Franks did not pursue, and resumed their phalanx. There they stood until the next day, until it was discovered that the Islamic host had fled in the night.

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Charles, the bastard son of Pepin, had earned the name “Carolus Martellus”, at Tours. Charles Martel.  “The Hammer“.

New Umayyad assaults would threaten northern Europe in 736 and 739, until internal conflicts divided the Caliphate against itself.   Forces of the Ottoman Empire conquered the last vestige of the eastern Roman empire in 1453.  Ottomans attempted the conquest of Europe near a place called Lepanto in 1571 and twice more in 1529 and 1683, only to be stopped at the gates of Vienna. The threat was far from over in 732, but Christian Europe in the west would never again be so grievously challenged.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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September 7, 1191 Crusade

Richard Lion-heart no longer had the strength to challenge Saladin for Jerusalem.  Saladin, for his part, had serious morale problems, after repeated defeats at the hands of the Crusaders.

The Islamic Conquests began in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula. In the first 100 years of its existence, Islam established the largest pre-modern empire up to that time, stretching from the borders of China in the east, through India and Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Egypt, Sicily to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain), 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 that the second of four major Caliphates, that of the Umayyad based in Damascus, Syria, was over 5 million square miles, larger than any modern state with the sole exception of the Russian Federation.

The First of the Christian Crusades was launched by Pope Urban II on November 27, 1095, in response to an appeal from Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who was requesting help in defending Constantinople against the invading Seljuq Turks.

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Such a request was nothing new.  The Reconquista in Spain had not yet reached the mid-point of its 781-year effort to overthrow Muslim rule, and European knights traveled to Spain on a regular basis to assist in the effort.

Once in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), the ancillary goal of freeing the holy city of Jerusalem itself and the Holy Land soon became the principal objective, as Jerusalem had by then been under Islamic rule for 461 years. Jerusalem was recaptured on July 15, 1099, following a siege of six weeks.

The County of Edessa was the first Crusader state to be created, and the first to go, falling in 1144 and leading to the second crusade. Mostly notable for its failures, the one major success of the second crusade was when it stopped on the way to the Holy Land, helping a much smaller Portuguese army overthrow Muslim rule in Lisbon. Two kings then marched two separate armies across Europe into Anatolia, only to be soundly defeated by the Turks.

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A Kurdish leader arose at this time to become Sultan, founding a dynasty which would last for eighty-nine years. His name was Salāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, better known as Saladin, a Sunni Muslim who rose to greatness in a Shi’ite world.

Saladin.jpgNo less a figure than Dante Alighieri counted Saladin a “virtuous pagan,” ranking among the likes of Hector, Aeneas, and Caesar.

While Christian leaders in the Middle East fell to squabbling among themselves, Saladin united Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Yemen and parts of North Africa under the Ayyūbid dynasty.

A crusader army some 20,000 strong was caught out in the open in the desert heat of Summer, near a pair of extinct volcanoes called the “Horns of Hattin”.  Parched with thirst, exhausted and demoralized, Muslim armies under Saladin captured or killed the vast majority of these Crusader forces on July 4, 1187, putting an end to Christian military power in the Middle East and opening the way to the recapture of every Crusader state, save one. Jerusalem itself fell on October 2.

Pope Urban III is said to have collapsed and died, upon hearing the news.

Within days of his election, Pope Henry VIII called for a third Crusade.  King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France were at war at this time, but that was set aside and the pair began preparations to reconquer the Holy Land.  An extremely unpopular tax of 10% on all revenues and movable goods was imposed by the Church, and enforced under pains of imprisonment or excommunication. This “Saladin Tithe” raised 100,000 marks of silver:  about 800,000 ounces.

third-crusade-1189-91The aging Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I “Barbarossa” (Red Beard), was the first to go, taking up the cross at Mainz Cathedral in March, 1188. Emperor Frederick drowned crossing the Saleph River in Asia Minor in June 1190, after which most of his army of 100,000 returned to Germany.

Henry II of England died in the meantime, leaving his son Richard I “Coeur de Lion” (Lion-heart) to lead the crusade with Philip in the summer of 1190.

Richard took time to conquer Sicily on the way to the Holy Lands, where King Tancred I was holding Richard’s sister Queen Joan, prisoner. He reached Cyprus that May, there pausing long enough to marry Berengaria of Navarre, thus alienating his alliance with the French King, who considered Richard betrothed to his half-sister, Alys.

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Richard “Lion-Heart”

Richard landed near Acre in June 1191 to find the city under Muslim occupation, and under siege by the forces of Guy de Lusignan, himself held under siege by the armies of Saladin.

The fall of Acre that July led to a number of meetings between Richard and Saladin’s brother Al-Adil, from which nothing resulted. The Crusaders lost all patience by August, believing Saladin to be dragging his feet, and decapitated 2,700 Muslim prisoners in full view of his army.  Saladin retaliated by murdering every Christian captive under his control.

If the Crusaders were to retake the holy city of Jerusalem, they first had to take and hold the strategically important port city of Jaffa, some 75 distant.

Richard’s personal courage and skill as a commander was on full display on the march south.  Ever mindful of the disaster at Hattin, Richard understood the need for water and the danger of heat exhaustion. The 10,000 infantry and 1,200 heavy cavalry of the Crusader army moved only in the cool hours of the early morning, the crossbowmen of the infantry corps on the landward side, with the allied fleet to their right providing resupply and succor for the wounded.

The hit & run tactics of Muslim archers were near-constant, the rearguard of the Knights Hospitaller forced to walk backward, to engage the adversary.  Any spaces in the line were quickly filled by Arab horsemen, who finished the stragglers with sword or with mace.  The Kurdish historian and eyewitness Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad described heavily armored knights on the march to Jaffa, seemingly unhurt despite multiple arrows, sticking out of their backs. The power of the Christian crossbow was another matter, striking down Arab horses and riders, with ease

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Richard Coeur de Lion on his way to Jerusalem

Harassing attacks gave way to pitched battle this day in 1191 near the ancient fortified city of Arsuf, proving Richard’s personal courage and skill as a commander, while putting a dent in Saladin’s reputation as the invincible warrior King.

The Latin history of the third crusade Itinerarium Regis Ricardi “There the king, the fierce, the extraordinary king, cut down the Turks in every direction, and none could escape the force of his arm, for wherever he turned, brandishing his sword, he carved a wide path for himself: and as he advanced and gave repeated strokes with his sword, cutting them down like a reaper with his sickle, the rest, warned by the sight of the dying, gave him more ample space, for the corpses of the dead Turks which lay on the face of the earth extended over half a mile.”

Two times Crusader armies came within sight of Jerusalem, never suspecting that, within the city, “Saracen” morale was so low that the city could have been theirs for the taking. Meanwhile, factions within the Crusader armies fell to bickering, with half wanting to push on to Jerusalem, the other wanting to attack Saladin’s base of power, in Mamluk Egypt.

In time, the Crusader and the Sultan came to hold a degree of respect for one another. Legend has it that, at one point in the fighting around Jaffa, Saladin even sent Richard a fresh horse, after one was killed beneath him. The pair even discussed marrying Joan off to Saladin’s brother, Al-Adil, with themselves becoming co-rulers in Jerusalem. The plan might’ve worked, too, until the Roman Church got wind and threatened excommunication if Richard carried it out.

I have not been able to learn what Joan herself, thought of the match.

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Time finally ran out for Richard and Saladin, both. The Christian army was decimated by disease. Fierce quarrels between German, English (Angevin) and French contingents threatened to break up the Crusader army.  Richard himself was gravely ill, near despair of ever regaining his health. On top of that, his little brother John was plotting against him, with the connivance of the French King Philip.

Richard Lion-heart no longer had the strength to challenge Saladin for Jerusalem.  Saladin, for his part, had serious morale problems, after repeated defeats at the hands of the Crusaders.

With Saladin’s brother Saif adDin acting as intermediary, the King and the Sultan concluded the Treaty of Jaffa in 1192. The fortifications at Ascalon were to be dismantled, in exchange for which Christians would continue to hold the coast from Jaffa to Tyre. Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands, while unarmed Christian pilgrims and traders would be guaranteed free passage to visit the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord in peace, without the exaction of tribute or tax. Further, Christian traders were permitted the possession objects for sale throughout the land, thus permitting such traders right of free commerce.

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Sultan Salāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb died of a fever the following March, and was buried in the garden outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.  Saladin’s kingdom and the Crusader states would remain at peace, for a period of three years.

Seven centuries later, German Emperor Wilhelm II donated a new marble sarcophagus, to the tomb of the Sultan who had reclaimed Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

Foul weather drove King Richard I ashore near Venice, where he was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria and handed over to German Emperor Henry VI and held for ransom. This time, the tithe would amount to 25%, raising about 1.2 million ounces of silver, and forever answering any questions as to what might constitute a “King’s Ransom”.

A bolt from a crossbow left Richard Coeur de Lion mortally wounded on April 6, 1199, while besieging the castle of Châlus, in central France. He was 41.

Richard was destined to be succeeded by his brother John, after all. John became such an unpopular King that his Nobles and their French and Scots allies forced him to sign the “Great Charter of the Liberties”, the Magna Carta, at a place called Runnymede.

Magna-Carta-signing

Nearly 600 years later, the document would influence early government in the thirteen American colonies and the formation of our own Constitutional Republic, but that must be a story for another day.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

August 1, 1086 The Doomsday Book

Edward the Confessor, King of England, died in January of 1066, without an heir to the throne. Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t generally pick their own successors, but several believed he had done just that .  Edward’s death touched off an international succession crisis.  The events of the following months, would change the course of history.

Edward the Confessor, King of England, died in January of 1066, without an heir to the throne. Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t generally pick their own successors, but several believed he had done just that .  Edward’s death touched off an international succession crisis.  The events of the following months, would change the course of history.

Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson was elected King by the Witenagemot, an early version of our own Town Meeting.  There were others with claims of their own.  One of these was Harold’s younger brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, whose animosity for his brother would prove fatal for them both.

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After conducting a few inconclusive raids in the spring of that year, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “the Bastard”, looking for help. William had openly declared his intention to take the English throne, and had no use for the King’s little brother.  Tostig then went to the King of Norway, King Harald III “Hardrada”, the name variously translated as “stern counsel”, or “hard ruler”.

Hardrada believed that he himself had claim to the English throne, and was dismayed at Godwinson’s succession.  The two sailed for England at the head of a powerful fleet of 300 Viking ships and an army of 10,000 warriors, meeting the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar in battle at Fulford Gate on September 20.

The battle was a comprehensive defeat for the English. When Harald came to Stamford Bridge a week later, it was in expectation of formal capitulation and tribute.

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Meanwhile, King Harold was at the head of an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy. My military friends will appreciate what happened next.  Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night and covering 190 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking army waiting at Stamford Bridge. The Vikings must have looked at the horizon and wondered how a peace party could raise that much dust, only to face the “gleam of handsome shields and white coats-of-mail”.

Thinking they were there to accept submission, Harald’s army had left half their numbers behind to watch the ships.  Worse still, many of Harald’s warriors had removed their heavy armor, and scattered over both sides of the River Derwent.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

The English army charged through the loose ranks of Norwegians, as the rest struggled to form the skjaldborg (shield wall) on the opposite bank.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one giant Viking warrior stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge. Swinging the great two handed Dane Axe, for a time this man held back the entire English army, crowding onto the narrow choke point.   40 English soldiers lay mangled and dead in heaps around this beast, when an English soldier moved beneath the bridge, spearing the Viking warrior from below.

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The savagery of the battle can only be imagined. This was before the age of industrialized warfare, when every injury was personally administered with a bladed weapon of some kind. 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers would be dead before it was over, about a third of his force. Two thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died that day, about 6,000.  In the end, Harald Hardrada invoked his berserkergang (the state of going berserk), and waded into his foe, madly hacking and slashing all about him until an arrow found his throat.

Thus ends the tale of the last ‘Great Viking’.  Harald was dead, as was his ally Tostig, his reward, in the words of King Harold, “Seven feet of English soil, or as much more as he is taller than other men“.

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Of 300 ships that had arrived on the 20th, the battered remnants of the Viking army required only 24, to sail away.

Meanwhile, William was in final preparations for his own channel crossing, a voyage many considered unlikely at that late time of year.  The Norman landing Harold had been waiting for took place three days later, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest.

tumblr_la6h4gVLfh1qe23mao1_500A greatly diminished Anglo Saxon army marched south, meeting the Norman invader in October, 1066.  In an age of mechanized warfare, it is odd to think you could have been on a neighboring hill, and not heard a thing.  History changed that day, when King Harold took an arrow to the eye, at a place called Hastings.   The last of the Anglo Saxon Kings, was dead.  William was crowned King of England that December.  Henceforward and forever more, William the Bastard would be known as “William the Conqueror”.

Main rivals to the new King were now gone, but William wouldn’t be secure on his throne for another six years. Lands were confiscated from resisting members of the English elite and from lords who had fought and died in service to Harold.

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H/T By Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia

Such lands were enfeoffed, a process of the European middle ages through which land was granted in exchange for feudal allegiance, while the King retained ultimate title. Such confiscations led to revolts and further confiscations, as widows and daughters were forced into marriages with Norman barons.

Castles were built at an unprecedented rate, controlling military strongpoints across the land and, in the words of historian Robert Liddiard, “legitmizing a new elite”. Liddiard remarks that “to glance at the urban landscape of Norwich, Durham or Lincoln is to be forcibly reminded of the impact of the Norman invasion.”

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Beginning in 1085, seven or eight panels of commissioners fanned out across the land, taking sworn statements in every shire and village. Elaborate records were compiled of all lands and estates held by the King through his tenants, down to every agricultural plot and fishpond, and its value in pounds.

It was all done for purposes of taxation, particularly to see what was owed during the reign of Edward the Confessor. You can imagine how that went over but, as always, history is written by the victor.

So complete was the Norman conquest that William himself was able to spend three-quarters of his time, defending his interests in France. According to these records, no more than 5% of all lands remained in English hands by 1086.

While exact dates are subject to dispute, the major part of the “Great Survey” is traditionally held to have been bound and presented to King William on this day in 1086, in Salisbury.

1200px-Domesday-book-1804x972Late in the 12th century, King’s Treasurer Richard FitzNeal likened the Great Survey to the Book of Judgement, the book of “Domesday” (middle English for “Doomsday”), because its pronouncements were final and inviolate, as the Last day of Judgement.

Nothing even remotely similar to the “Domesday Book” would be attempted again, until 1873. For most English towns and villages (most but not all – no Domesday records are known to survive for London or Winchester), the Domesday book remains the starting point of history. The final and dispositive arbiter of lands and titles held, across the British Isles.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

June 24, 1374 The Madness of the Dance

Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

Amidst our people here is come
The madness of the dance.
In every town there now are some
Who fall upon a trance.
It drives them ever night and day,
They scarcely stop for breath,
Till some have dropped along the way
And some are met by death.
– Straussburgh Chronicle of Kleinkawel, 1625

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A legend of the medieval Christian church had it that, if anyone were to provoke the wrath of St. Vitus, the Sicilian saint martyred in 303AD, he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.  One of the first outbreaks of St. Vitus’ Dance, occurred sometime in the 1020s in Bernburg, Germany. 18 peasants disturbed a Christmas Eve service, singing and dancing around the church.

In a story reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a large group of children jumped and danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in 1237, a distance of some sixteen miles. In 1238, 200 people jumped, twitched and convulsed on a bridge over the River Meuse, until the span collapsed.

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A major outbreak St. Vitus’ Dance occurred on June 24, 1374. The population writhed and jerked through the streets of Aachen, screaming of visions and hallucinations until, one by one, each collapsed.  There, victims continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand.

dancing-plague1Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

This “choreomania”, more commonly referred to as dancing mania, spread throughout Europe, fanning out to Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren and Utrecht. Further outbreaks were reported in England and the Netherlands.

One Frau Troffea began to dance in a street in Strasbourg in July 1518, going at it somewhere between four to six days. 34 joined in by the end of a week.  Within the month there were 400 more. Many of this primarily female group actually danced themselves to death, succumbing to heart attack or stroke.  Others collapsed in exhaustion, their bloody feet no longer able to hold them up.

According to one report, the dancing plague was killing fifteen people every day.

Reactions varied. Some thought those suffering from dance mania were possessed by the devil, others by ‘hot blood’. Doctors were called, who advised that the Dance be allowed to run its course. Bands were hired and one town even built a dance floor, to contain the phenomenon.

There were no fewer than seven distinct outbreaks of the dancing plague during the medieval period, and one in Madagascar as late as 1840.

ErgotonRyeEven today there is little consensus about what caused the phenomenon. Some have blamed “St Anthony’s Fire”, a toxic and psychoactive fungus of the Claviceps genus, also known as ergot.  Often ingested with infected rye bread, symptoms of ergot poisoning are not unlike those of LSD, and include nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, spontaneous abortion, convulsions and gangrene resulting from severe vasoconstriction.

Many associate the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692 with ergot poisoning but, for others, such explanations are wanting.  Both the dancing episodes of earlier centuries and the witchcraft chapter involved lucid and deliberate action, far more than the convulsions and involuntary spasms associated with ergotism.

Others describe the Dancing Plague phenomenon as some kind of mass psychosis, brought on by the Bubonic Plague.  The Black Death, a pandemic which killed 75-100 million people around the earth, in a world with a population of 450 million.  The explanation seems as plausible as any.  The modern mind is incapable of understanding (at least mine is) what it is to live in a world where one in every four-to-five people on the planet is dead, killed by a horror not one of them understands.

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Long before germ theory was commonly understood, disease was thought to be borne of odors. Medieval plague doctors donned head-to-toe waxed canvas gowns and leather hats, with the distinctive beak-like mask filled with aromatic herbs.

Today, a calamity of such magnitude would kill over 1.5 Billion souls.

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June 21, 1633 And Yet, it Moves

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. After his conviction, the astronomer is said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

Planet Earth exists at the center of the solar system, the sun and other celestial bodies revolving around it. That was the “geocentric” model of the solar system, from the time of antiquity.

The perspective was by no means unanimous.  The Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos put the Sun in the center of the universe, in the third century BC.  Later Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy agreed, refining Aristarchus’ methods to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate for the distance to the moon, but theirs remained the minority view.

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Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. H/T: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus parted ways with the orthodoxy of his time, describing a “heliocentric” model of the universe placing the sun at the center.  The Earth and other bodies, according to this model, revolved around the sun.

Copernicus resisted publishing his ideas until the end of his life, fearing to offend the religious sensibilities of the time. Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) as he awakened on his death bed from a stroke-induced coma. He took one look at his book, closed his eyes, and never opened them again.

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Copernicus’ ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei came along, about a hundred years later. Galileo has been called the “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy”, his improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supporting the Copernican heliocentric view.

They also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Biblical references such as, “The Lord set the Earth on its Foundations; it can Never be Moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the Sun Rises and Sets and Returns to its Place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) were taken at the time as literal and immutable fact, becoming the basis for religious objection to the heliocentric model.

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Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial in 1633. The astronomer backpedaled before the Inquisition, but only to a point, testifying in his fourth deposition on this day in 1633, that “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. After his conviction, the astronomer is said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

The Inquisition condemned the astronomer to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to house arrest at his villa in 1634, there to spend the rest of his life. Galileo Galilei, the Italian polymath who all but orchestrated the transition from late middle ages to  scientific Renaissance, died on January 8, 1642, desiring to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors.  His final wishes were ignored at the time, though they would be honored some ninety-five years later, when Galileo was re-interred in the basilica, in 1737.

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Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to a natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes, they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Such a custom seems ghoulish to us today, but the practice was was quite old by the 18th century.  Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, quite the opposite.  The Inquisition had judged the man an enemy of the church, a heretic.

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“A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body”. H/T New York Times

Possibly, the condition of Galileo’s body made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Be that as it may, Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737, the digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos. The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

The other two fingers and a tooth disappeared in 1905, leaving the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.  Locked in a glass case, the finger points upward, toward the sky.

23galileo2-cnd-popupSome 100 years later, two fingers and a tooth were purchased at auction, and have since rejoined their fellow digit at the Museo Galileo. To this day, these remain the only human body parts, in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instrumentation.

Nearly four-hundred years after his death, Galileo’s extremity points upward, toward the glory of the cosmos.  Either that, or the finger rises in eternal defiance, flipping the bird to the church which had condemned him.

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June 9, AD721 Odo

The story is familiar.  Despite all odds, the Frankish force emerged victorious.  Charles “The Hammer” Martel had saved western civilization.  Forgotten in this narrative, is the story of the man who made it all possible.

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 Umayyad 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 new and small kingdoms, 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 it fail, no force stood behind the Frankish host, sufficient to prevent a united Islamic 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 emerged victorious, from the Battle of Tours (Poitiers). Western civilization, was saved.

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 call 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 duchys, 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,  Muslim 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.

Ch-MartelOne 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” would be 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, Duke Odo of Aquitaine is all but forgotten. We remember Charles “The Hammer” Martel as the savior of western civilization, as well we should. 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.

 

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April 18, 1906 American Plague

The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

images (49)In the early 1330s, a deadly plague broke out on the steppes of Mongolia. The gram-negative bacterium Yersinia Pestis preyed heavily on rodents, the fleas from which would transmit the disease to people, the infection then rapidly spreading to others.

High fever would precede the appearance of “buboes”, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, especially in the armpit, neck and groin. Spots appeared on the skin turning from red to black, often accompanied by necrosis and gangrene in the nose, lips, fingers and toes.

In some cases, Bubonic plague will progress from the lymphatic system to the lungs, resulting in Pneumonic plague. Y. Pestis can progress to the blood stream as well, a condition known as septicemic plague. In medieval times, septicemic mortality rates ran from 98% to 100%.

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The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

Plague broke out among a besieging force of Mongols on the Black Sea city of Caffa, in 1346. Italian merchants fled with their ships in the Spring of 1347, carrying in their holds an untold number of rats and the fleas that came with them. One-third of the world’s population died in the five-year period which followed, equivalent to over two Billion today.

The Black Death of the 14th century is far and away the most famous, but it’s not the first. The Plague of Justinian, 541-542AD, centered mostly around the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and Sassanid Empires, the disease resulting in the death of 25 million individuals. Roughly 13% of the world’s population, at that time.

150827150729-plague-explainer-cohen-orig-mg-00001604-full-169The Black death of 1346-’53 was a catastrophe unparalleled in human history, but it was by no means the last such outbreak.  The Third Pandemic began in China in 1855, spreading to Hong Kong and on to British India. In China and India alone the disease killed 12 million people. It then spread to parts of Africa, Europe, Australia, and South America.

In the newly formed Territory of Hawaii, the first signs of the plague began to appear in Honolulu in December, 1899. Not sure how to control the outbreak, city health officials decided to burn infected houses. Changing winds soon fanned the flames out of control. On January 20, 1900, an inferno consumed nearly all of Chinatown, 38 acres, leaving 6,000 homeless.

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In January 1900, Honolulu’s Chinatown burned down in an effort to control bubonic plague.

In 1900, The ship Australia brought Yersinia Pestis with it from Hong Kong into San Francisco. The ship was immediately quarantined and, despite the escape of two stowaways confirmed to have the bacilli, there was no immediate outbreak. The quarantine seemed to work for a time, but there was no way to contain the rats on board. They are probably the reason that plague spread to the city.

norway_rats_on_ropeThe body of an elderly Chinese man was discovered in a Chinatown basement. An autopsy found the man to have died of plague. There were more than 18,000 Chinese and another 2,000 Japanese living in the 14-block Chinatown section of the city. Many called for a quarantine of Chinatown, but Chinese citizens objected, as did then-Governor Henry Gage, who tried to sweep the whole outbreak under the carpet. Business interests likewise objected to the quarantine. Except for the Hearst Newspapers, not much was heard about it.

100 confirmed cases of plague were discovered by the end of 1902, but Governor Gage was still denying its existence. There were a total of 121 cases with 113 deaths by 1904, but the outbreak seemed to be contained.

yersinia-pestis-plague-bacteria-pasiekaSan Francisco was hit by a massive earthquake on April 18, 1906, followed by a great fire. Thousands of San Franciscans were crowded into refugee camps with an even higher number of rats. For the first time, the disease now jumped the boundaries of Chinatown.

On May 27, 1907, a San Francisco sailor was diagnosed with bubonic plague. The epidemic spread aggressively over that summer, the New York Times reporting in November that “the disease increased with such virulence that it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as were medieval Europe”.

The plague popped up one last time, but local, state, and federal health officials combined to all-but eradicate the rat population, and with it the disease. It was all over by 1909.

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Reported cases of human plague in the United States, 1970 – 2012

Or was it. Nothing could stop the fleas from infected rats from transferring to wild rodents, squirrels, and prairie dogs, and permanently establishing plague bacilli in the western United States.

In 2015, the CDC reported 15 cases of Bubonic plague in the United States, as of October.  Four of them were fatal.  The bacterium is treatable with modern antibiotics, but I can’t help thinking about the massive quantity of anti-microbials used in livestock production. Given the apparent increase in multiple-drug resistant “superbugs”, I hope that people far smarter than I am, are thinking about it too.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.