Lesson #410: The Winged Hussars

Midweek, my mother texted me a blurb without any context. As she’s wont to do. Just sort of a “here’s a thing”. Credit where it’s due, these things are usually interesting.

This week, it was about the Winged Hussars. This is exactly what it sounds like. Hussars who wore wings into battle.

The Hussars were cavalry units in Eastern and Central Europe* that date to at least the 16th century. Their first mention appears in Polish treasury documents in 1500. They were originally made up of exiled Serbs and Hungarian mercenaries, but, as a rule, most people talking about the Hussars are talking about the Polish-Lithuanian cavalry unit that existed from the 16th to the 18th centuries. After the collective reforms of the Polish king and the Lithuanian Grand Duke in the mid-16th century, the Hussars were considered an elite cavalry shock unit that drew heavily from the Polish nobility.

The Winged Hussars wore wings on their backs. They were wooden frames into which eagle, goose, or ostrich feathers were mounted. The purpose of the wings is unclear. Many historians argue that they were a psychological scare tactic. The wings clattered and the wind rushing through them while at a gallop made a humming noise. Also, they looked pretty badass. Another suggestion is that they helped to protect the soldiers’ backs against enemy weaponry. Another is that the wings served to inoculate the Polish horses to the noisemakers employed by the Ottomans and Tatars.

There aren’t a lot of good sources in English or French available online. A lot of what’s available in English is drawn from the Wikipedia page. But the Wiki page cites a whole slew of academic work in Polish, so if you’re interested, you can read that page here. There’s also this page. Most of what’s available in French is about the French Hussars, which were (and remain) light cavalry regiments that do not have wings.

Random note: I realized in conversation — about the Far East — with a friend and fellow travel junkie today that I know nothing about South American history. Like at all. I often end up learning about European and Ancient religious history because those are my areas of expertise/interest. But I bet the South Americans have some cool stuff going on too. Keep your eyes peeled for some lessons from that part of the world in the coming weeks.

*Though there are currently Hussar units in: Argentina, Canada, Chile, Denmark, France, Ireland, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and Venezuela.



The Abandoned Lesson on Pope John XII

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know how much I love how completely bonkers the medieval papacy is. It’s a couple hundred years of a Pope doing something highly morally questionable followed by another Pope going, “hold my beer”. Simony, murder, illegitimate children, the exhumation and trial of the corpse of a deceased Pope.*

Earlier this week, I learned that in 964 CE, Pope John XII died of a stroke while banging his mistress. Or he was strangled by an angry husband who caught him and said mistress mid-coitus. Either way, John XII was getting busy with some married lady, and he died as a direct result.

But then…while I was at the bar watching football with my friends this morning, a site I read posted something on Pope John XII, so…there goes that plan.

Not to worry. I’ve learned a lot this week. I’ll be back with you in a little while.

*Apparently, my Catholic school education didn’t adequately prepare me for past tense Popes. I don’t actually know how one refers to Popes who have died. Former Pope? Ex-Pope? Just by name? I learned that Pope Benedict XVI is titled Pope Emeritus (which is cute and academic). But I couldn’t find any information on what one calls literally every other Pope who isn’t the sitting Pope.

Lesson #409: Steeplechase

This week’s original lesson was going to be that there are technically 15 Winter Olympic sports and 42 Summer Olympic sports. But then, whilst discussing the fact that track and field is actually a dozen different sports, my cousin in a major Canadian city and I got into a discussion that devolved into a debate about whether steeplechase is a horse race or a people race. Clearly neither of us has any idea what steeplechase actually is.

So here we are. Learning about steeplechase.

It turns out there’s a reason I have no idea what steeplechase actually is. It sounds super boring to spectate.* Steeplechase is raced as a 3000m event for both men and women at the Olympics. Master’s steeplechasers and younger athletes compete at 2000m. The 3000m event has 28 barriers (don’t be fooled, they’re hurdles) and 7 water jumps. The 2000m event has 18 barriers and 5 water jumps. Water jumps are 12’/3.66m long and 27.5″/70cm in depth. In women’s steeplechase, the barriers are lower (30″/76.2cm) than for the men (36″/91.4cm).** That’s it. The fastest men in the world run this race in just over eight minutes. The fastest women do it right around nine.

Literally the only interesting thing about the steeplechase is that it is so called because sometime in the mid-19th century, a bunch of bored university students at Oxford decided to run from the church in one town to a church in another and this involved jumping over streams and hopping over low walls.

There is very little good reading on steeplechase, but if you’re super into it, the IAAF site is here.

Finally, my cousin and I were both right. Steeplechase is also a horse race. The Irish were racing steeple to steeple on horseback from the mid-18th century. So the running steeplechase basically came out of a bunch of college kids getting drunk one night and going, “…what if steeplechase, but, like, without our horses?” And, that part actually sounds fun. Like I would definitely drink too much one night with my friends and decide to run from one town to another.*** But no one pulled the athletics association aside when they were like, “…what if steeplechase, but, like, without the horses AND on a track?” and went, “that sounds boring AF, you guys”, and now here we are, 120 years into the Olympics, being reminded every four years that there are people who do this on purpose.****

*This is coming from a swimmer who was a mile specialist. Do you know how boring it is to watch someone swim a mile? Take what you’re imagining, multiply it by ten, and you’ll be close. Steeplechase sounds like the track version of watching someone swim a mile.

**Don’t ask me why a race that is measured in metres gives its measurements primarily in inches. That’s information straight from track and field’s governing body, the IAAF.

***This is a bald-faced lie. There are not words for how much I loathe running as a point-to-point exercise. I loved playing rugby; it was running for a violent purpose! But running to be like, “I ran four miles today!” Nope. Nope.

*****Again, this is coming from a swimmer who was a mile specialist and who continues to swim long distances (3-5 miles/swim). I am intimately familiar with people thinking my races were complete madness. My entire high school (200 and 500 yards) and university (500, 1000, and 1650 yards) careers were basically sprinters who were in and out of the water in under 30 seconds or a minute (depending on the race) and my friends who would show up to support me/the team going “why would you even do that?”

Lesson #408: The Martini

I’m reading a book I’d have liked far better 15 years ago, before I spent a few summers in Minor League baseball and before I embarked on a series of long-distance road trips across entire continents. It doesn’t matter what the book is, because a. it’s not that great and b. what’s important here is that it mentioned the origin of the martini.*

The book makes a brief note, in a discussion about Joe DiMaggio being from Martinez, California, of Martinez being the birthplace of the martini.

Now, I’m an academic skeptic, so give me a little gobbet like this one without any other context and without citation, and I’m going to run with it. So here’s the real story on the martini:

The martini was created. And that’s about where the agreement on its creation stops. Some people believe that a precursor, the Martinez, which is a wine glass of vermouth with a shot of gin in it and was served at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco in the 1860s is the inspiration for what we call a martini. Some believe it was developed by the Italian gin distiller Martini & Rossi. Some believe it was created by an Italian immigrant bartender at the Knickerbocker hotel in New York just before the First World War.  Some believe it was developed in England and named for the Martini & Henry rifle the British army used in the late 19th century. No one, apparently, believes the martini was first created in Martinez, California.**

What’s most interesting about the martini is that because of the ease of distilling gin — so easy it could be done in, say, a bathtub — it became a very popular prohibition drink in the US. It was way more vermouth than gin, then. Probably because bathtub gin isn’t the highest quality gin one can make. The martini maintained its popularity through the 1940s and 50s, at which point there was some difficulty in obtaining good quality vermouth, so martinis were mostly just chilled gin by the 1960s. And then they fell out of favour until (what I just assume was) some skeezy bartender looking to get girls decided to start messing around with martinis and brought us all the appletini in the 1990s — which is made with vodka, not gin. So thanks? I guess?

You can read more about the martini here and here.

*Fun fact: for as much as I love beer, I have never had a martini. I enjoy tequila now and again, but I’m not huge on liquor on the whole. I also have a general aversion toward gin for a couple reasons, not the least of which is it tastes like I’m drinking a Christmas tree.

**To be fair to the author, the book was written in the late 80s, and as someone who was alive and aware and remembers the late 80s (however vaguely one remembers the everyday of one’s childhood), I know for sure that I could not have easily found this information at the time. However, even being a personal narrative doesn’t excuse just dropping that information in without having been to see a reference librarian. I know for a fact those existed in the late 80s.

Lesson #407: The Boiling Point of Saliva

I read a weird little tidbit the other day that suggested that the boiling point of saliva is three times higher than that of water.


If your immediate thought was, “that cannot possibly be true; saliva is mostly water”, congratulations on not being a moron!

What’s hilarious is that my research kept turning up sites that said, “it is assumed that the boiling point of saliva is three times higher than that of water”. By whom? Who are the people making this assumption? And why? Are they kindergarteners?  Five-year-olds don’t have a stellar grasp of abstracts like temperature. The assumption *I’m* going to make here is that they’re kindergarteners.

According to the science people,* the boiling point of saliva is, in fact, higher than that of water. But barely.

The boiling point of water: 100 degrees Celsius/212 degrees Fahrenheit.

The boiling point of saliva: 100.16 degrees Celsius/212.29 degrees Fahrenheit.

Read more (but not really, sources are sparse) here.

*Maybe. I can’t find any reputable source for the science of this.