Lesson #426: The Double-Headed Eagle

If you’ve been reading for a while, it shouldn’t be a surprise how we got here and why this is of particular interest to me.*

The World Cup is on. I love the World Cup. It’s my favourite sporting event. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that the popularity of football offers billions more eyes than usual to put politics on a global stage.**

My experience with Albania is limited. I’ve set very tired feet on the ground in Albania, but barely — it was very early in the morning, I had been dozing (at best) on a very uncomfortable overnight bus from Dubrovnik to Skopje (never again), and I literally didn’t know what country I was in until I saw a sign on the side of the road in a language I couldn’t read. But I know about Kosovo, if only because it’s related to the dissolution of Yugoslavia.***

The Shakiri and Xhaka double-headed eagle gestures were a big thing yesterday (and discussions of match bans were on order today), but the politics of that are a separate post. Today, we’re touching on the history of the double-headed eagle.

I had assumed that the double-headed eagle was a Roman thing, but the Romans never used it. Sort of. There’s a fluidity in the Eastern Roman Empire that makes its use sort of Roman, but not really. Anyway, the origins go back to the Hittites, who occupied modern-day Turkey from roughly the 20th to the 7th centuries BCE. Scholars are in agreement that the double-headed eagle took on a later meaning of orthodoxy (in the Orthodox Christian faiths) and dominance (in the Byzantine Empire), but its original meaning has been lost — in part because there’s a two millenia gap in its use after the decline of the Hittites before the Byzantines started using it as a part of their heraldry. The double-headed eagle as heraldry spread into the Arab world and large swaths of Europe — particularly in Southeastern Europe — in the late medieval period (11th and 12th centuries), as a result of the Crusades.

In modern times, Russia’s association with the double-headed eagle is arguably the most recognizable — it’s even in their football crest.**** However, it also shows up on Albania’s flag (thus the ethnic Albanians playing for the Swiss team using it), along with Serbia and Montenegro‘s flags, and if you look at the not-so-distant past, in addition to the Russians, it was used by the Serbian kings, which remains on the Serbian flag; the Habsburg dynasty of Austria-Hungary; the Austrian Empire; the Montenegrin royals;  the German Confederation; and Yugoslavia, generally, up until they exiled their last king after the Second World War.

Fun fact: in this World Cup, five other countries have an (single-headed) eagle in their crests: holders Germany, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, and Tunisia.

For more on the history of the double-headed eagle, see here and here.

*If you haven’t been, the short version is: the sociopolitics of the Balkans as they’re reflected in football hooliganism. And also history.

**In this regard, it’s a shame the US are not participating.

***Serbia basically spent the 90s being a controlling ex until the rest of the world stepped in and were like, “guy…sit down” — and even then, they didn’t do a great job. I have many feelings on the Dayton Accords and not many of them are good.

****If they’re smart, Xhaka and Shakiri will say, “we were paying tribute to our host country!” Which no one will believe, but at least it’s a feasible explanation.

Lesson #425: Cherry Bounce

I have a college friend who does reenactments in and around New Jersey. This weekend is the celebration of the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth,* so I drove up to see her do her thing. In part because I hadn’t seen her since we graduated — much longer ago than seems believeable — and in part because I’d never been to a reenactment. This was pretty much the perfect excuse.

It was super fun!

After the park had closed and I’d gone and gotten dinner with another college friend who drove in from New York, I went back to spend a bit of time with my friend’s regiment, drinking some beer around a campfire. Because I *love* drinking beer around a campfire.** So picked up some local beer and headed back, where the regiment — all still dressed appropriately — promptly tried to drown me — wearing shorts and a Michael Ballack Germany kit — in Cherry Bounce. Of which I took two sips and politely declined to finish. Because it’s delicious! And it also tastes like something that will kill me later, by which I mean it’s smooth and doesn’t taste very alcoholic, but you can tell it’s 100 proof by the smell.

Cherry Bounce is actually a fairly simple drink. It’s basically just brandy, vodka, or rum that’s had cherries and sugar added to it. And then left alone for a bit. It’s also said to be one of George Washington’s favourite drinks, and the recipe for it was found among Martha Washington’s papers. The regiment told me that Washington carried it in his canteen during the Revolutionary War, though I can find zero evidence for this. And since I don’t even trust the word of armchair historians who do this on a regular basis, I won’t go so far as to say that. But I will admit that potable water is a giant question mark throughout history, and Roman soldiers were known to carry wine, so it’s not beyond the scope of belief — or history — for soldiers to carry alcohol in their canteens.

If you’re interested in making your own, the recipe can be found here. It really is good. But I was smart enough to only have two sips and give it over to someone who wasn’t driving 150 miles home later, so I can’t speak to how quickly it’ll get a person drunk or what the hangover is like.***

Even when they’re camping out, the reenactors are still true to their history. The regiment had absurd amounts of alcohol, all of it home brewed. On top of the Cherry Bounce, there was: beer, mead, rum, and grog. I thought this was really cool. They called themselves “a drinking club with a history problem” — which spoke to me as someone who would probably describe my supporters club as a drinking club with a football problem — but they’re very inventive in how and what they drink. And what they drink out of. My sips of Cherry Bounce came out of a salad bowl.

*Until yesterday, everything I knew about Monmouth, I learned from Hamilton. Which is not exactly the most historically accurate of stories. To the point that early last year, I saw a picture of Aaron Burr and was somehow surprised to see the face of a white man. It’s not like I don’t know he was a white man, but my future best friend, Lin-Manuel Miranda, did such a great job of cross-racial casting that when I think of Aaron Burr now, I imagine him as black. Good work, Lin!****

**It’s second on my list after drinking in/on/next to water.

**Even though my tolerance has decreased significantly over the last few years, I actually don’t think I could drink enough of this to be drunk. It’s very sweet.

****The complete lack of people of colour yesterday was glaring to someone who lives in a city that is predominantly black and sees a lot more faces of colour on a day-to-day basis than people who look like me. My friends and I discussed it briefly, but it seems to be a case of while they’re not unwelcome to participate in reenactments, there’s not much of a place for them, historically speaking, which sort of makes them unwelcome by proxy. That said, the only civil war/WWII reenactors I know are black. So there *is* a place for people of colour in the reenactment world, but Revolutionary War history isn’t particularly inclusive of them, so neither are the reenactments.

Lesson #419: The Oldest Palimpsest

I was reading an article this week about the only known palimpsest that effaced the Bible to create a copy of the Koran. Which got me wondering about the oldest known palimpsest.

A quick note for those of you who don’t read a lot about religious history: a palimpsest is any document in which the original text has been scraped off and replaced with a later text and in which the original text may be read — in the days before technology, this often had to be done by eye, but now technology allows for the original text to be read more easily and without damaging the current text. Palimpsests are often religious in nature — the largest collection (around 130 texts) is at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt — particularly on the surface text, but don’t necessarily have to be. Palimpsests are usually written on parchment, though some have appeared on paper or papyrus. The reason parchment is the most frequent source of palimpsests is a combination of both its durability and its cost. Because parchments were expensive and in short supply and because they were durable, the original writing could be stripped from the medium (using oat bran and milk) and a new document could be written over top.

As for the oldest known palimpsest, this is a bit tricky. Of the known palimpsests, many — including the Archimedes Palimpsest — originated in the 4th – 6th and 9th and 10th centuries BCE. From what I can find, the oldest is a second century BCE Greek grammar text produced for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is housed in Vienna.

You can read more here, here, and here.

Lesson #416: The Ethiopian Regiment

I’ve read roughly four and a half chapters of the book I’m currently reading. It’s ostensibly about a particular subject, but thusfar that subject has not been discussed even peripherally. But…what I have learned is that the British were shady AF in their dealings with black loyalists after the Revolutionary War.* Also, there was a Loyalist regiment known as the Ethiopian Regiment.

The Ethiopian Regiment had exactly nothing to do with Ethiopia or Ethiopians. At all. The Ethiopian Regiment was a regiment made up of escaped slaves who fought for the British side during the Revolutionary War. But it was called the Ethiopian Regiment for (probably totally racist) reasons.

The regiment was formed by Lord Dunmore, the last royal Governor of Virginia, in November of 1775. The Earl of Dunmore made a declaration that any slave who joined the regiment would be freed. Of course, volunteers first had to survive a war. And also smallpox, which had all but wiped out the regiment by June of 1776. There’s not a lot of information about troop movement, but the Ethiopian Regiment participated in battles in and around Virginia, including a victory at Kemp’s Landing and a humiliating defeat at Great Bridge.

In a fun little bit of dissidence, the Ethiopian Regiment’s uniforms were embroidered with the slogan “Liberty to Slaves”.

Those who survived the war were granted freedom in Nova Scotia, which is how I got here. There’s a very interesting history of blacks in Nova Scotia that reads exactly how you’d expect. Former members of the regiment were given significantly less land than they were promised, white Loyalists (and Nova Scotians who didn’t care one way or the other about who won the war, I guess) were not super thrilled with black people living nearby, and the white people solution to having to see black people was literally to be like, “oh, you don’t love it here? It’s cold? And we gave you the shittiest land we could? You could always go back to Africa. Here! We bought you passage on a ship to Sierra Leone! Go! Be among your people (who may or may not actually be your people, but where we don’t have to see you)!”

For more, see here, here, and here.

*That’s an enormous subject to unpack, and I am not the person to do it.

Lesson #415: The Conch Republic

I’ve lived (nearly) 36 of my (nearly) 38 years under the impression that Key West has always been part of Florida and, consequently, the United States. I have been wrong.

In 1982, members of the Key West government were in a snit and seceded from the US. This is amazing!

The short version of the story is that in an effort to curb the tide of illegal Cuban immigrants and refugees and the influx of drugs (cocaine) from South America, Border Patrol (now CPD) up a checkpoint on the only road off the island and subjected vehicles to searches and their occupants to ID checks. Displeased by this, the mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, called around and got no answers, so reached out to Border Patrol, who were like “none of your business”. This was not the answer Wardlow wanted to hear, and after a Miami judge refused to issue an injunction, Key West seceded on 23 April.

Now, their secession was rather cheeky. Government officials were assigned new job titles (Minister of Underwater Affairs is my favourite), but they were also serious. The Federal government sent monitors in to make sure things didn’t escalate, the US flag was swapped out for that of the Conch Republic, and (now-) Prime Minister Wardlow declared war on the US by breaking stale Cuban bread over the head of a man in a Naval uniform? Because I guess that makes as much sense as anything else in a declaration of war. One minute later, Wardlow surrendered to a US Navy officer and demanded $1 billion in foreign aid, as well as restitution from the US government.

The money was never paid out, but the publicity the stunt attracted effectively forced the government to remove the checkpoint out of Key West.

On the heels of this, Key West began to capitalize on the notoriety. The town has always been reliant on tourism, but after secession, it began issuing passports — including diplomatic passports — and other kitschy things to commemorate their independence, and the town still celebrates independence day every year.

In 1995, there was an “invasion” by a US Army battalion on maneuvers — which was somehow received both with a tongue firmly planted in cheek, but also with some seriousness that prevented the Army from reaching their training ground until they apologized. The Conch Republic’s website lists refers to this episode as “The Great Invasion of ’95”.**

I think the most mind-blowing part of this whole story is the fact that some people somehow used their Conch Republic passports to travel internationally as if they were legitimate documents. But I’m old enough and made frequent enough border crossings to remember how lax pre-9/11 travel was. I could get into and out of Canada with just my green card or my driver’s licence for identification. I could get on an international flight with just my ID. And I remember when that changed in because I was told by the border agent in Texas that after the new year (2006), I’d need to travel with my passport. These days, I often travel with both.*

More here, here, and on the Republic’s own website, here.

*Depending on where I’m going, it’s often easier — though coming back into the US as a citizen with stamps in a non-US passport made my return from Bosnia more snarky than it should have been when I had an American customs officer at the airport in Toronto who took umbrage with the fact that I had an American passport at all if I was going to travel on my Canadian one. He felt I didn’t deserve an American passport and expressed that. In those words. What I wanted to respond was, “well, no one asked you”. But because I wasn’t looking to spend a night at the Toronto airport — though I wouldn’t have…I’d have called my people for a spare bed or couch — what I said was, “well, sir, with all due respect, the Federal government disagrees.”

**All I can think of when I read this is the time the Swiss Army accidentally invaded Liechtenstein after they got lost in bad weather on night maneuvers in 2007, which remains, a decade later, one of my favourite news stories.

Lesson #414: Medieval Testicle Removal

A coworker brought me to this lesson when she told me that people in medieval times believed that the left testicle was responsible for female children and, consequently, had a gonadectomy of the left testicle to help ensure a male child.

I know what you’re thinking. That is patently absurd! Sources or GTFO!

Sources for this are…awful. At best, this is a gobbet passed around the interwebs with some uncited small basis in historical fact. More likely, this is the same complete bullshit as the idea floating about the internet that the boiling point of saliva is three times that of regular water.

The best information I can find on this is a single sentence reference to it in a larger response on a page of The Tech Museum of Innovation’s site. But if we look at this logically, it doesn’t make any sense. Even if a bunch of men in medieval Europe — this is an assumption based on the fact that the medieval period in the Eastern world is far more advanced than Europe is — had their left testicles removed, statistically speaking, they still stood a 50% chance of coming out with a female child at the end of gestation. Surely people with some brains would have gotten together and said, “so…that didn’t work” and stopped with the lopping off of testes.

Obviously, I don’t have access to any primary source materials. But lots of places with lots of scholars do. And if there were primary source materials that said, “for a while there, we thought we’d get all boys if we castrated ourselves”, that information would be all over the place. Because the west loves to talk about balls. So let’s just go ahead and take this for what it is — a story that seems good for a light chuckle on the surface while it simultaneously disparages medieval culture for being seemingly lacking in common sense and enforces the patriarchal and historical notion that female children are worth less than male children.

So we’re in agreement then? We’re going to settle on the fact that men in medieval Europe didn’t go about removing a testicle so they could have male children. Cool? Cool.

Lesson #412: The Shortest War in History

Generally speaking, we’re a fan of conflict around these parts. I guess fan isn’t the right word, exactly, but it makes up literally all of my graduate schooling over three different degree programs. But for all the destruction and resulting problems wars bring with them, they are not always the protracted affairs the likes of say, The Three Hundred and Thirty-Five Years’ War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly, which accidentally lasted 335 years because everyone forgot they were at war. Case in point, the Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted a total of 38 minutes.

The story is a bit like every story you’ve probably heard about colonial powers attempting to control local rulers in Africa and install men sympathetic to colonial interests. In 1893, with newfound control over Zanzibar* after the signing of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, Britain declared Hamad bin Thuwaini Sultan of Zanzibar. Because our man Hamad was pro-British. In 1896, bin Thuwaini died suddenly — most likely because his cousin and successor Khalid bin Barghash poisoned him in order to claim the throne.**

Anyway, after installing himself as his cousin’s successor, bin Barghash went about it like he owned the place, and the British government were a bit, “hang on a moment”. Bin Barhash, undaunted, started amassing his army. By all accounts, the Zanzibaris were surprisingly well armed, though I can find no explanation for how or why this was the case. Meanwhile, Britain were bringing in five warships, mostly as a show of strength, thinking bin Barghash would look at the harbour and think, “this is a spectacularly terrible idea”. Except bin Barghash was fully invested in being the Sultan and instead went, “you’re not actually going to shoot us”, and Britain replied, “well, we don’t want to, but we will“.

When bin Barghash refused to abdicate by 9am on 27 August, 1896, British Men of War positioned in the harbour fired on the palace. By the time the shelling ended 38 minutes later, bin Barghash had escaped out the back door and the 3000 remaining members of his armed forces and civilians yanked down the Sultan’s flag, ending the Anglo-Zanzibar war.

In addition to being the shortest war, it might be the war with the highest death rate per capita. In the course of 38 minutes, 500 Zanzibaris were killed. To give you some perspective, before the civil war began in 2011, the population of Syria was 23 million. At the rate of 500 casualties per 38 minutes, the entire population of Syria would have been wiped out in 1214 days (or a little over three years and four months).

Our friend Khalid bin Barghash got himself to the German consulate — at the time, Germany controlled Tanzania — which secreted him off to Tanzania and refused to extradite him back to Zanzibar. He was eventually captured in 1916 when British Forces went schlepping through East Africa during the First World War. He was exiled on Saint Helena for a while, but died in Zanzibar in 1927, so it’s unclear how much time he was exiled.

I think the most interesting tidbit in this entire thing is that the Zanzibari navy consisted of a single vessel: an armed yacht gifted by Queen Victoria to Hamad bin Thuwaini. Armed. Yacht! Is this a thing? As someone who doesn’t make anything close to yacht money and isn’t pretty or powerful enough to weasel her way in to yacht money circles, my experience with yachts is nil. But it turns out there is a pretty fascinating history of armed yachts, you guys! Join me next week for a look into Commonwealth types arming their yachts.

Back to the topic at hand, there isn’t a lot of solid academic information on the Anglo-Zanzibar War online, but the Wiki page is well-sourced if you’re looking for references. More here and here.

*I’m going to assume that everyone’s knowledge of Zanzibar can be summed up thusly: it’s an island, Freddie Mercury was from there, and there’s a reference to it in a Tenacious D song.

**Lesson 412b: there is no express word for the murder of one’s cousin, despite the fact that there are words for the murder of pretty much everyone else in one’s family. Parricide, which refers to the murder of one’s parents can also apply to other close family members, though I think it rarely does.

The Revolutions Are Coming!

The other week, I mentioned that I would be starting to look at South American history because I know nothing about it. The problem is, when you know nearly nothing about a subject that’s already broad, you also know nearly nothing about where to start.  I figured the best approach was to start with what I know. And I know revolutions.

Right, now’s your chance to bail before I fully nerd out. I don’t get to play with revolutionary theory very often anymore. You’ve been warned.

There was a bit of my brain that went insane over this. Because once you start applying a context you know well to a situation you don’t, it’s a really fun intellectual game of if and how the construct of revolutionary theory — specifically western (and if you’re familiar with the concept of the north/south divide, that also becomes a factor) revolutionary theory — applies to South American revolutions. And where and why they overlap with other revolutions and where and why they differ. There’s a lot to look at, and I am here. for. it.

Starting with Chile in April, I’m doing a monthly series on revolutions! We’re going on a trip around the world to look at the patterns of revolution and see what we can do about sorting out what the fifth generation definition of revolution might be. I had wanted to look at this as my thesis project when I was doing my second MA, but it was WAY too big a topic for the amount of time we had. My advisor told me that what I was staring at was a PhD project. So that idea was scuttled.* I still don’t exactly have the time — thus the monthly aspect — but I have no academic pressures and no deadlines. I learn what I learn at the pace I learn it. Of course, the downside to not having academic pressures or deadlines is that I also don’t have access to academic databases that would be helpful.

BUT! I’m smarter than the average bear. I’m only two years outdated on the academic research because I saved PDFs of every single article I pulled for my initial research phase of that scuttled project. I may also be able to persuade a friend who is taking some extra coursework in tax law to download an article or two for me.

These entries are going to be more academic and more detailed than most of what I’ve posted here. Because I want the challenge of it. You’re free to skip them (I mean, you’re free to skip any and all of my posts, really). They’ll be drier than my normal posts. But if you want to “watch” me work through an academic process, as it were, hang out! See what happens!

*It ended up being about nationalism and violence in second- and third-culture football fans in North America.

Lesson #411: Why September Is Not the Seventh Month

I was doing some things with larger numbers this week. Septillion through decillion large. Which got me onto how September’s name implies it is the seventh of something, but it’s the ninth month in the Gregorian calendar. October is not the eighth month, November is not the ninth month, and December is not the tenth month.

So how did we get here, misnaming our months?

The answer is actually pretty simple. In the ten-month, lunar-based Roman calendar, September was the seventh month of the year and was followed by October, November, and December. Then, when the Roman calendar was replaced by the Julian calendar in the first century BCE, no one thought, “hey…this doesn’t really follow anymore”. Or, more likely, no one listened to the pedants who no doubt raised the very logical question of why we were mis-numbering months.

More on the Roman Calendar here and here.

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.

 

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 #406: Beguines

I’m reading a fascinating book right now — Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.* It’s not my normal fare, but it sounded really interesting, especially as an unmarried woman, so I checked it out of library. My parking fines at work.** Anyway, historically, independent women are not as rare as we imagine they were. In America, unmarried women are largely responsible for: the abolitionist movement, the suffragist movement, labour reforms, and the gay rights movement.

One of the things I’ve learned in reading this book is that, in medieval Europe, women who were unmarriageable for whatever reason — age, ability, lack of dowry, lack of suitable husband, being widowed by the Crusades — didn’t necessarily have to go into convents. For unmarried women who did not wish to enter the convent (and effectively marry Jesus), there was the beguinage.

A beguinage was a house or houses or neighbourhood of unmarried women who were committed to a life of Christian service and were free to leave for any reason they wished. It was expected that they would remain unmarried in their lives as beguines, and that their time as beguines would be devoted to service to the poor, a trade such as textile making, and/or teaching. However, they did not take vows of chastity, poverty or lifetime devotion and were not required to liquidate any assets they had upon entering the beguinage.

These orders emerged in Northern Europe in the 12th century and were most popular in The Netherlands and Belgium in the 13th and 14th centuries. Belgium saw a resurgence in popularity of beguinages in the 17th century, but their numbers never reached that of the medieval period. The last beguine, who was been born in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and served in Belgium died in 2013.

The Medieval Church alternated between a laissez faire attitude toward beguines and outright denouncing them as heretical.*** Not taking vows and giving everything they owned to the Church seems to have been a sticking point.

There’s not a whole lot of information available online about beguines and beguinages, but see here, here, and here.

*This line made my cousin in a major Canadian city and me laugh, “92% of college girls surveyed in the 1920s said they had participated in sexual, below-the-neck fondling, and that, by this time, “young middle-class men were more likely to lose their virginity with women of their own class than with prostitutes.”” We spent a good five minutes discussing what above-the-neck fondling was. The best we could come up with was a wet willy and a nose boop.

**Although, since I split with my ex, I haven’t actually *had* a parking fine because I’m spending significantly less time in his parking gestapo neighbourhood.

***This is pretty rich considering the medieval Papacy was a revolving door of simony, murder, illegitimate children, power hunger that would put Game of Thrones to shame, and literally disinterring a deceased Pope to put his corpse on trial. As previously noted, I *love* the medieval Papacy because it’s completely bonkers.

Lesson #388: French Indochina

One of my favourite books (Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant) is set in Vietnam during the French occupation. And, oddly, Indochina came up among my friends last week because one recently bought a new suit from a company that was named something similar (I think it was “indochino?”) and two friends and I asked, legitimately, I felt, “were they Vietnamese?” and he kind of stared blankly.*

So I decided today to go searching for why Vietnam was called French Indochina during its colonial years. Well, not the French part. That part’s pretty obvious.

Turns out that technically speaking, Indochina — which is an actual geographical thing — is made up of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. But because I learned history in American schools, I know way more about Vietnamese history than I know about the rest of Southeast Asia combined, so I never learned that Indochina is an actual geographical place.**

Fun thing I also never learned in school because America never fought a protracted war in Cambodia or Laos…French Indochina covered all of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as a small Chinese enclave, Guangzhouwan.

At its inception in 1887 — though the French had been in the area for more than 200 years before this — French Indochina was made up of Laos and Vietnam. Cambodia was annexed in 1893, and Guangzhouwan followed in 1900. It remained that way until Guangzhouwan was returned to China in 1946. And then there were a lot of people in the antebellum years — particularly in that part of the world…Africa didn’t join the party until about a decade later — who weren’t particularly impressed with the whole colonialism bit. This led to the First Indochina War,*** which ran from 1946 until an agreement was reached at the 1954 Geneva Conference — at which France agreed to relinquish control of all its holdings on the Indochinese peninsula. Unfortunately, neither South Vietnam, nor the United States agreed to the accords, so things went a bit south after that…

Not a lot of good sources online — most mention Laos and Cambodia as briefly as possible before moving on to Vietnam (this is what I was talking about above), but the wiki article actually has a pretty good bibliography listed. I’m slightly impressed.

*He’s delightful, but he’s not that bright.

**Though, if I’d thought about it for just a moment, I’d probably have realized that it being situated between India and China would make the whole thing pretty self-evident.

***Which included the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which you should be familiar with if you’ve ever listened to Billy Joel. Or Miss Saigon. Or you had any course in French or Asian colonial history. Probably one of the two former ones though.

Lesson #383: Fionn mac Cumhaill’s Split Boulder

The Irish oral tradition is so fantastic. If you’ve never read The Táinin my opinion the most fun and exciting part of the Ulster Cycle –I’d encourage you to do so. It’s good stuff ! Then again, I absolutely love the old sagas/epics. I have a lot of them in my personal library.

I was watching the latest McDonagh (John Michael of The Guard, not Martin of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths)/Gleeson project, Calvary today. Because I like black comedies best of all. Though Calvary isn’t really haha funny like The Guard is, it’s still got its moments.* And on the whole, it’s very, very good. Anyway, there’s a part where Brendan Gleeson’s character is telling his daughter about the legend of the split rock — because they’re at the split rock — and it’s really very interesting.

I’m not as familiar with Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool as you’ve all probably heard him called, because English) as I am with Cú Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, but I know the basics. He was a mythological warrior who shows up in the Fenian Cycle, but also in legends originating in Scotland and the Isle of Man.** Fionn had a band of followers called the Fianna.*** He’s also, in some legends, referred to as the giant responsible for building a series of stepping stones from the North of Ireland over to Scotland; it is for him that Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave — in tribute of which one of my favourite pieces of music was composed — are named.

Anyway…the boulder. In Co. Sligo, near the town of Easkey, there’s a giant rock that’s been split in two. Science blames the last ice age, but science is unimaginative. Legend has it that Fionn and another giant by the name of Cicsatóin (or just members of the Fianna, depending on what you read), were hanging out one day. The pair decided to make a game of throwing a pair of massive boulders from their place in the Ox Mountains into the sea, 20 miles away. Cicsatóin succeeded****; Fionn did not. Enraged, he strode down to the rock and whacked it with his sword, splitting it in two. According to legend, you can safely pass through the boulder twice, but a third attempt will end in you being smushed by the rock.

You can read more here and here. And probably in the Fenian Cycle, which I can’t find you full text of, but there’s a pretty good synopsis here. As this is all legend, these aren’t exactly what one would call credible sources, but it’s legend, and part of the fun of legends is that they aren’t verifiable.

*And also, Aiden Gillen with his proper accent, which took some getting used to after years of hearing him as Littlefinger.

**My favourite of the stories I know tells how Fionn created both the Isle of Man and Lough Neagh when ripped up a part of the land to throw it at a Scottish rival. He missed, and the land wound up in the Irish Sea.

***Yes, that is where Fianna Fáil comes from.

****Legend also has it this is why the waters around Easkey have such good surfing.

Lesson #382: The Mason-Dixon Crownstones

Among the other subjects that came up in the Facebook discussion that ensued as a result of my dad’s email on Friday was a discussion about barbeque. And how, though I live south of the Mason-Dixon line, I don’t live in what one would call “good barbeque country.” Which is somewhat disappointing because if there’s one thing Southerners know how to do well, it’s slather meat in sauce and then apply open flames. I can get decent barbeque, but that’s a very different animal from good barbeque.

Anyway…because the line of demarcation between the north and south is the Mason-Dixon Line, I wound up going back for a bit of a refresher on why it’s placed where it is (I was right…slavery) and discovered that every five miles along the line there are markers called crownstones. On the Maryland side of the marker, they have Lord Calvert’s coat of arms and on the Pennsylvania side, William Penn’s.

There’s really not that much more to say about them. They’re markers left to indicate the Mason-Dixon line. That’s pretty much it.

That said, the first thing I did when I learned the crownstones exist was call my mother about taking some time to go find some; we both live close enough that we could make a field trip out to find a few.

Read a fun article written by a guy who went hunting some crownstones, see here. For a list of some of them, see here.

Lesson #375: Kalaupapa’s Leper Colony

Years ago, before I started this blog, I was having a conversation with a friend about leprosy in the Bible and we got to talking about how you never hear about lepers anymore. So I did some digging and found that there were roughly 400,000 people living with Hansen’s Disease, the clinical term for what we call leprosy.* It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that most of these cases are found in rural India and sub-Saharan Africa. Well, it turns out that America still has its very own leper colony.

Sort of.

On the Hawaiian island of Molokai, there’s a small village that is populated entirely by people who had leprosy. The colony was set up on the orders of King Kamehameha V in 1866, who, after leprosy arrived on the Hawaiian islands from China, issued an edict banishing anyone diagnosed with leprosy to the Kalaupapa peninsula. Over the course of a hundred years — the law was repealed in 1969 — Kalaupapa was home to about 8,000 exiled patients who were diagnosed with leprosy. As of 2008, there were only 24 remaining residents, all of whom have since been cured.

Today, you can tour Kalaupapa National Park, which contains the village of Kalaupapa, but you are still required to obtain a permit before you visit.

Fun fact: the only other animal on the planet that can contract leprosy is the aardvark. Do not ask me why I know that.

More here, here, and here.

*For the WHO fact sheet on leprosy, see here.

Lesson #374: The Time Zaire Lost 9-0 at the World Cup

Apologies for the delay in getting this up. After a month of binging on football, — because that’s really what the World Cup is…a month-long football bender — I took a few days to detox by reading books, catching up with some friends I all but abandoned, running non-pressing errands I’d been putting off, and generally being away from the computer. 

I was sat at the bar in the Irish pub down the street from my house, where I spent all my pub-watching time, for the Brazil/Germany semifinal. I was cheering for Germany, in part because I had them winning it all in my bracket, in part because of Manuel Neuer,* but mostly — because England didn’t even get out of their group (but Costa Rica did…oh, World Cup, your sense of humour!) and Diego Forlan’s flowing locks’ advancement past Colombia were hindered by age and Luis Suarez’s appetite for Italian — because Michael Ballack has long been my footballing God, even if he did play for Chelsea.**

Anyway, among the other regulars at this bar is a guy my Spurs friends and I met in May during the Champions League final. He’s been interesting to hang out with because he’s from Tanzania and is the only person I’ve ever met who can talk about the history of African football.*** So there we are, Guinness in hand, watching Germany crush Brazil. Five goals in, I decided to look up the worst routs in World Cup history. Among them, my new friend mentioned, I’d find a 1974 match in which Yugoslavia defeated Zaire 9-0.**** And then my friend started telling me this insane story (that isn’t all that insane when you consider sub-Saharan Africa’s history of post-colonial despots, but that’s a whole separate issue):

In 1973, Zaire became the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Hooray! So off they went to West Germany. After a 2-0 loss to Scotland, the Leopards learned that the wages they were expecting to see for their effort was being, shall we say, reallocated. Directly into the pockets of an incredibly corrupt Zaire government (that embezzled somewhere between $4 and $15 billion over the course of Mobutu’s 30-year rule). Now, as you can imagine, the players were not especially thrilled by this and decided not to play the following match against Yugoslavia. They were eventually convinced to play the match, but, as you can probably deduce from the scoreline, they didn’t put a whole hell of a lot of effort into it. They also went a man down in the 22nd minute.

Anyway, at the time, the country was run by a guy called Mobutu Sese Seke, who was, by all accounts, not a nice man. Funnily enough, though, he was installed as President with support from both Belgium (who had been Zaire’s colonial overlords) and the United States. Mobutu’s solution to opposition was the beloved trifecta of psychotic rulers since the dawn of man: kidnapping, torture, and execution. And he was not particularly pleased by a 9-0 humiliation. So he did what any tyrannical dictator would do in this situation; he sent his presidential guards to threaten the players. They were told that if they lost 4-0 to Brazil in their final match of the group stage, they would not be allowed to return home. In the end, Zaire lost 3-0 and its players returned home without further incident, but Mobutu had a policy that kept the members of the Leopards from pursuing football careers outside of Zaire.

If you’re interested, the scoresheet is here. You can read more about this madness here, here, and here.

*Neuer appears in conversation between me and a friend in the Texas capital on at least a weekly basis. He’s also the subject of the biggest fight The Swede and I ever had. I was mad at him because for an engineer he was being impossibly idealistic, and he was mad at me because for a student of revolutions, I was being impossibly pragmatic. In the end, we nearly got kicked out of a bar in Berlin.

**During the 2008 Champions League final, a friend looked at me before Ballack took his penalty and said, “you know he’s just standing there thinking, ‘of course it’s going in; I’m Michael fucking Ballack!'”, which is still the best ascription of emotion I’ve ever heard.

***The only Africans I’ve ever really known on a regular basis were when I lived in an Eastern European capital, and they had some seriously disturbing stories about how they’d ended up there; we didn’t talk much about football.

****The record is a goal difference of 9. Two separate 9-0 matches — Hungary vs. South Korea in 1954, Yugoslavia vs. Zaire in 1974 — and one 10-1 match — Hungary vs. El Salvador in 1982.

Lesson #372: The Right-Hand Man

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes questions will pop into my head for no reason at all and nag me to answer them; I was literally washing my dinner dishes when this question wandered into my brain unprovoked.

Western culture* has a tenet that one’s most loyal and trusted advisor/soldier/business partner is one’s “right-hand man.” But why? My immediate thought was that it’s born of religion because I’ve studied both the Tanakh and the Bible at some length, and I know the lyrics to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Heaven on Their Minds’.** It’s also the most obvious answer because that phrasing shows up nearly three dozen times over both scriptures.***

But it’s not the right answer. It seems those two documents absorbed some combat history.

In all likelihood the concept of the person to your right being the person you trust the most because he’s the person on whom you rely the most (and therefore being your “right-hand man” comes from the phalanx formation. In the phalanx, the person on your right was the one using his shield to protect your entire right side — including, since roughly 85% of the population are right-handed****, your sword hand. This actually raises a whole separate question about where they put lefties. Did they have entire phalanxes of lefties that were mirror images of the right-handed phalanxes? Did they simply train lefties to fight right-handed? If I can find that answer, you can be sure I’ll let you know.

Anyway…

Interestingly, though we generally associate the phalanx with the ancient Greeks — specifically the Spartans if you payed attention in grade 9 World History — the first known depiction of the formation is actually a fragment of the Sumerian Stele of the Vultures, which dates to the 25th century BCE.

You can read more here. Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there’s no definitive answer to this question and if you google the origins, many, many (most) people submit JESUS! as the answer. Which is fine, if not particularly logical. Just because it appears in scripture doesn’t make it the origin; I choose logic.

*I don’t know enough about Eastern culture to comment on the validity of the idiom there.

**I’d urge you to take those two pieces for what they’re worth.

***1 Kings 2:19, Ezekiel 16:46, Ezekiel 21:22, Zechariah 3:1, 1 Chronicles 6:39, 2 Chronicles 18:18, Psalms 16:8, Psalms 77:10, Psalms 80:17, Psalms 91:7, Psalms 109:6 and 109:31Psalms 110:1 and 110:5 — the first of which is directly referenced in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36Luke 20:42, and Acts 2:34, and Hebrews 1:13  — Matthew 26: 64, Mark 14:62, Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33,  Acts 5:31, Acts 7:55 and 7:56Romans 8:34Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 12:2, and 1 Peter 3:22. Lest you think I just know those offhand, remember I’m really good at finding things and very patient in my research. Also, given that John is our non-synoptic friend, his absence from this list shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

****Though, as with the blue eyes, a disproportionate number of actors are lefties. Pay attention the next time you see an actor writing something onscreen. I promise you more of them will be left-handed than is representative of the actual population.

Lesson #370: Hitler’s Record Collection

I absolutely love this kind of history. In part because I find the way things change hands over time fascinating. Like how a painting by one of the masters gets written off as a forgery and then spends 200 years in someone’s personal collection before being stuffed in an attic. Or how Hitler’s classical record collection wound up in Moscow. But I also find it interesting because I’m a firm believer that you can tell a lot about a person by what books they have, what’s on their iPods, what TV shows/movies they watch religiously, and what football club they cheer for.*

The story itself isn’t particularly exciting. After Hitler’s bunker was captured, a bunch of Russian Intelligence officers took it upon themselves to liberate some of Hitler’s possessions. For strategic sheep purposes or whatever.** Anyway, 60 years later, upon the officer’s death, his daughter came across the records in the attic (naturally).

What I find most interesting in this is the inclusion of the Russian greats like Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky (who wrote my favourite piece of music ever), Borodin, and Rachmaninov (who is responsible for a surprising piece of pop culture), as well as some recordings of other peoples’ work by prominent Jewish artists like Huberman and Schnabel. In case you’ve all forgotten everything you learned in school, Nazism considered both the Jews and the Russians subhuman.

So it turns out that if you’re a brutal dictator spearheading a campaign to rid Europe of all the groups of people you don’t like, you don’t actually have to take your own orders. You can listen to Russians, Jews, and Russian Jews to your heart’s content. Because who is going to complain and to whom?

You can read more here, herehere, and here.

*I like things that are very, very dark. Which you probably should have picked up on by now if you’ve been reading for a while. But also, come to my house, take a look at my library, skim my iPod, and/or have me list off my favourite TV shows for you; you won’t be at all surprised by most of what you see and hear. Except for where Clueless is concerned. It’s the Zdeno Chara of my collection — the outlier that’s going to skew all the rest of the data.

**I love the internet. I literally just googled “strategic sheep” and it came back with exactly what I was looking for. Technology!

Lesson #369: The Sin of Deafness

I was reading an article the other day about the challenges of being a sign language interpreter. It was interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the problem of dialect that is inherent in sign language, but the article happened to mention that deafness used to be considered a sin, which…okay?

St. Augustine wrote about how a child’s deafness was a sign of God’s anger with sins of the parents and taught that those who are deaf are unable to be saved because they can’t hear the Word of God. Weirdly, this makes perfect sense to me.

And, lest you think that this is another nail in the proverbial Christian coffin as regards my own relationship with the Church, the Talmud prevented deaf people from owning property at all. Or being witnesses in court. So there’s that.

For more, see here, here, and here.