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.

Lesson #344: Clerical Celibacy

Don’t worry; I’m not here to argue for or against clerical celibacy, as it has absolutely no impact on my life. I am neither a male looking to enter the priesthood nor a Roman Catholic.

Today’s lesson came out of a fact I learned today about how Pope Pius II wrote the best-selling book of the 15th century; it’s a book of erotic fiction called The Tale of Two Lovers. This then made me wonder when, exactly, the Catholic Church made clerical celibacy a requirement, rather than an option. Because, even in the middle ages with fewer available literary choices than we have now, surely a priest with zero sexual experience won’t have the ability to write bestselling graphic eroticism.

And besides that, as I’ve touched on in previous lessons, more than one of the medieval Popes had children. They also did all manner of other totally awesome stuff; there is no soap opera better than the medieval Papacy! It’s all sorts of illegitimate children and imprisonment and simony and murder and exhumation for trial.

But it seems that the indoctrination of celibacy was already in place in the West by the time Leo I became Pope in the mid 5th century. The 33rd Canon of the 304 Synod of Elvira delivered the first edict on the subject and suggested that “bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.”*

However, although it was the preferred state of those holding clerical positions, celibacy wasn’t compulsory until the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century. This edict on celibacy was a direct result of the “Rule of the Harlots,” the term given to the period between the ascension of Sergius III to the Papacy in 904 and the death of Gregory IV in 1048.** (I feel it should also be mentioned that the Gregorian reforms also eliminated simony. Presumably, Gregory VII didn’t need to say anything about murder and the exhumation of former Popes.)

So the answer to the question is the mid-11th century and Pius II was either writing outside of his experience or was practicing outside the faith.

For more see here, here, and here.

*Hilariously, the 35th Canon says that women should stay out of cemeteries at night because some of them “engage in wickeness rather than prayer.”

**There’s a very interesting article entitled Popes and Pornocrats that addresses this period that can be read here.


Lesson #314: Please Declare Your Snakes

You are required, by New Zealand law, to alert the authorities to any snake you see in the country.

There are no endemic species of terrestrial snake in New Zealand, and laws are in place under the umbrella of “bio security” to keep out any and all foreign species, lest they upset the ecosystem. There are no snakes in any zoos or research facilities, they may not accompany travelling performers on tour in the country, and ownership of a snakes as pets is strictly forbidden.

New Zealand does, however, employ snake handlers just in case and these handlers train with live snakes in Australia (where they have all manner of snakes that can kill you). This is an interesting article on the subject.

Lesson #307: Dueling is not, in fact, legal in Paraguay (in case you were worried about your upcoming trip)

Earlier today, I came across this. For those of you too lazy to be bothered, it’s a page from the Chicago Tribune with a line that reads: “In Paraguay, pistol dueling is legal as long as both parties are registered blood donors.”


My first thought was, ‘this has to be one of those bizarre old laws that’s still on the books.’ My second thought was, ‘what difference does their donor status make? No one gets blood from dead people!’

As I have no Paraguayan friends to whom I can pose this question, I went looking.

Now, I’m good at research; if it exists online, I can find it. It might take me a bit of time, but if it exists, I’ll eventually get there. I did find a source (dubious, naturally) that expounded that by law the duel must be registered with the authorities and medical staff must be present, but I couldn’t find any legitimate source to verify this.

Let it be known that I put more time into this than was reasonable for something I quickly figured out was not actually an old law still on the books. But I have a compulsive need for proper information, so once I’d abandoned the search for validity on the law as stated, I went looking for any sort of legal documentation to refute it. 

In the end, I finally came across this page. It seems the Mississippi Library Commission went ahead and called the Paraguayan Embassy to ask and were assured that there is no truth to this “fact”.

Lesson #253: A Kentucky Duel

A quick note before today’s lesson: Sometimes, my lessons pay off. There was a question on Jeopardy! yesterday to which the answer was Spartacus. I knew the answer because he was the subject of a lesson back in April.

My cousin in a major Canadian city* sent me a link today to a book she thought I’d enjoy. I need to get my hands on it. It’s a book of recent legal oddities written by a lawyer. My favourite of the examples deals with duels in Kentucky.

First of all, awesomely, under the Constitution of the state of Kentucky, all lawyers must swear an oath that they will not, nor have they ever, engaged in any duel with a deadly weapon, nor acted as a second.** It also bars anyone who has participated in a duel from holding “a state office of honor or profit.”

Now, that part is actually fairly reasonable given when it was adopted (presumably sometime around the end of the 18th century), but in 1998 an amendment was added to make it law for first responders and members of disaster and emergency response organizations to swear the same oath.  The best part of this, though, is that Kentucky (like probably most other states) has mutual aid pacts with other states and a 2004 report for Congress notes that during an emergency, state officials can “waive procedures and formalities otherwise required by law.”

What does this mean? I’ll let the author take it away…

“Thus, during times of disaster, a rogue Kentucky official can repeal the anti-dueling law for Kentucky employees and thereby create a loophole that allows Kentucky workers to duel with disaster aid workers from neighboring states that themselves don’t renounce dueling, all this at a delicate time when teamwork, not the settling of old scores, is vital to citizen health and welfare.”***

*I actually have four cousins living in major Canadian cities, five if you count Winnipeg, which is up for debate.

**A second, in that context, was actually a question on Jeopardy! recently that I only knew the answer to because I’ve seen the duel episode of Firefly about a dozen times. And they say television rots the brain!

***All information and quoted text can be read here. And presumably in the book, which can be purchased here.

As an aside: I do not know this author, nor do I have any vested interest, financial or otherwise, in whether you purchase a copy of his book. It’s just something I found interesting.

Lesson #249: Jaywalkers

According to Mental Floss, the term jaywalker is derived from the early 20th century American slang term “jay”, which meant a foolish or naive individual. They say that “when such a pedestrian decided to ignore traffic signals and street signs, he was referred to as a “jaywalker.”

The Etymology Dictionary corroborates this, noting that word jay (actually a late 19th century term — 1888 specifically) meant “fourth-rate, worthless”. As for the term jaywalker, it suggests that the word, which appeared no later than 1912* and certainly derived from jay,  may have originated in Kansas City and may have had an implied air of “boldness or impudence.”

*Merriam-Webster says 1915. They also tell me that Bartok (whose music I find incredibly painful to listen to — like someone running their fingernails down a chalkboard) rhymes with jaywalk, which though true, is really, really random. I’m at a loss for an occasion in which one would ever rhyme those two words.

Lesson #222: Be Sure to Pack Your Rifle

On the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard Islands (property of Norway), if you leave the main town of Longyearbyen, you are required by law to carry a rifle because of the threat of polar bears. However, because the polar bears are protected, it is against the law to harm them except to ensure personal safety.*

This actually reminds me of a news report I heard on World Service years ago, when I first moved to a southern state and was working an evening shift where I’d get off work at midnight. They were talking about how the smoking rate somewhere in northern Finland (I think? It was somewhere in Scandinavia above the arctic circle) had dropped significantly after the country passed its indoor smoking ban because it was so cold outside and there was a risk of contact with polar bears. The story really entertained me because it just seemed so preposterous.

*That information is here. And here.