Wednesday, 27 February 2013

"And down with all kings but King Ludd!" - Lord Byron and the Luddites

"As the Liberty lads o'er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!" (Lord Byron)

27 February 1812: Today, 201 years ago, Lord Byron gave his maiden speech at the House of Lords and, being Lord Byron, he rose his voice in defense of the Luddites.

The harsh economic realities of the Napoleonic Wars and progress in production methods - at the beginning of the 19th century especially new wide-framed automated looms operated by cheap, unskilled labour - triggered severe unrest in England. Especially the north saw cotton and wool mills destroyed by angry workers. To put down the unrest, the British government chose to employ at one time more troops than Wellington had at his disposal in the Peninsula.

The namesake of the movement, Ned Ludd, probably was imaginary, a youth who had allegedly smashed two stocking frames in Nottingham, Byron's borough, in the 1780s, nonetheless became emblematic for the machine destroyers. Machine breaking became a capital crime under the quickly passed Frame Breaking Act and charged 60 men in York in a show trial in York in January 1813, condemning all of them to death or at least transportation.

Byron reputedly was a bit theatrical in his speech, defended the Luddites and advocated social reform not without a typical Byronic reference to the fact that automation had the benefits of putting people out of work while producing inferior material.

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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

"Livery Stable Blues"

"By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with." (Duke Ellington)

26 February 1917: Today, 96 years ago in Camden, New Jersey, Nick LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first Jazz single in history for "Victor Talking Machine Company" with their famous "His Master's Voice" trademark of the fox terrier "Nipper" listening to a Berliner Gramophone.

Nick LaRocca and his "Original Dixieland Jazz Band" from a 1918 promotional postcard
Nick LaRocca and his band had previously played in New York and made their New Orleans style jazz a hit in the Big Apple - Victor's record swept the style across the US and the finally the whole world, "Livery Stable Blues" sold over a million times.

Everyone, Victor as well as the band, were surprised by their huge success and had a few hits afterwards, even a London tour in the early twenties when Kid Ory, King Oliver and Jerry Roll Morton had already surpassed LaRocca's popularity - but the Jazz Age had begun in earnest and single records were an integral part of popular culture for the rest of the century.

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Sunday, 24 February 2013

"To attain the highest.”

“A sacred pride should grip us of not being satisfied with the mediocre but to strive (for we can do it, if we want to) with the exertion of all our strength to attain the highest. Let us scorn what is of this earth, let us ignore what is of heaven, let us leave absolutely everything worldly behind us in order to hasten to the abode out of this world, in the proximity of the sublime deity. We do not need to think of stepping back. Of being satisfied with second rank, let us strive for dignity and glory. To attain the highest.” (Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, "Oration on the Dignity of Man")

24 February 1463: Today, 550 years ago, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola was born near Modena in in the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy.

Cristofano dell'Altissimo (1525 – 1605): Posthumous portrait of Pico della Mirandola

The early ripened philosopher formulated his iconic "Oration on the Dignity of Man" on the cusp of an emerging anthropocentric worldview, a key text of the renaissance, placing man "in the universe is somewhere between the beasts and the angels, but, because of the divine image planted in him, there are no limits to what man can accomplish".

Under the aegis of Cosimo de Medici in Florence, Giovanni arranged insights from theology, antique philosophy, Hermeticsm and the Kabbala as well as natural science into an entity known as "Hermetic Reformation" a parallel development predating the Northern reformation by several decades... but without the impact. Nonetheless, man as the centre of the universe stands in the nave of the Renaissance.

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Saturday, 23 February 2013

"This day, by the blessing of Almighty God, I have lived thirty-two years in the world"

"This day, by the blessing of Almighty God, I have lived thirty-two years in the world, and am in the best degree of health at this minute that I have been almost in my life time, and at this time in the best condition of estate that ever I was in — the Lord make me thankfull. Up, and to the office, where busy all the morning. At noon to the ‘Change, where I hear the most horrid and astonishing newes that ever was yet told in my memory, that De Ruyter with his fleete in Guinny hath proceeded to the taking of whatever we have, forts, goods, ships, and men, and tied our men back to back, and thrown them all into the sea, even women and children also. " (Samuel Pepys, "Diary", 1664)

23 February 1633: Today, 380 years ago, Samuel Pepys was born in London. The Chief Secretary to the Admiralty during both King Charles II's and King James II's reign who did much to establish the professionalism of the Royal Navy would hardly be remembered outside of naval history books, had he not written his famous diary between 1660 and 1669.

The diary is both an invaluable microhistoric source for the Restoration period as well as simply fun to read, chronicling events that shaped London in the second half of the 17th century, the Great Fire, the plague, the Anglo-Dutch war, as well as famous personalities and his very own, sometimes rather juicy life.

And the story he relates on his 32nd birthday about the Dutch drowning British citizens off Guinea was just a rumour.

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Thursday, 21 February 2013

"Maaki di biiki ön."

"Maaki di biiki ön." (Frisian for "Light the beacon", traditional ending of "Biikebrennen" addresses on the Island of Sylt)

21 February: Today in Northern Frisia, communities on the Halligen, the islands and on the coast of the North Sea celebrate the Biikebrennen, a traditional folk festival, that once ended the time between Martini (St Martin's Day, November 11th) and Petri Stuhlfeier (Feast of the Chair of St Peter at Antioch), that the Hanse, the Hanseatic League, had declared innavigable.

When the great days of the Hanse were over, the Biikebrennen saw the whalers off when they left their homes to hunt bowheads on the coast of Greenland. But the tradition is much older and probably symbolises much like the Imbolc and Easter fires the end of winter and, among the old Frisians before the Christian missionaries came, to honour Thor and Freyr.

Today, old christmas trees and floral arrangements are burnt in the Biikebrennen, but some communities still burn straw men called Petermännchen (little St Peters) that might symbolise the Pope in Rome.

The picture above, a Biikebrennen on the island of Sylt, was found on

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

"I will burn your city, your land, your self" - the sack of Baghdad in 1258 and the last of the Abbasid caliphs

"When I lead my army against Baghdad in anger, whether you hide in heaven or in earth, I will bring you down from the spinning spheres; I will toss you in the air like a lion. I will leave no one alive in your realm; I will burn your city, your land, your self. If you wish to spare yourself and your venerable family, give heed to my advice with the ear of intelligence. If you do not, you will see what God has willed." (Hülegü Khan in a letter to Al-Musta'sim, last Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad)

20 February 1258, 755 years ago, Al-Musta'sim Billah was executed by the Mongol conquerors. Since their leader Hülegü obviously had resentments to spill "royal blood" after the sack of the cultural centre of Islam and the death of up to a million people, Al-Musta'sim was rolled into a carpet and trampled to death by Mongol riders.

The utter destruction of Baghdad and the death of the last of the Abbasids who had ruled since the 8th century marks the end of the Islamic Golden Age and a blow from which the Arab-dominated Middle East never really recovered. The fertile crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates became a semidesert when the thousands-of-years-old irrigation system was vandalised and not enough people left alive to repair it, the Tigris ran dark not only with blood but with the ink of books and scrolls from the great library, the "House of Wisdom" flung into it, monuments were burned to the ground and Hülegü finally had to move his army upwind because the stench of the ruined metropolis had become unbearable.

Nonetheless, the place managed to recuperate at least in terms of economy for the next century under the Mongol rulers of Iran until it was again totally destroyed by Timur ("Tamerlane") in 1401.

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Tuesday, 19 February 2013

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium - Nicolaus Kopernikus

"Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind — for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic — religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of." (Goethe)

"Astronom Kopernik, czyli rozmowa z Bogiem" (Astronomer Copernicus, conversation with God)
by the Polish history painter Jan Matejko, 1872)

19 February 1473: Today, 540 years ago, Nicolaus Copernicus was born in the Polish city of Toruń. A true Renaissance man, Copernicus made his mark not only as a scholar and scientist, but as well as a cleric, governor and diplomat as well. But his true claim to fame is, of course, his comprehensive heliocentric model formulated in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published a few days before his death in 1543.

Within a hair's breadth, it might have been a posthumous publication of his work, but while Galilei almost got burned for following up with Copernicus' theory 75 years later, the Catholic as well as the Protestant churches did obviously treat De revolutionibus as some kind of minor oddity. It was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1616 and remained there until 1835, more or less for form's sake.

Nonetheless, Copernicus' work is a milestone in the development of how we perceive the world today, groundbreaking to the point that Freud, along the lines of what Goethe had written, postulated De revolutionibus as being the first of the three wounding blows Western civilisation had to suffer (the next being Darwin's theory) in regards to its own significance.

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Monday, 18 February 2013

"... that genius among German emperors"

"War to the knife with Rome! Peace and friendship with Islam!”: this was the feeling, this was the act, of that great free spirit, that genius among German emperors, Frederick II." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

18 February 1229: Today, 784 years ago, during the Sixth Crusade, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, Al-Kamil, negotiated the Peace of Jaffa.

Giovanni Villani's "Nuova Cronica" (14th century) depicting Frederick II's (left) and Al-Kamil's meeting.

"Stupor Mundi" Frederick II called in sick for the Fifth Crusade and got promptly excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX. Bell, book and candle did not prevent the emperor to marry Yolande, the daughter of the last Christian King of Jerusalem. Now Frederick decided to go crusading in his very own way - and throwing the Pope into fits of hysterics.

Being fluent in Arabic, Frederick met with Al-Kamil in person and negotiated in amicable fashion a Christian superiority in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem an Nazarareth as well as Jaffa and Sidon. While the Christians were forbidden to fortify Jerusalem, the Muslims kept control of their holy sites on the Temple Mount, especially the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of Rock. Arguably, Frederick had led the first successful Crusade since Godfrey of Bouillon's bloody debacle in 1099 - this time without bloodshed.

Actually, both sides in the Outremer should have been happy, both had what they wanted - except the Christian die-hards and hardliners. Frederick was of course not allowed to lead a crusade while under anathema and to regain lost Jerusalem without making great slaughter among the heathen was found to be rather unspectacular. Frederick didn't literally give a damn about it and was crowned King of Jerusalem. The Holy City remained in Christian hands until 1244, when newcomers to the Palestine hotbed of religious squabble, the Khwarezmian Turks, took the place. It remained Muslim until 1917.

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Sunday, 17 February 2013

Black sheep of the family - Curious Count Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy

"Our leader is like no one else in our Russian land / I needn't give his name, you will understand. / A night-time robber and a duel fan, / He was in exile in Kamchatka, no surprise, / From there he returned an Aleutian man. / He's a rogue: with clever men it can't be otherwise, / But when he, filled with frenzied inspiration, / Starts holding forth on honesty / He reddens ridden with obsession / And bursts out crying. So do we." (Alexander Griboyedov' “Woe from Wit”)

17 February 1782: On this day, 231 years ago, Count Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy was born, probably on the family's ancestral estate near Kologriv in Central Russia. No, not Count Tolstoy of War and Peace-fame, but one of his uncles, adventurer, duelist, soldier and bon vivant.

Being a real pain-where-the-sun-doesn't-shine prankster on the first Russian circumnavigation in 1803 with Krusenstern aboard Nadezhda, he seduced the ship's mascot, an orangutan, to scribble in and finally destroy Krusenstern's log (remember Stephen Maturin: "You debauched my sloth!"). Tolstoi was obviously such a pest that Krusenstern finally abandoned him in Kamtchatka, together with his primate friend. "The afore-mentioned orangutan, which was left on land with Tolstoy and whose later fate is unknown, gave rise to a great deal of gossip in aristocratic circles. According to one of the rumors, during his stay in Kamchatka, Tolstoy lived together with the ape; according to others, he ate it.".

Tolstoy lived a short but colourful life, and served as inspiration for many Russian 19th century poets and writers.

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Saturday, 16 February 2013

An ideological superstructure of the German Peasant's War - The Twelve Articles of Memmingen

"The peasants have taken upon themselves the burden of three terrible sins against God and man; by this they have merited death in body and soul... they have sworn to be true and faithful, submissive and obedient, to their rulers... now deliberately and violently breaking this oath... they are starting a rebellion, and are violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs... they have doubly deserved death in body and soul as highwaymen and murderers... they cloak this terrible and horrible sin with the gospel... thus they become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name” (Martin Luther, "Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants")

An allegorical woodcut from 1525, showing a peasant, dressed like a Landsknecht, wearing a short
Katzbalger sword and waving a banner labelled with "Freiheit", freedom 

16 February 1525: Today, 488 years ago in the Swabian town of Memmingen during the German Peasant's War, Sebastian Lotzer and Christoph Schappeler decided to give the base of the revolt in Southern Germany an ideological superstructure.

Delegates from 25 villages met in Memmingen to decide upon their final demands towards the nobility - 4 weeks later they presented the "The Twelve Articles: The Just and Fundamental Articles of All the Peasantry and Tenants of Spiritual and Temporal Powers by Whom They Think Themselves Oppressed". The most important was probably Article 3, the emancipation from serfdom.

Hans Baldung Grien's (1484 - 1545) idea of armed conflict during the Peasant War (1535)

The "Twelve Articles" were one of many lists of peasant's demands of the early 16th century, but it was the only one that had been printed - the relatively new technique of distributing information fast for everyone who could read (and many could in the early modern age) gave the demands from Memmingen an additional edge.

They were never realised though and the German peasants's revolt was put down with great violence. Abolishment of feudal privileges and emancipation from serfdom were effectuated in the German speaking countries in the wake of the French Revolution sometimes as late as 1850.

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Wednesday, 13 February 2013

"You all did see that on the Lupercal" - The Roman festival of Lupercalia on 13 February

"The exile Evander came from Arcadia to Latin fields, and ferried his gods here. Where Rome is now, the world’s head, were trees and grassland, a few cattle, an occasional hut . . . He taught the tribes man sacred rites, but firstly those of horned Faunus and the wing-foot god. The Luperci in loincloths serve you, half-goat Faunus, when their hide-strips purify the packed streets." (Ovid, "Fasti")

13 February: Today marks the beginning of the Roman festival of Lupercalia , pre-dating Rome's foundation, an ancient fertility and purification rite. The name has its origins in the god Lupercus, probably an aspect of Faunus / Pan, who stood guard over the cave where the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus.

On the Ides of February, i.e. February 13th, his priests sacrificed two goats and a dog, the victims were skinned and two young nobles were dressed up in the goats' hide, equipped with thongs called februa cut  from the skins and sprinkled with blood. The lads than ran around the Palatine, nudus, unctus, ebrius, "naked, oiled, drunk" as Cicero remarks upon Marc Antony the night he offered Julius Caesaer the crown of Rome - but coup d'etats taken aside, the role was, as Shakespeare mentions: "for our elders say, /The barren touched in this holy chase, / Shake off their sterile curse."

The festivals were held for two days each year until finally abolished in the 490s CE when Rome had been Christian already for more than 150 years.

"Battle of the Herrings" in the Hundred Years' War

"So they took back the road to Orléans in which they acted not honorably but shamefully." (Journal de Orléans)

13 February 1429: Today, 584 years, Sir John Fastolf successfully defended a convoy with supply for the English troops besieging Orléans in the "Battle of the Herrings".

rather quaint name of the engagement fought north of Orléans relates to the barrels of herring the English carried for those who observed the dietary rules in the Lenten season - Ash Wednesday was on February 9th in the year of 1429.

A relief army about 4.000 strong and led by Charles, Count of Clermont, tried to bring the convoy to bay with artillery while Sir John arranged his wagons into a laager, a formation the Hussites perfected about the same time in their wars against Church and Empire a 1.000 miles to the east in Bohemia.

While 600 English archers and allied French crossbowmen returned fire, Clermont's Scottish contingent obviously grew impatient and tried to charge Sir John's wagon fort - generally not a very good idea. 
While the rest of the French slowly decided to follow up in obvious disarray. the Scots were mowed down almost to a man by the deadly English longbows -  Sir John decided to attack the straggling French with what cavalry he had and put them to flight. The convoy reached the English siege lines and French morale in Orléans was at a historical low.

But the tables began to turn - on the same day, Jeanne d'Arc convinced de Baudricourt to support her mission to see the Dauphin in Chinon. The "Maid of Orléans" finally broke the siege three months later while the Great English Longbow that dominated the battlefields of the Hundred Years' War since the days of Edward III and the Black Prince sung of victory for the last time on the continent.

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Monday, 11 February 2013

"Woe from Wit" - How the poet Griboyedov lost his head in the Great Game

"... through long and uniform action, always correct and frank... to triumph over Asiatic suspicion and to turn into conviction on the part of Persia that fateful neccessity which has compelled her to accept our peace conditions" (A.S. Griboyedov)

A 19th century image of Tehran's Dervazeh Gate (and a likeness of Griboyedov in the upper right)

11 February 1829: Today, 184 years ago, the Russian envoy in Tehran, the playwright Aleksander Griboyedov, together with the whole embassy staff, was slaughtered by an angry mob.

What sounds at first like a rather outrageous and fatal breach of diplomatic immunity was not an act of caprice at all. Anti-Russian sentiments in Iran were at peak level in Persia by the end of the 1820s, especially since the humiliating Treaty of Turkmenchay, a massive strengthening of the Tsar's position in Armenia and along the Caspian Sea at the dawn of the "Great Game", the struggle with the British for dominance in Central Asia.

Concluding the Treaty of Turkmenchay - Griboyedov is the one with the white trousers among the Russian ambassadors (contemporary Russian depiction)

Griboyedov's main goal in Tehran was primarily to bully Qajar Persia into opening hostilities on the Ottoman Empire involved in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29. The playwright negotiated from an obvious position of strength and did everything to ignore local customs in his meetings with Fath-Ali Shah Qajar, e.g. wearing his boots and sitting in a chair during audiences.
Then a tricky part of the Treaty of Turkmenchay, the treatment of Christian Armenians, became a diplomatic incident. Since Christian Armenians were allowed and encouraged to move into Russian territory, Griboyedov decided to grant asylum to the espcaped ex-treasurer of the Shah's harem, one eunuch called Mirza Ya'cub and two Muslim Armenian girls. Diplomatic channels were ignored and since the rumour went around in the bazaar that the girls were to be forcibly baptised and abused by the Russians, an angry mob gathered in front of the embassy and demanded their extradition. The mob was ignored as well and in the morning of February 11th 1829, the Tehrani decided they'd had it with the Russians, stormed the embassy and killed everyone. The body of the author of one of the best known and loved Russian plays "Woe from Wit" was allegedly decapitated by a kebab vendor and dragged through the streets of Tehran while the mob shouted "Here comes the Ruski ambassador to see the Shah!"

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Sunday, 10 February 2013

"Bunga, Bunga!" - The Great "Dreadnought" Hoax

"Bunga, Bunga!" (Alleged Abyssinian exclamation of delight)

10 February 1910: Today, five years after the launch of HMS "Dreadnought" and 102 years ago, the "Bloomsbury Group" of London intellectuals pulled the "Dreadnought Hoax".

The Bloomsbury Group in Abyssinian Regalia (Virginia Woolf  is the bearded one on the far left)

The Bloomsburies set up a faked official visit from an Abyssinian delegation, dressed up four members of the group (among them Virginia Woolf) in a 1001 Nights-garb and were received among the most modern warship of the world, the pride of the Royal Navy.

Since the notes of the Abyssinian anthem were not to be had, the band stroke up the one from Zanzibar, the banterers answered with a gibberish of Latin and Greek - obviously unrecognisable to the Navy personnel present - and threw in "Bunga! Bunga!" for good measure.

HMS "Dreadnought" underway in 1906 - back then the eponymic world's most modern warship

The story, including photos taken, was passed to the "Daily Mirror" and the Navy looked a bit crestfallen. As sore losers, they insisted on criminal persecution, but since no actual crime was commited, the hoax went unpunished.

When Menelik II, the real Emperor of Abyssinia, visited London a couple of weeks later, children followed his entourage, crying "Bunga, Bunga!" (at least to the tunes of the real Abyssinian anthem) and when HMS "Dreadnought" by accident sunk the German U-boat U-29 during the war, one congratulation telegram read "BUNGA BUNGA".

"Once bitten, twice shy" Daily Mirror cartoon from February 1910

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Saturday, 9 February 2013

The devil went down to Devonshire - the Devil's footprints found in 1855

"Considerable sensation has been caused in the towns of Topsham, Lymphstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish, in Devonshire, in consequence of the discovery of a vast number of foot tracks of a most strange and mysterious description." (London Times, February 16th, 1855) 

9 February 1855, a set of mysterious footprints appeared in the snow of an uncommonly harsh winter in Devon, Southern England. The tracks varied in width between 1.5 to 2.5'' and were seen in regular intervals of 8'' apart, as if "not less than a thousand one-legged kangaroos, each shod with a very small horseshoe, ... have marked that snow of Devonshire"

An artist's interpretation of the events

The hoof-like marks became quickly known as the "Devil's Footprints" and caused quite a stir not only in South West England but in the whole of the country. Armed bands gathered together and tried to track down whatever had left the spoor - even "Old Nick" was rumoured to walk the countryside, hence the name - but to no avail.

Various explanations were given as an explanation, from the mandatory weather balloon to jumping field mice and runaway kangaroos, none proved to be satisfactory to this day. According to UK tabloids, the phenomenon reappeared in 2009 in the same area and is still unexplained.

"Fortean Times" author and historian Mike Dash amassed quite an exhaustive collection of material about the phenomenon:

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