Sunday, 28 April 2013

Once upon a time in the Outremer - The death of Conrad of Montferrat,

"[T]he Frankish marquis, the ruler of Tyre, and the greatest devil of all the Franks, Conrad of Montferrat — God damn him! — was killed" (Ibn al-Athir, around 1200)

28 April 1192: On his way home after dining with his friend Philip, Bishop of Beauvais, Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, was murdered by two Assassins in Acre.

François-Édouard Picot: “Conrad of Montferrat” (1843)

Born in the 1140s in the Italian Piedmont and related to Frederick Barbarossa, Louis VII of France and Leopold of Austria, Conrad first served the Byzantine Emperor with decisive action that kept Manuel I Comnenos on the throne. After Saladin's victory in the Battle at the Horns of Hattin in 1189 plunged the Crusader kingdom into turmoil, Conrad traveled to his fathers besieged city of Tyre, organised the defences and kept one of the last footholds the Crusaders had in the Outremer.

Conrad immediately landed in the hotbed of Outremer politics and was finally acclaimed King of Jerusalem by marriage to Isabella, the sister-in-law of his predecessor, the completely incompetent Guy of Lusignan, who lost the Battle of Hattin in the first place and was carted off to Cyprus by the Barons of the Outremer after Saladin had released him. Guy, as a liege man of Richard I of England en route to the Holy Land already, had the support of Coeur de Lion - who had no interest in a strong local potentate who already had begun to negotiate with Saladin.

Assassins in Action - here: the murder of the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk

So it is at least possible that Richard contracted the Assassins who murdered Conrad. The King of Jerusalem for a year left an ambiguous image in receptional history, usually being a murderous villain and powermonger, which he probably wasn't.

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Saturday, 27 April 2013

"Drive off your land those dogs clothed in red who will do you nothing but harm." - Pontiac's War in 1763

"Drive off your land those dogs clothed in red who will do you nothing but harm." (Pontiac, Chief of the Ottawa nation)

27 April 1763: Today, 250 years ago, Chief Pontiac addressed an assembly of envoys from Algonquin tribes near Detroit, proposing a surprise attack on Fort Detroit, occupied by the British since three years.

Robert Griffing: "Council at Slippery Rock Creek"

Hostilities in North America during the Seven Years' War and the Treaty of Paris brought large territories under British dominon. Their attitude towards the local tribes differed fundamentally from that of the French. Besides being former French allies, the Algonquin were now confronted with the usual treatment of a conquered people. The meeting near Detroit Chief Pontiac had initiated was the last step of two years planning of an uprising against the British, the failed surprise attack and following siege of Fort Detroit a week later the beginning of the conflict that became later known as "Pontiac's War".

Joshua Reynold's portrait of Lord Amherst (1765)

The next three years saw heavy clashes in the region of the Eastern Great Lakes and Western Pennsylvania and Virginia that took on a genocidal scale - from all sides, including the distribution of pox-infested blankets among the hostile tribes by the British commander Lord Amherst, probably the first historical example of biological warfare. The war ended in 1766 with a military stalemate, but was a turning point insofar as it proved that native resistance, whoever hard it might be, could not stop white settlers pushing westward into the American continent. British colonial regulations tried to keep native and colonists apart, but were largely ignored, forcing the government to keep more troops in the colonies, a decision that was to be financed by higher taxes from the white colonial subjects - who just had experienced the limits of local military power during the war with Pontiac and preferred to arm and organise themselves. 10 years later they started their own rebellion against the British.

The picture above, called "Council at Slippery Rock Creek" by Robert Griffing shows a group of Hurons during pow-wow. More of Griffing's art can be found on:

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Thursday, 25 April 2013

"Then his majesty prevailed against them at the head of his army" - Pharaoh Thutmose III fought the Battle of Megiddo

"His majesty went forth in a chariot of electrum, arrayed in his weapons of war, like Horus, the Smiter, lord of power; like Montu of Thebes, while his father, Amon, strengthened his arms. The southern wing of this army of his majesty was on a hill south of the brook of Kina, the norther wing was at the northwest of Megiddo, while his majesty was in their center, with Amon as the protection of his members, the valor of his limbs. Then his majesty prevailed against them at the head of his army, and when they saw his majesty prevailing against them they fled headlong to Megiddo in fear, abandoning their horses and their chariots of gold and silver." (Tjaneni, "An Account of the Battle of Megiddo", 15th century BCE)

25 April 157 BCE - Today, 3.470 years ago, in the 21st Shemu (season of the harvest) of Pharaoh Thutmose III, the king fought the Battle of Megiddo against the Syrian princes of the region.

Cashing in on the funds available after the economic upturn Egypt took during the reign of his mother Hatshepsut, Thutmose III marched into the Levantinian petty states to show the locals that there was a new king reigning in Thebes. The Syrian petty states had already seceded from Egyptian dominace, allied themselves and were probably threatenting to invade... or not, in any case, Thutmose III saw it fit to strike before things in the Near East deteriorated even more.

When the Prince (or king) of Megiddo and his allies were brought to bay near his ancestral seat and defeated by Thutmose, he could flee into his walled city, but finally had to capitulate after a couple of months of siege. What followed was an annual expedition of Egyptian troops into Syria to at least collect tributes or crush local resistance, marking the beginning of the New Kingdom's imperialistic policy in the region - thus, the local princes disappear from the annals, leaving only the Mitanni as tangible political entity further North.

The Battle of Megiddo is the first engagement that is handed down to future generations with relatively accurate reports of force levels, body count and the weapons used, among them the composite bow, a feared weapon that would play a decisive role in many engagements until the arrival of reliable firearms more than 3.000 years later.

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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The "painter of light" J.M.W. Turner

"I did not paint... to be understood. I wished to show what such a scene was like." (J.M.W. Turner)

23 April 1775, J.M.W. Turner, the "painter of light" was born in London. Or, at least, he chose April 23rd to be his birthday, it's St George's Day after the Julian calendar and Shakespeare's alleged date of birth as well.

"A First Rate Taking In Stores" (pencil and watercolour, 1818) - one of the lesser known of Turner's works. Asked by his host Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, far from the sea: "Give me some idea of the size of a man-of-war", Turner went at it with a vengeance: "The idea hit Turner's fancy, for with a chuckle he said to Walter Fawkes's eldest son, then a boy of about fifteen, 'Come along Hawkey and we will see what we can do for Papa' and the boy sat by his side the whole morning and witnessed the evolution of 'The First-Rate Taking in Stores.' His description of the way Turner went to work was very extraordinary; he began by pouring wet paint onto the paper till it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos — but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship, with all its exquisite minutia, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph." (quoted after the "Washington Post", December 2nd, 2007)

Controversial in his day, illustrated with observant comments from contemporary art critics, whose hearts were obviously set on the traditional paintings of the squirearchy and Thoroughbreds, like "the sea looks like soap and chalk" (Calais Pier, 1842), "eggs and spinach" and "painting with a mob and bucket", Turner turned out to be a bridge between traditional and modern art, creating an oeuvre that is unique.

And be it the cataract, he allegedly suffered from, or the eruption of a volcano, that tinted light different in the early 1800s, it took a genius to dissolve shape into light, be it a landscape, a locomotive or a ship. Thus Turner and his work mark the turning point towards Impressionism and the 20th century's abstract art. And still, after 200 years, not many equalled, let alone surpassed him.

A wonderful monographic show of Turner's works can be found online on:

And more about Turner on:

Monday, 22 April 2013

"God's friends and the whole world's enemies" - The Pirate Klaus Störtebeker and his last battle off Heligoland

"God's friends and the whole world's enemies" (motto of the Vitalienbrüder, Victual Brothers)

22 April 1401: Today, 612 years ago, Klaus Störtebeker, one of the most prominent leaders of a companionship of pirates known as "Vitalienbrüder" or Likedeelers ("equal sharers"), fought his last battle against the Hansa off Heligoland.

Brought to bay by Captain Simon von Utrecht, one of the Hansa's most experienced war leaders in their seemingly endless wars against the Baltic coastal states, Störtebeker was hauled aboard the Hanseatic flagship "Bunte Kuh" ("Pied Cow") and brought to Hamburg for judgement.

Modern reconstruction of "Die bunte Kuh"

Klaus Störtebeker (Low German for: "down the beaker" - he allegedly could drink four litres of beer in one gulp) and the Vitalienbrüder (victual brothers, possibly because they victualled besieged Stockholm with provisions) were a group of freebooters hired by various powers in the Baltics during the conflicts at the end of the 14th century and became the sworn enemy of the Hanseatic League who could find nothing useful or heroic in the disruption of trade. When the Vitalienbrüder finally turned pirate and spread their region of operation into the North Sea along the Hansa's lifelines to Norway and England, allying themselves with Frisian chieftains, the mighty merchant league got at them with a vengeance.

Störtebeker was decapitated in Hamburg in October 1401 and legend has it, that the mayor of Hamburg granted a last wish that everyone of his captured crew he could touch after his head was cut off, might go free. Allegedly, headless Störtebeker touched eleven of his men before his corpse was tripped up. Mayor Kersten Miles then broke his word and had all 73 captured Vitalienbrüder executed.

As a late revenge, Simon von Utrecht's statue at the Kersten-Miles-Bridge in  Hamburg was decapitated in 1985. Wiki quotes the accompanying graffitis as: "Wir kriegen alle Pfeffersäcke! (We will get hold of all Pfeffersäcke! Pfeffersack is a degotery term referring to the wealthiest amongst the merchants of the Hanse) and Nicht alle Köpfe rollen erst nach 500 Jahren! (Not all heads roll off after 500 years!)".

Saturday, 20 April 2013

"I try to apply colors like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music." - Joan Miró's 120th birthday in 2013

“For me an object is something living. This cigarette or this box of matches contains a secret life much more intense than that of certain human beings.”  (Joan Miró)

20 April 1893: Today, 120 years ago, the Catalan painter, sculptor, and ceramicist Joan Miró was born in Barcelona.

Mirò died in 1983 and his work ist still copyrighted, thus you'll find a photograph of his last great sculpture below, "Dona i Ocell" ("Woman and Bird", 1982), installed in a specifically built park in Barcelona near the Plaça d'Espanya.

Chiefly known as a painter - André Breton called him the "most surrealistic of us all", Miró gave the world a lesson in colour, not only on the canvas, but with illustrations and sculptures as well.

Sometimes naive flowing into weird... surrealistic visions but never approaching the more sombre points his contemporaries were forced to work up in their art, Miró's sujet acts as a counterdraft to the horrors of the 20th century.

Thus, Miró's works fascinate with their intensity of colour and form and because of that they might be the alternative to a grimmer perception of reality, a surreal manifesto, not written on the barricades but in contemplation.

Picture found on

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