Friday, 31 January 2014

“Few are the giants of the soul" - The British explorer and travel writer Freya Madeline Stark

31 January 1893, the British explorer and travel writer Freya Madeline Stark was born in Paris.

“Few are the giants of the soul who actually feel that the human race is their family circle.“ (Freya Stark)

A photo of Freya Stark, taken at some time during the 1930s

Many of us heard at least tale or three from One Thousand and One Nights when we were children and all of us who did dreamed like little Delacroixs or Byrons or Kiplings or at least Rider Haggards or Karl Mays and dreamed up dreams from the East, but only few read the whole thing, learned Arabic and Persian afterwards and set forth to go on adventures there. But young Freya, daughter of a painter from Devon and an Italian mother, a scion of Germano-Polish aristocracy, suited the action to the words she read at the age of 9. And she was one remarkable child, often ill and reading while she was confined to the house of her grandmother, where she grew up near Genoa, got her hair caught in a machine at the age of 13 while she was visiting a factory, an accident that left her face slightly disfigured, serving as a nurse in the Great War and finally going East of Suez for the first time in 1927 when she was 34.

Freya Stark, east of Suez on a camel, some time during the 1930s

She returned to Damascus in 1929, travelled to Bagdad and finally to the back then hardly known ruins of the castles of the Nizari Ismailis, the legendary Assassins, in Persia, wrote a book and became quite famous as an explorer, went to Jordan, Yemen and finally Egypt during the 1930s, worked for the British Ministry of Information in situ when the next war broke out and doing her part to persuade the Arab world to stay at least neutral in the conflict, wrote a couple of best-selling travel reports about her ventures into Turkey afterwards and finally visited Afghanistan and climbed the Himalayas when she was in her seventies. Freya died at the age of 100 in Asolo in Italy in 1993, by then she had been created a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, in 1972, but was largely forgotten as an author.

Posing with members of the Herki Clan in Kurdistan

Her books offer a very personal view into worlds usually concealed from tourists or about places that are no more travelled today than they were during the decades between the World Wars and the 1950s and ‘60s and often have a focus beyond the picturesque landscapes and ruins and Bedu chiefs, on the common people, especially on women behind the scenes of great political affairs as provoked, backed and described by the likes of T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell or more recent observers.

And more, including a short interview from 1977 on:


Thursday, 30 January 2014

“A Caesar who ought to have a Brutus.” - Richard Lawrence and the first attempt on the life of a U.S. president

30 January 1835 in Washington D.C., Richard Lawrence became the first known person to attempt to assassinate the President of the United States.
“A Caesar who ought to have a Brutus.” (former Vice President John C. Calhoun about Andrew Jackson in speech made on February 28th, 1835)

Contemporary newspaper illustration of Lawrence's attempt on President Jackson

Sunday in Derry, Gandhi murdered, Machtergreifung of the Nazis in Germany, more than 9,000 refugees drowning with the torpedoed Wilhelm Gustloff in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea... January 30th has a certain something, bad cess-wise, including the curiosity of the first, luckily, failed attempt to murder an U.S. president. Andrew Jackson was 68 old in 1835, President of the young United States since 1829, a war hero, Old Hickory, who fought, killed and was wounded in several duels. His would-be assassin Lawrence worked as a painter and there is speculation that exposure to the chemicals in his paints may have contributed to his derangement. By the early 1830s he was unemployed and had succumbed to the delusion that he was King Richard III of England. His personality changed dramatically around this point. Conservatively clothed previously, Lawrence now grew a moustache and dressed quite flamboyantly. He gave up his job, saying that he had no need to work as the American government owed him a large sum of money but that President Andrew Jackson was keeping him from receiving it. He also said that when he received the money, he could take up his rightful place as King of England.

A contemporary broadsheet advertising Lawrence’s trial

And while “Old Hickory” left the rotunda of the old Capitol building, his majesty tried to ambush the President, firing his first pistol and the thing misfired, he drew his second one, aimed, shot and the thing misfired as well. “Old Hickory” charged and was about to beat the wretch to death with his cane but was finally held back by his attendants and bystanders, including congressman Davy Crockett and held down Lawrence as well. He went to his trial three months later, was declared insane after five minutes and hospitalised for the rest of his life. He died in St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. in June 1861, more than 25 years later. The next unsuccessful attempt on a president’s life was made just a couple of weeks before, this time, Abraham Lincoln was the target, in February 1861 in Baltimore.

And more on:

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven” published in the “New York Evening Mirror” for the first time

29 January 1845, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” was published in the “New York Evening Mirror” for the first time, making the Bostonian Romantic a national celebrity overnight.
“Hey," said Shadow. "Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are." The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes. "Say 'Nevermore,' " said Shadow. "Fuck you," said the raven. It said nothing else as they went through the woodland together. (Neil Gaiman, “American Gods”)

Cover for "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe as illustrated by Gustave Dore, 1884    

When the Welsh poet Aneirin wrote his Y Gododdin, an elegy to the fall of the Brytonic Old North at some time between the 7th and the 10th century CE, a transvaluation of values in terms of ravens had taken place long since from the shamanistic trickster spirit of old to the kenning for battle in northwestern Europe. Nearly every stanza of Y Gododdin has a reference to the birds along the lines of “Sooner than to a nuptial feast; / Thou hast become a meal for ravens”, “And the head of Dyvnwal Vrych by ravens devoured”, “And on his white bosom the sable raven is perched” and whatnot. They remained a messenger, though, once to the gods, Apollo and Odin, to name a few, and from the Middle Ages onwards they became the bearers of ill news. Not only from the battlefields where they had feasted but from the places of execution as well, a well-laid table for the ravens, hence the German term “Galgenvogel”, gallows’ bird, or “Unglücksrabe”, literally a raven of ill luck, for a very unlucky person.

Édouard Manet - Le Corbeau – frontispiece of the French edition translated by Stéphane Mallarmé (1875)

Poe wanted a mundane and non-reasoning creature capable of speech to deliver the bad news and could hardly take a parrot, after all. While the non-reasoning qualities of ravens are quite debatable after today’s level of awareness of the intelligence of corvids, the motif of the “Unglücksrabe” is quite stringent with the earlier features of ill omen attributed to the bird. And while the raven of Dicken’s Barnaby Rudge could utter “nobody”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning rhymed “Ever, evermore the while in a slow silence she kept smiling” in her poem “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” and lost “Lenore” alludes not only to Poe’s earlier poem of the same name but to the back then well-known pre-Gothic ballad of the same name by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger from 1773, that was a favourite not only of Shelley and Coleridge as well but still inspired Stoker to the quote “die Todten Reiten schnell ("The dead travel fast")” fifty years after the “Raven was published” in New York.

Ary Scheffer (1795 -1858): Lénore. Les morts vont vite (“Lenore. Die Toten reiten schnell“)

The long poem became Poe’s literary breakthrough in the United States and was published in every major magazine on the East Coast during the year of 1845 and made Edgar a poet everybody knew, a national celebrity even though he complained that his success still had no perceptible influence on his meagre income. He died four years later, still penniless, while the “Raven” and his other works quickly found a grateful audience in Europe and Poe became a post mortem luminary, first there and later, again, in the United States while his raven still croaks his famous word over Poe’s posterity among his epigones in fantastic literature and movies.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

King Charles VI of France, Wild Men and the Bal des Ardents

28 January 1393, the charivari held at the Hôtel Saint-Pol in Paris by Queen Isabeau of France ended in a fiasco known as Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men).
“...four men were burned alive, their flaming genitals dropping to the floor ... releasing a stream of blood" (Michel Pintoin, c. 1350 – c. 1421, commonly known as The Monk of St Denis)

The Bal des Ardents “by the Master of Anthony of Burgundy (c. 1470s), showing a dancer in the wine vat in the foreground, Charles huddling under the Duchess of Berry's skirt at middle left, and burning dancers in the center”

King Charles VI probably hid behind the door when sanity was handed out among the members of House Valois. A
nd while he actually began his career as Charles the Good in 1388 his behaviour soon gave rise to sincere doubts. That he forgot who he was from time to time, or who his wife or his children or the members of his staff were, might have been overlooked by the contemporaries as an endearing quirk, but when his majesty attacked members of his hunting party with blank weapons in August 1392 and killed a few men was a bit over the top even in terms of royal quirkiness. However, what really unhinged the merry monarch was the accident during the Ball of the Burning Men.

Woodwoses or Wild Men, detail from a painting by Albrecht Dürer

Huguet de Guisay, the king’s pal, was probably a bit of a bastard and his idea to appear together with six other members of the court, including Charles, dressed up as “Wild Men” at the eve-of-wedding party of one of his queen’s lady-in-waiting, her third marriage actually, was positively more than good and clean fun. Remarriage was generally frowned upon in the Middle Ages since plighting one’s troth was usually understood as being valid beyond the grave and the appearance of the seven Wild Men may well have been a general attempt on the lady’s respectability. The group behaved quite savage during the ball ”in costumes of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in resinous wax or pitch to hold a covering of frazzled hemp, so that they appeared shaggy and hairy from head to foot", chained together to underline their ferocity, bothering and molesting and dancing like madmen. Then, the king’s brother, the Duke of Orléans, arriving late to the party, came close with a torch to see who exactly was making a spectacle of himself there and all hell broke loose.

The Bal des Ardents, illustration from Froissart's Chronicle (around 1470)

Four of the “Wild Men” were wrapped in flames in the blink of an eye, Charles himself, according to the contemporary historian Jean Froissart had “proceeded ahead of [the dancers], departed from his companions … and came near the Duchess of Berry“ and the 15 years-old-lady reacted quickly and threw her wide skirts over him to protect him from the flames. The burning four died either on the spot or a couple of days later from their severe burns and Huguet de Guisay cursed and insulted” his fellow dancers, the dead and the living, until his last hour" and riots broke out in Paris over this proof of courtly decadence. Both Charles and his brother Orléans did public penance and the king had a chapel erected for the four victims where masses were read daily. Charles was finally nicknamed “Le Fou”, the Mad, after this event and seemed to have been completely gone for most of the time during the following 32 years of his reign, encouraging the invasion of Henry V of England and another climax of the Hundred Years’ War.

And more in Stephanie Dreyfürst's excellent article on