Saturday, 30 April 2016

"Fanciful in the extreme" - Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck, raconteur extraordinaire

30 April 1875, on Walpurgis Eve, the French or Austrian or British antiquarian, cartographer, artist, explorer and raconteur extraordinaire Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck died allegedly at the age of 109 in Paris.

"Ah! that was vary true story—but Miss Wardour, she is so sly and so witty, that she has made it just like one romance—as well as Goethe or Wieland could have done it, by mine honest wort." (Sir Walter Scott “The Fortunes of Martin Waldeck“)

Lions in Pre-Columbian America?
Absolutely, at least according to  Jean-Frédéric Waldeck

As late as the last century, people in many parts of the Northwest doused all fires during the night between April 30th and May 1st and lighted them anew, while the denizens of the Otherworld, spirits and the fae, walked the Earth and cattle and sheep were driven through two fires to ensure their health among general merrymaking and maypole dancing. Based on the description of Witches’ Sabbaths, Walpurgis Night was described as the most important meeting point for all the creatures of the netherworlds, gathering in high places, such as the Brocken in the mountain range of the Harz in Lower Saxony, to work mischief and dance the night away. There is one story told by now less a figure than Sir Walter Scott himself that is set in these very Harz Mountains, that of “The Fortunes of Martin Waldeck”, drawing heavily on local folklore. The tale is quickly told. “The solitudes of the Harz forest in Germany, but especially the mountains called Blocksberg, or rather Brockenberg, are the chosen scenes for tales of witches, demons, and apparitions,” the Wizard of the North introduces the scene, and the Brothers Waldeck, three poor charburners, had just helped to stone a Capuchine priest out of their village of Morgenbrodt for preaching against the locals dealing with the resident demon. Said fiend, argued the youngest of the three, Martin, “is a good demon—he lives among us as if he were a peasant like ourselves—haunts the lonely crags and recesses of the mountains like a huntsman or goatherd—and he who loves the Harz forest and its wild scenes cannot be indifferent to the fate of the hardy children of the soil“ and promptly, the brothers run across one of the spirit’s Sabbaths at the Brocken, Martin takes three lumps of coal from his fire, they turn into gold in the morning, we’re in the money, thinks Martin, buys himself a baron’s title and a castle and, naturally, the whole thing ends in tears when Martin, cut by his assumed peers, strikes one of them death. The story, Scott wrote, was “taken from the German, though the Author is at present unable to say in which of the various collections of the popular legends in that language the original is to be found.” One Mr von Waldeck, though, claimed that he was the one German who had narrated it to Scott in the first place when they met in Scotland around 1815, but then, this Waldeck, Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck, was indeed a raconteur extraordinaire.

 “comital Methuselah” -
y photograph of centenarian
Jean-Frédéric Maximilien Comte de Waldeck

Novelist Ludwig Kalisch, a bit of a raconteur himself, wrote of a “comital Methuselah”, a stately old man he would have met at a hatter’s in Paris in 1868. On assignment for the popular German magazine “Die Gartenlaube”, Kalisch decided to investigate and asked the alleged centenarian Count Friedrich von Waldeck to tell his story. Naturally, the accomplished anecdotist complied and launched an autobiography that involved him with nearly every celebrity dead by 1850. Allegedly born in 1766 in Prague as the scion of a minor German noble family, the tribe relocated to Paris when Johann Friedrich was ten. Lead astray by an immoral priest with the credo “Amuse-toi! Fais comme moi!“, the young, gifted Bohemian noble lived the high life, had to flee to South Africa before the Revolution came, returned during the climaxing terreur, became a friend of Danton, saw the end of Citoyen Capet and wife, accompanied Boney to Egypt and sailed with Surcouf, met Scott and Byron in London, Cochrane in Chile until the purported polymath decided to turn explorer and archaeologist and made significant discoveries among the old Mesoamerican ruins deep in the jungle and what not. Showing Kalisch the scars ball, sabre cuts and rattlesnake bites had left on his ageing but still able body, the one he dragged every day up and down at least once to and from his flat on the fifth floor despite his advanced age, the count left quite the impression with Kalisch and the thousands of credulous subscribers of the “Gartenlaube”. Little, if anything had, in all probability, occurred in the way Waldeck reported, but at least there were two achievements he could enter in the books as his by right. One was exploring in Mexico, the other was the reworking and re-publishing of half forgotten Renaissance smut, the I Modi (The Ways). Back in the 1520s, Marcantonio Raimondi, Italy’s first notable printmaker, recognised the brilliant idea of taking advantage of a new mass medium to peddle porn en masse and published 16 engravings of sexual positions, somewhat pretentiously labelled “De omnibus Veneris Schematibus“, once crafted by a student of Raphael. Poet Pietro Arretino had versified 16 saucy sonnets to go with the images, the whole package was probably the first publication of the modern age that coupled erotic images with appropriate texts and was promptly banned by the church and all copies destroyed. Some fragments survived, but Waldeck claimed he had found the whole set of “Aretino's Postures“. In a convent near ancient Palenque in Mexico, of all the places.

Waldeck's take on 16th century erotica - engraving from his 1850s publication of "I Modi"

The 19th century’s sultry imaginations of nunneries taken for granted, “Amuse-toi! Fais comme moi!“, there is no convent around Palenque and its old Maya ruins, but, for once, Waldeck really was in Mexico. Even if his antecedents of going north on his own to explore after he left Lord Cochrane in Chile, repelled by the mariner’s brusque manners, is another myth of Waldeck’s as well as his claim to have mapped Yucatan for the first time. During the 1820s he already had indeed contact with ancient Mesoamerican art. Hired by a Parisian publisher to enhance drawings from an 18th century travelogue about Palenque, “Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City“, Waldeck created small works of art. In every sense, since he made the Mesoamerican ruins look like Egyptian relics, supporting a current theory that the place was built by a Lost Tribe of Israel or the other. When he finally went there, in 1825, strolling around Mexico after getting the sack from an English mining company that had originally employed him as an engineer, Waldeck did explore Pre-Columbian sites for the next eight years, Palenque and Uxmal among them, and gave his imagination free rein. Reliefs of rain gods he saw became elephants, ancient Maya kings and priests wore Phrygian caps, the whole architectural setting became more and more Egyptian with lions populating the scene and all that. The engravings Waldeck crafted were brilliant and, as his patron Lord Kingsborough mentioned, "fanciful in the extreme." Waldeck’s collection of engravings, called “Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province d'Yucatan pendant les années 1834 et 1836“, published in 1838, did considerably influence contemporary academic discussions about the origins of Pre-Columbian civilisations and the idea of contact between the Americas and the Old World in antiquity to this day. Waldeck, however, settled in Paris for good, continued to tell tale tales and did engravings until his alleged 100th birthday in 1866 when Kalisch met him. He died a few years later, on Walpurgis Eve of the year 1875, one of the few proven dates in his biography, allegedly of a heart attack after ogling a pretty girl on the Champs-Élysées.

Seeing the elephant, e.g. on the head of Mayan royalty while the wife strikes a classical pose

And more about Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck on:

and the I Modi on:

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

“Father of the Trolls” - the Art of Theodor Kittelsen

27 April 1857, the Norwegian artist Theodor Severin Kittelsen was born in the Telemark coastal town of Kragerø.

“What appeals to me are the mysterious, romantic, and magnificent aspects of our scenery, but if I cannot henceforth combine this with a wholesome study of Nature I´m afraid I´m bound to stagnate. It is becoming clearer and clearer to me what I have to do, and I have had more ideas - but I must, I must get home, otherwise it won´t work.” (Theodor Kittelsen)

Theodor Kittelsen: "Troll at the Karl Johan Square" (1892)

 art did not just begin with Edvard Munch. In 1886, though, when his “Sick Child” was exhibited for the first time in Kristiana, as Oslo was known back then, it meant a major breakthrough, though, not only for the artist but for the Norwegian art as well. And, naturally, the piece drew a "a veritable storm of protest and indignation" from the Scowegian spectators and critics just as most major works from Munch’s colleagues in France and the German speaking states did when the art –isms of dawning modernity finally took root and flourished. With Munch, Norway had finally arrived on the late 19th century’s international art scene. Admittedly, Norway had to catch up a bit since the Middle Ages, on national identity as well as on how to artistically express the growing Norwegian self-awareness. When the country finally became independent from her big brother Denmark in 1814, the place had been a colonial backwater for more than 400 years. Without any art patrons or art schools to speak of. The few whose artistic talent was recognised and who managed to receive some form of patronage, either by their families or some generous individual in higher places, usually went first to Copenhagen for academy training and afterwards to Germany and later France to get their final sanding. Munch still passed through a similar professional development in the late 1870s, just as the "father of Norwegian landscape painting" Johan Christian Dahl did at the beginning of the century. It was Norway’s hauntingly beautiful landscape that inspired the local painters, more often than not, and drew them back home, again and again, even after they had gone native down south, usually in Germany. Along with the glorious Viking past and picturesque folk garb and customs, the landscape made a national Romantic approach on art rather easy. From Hans Gude’s, Peter Nicolai Arbo’s, Erik Werenskiold’s and Adolph Tidemand’s paintings, to folklore collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe, the Norwegian Brothers Grimm, the writings of Ibsen and, famously, Grieg’s music, “Halls of the Mountain King” and all that. It was one artist, though, who gave Norway’s folklore a distinctive image and became “Father of the Trolls”: Theodor Kittelsen.

Theodor Kittelsen: "The Princess picking Lice from the Troll" (1900)

has been described as naïve and folk artist. He was anything but that. Even if he became famous for his illustrations, many of them made for Asbjørnsen and Moe. Arbo, Tidemand and Gude neither couldn’t resist the temptation to leave palette, oil colours and huge canvasses aside and draw scenes from the immensely popular folk tales as illustrations for new editions published between the 1840s and 1879, when all of them contributed their wonderful imaginations to the first fully illustrated collection of “Norske folke- og huldre-eventyr”. Werenskiold and Kittelsen took it from there for the next editions published and Kittelsen hit everyone’s nerve, in Norway and the rest of the world, and more or less codified how Norwegian trolls and most of the other local huldrefolk are supposed to look like. Kittelsen himself studied abroad, goes without saying, first in Munich where he began to work as newspaper illustrator after his benefactor back home went bankrupt. He was granted a state scholarship, continued his studies in Paris until homesickness finally got him. He returned to Norway, first to his native Telemark county in the south and then to Lofoten, an archipelago off Nordland, a dramatically romantic scenery where it is even easier to see trolls. At the very least in one’s own inspired mindscape. Kittelsen did, put them down to paper, first in his “Troldskab”, published in 1892 and right into the heart of his fellow countrymen and every connoisseur of fairy tale and folklore motives from the Golden Age of Illustration to this day.

Personified plague stalking the picturesque Norwegian fjords:
Theodor Kittelsen: "Pesten" (1900)

Munch, Kittelsen had a somewhat morbid streak, at least in choosing his distinctive sujets. He illustrated tales of terror from the times of the Black Death that stalked medieval Norway just like the rest of Europe. Grief and death are an integral part of his illustrations and paintings. And Kittelsen did paint as well, usually in a late or post –Romantic style, celebrating Norwegian landscapes in their wild northern splendour. Along with local motives like the picturesque Kornstaur, stacks of grain, often seen on Norwegian farmsteads and part of the pictorial world of Norwegian art since Dahl, who turn into trolls with Kittelsen, as one would expect. And despite becoming something of a national artist in Norway and an icon among illustrators at the turn of the last century, Kittelsen died a poor man in 1914, a couple of years after Norway finally had become a sovereign state. By then, in the wider world, his art works would be found, by and large, in children’s books only. The art world had long since evolved away from his narrative of the otherworlds of the fjords and mountains of Norway. And while he was never quite forgotten back home, with several small museums maintaining his legacy and the remembrance of his life and works, it took well into the 1970s and the worldwide revival of folklore and tales of wonder and imagination that he became more than an insider’s tip for enthusiasts only. But at least since then, he is the undisputed “Father of the Trolls”.

Theodor Kittelsen: "Kornstaur i måneskinn" (Stacks of grain in the moonlight, 1900)

more about Theodor Kittelsen on:

His "Pesten" images on:

and more wonderful images on:

Sunday, 24 April 2016

"Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town!" - The Fall of Troy and its Cultural Aftermath

24 April 1184 BCE, today, 3,200 years ago, the city of Troy fell after ten years of siege, at least according to the Greek polymath of the third century BCE, Eratosthenes of Cyrene.

"What hope, O Pantheus? whither can we run? / Where make a stand? and what may yet be done?' / Scarce had I said, when Pantheus, with a groan: 'Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town! The fatal day, th' appointed hour, is come, / When wrathful Jove's irrevocable doom / Transfers the Trojan state to Grecian hands." (Virgil, "The Aeneid")

Johann Georg Trautmann (1713 - 1769): "The Burning of Troy" (1762)

To simulate conditions in a volunteer fire brigade during a major alarm, it’s usually enough to say the word “Troy” to a group of classical scholars. But for a while, everything seemed to be settled. After centuries of believing the place to be a myth, some 18th century aficionados, under the influence of reinvigorated public interest in antiquity and the first enthusiastic steps of archaeology, already speculated that there might be at least some truth in the old tales. Western Asia Minor immediately came into their focus, naturally, and already in 1721 there was a map attached to the edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad that showed the Troad, a region in northwestern Anatolia, with appetising Homeric details. Unfortunately, there were no Bronze Age ruins on site and the somewhat smallish hill of Hisarlik was just identified with the Greco-Roman town of Illium. Until Frank Calvert came along in 1865. Parts of the hill already belonged to the local Calvert family estate where Frank dug some test holes. And he found something, obviously the remnants of ancient towns, stacked upon each other, that might well date back to Homer’s Heroic Age. Three years later he persuaded the German entrepreneur Heinrich Schliemann of his idea that Homer’s Troy might be one of the layers of settlement hidden under Hisarlik Hill. Schliemann, who dreamed of discovering Troy since he first read Ludwig Jerrer's “Illustrated History of the World” when he was a boy, took the bait, grabbed a shovel and began to dig himself. Ten years later, in 1873, he announced that he had found the site of ancient Troy. Even though his most spectacular find, dubbed “Priam’s Treasure”, a spectacular cache of golden, silver and bronze artefacts, was about a 1,000 years older than Layer VI or VII, occupied around 1200 BCE, the traditional date of the Trojan War. That the multi-layered hill in Anatolia is indeed the site of Troy, or a Troy, has never been seriously doubted in professional circles ever since. Schliemann famously went on to excavate the Mycenaean homes of the Homeric heroes in Greece and that was that. The city Schliemann had discovered in Asia Minor was Troy, Homer’s epics were a remembrance of cataclysmic events that had really happened some 3,000 years ago and he had found the artefacts and ruins to prove it. But besides foaming at the mouth over the havoc Schliemann had created with his rather amateurish digging at the Hisarlik site, archaeologists have uncovered tons of evidence since then up to hence unknown large sections of a lower part of the city that raised quite a lot of questions, while classical philologists never found any textual evidence that really proved that the settlements under Hisarlik Hill once housed Homer’s Troy, even though the Ancients themselves always assumed that it had. Which Bronze Age culture or cultures built and inhabited the place, did the events told by Homer and in the Epic Cycle really took place, which layer was the one occupied by then and what role the Bronze Age town actually played in a wider context, are the major points currently discussed. Judging from the site the city occupied, it might indeed been a prosperous trade centre, profiting from merchant shipping waiting for favourable winds to cross from the Aegean into the Black Sea and back. But it might just have been a pirate’s nest as well. Was it an independent or semi-independent city state and part of the Aegean cultural circle or was Homer’s Iλιον (Ilion), once spelled Fίλιον (Wilion) even in the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”, identical with the Hittite city of Wilusa, part of their empire and thus rather belonging to the Ancient Orient? Not to mention the site’s settlement history of at least 3,500 years and its 10 different layers of towns, sometimes destroyed, by earthquakes, fire or war even, and sometimes just overbuild, that leave a lot of room for various speculations and theories. And did the Trojan War really take place or not.

Sofia Engastromenou-Schliemann, Heinrich’s wife, wearing the “Jewels of Helen” (to the left, photo taken in 1873) and to the right Schliemann’s original display of “Priam’s Treasure“ in 1873

was sacked after ten years of war - at least according to Eratosthenes, who has been rated as an authority on the subject. The night before, the Trojans made the fatal mistake of not looking a gift horse in the mouth and pulling the infamous equine into their city. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes - "I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts". The story of Troy's fall itself, like many other legends of the Trojan War, is not told in Homer's "Iliad", though. The epic actually covers only a few weeks of the 10th year of the war during Agamemnon's and Achilles' quarrel over the "rosy Briséis" - even though the coming sack of the city is mentioned. Ulysses' ploy, Laocoön and the snakes, Aeneas and the Palladium and all the primal scenes that took place after Achilles' son Neoptolemus and his warriors jumped out of the Wooden Horse and put many-towered Ilium and her inhabitants to the sack are stories told in the Epic Circle, especially the Iliupersis, the "Sack of Illium", probably by one Arctinus who lived in the 8th century BCE while other events of the war were retold first by Ulysses himself in Homer’s “Odyssey”. However, wherever and if ever these events took place, their narrative marks the birth of Western literature and established the cultural identity of classical Greece.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: "A Reading From Homer" (1885)

Classical scholars have debated the existence of an individual named Homer as a culture-endowing force at least since the Age of Enlightenment as well and experts’ opinions are still divided whether he actually lived around 800 BCE and was the first and greatest of the Greek epic poets or if he is a fictional character himself, made up by the very Ionian rhapsodists who mouthed the verses in the first place. Why the Greeks, who usually claimed a divine origin for every random bush and fountain in their vicinity, would come up with a mortal author of their identity-establishing narrative if they didn’t know for sure that it was a person named Homer who composed them, remains to be answered under these auspices. However, the Ancients never doubted his existence, but while Homer continued to be at the very base of literature of all synanthropes of classical Greek culture to this day, it was the Roman author Virgil who translated the material into a distinct political narrative along the lines of a national epic with his “Aeneid” between 29 and 19 BCE. Making princely Trojan refugees the ancestors of his contemporary monarchic rulers, Augustus and the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Virgil transformed Troy into a source of Roman and later medieval European claims to power along with a heroic pedigree. With the fall of the city as a pivotal event. After Western Rome had fallen 500 years after Virgil and became a political myth herself, the lords of her Germanic successor states were anxious to add at least one Trojan ancestor to their pagan divine pedigree, from the Franks to the Norse, just to keep up ideologically with their Roman precursors. And thus, Troy was never forgotten in the West, even though the town under Hisarlik Hill, whether it was the real Troy or not, was finally abandoned after an earthquake for good around the time Romulus Augustulus abdicated as last Western emperor in Rome.

And more about Troy on:

Saturday, 23 April 2016

“Triumph my Britain, thou hast one to show" - William Shakespeare

23 April 1616, 400 years ago, William Shakespeare died in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Triumph my Britain, thou hast one to show / To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe. / He was not of an age, but for all time!“ (Ben Jonson)

Sir John Gilbert’s (1817 – 1897) picture puzzle “The Plays of William Shakespeare“ (c. 1849)

It’s like with Homer. Some artists play an identity-establishing role to such an extent, that at some point in reception history, posterity begins to doubt their existence and comes up with various attempts at an explanation for individuals that have become long since a cultural phenomenon. One of the usual approaches is to socialise their works, attribute literary remains to a team of authors, in Shakespeare’s case to, exempli gratia, Francis Bacon, Raleigh and Edmund Spenser, or creating an even more fantastic larger-than-life figure by attributing authorship as spare-time work to worthies from Christopher Marlowe to Good Queen Bess herself. As if the idea of an individual with an otherwise rather assessable biography, graduate of a grammar school, married, three children, decent marketing skills and a job as theatre director, being one of the greatest authors of world literature at the same time was simply unbearable. Whatever might have been the case, Shakespeare has become a cultural icon comparable to few others ever since.

A procession of Shakespeare's character from around 1845

Of the 17,677 words Shakespeare uses, he invented one-tenth, more than 1,700, himself by changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, pairing words into a new meaning and inventing some that had never been used before, from “advertising” (“Measure for Measure”) to “rant” (“Hamlet”) and “swagger” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). 20.000 pieces of music are linked to his works and few authors of world literature past the late 1700s would write their own masterpieces without concerning themselves with Shakespeare and not only in the Anglosphere. It is actually thanks to the Romantics that Shakespeare was exalted to Olympian (“King Henry VI”) heights after Dr Johnson had made him the most quoted author in his “Dictionary of the English Language“, up to a point where the Victorians indulged in a reverence of the Bard that G.B. Shaw called “bardolatry” and constituting him to be the most quoted author worldwide after the Bible – and Shakespeare remains an inspirational and culture-endowing force to this day.

And more on

Friday, 22 April 2016

"Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" - Wolves, their myth and their return to Europe - an "Earth Day" feature

22 April is Earth Day, an annual event held since 1970 and now celebrated across the globe to demonstrate appreciation and support for the natural environment and environmental protection. Accordingly, the Wunderkammer opens its doors for a field excursion, this time to have a look at wolves and their gradual return to Europe where they had almost died out over the last 150 years. And naturally, it begins with “Once upon a time…”

“All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel. …Think about it. There's escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.“ (Margaret Atwood)

Dakota, a she-wolf at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, howling archetypically on top of a snowy hill ***

It’s not that cave wolves had sabre teeth. Nor did they dwell exclusively in caves or were overly large. They weren’t the apex predators of the Ice Age either. There were cave hyenas back then in Europe, leopards, cave lions, the last scimitar-toothed cats even, and, of course, the ubiquitous cave bears. And somehow, the megafaunal wolves failed to make a major impression on our cave painting ancestors. Depictions of wolves are extremely rare in the art of the Upper Paleolithic, in paintings as well as sculptures. But they were there, hunted the same big game as our ancestors on the mammoth steppe and they did leave us with a lasting legacy. It were those ancient wolves that were, in all probability, first domesticated between 30 and 40,000 years ago and became the ancestors of man’s best friend. About the same time, another divergent subspecies developed that would indeed leave a major footprint in the psyche of humanity populating the world’s northern hemisphere and become the deadly enemy of its very close domesticated canine relatives: grey wolves. And when the Ice Age mega fauna, predators and prey, disappeared along with the mammoth steppe, grey wolves became top dog of the food chain in many regions from Spain to the Ural and the narrative of their long competition with mankind began that ended with the extinction of wolves in most European regions by the end of the 19th century. Or almost. Over the last 30 years, wolves returned to their old haunts, their numbers increasing slowly and their existence is discussed as controversial as it was during the end of the Middle Ages. 

One of the very few known depictions of wolf-like canid from the Upper Paleolithic, probably a megafaunal wolf, found in the Font-de-Gaume cave in the Dordogne Valley, France (around 25,000 BCE)

was not always the proverbial “Big Bad Wolf”. The shamanistic belief systems of the nomadic and half-nomadic steppe peoples always held them in high regard, even in historical times and to this day. Huns, Mongols and several Turkic groups traced their genealogy back to wolves. And even if our Neolithic ancestors did not do much in regards to leaving an artistic heritage of their grey food competitors, the descendants of those tribes migrating into India, the Middle East and Europe from the steppe would, even after their mythology changed from its shamanistic roots into the better known polytheistic mindscape of the Celts, Germanics and Slavs. Tierkrieger, warriors who were able to change into animal forms, wolves, more often than not, certainly have their origins in shamanistic traditions and survived in modern mythology as werewolves, although under quite different auspices. The revered shapechangers of old had become inhuman monsters, along with their wolf brethren.* Sedentary cultures of the Middle and Near East and the Mediterranean could find nothing heroic in the predators who broke into their flocks. Wolves had become a threat, were demonised and while Romans still carried standards into battle showing the she-wolf nourishing their founding fathers, Christianity in the west changed the reputation of wolves fundamentally. Even late Germanic pagan belief adopted the wolf in the guise of Fenrir as a demon who would fight the Æsir in Götterdämmerung at the end of days. The canines had become the uncanny emissaries of darkness, companion of witches and sorcerers and chief enemy of civilisation and everything that was good, backed up by appropriate scriptural passages, once written in the context of a pastoral culture and the imagery of sedate herders fearing for their livestock. Fairy tales like “The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats“ and "Little Red Riding Hood" did the rest to cement the image of the “Big Bad Wolf”. Right from the cradle.

John Bauer: "Tyr and Fenris" (1911)

of more and more space in favour of cultivating land for Europe’s growing population did bring the wolves into direct conflict with humans, of course. The primeval forests disappeared and the big game with them, aurochs, European bison and elk, along with red deer and wild boars either died out or were massively reduced in numbers and while wolves, their prime predators, quickly learned to keep away from settlements and herds, they often had no other choice than preying upon them. Especially during the long winters of Europe’s Little Ice Ages that happened since the end of the Middle Ages. While actual, well-documented attacks on humans are rare, they did happen. Rabies is one reason and wolves rather attacking the sheep dogs that accompanied lone people outside of the village green another, they still are in present-day fatal human-wolf encounters, but there were times when wolves actually preyed on humans. Or what was left of them. The 14th century’s Black Death along with other pandemics as well as devastating wars, the Hundred Years’ War in France and the Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe, costing the lives of tens of millions of people and leaving whole regions depopulated, with the death and dying rotting in abandoned villages, were a feast for predators and scavengers. Such as wolves. And there are creditable reports of large marauding wolf packs from these days that did not fail to leave a lasting impression on the minds of Europeans, contemporaries as well as their descendants. And, of course, there were tales of packs that had learned that humans could be easy prey and lone wolves that terrorised whole districts, the arguably best known case being that of the “Napoleon of Wolves”, the infamous “Beast of Gévaudan”, allegedly responsible for the death of more than 100 people in the Haute-Loire during the second half of the 18th century.** Even if such events were rare and often exaggerated, wolves were usually fought fought with firearms, organised hunts, traps and poison until the last of them was exterminated. The last grey wolf on the British Isles was killed in 1684 in Scotland and 1786 in Ireland respectively. On the continent, west of the river Elbe and in Scandinavia, wolves were wiped out by 1880 with only small populations surviving in the remote mountain areas of Spain and Italy.

A Grey Wolf in Bavarian Forest National Park (image from MrT HK on Flickr, November 2014 ****)

"The mischief [the wolf] causes by his hunting might be borne, though it is considerable, if he were not impelled by his wild hunting zeal and indomitable thirst for blood to slay more than he needs for his sustenance. This renders him a curse to the flock-owner and sportsman, and makes him everybody's cordially hated enemy”, Alfred Brehm of “Brehm's Life of Animals“-fame wrote as late as 1895, but the alleged blood-thirst of wolves and killing more than they need for their immediate sustenance is a myth. However, these ages-old prejudices prevail to this day. While regions in Italy, the Balkans and Romania, where wolves had survived, usually have a quite relaxed handling of the large predators living in their vicinity, most northerners are driven close to hysterics if wolves are reported to have returned to the premises, especially said sportsmen, flock-owners and especially worried neighbours, fearing for the lives of their children and pets. The wolves have come back to western and northern Europe never the less. While Italian and Spanish local wolf populations were placed under strict protection and have been stabilised over the last decades, they migrated back to Scandinavia, the Alps, western Poland and northeastern Germany since the 1990s, now numbering between 12,000 to 18,000 individuals, not counting Russia and Ukraine. And even if the numbers of game species increase considerably, up to a point that they become a positive and quite dangerous nuisance like wild boars in Germany, the old prejudices against wolves are still working. They do prey on livestock, but usually, farmers get compensated everywhere by local authorities. Rabies and other infectious diseases are a threat, commonly carried and spread by wild dogs, responsible for most of the killings of game, livestock and attacks on humans anyway, to wolves. But a growing number of Europeans tolerates and even supports the return of the wolves to their home turf, though, admittedly, their numbers are usually higher in regions where wolf packs do not have their immediate hunting grounds. However, there is more than a gleam of hope that sooner or later, European forests as an ecosystem gradually return to a more primeval state than the mix of park and timber yard they had degraded to over previous decades and a peaceful co-existence of a natural cycle with predators and prey and humanity in the neighbourhood is indeed possible. Despite the myths of the past.

* More about the werewolf myth can be found on this blog:

"The likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty" - Peter Stübbe, the Werewolf of Bedburg and the Legend of the Lycanthrope

** And more about the “Beast of Gévaudan”  here

"The Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves." - The Beast of Gévaudan

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*** The image was taken by Retron, released into public domain by its author and was found on

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Saturday, 16 April 2016

"Wha wadna fecht for Charlie?" - the Battle of Culloden

16 April 1746, the Jacobite Rising of “Forty Five” ended near Inverness with a decisive defeat of the “Young Pretender” Charles Edward Stuart at the Battle of Culloden, the last pitched battle fought on British soil.

“If you had seen my Charlie at the head of an army
He was a gallant sight to behold
With his fine tartan hose on his bonnie round leg
And his buckles of pure shining gold
The tartan my love wore was the finest Stuart kilt
With his soft skin all under it as white as any milk
It's no wonder that seven hundred highlanders killed in restoring my Charlie to me

My love was six foot two without stocking or shoe
In proportion my true love was built
Like I told you before upon Culloden moor
Where the brave highland army was killed
Prince Charlie Stuart was my true love's name
He was the flower of England and a pride to his name
Oh but now they have banished him over to Spain
And so dear was my Charlie to me”

(“Prince Charlie Stuart”, traditional Scottish folk song)

The Anglo-Swiss military painter David Morier 's (1705 - 1760) take on the Battle of Culloden, understatedly called "An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745" from 1749. Allegedly, survivors of both sides from said incident modeled for Morier.

wadna fecht for Charlie? the Jacobites sung when the Young Pretender raised his banner at Glenfinnan in Inverness-shire and the “Forty-Five” had begun, the Jacobite rising of 1745. Without the knowledge of the Old Pretender, his father James Francis Edward Stewart, son of James II of England and Ireland and the VIIth of his name in Scotland, deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Bonnie Prince Charlie had taken advantage of one of the endless wars between France and England and persuaded King Louis XV to support his attempt on the throne, currently occupied by George II of House Hanover. It was the stuff legends and songs are made of. Arriving in the Highlands with just seven loyal followers, the Highland clans upped and rallied at the royal prince’s word and off he went to conquer Edinburgh. They didn’t call him the “Bonnie Prince” for nothing. Young, tall and almost girlishly good looking, grown up in Rome, well educated and well spoken and dressed in continental finery, the Young Pretender must indeed have been quite a sight for the rustic Highlanders. And Edinburgh fell for him as well, in the summer of the year, but neither did all the Highland clans, let alone the Lowlanders and all who had not forgotten how one chafed under the Stuart’s Absolutist rule. However, what passed for a governmental army in Scotland, 4,000 inexperienced men under swamped Sir John Cope who had avoided battle so far, was outflanked and swept away by a fearsome Highland charge at Prestonpans in September and by the end of the year, all the blue bonnets went over the border. Charlie and his 5,000 men strong Jacobite “Highland Army” advanced as far south as Derby, London itself was believed to be threatened and mobilised troops. There was the hope that Jacobites in England would flock to Charlie’s banners, some did, but there was no mass uprising and the Young Pretender was finally persuaded by his more experienced war leaders of his untenable position and, despite the prince’s foaming at the mouth, the Jacobites withdrew back to Scotland. Many of the Jacobite blue bonnets, contrary to later tradition actually the headdress of the mainly Protestant Lowlanders who fought against the Stuarts in the Forty-Five, had already gone home with plunder and the only reinforcements of the “Highland Army” to speak of were 800 men from the Écossais Royeaux (Royal Scots) and Irish Wild Geese serving with the French and had landed in November. It was the only support Bonny Prince Charlie would receive from the continent, the usually more hare-brained schemes of invading England did not materialise, neither during the “Forty-Five” nor later in the century, but the crown finally reacted in earnest and fighting troops returning from the continent took the field under the king’s third son Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. They arrived in Edinburgh on 30 January and marched north in pursuit of the Young Pretender and his Highland Army.

William Hogarth's "The March of the Guards to Finchley" (1749), showing the rather picturesque muster of troops to counter the Jacobite threat to London

"Ladies from Hell”, “Kilted Devils” and what not, for the more than two centuries to come, Scottish troops, now fighting under the Union flag, never failed to impress their enemy with the sheer, fierce, stubborn tenacity of their stands and charges from Portugal to China, North and South Africa and the Americas. The Highland Charge at Culloden certainly is the most memorable event of the slaughter that took place east of Inverness. And they charged, slowed down by soggy ground through the barrage of government artillery, first roundshot and then canister and into the “Brown Bess” volleys and waiting bayonets of the two government lines. The “Highland Army” came crashing, despite of it all, into their left wing, into Barrell’s 4th and Dejean’s 37th foot, prepared to receive them and for a while, it was bloody touch and go. Cumberland had drilled his men well to receive a Highland Charge, though, and to parry the clansmen’s shields, the targes, by stabbing the bayonet to the attacker on the right while those redcoats not immediately engaged fired their muskets over their heads into the attacking Camerons, MacLeans, Chattans and MacLachlans while Clan MacDonald was a bit miffed that they had to fight on the Jacobite’s left and not their traditional position on the right wing. They charged with the rest of them, though, even if they had to cover more, especially swampy ground than the rest. The 4th and the 37th bore the brunt of it and legend has it that not one of their bayonets wasn’t bloodied and after some twenty minutes, the Clansmen broke. Cumberland had his cavalry charge into their retreating right wing and turned the whole bloody mess into a rout. Bonny Prince Charlie had lost and fled the field, while the redcoats, by order of the duke, slaughtered everything they could stab their bayonets into, wounded or not. About one third of the “Highland Army” was killed and only those of the Irish and the Écossais Royeaux were seen as foreign troops and treated with the honours of war. Those Highlanders fighting for the Young Pretender, traitors in the eyes of the Government, were not. Nor were their people.

John Seymour Lucas (1849 - 1923): "After Culloden: Rebel Hunting" (1884)

It was then that Prince William Augustus became known as “Butcher Cumberland” and his troops rampaged through the Highlands in search of Jacobite supporters, behaved worse than in Ireland and gave short shrift to any forms of such trifles as “guilt proven” or basic humanity. The clans were disarmed, their castles burned and for a while even wearing Tartan was punishable by death. It was the end of Scotland’s traditional clan system. “… that old woman who talked to me about humanity“, Butcher Cumberland spat out when he recalled the pleas of many local influential supporters of House Hanover, in that particular case Duncan Forbes, Lord Culloden, who had advised the formation of Highland regiments even before the “Forty Five” began. In fact, at Culloden, one fourth of Cumberland’s men were Scots, three Highland and one Lowland regiment and the whole affair since the Young Pretender’s arrival at Glenfinnan had the dimensions of a Scottish civil war, Highlanders against Lowlanders, Catholics against Protestants, Jacobites against Hanoverians, more often than not, without any clear lines of traditional loyalties or value propositions. The “Forty Five” was over after Culloden and with it the last serious attempt of House Stuart to regain the throne, even if their scions and supporters on the continent, in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, dreamed on, bore outdated titles and illusory claims well into the 19th century. In regards to the lad that was gone, fled through the Highlands with a price on his head, slept soft on the ocean’s royal bed when a bonnie boat carried him over the sea to Skye and finally escaped to France, dressed up as maid Betty Burke to the redoubtable Flora MacDonald. Bonnie Prince Charlie would never see Scotland again, roved through Europe instead, siring a flock of illegitimate children, taking to drink, renouncing the Catholic faith to gain popularity in England only to get re-baptised when he married a princess from the Austrian Netherlands who left him, allegedly over repeated cases of domestic violence. At the height of the Seven Years’ War, the “Young Pretender” appeared before the Duc de Choiseul, then the French foreign minister who planned the next invasion and evaluated the idea of using him to raise the still active Jacobite elements on the other side of the Channel. He was appalled and shelved that part of his cunning plan for good. But by then, the Royal Navy had already sunk the Duc’s strategy at Lagos and the Bay of Quiberon. Bonny Prince Charlie died 28 years later at the age of 67 in Rome and was at least posthumously awarded with the honours of being the true, Catholic King of Great Britain and Ireland by Pope Pius VII. 

From left to right: Hough Douglas Hamilton’s portrait of Charles Stuart in 1775, in the centre a Romantic depiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie addressing his Highland followers at Glenfinnan: "GENTLEMEN," HE CRIED, DRAWING HIS SWORD, "I HAVE THROWN AWAY THE SCABBARD." and Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s portrait of him from 1746 on the right.

And more about the Battle of Culloden on: