Recently in History Category

Mr. Bowditch Carried On without Me


One thing I didn't see in Salem, Massachusetts (I started an entry about going to Salem but haven't finished it because it's depressing) because I didn't know it was there but would have visited had I known about it is the Nathaniel Bowditch House.

Who, you are probably asking, is Nathaniel Bowditch?

As Opposed to a Pleasant One


The first Medici pope was Giovanni de' Medici, who, as I mentioned last time, is reported to have written to his brother, "God has given us the Papacy--let us enjoy it," when in 1513 he learned he'd be able to change his name from Giovanni to Leo X. (Leo X just doesn't sound as good as Malcolm X, does it.)

But Leo had to help God a little along the way in getting Him to give him the papacy. The pope before Leo was Julius II, a particularly bellicose and belligerent man who shocked absolutely everyone by riding out before the armies of the Vatican and who, in the words of Tuchman,

is ranked among the great popes because of his temporal accomplishments, not least his fertile partnership with Michelangelo--for art, next to war, is the great immortalizer of reputations.... He achieved important results in both these endeavors, which, being visible, have received ample notice as the visibles of history usually do, while the significant aspect of his reign, its failure of concern for the religious crisis, has been overlooked as the invisibles of history usually are.

After Julius II's very martial papacy, many were glad to have a lazy hedonist on the papal throne, particularly one who might die early and so give all the other cardinals a chance to be pope before too long. According, once again, to Tuchman, Leo's

health was a major concern because, although only 37 when elected, he suffered from an unpleasant anal ulcer which gave hm trouble in processions, although it aided his election because he allowed his doctors to spread word that he would not live long--always a persuasive factor to fellow cardinals.

Now, the fact that letting everyone think you'll die soon could aid your chances of being elected pope is interesting, but what really caught my attention in that passage is the phrase "unpleasant anal ulcer." Maybe it's just my lack of experience with anal ulcers, but I have trouble imagining a pleasant anal ulcer. The "unpleasant" there seems superfluous, about like mentioning a "tall giant" or a "short dwarf."

But in 1517 the story of Leo's ass gets every weirder, and here it is:

Last weekend I watched a thoroughly inadequate documentary on The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance. A major problem was the acting, which was simultaneously too restrained and excessive, in that the actors never spoke, so they had to resort to over-emoting to convey any sort of inner state. I like cheese as a general proposition but that was just too much.

But an even bigger problem was that the whole thing was carefully sanitized to avoid offending Catholics. The discussion of Savonarola, the Dominican ascetic who persuaded people to renounce materialism and riches by casting their paintings, statues, books, jewels and fine clothes onto raging "bonfires of the vanities," makes it sound like his gripe was all about the fact that Lorenzo de' Medici paid Sandro Bottecelli to paint naked depictions of pagan goddesses instead of clothed depictions of Christian saints. In other words, there was absolutely no mention of the fact that at the time Savonarola began railing against the established church, the dude wearing the papal tiara was Alexander VI, a.k.a. Rodrigo Borgia, a licentious, scheming son of a bitch who became pope by buying the papacy outright at age 62 after fathering at least seven acknowledged illegitimate children. (I say at least seven because he acknowledged seven of them very clearly; then there was an eighth, who was legitimized first as Rodrigo's grandson and then as his son, by two successive papal bulls; one of the elders son, Cesare, whose paternity was never in doubt, was supported and protected by his father in his very successful career as a murderer and general extremely nasty bad guy.) You'd think that given that the documentary was about a family of Italian merchants who eventually became some of the most important art patrons in the history of the world before becoming very bad ecclesiastical leaders, there would be room to point out the failings of a family of Spanish scofflaws.

But no, because more important than an accurate account of much of anything is the requirement not to say anything negative about a church, which is one more reason organized religion sucks and people who follow it are so often unable and unwilling to have a clear grasp of the truth. Thus, the Borgias are not even mentioned. Nor was there any reference to mistresses kept by Medici popes (there were two popes, and god only knows how many mistresses). The famous (and perhaps apocryphal) comment by Giovanni de' Medici (a.k.a. Pope Leo X) to his brother Giuliano upon Giovanni's accession, "God has given us the Papacy--let us enjoy it," was treated as a remark that was irreverent and indecorous rather than greedy and rapacious, although Leo managed to empty the papal coffers in record time.

Stonehenge as Hospital


I own a book called Love Is in the Earth. It's an encyclopedia of various gems and stones, both precious and semi-precious, but it won't tell you how to judge their monetary or aesthetic value, how to cut or set them. Instead, it explains the mystical healing properties of the stones listed in it.

Now, that sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo to plenty of people, but I was profoundly and profusely ill at more than one point in my life, and collecting pretty stones and hoping their vibrations would do me some good seemed as sensible as visiting a man in a white coat, who would bombard parts of my body with invisible "rays" (as in X-) or "waves" (as in sonar) as some sort of diagnostic procedure, and then tell me stuff I already knew, such as "You're ill," before adding, "but I don't know how you got that way and I don't know how to make you better, so go home and hope it clears up and if anything changes, come back."

Understand: I still visited the guy in the white coat, but I figured I should cover all my bases. So I also bought pretty stones. I would hang them in front of my window, or put them under my pillow, or tote them in my pocket, though I was also fond of carrying them about my person in the form of earrings, pendants, rings and bracelets. People have asked me, when I've mentioned buying the stones, "Didn't that get kind of expensive?" I suppose it has, if you count the really fancy stones in really fancy settings that I wear as jewelry.... But the cost of all the loose stones I've ever bought in my entire life hasn't come close costing what I paid for prescription drugs during a single year of grad school. (This was back before we managed to get a grad student union at the University of Iowa.) Not only were the stones cheaper; they were also more psychologically empowering, and still look pretty in the container where I keep them.

Lizzy Tudor in Film


Recently I watched two different two-part versions of the life of Elizabeth Tudor. The first was the 2005 HBO mini-series Elizabeth I, starring Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons (both of whom I always like to watch), and the second was the 2005 Masterpiece Theatre mini-series The Virgin Queen, starring Anne-Marie Duff, a young Irish actress who was also in The Magdalene Sisters. Helen Mirren was WAY better. (I have every certainty that she deserved the Emmy she won for this role.) She is regal to begin with and the character as written for her was much wittier, wiser, more powerful. In the Duff version, there were scenes where the queen was mocked and ridiculed, and it was easily done because there was something ridiculous about her character, and something ridiculous about a 30-something woman playing a 60-something crone (and Duff's portrayal WAS a crone).

Balderdash and Piffle

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Monday, my friend Matthew the Brit who lives in Brussels left a comment on my entry written In Praise of the C Word, suggesting that we Americans check out this British show Balderdash and Piffle, because it was cool and because Germaine Greer had done a really cool bit on the c word itself. I believed him, but I didn't have time to check it out right away.

Later that day, on campus, I went to consult the Oxford English Dictionary on the etymology of a particular word. (While I really love the multi-volume hard copy, it's much more convenient to use the on-line version--I am lucky to work at an institution that has a subscription to the OED on-line.) And instead of the standard home page, I got something telling me that until February 13, 2006, ANYONE can use the OED, because it's available in conjunction with Balderdash and Piffle.

If you've never looked something up in the OED, do. It's really cool--OK, it's really cool if you're a language geek, but what writer isn't? The entries tell you not only the current meaning, but every meaning a word has ever had, and it lists occurrences of the word throughout history. Part of the mission of the OED is to document a word's first written usage, and to that end, they enlist the help of anyone who reads, to provide them with citations and occurrences.

On the B&P site is a list of words the OED people want help with. The site states:

Simon Schama and the Pod People

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Check out this article in the Independent UK, about Simon Schama, an amazing historian at Columbia whose 15-hour series A History of Britain was one of the best things Netflix ever sent me. He has written a new book on the role of black slaves in the American revolution--particularly on the fact that many of them left their American masters and went to fight on the side of King George. The article is long and interesting, and I was fascinated by all of it, but I admit I clapped my hands and laughed aloud in delight when I read this paragraph:

Well, [Schama] did think that going to lecture to Mormon students in Utah would prove his Old European otherness, but he loved their company and their discussion. "And I came back and Ginny, my wife, said 'You're wearing that smile. They've got you' -- because her sister is a Mormon. 'You've been captured by the pod people'."


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