Carnival Races

I was reading John Glassie’s “A Man of Misconceptions” and stumbled across a curious passage.  The book is about a priest/scientist from the Galileo era who was on the wrong side of history.  Athanius Kircher believed, among other things, that most things on earth could be explained by magnetism.  Why was the moon so close?  Magnets.  Why do plants grow upwards?  Magnets (plants would be repelled by the natural magnetism of the earth, forcing them away from the ground).  Why does medicine work?  Magnets (it would draw the harmful humors out of the bloodstream through divine magnetism).

On page 207, the striking passage happened:

The new pope, Giulio Rospigliosi, took the name Clement IX.  He wrote comic opera liberettos and enjoyed evenings out.  To the job of secretary of state, he appointed the cardinal who was said to be Queen Christina’s lover.  Christina [the ex-queen of Sweden], who had been on tours of Paris and Hamburg, returned to Rome and accepted a stipend.  She helped Clement establish the first public opera house in the city, and helped persuade him to prohibit the racing of Jews during Carnival.  (The prostitute races continued.)

My reaction: Hold the phone, “helped persuade him to prohibit the Racing of Jews during Carnival.

Image result for spit take gif

A little bit of research and history sleuthing led to this revelation:

The racing of the Jews originally began in 1466, and was thought to have been received somewhat positively at the time.  During Carnival, Italians would race horses, donkeys, and bulls, then children would have footraces, as would the elderly, the women, the prostitutes, the Jews and so on and so forth.  Winners would be awarded a fancy robe and everything was hunky-dory.  The Jews were evidently levied with a 1,100 florin tax to pay for their involvement in the races.  However, over the next hundred years of Carnivals, things turned on their head.  According to the “Jewish Encyclopedia” entry from “Berliner, Gesch. der Juden in Rom, ii., part 1” a Jew died during the races in 1547 and the Jewish community stopped participating in the races.  Other sources are less forgiving to the Romans and the 17th century Roman art historian Cassiano del Pozzo is cited saying that the Jews would be stripped to loincloths, have SPQR painted on their foreheads (the abbreviation for the name of the Roman government), and would have the runners gorge themselves on food.  The hapless runners would then sprint through the cold and mud, puking their guts out from overexertion on a full stomach, and pelted with everything from rotten fruit to cats (Glassie’s book describes someone getting hit with a cat during a race).  According to Cassiano, the winner would “return with his fellows to the smelly theater of the circumcised.”  Some authors say that Clement’s decision to ban the racing was not so much out of a humanitarian effort to improve Rome, rather because of “the little convenience that comes from seeing these Jews run.”  Instead of being forced to take part in the races, Clement simply added another 300 florins to the yearly Carnival tax, raising the sum to around 1,400 florins.

Racing of prostitutes during Carnival was quite normal because the pre-Lent festivities were meant to flip the society on its head.  According to some sources, Italian armies would occasionally race prostitutes in front of besieged cities to denigrate the city, but during Carnival the prostitutes were sort of celebrated in a twilight-zone way.  Some sources have argued, that rather than be pressured to the margins of society, on this one day during the race, prostitutes were allowed to be in the limelight of Italian society.  Perhaps the oddest thing is how relatively unknown these events are.  Very little has been written on the Racing of the Jews or the Racing of Prostitutes in Italy or Rome, and the information that is available on the internet is evidently oftentimes at odds in how it describes the races.  Some sources talk about it like it was a fun pastime that all involved enjoyed until it ended, whereas others talk about it as a degrading and obscene action of an insensitive Rome and an unfeeling Church.  Without more research into the topic, the accuracy of either claim is up in the air.


John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions (Riverhead Books, 2012) pg. 207
Stephen D. Bowd, Venice’s Most Loyal City (Harvard University Press, 2010) pg. 100

Carthago Delenda Est pt.I

“Carthago Delenda Est”, originally said by Cato the Elder when referencing the shining city of Carthage translates directly to “Carthage must be destroyed.”  The Carthaginian empire and the Roman empire had been fighting for nearly 100 years, and the growth of Carthage’s military strength in the years before 146 BCE was enough to provoke Roman officials to clamor for the utter destruction of the city.

How is it then, that a city that was able to stand toe to toe with the Roman empire holds so little memory in the modern day?  Most people have heard of Carthage, several have heard of Hannibal, some may even know that he wasn’t the guy from Silence of the Lambs.  The city of Carthage was wiped off the map.  Its people enslaved, its city literally torn stone from stone, its books burned or scattered, and its memory made something that people would speak about in hushed tones.  There is a reason why so little is known about something that so many have heard about, and it starts nearly 3000 years ago.

One of these things is not like the other…

The legend is that Carthage was founded by an exiled princess from the Phonetician city of Tyre.  Queen Elissa escaped from a murderous brother and started the small city on the northern tip of Tunisia, where modern day Tunis is located.  The story is that Aeneas came to the city as an exile, fell in love with the Queen but went out to meet his destiny by founding the city of Rome.  When Elissa found out about this, she threw herself on his sword and invoked a spirit of vengeance to fall upon Rome (that was a direct reference to Hannibal, the poem was written after Rome splattered Carthage).  In all honesty, the city was likely just a 9th century BCE colony of Phonetician traders who broke away from the greater empire as the classic Phonetician cities were ransacked by Assyrians in the 600s.  When Alexander the Great crushed the Tyrians in  332 BCE, the fleeing remains of the Phonetician empire consolidated at their city in Carthage, where they set about conquering the Libyan and Numidian people who lived in the area to create the new Punic empire.

Seriously, this empire was HUGE for how little people know about it.

Carthage quickly rose to be a wealthy and successful merchant city, with vast amounts of wealth at sea and connections to many kingdoms of the era.  They were rivaled by only a few empires of the era, chief among them was Rome.  Shaky alliances between the two kingdoms held together as Carthage and Rome conquered Sicily and a host of other Greek colonies.  In a last ditch effort, King Pyrrhus of Epirus tried to fight back against the Romans and Carthaginians by raiding their holdings rather than defending his kingdom.  When he attacked Roman coastal colonies, Carthage did little to help (why would they, it was Roman land after all..), and when he turned his focus on Sicily, a Carthaginian settlement, the Romans did little to help (why would they, Carthage didn’t help them after all…).  The Carthaginian response to Pyrrhus’ attacks was to sign a peace treaty, hand him a fleet of ships and point him back towards Rome with their blessings.  The treaty with Pyrrhus permanently damaged relations between the two empires.

Pyrrhus’ attack patterns.  If you squint, you can almost feel the Romans getting back-stabbed in Western Sicily.

Shortly after Pyrrhus’ attacks in the third century BCE, the Syracusan King Hiero began attacking a city called Massana in the norther most tip of Sicily.  The Carthaginians rushed to the defense of the Mamertines (people who controlled Massana) and fought off the fleets of Syracuse.  Within a few short years, the Mamertines began to resent Carthage’s occupying force, instead requesting Roman help to throw off the yoke of Carthaginian oppression.  This essentially began the First Punic War, with Rome and Carthage bashing against each other for nearly 4 years before the Romans conquered the seas.  In the end, the Roman navy bested the Carthaginian one, and the agreement was that Carthage would pay the Roman’s reparations to reduce the damages of the war.  Though Carthage lost the First Punic War, a general named Hamilcar Barca was undefeated in battle with the Romans, and his shame of losing a war while never losing a battle was grafted onto his son Hannibal Barca.

Hamilcar Barca rose to the power in the military when the First Punic War ended.  A large portion of Carthage’s troops were mercenaries and they were not paid for the war because Carthage was monetarily stripped from a 4 year long war and paying Rome at the same time.  Hamilcar had to put down a mercenary uprising and did so with ease, earning himself the name of Supreme Military Commander of the Carthaginian forces.  He immediately set sail for Sardania to claim it before the Romans could occupy the land.  News of Hamilcar’s mobilization spooked the Romans into demanding Carthage recall him from his mission and pay an additional 1200 talents of silver for their worries.  Rome then sent forces to occupy Sardania and further humiliated Hamilcar and Carthage.

Hamilcar shortly thereafter invaded Spain for the silver and minerals that could be found on the peninsula.  Rome had no interest in the Spanish lands in 235 BCE, and they allowed Carthage to conquer most of the area until some Greek settlements in northwestern Italy began to lodge complaints that Hamilcar was dangerously close to their borders.  When Roman agents checked in on what he was doing, Hamilcar welcomed them in and showed them around the silver mines explaining how it would help them to pay Rome back for the Punic War.  With that explanation Rome was happy and left him to his devices in Spain, unaware that the money was refueling Carthage’s war engine.

This time they would bring Elephants.  Angry, Drunken pachyderms

Hamilcar died in 229 BCE in a conflict with the Celtiberians, sending his sons one direction as he led the enemy another.  Hannibal Barcar took command shortly thereafter, considered to be the incarnation of his father, with a fierce hatred of the Romans.  He is still considered to be one of the greatest generals of all time.

The Carthaginians signed a Peace Treaty with Rome in 226 BCE that agreed to hold borders at the Iberus river in Spain.  Rome however, had a colony that extended South of the river into Punic territory, and Hannibal desired it.  Within a few years, the Second Punic War was raging, and Hannibal would leave his mark on history as the foil to one of Rome’s greatest generals of all time, Scipio Africanus.

There’s going to be a part two to this story, detailing the Second and Third Punic Wars and the destruction of Carthage.

TL;DR, People don’t know anything about Carthage because Rome wiped it from memory.  People do, however, remember the name and understand the significance of Hannibal and Carthage because Rome continually referenced Scipio’s victory while trying to stamp out mention of Carthage.  It was the greatest success and failure of propaganda of all time.  Carthage is now just a bogeyman of history, used to explain how Rome could be met with monumental adversity while still succeeding.  Carthage’s memory is both the ghosts of a failed empire and the boasts of a conqueror.


Jerusalem’s Lost Grotto

There is a five acre quarry beneath the Muslim quarter of Old Jerusalem.  Known as Solomon’s Quarry, Zedekiah’s Cave, Zedekiah’s grotto, the Royal Quarry, and even at one point the “Cotton Cave”, the vast underground network of hewn rocks contains a significant amount of Biblical and historical significance.  The entrance to it is under the North wall, roughly 500 feet from the Damascus Gate (people can tour it now, Sunday through Thursday).

Biblically, the caves are supposed to be the caverns where the stone was mined to create Solomon’s Temple.  The main reason why the belief exists that it was the source of the Temple’s stone comes from a Bible reference in 1 Kings 6:7 which explains that there may be no iron tool used nor heard within the temple grounds.  So a rock quarry some several thousand or so meters from the Temple grounds made it the perfect staging ground for dressing and finalizing the shape of the rocks before dragging them to the building site.

Later stories explain that when King Zedekiah was running from the Chaldeans, he took the caves because there was a direct route to the “plains of Jericho”.  The story is that God busted open the cave mid flight and Zedekiah was captured (his sons killed in front of him and his eyes gouged out, old Bible stories rarely end without blood).  If you visit the caves today, you find that there is actually no true end to it.  It is purely a cave, not a tunnel, so there is actually no route to Jericho save a small stream that bursts from the wall on one end known as Zedekiah’s tears.  Legend has it, he cried as he fled and where his tears struck the ground, the stream burgeoned from the rock.

As far as more recent history of the Cave goes, when Jerusalem was under the control of the Ottoman Empire the cavern was used to store wool because it was out of the elements and not being used for much else.  During that time it was known as the “Wool Cave” for obvious reasons.  In 1540, Suleiman ordered the cave sealed when he was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, likely to prevent invaders from using it to undermine the city.  There it remained sealed until 1854, when an American doctor was walking about with his son and his dog.  His dog caught a scent and started digging, partially unearthing the entrance to the Caves.

Since that time, Freemasons end up using the Quarry for rituals once a year or so, and quarried out stones in the 1940s to serve as cornerstones in Masonic lodges across the world.  People come and visit the Grotto from time to time with different expectations; some legends hold that when the Roman legion laid siege to the city, the priests of the Temple hid the golden implements and tools somewhere deep in the Quarry.  In more recent years, the Quarry gained some popularity because of a man’s claim that he found the Ark of the Covenant deep within the mine.  His argument was that directly below the point where Christ was crucified, the blood spilled deep through the ground and in a divinely circular way, landed upon the Ark in the mines below.  His claims had no evidence backing them, and the occasional reddish limestone in the cavern likely just sparked his belief that he had found the blood of Christ within a holy place.


And the Bible Verse, I didn’t just make that “no Iron” rule up.

Navajo Code Speakers

In the early 1940s, an experiment in military intelligence began that has since found a spot in American folk legend.  American military officials were scrambling to create codes to use because the Japanese intelligence corps was breaking all the codes they had.  An officer named Philip Johnston brought up the plan for using the Navajo language as the baseline for the code because of the difficulty and obscurity of the speech patterns.  Johnston had grown up in Navajo communities as the son of a Protestant Pastor and spoke the language fluently, so in 1942 he proposed his idea to the upper brass of the Marine corps.

There was a general distrust of using native languages for codes because during World War I, the Americans used the Choctaw language as a code.  German spies had been sent to the United States during the 20s and 30s posing as anthropologists with the intent of recording and deciphering the native languages of the United States.  For unknown reasons, the Navajo language was not recorded and their language became one of the most effective and difficult to break codes of the Second World War.  Some 29 young Navajo men trained to decipher and write their own version of a code using the Navajo language, being sent out in units of two, one to listen and one to code and decode new messages.

The baseline of the code was to spell out words using the first letter of the English translation of a Navajo word.  Navy became: Needle – Ant – Victor – Yucca, which was “tsah” – “wol-la-chee” – “ah-keh-di- glini” – “tsah-ah-dzoh”.  The complexity of the code came from the fact that it required fluency in two languages, one of which exists to a large degree only in Arizona.  Navajo code speakers would agree upon several words to use for different letters and different objects (submarines became “besh- lo” which meant Iron Fish) and would memorize the words.  The code language was worlds faster than machine decoding and was extremely effective at giving short bursts of information in the heat of battle.  Each of the Marine corps units had a detachment of Navajo soldiers who were their code speakers.  Early in their stint, the Navajo speakers were seen with disdain by other Marines because they spoke a foreign language that non-Navajo could never understand, but after several successful excursions, the Navajo windtalkers were seen as an essential part of the Marine corps.

As a testament to their success, many officers at Iwo Jima have made the statement that they would never have succeeded if it were not for the Navajo code speakers and the Japanese chief of intelligence, Lieutenant General Seizo Arisue explained after the war that they had broken the codes of the American Navy and the Air Force, but they never succeeded in cracking the Marine codes.

As a final word about the Code speakers, In June of 2014, Chester Nez, the last original Navajo code speaker, died at the age of 93.  There are however numerous interviews and conversations recorded with the speakers, so their story lives on in archives and books.



Learn how to speak Navajo:

Unwhitewashed History. pt.VI

Saladin, Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb,  صلاح الدين يوسف بن أيوب.  One of the most famous figures of the 12th century.  Born in 1140~ as Yusuf, son of Ayyub; the name that the Western world knows him by actually translates to “Righteousness of the Faith”. (Basically, the only name most people know Saladin by is more like a description of him.)  Saladin’s was a Kurdish family, and devoutly Muslim; but his denomination was Sunni, during the Fatamid dynastic period (Fatamid rulers were Shia, as were most of the government officials).  Saladin climbed the ranks as a military commander of great ability; leading attacks on enemies of his Fatamid lords.File:Saladin the Victorious.jpg

After several years of successes, Saladin became the Emir of Egypt in 1169, (some accounts say the Caliph appointed him to that post because he was the weakest and youngest, so he held the least influence and stood the least threat to the throne) where he began to consolidate his power and begin passing off government positions and official jobs to family members.  After destroying a few uprisings angry about his appointment, Saladin gained a permanent foothold in North Africa.  Within 2 years of his appointment, the Caliph of the Fatamids died (or was poisoned) and Saladin took the opportunity to become the Sultan of Egypt, marking the beginning of the Ayyubid dynasty’s true rise to power.

Over the next 18 years, Saladin battled Muslims and Crusaders alike while growing his power base.  One story tells about Saladin and his political griefs with a small sect of Syrians known as the “Assassins”, led by “the wise man of the Mountain” and famous for killing Crusader leaders and officials who were deemed unfit for service.  The Assassins were servants of the Egyptian Fatamids who Saladin replaced, forcing Saladin to attack their mountain strongholds.  In the account, Saladin had guards with lights patrolling his camp and spread cinders and chalks around his tent with hopes to catch or deter assassins.  A guard noticed the cinders moving and called the other to arms.  Saladin wakes up to see a figure leaving his tent and sees that there is a warm pile of scones arranged in a pattern particular to the Assassins, stabbed through the middle with a poisoned dagger and a note telling him to shove off and stop attacking.  The story is that Saladin retreated and never really ended his dispute with them in anything more than a shaky peace.

Shortly thereafter, Crusaders began to harry Muslim pilgrims along the way to Mecca, leading Saladin to declare Jihad against the violence on the innocent.  Crushing the forces decisively, Saladin began a short march through the Crusader territory and retook nearly every city the Europeans had conquered in the First and Second Crusade.  Effectively starting the Third Crusade by himself, Saladin took back Jerusalem from the Christians after almost 90 years of their occupation.  At this point Saladin and his family began to become a well known figures in the West, known for their ability militarily, but also for vast magnanimity and honor.  When he sieged Jerusalem, his terms for the ransoms of the citizens within the city were abnormally low, requesting a small sum of money from citizens to allow their safe passage out of the city (about $50 today), but he allowed many to leave without even paying that fee.  When the city was captured 15,000 Christians were enslaved, and Saladin’s brother requested 1,000 for his own personal use.  When granted his wish, Al-Adil freed them on the spot.

After his capture of Jerusalem, Saladin began his conflict with the Third Crusade.  Most notably, Richard the Lionheart.  Richard was one of the few leaders who scored decisive victory against Saladin.  Richard and Saladin had one of history’s strangest relationships, because the two men fought each other tooth and nail; yet retained a grand deal of respect for one another.  When Richard had a horse killed underneath him in a conflict, Saladin sent him two Arabian horses with a note saying, “it is not right that a man so brave should fight on foot.”  When Richard fell ill, Saladin offered his personal physician to treat him, and Richard even talked about having Saladin marry his sister, with ownership of Jerusalem as the wedding gift.   The Treaty of Ramla in 1192 gave ownership of Jerusalem to the Muslims, while still allowing Christians to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. File:Saladin and Guy.jpg

Saladin died shortly after the treaty, with only a small handful of silver left to his name.  In the later part of his illness, he gave nearly all of his massive fortune to the poor.  He was buried in a simple wooden tomb, but his memory lived on.  Western tales about him began to spread (Dante made him one of a small number of Virtuous pagans in Purgatory) while Arabic accounts of him were written to focus on his magnanimity.  Stories about his magical ability to inspire trust, his simplicity in clothes and diet, his passion for theology, and his surprising ability to forgive all painted an image of the leader as the great leader and honorable enemy of Christiandom.


The City Nestled Among Prickly Cacti

The Western World of the 1500s always liked to pat itself on the back about its achievements.  Authors and theologians and proto-anthropologists spent entire lifetimes explaining why European innovation was the best kind and why Europe was going to win the future.  When Cortes landed in Mexico to invade and conquest the “savages” of the Central Americas, he and his men were dumbfounded by the Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan.

Founded in 1325 (legend says because Huitzilopochtli appeared to the Aztec leaders and pointed out to them an itty bitty island in the middle of lake Texcoco, where there was a prickly pear cactus with an eagle sitting on top of it eating a snake) the city was dead center in some of the most difficult property to homestead because it was literally inside a lake.  The Aztec rulers evidently relished the challenge and within 200 years, when Cortes arrived in 1521, the city was massive, successful and powerful.

As the seat of Aztec power, Tenochtitlan (roughly translates to “the place where the Prickly Cactus grow”) was an economic and social heavyweight in the world.  It was slightly under 5 square miles, making it as large if not larger than Seville or Cordoba of the 1500s.  Sporting a population of some 400,000 people, the city had 5 times the population of London and yet remained clean and organized; something most European cities of the era had extreme trouble with.  The city was broken into 4 campan (kind of like Quarters) which would be broken into 20 districts.  Each district would have a personal marketplace, a wealth of streets (the 3 main streets in the city were large enough for 10 horses to cross side by side; whereas the smaller alleyways were half street, half channel to allow canoe traffic through) and the occasional temple or public building.  Trade was done in the neighboring city of Tlatelco, where 50,000 people would meet each day to trade.  Cortes postulated that it would have twice as many people cross through it daily than did Seville, one of Spain’s more important trading locations.

Montezuma’s palace contained 2 private zoos, one for his birds of prey and one for his menagerie.  He also had a botanical garden and an aquarium with 10 ponds for fresh water and 10 for salt water.  Reportedly, the palace had some 300 rooms and was one of the most visibly expensive places on earth.  Water itself was piped from springs using aqueducts, allowing cleaning and cooking to be done with fresh water (the original lake’s water was brackish and nasty, but the Levee of Nezahualcoyotl formed a barrier between the actual lake and Tenochtitlan’s spring fed natural water lake).  Aztecs were said to take two baths a day, while Montezuma was known to take four, at a time when some cities in Europe made decrees forcing their citizens to bathe at least once a week.

Cortes and his men arrived in 1521 (shortly before they sacked the city and leveled it, regardless of how much it impressed them) and couldn’t believe their eyes.  They saw a city unlike any in Europe, in a continent far from home they believed to be backward.  Descriptions of Tenochtitlan ranged from describing its enchantment to calling it a dream (Bernal Diaz del Castillo who described it as a dream said that simply calling it a dream was incorrect because it was something that he could never describe; he had never even dreamed about something like the city before).  The Spanish force along with the Aztec’s numerous indigenous enemies destroyed the city over a 75 day siege.  A 200 year creation was broken in less than three months.

A rough map of the city of Tenochtitlan (


Unwhitewashed History. pt.V

France has historically been the host of a surprisingly high number of fighting women during an era of male dominance.  Most people have heard of Joan of Arc, some may even know the story, but few realize just how daring and dangerous breaking with tradition was during the Middle Ages.

The Maid of Orléans

Joan of Arc was born in 1412 (we have this as an exact date because she stated she was 19 at the time of her trial in 1431) the daughter of Jacques d’Arc, a minor town official and farmer in the minor French town of Domremy.  In the early 1400s, France was in shambles.  Brugundians and Armagnacs formed a political rift within the political world of France, leaving an opening for their neighbor, the English.  The English had conquered most of the mainland and dethroned the king, scoring a series of stunning military victories on the split political nation of France.  Charles VII of France was the heir apparent to the throne, but lacked the control or the military to ascend to his throne.  Then Joan appeared.  In 1424, she said she saw Saint Michael, Saint Margret and Saint Catherine, who told her she must aid the Dauphin (Charles) in regaining France.  An illiterate peasant girl, she petitioned a local garrison captain for aid in her journey to Charles’ court in Chinon.  When she was refused, a pair of his troops, both minor nobility, swore to aid the maid in her task, allowing her enough influence to gather a small group of troops for her task.  When she made it to Chinon, her petition to join the siege reinforcements in Orleans was allowed by Charles.

Historians have guessed that Charles allowed a teenaged peasant girl who claimed to be guided by God to lead his army because all other logical decisions had failed.  Joan of Arc was, in a way, France’s hail Mary pass.  She was allowed to become a pseudo-knight while leading the troops, but all her equipment had to be donated.  When asked about a sword, she said they would find her blade in the church of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois (they found one there).  When she got to Orleans, Joan led a sudden assault on the defenders, foolhardy and decidedly against the orders of the commanding French officer.  The attack was a success, but won her few allies in the command unit.  When she planned another attack, the commander ordered the gate barred.  Joan gathered the townsfolk, common soldiers and a single captain to force the mayor to unbar the gates.  With her ragtag force, she attacked the main English stronghold, taking an arrow to the neck.  With a glorious victory, the siege turned in the French favor after that.  Joan reportedly took a cannonball to the head during the fight and survived.

Successfully battling her way through France, she was ultimately captured in May of 1430 by the Burgundians.  After a number of escape attempts (including jumping out of a 70 foot tall tower into a dry moat) she was brought to trial in a Medieval/Ecclesiastical kangaroo court.  Tried for heresy, Joan was asked if she was in the grace of God; a trick question that would end in heresy with nearly any answer because one could not know if they were in the grace of God, but  if not then she would be  considered guilty.  Her answer bespoke a great deal of understanding: ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”  Joan was eventually convicted of heresy on what amounts to a technicality because of her dress.  Joan wore men’s clothing while a prisoner to deter rape, then when she was tried, she wore women’s clothing.  Switching back to men’s again allowed them to consider it a repeat offense of Heresy which would be punishable by death.  She was burned at the stake as a witch and a heretic in 1431, but her efforts in France eventually led to Charles VII taking the throne.

La Maupin

Julie d’Aubigny, born in 1670, was quite well known in France during her era.  Her father taught her as though she was a son, training her in etiquette, literature, dancing, music and above all, swordsmanship (or in another story, she learned how to use a sword after a long and fortuitous affair with a fencing master).  Said to be strikingly beautiful, she floated her way up the social ladder until she was a frequenter of the Parisian courts, gaining the name La Maupin when she married a count of Maupin (she eventually bored of him and left).  Her story becomes interesting when her habits become involved; she enjoyed dressing up as a man and doing all the things men do.  She would start fights, she would seduce women, she would do all of this while dressed up as a male and clearly being a female.  She reportedly killed more than 11 men in duels throughout her life, all the while becoming a popular opera star.  Her exploits were all encompassing and read very much like a penny dreadful story, with the exception that she was a woman.  In one story, she seduced a young woman while she was dressed as a man and began a torrid love affair.  When the woman’s family found out, they sent the young lass to a convent.  La Maupin followed her to the convent, became a nun, STOLE A DEAD NUN’S BODY and placed it in the girl’s room, which they then set on fire and escaped, leaving a charred corpse where the girl would have been.  After some time, the girl had to return to her family and La Maupin was tried as a male for everything between body snatching and kidnapping.  She never showed at the trial, but the sentence was death by fire.

In another story, La Maupin was at a party and started a duel with three squires, all of whom she defeated.  One of them was run clean through his shoulder with the blade (far enough that he could look behind himself and see his own blood on the sword).  When the day was through she found herself worried that the young man had been killed (she never worried after duels in usual circumstances) and she found the surgeon of the city to find out if the lad survived.  She found out he was the son of the Duke of Luynes and went to him to apologize, dressed as a woman.  One thing led to another, and the two had a long and torrid affair from then on.  Because dueling was illegal, she had a sentence hanging over her for her many actions, but in most cases, the King was persuaded by assorted nobility to give her a pardon for her actions.  La Maupin, France’s female James Bond.

Citations, because the history of Cross dressing is surprisingly large:

I’d Have Believed Her After She Predicted Finding a Sword in a Random Church:

La Maupin Should Really be More Popular With the Internet:

Unwhitewashed History, pt.IV

The phrase “unwhitewashed” may be a bit misleading.  The intention of the segment is to tell the history of those who are not the typical members of historical pantheons.  That means, no Lincolns, no Washingtons, no Lockes, no Bonapartes.  It means to give history of non-European lands a chance to be known, but also to give women a piece of history’s pie.  They’ve been there the whole time, yet very few are typically considered to be influential for broad swathes of what we tell as history.  To steal a bad pun, these are a couple of her-stories.

Pirate’s Life for the Wife of Yi:
Hands down, the most successful pirate of all time was Ching Shih.  Forget Edward Teach, forget Long John Silver, Ching Shih put them all to shame.  Born into a Cantonese village in the late 1700s, Ching’s real name is unknown.  All people know is that she was a prostitute who was married to a pirate lord in 1801; her name that we know now Ching Shih, translates roughly to “widow of Zheng”.  Zheng Yi owned a fairly successful pirate band and was responsible for forming a major alliance between the assorted groups of Chinese pirates of the early 19th century.  When he died in Vietnam in 1807, Ching maneuvered to the helm of the operation and forced herself into the leadership seat of a fleet upwards of 1,800 ships large with roughly 80,000 crew members.  She established a set of codes that formed a public pool of money, allowing successful pirates to keep only 20% of the overall booty, and spreading the remainder out to other ships who were less successful.  Pirates were forbidden to attack friendly villages and towns along the coasts, forming a soft power structure that allowed Ching to occasionally collect taxes from the villages as a de facto governor of the area.  Pirates who tried to hide their loot would be severely whipped for the first minor offense and executed for major or repeated happenings.  Any person relaying orders that were not Chings, or attempting to lead without her blessing, would be beheaded on the spot.  Women were typically released rather than held as captives, though some would be kept as concubines.  Any pirate caught raping would be killed, any women consensually engaging with a pirate would have cannonballs strapped to her legs before she would be hucked into the water.  The male on the other end of the consent agreement would also be executed.  Because of her codes, Ching’s fleet became a force to be reckoned with because the troops were loyal to her, terrified of her, and willing to die before being punished.  When the Chinese government attempted to rid themselves of Ching’s piracy, the conflict was decisive.  China’s navy, along with fleets of bounty hunters from Portugal and Britain failed.  China offered Ching a total pardon if she would give up her pirating ways.  She took the offer and retired from piracy in 1810, at which point she opened a gambling house and lived out her life in leisure, making her one of the very few pirates to ever live to retirement.

The Lady Pope, A Load of Papal Bull:
Pope Joan, while it is now considered widely to be a myth, was a very real folk tale in the early renaissance.  She is mentioned several times by assorted chroniclers, though never before the 1200s.  The story is that a woman took on the name of John Anglicus and worked her way through higher education (this happens either in the 800s or the 1000s, nobody is really too clear on it, but most believe the story referred to the popes of the 9th century).  She showed a knack for theological discussion and blazed a trail through the Catholic ranks before eventually becoming pope after Leo #4 died.  Her stay in the papal estates was supposedly roughly 2.75 years, all the while nobody knew she was a female.  The story is that her ruse was discovered when she was traveling between St.Peter’s Basilica and another part of the Vatican, when she mounted a horse and suddenly began to give birth right there in the street.  The final fate of Pope Joan goes any of a few directions, either she was confined to chambers and did penance for the remainder of her life, or she was tied to a horse and dragged for a half league while angry rabble chucked rocks at her.  A French chronicler in the early 1400s wrote that there was a three day long rain storm of blood and a swarm of mutant locusts attacked when Joan was revealed as a woman.  Ever since 1601, the Catholic Church has officially stated that the story is a medieval equivalent to an urban myth because of the records of the papal succession after Leo IV died.  The lull in the popes between him and Benedict III came from a viscous battle between Benedict and an antipope.   Other fun legends are that the next pope in line was sat down on a chair for a cardinal to reach up under his robes to see if he had the stones (“he has two, they dangle nicely” is apparently what he said).  Joan was a figure whose mythic story was immortalized in statues and writing throughout the next several centuries and still persists today regardless of papal attempts to quash it as a rumor; and for large parts of time, popes would turn their eyes away from the location Joan was said to have given birth when passing by.  Just so nobody walks away thinking this was a real event, a pope giving birth in the streets of Rome would have caused a fair bit of writing, and nothing is found until 400 years later.  Compelling, yes; interesting, yes; true, no.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, like how there is an actual job for “pope ball checker”

Citations, otherwise you’d never know Edward Teach was Blackbeard:

Retiring from Piracy is Really Hard to do:

Pope Joan, not real, but quite Interesting: (“he has two, they dangle too”)

Unwhitewashed History, pt.III

Round three of this set.  Just as a proof that not all historical figures who are brought up in this segment are successful or clever in what they do.

Xerxes I: So Powerful He Punished A RIVER
The Emperor of Persia from 486-465 BCE, Xerxes has recently gained a degree of face time in pop culture with the release of 300, the film that somehow managed to gratuitously protray everything.  Not exactly a 7 foot tall golden Goliath coated in rings and piercings, Xerxes was not the eldest son of Darius I of Persia.  By tradition, this would mean that he was not destined to rule, but Darius married Xerxes’ mother to solidify his power as emperor, making Xerxes the child of royalty and a symbol for the cohesion of the Persian Empire.  His father left for Egypt to put down a revolution in 486, and true to Persian tradition, he chose his successor and built his tomb before leaving (just in case he died while there).  Xerxes was chosen and when Darius died in 486, he became the true emperor of Persia.  He charged the Egyptians and splattered a couple uprisings in Babylon before setting his sights on Athens.  Making it his target, Xerxes gathered his forces to invade.  Ordering the creation of a massive pontoon bridge across the Hellespont for a land invasion into the Greek lands and a channel to be dug for the naval forces, Xerxes began his quarrel in 480.  A storm happened to completely destroy his bridge across the Hellespont, and according to Herodotus, Xerxes ordered the river to get 300 lashes and fettered.  So men went wading into the water to “punish” it for ruining his plans.  Herodotus also wrote that there were whispers about him trying to brand the river by wedging red hot pokers into the waves, all the while the torturers were supposed to say “Thou bitter water, thy master lays upon thee this penalty, because thou didst wrong him not having suffered any wrong from him: and Xerxes the king will pass over thee whether thou be willing or no.. Thou art a treacherous and briny stream.”  Yessir.  Before starting off his 15 year war with Leonidas and the rest of Greece, Xerxes decided to punish nature for stopping him.  Not content with just punishing it, he had to chastise it and LITERALLY CALL IT NAMES.  They say power does things to people…

Lu Buwei: The Man with the “Plan”
Lu Buwei was a Chinese official/merchant/scholar who was at the peak of his career, he had massive influence in the court, he was a successful general, he had the young emperor in the palm of his hand.  He gathered scholars and clever people from across China at the court and developed the Spring and Autumn Annals, basically Ancient China’s encyclopedia Britannica.  His only trouble that he had was in the Empress Dowager being somewhat free with her sexual desires (like, really really free).  While the illicit adventures of the Empress wasn’t ruining his career, rumors about Lu Buwei and the Empress fathering a child (and rumors about Lu fathering the current Emperor with the former Empress) were beginning to cramp his style and could have led to his execution.  He came up with a plan, ordering a man named Lao Ai to the court, Lao became one of Lu’s personal assistants.  Lu had Lao Ai parade around doing what he was known best for: having a huge “tool”.  Stories were that Lu had Lao wedge his thing into the center of a wooden wheel and walk around showing off his skill as a wheel axle.  As Lu predicted, the Empress was excited with the new addition to the court and he met with her in private to explain his “plan”.  He planned to accuse Lao Ai of a crime heinous enough to require castration, then bribe the man with the tin snips to “forget” his job for a day, they would then shave Lao and pluck his eyebrows.  Lao Ai then became assigned as one of the Empress’ eunuchs to “wait” on her night and day.  After fathering two of her children, Lao Ai decided he should be the rightful emperor and raised an army to take the capital city.  The Emperor Qin Shi Huang cracked down on the rebellion and Lao Ai’s ambitions.  Ai was executed, as was every single living family member of his, both his sons, and basically anybody who had any relation to him whatsoever.  The empress was placed under house arrest for the rest of her life and Lu Buwei was banished to another kingdom.  Sensing that he would be executed on arriving in a kingdom he had led armies against, Lu committed suicide and the emperor expelled every scholar from the court in a paranoid reaction to Lu’s betrayal.  Other people have said that the entire Lao Ai saga was made up as a reason for the young emperor to wrest the power from Lu Buwei’s impressive base.  The decision is up to you: was the exile of Lu because he was a politically relevant target who made ambitious decisions, or because he ordered a gigalo for the empress?

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, at the very least that the history of interesting people is not always super heroic.

Citations, because Lao Ai is virtually scrubbed from the history books:

Xerxes: Ever Been SO Mad You…

Lu Buwei’s Shame (Seriously, there is almost literally nothing online about Lao Ai)

Unwhitewashed History, pt.II

Here goes for round two of the history of non-European figures who made a splash on the timeline.  Oddly enough, these two are some that most people should have heard of.  They both singlehandedly changed the course of history, and yet we know very little about either.

Musa I of Mali: The Golden King of Africa
The kingdom of Mali was successful, centered in Western Africa, it had access to both the gold and the salt trades.  This lucky happenstance of geography and resources meant that Mali was loaded.  The empire had enough money to outfit thousands of ships to send them into the Atlantic and explore (According to the Arabic historian who talks about this, the vast majority were swallowed by a whirlpool and the venture was abandoned).  They had more money than nearly any other area in Africa, and certainly more money than large swathes of Europe.  No king of Mali made that fact more clear than did Mansa Musa, the first of his name and the emperor of Mali from 1312-1337.  Musa’s most famous moment was when he, a devout Muslim, made his Hajj to Mecca.  The journey from West Africa to Saudi Arabia is rather difficult because of the Saharan Desert, which meant Musa took his escort and made the longer trip around the Sahara.  His escort consisted of 48,000 men, 12,000 slaves, some 80 camels and his baggage.  As is tradition for a Hajj, Musa began to give charitably as he journeyed.  As an aside, all of his men were said to be wearing finest silks, each of the slaves was carrying a 4 pound bar of gold, some of the men had gold staves, and each camel had between 50 and 300 pounds of gold dust.  Adjusted for inflation (keep in mind, this was in 1320~) Musa’s total value is put at around $400 Billion.  Making him, literally, bar none, the most wealthy person to have ever walked the Earth.  As Musa traveled to Mecca, he supposedly built a Mosque every place he stayed on Fridays, and passed out gold like it was a cheap parade favor.  He gave out so much gold that it totally devalued the price of gold around Egypt and caused a short spell of hyperinflation until he borrowed money from every moneylender he could find in the area to revalue the gold standard there.  It made him the only person in history to ever have total control of the price of gold in the Mediterranean.  Besides him being the richest thing to ever happen, his other importance in history?  Musa’s gold trek sparked extreme fame and stories spread like wildfire.  Europeans wishing to get in on the gold trade needed to find a way around the heavily Muslim North Africa, eventually leading to Henry the Navigator and the Genoans striving for a route around West Africa, and the European fingers in African affairs from then on.

Born likely around 1336, Timur was a minor noble in a Mongol tribe that had been “Turkicized”, he pictured himself as the next heir to Genghis Khan’s glorious legacy of destruction and empire.  After a rough childhood, he sprung up in history around 1360 where he began a military career leading successful cavalry units for the Jagatai khans.  It is thought that he gained his title Tamerlane around this time when he lost fingers on his right hand and took a sword hit to the right leg which left him crippled; or he got hit with arrows in the leg and hand when stealing sheep as a young man (no real way of knowing which was the case).  Timur the lame, as Europeans called him, slowly became Tamerlane (The belief is the injury happened around 1363, because a Soviet archaeologist exhumed the body of Tamerlane and did an autopsy of it)  Tamerlane fought for the Khans but was the true power behind the throne, until in 1369, when he took to the throne himself and began his conquest as the new Khan.  For the next 25 years, Tamerlane raided and conquered.  His armies ravaged Baghdad, Karbala and Moscow, he destroyed the Silk Road for an era, and he invaded Delhi and Egypt.  Tamarlane practiced what we now call “information warfare” by sending spies out beyond his invading force to spread rumors about the cruelty and mercilessness of his armies.  The rumors would sink in and moral of the enemy would have all but disappeared by the time his forces crested the horizon to attack.  Even then, his rumors were not unfounded; thousands upon thousands of people were slaughtered by Tamerlane’s men, upwards of 5% of the world population was killed in his 25 years of conquest.  On the 25th year of his conquests in 1404, he began a war with the Ming Dynasty in China and was moving his army to invade when fever struck him and he died at 68.  Tamerlane’s empire fell with him, as they did not raid to form an empire, they raided to steal and pillage.  There was no infrastructure, so when the warlord died, as did his kingdom.  The man who once was feared beyond all other men, who killed nearly 1/20 of the world, died from a fever in 1405; his entire empire fell because it was too cold in Kazakhstan for a 68 year old khan.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, like why you should never go near Russia any time after July.

Citations, Worth as much as Gold!  Ish..:

Just So We’re Clear, Musa’s Escort Had Over 72,000 Pounds of Gold:–the-richest-human-being-in-all-history-8213453.html

Tamerlane, History’s Forgotten Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse: