Friday, May 26, 2017

Damn, Girl-Boudicca of the Iceni

It is a fact, universally acknowledged, that the Romans were dicks. And that the Romans, if given an inch, will take your entire hecking country. It's also a fact that the Romans had very little respect for the traditions of the lands that they conquered, so is it really a surprise that in 60 CE the fiery Queen Boudicca had to take the Romans to task?

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There are no surviving pictures of the queen,
but this statue of her stands on the banks of
the Thames near the Houses of Parliament
Boudicca was queen of the Iceni, a tribe of Britons living in what is now modern Norfolk. Her husband, Prasutagus, was a client king under the Romans, a sort of half ally-half subject, and when he died he left half of his stuff to his daughters--Isolda and Siora--and the other half to Emperor Nero. The Romans, who didn't believe in letting women inherit property*, gave the Iceni the middle finger, and took everything that Prasutagus left behind, as well as the lands and possessions of several other members of the British nobility. When Boudicca protested the Romans had her flogged and her daughters raped to put them in their place. Big mistake.
As you might imagine, Boudicca was a little pissed off, and so she rallied not only her own forces, but also the forces of the Trinovantes of the south, as well as other local tribes. Army behind her, Boudicca decided to take on the Roman Empire.

She chose an advantageous time to attack. The Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paullinus was off fighting the Welsh when Boudicca led her troops south. They took the cities of Camulodunam (Colchester), Londinium (London), and Verulamium (St. Albans), looting and putting the entire population to the sword. 

This, as you might imagine, freaked out the defending Romans just a bit. Most of the legions were off in Wales, and the Romans were spread thin. Not only that, but the Iceni were brutal. Cassius Dio, one of the two surviving primary sources from Boudicca's rebellion, wrote of the Iceni gathering the noble ladies of the city, stripping them naked, hanging them, cutting off their breasts, sewing said breasts to their mouths, then driving a spear through them all kebab style. According to Dio, this didn't phase the Iceni at all. So you can understand why Paullinus was a bit worried when he got back.

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Dio described her as being tall, with a flinty
gaze, a loud voice, and waist-length red hair
Even with Paullinus' forces returned from Wales, the Iceni still outnumbered the Romans by quite a lot, so Paullinus chose to engage the tribes in a narrow area where their greater numbers would be a disadvantage. The overconfident Iceni cut off their own escape route with wagons, and could not flee when the Romans fell on them. The Romans slaughtered every Briton they could, but Boudicca and her daughters escaped.

However, Boudicca refused to be taken captive by the Romans. She and her daughters drank poison, and died shortly after the battle.

Boudicca was a smart and fearless woman. She managed to unite groups of Britons who traditionally did not work well together, and led them into battle personally. That she was a woman greatly embarrassed the Romans, who couldn't conceive that a female could lead. Though her rebellion failed the Romans let up on some of their restrictions; they'd seen what the Britons could do when angered.

*If you had to be a woman in the ancient world, it was pretty good to be a Briton. Women were not only allowed to inherit, but were educated, trained as warriors, and enjoyed more protections under law than their counterparts in the rest of Europe. The Romans, who treated their women abysmally, couldn't quite wrap their heads around this.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Damn, Girl-St. Adelaide, Empress of Italy

Empress Adelaide was quite the lady. And by 'quite the lady' I mean she was a hecking badass. Her life reads like a Dumas novel met Game of Thrones, except with significantly less sex, violence, and dragons. She was crowned Holy Roman Empress in her own right, co-ruled said empire along with her second husband, Otto I, and exerted enormous political influence over Otto's successor, all while supporting religious orders, and bringing the German church further under the Pope's control.

Image result for adelaide of italyAdelaide was born in Burgandy, France, and was married to Lothair, King of Italy, when she was fifteen. She reportedly helped Lothair rule Italy, and was quite popular with the Italian people. However, in 950 Lothair was poisoned by his adviser Berengar, who decided that a vicious coup was in order. Berengar ignored Adelaide's claim to the Italian throne, and imprisoned the widowed Adelaide when she refused to marry his son, Adalbert. Adelaide wasn't super keen on being imprisoned, so with the help of her maids she started to tunnel a hole in the castle wall. Meanwhile her priest bro, Warinus, was tunneling from the outside of the castle walls. The two teams kept digging until they were able to escape. Very Count of Monte Cristo, no?

Adelaide escaped, and with Warinus' help got a letter to the German king Otto I, promising to marry him if he helped her reclaim her lands in Italy. Otto jumped at this opportunity, 'cause who can say no to becoming King of Italy? In 951 they were married, and, surprisingly enough, liked each other, despite a 20 year age difference. It took them eleven years, but they were able to reclaim Adelaide's lands in Italy, and fuse Germany and Italy together, creating a Holy Roman Empire.

Pope John III crowned Adelaide Empress (and Otto Emperor, but we're not talking about him), and she proceeded to co-rule the Empire from Saxony with Otto. They had five children, four of whom survived birth. Adelaide was extremely popular with the people, and well known for her charitable works and support of religious reform. She was also popular with her son, and when her husband died her son, Otto II leaned on her as his closest adviser.

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Adelaide and Otto I
Until Theophano came along, that was. Theophano was a Byzantine princess, and more than a match for Adelaide. The power struggle between the ladies combined with Adelaide's excess donations to religious orders led to Adelaide leaving court, and returning to her childhood home of Burgandy to live with her brother, King Conrad.

A few years later the two reconciled, and just in time, because Otto II soon died, leaving his three year old son, Otto III as king. Theophano and Adelaide joined forces, and kept the Holy Roman Empire intact until Otto III came of age. Otto III wasn't as appreciative of Adelaide as his to predecessors, and so Adelaide retired to a nunnery. She died on December 16, 999.

To this day Adelaide is remembered as one of the greatest ladies of the middle ages. She exercised enormous power, and her religious works saw her canonized nearly a century after her death. She was an exceptional woman who ruled her dowry lands in her own right, and enabled her husband and son to successfully run an empire that would gradually become a world power.

New World Encyclopedia
Women in World History
Encyclopedia Brittanica

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Gnoming for Sport and Profit

'Gnoming' or 'The Traveling Gnome Prank' is when you steal someone's garden gnome, then send them pictures of said gnome from various exotic location. Gnoming started in the seventies, and continues to this day usually as a more or less innocuous prank.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoorThe first roaming gnomes were fellows by the names of Harry and Charlie. They traveled with human Henry Sunderland to Antarctica in 1977. Charlie was sent down to a research station by the south pole, where he survived a fire, and became a mascot for the researchers there. Upon returning to civilization Sunderland published the photographs of his garden guardian friends, and so a craze began.

After that 'gnoming' became something of a prank. Miscreants would steal garden gnomes from unsuspecting owners, then send the owners pictures of where the gnomes had gone. Many gnomes went on grand world tours with their new friends, and became partial inspiration for the 2001 French film Amelie, which made its way to Broadway in March.

What's more, gnoming became inspiration for a multi-million dollar ad campaign run by Travelocity in the early 2000s. A friendly looking gnome with a big red hat and an English accent promoted to travel company with his testimonials from exotic locales.

Image result for travelocity gnomeGnoming is, for the most part, a lighthearted prank, but some people take it very seriously. There are several organizations, The Garden Gnome Liberation Front being the most popular, dedicated to freeing the clay creatures from their lives of garden ornamenting. These groups steal hundreds of gnomes, often depositing them in forests, or occasionally in large groups in public places. There was also a staged mass gnome suicide in 1998, which I cannot fathom the purpose of.

Gnoming is, essentially, one of the most ridiculous pranks around. It's more or less harmless, even if it is technically against the law.

Christchurch City Library
Daily Mail
The Mirror

Friday, May 12, 2017

A Brief Overview of the Wives of Henry VIII-In Summation

I'm not very good at conclusions, I never have been. I can't tell you how many rough drafts of papers I turned in that ended with: 'In conclusion, yes.' But since this isn't a first draft of a college paper, I will attempt to be more cohesive and coherent about this.

This conclusion is extra hard to write, because how do you close the book on such an extraordinary group of women? I've only scratched the surface here, there's so much more that could be said. I don't know exactly what it was, but something about being married to an unstable, tyrannical, king turned six seemingly ordinary girls into strong, admirable women, who will be spoken about forever.

Catherine of Aragon might still have been famous without Henry, she was the daughter of the brilliant Queen Isabella of Castille and Leon after all, but the story of her bravery and stallwartness in the face of Henry's persecution sets her apart from not only Henry's other wives, but from all Queens in history. She was brilliant, pious, and loving, and certainly deserved better than she got. She was a metaphorical saint to the point that there's a movement to canonize her so she can be a literal saint.

Anne Boleyn's ambition and drive spurred the English Reformation, and put England on a path that would change the face of history forever. She held the attentions of a capricious King for nearly a decade, and managed to enact enormous social change during that time, something none of Henry's other Queens did. She's controversial, sure, but you can't deny that without her not only would England not have her most illustrious monarch--Elizabeth I--but England may have forever remained a Catholic nation. She used her beauty and intelligence to shape history, not bad for a daughter of the minor nobility.

Jane Seymour was known for being gentle and kind, and as being the queen that Henry loved the most. She gave birth to Henry's only son--Edward--and managed to bring a sense of peace and prosperity to the English court. Jane made a home, and brought calm. You could say that she cleaned up Anne Boleyn's mess. She isn't known for having any great political power, or bringing about any great change, but you can't deny that she had an enormous emotional impact on Henry and the people around her.

Anne of Cleves and Henry may have been married less than a year, but she was the smartest out of all Henry's wives. She knew when to yield, and doing so bought her a life of wealth and independence, as well as the dubious honor of being close to the King. She lived a happy life, and died peacefully. Not something that any of Henry's other wives can say they did.

Catherine Howard was young and naive. She was thrust by uncaring relatives into a world that was much too complex for her, and she was crushed underneath the weight of it all. She was an unexceptional Queen of England, but her story is by far the saddest.

Catherine Parr managed to have Mary and Elizabeth restored to the line of succession, ending a civil war years before it began. It's thanks to her that England was able to enjoy the political stability of the Elizabethan era. She was clever and pious, and managed to weather the storm of Henry's dissatisfaction. She was married almost as many times as Henry himself, but never quiet managed to find happiness. She was the first of England's queens to publish under her own name, and served as role model to both Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey.

Henry VIII married six different women. While he definitely had a type--smart, pretty, musically talented--the women he married definitely were not carbon copies of each other. Each of these women had a distinct personality, and each of them had a distinct impact on Henry. While not all of them made large political marks, all of them influenced the monarchs of the Tudor era.

Part One   Part Two   Part Three   Part Four   Part Five   Part Six   Part Seven   Part Eight

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Austria vs. Austria-i.e. The Big Screw Up of 1788

So it's 1788 and, big surprise, Europe is at war. It's Russia/Austria versus the Ottoman Empire, and Austria is only a very reluctant participant. In fact, the only reason Austria is at war at all is because Austria is afraid of Russia, and the Ottomans pissed off Catherine the Great, so there they are.

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Catherine the Great, not a woman you want to anger
The Austrian army is waiting for the Ottomans near the town of Karansebes, and as you can imagine, the Austrians aren't super happy to be traipsing around the countryside, so it's no surprise when a group of scouts buy a large amount of alcohol off a nearby band of Roma people.  The scouts took their booze back to camp, and started having a good time. They were getting a bit rowdy around the fire when a group of foot soldiers came over, and asked if they too could have some alcohol. The scouts, who obviously failed kindergarten, refused to share. The foot soldiers weren't too pleased, and resorted to fisticuffs.

Simple fisticuffs soon turned into a full on brawl. We've got groups of angry Austrians, some of them drunk, hundreds of miles from home, fighting an enemy they have no good reason to be fighting, and, dammit, they just want to get (more) drunk. Tempers are high, and soon the guns come out.

Men are shooting at each other. The scouts with the booze have erected fortifications, and the camp is in total mayhem when some bright fellow yelled that the Turks were attacking. That's when real pandemonium breaks out. Those in command are trying to organize the men, but the soldiers were drawn from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they speak dozens of languages. Some of the orders sound like people shouting 'Allah, Allah', which only drives the frenzy.
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The fighting goes on for hours until the Austrian generals manage to sound a general retreat, leaving some 10,000 men dead on the field. Two hours later the, very confused I'm sure, Ottomans took Karansebes without a fight.

There is debate about the validity of this tale, given that the incident wasn't written about until some 40 years later, but friendly fire does happen, and accidentally killing 10k of your own men, and then retreating from yourself isn't exactly something that the generals want to write home to the emperor about.

Unfortunately for the poor Austrians, the Austro-Turkish war would drag on for another three years, and neither side would come out on top.  The battle of Karansebes is an amusing anecdote, but like most fighting, it was a pointless waste of life in a pointless war.

Today I Found Out

Friday, May 5, 2017

Damn, Girl- Medici: Lucrezia Tornabuoni

So I've already talked about Medici: Masters of Florence a little bit, but the more research I do into the historical background of the Medicis of this era the more I feel compelled to write about them, particularly about the one of the two leading ladies of the show--Lucrezia Tornabuoni, because honestly, talk about a role model. This lady kicked ass in the political arena, provided significant services for the people of Florence, and was a major artistic patron, as well as an artist herself.

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Lucrezia in her youth painted by Piero Benci
Lucrezia was born into a powerful family, and married into another. Her husband, Piero, was later the head of the Medici bank, and was basically the ruler of Florence from 1464-1469. However, Piero was bedridden, so Lucrezia did most of the legwork--literally. That wasn't all she did though, Lucrezia was known for her charitable works and her writing as well.

As mentioned, Lucrezia did a lot of the legwork during her husband's time as leader of Florence. She settled disputes between citizens, received petitions, and acted as ambassador for the city, not something a woman of her era typically did. Her father-in-law, Cosimo de Medici, openly valued her advice, and admired her decision making skills. Lucrezia fostered good relations with her children and grandchildren, so when her son, Lorenzo the Magnificent, came to power she was able to advise him politically.

Lucrezia did a large number of charitable things during her lifetime. She was known for helping fund convents, particularly for donating cloth for nuns to use for their habits. She provided dowries for impoverished women so they could marry*, and took care of widows and orphans by seeing that their relatives were given church positions so that they could support their families.

She was also a keen businesswoman. Lucrezia owned several properties, and collected rents on shops, farms, and homes. Most notably, she purchased a defunct thermal bath in Bagno a Morbo, and refurbished the dump into a profitable business venture. In addition to this, she managed many of the Medici financial affairs while her husband Piero was bedridden with illness. She was known as a shrewd money manager, and her sons often looked to her for advice in this matter.

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Lucrezia in her old age painted by Domenico
But the talents of this amazing woman don't stop there, Lucrezia was also a writer! Her fictional work is almost entirely religious in nature, comprising retelling of bible stories as well as sonnets and lyrical poems on religious topics. Her letters also survive, and can be found here.

Lucrezia was an incredible woman far ahead of her time. She's the sort of woman that I would want my daughters to be like, and the sort of woman that would be incredibly successful and popular today. One can only imagine what she might have accomplished politically if allowed to run for office!

*On a side note, completely unsupported by historical fact (as far as I know), I really like the idea of Lucrezia being a sort of love vigilante, providing dowries for girls so they could marry their true loves, and helping set people up. (Her mother-in-law, Contessina di Bardi, was known for arranging marriages, and she and Lucrezia were very close, so it's plausible that Lucrezia could have done the same, right?) Just imagine- Lucrezia Tornabuoni de' Medici-- political badass and Cupid's handmaiden. If I was going to write a historical fiction novel about her, this would be the premise.

Monstrous Regiment of Women
Oxford Bibliographies
Medici Dynasty

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

How To Go To France Without Leaving North America

If you want to go to France, clap your hands.

Now, I'm sure that last sentence was followed by thunderous applause, because really, what lover of history doesn't want to travel? Especially to France--land of wine, magnificent churches, and endless disputes with the English, it's a history lover's dream, right? Most of my readers are American (except for the large minority of readers from Israel, which, shout out to you guys!), and you're probably thinking something along the lines of 'Yeah, I'd love to go to France, but it's  expensive! A plane ticket to Paris is several thousand dollars, and that's just the ticket!'. Well, I have some news for you, you can visit part of France without leaving North America.

Now, sure, North America France isn't quite the same as France France. There aren't large churches or sun kissed vineyards, though they've had their share of disputes with the English. There is, however, a rich history of fishing, bootlegging, and sticking it to the Nazis that you won't get in mainland France. Where am I talking about? St. Pierre and Miquelon.
St. Pierre and Miquelon is a group of eight small islands just off the coast of Newfoundland known for its plentiful fishing. It's a small area, the main island--St. Pierre--being home to only 6,000 people, but its a proud area that is, by all accounts, very French. French is the official language, and all residents speak it. There's dozens of bakeries, and the French flag flies over the island. The area has a rich and someone tumultuous history, starting from the very beginning.

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The St. Pierre and Miquelon flag.
St. Pierre and Miquelon was first discovered by Proto-Inuit people. Then the Beothuk. Probably. It's hard to tell that far back. First Nation people isn't really who you expect to 'discover' places, but I think it's important that we remember every so often that Europeans didn't discover shit. Well, they discovered Europe (probably). But that's about it.

St. Pierre and Miquelon was later 'discovered' by several European explorers, but it was the French who established the first settlement in 1536. Now, as you probably know, the pre-1777 North America was basically a tug-of-war between France and Britain, with occasional Spanish distractions. Consequentially, the  islands were annexed by the British several times, only to be re-annexed by the French later. A lot of the early settlers of St. Pierre and Miquelon ended up emigrating to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, but despite the danger French, Breton, and Basque fisherman continued to come to the islands because of their fertile fishing waters.

By 1816 the British decided to leave well enough alone, and the inhabitants of St. Pierre and Miquelon were able to return to their peaceful fishing. The island mostly did its thing interrupted until the 1920s, when America decided that prohibiting alcohol was a good idea.

Prohibition turned St. Pierre and Miquelon into an epicenter for bootlegging. Everything came in and out of the islands, and American gangsters used the area to store their illegal merchandise. St. Pierre even played host to the infamous Al Capone. The illicit activity brought great prosperity to the islands, and fishing was more or less abandoned. Until the Americans repealed the Prohibition laws, and the islanders realized that basing an economy on one product is a bad idea. The island recovered however, and fishing resumed.

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St. Pierre

World War Two was when things started to get interesting again. See, after the Germans took France the islands fell under the rule of the government of Vichy, which, while they weren't outright Nazis, they certainly had no inclination to oppose the Fuhrer. Both sides quickly realized that St. Pierre was an important tactical location for the invasion/protection of North America. Luckily, the Axis powers were unable to gain control of the islands, and St. Pierre became an important base for helping free France from Nazi rule.

Since then things have been fairly quiet in St. Pierre. It remains a small, isolated area that relies on its fishing industry, though the locals, along with oil companies, suspect that there is oil of its shores. Either way, St. Pierre and Miquelon remains a charming piece of France smack dab in the middle of Canada.

Lonely Planet
The Daily Beast
CIA World Factbook
St. Pierre and Miquelon Official Website
Grand Colombier