Thursday, November 23, 2017

Damn, Girl--Catherine the Great

Czarina Catherine II was enlightened, and she was a despot, but she was not an enlightened despot, no matter what the stories say. Though she embraced the ideals of the enlightenment, her laws and reforms kept  Russia under her autocratic thumb. She strengthened the institution of serfdom, and conquered most of the Crimea region. That aside, she was one boss lady.

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Young Catherine
Born Prinzessin Sophie Friederike Auguste, Catherine was the daughter of a minor Prussian prince. Living in the principality of Anhalt-Zebst, Catherine was mainly ignored by her parents until she grew to a marriageable age. When Catherine was old enough to marry, her mother took her around Europe shopping for a suitable husband. In 1744 Catherine and her mother went to Russia, then ruled by the Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth had a young heir and nephew, Peter, to dispose of, and she decided that Catherine would be an ideal bride.

Catherine had to give up a lot to be considered a suitable future czarina. She was required to convert from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, and learned Russian in order to fit in with her people better. She was successful, and in 1745 she and Peter were married.

Peter and Catherine were not a good match. Catherine was intelligent, vivacious, and ambitious, while Peter was immature, antisocial, and dim. Peter felt threatened by his wife, and was often cruel to her in private and public. It wasn't long after their marriage that Peter began to take lovers. Hurt, Catherine spent a lot of time reading, and took lovers of her own. During their entire marriage Peter and Catherine had two children--a son Paul and a daughter Anna. It is highly unlikely that either of them were Peter's child.

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The Malachite Room of the majestic Winter Palace--a residence
that Catherine had a large hand in building
In 1761 Empress Elizabeth died, leaving Peter in charge. Crowned Czar Peter III, Peter was a terrible leader. He pulled out of a war against Prussia, decided to invade Denmark, and made friends with Russia's long-time nemesis--Frederick the Great. He was widely unpopular among the nobility and the clergy, and it wasn't long before there were many groups plotting to overthrow him.

Fortunately for Catherine, she had an in with the Russian Guards. She and her lover, Grigory Orlov, had Peter quietly arrested, and Catherine proclaimed Empress. Catherine had planned to have Peter live out his life in imprisonment, but eight days after his arrest he was quietly strangled.

Unlike many other royal women who's husbands died before their heirs had reached majority, Catherine didn't even pretend to be a regent, she outright had herself proclaimed Empress, and only had her son Paul declared as her heir as an afterthought. She didn't much care for her son, and she didn't much care for a man to tell her what to do. Catherine had some very definite ideas about how she was going to run Russia, and she wasn't going to be stopped.

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An older Catherine the Great
Catherine was very fond of Enlightenment principles. She had read extensively, and was determined to be the model of an enlightened monarch. She believed that by applying the principles of the enlightenment to her rule in Russia she could make a nation where life would be fair and just for everyone. Catherine had a lot of ideas, and in 1767 she convened a commission of people to frame a constitution for Russia. The commission was comprised of people of all social ranks (except serfs), and representatives from all major and minor ethnic groups. Catherine had very firm instructions on how the commission was to proceed, and detailed them in a letter that was, reportedly, so scandalously liberal it was banned in France.

Despite all of her ideals, Catherine knew she couldn't do without the support of the nobility. The commission failed to produce a working constitution, and in 1785 Catherine released her 'Charter of the Nobility', which granted the nobility more powers than ever before, and essentially made all peasants into serfs. This act was especially damning, because Catherine had spoken out privately and publicly about the evils of serfdom.

When she wasn't reforming the laws of the land, Catherine was trying to get more land. Thanks to Peter the Great, Russia had a port on the Black Sea, but Catherine wanted to solidify her position there. Through three partionings, she gradually ate away at Poland, and took the entirety of the Crimea from the Ottoman Empire.

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Gregory Potemkin, Catherine's lover and
advisor
What Catherine is most known for is for her love affairs. As with almost all women of power, rumors of her intense sexual appetites have been grossly exaggerated, though in Catherine's case the rumors aren't entirely unfounded. While Catherine the Great didn't engage in bestiality, she did have some 12 lovers throughout her life, many of whom were quite a bit younger than her.

Catherine's memoirs reveal a woman who was lonely and desperate for love. However, in order to maintain her position Catherine couldn't remarry, and even if she could have it seems unlike that she would have. Catherine wrote in a letter to Gregory Potemkin, one of her most loved and longest lasting lovers, that her passions cooled quickly, and that as soon as a man was out of her site she forgot about him.

Though very popular, Catherine did inspire one of the largest uprisings in Russian history. In 1773 Yemelyan Pugachov, a former Cossack officer, started traipsing around claiming to be Peter III. According to Pugachov, Peter had not died, but had instead been in hiding, and he was ready to lead the serfs and peasantry to a better life, and to throw off Catherine's tyranny. He gained some 200,000 supporters, and marched down along the Volga river, slaughtering nobles along the way. He was within attacking distance of Moscow before he was finally captured, and his force dispersed in 1774.

At age 67, Catherine had a stroke and died in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Though controversial, she is often regarded as one of Russia's greatest rulers, and as one of the greatest female rulers of all times. Catherine had lofty ideals and unbounded ambition. While she didn't manage to live up to her ideals, she brought Russia into an era of political stability and expansion that led to Russian prosperity in the 1800s.

Sources
Catherine II
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia
When Catherine the Great Invaded the Crimea, and Put the Rest of the World on Edge
Catherine the Great: Biography, Accomplishments, and Death
Catherine the Great


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Erik the Red and His Green Land

Erik the Red was a larger than life dude who knew how to leave a mark. He got kicked out of Iceland, and settled a previously uninhabited¹ island. In the world's first documented PR stunt, he named the icy wasteland 'Greenland' to entice people to move there, then proceeded to name every geographical feature he came across after himself. Erik was one hell of a dude.
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Erik the Red. What a handsome dude. Look at that
mustache. Hipsters kill for mustaches that
glorious.

Erik was born in Norway, but moved to Iceland after his father, Thorvald, was exiled for 'manslaughter' (read as 'probably murder'). He was called 'The Red' because of his fiery hair, beard, and temper. Also red was the color of the blood on his hands after he continued the family tradition of murder.

While living in the north of Iceland, Erik's thralls inadvertently created a landslide which destroyed the neighboring house. Erik's neighbor was, understandably, irritated. Less understandably, said neighbor decided to kill Erik's thralls. This aggravated Erik, who murdered his neighbor in return. Because of this, in 980 Erik and his family were banished.

Next, Erik moved to the island of Oxney, and picked up the pieces. He restarted his homestead, and all was going well, until he had more troubles with his neighbors. In about 982 Erik lent his setstokkr to his neighbor. Setstokkr were large, rune inscribed beams that held particular religious significance. It was pretty cool of Erik to loan them to his neighbor, but unfortunately his neighbor was rather uncool, and didn't give them back. In retaliation, Erik killed him², and was once again banished. This time he was banished from the entirety of Iceland for three years. Erik was left with two choices. He could sail back to Norway, or he could go somewhere else. Erik chose the latter.

Now, Erik wasn't totally sailing blind. Other vikings had been around the coasts of Greenland before, though none had ever gone ashore. Erik knew that Greenland was out there, so he packed his family in his longship and went. He spent several months navigating around the southern tip of Greenland. He went ashore at Tunulliarfik, and spent the two years after that exploring the country, and naming everything in sight after himself.

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Tunulliarfik fjord, where Erik came ashore
In 985 Erik's exile was up, and he was firmly of the opinion that his new home would be a pretty dope place to start a colony. He named the place 'Greenland' to attract settlers, and sailed back to Iceland. Erik was fairly successful, and managed to convince some 400 people to make the move. 25 ships set out from Iceland in 985, and within a few months, 14 had arrived on Greenland's shores (the rest having wrecked or turned back to Iceland.) They settled in two groups--the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement, with Erik elected leader of the Eastern Settlement. Erik died about 15 years later after a fall from his horse.



¹By Europeans
²Quite frankly, after the number of pens, pencils, bowls, and spoons I've lost to a neighbor, I do not consider this an overreaction on Erik's part.

Sources
Erik the Red-Biography
Erik the Red-Britannica
Erik the Red-Maritime Museum

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Damn, Girl--Queen Seondeok of Silla

Seondeok was the first of three queen regnants of the medieval kingdom of Silla. She was a skilled diplomatist, devout Buddhist, and prolific builder. During her reign, Seondeok managed to get Tang Dynasty China on her side, promote Buddhism as the national religion, and lead Silla into a golden age of art, science, and literature. She was a smart, strong woman, and is still celebrated in Korea today.

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Queen Seondeok. Probably. I've had trouble
finding pictures of her that aren't from the popular
K-Drama named after her.
Silla was located at the bottom of the Korean peninsula, in modern day South Korea. It was a very internally stable kingdom, ruled by one of the longest continuous royal houses in the world. Silla would later conquer the kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo to unite the peoples in the Korean peninsula. However, at Seondeok's time Silla was still viciously warring with their neighbors.

Seondeok was born somewhere in the 580 CEs. Her father, Chinpyong was a reasonable ruler, but couldn't seem to have a son. Like all men of the era, he blamed his wife, Ma-ya, and sent her away to a Buddhist nunnery. Though he remarried, he was unable to have another child, leaving him with the three daughters he had with Ma-ya.

Seondeok was probably the eldest daughter, but even if she wasn't she was hand picked by her father to succeed him. From an early age Seondeok showed great wisdom, and her father believed her the most fit of his children to rule. A traditional story says that when the Chinese emperor sent Chinpyong some peony seeds, along with a picture depicting them, the young Seondeok remarked that the flowers were pretty, but it was a shame they didn't smell¹. When asked what she meant, she told her father that if the flowers had a good scent, surely they would be surrounded by bees and butterflies. When the flowers were revealed to have no scent, her father declared that she was wise beyond her years, and that she would succeed him.

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Map of Silla during the 400s. By Seondeok's
time, Silla had swallowed Gaya.
Now, you may be wondering why Seondeok was able to succeed Chinpyong at all. In most Western societies had Chinpyong died without male issue the throne would have passed to his brother or nephew. This was the prevailing pattern in Europe, as well as in neighboring China. Silla, however, had different requirements for a ruler. To rule Silla, you had to come from the 'Sacred Bone' class--the class that encompassed the ruling family, and those who married the ruler. Seondeok and some of her (female) cousins fit into this class, but there were no males in the Sacred Bone class other than Seondeok's father.
In 632, Seondeok ascended to the throne. Though there were some members of the True Bone Class (the class right below Sacred Bone) who protested, many of the people of Silla were more than happy with Seondeok being in charge. Having a woman in charge of medieval Korea isn't as revolutionary as you might think. Though the people of Silla still operated inside of the traditional gender roles, women were respected and placed in positions of power. There had been Queen Regents before, and women were usually in charge of the family. Though these attitudes changed later when Confucianism seeped into the country, a female ruler wasn't too objectionable at Seondeok's time.

Like many rulers, Seondeok had a craze for building. She was famous for building Buddhist temples, including a nine level pagoda. Her temples are directly credited for making Buddhism so popular in Silla. Seondeok's most famous building, however, is the observatory. The Tower of Moons and Stars or Cheomseongdae is the oldest observatory in eastern Asia. The observatory is a little taller than 9 meters, and has 27 layers of brick to recognize Seondeok as the 27th ruler of Silla. It is the only remaining structure definitely built by her (the rest were made of wood, and have since vanished), and is a national Korean symbol.

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Cheomseongdae
Though Silla was very peaceful internally, they were almost constantly at war with their neighbors--Baekje and Goguryeo. Goguryeo was the real problem. They were a large country, and they were just as determined as Silla to conquer the whole peninsula. Baekje, though smaller, was just as hostile. However, on the other side of Goguryeo was Tang China, and since Tang China was Goguryeo's enemy, they were one of Seondeok's best friends--diplomatically speaking.

Seondeok had to walk a fine line with Tang China. She needed their help, but they were a strictly Confucian nation, and Confucianism just wasn't down with a female ruler. The Chinese Emperor offered Seondeok generous aid, but it was  on the condition that Seondeok would step aside, and let a Chinese prince rule in her stead. Seondeok, of course, refused, though still managed to win the Tang's support.

Seondeok died of illness around 647, leaving the throne to her cousin Jindeok. Jindeok was the last Silla ruler of the Sacred Bone class, and the throne passed to her nephew. Though Seondeok died more than a thousand years ago, she's still a pretty big deal. Her observatory has been designated a national wonder, and rites are still performed at her tomb every year.



¹Not all peonies have a scent. Many of the single and red varieties of peonies do not have a scent. While I haven't done extensive research into the history of Chinese peonies, it is reasonable to assume that one of those varieties was the one sent to Chinpyong. (source)

Sources
Sondok, Queen of Silla
Queen Seondeok
Queen Seondeok of Silla
Chemseongdae
Royal Tomb of Queen Seondeok