Thursday, February 14, 2019

Damn, Girl-Murasaki Shikibu, World's First Novelist

An extremely popular writer both in her lifetime and in the millenia since, Murasaki Shikibu is credited as writing the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji. A mysterious figure, Murasaki used her illicit knowledge of classical Chinese and Japanese literature not only redefine the genre she wrote in, but to create an artform that survives to this day.

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Murasaki
Like so many of the women we cover, it's unknown if Murasaki Shikibu is even this woman's real name. Probably born in 973 CE, Murasaki not only grew up in a time where the early lives of women weren't deemed worth recording, but in a society where it was considered impolite to use a person's real name. The name we know her by is taken from her father's profession, and the name of the central female character from her novel.

Murasaki was the daughter of Fujiwara no Tametoki, a scholar, and lowranking member of the dominant Fujiwara clan. Murasaki's grandfather and great grandfather had both been important poets, and education was highly valued in her family. Consequently, her brothers were both given brilliant educations in both Chinese and Japanese literature. It was uncommon for ladies to be educated this way, as the Chinese language was considered to be unladylike. However, Murasaki showed an eagerness and aptitude for learning, with some stories even saying that she would eavesdrop on her brothers lessons through a door. Recognizing her aptitude, or perhaps tired of her antics, Murasaki's father allowed her to be taught in Chinese language and literature, grousing that such a mind was wasted on a girl.

In 998 Murasaki married family friend (and literal family) Fujiwara no Nobutaka. He was about twenty years her senior, and already had a basketball team's worth of wives, and an American football team's worth of children. As was traditional, Murasaki continued to live with her father after her marriage. Nobutaka must have visited at least once, however, because in 999 Murasaki gave birth to a girl she named Kenshi. Nobutaka died a few years later in 1001 when a plague swept Kyoto.

Whether or not Murasaki's marriage was a happy one is an interesting question. Japanese tradition paints her as a loving wife and loyal widow, but her writing brings all of this into question. There are certain resemblances between the idyllic Genji and an exiled nobleman of Murasaki's acquaintance whom Murasaki was rumored to have a relationship with. It is questioned if some of the love poems written by Murasaki might be inspired by this nobleman, and if the image of her as a loyal widow might be the moralistic construct of a later era.

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Paintings capturing the moment Murasaki
conceived Genji on Lake Biwa were very
popular.
After her husband's death Murasaki joined the court of Empress Shoshi as a lady-in-waiting. At the time the worth of a Japanese noblewoman was measured not by her looks, but by her artistic abilities. Being able to write sensitive poems, having beautiful calligraphy, and skillfully matching colors for the elegant draping sleeves of a kimono, was how a lady attracted a man. The sign of a successful Empress was the ability to surround herself with the greatest creative minds, much like the salon of Europe. By the time of her arrival at court Murasaki was already an accomplished poet. She had, however, made no forays into prose.

It is, of course, likely, that Murasaki simply woke up one day and decided to write a series of stories about the amorous adventures of a handsome nobleman, but the popular legend is much more exciting. In an episode similar to the gathering of Romantics at Lake Geneva, the Empress Shoshi lamented that there were no good stories, that she was tired of the old romances, and would Murasaki please write a new one. Murasaki agreed, and retreated to a Buddhist temple on Lake Biwa. One night while looking at the moon and lamenting the death of her late husband Murasaki was struck by inspiration, and wrote two whole chapters of her work on the back of sacred Buddhist texts.¹

Genji was an instant hit. It was read by the Empress, and subsequently devoured by all the ladies of the court. This was unsurprising, as monogatari novels were as popular in Heian Japan as romance novels are today. Works like this were written in the fledgling kana, or written Japanese, and were thus accessible to women who were rarely taught Chinese kanji. What is surprising, is that men read Genji too. Empress Shoshi's father, Fujiwara no Michinaga, was an important court influencer, the real power behind the throne, and an avid Tale of Genji fanboy. From him the story circulated through the men of the court until noted male poets were congratulating Murasaki on her creation.

Murasaki, unfortunately, wasn't much for life at court. Conservative and introverted, Murasaki detested the inane frivolity and illicit love affairs that made up the daily schedule in the Heian court. She was often viewed as cold and aloof by her contemporaries, and had open rivalries with several other important female poets of the day. When Empress Shoshi left court after the death and abdication of her husband in 1011, Murasaki left with her.

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Also Murasaki
The end of Murasaki's life was quiet. She died some time between 1014 and 1031, either staying with Shoshi to the end, or retiring to a Buddhist convent. She left behind a daughter, and an enormously popular work twice the length of War and Peace.

The Tale of Genji is perhaps the most important piece of Japanese literature. Its glimpses into the life of aristocratic Heian Japan are not only precious from a historical perspective, but the slice of life narrative and overarcing character development make it a literary gem as well. Additionally, Genji was a major factor in the standardization of kana, and became required study for anyone hoping to become a scribe.

The novel was copied out hundreds of times, and when woodblock printing came around it was distributed even further beyond aristocratic circles. It experienced a huge resurgence in popularity during the Edo period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and owning a piece of Genji 'fanart' was considered the height of sophistication. This popularity continues to this day, with The Tale of Genji being translated over and over again, and being treated to reimaginings in a variety of mediums in and out of Japan.


¹This writing on the back of sacred texts wasn't seen as sacrilege like it would have been if written on a Bible, Torah, or Koran. Instead, this was used to justify reading The Tale of Genji to later audiences who had religious scruples about the content.

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Sources
A History of Japanese Literature by William George Aston
Beyond The Tale of Genji: Murasaki Shikibu as Icon and Exemplum in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Popular Japanese Texts for Women by Satoko Naito
Murasaki Shikibu: Japanese Courtier and Author
Murasaki Shikibu: the Brief Life of a Legendary Novelist
Murasaki Shikibu-Tales of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu-New World Encyclopedia
Murasaki Shikibu-Famous Inventors
World Changing Women-Murasaki Shikibu
Summary of The Tale of Genji
Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji: Work by Murasaki
The Tale of Genji
Historical Background
Background of The Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari)
In Celebration of The Tale of Genji, the World's First Novel





Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Bass Reeves, the Fiercest Lawman in the Old West

Widely considered to be the inspiration behind the fictional Lone Ranger, Bass¹ Reeves lived a larger than life existence of adventure hunting criminals in the old west. One of the first African-American Federal Marshals, Reeves caught more than 3,000 outlaws, all without sustaining a single gunshot wound, or being able to read.

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Bass Reeves, sporting a truly epic
moustache.
Born in 1838, Bass spent the first few years of his life enslaved in the newly minted state of Arkansas. He and his family were owned by William Reeves, a wealthy farmer and popular southern politician. William Reeves eventually decided to relocate to Texas, and Bass was assigned to be a valet to Reeves' son, George. When George went off to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War in 1861, Bass went with him.

Bass' time serving with the Confederacy was brief. Though dates are unsure, it is generally agreed upon that in some point between 1861 and 1862 Bass escaped after an altercation with his master during a card game. From Texas, Bass fled to Indian Country, the land that would later become the state of Oklahoma.

While in Indian Country, Bass became friendly with members of the Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek Nations, learning their languages, tracking techniques, and fighting for the Union with them.

Bass was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and when the war ended in 1865 he married, bought a farm in Arkansas, and proceeded to have ten children. Bass was a successful farmer, but he was more well known for his skill with languages and knowledge of Indian Country. In 1875 he was made a deputy US Marshal, and charged with the responsibility of cleaning up Indian Country.

Indian Country at the time was a pretty lawless place. Because it wasn't under the authority of any state government criminals could only be prosecuted by the federal government, and could only be chased down by federal authorities. While tribes were allowed to organize their own law enforcement, they only had jurisdiction over Native Americans, leaving white and black criminals the responsibility of the harrassed and understaffed US Marshals.

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Isaac Parker, the 'Hanging Judge'. Parker earned
this epitaph from the many criminals he sentenced
to the noose during his vigorous efforts to rid the
West of crime.
In May of 1875 Isaac Parker, later known as 'the hanging judge' was put in charge of a portion of the west that included Indian Country. He authorized the hire of some 200 deputies, and Bass Reeves was one of the top picks. From there he set out on a more than 30 year career that would see him become one of most famous lawmen of the Old West.

Life as a U.S. Marshal was busy. Bass would spend weeks away from his family, hunting down outlaws. When he finally caught his man, Bass would return to the courthouse at Fort Smith. He would spend a few days with his family back in Arkansas, then head back out.

Bass was at something of a disadvantage when it came to crook catching, because, as a former slave, he had never been taught to read. Because of this, he had to have warrants read to him. Bass would memorize the contents of several warrants before heading out on a manhunt. These manhunts could last months, giving Bass ample time to forget the contents of the warrants, but Bass was a sharp cookie. Despite the fact that he had to rely on his memory, he never brought back the wrong man.

There were times when Bass even used his illiteracy to his benefit. It was well known that Bass couldn't read, and there were several instances of Bass being captured by outlaws, and asking them to read him a letter from his wife before they shot him. Bass would take advantage of their moment of distraction to draw a gun on them, and take them in.

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Bass Reeves
Bass was bold and imposing, standing at 6'2, but he was also a master of disguise. A famous story recounts how he disguised himself as a bum, dressing himself in rags and a hat riddled with bullet holes. He came up to a homestead belonging to the mother of two outlaws Bass was hunting. He spun a sad story about how he was being hunted by the marshals, and how they had shot the hat right off his head. Sympathetic, the woman let Bass into her home, and suggested that he should team up with her two sons. Bass agreed, and when the two outlaws came home Bass agreed to join them. However, when everyone was asleep Bass handcuffed the two brothers together. When they woke up the next morning they were angry, but Bass still managed to haul them back to Fort Smith, despite being pursued by the men's irate mother.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass found himself abruptly out of a job. Marshal duties were taken over by the new state government, who did not allow African Americans to serve. Bass joined the Muskogee Police Department, and spent two years as a beat cop. Legend says that there was never a single crime on his beat.

In 1909 Bass was diagnosed with Bright's Disease. He died a few months later in  January of 1910. 

Bass was one of the most effective lawmen of the time. He caught over 3,000 criminals, and it is notable that of that number, he only ever had to shoot fourteen of them. He is widely considered to be the inspiration behind the popular cartoon character, the Lone Ranger, though this has never been confirmed. Either way, Bass remains an Old West legend.


¹Pronounced with a short 'a', like the fish, not with a long 'a' like the musical instrument.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Damn, Girl-Mara Branković

Before beginning, it is important to note that there is not a lot written about Mara in English. Most of the scholarship done about her is written in Serbian, and as The Nerd is not familiar with Serbian, translation apps were used to translate web pages and documents. The Nerd apologizes in advance for any mistakes or misrepresentations which may have occurred because of translation errors.


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The only known portrait of Mara.
As far as obscure Slavic princesses go, Mara Branković, eldest daughter of the Serbian Despot¹, Đurađ Branković, is pretty obscure. She has been all but forgotten to the world, yet for several decades she was one of the most important diplomats in Europe, helping to keep a tenuous peace between the Muslim Ottomans, and the Christian everybody else.

Mara was the daughter of Đurađ Branković and his second wife, Irene. Maybe. She may have been the daughter of Đurađ's first, unnamed wife. The documentation is shaky, and it's difficult to know exactly when and to whom Mara was born. What is for sure is that she was the second of five children--two girls and three boys.

Serbia, at the time, was in a shaky spot. Sandwiched between the rapidly growing Ottoman Empire, and the land hungry Hungarian Empire, Serbia was put in the precarious position of having to serve two masters who didn't like each other. Đurađ had been able to gain the position of despot by only the skin of his teeth, after the previous despot died without an heir. he required the approval of the leaders of his powerful neighbors to retain his position. In order to appease the pair, he gave his daughters to them in marriage, Mara to Sultan Murad II, and her sister, Katrina, to the Count of Hungary.

Mara was 21 at the age of her marriage in 1433. The sultan was fifteen years older than her, and already had a wife and an heir. Murad supposedly wasn't initially too keen on marrying the daughter of his lowly client king, but when her father offered most of Serbia as a dowry, Murad seized on the opportunity.

The years of Mara's marriage were fairly quiet. Murad favored Mara, but reportedly never consummated the relationship. Mara got on well with Murad's other wife, and his son. She served as an intermediary between her father and her husband, trusted by both sides to be fair and honest.

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Murad II
There was one major incident during the years of Mara's marriage. In 1438 Đurađ got uppity. Murad really wanted to attack the Hungarian Empire, and while Đurađ promised to remain neutral in the conflict, he refused to allow the Ottoman armies into his territory. Murad wasn't too pleased about this. He started conquering Serbia, taking almost the entire country, and sending Đurađ running to Venice.

Murad wasn't satisfied with taking Serbia. He wanted revenge, and so in 1439 he captured Mara's brother, the heir apparent, Gregory. Gregory joined his brother Stefan, who had been held as a hostage since Mara's marriage six years earlier. Murad made Gregory the governor of several Serbian territories, but in 1440 became suspicious that Gregory was corresponding with his father. Gregory and Stefan were thrown into prison, in May of 1441 the pair were blinded, then released.²

Mara was, reportedly, furious. The Sultan had ordered that she not be told about the deed until after it was done. When she found out she reportedly threw her husband under her feet, screaming at him, making it more than clear that he had gone too far this time. Regretting his actions, Murad ordered that the person who blinded the brothers also be blinded as recompense. Because that would certainly rectify the situation.

This incident gives an interesting insight into Mara's relationship with her husband. It's clear that Murad not only respected Mara, but also considered her to be an equal to him, or at least an almost equal. He was evidently in fear of her wrath, where so many other men of the time had no regard for their wives' feelings on anything. This raises the question of if he considered Mara's political influence too great for him to risk offending her, or if he genuinely cared for her, and valued her good opinion.³

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Mehmed II, later known as 'Mehmed the
Conqueror'
In 1444 the conflict between Serbia, Hungary, and the Ottomans was put to rest, with Mara playing a not insignificant part in the proceedings. After a few months of peace Murad abdicated, leaving his thirteen year old son, Mehmed II, in charge of the country. Murad, Mara, and a few other companions retreated to the countryside, with Murad coming out of retirement every so often to conquer important bits of land for his son. He died of an apoplexy in 1451.

This left the twenty year old Mehmed the sole Sultan in the empire. He and Mara were very close, she had become a sort of surrogate mother to him after his own mother died in 1449. When Mara asked to return to Serbia after her husband's death, Mehmed was more than happy to let her go, taking the extraordinary step of releasing her from the harem.

It must be noted that Mara and Mehmed's relationship would have been vastly different had she had children. Ottoman princes were notoriously fratricidal, with Mehmed himself making it legal to kill a brother who was in line for the throne. Any child of Mara's would have been a threat to Mehmed, and he could not have risked letting Mara or her child out of the country. Fortunately, Mara was childless, and posed very little threat.

Mara returned to her family in Serbia, all of whom were remarkably still alive, if not still in possession of all important organs. With Mara returned the vast swathes of Serbia that had served as her dowry, and Đurađ found himself the happy owner of more land than he had before.

From here, Đurađ did what medieval kings did best, arranged strategic marriages for his daughters to cement alliances between kingdoms. While Mara was getting on a bit, being somewhere between 32 and 39 years of age, she was still a valuable marriage candidate, especially given her Ottoman connections. Đurađ eagerly betrothed her to the last Byzantine Emperor, Emperor Constantine XI⁴

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The Ottoman Empire
Unfortunately for Đurađ, Mara had had it with marriage. After Murad's death she had vowed never to marry again. Remarkably, her father (and later brothers) respected this vow, and she refused not only the Byzantine Emperor, but important Czech nobleman and ally against the Hungarians, Jana Jiskru.

When Đurađ died in 1456 a power struggle between his sons ensued. Gregory, the eldest brother, backed by Mara, Irene, and their powerful uncle Thomas, was challenged by Lazar, the youngest brother, backed by his wife and Stefan. Infighting grew so terrible that Irene died, and Mara returned to the Ottoman Empire.

Mara was welcomed back with open arms. She was given several towns and properties, and retired to Ježevo,⁵ near Mount Athos in modern Greece. It is notable that she retired to this area, as women were, and still are, forbidden to approach Mount Athos. Mara was the second woman ever to enter the area, and had to receive special permission from the monks in the area. However, given that she owned many of the monasteries, getting permission must have been easy enough.

It was, however, less easy for Mara to get her sister, Katrina to Ježevo. When Katrina's husband died in 1456, Katrina divided up his property, and peaced out of Hungary. She appears to have moved with her sister to Macedonia, though if they were in modern Greece Macedonia, or the FYROM is uncertain.

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Monastery of Simonos Petra, located on Mount Athos.
From their home, the sisters played mediator between the powerful Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire during the Venetian-Turkish war of 1463-79. The Venetians sent their emissaries to the sisters, and the sisters would pass on their messages, or accompany the emissaries to Constantinople themselves. They took the further step of using Mount Athos, essentially a neutral ground, for negotiations between the two countries.

Mara's other notable political interventions involved the election of the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In Mehmed's time becoming Patriarch involved paying an obscene amount of money to be appointed by the Sultan. In 1465, Mara convinced Mehemed to appoint her personal priest, Dionysius, as patriarch. Unfortunately, Dionysius didn't last long in the role, but Mara was able to see him peacefully retired to Mount Athos. She tried again with Rafael, a Serbian monk, but he was unable to raise the required funds, and was reduced to begging in the streets of Constantinople.

Mara died peacefully in 1487, and was buried in the Kosinitza monastery. She left behind her a large amount of wealth and religious relics, which was vigorously fought over by her family. She also left behind a legacy of diplomacy and peacemaking. Her advocation for the rights of Christians in the Ottoman Empire lead to some small amount of peace between the groups, and her interventions with the Venetian Republic led to a few decades of tenuous peace.



¹The term 'Despot' is not commentary on Đurađ's ruling skills, but is, instead, the official title of the ruler of Serbia at the time.
²Other stories claim that the Sultan had the brothers blinded over jealousy. The brothers were excellent hunters, and Murat apparently couldn't stand that.
³Or, perhaps, he simply didn't like to be yelled at. That should also be taken into consideration.
⁴For those protesting that the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire are the same thing, it should be known that Istanbul was not always Constantinople. The Ottoman conquest of Byzantium was not complete until 1453.
⁵It has been difficult for this historian to ascertain exactly where and what Ježevo was. There is a city called Ježevo in modern Croatia, but as far as this historian can tell, it is not the city Mara settled in. Given Mara's involvement in Ottoman affairs, it seems unlikely that she would have settled as far away as Croatia. Additionally, Mara was heavily involved with affairs on Mount Athos, a holy mountain near Thessaloniki, Greece. It seems likely that Ježevo was the name of a small village, or even the name of Mara's estate near there.

This article is gratefully dedicated to M. Kellogg, who inspired and encouraged its development. 

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Sources
Serbian Ladies and Athonite Monks by V. Demetriades and E. A. Zachariadou
Shedding New Light on the Ties of Mara Branković to the Holy Mountain of Athos and the Translation of Relics by Mihailo St. Popović
The Byzantine Lady: Ten Portraits, 1250-1500 by Donald M. Nicol
Serbia
Mara Brankovic

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Statue of Liberty Was a Completely Useless Lighthouse for Sixteen Years

A gift from the French government to assure the United States that they were, in fact, still friends, the Statue of Liberty was never meant to be a lighthouse. Still, for the first sixteen years of its American life, Liberty Enlightening the People served as a lighthouse, 'helping' to guide sailors into the New York Harbor. Or something like that.

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Statue of Liberty Lighthouse, 1890.
As mentioned, the statue wasn't supposed to be a lighthouse, but when the idea was posed to Frederic Bartholdi, the statue's designer, he seized on the idea with enthusiasm. A statue that not only held a torch, but held a torch that lit up and literally guided people to safety was pretty cool, and everyone else agreed, especially when it was proposed that the statue would be illuminated by the newfangled electric light.

The Statue of Liberty was the first lighthouse in the United States to be lit with electricity, with all other lighthouses running off old fashioned kerosene lamps. However, Bartholdi's original design didn't include any convenient places to shine lights out of, save for the lady's tiara. Bartholdi and his engineers (noted among them, Gustav Eiffel) set to finding a creative solution, or two.

Bartholdi's first idea was to install flood lights along the ledges of the torch. This would cast a bright light out to sea, illuminating the way for passing vessels. This idea, however, worked too well, and was rejected because it was feared that the light would blind sailors, and cause shipwrecks. Instead, windows were cut into the torch, and electric lights were placed inside, lighting the torch from within.

The lights were initially powered by a steam electricity plant and dynamo generator at no cost to the United States government. While the United States were thrilled to have a cool statue, they weren't too keen on paying for the lighting costs. Part of the illumination agreement was that the power plant and first week of illumination would be donated by the American Electric Light Manufacturing Company. The statue was lit up on November 1, 1886. A week later, it was dark again.

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Statue of Liberty today
Soon after going dark, President Grover Cleveland made the Statue of Liberty the problem of the Lighthouse Board. The Lighthouse Board weren't too happy with this assignment, given that the statue was expensive, difficult to light, and did no actual good as a navigational aid. There was no amplifying lense in the torch, which meant that the light was very weak. Proponents of the lighthouse claimed that the light could be seen for 24 miles out to sea. In reality, the light didn't make the 8 miles to Manhattan.¹

The first and only lighthouse keeper, Albert E. Littlefield, was hired in December of 1886. Littlefield was chosen because of his expertise with electricity, and under his care the lights kept shining for sixteen years. Though he made improvements that made the lighthouse less expensive, the Statue of Liberty was still a huge drain on Lighthouse Board resources, and it ceased to serve as a lighthouse on March 1, 1902.



¹For those who aren't lighthouse aficionados, a good lighthouse can be seen 30-40 miles away

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Sources
Statue of Liberty Lighthouse
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty, NY