Showing posts with label 13th century. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 13th century. Show all posts

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Damn, Girl-Khutulun-Mongol

Khutulun Mongol, alternatively known as Aigiarne, Aiyurag, Khotol Tsagaan, Ay Yaruq,¹ and in fiction as Turandot, was a warrior princess of the Chagatai Khanate in the late 13th, and early 14th centuries. Her father, the warmongering Kaidu, trusted her as one of his chief military and political experts. He would have made her the next khan, but possessors of y chromosomes disagreed. Today, Khutulun is best known for refusing to marry any man who couldn't beat her in a wrestling match.

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Khutulun wrestling a potential suitor. Painted by an Italian
more than a century after her death, it seems unlikely that
this is an accurate likeness.
At the time of Khutulun's birth in 1260, Genghis Khan's massive empire had been split into several, less massive parts. Kublai Khan, the preeminent of his successors, was ruling Yuan China in decadent luxury. Kublai had, for all intents and purposes, abandoned his nomadic Mongolian roots, something that irritated the lesser khans sworn to him.

Kaidu, leader of the Chagatai Khanate, was chief among the irritated. He didn't believe in settled existence, and instead spent his time making war with the peoples around his empire. The Chagatai Khanate, which encompasses modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Western China, was as nomadic and warlike as Genghis Khan had been. As such, they considered it their duty to make war on Kublai Khan and Yuan China as much as possible.

Enter Khutulun. The youngest and only girl of Kaidu's fifteen children, she was her father's favorite. Renowned for her skills in the three Mongol sports--archery, wrestling, and horse racing--Khutulun accompanied her father into battle, terrifying their enemies with her unique, but inefficient style of warfare. According to Marco Polo, one of the two contemporaries who wrote about her:
"...the damsel rushed into the midst of the enemy, and seizing upon a horseman, carried him off to her own people."
This daring do, along with her other victories, terrified her enemies, and made people believe that Khutulun was blessed by the gods.

Khutulun is best known, however, for her skill in wrestling. She was undefeated, taking down wrestlers of all shapes and sizes. It's not surprising, Marco Polo described her as:
"...so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess"
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The Chagatai Khanate
Khutulun was a prime prize on the marriage market, but she made her father promise her, in writing, that she could choose her own husband. She then issued the challenge: she would marry any man who could beat her in a wrestling match, but to wrestle her, a man had to wager 100 horses. If he lost, she kept the horses. If he won, she'd marry him. No one quite measured up. By the time of her death, Khutulun had 10,000 horses.²

This served to increase Khutulun's popularity among her people, after all, victors in war and sports were considered blessed and favored, but it didn't get her married, something her parents weren't too happy about. In 1280, a rich and attractive prince came riding up. Cocksure, he wagered 1,000 horses that he would beat and marry Khutulun. Kaidu and Khutulun's mother begged her to throw the match. After all, the prince was young, handsome, rich, and a fierce warrior. Khutulun refused. She not only defeated the prince and took his horses, she so thoroughly defeated him that he slunk away, humiliated, in the night.

Khutulun did eventually get married, though not to a man who defeated her. Some sources hold that she married to stave off rumors that she and her father were getting biblical. Other sources say that she fell in love. That Khutulun married is not in doubt, who she married, on the other hand, is. According to contemporary sources and the legends that grew up around her, Khutulun may have married:

  • A man who failed to assassinate her father
  • An attractive man who had been taken as a war prisoner
  • A good looking soldier
  • A friend of her father
  • Ghazan Mongol, the ruler of Persia

Who she married is uncertain, but it seems that she stayed close to home, because her father tried to make her his successor as khan. However, as might be expected, despite her qualifications people objected on the grounds of her gender. Kaidu was instead succeeded by Duwa, the son of a rival. Though Khutulun supported her brother Orus in his attempts to become khan, she was unsuccessful. Khutulun died in 1306

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Modern traditional Mongolian wrestlers. In Khutulun's
time wrestling consisted of two people grappling. The
first to drive the other to the ground was the winner.
Aside from brief mentions in Marco Polo's travel diaries, and the letters of Rashad al-Din, Khutulun barely makes a mark in the historical narrative. She is known best in the west as the basis for the character of Turandot, but among the Mongolians she is remembered as the best wrestler to ever live. She influence is evident in the costume of Mongolian wrestlers--a vest that leaves the chest bare, boots, and briefs. Since her death, women have not been allowed to wrestle, this costume, along with the victory dance performed after a match, proves that the wrestler is male. Centuries later, Khutulun's athletic exploits are remembered, even if her name is not.


¹All of these mean something to the effect of "moonlight".
² In Mongolian tradition "10,000" doesn't really mean 10,000. It means "so many I didn't want to count". The real number of Khutulun's horses may be higher or lower, but either way, she won a LOT of horses.


Sources
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford
The Travels of Marco Polo: the Venetian by Marco Polo
From the Oxus Rivers to the Syriac Shore by  Li Tang and Dietmar W. Winkler
The Wrestler Princess
Khutulun: Descendant of Genghis Khan and Asia's Fiercest Female Badass
Khutulun: the Undefeated Badass Mongolian Warrior Princess
Khutulun: the Wrestler Princess

Friday, January 25, 2019

Damn, Girl-Isabella, Queen of England, 'She-Wolf' of France

Militant and ruthless, Isabella of France was the sort of queen HBO and Starz make television shows about. Married at twelve, Isabella spent the early years of her reign being scorned and passed over for her husband's male favorites. Forced to stand between her husband, his aristocracy, and England, Isabella became a wily diplomat and politician, which later saw her ousting her corrupt and weak husband with the help of her lover. Though she saw real power for only four years, she saw her son onto the throne, and was instrumental in holding England together during the tumultuous years of Edward II. Deemed 'the she-wolf of France'¹, Isabella was a fierce defender of what was hers.

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Our girl Isabella, deciding the fate of her enemies.
Born sometime between 1292 and 1295, Isabella was the sixth child and only surviving daughter of King Philip the Fair of France, and Queen Jeanne of Navarre. Very early in her life Isabella was given into the care of Theophania St. Pierre, who served as her nurse and companion even after her marriage.

Despite being cared for by Theophania, Isabella was, in no way, neglected by her parents. As their only girl she was much indulged, and given several grants of land, making her wealthy even as a child. In addition to being given land, Isabella was also given a rudimentary education,being taught to read even though her father generally held the belief that only nuns should be taught to read. Isabella developed a love of books and learning that would sustain her throughout her life.

It is important to note the sort household that Isabella was raised in. While by no means normal, Isabella's family was idyllic by the standards of the times, and the modern day. Her parents were in love, and it was very likely that their marriage had been a love match. Isabella's mother ran her country, Navarre, independent of Philip's France, and Philip was a strong, if somewhat brutal, king of France. Isabella was raised by exemplary monarchs with strong relationship. This would stand in stark contrast to the men in her own future, and may have contributed to the disillusionment that Isabella would experience later in her life.

At the time of Isabella's birth France and England were, unsurprisingly, at war. Traditional enemies, England and France's latest quarrel was over the regions of Aquitaine and Gascony, regions that the two countries had been fighting over since Eleanor of Aquitaine's marriage to Henry II, and the transfer of her lands to English hands, four generations previous. Philip IV and Edward I were ready to call a temporary truce, and they decided to seal the deal with a double marriage--Philip's sister, Margaret of France, to Edward I, and Edward I's son, Edward of Caernarvon, to Philip's only daughter, Isabella.

The marriage was agreed to in 1298, and Edward pressed for Isabella to marry his son immediately, but an intervention from Pope Boniface VIII, proposing that marrying off a three year old was perhaps a little unethical, delayed the union. The couple were married by proxy when Isabella was seven, then married for real in 1308.
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Edward Caernarvon at his coronation.
Twelve year old Isabella was hailed as a beauty, and was greeted joyously by her new English public. Her husband, Edward, however, wasn't as enthused. It wasn't that he disliked Isabella, it was just that he was enamoured with another man, and he was completely indifferent to the twelve year old he had just vowed to love, honor, and obey. Edward already had someone to love, honor, and obey, his husband favorite, Piers Gaveston.

Piers Gaveston and Edward II went all the way back to 1300, when Edward was 15 (ish). Edward's father, Edward (hereafter referred to as 'Big Daddy Ed'), wasn't too terribly impressed with his son. Big Daddy Ed was a Medieval King's Medieval King. His hobbies included holding tournaments, producing heirs, and warring with the Scots. Edward, on the other hand, liked music, swimming, rowing, and thatching. Big Daddy Ed was disgusted with his son, and so he installed Piers Gaveston, the son of a poor knight, in Edward's household. Piers was the sort of fellow that Big Daddy Ed would have liked to have for a son--athletic, refined, and a great lover of warring with the Scots. He'd hoped that Piers would be an improving influence for his son, unfortunately, Piers was anything but. Piers and Edward fell in love almost immediately, and the pair proceeded to wreak havoc among the nobility and common people.

While Piers doesn't appear to have been present at Edward and Isabella's marriage, he was most notably present at their coronation (Big Daddy Ed having died a few months before). Piers had controversially been raised to the title of Earl of Cornwall², and as such had the right to wear cloth of gold at the coronation. Piers, however, decided to show up in purple silk, essentially claiming status on par with Isabella and Edward. He also proceeded Isabella and Edward in the procession, and was given several other prestigious duties during the ceremony. This infuriated Edward's nobles, as Piers was, outside of his flashy new titles, not particularly blue-blooded.

The real insults came at the banquet succeeding the coronation. Edward had been given substantial sums of money by the French for the coronation, and had spent it on lavish tapestries displaying the arms of himself and Gaveston. Edward took several of the jewels and wedding presents meant for Isabella, and gave them to Gaveston, and spent much of the evening with his husband favorite, instead of with his new bride. The French delegation was outraged, and Isabella wrote to her father that she felt like a nonentity in her own marriage.

For the first few years of her marriage, Isabella had very little political power, and much of the drama and intrigue of this time concerns Edward and Piers. Edward burned through goodwill and money quickly, and had alienated his nobility not long after his coronation. His continued indulgence and promotion of Gavestone, as well as his neglect of the kingdom and ineffectual warring with the Scots, led his barons to draw up the Ordinances of 1311, which severely curtailed his powers. He was forced to banish Gaveston multiple times, but always managed to recall him at a later date. Isabella more or less was dragged along with them, with very little power of her own. However, everything changed when Isabella turned sixteen.

There was no formal agreement about what age Isabella had to reach before she and Edward would consummate their marriage, but even in Medieval times it was generally agreed upon that getting pregnant at twelve was sheer dangerous idiocy. Getting pregnant at sixteen, however, was merely dangerous. Consequently, Isabella was pregnant by 1312.

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Map of the British Isles in 1300. Not
included are the Plantagenet lands in
southern France.
Now, at this time Edward and Gaveston were in the middle of yet another one of their power struggles with the English aristocracy. Gaveston had been exiled again in 1311, and his return to England had ruffled more than a few feathers. Additionally, the Scots were feeling frisky again, and they were making war in Northern England.

Unfortunately, Northern England was where Isabella was, and her husband's war making was so incompetent, that she soon found herself in danger. Edward marched south with his army, leaving Isabella with scant protection from the advancing Scots.

Isabella and Edward both made it safely back to London, but Gaveston was not as fortunate. He had been trapped in Scarborough Castle by his enemies, and executed, leaving Edward bitter and heartbroken. On November 13th Isabella's first child, the future Edward III, was born.

The next four years would be the happiest of Edward and Isabella's marriage. Two of their four living children--John and Eleanor--were born during this period. During this time Edward put significant efforts into repairing his relationships with his subjects, enacting reforms and reassigning lands that had been unfairly given to Gavestone. Edward seemed contrite, and for a time England enjoyed a brittle peace. However, things grew uneasy as another royal boyfriend favorite rose over the horizon.

The Despenser family were related to Edward, and Hugh Despenser the Younger (Hereafter known as 'Horny Hugh') was technically Edward's nephew. In 1318, Horny Hugh was made Edward's royal chamberlain. Horny Hugh Despenser and his father, Hugh Despenser, both had political ambitions. Unlike Gavestone, who was content to be a wealthy, lowborn, nuisance, Horny Hugh wanted to rule. He was given large swathes of the marchlands, angering the Marcherlords³ to whom the land rightfully belonged.

Furthermore, Horny Hugh and Isabella didn't like each other. It's unknown what sort of relationship Isabella had had with Gavestone, but given that Isabella was little more than a child during Gavestone's tenure as royal husband favorite, it seems likely that they didn't have much of a relationship at all.

However, with Horny Hugh, things were different. Isabella was becoming a political person in her own right, and she was painfully aware that Horny Hugh and the Despensers elevation insulted her, her French family, and the realm. She was frequently called upon by the barons to curb the king's worst impulses, and her and Edward's relationship grew increasingly tense. In 1322 Edward asked Isabella to swear an oath of loyalty to the Despensers. When she refused, he took away her lands, and gave custody of their two youngest children--Eleanor and Joan--to Horny Hugh.

Meanwhile, Isabella's brother Charles had become King of France, and he was eyeing Gascony with increasing amounts of lust. Squabbles started popping up in the region, and despite multiple attempts at diplomacy, including sending Edward and Isabella's eldest son to France, war seemed inevitable. In 1325, Edward decided to send Isabella to intercede.

Once back in France, Isabella had very little reason to be loyal to Edward. He had taken her children, confiscated her lands, and reduced her to little more than a pauper. She had been insulted and humiliated for seventeen years, and she was done. Safe at her brother's court in Paris, Isabella declared her contempt for her husband and the Despensers. She took up the garb of a widow, saying, essentially, that her husband was dead to her, and that she considered him unfit for the office he held. With the help of her cousins in the Lowlands, Isabella began plotting to remove Edward from the son in favor of their eldest son.

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Roger speaking with Isabella on a battlefield
Enter Roger Mortimer. He was a young, handsome nobleman with vast estates in Wales and Ireland. He had been exiled from England for his political policies of attempting to overthrow the Despensers, and he had a thirst for vengeance. He and Isabella had met many times before, as Mortimer had been a regular at court, but with Isabella in widow weeds, and Mortimer driven from his home, something had changed. They began to plot together, and that plotting soon moved to the bedchamber, where it is widely assumed that they began plotting Edward's overthrow in a horizontal position.

Roger and Isabella's relationship is an interesting one. It is quite obvious that she was very enamored of him. She was permissive of his bad behavior far beyond what someone using him as a means to an end would have been. However, it is difficult to ascertain Mortimer's feelings. While they had some things in common--love of art, love of Arthurian Romance--he frequently disregarded her wishes concerning their plot, and later the running of the country. After attaining the regency, he used her to gain vast lands and wealth. This may be constructed just as him being the typical medieval man, but there was also the fact that Mortimer was already married to a woman it was widely rumored to be in love with. However, he and his wife had been separated for three years, and it was possible that his ardor towards his wife had cooled, and he truly had feelings for Isabella.

Though they were nowhere near as open about it as Edward and his husbands favorites, it soon became common knowledge that Isabella and Mortimer were lovers. This enraged Edward, who swore that if he saw Isabella again he would kill her. Because of her adultery, Isabella's brother refused to help her with her coup.⁴ Luckily, Isabella's cousins in Hainault⁵ held no such compunctions, and gave them ships and Dutch mercenaries to begin their invasion.

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Berkeley Castle, where Edward died.
Isabella and Mortimer landed in Suffolk in September of 1326. Edward's few allies quickly abandoned him, and England was taken with almost no bloodshed. Horny Hugh was hanged, drawn, and quartered, and Edward was deposed and imprisoned in Berkeley Castle. Isabella and Edward's eldest son, Edward (hereafter referred to as 'Baby Edward'), was placed on the throne.

As Baby Edward was only fourteen, a regency was necessary. As queen, this position was granted to Isabella, and she, along with Mortimer, would serve as regents for about four years.

About a year into their regency, Isabella and Mortimer decided to deal with the problem of the old king. Despite imprisoning him in a dank dungeon, and throwing dead animals and rotting corpses into his cell in hopes he would die of disease, Edward stubbornly remained alive. He remained a rallying point for those who opposed Isabella and Mortimer, and in September of 1327, he mysteriously died.
There are a few stories about how Edward died. Least gruesome is that he was smothered in his sleep. Most popular is that a flaming hot poker was inserted into his anus, and run through his entrails. There are some stories as well that claim he didn't die, but instead escaped, and fled to Italy to live out the rest of his life as a monk.⁶ While neither Isabella nor Mortimer confessed to having ordered or committed the murders, it is widely assumed that they at the very least signed off on the order.

Unfortunately, their regency wasn't entirely popular. Isabella herself remained widely respected, it was Mortimer who was the problem. Like all of the other husbands favorites in Isabella's story, Mortimer was greedy and grasping; sending England to the brink of bankruptcy to enrich himself. He was very unpopular, and Baby Edward grew resentful.

In 1330 Edward had had enough. With support of Henry of Lancaster, Edward staged a dramatic midnight coup, taking a secret passage into the castle where his mother and Mortimer were living, pinning them and their advisors in an enclosed chamber, forcing them to abdicate. Mortimer was hanged a short while later, while Isabella was placed under house arrest.

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Baby Edward
There were several people who called for Isabella's execution, but Edward declined, instead spinning the narrative that she was innocent in the affair, and that the blame rested squarely with Mortimer. Her lands were seized, and she was pensioned off, placed under house arrest at Castle Rising in the Norfolk countryside where she couldn't cause any more problems.

The last years of Isabella's life saw her growing closer to her family, and finding religion. Her daughter, Joan, came to live with her after leaving her husband, and Isabella doted ceaselessly on her grandchildren. Towards the end of her life, she and Baby Edward reconciled. She became a nun in 1358, and died shortly after.

Looking at her life, it can be difficult to determine if Isabella was a plotting villainess or a woman making bloody, bloody lemonade. It is apparent that she struggled for much of her life to become an active agent in her own fate, and was met with mixed success. Today she is mostly forgotten, lost in the blinding glare of her son, Edward III, who is frequently touted as being England's greatest king. However, she should be remembered as a brilliant queen and stateswoman in her own right, who was instrumental in ensuring stability in England, even if she had to do it by force.



¹The title was borrowed from Shakespeare's play Henry IV, Part III. The original title referred to Margaret of Anjou, but has since become a byname for Isabella.
²This caused a major scandal, because the Earldom of Cornwall was then, and now, a royal title. (It's currently held as an auxiliary title of Prince Charles.) While Cornwall is no longer an Earldom but a Dukedom, it is still considered to be the right of the first born son of the monarch.
³A Marcherlord was a nobleman with holdings along the border with Wales, who was expected to defend the border.
⁴Adultery was a major crime for a Medieval noblewoman. Charles' first wife had committed adultery, and Charles had had her lovers beaten to death in a public square. It is unsurprising that he was less than permissive about his sister's liaison with Roger Mortimer.
⁵The aforementioned Lowland cousin. Coincidentally, this same cousin, Joan of Hainault, was responsible for throwing Isabella and Mortimer together.
⁶This story was later used to support the causes of people who would rebel against Baby Edward.


Sources
The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England by Alison Weir
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor
Isabella, the 'She-Wolf of France'
Edward II Marries Isabella of France
Isabella of France: Queen of England
Isabella of France
Edward II: King of England
Edward II:1307-1327
Edward II (1284-1327)
Edward II:1307-1327 AD
Piers Gaveston, Hugh Despenser, and the Downfall of Edward II
Roger Mortimer
Edward III

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Damn, Girl-Tamar of Georgia, Queen of Kings

Crowned co-ruler at age 12, Tamar (sometimes spelled 'Tamara') reigned over Georgia's¹ golden age, and expanded the kingdom to its greatest height. She would reorganize the Georgian Orthodox Church, defeat multiple attempted internal coups, and send an Ottoman invasion packing. A woman of faith, Tamar credited her religion for her battlefield successes, and performed extensive charity work. She was canonized shortly after her death, and is seen as a Georgian religious and national hero. However, behind her piety was a shrewd woman more than willing to fight for her throne and people.

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Tamar
Tamar was the only child of King George III and Queen Burdukhan. George, like his daughter, had to deal with scheming relatives. When his nephew (or cousin) Demma attempted to dethrone him George had Demma blinded, castrated, and thrown into prison. George dealt with other insurrectionists in a similarly brutal manner-with breaking kneecaps as his preferred method of chastisement. Due to the instability of his kingdom, George had his 12 year old daughter² crowned co-ruler.

George's main reason for this was to ensure the stability of Georgia during his lifetime and after his death. He hoped that if the restless Georgian nobility saw that he had a stable dynasty in place to succeed him, they might calm down a bit. Additionally, he was giving the patriarchal Georgians time to get used to the fact that there next ruler would be a woman, something that had never happened in Georgia before. While many nobles protested, George quashed their protests saying 'One knows a lion by its claws, and Tamar by her actions.' While there is little known about Tamar's childhood, this praise from her father suggests that she was more than suited for her role.

George died six years after his daughter's investment, leaving Tamar to govern the country by herself. Historians disagree about the beginning of Tamar's reign. Some sources claim that she had a very smooth ascension, aided by the fact that the Georgian people had had a chance to get used to the idea of her rule. Other's claim that she was met by insurrection--insurrection that she quickly quashed.

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Tamar holding court
Following her second crowning, Tamar's first order of business was to marry in order to produce an heir. She left the choosing of a spouse up to her council. They chose a Russian prince Yuri, the son of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal. Yuri had a reputation as a warrior, and the council believed that he would be good for their queen and country. However, Yuri thoroughly disproved them not shortly after the wedding vows were said. He was thoroughly dissolute--engaging in extramarital affairs, torturing and murdering Georgian Muslims, and abusing alcohol. He publicly berated Tamar for not bearing him a son, and was prone to violent outbursts. He was such an awful husband that Tamar divorced him after only three years. In a merciful move her father would certainly have disapproved of, Tamar sent him packing off to Constantinople with a generous allowance--kneecaps intact.

Georgia was a largely Catholic country at the time. This makes the fact that Tamar was able to obtain a divorce quite extraordinary, given that divorce is, to this day, contrary to Catholic doctrine. Tamar was able to obtain a divorce not only because of Yuri's widespread unpopularity, but because of her own special relationship with the church.

Following her ascension, Tamar convened a Synod, and set about reforming the Georgian church. She was already known for her piety, and made several changes that reflected this. In addition to this, she also saw that the bishops and clergymen who didn't like her were defrocked. Every powerful clergyman in the church was Tamar's man, and she used this to her benefit.

With Yuri out of the picture, Tamar was free to remarry, and remarry she did. her next husband was Davit Soslan, an Alanian Prince. He was chosen for her by her aunt, who reportedly told Tamar that Davit was 'Hewn from stone, and reared on wolf's milk'. Davit, unlike Yuri, lived up to his reputation. He was handsome, supportive, and an able military man. Tamar installed him as King Consort, and quickly had two children.

After the births of her children, Tamar set to conquest. This was largely to keep the Georgian nobles busy elsewhere, and not conspiring with her ex-husband to dethrone her. Despite his exile, Yuri attempted to dethrone Tamar twice, but was soundly defeated.

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Georgia at it's height
Under Davit's leadership, the Georgians were able to take parts of Armenia, Shirvan, and Azerbaijan. Tamar's success made her Muslim neighbors nervous, and they sent a unified force after her under the leadership of the Rum Sultan, Rukn al-Din. Rukn was a lovely man. In his initial letter to Tamar he informed her that all women were feeble minded, and that, should she convert to Islam, he would make her his wife. Should she retain her religion he would make her his concubine. The letter was so insulting that one of Tamar's courtier's hit Rukn's courier hard enough that the courier passed out. When the courier finally came to, Tamar sent him back with a message that she didn't care to be married to Rukn, at that she would defeat him. True to her word, Tamar sent him packing.

In addition to her expansionist endeavors, Tamar also focused on developing and reviving Georgian culture. She had monasteries and churches built, and it was under her that a monastic town was carved into the cliffs of Vardzia.

Tamar died of an unknown illness in 1213. Her final resting place is a mystery, with rumors that she is buried in Gelati or in Jerusalem. As mentioned, she was canonized shortly after her death, and she is still celebrated in the Orthodox churches. She was succeed by her son, who was later succeeded by her daughter, Rusadan, another Queen of Kings.



¹No, not the Georgia in the United States, the Georgia in Central Asia.
²Some sources say that Tamar was 18 at the time of her ascension to the throne, but most agree on 12.


Sources
Queen Tamar: the Confident Female Ruler of the Georgian Golden Age
Queens Regnant: Tamar of Georgia--the First Female Ruler
St. Tamar, Queen of Georgia
Tamar of Georgia-Queen of Kings
Queen Tamar

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Baghdad House of Wisdom

When Rome fell Europe was thrust into the so named 'Dark Ages'. However, while the Europeans were scrabbling around, getting the plague and fighting each other over buckets, West Asia was was enjoying a golden age.

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Scholars of the House of Wisdom
This golden age spread across all the Islamic nations, from India to the Arabs living in what is now Andalusia, Spain, and at the center of it all was Baghdad, the wealthy cultural capital of the Islamic world.  It was a magnificent city, but the most magnificent part of it was it's House of Wisdom--a large library which also served as a sort of university.


The House of Wisdom was founded in the early 800s by Caliph al-Ma'mun, a highly educated man with an intense interest in science, mathematics, and medicine. There had been many large private libraries prior to this, but al-Ma'mun took things one step further. He had his private library collected under one roof, and made available to scholars--male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim--from around the world. Successive Caliphs followed in this tradition by acquiring more and more books, and expanding on the House. At the time of its destruction, the House of Wisdom not only had an enormous library, but a hospital and an observatory as well.

The library at the House of Knowledge was enormous, and was made even more enormous by several large ticket purchases. During the reign of al-Ma'mun, the entire library of the Kingdom of Sicily was acquired. al-Ma'mun, a scholar himself, had heard of the great library in Sicily, and wrote to the Sicilian King, asking for its contents. The Sicilian library had several classical works about science and mathematics, and all Ma'mun was eager to get his hands on them. The Sicilian king consulted with his advisers, who told him that those books hadn't done the ancients any good, and the Sicilian king gave al-Ma'mun his library, a library which, according to legend, took more than 400 camels to transport.
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Map of Baghdad during its Golden Age
The translation of texts from Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit into Arabic was highly encouraged. So much encouraged that the Caliph al-Ma'mun offered to pay scholars the weight of a completely translated book in gold. Because of this, scholars translated the works of Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Plato into Arabic, preserving these works for future scholars, and giving scholars to opportunity to comment and study them.

Another notable translation that came from the House of Wisdom, was the translation of several Indian texts about mathematics. This was particularly important because, as you might know, it was Indian mathematicians who invented the concept of zero. In addition to zero, scholars also discovered that Indians used ten separate symbols, or combinations of those symbols, to represent numbers, not letters of the alphabet like the Romans and Arabs up to that point had. This led to experimentation on the part of Arab mathematician, and ultimately resulted in the Arabic Numeral system--the system we use today.

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An astrolabe
Completely reinventing mathematics wasn't the only major scientific advancement made at the House of Wisdom. The astrolabe--a tool used for navigating the ocean--was invented there, as well as the discipline of chemistry. Additionally, the world's first general hospital--the forerunner to today's modern hospital--was built in Baghdad. There scholars from around the world studied medicine, making advancements in surgery, epidemiology, and physiology.

Much like the Library of Alexandria, the House of Wisdom met an unfortunate and bloody end. In 1258 the Mongols invaded Iraq. They sacked Baghdad, putting the Caliph and his family to the sword. In an act that makes any book loving person furious, they dumped the books from the House of Wisdom into the Tigris river, letting thousands of years of precious knowledge be washed away. Then, to make things even worse, they killed all the scholars. It is said that for years after this the muddy brown waters of the Tigris ran black from ink and red from blood.


Sources
Baghdad: Libraries and House of Wisdom
The Abbasids' House of Wisdom in Baghdad
The House of Wisdom: Baghdad's Intellectual Powerhouse
The House of Wisdom, One of the Greatest Libraries in History
House of Wisdom

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

William Tell-the Man, the Myth, the Apple

William Tell is the great Swiss hero you kinda know about (unless you're Swiss). He is most famous for having shot an apple off his son's head, and for most people, that is the end of their William Tell knowledge. However, William Tell is also a sign of resistance, liberty, and independence. He is one of the most renowned people in Swiss history, and he may not have been real.

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William Tell depicted on a 1970 postage stamp
To understand why William Tell is such a big deal, you have to understand Swiss history. In the early 13th century several groups of Celtic, Germanic, and French people living in the Alps decided that they didn't have much in common with the surrounding countries, so they banded together to form one country.

This wasn't really a problem with the rest of Europe, because at the time the rest of Europe didn't really know or care about Switzerland. High up in their mountains, the Swiss were essentially a group of farmers who didn't even speak the same language. However, all that changed in the mid 1200s, when a bridge across the St. Gotthard's pass was constructed, connecting Switzerland and Italy via land.

A convenient land route between Northern Europe and Italy was a pretty big deal. The Italians had some pretty dope stuff, and everyone wanted to do business with them. However, because of the Alps and the Apennines, Italy was very difficult to get to via land. Sure, you could take a boat, but hiring a ship was expensive, especially if you lived in a landlocked country. In addition to being costly, shipping was risky and time consuming. It was much safer and easier to spend three days trekking through the Uri Canton of Switzerland than it was to spend weeks on a boat.

After construction of the bridge, the people of the Uri canton were doing very well. Travelers had to pay locals for food and shelter, as well as to rent mules to carry their goods through the pass. However, as time went on there began to be some civil unrest. By 1257 the Uri people thought it best to appeal to their nearest nobleman--Rudolph von Hapsburg--to settle their internal issues. Rudolph agreed most readily.

In late 1257 Rudolph marched his armies into Switzerland, and just sorta stayed. The Swiss had, effectively, invited a wolf to a sheep's dinner party, and the wolf was taking full advantage of this. As expected, the Swiss were none too pleased with this, and began to act out.

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William Tell shooting the apple off of his son's head
Skip ahead to 1291--or 1307 depending on the account. In the town of Altdorf a pro-Hapsburg sheriff--Gessler has placed a Hapsburg hat on a pole in the middle of the square. All people passing it are required to bow to it to show their respect for the Hapsburg family.

Enter William Tell. A simple farmer and expert marksman from Burglen, William doesn't particularly care for the Hapsburgs, and he doesn't care who knows it. He doesn't bow to the hat, and this makes Gessler angry.

So, in his fit of rage, Gessler does what any reasonable officer of the law would do in that situation--he forces Tell to endanger the life of his son. Gessler informs Tell that he must shoot an apple off of his son's head. Should Tell miss the apple, both he and his son will be executed.

Tell is, of course, reluctant to shoot an armor piercing projectile at many kilometers per hour at his son, no matter how good of a marksman he may be. However, his son encourages him to make the shot, so William does. And, because he is so amazing, William splits the apple in half, and it falls off of his son's head. Gessler congratulates Tell on his amazing shot, but stops to ask him a question. Before taking the shot Gessler saw William conceal a second arrow in his jacket. What was that about?

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The remains of Kussnacht-renamed Gessler--Castle. Like Many
Hapsburg era castles, Gessler Castle was torn down during
the effort to drive the Hapsburgs out of Switzerland.
Never one to stop pushing his luck, Tell informs Gessler that, had he missed and killed his child, the second arrow would have been for Gessler. This makes Gessler angry, and he orders his cronies to slap William in irons, and put him on a boat bound for the dungeon at Kussnacht castle.

While on the boat a big storm blows up on the lake. Gessler releases William from his chains, because in addition to being an excellent marksman, and the king of sass, William is also an excellent sailor. Living up to his reputation, William guides the boat to safety in an outcropping of rocks. However, when the boat touches the rocks, William leaps out, and pushes the boat back into the sea.

Coming to the conclusion that Gessler and his men would probably survive, William finds them after they land, and ambushes the sheriff's party, killing them all. Then, with three other friends, William swears a pact to rid Switzerland of the Hapsburg troops, and free them from their oppression. This is, essentially, the start of the Swiss War for Independence.

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William Tell Monument in Altdorf
Now, as with many heroic figures from this time period, it is difficult to ascertain if they actually lived or not. The tale of William Tell wasn't put to paper until centuries after the events that supposedly occurred, and sources disagree about the year in which it occurred. Additionally, there are no parish records of a William Tell living in that time. However, while it may be difficult to prove the actual physical existence of a 13th (or 14th) century man named William Tell, there is no need to prove how big of an impact Tell has had on Swiss culture.

William Tell is, essentially, the Swiss national hero. He's a symbol of Swiss bravery and ingenuity. His iconography is famous--he appears on coins, there are statues of him around the country, and his crossbow appears on every item exported by the Swiss. Every time the Swiss are threatened with war or invasion, his myth comes alive again, fueling the fires of Swiss nationalism. While he may not have lived, his influence is undeniable.


Sources
In Search of William Tell
William Tell--Swiss Hero
Who Was William Tell?
The Legend of William Tell

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Stone of Destiny

The Stone of Destiny, or the Stone of Scone, is living proof that legends can be true. The Stone is a symbol of Scottish Nationalism, and the place where every Scottish king until the late 13th century was crowned. Like the Scottish people, the Stone has had a tumultuous history. But, like the Scots, the Stone has survived centuries of English rule.

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Aforementioned stone
The Stone supposedly has biblical origins. When Jacob wrestled with God, changed his name, and dreamt of a promised land at Beth-el (Genesis 28:11-12 , Genesis 32:28Hosea 12:4*) he laid his head upon a stone. Legend is, the Stone of Destiny is that stone.

And how did that rock end up in Scotland? Well, supposedly Jacob held on to it. If you know anything about the Old Testament, you'll know that several decades later Jacob ended up moving his family to Egypt, where they stayed for quite a while. Here's where the Bible and Celtic legend meet. See, the Celts (well, some of the Celts) believe that they are descended from the Milesian race. The Milesians left Egypt at about the same time as the Children of Israel. Scottish legend says that Scota, a daughter of the Pharaoh, fled Egypt for Spain with her Greek husband, and that she took the stone with her.** From Spain they went to Ireland, and from Ireland, several members of the party went to Scotland. The Stone was first used in a coronation in Ireland, but it made the trip across to Scotland, where it resides today.

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Scone Palace, where the Stone resided prior to 1296.
Now back to verifiable history. For thousands of years the stone was used in Scottish coronation ceremonies. It was just as much part of the coronation ceremony as the orb and scepter are today. The Stone was kept at Scone Palace, which is located in modern Argyle. The stone remained here until 1296 when Edward I conquered Scotland for the English. Edward took the stone back to England with him, and had it housed in the bottom of a chair, whereupon every proceeding English monarch would be crowned.


Fast forward about 700 years to 1950. The United Kingdom is somewhat less united, but it's still going strong. There's been a surge of Scottish nationalism (unsurprisingly), and a crew of four enterprising young Scots broke into Westminster Abbey, and stole the stone out of the chair. They then proceeded to sneak it back into Scotland, avoiding roadblocks and the British police. A few months went by, and the thieves left the stone in the ruins of Scone Abbey, wrapped in a Scottish flag. The stone was returned to Westminster Abbey, and was present for the coronation of Elizabeth II.

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Edward's Chair, the throne upon which every English monarch
has been crowned. For several hundreds of years the Stone
resided in this cavity at the bottom of the chair. Today,
a replica stands there.
The Stone remained at Westminster Abbey until 1996, when it was finally returned to the Scots by the English government. The stone now resides in Edinburgh Castle, where it will stay until the next English monarch is crowned. After the coronation, the stone will be returned to its rightful place back with the Scottish people.

One of the questions lingering in my mind, however, is what is going to happen with the Stone when the Scots achieve independence? (Don't look at me like that, it's going to happen eventually. I'm just pointing out the signs of the times.) Will the Stone still be used in English Coronations? Will Charles or William be crowned atop the stone just as all their Hanover/Windsor predecessors were?***

Now, there are a few other mysteries surrounding the Stone. There have been continued doubts about the authenticity of the stone since its removal to England. One rumor is that the monks at Scone Abbey gave Edward I the stone cover of a cistern instead of the actual Stone of Destiny. (For more fascinating, in depth information on this, check out the Sons of Scotland link in the sources) More recently, there is speculation that the 1950 thieves replaced the stone with a replica, or another rock entirely.)

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Edinburgh Castle, where the stone now lives.
Whether or not the Stone actually came from Ancient Israel, there is no doubt that the Stone of Destiny is a strong and powerful symbol of Scottish Nationalism. It represents the Scottish people, and is a concrete reminder of a long and storied heritage of rebels and warriors. And while the Kings who were crowned upon the Stone may have been lost to history, the Stone itself will never be forgotten.

*Standard using-the-bible-as-a-source disclaimer: While the Bible may not be accepted as truth across all religions and creeds, the Old Testament provides a valuable insight into the laws and culture of the Israel-Palestine-Mesopotamia-Egypt areas of the BCEs. Whatever you believe, you cannot deny the influence that Judeo-Christian writings and ideas have had on history. I reference the LDS Edition of the King James Bible. Why? Because I'm familiar with it.

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Flag of Scotland
**I must take a moment to express my doubts. The Stone weighs about 336 pounds. I can't imagine hauling something that heavy from Beth-el to Egypt to Spain to Ireland to Scotland. But people do crazy things in the names of sentimentality and religion, so my doubts may be unjustified.


***Of course, we do have to consider the fact that Queen Elizabeth might just live forever. Scientists would have you believe that immortality is impossible, but I have faith in the old gal. If anyone can live forever, it'll be her.

Sources
History of the Irish Race by Seamus MacManus
The Sons of Scotland
Scone Palace
Ask History
Edinburgh Castle
Encyclopedia Britannica
Historic UK