Showing posts with label 17th century. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 17th century. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Cleaning House-Peter the Great and Reforming Russia

Peter the Great served as the autocratic czar of Russia for more than 43 years. He inherited a medieval kingdom, and over the course of his reign dragged it kicking and screaming into the seventeenth century. He changed Russia on every level--religiously, culturally, administratively, militarily--and paved the way for the great reforming czars and czarinas of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including our old friend, Catherine the Great.

Born Pyotr Alekseyevich in June of 1672, Peter ascended to the co-czardom at the age of ten. He was the son of Emperor Alexis and his second wife, Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina. Alexis's heirs by his first wife were sickly and unfit to rule, but both were propped up by their sister, Sophia Alekseyevna, who served as regent until 1688.

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Peter the Great: 1672-1725
During this time, Peter and his mother were sent off to the village of Preobrazhenskoye, far from the center of power in Moscow.¹ Preobrazhenskoye was close to a German enclave, allowing Peter to be in contact with Westerners. It was in Preobrazhenskoye that Peter started to gain an interest in all that western Europe had to offer and to plot reform.

Russia, at the time, was a backwards and medieval nightmare. Strictly isolated from the rest of Europe, it still hadn't adopted the new technologies of ships and the Julian calendar. People dressed much the same as they had for hundreds of years, and the power of the country was in the hands of the boyars, or petty princes. The Russian economy relied on agriculture, which wasn't ideal for a country with such harsh winters. Compared to the rest of Europe, Russia was a dilapidated cesspit, and Peter wanted to change that.

However, to turn Russia around, Peter needed to educate the Russians, starting with himself. In 1697 he set out with 250 of his closest friends for the rest of Europe. Peter traveled incognito as one Sergeant Pyotr Mikhaylov. Peter used his relative anonymity to study shipbuilding in the Netherlands and to tour factories, schools, arsenals, museums, and Parliament. They trashed hotel rooms and hired master craftsmen to go back and work in Russia. Peter would have gladly extended his embassy, but in 1698 a rebellion broke out back home, and Peter reluctantly returned.

His visit to the rest of Europe made Peter even more eager to reform Russia, which he did, undertaking a reform process that would overhaul Russian society from top to bottom. This reform process would take Peter's entire lifetime, but to break it into easily listable paragraphs:

Military 

One of Peter's most urgent goals was obtaining more ports for Russia--ports on the White, Baltic, and Caspian Seas. Russia didn't have a lot of ports, and thus had no way to efficiently export Russian goods. While Peter did have his ports on the Pacific, the eastern part of Russia was mostly unoccupied. His one western port was very northerly and spent much of the year frozen over. To gain the western ports he desperately craved, Peter needed to do some conquering, which meant dealing with the formidable Swedish and Ottoman Empires.

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Peter was obsessed with ships from a young age. He built
a small fleet at his home in Preobrazhenskoye, which
came to be known as his 'toy navy'
Firstly, Peter set about obtaining a larger fighting force. Military service was extended to last a lifetime, and serfs were press-ganged into service. He imported export shipwrights from England and the Netherlands and set them to work building him a navy. They constructed a vast fleet in a short amount of time, and by 1703, Peter had a formidable seafaring force, equipped with all the latest technology, like steering wheels.

Because of his navy, Peter was finally able to hold his own on the world stage. He was finally able to kick out the Swedes and continue the proud Russian tradition of invading Ukraine. He took on the formidable Ottomans and won, gaining both the ports he took and a bit of Iran in the process.

Church

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Patriarch Adrian, the last patriarch until the
Patriarchy of Moscow and All Russia was restored
in 1917. There is still a patriarch, and, as of 2019
the holder of that office is Patriarch Kirill
Like Henry VIII before him, Peter wanted to take the clergy down a peg or five. In another example of Russia's medieval-ness, the Russian Orthodox Church still exercised an outsized amount of power, including over the czar. Many clerics were resistant to Peter's reforms and were leading voices of dissent. In order to get these uppity churchmen under control, Peter refused to appoint a new patriarch²  after Patriarch Adrian died in 1700. Instead, Peter appointed a "custodian to the throne of the patriarch," or an acting patriarch, who was counseled by a group of bishops. The custodian was later replaced by the Holy Synod, a group of churchmen who ruled the church under the authority of the czar.

As might be imagined, this wasn't a hugely popular move, especially among the churchmen. Monks in particular didn't like the changes, as it meant that they lost political power and monasterial lands. To quash this rebellion, Peter forbade monks to have pen and paper and started to bring in loyal churchmen from Ukraine to outnumber the dissenters.
Peter also set about educating the clergy, many of whom were practically illiterate. Every priest was required to attend a seminary where they learned Latin and Greek and were deeply immersed in church doctrine. This was successful in that it resulted in a better educated clergy, but this series of study neglected to teach the vernacular Russian and Church Slavonic, which made it difficult for clergy to communicate with their flock.

Culture

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Typical clothing of a pre-Peter the Great
boyar.
Not content to Westernize institutions and commerce, Peter imposed a series of laws that westernized the behaviors of the Russian people. Traditional Russian clothing was forbidden, and the nobility were required to wear French court dress. Noblemen were no longer allowed to have beards, and Peter would cut them off personally. To wear a beard or non-Western clothing would mean incurring a fine of 100 rubles³. Cultural customs were also taxed, and traditional activities like fishing and beekeeping were subject to a tax⁴.

Banning beards in particular was quite an inflammatory act. Beards were a religious thing for Russian men, and it was thought that a man without a beard was naked. By forcing men to be clean-shaven and to wear cold and impractical French style clothing, Peter was stripping away their old Russian identity.

Education

Peter was determined to have an educated populace, and to do this he secularized the school system, allowed the middle classes to attend schools (so long as they entered civil service), and founded several institutions of higher education. Like Caliph al-Ma'mun, he oversaw the translation of many Western books into Russian and encouraged his citizens to study abroad--whether they wanted to or not.

By wresting the schools away from the church, Peter strengthened his control over his people. After he appointed the Holy Synod, Russians were taught to fear the czar across the pulpit, but with state-controlled schools, Peter could teach it in schools too. Opening schools to middle-class children ensured that Peter would have a talented bureaucracy to run the swollen Russian Empire, something that would be very important when Peter changed the administrative boundaries of the country.

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Peter moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg,
a European style city he had built near the Baltic.
A fan of higher education, Peter allowed (and forced) middle-class and noble boys to attend school in Europe proper. Like with the members of his Grand Embassy, these young men were expected to come back and use their skills for the benefit of Russia. However, Peter didn't neglect the native Russian institutes of learning. He established artillery and language schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg, along with colleges devoted to science. A short list of the institutions founded by Peter include:
  • School of Navigation and Math (1701)
  • School of Medicine (1707)
  • School of Engineering (1712)
  • School of Science (1724)
While education still wasn't open to girls or to the peasantry, Peter set Russia on the road to becoming an educated and enlightened nation.

Commerce 

One of the downsides to all of Peter's reforms was that they were expensive. After all, you can't get state-of-the-art naval vessels and a palatial European city at the Dollar Tree--it takes some serious capital. To get that capital, the tax system had to be changed.

Previously, Russia had operated on a "Hearth Tax" system, where the peasantry was taxed by the household. No matter how many people lived in the home, they paid the same flat rate. To avoid paying more tax, peasants would often move in together. In 1680, Peter introduced the "Poll Tax," a system that taxed each adult member of the household individually, no matter how many people lived there. Not only did this give Peter some of the capital he needed, but it also allowed him to gain the favor of his nobility by lowering their taxes.
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Peter the Great on 2 ruble coins.
However, not all of the expenses could be defrayed by taxes. After all, you can't get universities and top-notch cannons at the Dollar General. Peter picked up the rest of the slack by introducing high tariffs on imports, and creating state monopolies around salt, vodka, oak, and tar. Under this, Peter controlled the prices of Russia's most popular goods and encouraged people to buy products made in their own country. He also made sure revenues from those products went to the states, as merchants weren't allowed to buy goods from manufacturers until after the Russian government had had their pick. If there was any surplus after the government picked out the choicest goods, merchants could sell those, but it wasn't a good business model. Peter's policies ensured that not only would his citizens buy Russian, but that the profit from their purchases would go to the state.

Administrative Districts

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The areas in brown, purple, and red show the size of Russia
around the years of Peter's reign.
Because of its size, administering Russia was no small feat. Then, as now, Russia was the largest country on Earth in terms of land area. The population was heavily concentrated in the west of the country, leaving the east and frigid north sparsely populated. Prior to Peter, the Russian administration system was incompetent and antiquated. To change that, in 1708 Peter divided the country into eight governorates, who were ruled over by a royal governor and the Landrats, or eight to twelve civil servants assigned to help the governor. The governorates were later scratched, and the country was broken up into 50 provinces in 1719. Those provinces were later subdivided into districts.
Peter wasn't just interested in redrawing lines on a map. Under Russian law, towns were subject to rule from the military and local lords. Peter loosened the rules, and while towns were still subordinate to Moscow, they were allowed to elect their own leaders.

Class

Perhaps the biggest changes that Peter made during his reign were changes to the class system of Russia. He hit every level of society with a series of reforms that ensured that the Russian people would be more tightly under his control and loyal to him. 

Peasantry

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Serfs were allowed to continue to wear their traditional
clothing, but became even more firmly the property of
their lords.
Life did not get better for the peasantry under Peter--it got much worse. In addition to imposing harsher taxes, Peter also made it more difficult for serfs to leave their homes, essentially reducing them to slaves. Serfs had no rights and could be press-ganged into military service or municipal building projects at any time. Between 30,000 and 100,000 serfs died building St. Petersburg alone. 
Peter, like every other czar, saw the peasantry not as actual people but as another resource to be exploited. His treatment of the Russian serfs is damning and stains an otherwise brilliant career. It is for this that it's difficult to wholeheartedly support Peter the Great, and it's what makes him such a controversial figure.

Towns

For the middle classes, laws were enacted that said that any person in trade could settle in whatever town they wished, so long as they informed the proper authorities that they were there. Tradesmen were no longer tied to the land like serfs, and this allowed the spread of skilled manufacturing across Russia. 
Additionally, to structure town society, townspeople were put into one of two guilds: the regulars or the commons. The regulars were the skilled craftspeople and merchants who were their own bosses. They had rights to move around as they wished and be appointed to governing bodies. People who worked as hired labor were relegated to the commons, and they were little better than serfs.

Nobility

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A page from the Table of Ranks
In 1722, Peter introduced his Table of Ranks, which was a list of every rank of nobility, court, military and government. This table was essentially a how-to guide to gaining higher positions, and, theoretically, anyone (anyone being anyone noble) could work their way up by providing the required civil or military services. While some levels had to be approved by the czar himself, all ranks were achieved by service.
There were, of course, a few exceptions, mainly relating to the czar's immediate family, and once a person reached the eighth rank, their title did become hereditary. However, by doing this Peter deputized the idle rich into helping him run the country.

Government

As part of his efforts to bring Russia under an autocratic regime, Peter had to contend with the boyars and the Duma. The Duma⁵ was a collection of noblemen, civil servants, and wealthy landowners whose job it was to advise the king. In theory anyways. By the time Peter came around the Duma was a formidable governing body that controlled governance on every level. They stood between Peter and his goal of complete control, so in 1711 he dissolved the Duma and instead created a Senate. The senate had ten men, all of whom had been appointed by Peter personally and could not resign without an imperial decree. Some were noblemen, but there were also churchmen, scholars, and businessmen. 

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Peter the Great statue in St. Petersburg. This statue was
erected by Catherine the Great.
On the lower levels of public service, bureaucratic ranks became non-hereditary, meaning that to hold a job in public service, one had to be qualified. This also meant that any ambitious fellow with an education could technically work their way up to the senate. These bureaucrats displaced the boyars, and remained in power until 1917.

Make no mistake--Peter the Great isn't the fluffy bunny sort of guy you can feel comfortable having as a role model. He received plenty of pushback during his life, and anyone with a conscience is still side-eyeing him now. However, his determination to drag Russia kicking and screaming overall did the country a lot of good, even as it quashed individual freedoms. Peter was, out of all of the Romanovs and those that came before them, the most farsighted of Russia's monarchs, and his reforms, however brutally undertaken, ultimately changed Russia for the better.


¹While Preobrazhenskoye is now a part of Moscow, during Peter's time it was a prosperous, mid-sized town.
²Patriarch is the Orthodox version of a Pope.
³This rule did not apply to commoners or the clergy.
⁴I also remember reading once that under Peter the Great, any man found going to bed with his boots on could be killed. I've been unable to find where I read that, so treat that factoid with caution.
⁵The Duma of this time period is usually referred to as "Boyar Duma" to differentiate it from the Duma of Czar Nicholas II and the modern Duma.


Sources
Empire of the Tsars: Romanov Russia presented by Lucy Worsley

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Damn, Girl-Queen Christina of Sweden, Minerva of the North

One of the most colorful queens of history, Christina of Sweden lived many lives within the span of 62 years. An enigma wrapped in a mystery deep-fried in a contradiction, she ruled Sweden for fourteen years and oversaw some of the best infrastructural and cultural improvements of the country at the time, yet she abandoned her country to live unfettered by duty. She was a philosopher and a patron of the arts whose collecting and patronage preserved some of the best late Renaissance/early Baroque art and music, and was a major player on the European political stage.

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Christina
Christina was born in December of 1626 to Queen Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg and Gustav II Adolf, who were desperately seeking an heir. Maria had had three previous miscarriages, and all of them had been girls. When Christina was born, Maria was very disappointed that she had another daughter instead of the son she had hoped for. Gustav, on the other hand, was ecstatic that they finally had a living child and ordered that she be treated and educated as a prince. Four years later, she was declared heir apparent.

Gustav was deeply embroiled in the Thirty Years War, and after being separated from his men, he died in battle in 1632. Gustav was a remarkable ruler in his own right, but his wife was...unstable. Before his death, Gustav had ordered that Christina be raised by her aunt Catherine and not by her mother. However, that order was disobeyed, and Christina lived with her mother for several years.

To say that those years were unhappy would be an understatement. Maria Eleonora had plunged into a deep depression after the death of her husband. She had her apartments draped in black and refused to let Gustav be buried keeping his body lying in state, except for his heart, which she kept with her in a small, gold casket. She insisted that Christina be with her at all times and, in turns, verbally abused her daughter for not being a boy, criticized her for not being feminine enough, and scarred the young queen with outbursts of violent affection. The governors appointed by Gustav to take care of Christina during her minority deemed Maria unfit as a mother and gave custody of Christina to her aunt. Maria Eleonora was exiled to Gripsholm castle.

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Gustav II Adolf
Christina's youth with her aunt and cousins was filled with lessons. This might have been tedious to any other child, but Christina passionately loved learning and would spend her life in hours of daily study, and she often said that her favorite activity was learning new languages¹. In her childhood, she would rise at five, then spend six hours at her lessons. On weekdays, those lessons were the academics one would expect. On weekends, she was tutored in the princely sports of riding, shooting, and swordfighting. Afternoons saw politics lessons with Axel Oxenstierna², one of the most accomplished politicians of the era.

Christina's main tutor was Johannes Matthiae, a retired clergyman and skeptic of the Lutheran faith. The Lutheran faith, then as now, was the state religion, and rulers were required to be Lutheran. Mathie taught Christina to question Lutheranism, a skill that would aid and plague her throughout her life.

Though Christina would not formally assume the throne until 1644,³ she was consulted in serious political matters as early as 1638, when she was just twelve years old. She started ruling with the council in 1640. During these early years, she showed a strong inclination against warmongering and favored the improvement of Swedish infrastructure and extending welfare and education to the lower classes. Achievements of this time include overseeing the refurbishment of Stockholm, and the setting out of the "Instructions", a document that stated in exacting detail how the colony of New Sweden was to be run. The "Instructions" contained progressive ideas like not warring with the surrounding colonists and not massacring the Native Americans. It instructed that colonists were to pay tribes for their lands and that they were to practice religious tolerance.⁴

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Maria Eleonora
After reaching majority, Christina most notably helped bring an end to the Thirty Years' War by declaring that the official religion of a state should be the same as the religion as its ruler. She established the first Swedish newspaper and opened up education to all citizens.

Christina's goal was to bring the fledgling Enlightenment north. She wanted to turn Stockholm into the "Athens of the North", and for this, she is often known as the "Minerva of the North". A big fan of philosophy, going so far as to claim it was more important than science, Christina imported philosophers to her court--most notably Rene Descartes, who tutored her personally.⁵

All of this was quite expensive, and Christina's habit of giving away crown lands and her refusal to marry worried her nobles. Even more worrying was her relationship with her beautiful Maid of Honor, Ebba Sparre.

Ebba Sparre was the daughter and granddaughter of politicians and was also a celebrated beauty. As is the case with so many people of the era, much of the details of her life are lost to history, and the lady herself might have been entirely forgotten had she and Christina not been lovers.

Though not much is known about their affair, that it existed is unquestionable. Even for an era where friendship was proclaimed in far more florid and intimate terms than it is now, Christina was suspiciously demonstrative of her love for Ebba. She proclaimed Ebba as her royal bedfellow and frequently gushed about her "friend" to foreign ambassadors, urging them to appreciate Ebba's beauty and wit. Surviving letters from Christina to Ebba paint an undoubted picture of extreme passion. In 1656 Christina wrote to Ebba:
"How happy I should be if only I could see you Beautiful One. But I am condemned by Destiny to love and cherish you always without seeing you; and...I cannot be completely happy when I am separated from you. Never doubt this fact, and believe that, wherever I may be, I shall always be entirely devoted to you, as I have always been...Goodbye Beautiful One, goodbye. I embrace you a million times."⁶
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Ebba Sparre
Though Ebba married Jakob de la Gardie in 1652, some sources claiming on Christina's suggestion, others her ire, the two women remained in contact throughout their lives. Christina tried to visit Ebba several times but was prevented by Ebba's family. The pair would never meet again after Ebba's marriage.

In 1654, Christina finally achieved her dream of abdicating. She had been trying to give up the throne since 1650 and had petitioned the Riksdag no less than 20 times, claiming that ruling was bad for her health. They had previously denied her requests, but in 1654 they relented.

Why, exactly, the Riksdag relented is a matter of some debate. Some sources claim that it was because Christina had alienated the nobility with her spending and attempts to enlighten her court. Some sources say that the affair with Ebba Sparre and Christina's refusal to marry made the Riksdag worried about the future of Sweden. Other sources claim that it was because Christina had converted to Catholicism, and that the Riksdag was forced to let her abdicate. Whatever the reason, Christina designated her cousin and once fiance Carl as her heir and abdicated.

The Swedes, at large, were NOT happy with this development. Despite the feathers she ruffled, Christina was still wildly popular with nobles and peasants alike, so popular that she had to uncrown herself during her abdication ceremony, as the gentleman assigned to the task refused to do so.

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Christina was described as being "short,
pockmarked, with a humped right shoulder"
Dressed as a man, Christina left Sweden, and arrived in Rome. In 1655, she officially converted to Catholicism, which was a huge coup for the Vatican. The conversion of a previously Protestant ruler made Pope Alexander VII so happy that he gave her sumptuous apartments in the Vatican and gave her a stipend from church coffers to help maintain her lifestyle. This enamorment didn't last long, as the pope soon discovered that Christina wasn't one to blindly accept the religious teachings of the church. That aside, Christina kept a home in Rome for the rest of her life and was called friend by seven popes.

Finally, free to do as she wished, Christina traveled Europe. She became a major patron of the arts, amassing a huge collection of Venetian school paintings, opening the first opera house in Rome, sponsoring the composers Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, founding the still functioning Arcadia Academy, and rescuing the reputation of the architect Bernini. She began writing herself, publishing three main philosophical works and sponsoring philosophical conventions around Europe.

Though Christina spent most of the rest of her life writing, art collecting, and philosophizing, she did make two more forays into politics. In 1657, it came to light that Christina had been plotting the takeover of Habsburg Naples with the support of the French crown. The scheme collapsed after Christina attended the summary execution of a traitorous servant at Fontainebleau. In 1667, she attempted to have herself elected queen of Poland but was unsuccessful. She was, reportedly, not too distressed about this failure.

In 1670, Christina returned permanently to Rome and lived there until her death in 1689. She died a well-respected philosopher and patron of the arts. She was buried in the Vatican Grotto--one of only three women to be buried there.

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Christina in her later years
Christina's main focus in philosophy, like so many other philosophers of her day, was on the nature of love. According to Christina, real love was religious in nature, and very rare. She also believed that men and women were equal, saying that "soul had no gender". She was also a big fan of religious tolerance, exerting her influence to protect Rome's Jewish community and the Huguenots in France. In government, Christina was a big fan of Enlightened Despotism, believing that a good and enlightened ruler with absolute power was the only way to properly govern a country. She wrote three books on her philosophical views.

One of the most commonly discussed aspects of Christina is her gender and sexuality. Historians have been quibbling over the question since before Christina was history, and unless Christina rises from the grave to give us a definitive answer, it is unlikely that we will ever have a definite answer. Christina has been, by turns, described as straight and slandered, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, hermaphrodite, and asexual.

This historian strongly favors the bisexual and lesbian theories, as Christina's name was later linked with that of Cardinal Decio Azzolino, as well as that of Ebba Sparre. Christina also wrote passionate letters to women whose writings she admired and once spent several hours alone with a famed courtesan. Whatever Christina may have felt and done with other people, it seems likely that Ebba was the love of Christina's life. Christina's lifelong letters to Ebba show a woman who is very much in love, and neither party ever found happiness with another person (Ebba's marriage was famously unhappy).

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Christina's tomb beneath St. Peter's Basilica in Rome
Christina was a woman of contradictions. She hated the task of ruling, yet attempted to take over two countries. She believed in gender equality, but said on multiple occasions that she didn't think women should rule. She loved women, but did not often enjoy their company. Christina led a troubled life and has gone down in history as one of the most complex and intriguing monarchs in European history.





¹Christina reportedly learned to speak Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, and French, in addition to Swedish. She also had some knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic. Out of all of these, French was the one she used most frequently and the language she wrote in.
²Christina loved learning from Oxerstina and claimed to prefer learning from him above all else. However, later in her reign, she limited his power, resentful of his attempts to limit her power during her minority. Oxerstina, a devout Lutheran, tried to limit Christina's contact with her cousins due to the Calvinist leanings of their parents. This may also have contributed to Christina's later ambivalence toward him.
³Though she assumed the throne in 1644, she was not officially crowned until 1650 because of Sweden's involvement in constant warfare.
⁴Religious tolerance aside, colonists of New Sweden were still supposed to try and convert the Native Americans to Christianity.
⁵Descartes unfortunately died of pneumonia four months after reaching Stockholm. This may have been contributed by Christina's insistence at 5 am study sessions in the freezing winter.
⁶Quote taken from "'A Girton Girl on a Throne': Queen Christina and Versions of Lesbianism, 1906-1933" by Sarah Waters.


This article was edited by Mara Kellogg.


Sources
"Christina of Sweden" by Marguerite Horan Gowen
"Christina of Sweden (Continued)" by Marguerite Horan Gowen
"A Girton Girl on a Throne': Queen Christina and Versions of Lesbianism, 1906-1933" by Sarah Waters
"Two Portraits of a Queen: Calderón and the Enigmatic Christina of Sweden" by Deborah Compte
Wasa, Kristina (1626-1689)
Christina, Queen of Sweden
Famous Queen Christina
Queens Regnant: Christina of Sweden--the Girl King
Queen Coins: LGBTQ Rulers Through History

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

George Frideric Handel-The Original Rockstar

George Frideric Handel was a law school drop out, last chair violinist¹, and the first international composing superstar. Born in what is now Halle Germany, Handel overcame parental disapproval, explosive duels, and a rigid patronage system to become one of the most famous composers of all time.

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Handel himself.
Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. His father, Georg Handel, was a barber surgeon, and wanted his son to have an equally dignified profession. He forbade young George from pursuing his musical interests. His reasoning was the same as that of many parents of budding musicians--there was no financially stable career in music. Luckily Handel's mother, Dorthea, was of a different opinion. She encouraged her son to explore music, helping him hide a clavichord in the attic. Young Handel spent many hours practicing in secret.²

In 1702 Handel headed to the city of Trier to begin law school. However, he spent much more time studying organ with Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow³, and eventually dropped out of law school to pursue music full time. It seemed likely that Handel would become the next cathedral organist, but in 1703 he quit, and took a job in Hamburg as a violinist with the Goose Market Theatre.

While in Hamburg Handel taught private music lessons to supplement his income, took over some Harpsichordist duties with the orchestra, and composed furiously. 1705 saw the premier of his first opera, Almira, just three years after his arrival in Hamburg.

Also notable during his Hamburg years, Handel fought a duel with his friend Johann Mattheson. Mattheson, a composer, singer, and conductor was performing as Antony in his opera Cleopatra. After his death in act three of the opera Mattheson decided to take over as conductor of the orchestra. This was, as composer of the work, his right. Like most conductors of the day, Mattheson conducted from the harpsichord. However, when he reached the harpsichord to relieve George Handel, Handel refused to budge. This resolved into a bitter argument during the opera, which culminated in the men taking the fight outside, swords drawn. Mattheson nearly killed Handel that night, but Handel was, quite luckily, saved by a coat button. The two men resolved their quarrel soon after the duel, and remained friends until the end of their lives.

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Program for Handel's opera Rodrigo
In 1706 Handel left Hamburg for Italy. He traveled around the Italian peninsula, hobnobbing with notable instrumental and opera composers of the day--Corelli, Lully, and both Domenico and Alessandro Scarlatti. During his years in Italy, Handel developed a taste for opera, and begin writing his own operas in a more Italian style. He composed two major operas in Italy--Rodrigo and Agrippina. Both premiered in Italy, and made Handel a household name in the Italian opera scene. In under four years, Handel went from virtually unknown to a rising superstar.

Handel was well known enough that he was offered the position as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. However, Handel's stay in Hanover was brief. By 1711 he had set out for London--the city he would call home for most of the rest of his life.

1711 saw Handel's opera Rinaldo premiere, which was an instant hit. It was the first Italian Opera written specifically for London, it contained dazzling effects, and featured stirring arias sung by experts. Rinaldo ran for a whopping 47 performances--an enormously long run for the time.

Following Rinaldo Handel produced hit after hit after hit. His work was so popular that in 1712 he received an annual salary of 200 pounds from Queen Anne, about 33,000 pounds in 2018 currency. He desperately wanted to stay in London--a city that eagerly embraced his work--and in 1714 London became his permanent home after his boss, the Elector of Hanover, became King George I of England.

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Handel's most famous work, by far, is his Messiah. (Score
pictured here) He is also known for Water Music, and
Zadok the Priest, which has been performed at the
coronation of every British Monarch since its
composition.
From 1711 to 1737 Handel focused the majority of his attention on Italian Opera. He was the co-manager of an Italian Opera, and he wrote many about 40 operas during his London years. Handel's operas elevated him to the level of a superstar, and Handel enjoyed great popularity during this time.

However, in 1728 Italian opera started to go out of vogue. Attendance fell, and operas still had to deal with enormous production costs, making it difficult for companies to remain in the black. In addition to financial troubles, Handel and his colleagues had to deal with the perceived immorality of opera, and disapproval of the pious English public. Beneath all this, it is unsurprising that in 1737, Handel's opera company folded.

Handel then turned his attention to oratorios. Oratorios had the advantage of telling a grandiose story in song, but didn't have the high production cost of an opera. Additionally, since they weren't being presented in a play (the height of immorality), oratorios could safely tell religious stories. It was with these religious works that Handel really made his mark.

The first proto-oratorio was a revival of one of Handel's previous works, Esther. Esther was a wide departure from opera, featuring English lyrics, and no acting whatsoever. It was received well, and in 1733 Handel launched his first full oratorio Deborah and Athalia.

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Handel's house is preserved as a museum in London.
Though Handel did continue to write operas until 1741, he mainly produced oratorios from 1733 until the end of his life. He composed a total of 29 oratorios, with the most famous being his Messiah.

Handel died in 1759 at the age of 74. There was a staggering amount of public grief at his passing, and more than 3,000 people attended his funeral from all over Europe. A commemorative concert was put on 25 years after his death, and his works have remained constantly in performance ever since. Though he was born in Germany, England so thoroughly adopted him that he was laid to rest in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.


¹Although in Handel's time seats within the orchestra weren't referred to as chairs, they were called desks.
²For those wondering how Georg Handel didn't notice a clavichord being played in his own home, it is worth noting that the clavichord is a notoriously quiet instrument, part of why it was later replaced by the piano in the modern orchestra.
³For those wondering how Papa Handel responded, Papa Handel unfortunately died in 1696.

Sources
The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg
Eric W. Nye, Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency, accessed Saturday, December 15, 2018, http://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
George Frideric Handel. German-English Composer
Duel with Mattheson
A Biographical Introduction
George Frideric Handel-Composer
George Frideric Handel, and His Life Saving Coat Button

Friday, June 1, 2018

Damn, Girl-Nur Jahan, a Woman Worthy to be Queen

Either the twelfth or the twentieth wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, Nur Jahan was thrust into a life of fear and uncertainty. She was born while her parents were fleeing Persia, and was left on the road. Luckily, she was returned to her family, and was regarded as a lucky symbol from then after. Indeed, Nur Jahan was lucky for her family, because she would later become the Emperor Jahangir's favorite wife, and would, essentially, rule India in his stead, raising her family to the higher echelons of power with her.

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Contemporary portrait of Nur Jahan
Born Mehrunnisa, Nur Jahan was the child of Mirza Ghiyas Beg and Asmat Begum, both high ranking members of the Persian court. Although it is unknown precisely why Mirza and Asmat had to flee Persia, it is known that they were fleeing to the court of Emperor Akbar (Jahangir's father) in search of a better life. Asmat was heavily pregnant, and gave birth along the road. Shortly after Nur Jahan was born, their caravan was attacked by robbers, leaving the family with little goods or money to start over in their new life. Fearing that they would be unable to provide for their daughter, her parents abandoned Mehrunnisa on the road.

According to legend, Mehrunnisa's mother was so distraught at having left her daughter behind, Mirza agreed to go back for the infant. When Mirza found Mehrunnisa underneath the tree they'd left her, a large cobra was looming over her, ready to swallow her whole. Mirza rushed at the snake, shouting, and the snake slunk off to do it's snakely business elsewhere. Mirza took his daughter back to his wife, and after telling the tale of his daughter's miraculous escape, their fellow travelers gave them the money to continue with their journey.

Other accounts say that Nur Jahan was left on the road, but was returned to her parents by other members of their caravan. Either way, shortly after the return of their daughter Mirza and Asmat arrived at Akbar's court, and settled into life as a mid-level bureaucrat.

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Prince Selim, later the Emperor Jahangir
-World Grabber
Mehrunnisa, who's name means 'The Sun of Women', grew up to become a beauty with an excellent education. She was an accomplished musician, poet, dancer, and artist, and she was also known for being witty and charming. She was also a fashionista, cook, and landscape artist. It is unsurprising that around 1594 she enchanted Prince Selim (later Jahangir) to the point that "he could hardly be restrained, by the rules of decency, to his place."

Prince Selim, heir to the throne, was so besotted with Mehrunnisa that he sought her hand in marriage. However, Mehrunnisa was already betrothed, and Emperor Akbar refused to break the engagement in favor of his son. So, at the age of 17, Mehrunnisa was married to Sher Afghan, a Persian courtier and adventurer. Her first marriage, while not a love match (or particularly propitious), gave Mehrunnisa Ladili Begum, Mehrunnisa's only child.

Sher Afghan wasn't destined to live to a ripe old age. He died in 1607, after 13 years of marriage. There are many rumors saying that Selim, angered by Sher Afghan's refusal to break his betrothal, and lust for Mehrunnisa, had Sher Afghan killed. The History of Hindostan, a somewhat sketchy contemporary source, gives an account of Selim's many failed attempts to have Sher Afghan killed, culminating in Selim ordering a small army to attack Sher Afghan. While if Selim actually arranged Sher Afghan's death is in doubt, it's proven fact that in 1607 Mehrunnisa was widowed at age 30.

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Ladili Begum
Shortly after her husband's death, Mehrunnisa was summoned to Delhi to act as a lady-in-waiting to Prince Selim, now Emperor Jahangir's stepmother. In 1611 Mehrunnisa was married again, this time to the Emperor, becoming his 12th (or 20th, sources disagree) wife.

Emperor Akbar, Jahangir's father, had been a brilliant Emperor. Starting with only a small part of what is today Pakistan, Akbar managed to conquer all of north India, swallowing modern Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and parts of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China. He'd been a strict Sunni Muslim, but had encouraged religious discourse between Muslims, Hindus, Parsis, and Christians. He'd managed to woo local leaders of all religious persuasions to his side, yet retained his own religious supremacy (while building up a cult around himself).

Jahangir was a pale imitation of the brilliance of his father. Jahangir tried, undoubtedly; he extended his empire further down the Indian subcontinent, and managed to keep the empire more or less together. However, where Akbar had been focused on reform and expansion, Jahangir was focused on art and culture. Where Akbar had strictly followed the tenants of Islam (which forbid drugs and alcohol), Jahangir saw them more as guidelines, and at the time of his marriage to Mehrunnisa, was well on his way to becoming a non-functioning addict.

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Mughal Empire
As far as marriages went, Jahangir and Mehrunnisa, renamed Nur Jahan (meaning 'Light of the World), were pretty happy. Jahangir was smitten with Nur Jahan, and she seemed to have returned his affection. While the couple never had children, Nur Jahan became Jahangir's Empress, and she was, by all accounts, a loving step mother. Jahangir and Nur Jahan had a great deal in common--they both loved the arts, and were passionate about hunting. Most importantly, Nur Jahan was more than willing to take over running the country, leaving Jahangir to lose himself in opium and mindless pleasure to his heart's content.

As the de facto ruler of India, Nur Jahan put herself in the forefront of government work. She signed her name to royal decrees, along with her husband's, essentially giving herself the power to issue decrees, as well as promote and dismiss officials within the empire. She struck coinage in her own name, something that had never happened in Mughal history. She presided at Court, hearing cases about disputes between nobles, and passing judgement. She conducted international relations with other powerful women in foreign countries, and cemented trade deals. She was a shrewd businesswoman, and under her guidance India enjoyed an era of peace and prosperity.

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Nur Jahan
Nur Jahan was also a philanthropist. She was particularly concerned with the women of her empire. Concerned that poor women would be unable to marry, she personally provided a dowry for over 500 women. She was the patroness of dozens of female poets and artists, many of whom's works survive today.

Despite her peaceful reputation, Nur Jahan had no scruples about warfare. She was an excellent sharpshooter herself, known as 'Tiger Slayer' for her remarkable feat of killing four tigers with six bullets. (keep in mind, these are 17th century bullets.) She planned and led several expansionist campaigns herself. When her husband was captured, she rescued him with a contingent of soldiers, riding in on an elephant, and successfully winning the battle despite the fact that both her and her elephant were injured.

Though the empire was prospering, Nur Jahan reigning after the death of her husband was out of the question. It was widely assumed that Khurram (later Shah Jahan), Jahangir's third son, or Shahryar, Jahangir's youngest son. Nur Jahan initially supported Khurram, even marrying her niece Mumtaz Mahal to him. However, Khurram's hunger for power as he grew older led to Nur Jahan throwing her support behind Shahryar (who was married to her daughter Ladili).

When Khurram, now Shah Jahan, took power in 1628 he had Nur Jahan sent into exile in Lahore along with Ladili Begum, who was widowed after the death of Shahryar. Nur Jahan lived for another 18 years. Though she had backed his rival, Shah Jahan, kept her in comfort, and Nur Jahan was allowed to continue her building and artistic projects. She was kept from the political workings of the empire, but put her efforts into charity work instead, building mosques and assisting the poor. She died quietly in 1645.

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Silver rupees with Nur Jahan's name on them
After her death, Shah Jahan did his best to erase Nur Jahan from history, having the coins with her name rescinded, and erasing her from official records. However, Shah Jahan was not at all successful--a testament to Nur Jahan's incredible influence. The hundreds of mosques and gardens she had constructed, as well as the waystation system for travelers she had established could not be demolished. Her artistic influence continues to influence India to this day. She invented several dishes which are now a staple of Indian cuisine, and the flowering patterned muslin she favored is a favorite in Indian fashion. Her style of stitched clothing and structured saris is still the norm for Indian dress. A wealth of poetry written by her still survives, as do many of her buildings and gardens.

Nur Jahan was an extraordinary woman for any era, but especially for the era into which she was born. She ran an empire so skillfully that even her staunchest enemies grudgingly admitted that she was, what would later become her most famous epithet, 'A Woman Worthy to Be Queen'.


Sources
A History of Hindostan: Translated from the Persian: to Which are Prefixed Two Dissertations, the First Concerning the Hindoos, and the Second on the Nature of Despotism in Indian. Volume III by Muhammad Qasim Hindu Shah Astarabadi Firishtah
Indian-Jahangir
Nur Jahan
Nur Jahan: Mughal Empress
Empress of Mughal Indian: Nur Jahan
World Changing Women: Nur Jahan