Thursday, 30 June 2005

Smoking Kills! - Murad IV and his Irritability

Murad IV

We may well have warnings of the risks associated with smoking, on packets of cigarettes nowadays, but in 17th century Turkey things were a bit more serious. Sultan Murad IV was so opposed to his subjects smoking that he issued a decree stating that anyone found smoking would be killed and their corpse left to rot, at the spot where they were executed, even if that was a coffee shop, a street or home. Naturally this was a very effective deterrant.

However, Sultan Murad was not your average guy and many things as well as smoking irritated him to the point of warranting the death penalty. Like his predecessors he was rather mad and also an alcoholic. He could often be seen running through the streets at night, drunk, while simultaneously killing any unfortunate passer-by with his sword (they obviously irritated him by being there...). His favourite sport was to shoot arrows and bullets at the women of his harem and occasionaly ordered that many of them be drowned in front of him.

Murad IV came to power in 1623 after his uncle Mustafa I had been assassinated. during the early years of his reign, Murad was totaly controlled by his mother, Sultana Kosem, who effectively ruled through him. She was so possessive of her son that she would not let him sleep with girls and encouraged him to sleep with boys.
In 1635 Murad had his brother killed and a few years later several others were got rid of too.
In 1640, at the age of 27 he died of cirrhosis of the liver (no surprise really). Ironically, during his reign he had also banned alcohol as well as tobacco! On his deathbed he ordered his brother Ibrahim to be executed but nobody obeyed this order, which would have meant the end of the Ottoman line.

Tuesday, 28 June 2005

Marcus Aurelius on Life

"Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed. This mortal life is a little thing, lived in a little corner of the earth..."

"To live each day as though one's last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinizing - here is the perfection of character."

"All things are in process of change. You yourself are ceaselessly undergoing transformation and the decay of some of your parts and so is the whole universe."

"If he sinned, the harm is his own. Yet perhaps, after all, he did not!"

Monday, 27 June 2005

Emperor Elagabalus; the Teenage Pervert

When the emperor Caracalla was murdered in 217, the fourteen-year-old Elagabalus succeeded him. He only ruled for 4 years, but in that short period of time he commited a variety of grotesque and debauched acts, enough to make Caligula and Commodus seem rather plain.

His real name was Bassianus but as he developed an intense interest in worshippng the Syrian god Elagabal, became High Priest of the cult and so had his name changed to Elagabalus. To honor his god, he demanded that hundereds of cattle were slaughtered daily on huge sacrificial altars. He had a temple built on the Palatine Hill and ordered the Romans to worship a statue of a giant phallus, which didn't go down very well at all...
Eventually he decided he was the god embodied. He started to wear women's clothes and make-up, implored his surgeons to cut his penis off and make him a vagina and when they said tehy could not do this he settled for circumcision. His body is said to have been very effeminate and he had a multitude of male companions. At some point it is said that he "married" a freedman called Hierocles and called him his husband.
As well as being a transvestite and obviously rather confused, Elagabalus was also a masochist, arrabging for his lovers to catch him cheating on them so that they would beat the living daylights out of him, therefore giving him even more pleasure. His body was permanently covered with bruises and marks left from these beatings. Cassius Dio informs us:

"...he would go to taverns by night wearing a wig, and there ply the trade of a female prostitute. He frequented the notorious brothels, drove out the prostitutes and played the prostitude himself. he finally set a aside a room in the palace, and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at teh door of the room...while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers by."

He had a public bath built in the palace, so he could go there and pick out the men with the biggest penises.
In 220 A.D. he raped a Vestal Virgin and forced her to marry him. This for the Romans was a terrible thing to do.
His cruelty also had no limits. Once he ordered a servant to fetch him a big packet of cobwebs and when the unfortunate man turned up empty handed, he had him locked up in a cage and eaten alive by hundreds of starving rats.
Elagabalus loved to pin his enemies to the wall and stick hot pokers into them, peel their skin off and dip them in salt.... *cringe*
He ordered mass human sacrifices of young boys and girls to satisfy his god and whenever he entered Rome he demanded that his priests meet him with golden bowls full of children's intestines..

On the 11th March 222 the people had had enough. They hunted him down and in a toilet where he had saught refuge and stabbed him to death. He was 18. His friends were mutilated and impaled.

Sunday, 26 June 2005

Catherine the Great and her Many Lovers

Catherine the Great was empress of Russia from 1762 until she died in 1796. She was born in 1729 in Poland and in 1744 was taken to Russia to marry the young Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne and not of a sane mind. For seven years during their marriage Peter spent his time playing with toy soldiers and dogs and showed no interest in sex. In fact he had a physical disability, a very tight foreskin, which may have played an important part in that matter. Finally the empress Elizabeth gave Catherine the permission to take a lover, which she did and was soon pregnant. She convinced Peter it was his own child, as was the plan anyway. In the meantime he had been circumcised so that he could perform the sexual act.

Catherine developed a taste for young soldiers. She had a special area built in her bedroom, which was curtained off and where she received her lovers. Gregory Orlov was her on and off lover for around thirteen years. He was said to possess excellent equipment, unbelievable ‘stamina’ and an insatiable appetite for sex.
When Peter and Catherine ascended to the throne after the empress Elizabeth died, in 1761, Catherine became even more confident. Peter’s childish and irrational behaviour was annoying her as well as others. In June 1762 he was murdered by the Orlov brothers and Catherine was sole ruler. Now, she was free to enjoy herself to the full. She had several lovers at the same time and they were expected to perform as and when needed. If they did not satisfy they were kicked out of the palace, but given a handsome sum of money first. Her young men were carefully vetted for fear of diseases. The court physician would first examine them thoroughly; then they would be passed on to the Countess Bruce, who would interview them, inform them of what the empress liked and did not like in bed. Then she would proceed to try them out, to ensure they were all they were all they promised to be. Only then would they be ‘delivered’ to a suite of rooms, where a box of 100,000 roubles would be waiting for them, as a gift for the services they were about to render. That same evening, the young man would be presented at court with the empress on his arm and at ten o’clock they would retire to her bedroom…
Over the years, the walls of Catherine’s bedroom were filled with miniature portraits of her lovers.

When Gregory Orlov had the audacity to seduce his own thirteen-year old cousin, Catherine gave him a smart pension and promptly sent him packing. He was soon replaced by Gregory Potemkin. He had one eye, was over-sexed. They were extremely close and rumour had it that they had married.

Saturday, 25 June 2005

Suetonius on Augustus's Sexual Proclivities

As a young man Augustus was accused of various improprieties. For instance, Sextus Pompey jeered at his effeminacy; Mark Antony alleged that Julius Caesar made him submit to unnatural relations as the price of adoption; Antony’s brother Lucius added that after sacrificing his virtue to Caesar, Augustus had sold his favours to Aulus Hirtius in Spain, for 3,000 gold pieces and that he used to soften the hair in his legs by singeing them with red-hot walnut shells.
Not even his friends could deny that he often commited adultery, though of course they said, in justification, that he did so for reasons of state, not simply passion – he wanted to discover what his enemies were at by getting intimate with their wives or daughters. Mark antonym accused him not only of indecent haste in marrying Livia, but of hauling an ex-consul’s wife from her husband’s dining room into the bedroom – before his eyes too! He brought the woman back, says Antony, blushing to the ears and with her hair in disorder. Antony also writes that Scribonia was divorced for having said a little too much when a rival got her claws into Augustus and that his friends used to behave like Toranius, the slave dealer, in arranging his pleasures for him – they would strip mothers of families, or grown girls of their clothes and inspect them as though they were up for sale. A racy letter of Antony’s survives, written before he and Augustus had quarrelled privately or publicly:

“What has come over you? Do you object to my sleeping with Cleopatra? But we are married; and it is not even as though this were anything new – the affair started nine years ago. And what about you? Are you faithful to Livia Drusilla? My congratulations if, when this letter arrives, you havenot been in bed with Tertullia, or Terentilla, or Rufilla, or Salvia Titisenia – or all of them. Does it really matter so much where, or with whom you perform the sexual act?”

And Suetonius goes on to say:

The charge of being a womanizer stuck, and as an elderly man he is said to have still harboured a passion for deflowering girls, who were collected for him from every quarter, even by his wife! [Livia]

Friday, 24 June 2005

London Prostitution in the 1700s

1630s brothel scene - Nicolaus Knuepfer

The whole Covent Garden area and part of the Strand was a notorious haunt for prostitutes in the 1700s. There was a variety of choices on offer. A gentleman could visit the more "prestigious" brothels or just go down a dark alley with one of the multitude of street walkers. Either way, he would almost certainly get venereal disease and then go home to pass it on to his wife and worse still, his unborn children.

A well known madame of the time was Elizabeth Wisebourn (no pun intended). She herself had syphilis and was horribly disfigured but her 'girls' were reknown for their beauty and 'talents'. In the hallway she had a big Bible open on a table to remind her punters that she was afterall a clergyman's daughter and therefore God-fearing. It would cost them one guinea to enter the brothel and after that it was up to them to decide what they wanted to give to the girl of their choice. 'Virgins' were easy to find, as their maidenhood had been surgically restored over and over again to supply the demand. In each room upstairs, a mirror was placed in a position "so conveniently placed that those who have a mind to it, may see what they do: for some take as much delight in seeing as in doing". Mother Whybourn, as she was known to her girls and clients, would go around the London taverns daily, to see what innocent young girls she could find, girls who had just arrived from the country and ahd no idea what to do or where to go. She would bring them back to her 'house', give them food, shelter, nice clothes and teach them how to please the gentlemen. On Sunday she would take all her charges to church, where they would advertise themselves. One of her girls said: "We'd take all opportunities, as we came down stairs from the galleries, or as we past over the kennels in the streets, to lift up our skirts so high that we might show our handsome legs and feet, with a good fine worsted or silk pair of stockings on; by which means the gallants would be sure either to dog us themselves or else to send their footmen to see where we lived and then they would afterwards come to us themselves and by that means we have got many a good customer."

All the best brothels had their own in-house doctor to take care of the girls that were still young and beautiful. Those whose looks had never been that impressive, or the ones who were past their prime would be thrown out to the streets to fend for themselves and ultimately die in squalor.

Thursday, 23 June 2005

Octavian & Livia

Octavian, or Augustus, as he is better known, was the first emperor of Rome. He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, not because he didn't have a father already, but because Caesar took a liking to him and also left him two thirds of his estate. Octavian was born Gaius Octavius on 23d September 63 B.C. He was shrewd, astute and took a while to make up his mind about what to do, but once he made a decision there was no going back.
He was only 18 when Julius Caesar was assassinated and by the age of 38 he was emperor. He was said to be extremely good-looking, with clear blue piercing eyes, he delighted when he starred young ladies out and they averted his gaze by looking to the floor, as if they were overpowered by him. Despite his stern reputation, he had several mistresses whose company he enjoyed immensely. However, there was only one woman Octavian is thought to have really loved and that was Livia.

Livia was only 19 when Octavian practically abducted her from her husband Nero (not the emperor) and decided to marry her. She was his third wife. Some say Livia was his mistress while he was married to his second wife Scribonia and Suetonius tells us of an occasion when Octavian took a lady from the dinner table into the next door room, while her husband was at dinner as well. The lady is said to have emerged a while later, with her hair dishevelled and her ears bright red. Many scholars assume this lady to be Livia, as her husband of the time, was fully aware of Octavian's passion for her, as the later made no effort to hide it.

Octavian and Livia were married for 50 years but she bore him no children.

Sunday, 19 June 2005

Shakespeare's Globe

An actor performs in the modern Globe on the Bankside.

Actors weren't always the softies they are now reputed to be. For instance, on a freezing, snowy December night in 1598, a troupe of them turned up at a recently vacated theatre in Shoreditch, armed with "swords, daggers, bills, axes and such like" as one contemporary account described it. The weather's contumely was such that the Thames had frozen over. Yet, with the aid of lanterns, this company of actors surrounded the area with guards and tore down the entire theatre in one evening. As the penumbra receded in the dawn hours, they began to load the stripped timber onto wagons, which they used to transport the timber to Southwark.

Before getting into the reasons for this apparent lunacy, it bears remarking that the actors could do this because a) there was no regular police force in London at the time, and b) they were all trained in the use of weapons, as actors were obliged to be in the days before stuntmen and botox. Mull over that: once upon a time, thespians were among the toughest fighters in London.

The occasion for the destruction of the Theatre in Shoreditch was that the owner of the land on which it had been built had refused to renew the lease. The Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's company of actors and our esteemed vandals, had played at the theatre for years, and many of Shakespeare's most famously plays had been performed there: Richard III, Richard II and The Merchant of Venice, for instance. To raise funds, the company sold off many of the play books for these popular plays, but the situation was more desperate than that, and it demanded greater ingenuity.

For that reason, and in that fashion, the Theatre was carefully taken apart, and transported across the river to site they had secured not far from the Rose Theatre in Southwark. A talented carpenter named Peter Streete recycled the old pieces of wood to fashion an astonishing new theatre - a wooden polygon, capable of holding up to 3,000 spectators. Shakespeare, himself an investor in commodities, was a joint producer of this new theatre, as were some of his fellow actors. On the front, they placed a sign depicting Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders, and they called the theatre The Globe.

The present replica on the Bankside, while a splendid reproduction with excellent acoustics (I watched an all-woman cast perform Richard III), has only half the capacity of the original. All the other effects are faithfully re-created - from paper cups of dried fruits and nuts on sale to the uncharitable wooden seating, and also a large area at the front for people to stand and watch. If you ever care to visit, do pause to remember that it is a magnificent tribute to the recklessness, inventiveness and near-criminality of Shakespeare's acting company.

Thursday, 16 June 2005

Childhood, Manners & Bodily Functions in Elizabethan London

It has been estimated that out of every one-hundered babies born alive, seventy would only live until their 1st birthday, while less than half lived past their 5th year. The mortality rate was extremely high and childhood was therefore very brief. As soon as a child was able to walk and mutter a few words, it was taught 'good manners'. The ideal child was seen and not heard, rising from their seats whenever their parents entered the room and addressing them as 'Sir' and 'Madam'. They would have to ask their parents for their blessing upon awaking in the morning as well as before bedtime.

From the very begining, children were taught the importance of behaving in a humble and passive fashion towards their elders or betters (people higher up on the social scale, but not necessarily 'better' than them in modern terms). Men wore their hats almost all the time, even indoors, so special rules had to be invented to tell them when they should take them off. For example, Erasmus advises young men of the time to "take off your hat and see that your hair is well combed...[if you are ] seated with people of rank".

Foreigners were amazed at a particular habit the English had at the time, of kissing any visitors to the house, heartily and on the lips. Apparently, if you did not do so you were considered very ill mannered indeed...
The following instruction from our friend Erasmus is extremely amusing and one would think unnecessary: " is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating. A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity the parts to which nature has attached modesty. If necessity compels this, it should be done with decency and reserve, even if no witness is present" (the idea being I suppose, that one must not offend God's sensitivities...or maybe the angels?)
Apparently public pissing (yes, this is the actual word the Elizabethans used) was widespread (one assumes amongst men), to such an extent that when the Mercers' livery company let one of their properties, they included a clause that the tenant must prevent "naughty persons annoying our cellar by way of pissing in at the windows".
Passing wind or farting, was to be done when alone. If it was not possible for the flatulence-riddled pesron to hold it in, they would have to "cough over the sound". There is an amusing story of the Earl of Oxford, who apparently farted as he bowed to Queen Elizabeth on one occasion. he was so embarassed that he did not appear at Court for seven years. When he eventually met the Queen at Court again, she told him: "My Lord, I have forgotten the fart", which obviously proved she hadn't...
Belching was totally out of the question and there is no mention of one being able to do this in private even.

Wednesday, 15 June 2005

A Note on Slavery in Early Modern England

We don't tend to associate early modern England with slavery but the fact is that slaves were very much a part of everyday life. In the 15th century, the Portugese had started using the west coast of Africa as a source for slaves and the English were soon to follow suit. By 1596 slave labour had become so popular in England, that Elizabeth I, on the basis that slavery was upsetting the labour market, decided all African slaves should be "sent forth of the land" to Spain or Portugal. By the 17th century though, many owners of colonial sugar plantations in Jamaica were bringing a few of their slaves with them back to London. The slaves were often stolen or they ran away. Therefore it would not be unusual to see an advert like this: "Lost or absented, a little negro boy of about 13 years of age in a grey livery with black and pink lace and a small cross in his forehead. He speaks Spanish and English indifferently well..." We can assume with a high level of certainty that the cross on the forehead was a brand, made by a hot iron, marking him permanently as a slave.

Slaves were treated as merchandise, commodities to be bought and sold like chattels.

In 1777 Samuel Johnson declared that "No man is by nature the property of another" and years before him, William Pitt the Elder had basically said the same thing. However, despite this, slaves for sale were still being advertised in the London press. In 1777, Boswell made a point of saying that the slave trade was a very important part of the economy and therefore must be sustained.

According to Lisa Picard, by 1764 there might have been around 20,000 black servants in London, who had left their masters and sought to be paid for their labour, just like the English servants. I wonder though if the black servants were given the same wages as their white counterparts. Considering the prejudices of the day, probably not.

Tuesday, 14 June 2005

A Snapshot of Ancient Rome

The streets of Rome were incredibly noisy all day. They were crowded with people and animals and ere not very clean either, in fact in modern terms we would be accurate if we said that they were filthy.
Rome was full of people from all over the empire, most of them there to find their fortune and many had lost alot in the process or ended up as slaves. The majority of the people lived in high rise tenement flats (up to 6 stories high) which were usually very badly built. The buildings were almost entirely made of wood as well, which meant that they were extremely susceptible to fire. It was not unusual to see buildings like this collapse all of a sudden. Landlords would allow bad workmanship and would use cheap materials, as they could make alot of money by the whoel process of re-building. Most landlords were so corrupt like this and would also employ thugs which they would send to beat up unfortunate tenants who had not paid their rent.
There were pleanty of baths to go to and it was cheap to go too, so all Romans made good use of them. Sanitation was not the best, despite the famous Cloaca Maxima which dealt with the sewage, and emptied it all into the Tiber. During the summer the river was fetid as the tides did not really carry any of the waste away; a nasty stench rose from the river. Due to the location of Rome, malaria was very common and many people died of it. During the winter, there were many floods and the houses on the banks of the Tiber were flooded and often destroyed. Typicaly poor people lived in these, but there were some villas in the lower risk areas.

The emperors of course lived on top of the Palatine Hill and didn't have to worry about any of this. They even had a connection with the Circus Maximus, so they did not have to leave the palace to go and watch the chariot racing but would rather just walk through the passage leading to the venue. The Circus Maximus by the way, was 1000 metres long (1 kilometre) so it was massive. Of course Rome was filled with huge buildings, most of them temples to the Gods and to deified emperors.

Monday, 13 June 2005

The Rise of Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar was born on the13th of July 100 B.C to a well known patrician family. He was brought up in the Subura, one of the poor districts of Rome. There he learnt to mix with people of all classes and to speak Hebrew and Gallic dialects. Although his family were of a distinguished line, they were not rich. He was very close to his mother Aurelia. In 85 B.C. when he was only 15, his father died in Pisa, while on military duty. He was an epileptic and would often have seizures at awkward moments. He was extremely clever.

As a young man, he left Rome to do his military service in Asia and Cilicia. During the battle of Miletus he showed great bravery and saved the lives of many legionaries, which led him to be awarded the corona civica (oak crown). This was the highest honour that could be awarded to a non-commander; when in public people would have had to stand up and applaud him.

In 78 B.C. Caesar began his political career as an advocate in the Forum. He became notorious for his excellent oratory skills and his disdain for corrupt officials. Even Cicero, who was considered to be a great orator, commented: “Does anyone have the ability to speak better than Caesar?”. In 75 B.C, on his way to Rhodes, Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates. It is said that when they pirates asked for a ransom of 20 talents in order to release him, he laughed out loud and exclaimed that they obviously didn’t know who they had got and told them to ask for fifty. In 69 B.C. he lost his wife Cornelia after she had delivered a stillborn son and then his aunt Julia. He broke tradition by giving both women large public funerals. That same year he was elected quaestor. He was 30 years old now and keen to make his name great. In 67 he married Sulla’s granddaughter, Pompeia, an alliance he made in order to further his political career. When he became magistrate a few years later, he got himself into enormous debt by staging games for the people and managing the Circus Maximus. However, he knew that this would enhance his popularity with the people considerably and although he ended his aedile-ship bankrupt, which would normally be a great obstacle to his career, he instead got elected Pontifex Maximus (high priest). This was a lifetime position, and although not political as such, it provided a very good income, (helping to clear his debts) and involvement with the Senate and legislation. He also got the office of urban praetor by 63 B.C. He soon got himself into terrible debt again but when he was assigned to be Proconcular governor of Spain his creditors backed off as the income from this position could be considerable. Caesar was now on his way to fulfilling his ambitions.

Sunday, 12 June 2005

The Dreadful Commodus


Commodus was the only surviving son of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. As emperor, he proved to be everything his father was not, maiking many enemies amongst the people and especially the senate.
He was born in Lanuvium in A.D. 161 and there were rumours going around at the time, that he was in fact the product of his mother's passionate affair with a gladiator. As a child Commodus was fairly good natured, but as an adult he was anything but, which was good enough reason for many to suspect that Marcus Aurelius was not his real father. Despite all that, Marcus Aurelius raised Commodus as a future emperor, and in A.D.177, when the boy was only 16, he made him joint ruler, which shows he had lots of faith in him. When his father died in A.D. 180, near the Danube, Commodus became emperor. He was not interested in pursuing his father's plans of expansionism and not being particularly inclined towards the military lifestyel, he returned to Rome swiftly, leaving the campaign against the German tribes in the hands of his generals.
His reign was characterised by mismanagement and corruption. He was indifferent to matters of government, despised the Senate and frequently soled public offices in order to make money. He allowed German tribes to live within the confines of the Empire, under the condition that they were peaceful, and therefore was seen as a traitor by the Senate, who planned to assassinate him. In A.D. 182, Commodus's half sister Lucilla and several Senators were executed, after their plan to assassinate him failed. At this point, Commodus became more paranoic than he had ever been. He shut himself up in secluded country villas and immersed himself in a world of debauchery. He allegedly had a harem consisting of 300 girls and 300 boys and amused himself accordingly.
For nearly ten years, Commodus kept himself secluded. Then, in A.D. 190, he started to appear in public once again, making most of his appearances in the arena, as a gladiator. He became obsessed with the myth of Hercules and practised zealously at home. He even mastered the art of fighting with the left hand as well as the right. Dio Cassius wrote: "Commodus managed to kill a man now and then and in making close passes with others, as if trying to clip off a bit of their hair, he sliced off noses of some, the ears of others and sundry features of still others." He apparently took great delight out of inflicting pain on others. On one occasion, Dio tells us: "...he got together all the men in the city who had lost their feet as the result of disease or some accident, and then, after fastening about their knees some likenesses of serpents bodies, and giving them sponges to throw instead of stones, killed them with blows of a club, pretending that they were giants."
He insisted on being paid for fighting in the arena and his fees were extremely high, up to a million sesterces.

To ensure the support of senior officials he basicaly abducted their children, saying he was 'taking care of them'. Of course, this made more enemies for him. He was a megalomaniac and after a serious fire in A.D. 191 damaged much of the city, he decided to rebuild Rome and call it Colonia Commodiana (Colony of Commodus). Everyone hated him by now and even his closest courtiers were plotting to kill him. On 31st December A.D. 192, his favourite concubine, Marcia, gave him some poison, which he vomited up. Having failed to kill him thus, a gladiator was brought in to strangle him in his bath.

Saturday, 11 June 2005

The Knights Templar

Templar knights

In the early 12th century, nine French knights got together and dedicated themselves to protecting pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Because their weapons were stored in a building that was given to them by the monastery which stood on the site of the Temple of Solomon, they were called Templars. Within two-hundred years, the Templars had amassed enormous wealth via their activities and had made enemies in the Church. They styled themselves as the protectors of Christianity, but many accused them of being a law unto themselves.

In 1208 Pope Innocent criticised them heavily. He was later followed by Henry III of England, who even went as far as to threaten them. In the meantime, the French King Phillip, spread rumours that the Templars were plotting to overthrow the Pope. Worse still, a Templar by the name of Squin de Flexian, after being expelled by the Order, accused them of being heretics and put together a long list of charges against them. Trouble was now looming and it was soon after that when Phillip of France issued orders that all Templars should be arrested and tortured. Fifty-four knights were burned alive and four years later, in 1313, the Pope was able to state that the order was officially non-existent.

The Templars were the most powerful religious military order of their time and it was therefore inevitable that a cloud of legend surrounded them, not least because of their connection with the location of the Temple of Solomon. Nowadays there are several orders calling themselves Templars but they really have no connection to them.

Thursday, 9 June 2005

18th Century Grave Robbers

You wouldn't think there would have been much grave robbing going on in London during the 1700s but there was. Corpses were frequently 'stolen' from graves for educational purposes, for the would-be surgeons' anatomy lessons. There is a gruesome story of the body of a lady's husband having been found in the surgeon's house, soon after it was burried. Apparently, after having obtained a search warrant, she found worse than what she expected. She looked inside a big pot "which was almost full of boiling water...she took a stick and stirred it when to her great surprise she saw the head and part of the body of her husband". I really don't know what was going on there but it does not sound like anatomy...

Two men who stole a baby's body from a cemetary were sentenced to a public whipping and a year in prison. There is also a story of a gang of three who stole lead coffins to melt the lead and sell it.

Tuesday, 7 June 2005

An Ancient Roman Recipe

I am not sure if I should be telling you all not to try this at home. Our detailed accounts of what ancient Romans ate and how they ate it come from a man called Apicius, who wrote a famous cookbook. Here is one of his recipies:

Put in a mortar pepper, lovage and origan; pound, moisten with sauce, add cooked brains, pound thoroughly to dissolve lumps. Add five eggs and beat well to work all into a smooth paste. Blend with sauce, place in a metal pan and cook. When it is cooked turn out on a clean board and dice. Put in the mortar pepper, lovage and origan; pound, mix together; pour in sauce and wine, put in saucepan and bring to boil. When boiling crumble in pastry to thicken, stir vigorously and pour in the serving dish over the diced rissoles; sprinkle with pepper and serve."

Would anyone eat this today?

Slaves in Rome

As would be expected, slaves have been abused and mistreated all throughout history. In Ancient Rome, they were even given demeaning names, such as Laughter, Silly, Sexy, Pleasure and Desire. As is apparent from these names, slaves of both sexes, were more often than not, abused sexually. It is worth mentioning that in Roman society a man only committed adultery if he had sexual relations with another Roman citizen’s wife – sex with a slave did not count. Of course, not all such relationships were abusive – think of the Emperor Vespasian’s long-standing affair with Antonia-Caenis, who became a freedwoman.

As a rule though, slaves were seen as property and therefore their owner had no second thoughts with regards to his ill treatment of them.

Slavery in Rome

Monday, 6 June 2005

Tudor Lifestyle Facts

Haunted Tudor House

Everyday people of the Tudor age were not typicaly dressed in lavish embroidered brocade and ruffs, as we see in famous portrtaits and paintings of the time. Indeed, very few but the super-rich could afford to dress like that. A dress of that style could cost anything from £35 onwards, which was very expensive, considering that a gentleman's income was £50 per annum.
The rich tudors were very extravagant with their spending and an ideal example of this is when Henry VIII spent over £1,000 on a set of tapestries for his walls. This amount of money in those days was outlandishly enormous and more than most people would earn in an entire lifetime (the average labourer's annual wage amounting to around just £2).

In much the same way, Tudor homes were not what their counterparts are today. Tudor-styled housing today is filled with varnished wooden panelling and of course all mod cons including more than one lavatory many times. The original Tudor homes had rough, unvarnished wooden panelling, which was painted in bright colours. There were dirt fllors, which would have been next to impossible to keep clean, while the walls were filled with daub and dung, which would have attracted more than your average creepy-crawley.
To add insult to injury, many houses, even of the rich, did not have a lavatory facility and ocuupants had to walk to the end of their street and use the public facility, in order to relieve themselves. As for sleeping arrangements, it was not unusual for people to be sharing their bed with more than one person, all for the purposes of convenience and not for pleasure...Beds it seems, were a highly sought after item of furniture.

Sunday, 5 June 2005

Medieval Businesswomen

Margery Kempe (top) and Christine de Pisan (below)

After the Black Death for obvious reasons, there was a noticeable shortage of people. This meant that women got the opportunity to get involved in tasks and areas which up til then were solely male territory. By 1363 a statute got rid of the law which limited women to only one trade or craft, so women were able to become traders and therefore support themselves. This newly found independence also meant that they now had more control over who they married too.

One of the better known businesswomen of the time was a certain Margey Kempe, from Lynn in Norfolk. She also wrote The Book of Margery Kempe which is often seen as the first English autobiography. Margery had a taste for very expensive clothes (the modern equivalent would be designer-wear) and would spend large amounts of money to this purpose. her husband eventually got tired of this and decided he would not give her any more money for expensive clothes. At this point Margery told herself she would find the money on her own and so she embarked upon a series of failed business ventures. She set up a brewery but sadly the beer would not ferment properly. She then got herself two horses and a mill and started grinding corn. When this didn't work out people did not want to work for her any more. Margery decided this was God's way of telling her to get out of commerce and look for something else. So, she made a huge career leap and launched herself as a professional hysteric.

Professional religious weeping was a lucrative career in those days and sources tell us Margey was on top of the competition as she could cry and get herself in a hysterical state with just about anything. If she was shown a cross she would faint. If she was supposed to be in the presence of God she would scream non-stop. She would cry in church, in public and at meals. She was loud. When she met the Archbishop of York, he is said to have given a memebr of his staff five shillings to take her as far away from him as possible. When she went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem the other pilgrims accompanying her couldn't stand her and told her to take a hike.

It might seem strange, but with all this Margery made the money she required and even became a memebr of the guild at Lynn.

Another one was the Parisian Christine de Pisan. When she was 25 her husband died and left her with three children and her widowed mother to look after. She started writing poems to supplement her income. The writing of poetry was a very male-dominated profession, taken up by men who would get wealthy patrons to subsidize them. Christine managed to find patronage at Court and started to get commissions.

Friday, 3 June 2005

Window Tax and Other Weird London Laws

  • In 1766 The House and Window Duties Act was passed by Parliament. This meant that every house in England and Scotland had to pay a certain amount of tax per window. (In Scotland though, houses with less than five windows weren't taxed). The more windows you had, the higher the tax, so many people decided to have many of them bricked up. This can still be seen on the walls of old town-houses in Central London.
  • If you struck someone in 1543 and their blood was shed your hand had to be chopped off.
  • Charles II decreed that six ravens ought to be kept in the Tower of London at all times. Legend has it that if the ravens leave the Tower the Kingdom will fall. To this day there is such a person as the Raven Master, and his chief responsibility is to clip the wings of the ravens so tehy can't fly away.
  • Every October, the solicitor to the City of London pays rent for land that the Corporation of London rented in Shropshire. The problem is, this was about 700 years ago and this land is not relevant today. To solve this problem, the ritualists of the City decided that rent ought to be paid in the form of a blunt billhook and a very sharp axe. Then, the said solicitor proceeds to cut through some wood with the billhook. However, he is supposed to fail with this task so that he can then cut through the wood with the aforementioned axe.

Thursday, 2 June 2005

Marie Antoinette and The Diamond Necklace Affair

The notorious necklace

Marie Antoinette was born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna in Vienna, Austria, on November 2nd 1755. Daughter of the austere empress Maria Theresa, she was married off to the young Dauphin, the future king Louis XVI of France, at the age of 14. She was thrown into the lavish lifestyle, where the pursuit of pleasure was dominant. She was unhappy in her marriage and sought refuge in an extravagant lifestyle, spending enormous sums of money when she was Queen, thus making herself extremely unpopular with the French people.

One incident, which damaged her reputation to the highest degree, was the so called Diamond Necklace Affair. Chief player in this story was a woman called Jeanne de Saint-Remy de Valois, comtesse de la Motte, who was a notorious con-woman, sleeping her way to the top while simultaneously claiming to be an aristocrat. At the time Jeanne was having an affir with the Cardinal de Rohan, a gullible man off whom she borrowed large amounts of money and quickly got herself into debt. Jeanne came up with a plan: She knew the cardinal was anxious to get in with the Queen (in more ways than one) so she convinced him that she had access to the Queen and could arrange for a meeting. She told him to write letters to the Queen, which she would deliver personally. Of course, these were not really delivered and Jeanne forged replies to the cardinal, supposedly written by Marie Antoinette. She told de Rohan that the Queen wanted him to buy her a necklace made of 647 diamonds. He believed it and after Jeanne had staged a meeting with a look-alike, he was determined to get it. This particular necklace was so costly it was worth as much as a battle-ship. As soon as the cardinal had purchased it on behalf of the Queen, Jeanne convinced him that she would hand it over to the Queen but instead had her husband smuggle it to England to be sold.

When the jewellers saw that payment was not forthcoming they went straight to the Queen demanding their money. She of course had no idea what they were talking about and once she realised was horrified. She demanded that the cardinal stand trial. De Rohan was acquitted but Jeanne de la Motte was convicted. However, the French people were not convinced that Marie Antoinette had nothing to do with this and her reputation was seriously blemished from that point onwards.

Wednesday, 1 June 2005

In an Anglo-Saxon Church Eleven Hundred Years Ago

Anglo-Saxon church-goers had little in common with contemporary worshippers. A crowd of them would regularly assemble in the nave in order to witness God's 'judgement' of someone accused of evil. How did they do that you may ask. Well, they would bring the unfortunate person to the church while an iron rod was placed in the fire until red hot. When the priest decided the iron rod was ready, the accused man would have to pick it up and hold it in his hand. As if this was not bad enough he was required to carry the rod over a prescribed distance, usually nine paces. In the meantime his hand was being literally roasted, while the faithful observed in utter fascination. The screams and groans of this man contrasting strongly with the pious mutterings of the priest in the background. As soon as he had walked the nine paces, the man would drop the rod and his blistered, burnt hand would be immediately bandaged.

Three days after his ordeal, the accused would be taken back to the church. The bandage would have to be taken off and if the wounds were healing he was protected by God and therefore had done no evil, whereas if his hand had become infected he had clearly been up to no good and had to be punished (it was thought that God would only heal the pious).

With the almost primitive knowledge of medicine in those days, one can only imagine how many people must have been falsely accused, as the number of people whose hand got infected and did not heal must have been pretty high.