For Columbus Day

In The American Spectator, Armando Simón defends Christopher Columbus, claiming that he was not as bad as his current reputation holds. This does not excuse what Spanish colonialism became, of course, and the idea that “the founder was good, it’s just that the people who came after him messed things up” is a trope (i.e. the founder more than likely shares some of the blame). Still, Simón raises some good points:

There is not one single historical source in existence that substantiates any of the “crimes.” Not one. None!

Consult, not secondary sources written centuries later by individuals with a political agenda, but primary (i.e., contemporary) sources in the original Spanish: Los Cuatro Viajes del Almirante y su Testamento, and, Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias, both by Bartolomé de las Casas. De las Casas, as every schoolchild in the Caribbean and Spain knows, was The Apostle of the Indians, an indefatigable defender of the Indians who fulminated endlessly against the Spanish crimes on the indigenous people. More importantly, he chronicled the atrocities against the Indians, fearlessly naming the criminals. Not once does he mention Columbus as an evildoer. On the contrary, he documented the exact opposite, that Columbus repeatedly defended the Indians against Spanish depredations.

The third primary source is the biography of the explorer written by his son, Fernando. Should the reader cynically discount his son’s biography as whitewashed because his son somehow saw that 500 years later his father’s statues were going to be vandalized in a new country called the United States and he had to salvage his reputation, think instead that, considering the zeitgeist, Fernando could have easily portrayed his father as a great conqueror of satanic, evil savages who practiced cannibalism (after all, look at all the hagiographies written on Napoleon, who turned Europe into a charnel house). Significantly, Fernando also portrayed the natives in a benevolent light — and this was long before the syrupy “noble savage” mythos that we have been force-fed to this day. He was being faithful to facts.

Lastly, there is the Capitulations, the documents between the Spanish monarchy and the Admiral.

If Columbus had, indeed, committed the countless crimes that some people with their ignorance of history have attributed to him, if he was, indeed the monster that he has been portrayed, on a par with Attila the Hun, Josef Stalin, Genghis Khan, Pol Pot, I for one would be among those condemning him. But the historical facts are clear: the atrocities that have been heaped on him are nowhere to be found, except in the minds of his detractors. They are just not there.

Much more at the link – read the whole thing

The Battle of Lepanto

Adjunct instructor Tim Furnish remembers the Battle of Lepanto, fought 450 years ago:

On this date, 450 years ago, the combined naval forces of Europe’s Catholic states, the “Holy League,” saved Western civilization. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled not just the Middle East but large chunks of eastern Europe, wanted more territory and to extinguish the annoying Christian opposition from central and western Europe. To do so, Sultan Selim II sent a huge naval force to conquer Rome and capture or kill the Pope. Nearly 300 Ottoman warships headed west, from Turkish-ruled Greece.

The Ottomans had been on the offensive for two centuries. But it had mostly been by land. Since taking Constantinople, and finally wiping out the Byzantine Empire, in 1453. Serbia. Hungary. Crete. All fell before the Islamic Empire and its feared janissaries. Although the threat of Islam in the west had been quelled by the Reconquista, it seemed that Muhammad’s followers might well win coming from the opposite compass point.

The Ottomans were never quite the equal of the Europeans as mariners, but they had fashioned a formidable navy to go along with their powerful infantry and cavalry.

Europe was wracked at this time by the Reformation, which no doubt contributed to the Ottoman sense that they could win over a religiously-divided Europe.

Despite that handicap, the main Catholic powers — Spain and Venice, as well as the Papal states and others — negotiated a response to this latest Ottoman thrust. They parried with a huge naval force of their own, of 200 ships. Both sides used types of galleys. These were ships with both sails and oars — very much like those employed in Roman and Greek times. However, the Catholic and Muslim navies had two major differences. The latter used slaves as oarsmen, not free men. And the former had developed a larger type of galley, a galleass. While these comprised only a few of the Western naval force, they were instrumental in victory. As converted merchant ships, they carried 28 naval artillery guns each. This firepower would prove devastating to the Ottomans’ numerous, but smaller, ships.

Both sides also had infantry on their ships. But whereas the Turks were armed with bows, the Spanish soldiers in particular had arquebuses. These were slower to fire, as gunpowder weapons. But they had much greater penetrating power….

When the battle ended, the Ottomans had lost over 100 ships, and tens of thousands of men. The Holy League suffered only 17 ships sunk, and less than half the Turkish casualties. One doesn’t have to be Catholic to see an element of divine intervention in the Battle of Lepanto. Although prayer always seems to work better when coupled with superior weapons, tactics, and leadership. It’s a pity that this crucial battle is so little-taught today. The Ottomans were not done attacking Europe on land — they would besiege Vienna twice in the 17th century — but their myth of invulnerability was long gone after Lepanto.

More at the link

Ottoman Printing

Here is an interesting essay by Anton Howes on his Age of Invention blog, proposing a reason why printing by moveable type never really took off in the Ottoman Empire. It’s quite long, so I skip to the conclusion:

The principal evidence of Ottoman suppression of printing is overwhelmingly related to its use by non-Muslims. We have, of course, only some of the vaguest hints to go off. But I think a rough, albeit speculative picture is starting to come together. It appears that in the mid-sixteenth century Ottoman authorities might have been worried about the profanation of Islamic religious works by non-Muslims printing in Arabic script, so they prohibited the Jewish printers from doing so. Following the 1590s attempt of the Medici Press to sell them works in Arabic script that were secular, however, they became suspicious about the foreign Christians’ ultimate aims, blocking such books during wartime, and then during peacetime on the grounds that foreign, heathen printers would be benefiting at the expense of local Muslim scribes. This wariness then extended to the non-Arabic script presses of the empire, too, especially when foreign powers seemed to be behind the unrest. Thus, it was in response to the missionary or commercial agendas of Europeans, that Europeans learned of the justifications for not allowing the printing of Arabic script.

So it would appear that moveable type in the Ottoman Empire was like the fax machine in the Soviet Union! A followup post points out another drawback of printing in Arabic script, which has:

a similar number of letters to the various alphabets that were used in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But Arabic is a cursive script, with its letters connected into words using ligatures, and with very different characters for letters at the beginning, in the middle, and at the ends of words, as well as for letters that stand alone. This meant having to design, cast, and re-cast many more types. From the get-go, it meant that an Arabic-script printing press had a much higher capital cost. And it meant that the process of typesetting each page was significantly more time-consuming, resulting in higher running costs too (or, put another way, much higher capital costs for each book). The typical case of type used in Europe was only about 3 feet wide, with about 150 or so compartments. A typesetter could pick out the letters while more or less standing in place. One of the earliest Arabic-script printing presses in the Ottoman Empire, however, reportedly had a case of 18 feet, with some 900 compartments — six times larger, and probably even more cumbersome, requiring the poor typesetters to walk up and down, rummaging around for the types they needed for each page.

As I tell my students, the Chinese may have invented moveable type, but it’s much more useful with an alphabetic than an ideographic script, for which you need to know some 3000 characters before you’re barely literate, so the printer’s tray would have taken up an entire room, and with no standard means of organizing it. Looks like there was a slightly similar problem with Arabic.

New Blog by Anne Good

Dr. Anne Good, former chair of the history program at Reinhardt, is now assistant curator of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. The Bell is home to some 40,000 rare books, maps, and manuscripts that focus on the history and impact of trade and cultural exchange in the Early Modern Period. Due to pandemic, she is working remotely for now – but has started a blog entitled Contours of the Premodern World that focuses on items in the Bell’s collection. Check it out – and also the JFB’s Facebook page, which she also regularly updates.

The Hearts of Reformers

Wikipedia.

A well-known symbol of Lutheranism is the so-called Luther Rose, which features a black cross on a red heart at the center. It was devised for Luther in 1530 and features multivalent symbolism. Luther claimed that:

my seal is a symbol of my theology. The first should be a black cross in a heart, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. 

“I wonder what symbol Calvin used?” I mused to my wife at dinner last night. “Probably a tulip,” she replied with eminent good sense. TULIP, of course, is an acronym for the five points of Calvinist theology, viz:

Total depravity
Unconditional election
Limited atonement
Irresistible grace
Perseverance of the saints

The problem is that this acronym doesn’t work in French or Latin, the two languages that Calvin operated in. Plus, the tulip may not have been introduced into Europe before Calvin’s death in 1564. 

Instead, as it turns out, Calvin did not use a flower, but a heart, held in a hand, illustrating the motto “Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere,” that is, “My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” 

The Josh Link

I’m not sure who drew this but I found it at The Josh Link

Calvin University.

This seventeenth-century medal was struck in memory of Calvin, and the image can be found at the Calvin University (Grand Rapids) website

Calvin University.

Calvin University itself uses a version of the emblem and motto. 

The more you know! Personal emblems, especially if properly heraldic, ought to make a comeback.

That’s No Ordinary Rabbit

From Mental Floss (hat tip: Wanda Cronauer):

The Time Napoleon Was Attacked by Rabbits

History tells us that Napoleon’s most upsetting defeat came at Waterloo. Or it may have occurred eight years earlier, after the French emperor was attacked by a relentless horde of rabbits.

There are a couple versions of this story. Most agree it happened in July 1807, after Napoleon signed the Treaties of Tilsit (which ended the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia). Looking to celebrate, the emperor proposed a rabbit hunt, asking Chief of Staff Alexandre Berthier to make it happen.

Berthier arranged an outdoor luncheon, invited some of the military’s biggest brass, and collected a colony of rabbits. Some say Berthier took in hundreds of bunnies, while others claim he collected as many as 3000. Regardless, there were a lot of rabbits, and Berthier’s men caged them all along the fringes of a grassy field. When Napoleon started to prowl—accompanied by beaters and gun-bearers—the rabbits were released from their cages. The hunt was on.

But something strange happened. The rabbits didn’t scurry in fright. Instead, they bounded toward Napoleon and his men. Hundreds of fuzzy bunnies gunned it for the world’s most powerful man.

Napoleon’s party had a good laugh at first. But as the onslaught continued, their concern grew. The sea of long-ears was storming Napoleon quicker than revolutionaries had stormed the Bastille. The rabbits allegedly swarmed the emperor’s legs and started climbing up his jacket. Napoleon tried shooing them with his riding crop, as his men grabbed sticks and tried chasing them. The coachmen cracked their bullwhips to scare the siege. But it kept coming.

Napoleon retreated, fleeing to his carriage. But it didn’t stop. According to historian David Chandler, “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.” The flood of bunnies continued—some reportedly leapt into the carriage.

The attack ceased only as the coach rolled away. The man who was dominating Europe was no match for a battle with bunnies.

It was Berthier’s fault. Rather than trapping wild hares, his men had bought tame rabbits from local farmers. As a result, the rabbits didn’t see Napoleon as a fearsome hunter. They saw him as a waiter bringing out the day’s food. To them, the emperor was effectively a giant head of lettuce. 

I have been unable to verify this story but versions of it can be found across the Internet. I am currently reading Tim Blanning’s Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe, 1648-1815 (2006). One of the most interesting chapters contains a description of the practice of hunting, and how elaborate and central this practice was to the courts of Early Modern Europe. Apparently it was not entirely symbolic of the ancien régime but retained its appeal after the revolution, too – although I doubt that Louis XVI’s Grand Huntsman would have made such a rookie mistake with the rabbits.

Samuel Pepys and the Plague

From the Conversation, “Diary of Samuel Pepys shows how life under the bubonic plague mirrored today’s pandemic” (hat tip: William Campbell):

In early April, writer Jen Miller urged New York Times readers to start a coronavirus diary.

“Who knows,” she wrote, “maybe one day your diary will provide a valuable window into this period.”

During a different pandemic, one 17th-century British naval administrator named Samuel Pepys did just that. He fastidiously kept a diary from 1660 to 1669 – a period of time that included a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. Epidemics have always haunted humans, but rarely do we get such a detailed glimpse into one person’s life during a crisis from so long ago.

There were no Zoom meetings, drive-through testing or ventilators in 17th-century London. But Pepys’ diary reveals that there were some striking resemblances in how people responded to the pandemic.

For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.

The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”

Pepys continued to live his life normally until the beginning of June, when, for the first time, he saw houses “shut up” – the term his contemporaries used for quarantine – with his own eyes, “marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” After this, Pepys became increasingly troubled by the outbreak.

He soon observed corpses being taken to their burial in the streets, and a number of his acquaintances died, including his own physician.

By mid-August, he had drawn up his will, writing, “that I shall be in much better state of soul, I hope, if it should please the Lord to call me away this sickly time.” Later that month, he wrote of deserted streets; the pedestrians he encountered were “walking like people that had taken leave of the world.”

Read the whole thing

Defoe’s Plague Year

Heather Mallick in the Toronto Star (hat tip: Ron Good):

Defoe’s 1722 followup [to Robinson Crusoe] was A Journal of the Plague Year, an autofiction look-back to the plague that had struck England and elsewhere 50 years before. From our standpoint, it’s remarkable how Londoners in 1665 behaved very much as we are behaving now. It takes more than 355 years for people to change habits.

Reading A Journal this week, I was struck by the parallels between Defoe’s plague notes as he walked about the city and our own tales of the coronavirus lockdown.

Daniel Defoe adds up the daily numbers. “There died near 400 of the plague in the two parishes of St. Martin and St. Giles-in-the-Fields only, three died in the parish of Aldgate but four, in the parish of Whitechapel three.”

Defoe sees mad Twitter-like theories abound. “Some endeavours were used to suppress the printing of such books as terrified the people but the Government being unwilling to exasperate the people, who were, as I may say, all out of their wits already.”

Defoe frets over job losses, excoriates Big Landlord. “Maidservants especially, and menservants [asked] ‘Oh sir I for the Lord’s sake, what will become of me? Will my mistress keep me, or will she turn me off? Will she stay here, or will she go into the country … or leave me here to be starved and undone?’”

Defoe meets some bros. “There was a dreadful set of fellows that used their [tavern], and who, in the middle of all this horror, met there every night … so when the dead-cart came, they would make their impudent mocks and jeers at them, especially if they heard the poor people call upon God to have mercy upon them.”

Defoe encounters thoughtless Vancouver-type people. “They were not quite sick, had yet the distemper upon them, and who, by having an uninterrupted liberty to go about … gave the distemper to others, and spread the infection in a dreadful manner.”

More at the link

Dutch Masters

Enjoyed the “Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt” exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum this weekend. My personal favorite: Hendrick Avercamp (Dutch, 1585-1634), Winter Landscape near a Village (1610-15), illustrating a regular occurrence during the Little Ice Age, and a favorite Dutch pastime

I was also pleased to see a banner of the arms of Zeeland flying in the background.

Erased Females

A couple of recent news stories suggest that certain individual women in history had their achievements stolen by men.

1. Elizabeth Winkler in The Atlantic:

Doubts about whether William Shakespeare (who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died in 1616) really wrote the works attributed to him are almost as old as the writing itself. Alternative contenders—Francis Bacon; Christopher Marlowe; and Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, prominent among them—continue to have champions, whose fervor can sometimes border on fanaticism. In response, orthodox Shakespeare scholars have settled into dogmatism of their own. Even to dabble in authorship questions is considered a sign of bad faith, a blinkered failure to countenance genius in a glover’s son. The time had come, I felt, to tug at the blinkers of both camps and reconsider the authorship debate: Had anyone ever proposed that the creator of those extraordinary women might be a woman? Each of the male possibilities requires an elaborate theory to explain his use of another’s name. None of the candidates has succeeded in dethroning the man from Stratford. Yet a simple reason would explain a playwright’s need for a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female….

The prevailing view… has been that no women in Renaissance England wrote for the theater, because that was against the rules. Religious verse and translation were deemed suitable female literary pursuits; “closet dramas,” meant only for private reading, were acceptable. The stage was off-limits. Yet scholars have lately established that women were involved in the business of acting companies as patrons, shareholders, suppliers of costumes, and gatherers of entrance fees. What’s more, 80 percent of the plays printed in the 1580s were written anonymously, and that number didn’t fall below 50 percent until the early 1600s. At least one eminent Shakespeare scholar, Phyllis Rackin, of the University of Pennsylvania, challenges the blanket assumption that the commercial drama pouring forth in the period bore no trace of a female hand. So did Virginia Woolf, even as she sighed over the obstacles that would have confronted a female Shakespeare: “Undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned.”

Emilia Bassano [was] born in London in 1569 to a family of Venetian immigrants—musicians and instrument-makers who were likely Jewish—she was one of the first women in England to publish a volume of poetry (suitably religious yet startlingly feminist, arguing for women’s “Libertie” and against male oppression). Her existence was unearthed in 1973 by the Oxford historian A. L. Rowse, who speculated that she was Shakespeare’s mistress, the “dark lady” described in the sonnets. In Emilia, the playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm goes a step further: Her Shakespeare is a plagiarist who uses Bassano’s words for Emilia’s famous defense of women in Othello.

Could Bassano have contributed even more widely and directly? The idea felt like a feminist fantasy about the past—but then, stories about women’s lost and obscured achievements so often have a dreamlike quality, unveiling a history different from the one we’ve learned. Was I getting carried away, reinventing Shakespeare in the image of our age? Or was I seeing past gendered assumptions to the woman who—like Shakespeare’s heroines—had fashioned herself a clever disguise? Perhaps the time was finally ripe for us to see her.

More at the link.

2. From the Herald Sun (Melbourne):

Was King Tut a fraud? New evidence points to a female pharaoh who ruled before him

Why do so many of Pharoah Tutankhamun’s famous golden statues have breasts? Turns out, it’s not him. It’s his sisters. They ruled Egypt before him — and achieved everything the boy king is credited with. But they were written out of history — until now.

That’s one new theory that is beginning to emerge from fresh forensic analysis of the rich relics found bundled in the famous tomb found by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

Modern Egyptologists are revisiting the clues, reshaping the fragmentary puzzle of what exactly happened during one of history’s most tumultuous times….

[After Akhenaten’s death,] Princess Neferneferuaten took the throne, the professor says, with the teenage Meritaten adopting the ritual role of chief royal consort.

“It looks like after one year, Meritaten had herself crowned as pharaoh, as well,” she says.

It wasn’t without precedent. Or controversy.

Egypt had had female pharaohs before — Hatshepsut and Sobekneferu.

And Akhenaten had already done something radical: Among his revolutionary acts was to make his favourite queen, Nefertiti, a full equal in rank and status. Essentially, a co-pharaoh.

Their looted statues — one wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, the other of Lower Egypt — were later bundled among Tutankhamun’s possessions.

The bejewelled plate of the goddess Nut also found among Tut’s treasures indicates it was these child queens that had set about restoring the old religions and moving the capital back to Thebes. Not Tutankhamun, as is widely reported.

But the priests who cemented King Tut’s rule hated Akhenaten with a vengeance for having stripped away their gods, their wealth and their power. And they wold have been scandalised by any following co-female rule, Professor Angenot says.

More at the link. I am not endorsing either of these, but I’m not discounting them entirely; sometimes women really have been written out of history because men wanted it that way. However, it is always tempting to go too far in the opposite direction for similarly political reasons. Whom to believe? (Although I confess to being a Stratfordian myself; I found James Shapiro’s Contested Will to be convincing.)