The Death of Elisabeth of Wittelsbach and Bavaria, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia

Elisabeth was stabbed in the heart once with a sharp needle file. Due to her extremely tight corset, she had no idea she had been wounded and collapsed suddenly two hours later due to slow internal hemorrhaging.

Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 8:17 pm  Comments (2)  

The Battle of Žalgiris (Battle of Zielone Pole), July 15, 1410

Jogaila (Władysław II Jagiełło), Jan Žižka, and the Lipka Tatars defeat the  earnest, murderous Schwertbrüderorden, setting a limit to the advance of the German seriousness which has endured until the present day. The 600th anniversary of this battle is rapidly approaching, and you should all begin making your preparations for its commemoration now.

Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 9:00 pm  Comments (4)  

L’art pour l’art

Théophile Gautier

If this guy’s such a big aesthete, why doesn’t he spiff up a bit? Look at Wilde for example, responsible aesthetes dress the part. This guy gives aesthetes a bad name.

Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 2:41 am  Leave a Comment  

America: an alcoholic history

The Alcoholic Republic
W. J. Rorabaugh
Oxford 1979

Rorabaugh’s theory, reminiscent of the theory that civilization can be traced back to communal beer-drinking festivals,  is that the United States was founded on drunkenness, but that around 1830 the country sobered up, got religion, forgot about drunken republican brotherhood,  and devoted itself thereafter to property accumulation.

Rorabaugh has done his homework and tells us pretty much everything we want to know about the history of America’s drinking habits. During the early colonial period spirits were regarded as a healthful gift of God and drinking started at breakfast. During the the revolutionary and early republican periods communal bingeing became widespread, but after about 1830 or so, when the republican ideals had proven hard to maintain,  the norm became individualistic evangelical Christianity, sobriety, and self-improvement in the pursuit of wealth —  or else solo binge drinking.

For the first settlers west of the Appalachians, whiskey was the only cash crop and served as a form of currency in a cash-poor region. (Rorabaugh compares American frontier life in the early 19th century to that of the similar impoverished rural cultures in developing but still underdeveloped Sweden and Scotland). Most of the American groups especially noted for drunkenness are about what you’d expect  (laborers, sailors, Irish immigrants),  but few would have guessed that schoolteachers and ministers would be among them. It’s also surprising to find that the Primitive (Hardshell) Baptists forbade members to join  temperance societies.

Still later, when the existence of a permanent working class with little hope of rising any higher became evident, desperate forms of escapist drinking became most prevalent. The temperance movement rose as early as 1750, but only when it took a religious form around 1830 did it become effective. Drinking by immigrants and the lower classes was always regarded as more harmful than drinking by “real Americans”, and the prohibition movement tended also to be middle class and nativist.

The beverages of choice were fruit brandy, rum and hard cider in the beginning, whiskey and cider during the period of early independence, and finally whiskey and beer. Tea and wine were generally regarded as unpatriotic, and after a certain point, so was rum. During the early days milk and clean water  were hard to get and were even regarded as unhealthful, and few adults drank either if they could help it. The American taste was for distilled spirits mixed strong, and some early temperance advocates even promoted beer as a temperance drink. (But beer only became important relatively late, with the German immigration after 1850.)

Rorabaugh speculates that whiskey helped people endure a horrendous diet consisting almost entirely of pork and corn meal. Beyond that, “Americans had psychological needs that were met better  by alcohol than by food” (p. 122). American drinking culture, as distinguished from Italian drinking culture for example, helped men deal with their disappointments, anxiety, and high but probably  unattainable goals. He also notes that both abstinence and the characteristic alternation of abstinence and bingeing are conducive to a strong work ethic, contrasting both patterns to the use of opium in that respect.

Drunk or sober, students of American history  should all find  Rorabaugh’s book to  be of great interest.

[Links, further reading, and my  ancestor the frontier brewer are at “more”].


Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 6:11 pm  Comments (1)  

What in Jesus’ name did Bruegel think he was doing, wasting his time with “Prudence”?


This is what he was good at:

Fall of the Rebel Angels

Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 5:08 pm  Comments (3)  

Byzantine Anecdotes

Procopius, The Secret History, Penguin, 1966.

Like Suetonius, but even more so, Procopius’s Secret History gives us the National Enquirer version of history. The book (Historia Arcana in Latin) might just as well be called Anecdotes , from its actual Greek name Anekdota (′Aνέκδοτα). “Anekdota” originally just meant “Unpublished Writings”, a name chosen by an editor, but Procopius’s gossipy, scurrilous book eventually gave that word its new meaning. The book describes in lurid detail the 527-565 AD reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, giving special emphasis to the lewdness and cruelty of his wife and co-Emperor Theodora and her best friend and henchwoman Antonina.

There are plenty of anecdotes. A holy man is terrified by the demon-spawn Emperor. The emperor’s demon nature reveals itself to witnesses. Trained geese peck grains of wheat from the naked Empress-to-be’s aidoiôn (look it up). The Empress-to-be, a stripper and courtesan, goes to a party and pulls a train with all the guests (regretting, however, that she had only three usable holes). Street gangs dressed as Huns (early counterculturists) terrorize the streets under the Emperor’s protection. Hoodlums and con men are picked up on the street and promoted to powerful positions. The lovely daughters of the nobility are forced into marriages with low-class oafs. Inconvenient persons are chopped into pieces and thrown into the sea. Two of the most powerful men in the world show themselves to be henpecked. The tall, splendid, very attractive Gothic princess Amalsuentha (with her “extraordinarily masculine bearing”) is strangled in her bath. (more…)

Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 4:32 pm  Comments (2)  

God of Confusion

W.B. Kristensen once remarked that the supposition that the origin of a phenomenon is simpler and more easily understood than that which proceeds from it, is untenable.  Every origin is in itself already a complex phenomenon, sometimes of an even more mysterious nature than that which it is supposed to explain.

Seth, God of Confusion,

    H. Te Velde, Brill, 1977

Seth was the Egyptian trickster / fool god of disorder, confusion and separation, deviance and licentiousness,  deserts, borders, foreigners and their gods, drunkenness, thunder, war, nightmares, crocodiles, and death. He was Horus’s uncle, seducer, and wife (and by Horus, the mother of Thoth), but they were also enemies, and when young Horus reached his full growth he tore Seth’s balls off. At times two were a duality in yin-yang opposition, at other times Seth ceased his independent existence and was absorbed into his nephew, at still other times they were joined into a Horus-Seth unity, and in the end Seth became simply evil. (more…)

Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 3:55 am  Comments (1)  

Madame Nui’s Toad

Department chiefs  from the Industrial Bank of Japan’s headquarters would take the bullet train down from Tokyo to Osaka in order to attend a weekly ceremony presided over by the toad. On arriving at Nui’s house, the IBJ bankers would join the elite stockbrokers from Yamaichi Securities and other trading houses in a midnight vigil. First they would pat the head of the toad. Then they would recite prayers in front of a set of Buddhist statues in Nui’s garder. Finally Madame Nui would seat herself in front of the toad, go into a trance, and deliver the oracle — which stocks to buy and which to sell. The financial markets in Tokyo trembled at the verdict. At his peak in 1990, the toad controlled more than $10 billion in financial investments, making its owner the world’s largest individual stock investor.

Alex Kerr, Dogs and Demons,

Hill and Wang, 2001, p. 78

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 3:27 am  Comments (4)  

The Radish of Emperor Wu Zhao

“Perhaps the most interesting of her many auspicious omens was a radish of prodigious size, more than three feet in diameter, unearthed in the fields on the outskirts of Loyang and presented to her.”

Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor,

N. Harry Rothschild, Longman, 2008

Wu Zhao (a.k.a. Wu Zetian) was a very successful Emperor (not Empress) during one of China’s great ages, but she was also one of the most maligned and most misrepresented of them all. Rothchild does a pretty good job of sorting things out, and his book is highly recommended. Many of things that most surprise or shock us about her and her career were actually normal behavior for Chinese Emperors (if Unique and Lonely Ones can be said to have normal behaviors), but in some respects Emperor Wu Zhao was genuinely original. Her sponsorship of Fa Zang and his Hua Yan (Kegon) school of Buddhism deserves special notice; some call Fa Zang the greatest of all Buddhist philosophers.

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

From Scythia to Camelot

From Scythia to Camelot, Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, Routledge, 2000 (revised ed.)

Colarusso: Nart Sagas of the Caucasus, Princeton, 2002.

Bachrach: History of the Alans in the West, Minnesota, 1973.

Darko, E., “Influences Touraniennes Sur l’Evolution de l’Art Militaire des Grecs, des Romans, et des Byzantins”, Byzantion #10, 1935.

“The Secret History of the Mongols and Western Literature“, John Emerson

This book argues that many of the main themes of the Arthurian legend can be traced back to the myths of the Alans — Northern Iranian nomads whose cavalry units served in the late Roman military. This kind of thing is right down my alley, and I mentioned this book in an earlier piece without having read it yet. A strong case can be made that the equestrian military forms and equipage of the medieval European aristocracy can be traced back to Alanic antecedents from the early Dark Ages, and this book merely extends this case to the literary culture of chivalry.

The methodology is philological, pre-structuralist, and pre-postmodern. The easy way out would be to follow Levi-Strauss or Deleuze and read it as mere proliferation — just another version of the myth, no truer than any other and part of a long series beginning with the Breton poets, Wace, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Malory, et. al. and ending with T.H. White and Lerner and Loewe. (Alan Lerner, as it happens.)

But what Littleton and Malcor want to do is just the opposite: they’re saying that in actual fact, the Arthurian legends (which have always been set in the distant past) came into existence within the mixed Alano-Celto-Roman elites holding out in Britain and Brittany after 400 A.D. or so (at which time the legends referred back to a Roman soldier of two centuries earlier). Beyond that, they argue that those themes in the Briton-Breton legends which are shared with the Nart sagas of the Ossetes in the Caucasus (descendents of the Alans and of the Scythians) can ultimately be traced back to the pre-Roman steppe, rather than to Britain or Brittany.


Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 9:03 pm  Leave a Comment