Friday, 30 May 2014

Today's the Day


Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

May 30

A day of burning ambitions, it would seem. In 1416, Jerome of Prague was accused of heresy for criticising the bad behaviour of clergy and so, to show just how wrong he was, the Council of Constance (ecumenical clergy all) burned him at the stake. He made it into Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, they were all duly forgotten.

Fifteen years later, in 1431, it was 19-year-old Joan of Arc’s turn, this time at the hands of an English-dominated tribunal.
The story of the Maid of Orléans or La Pucelle is almost universally known: about how she heard voices telling her to support Charles VII, then uncrowned king of France; of her relief mission to the siege of Orléans, which was then lifted in nine days; of how she went into battle dressed as a man; of the victories that led to Charles being crowned; and of how the King was so grateful to her that he did absolutely nothing whatsoever to save her once she was captured by the Burgundians and then handed over to the English to be tried for heresy.
Less well known, perhaps, are some of the facts surrounding her trial. For a start off, even in those unenlightened days, heresy was only a capital crime for a repeat offence. And, when Joan first went into prison, she was wearing male or military clothing, which had an additional benefit in that it fastened together into one piece, thus making it hard to pull off and something of a deterrent to rape. Though she did later agree to adopt female garb, at which “a great English lord” promptly entered her cell and tried to take her by force. Either because she considered the masculine attire the safer option after this, or possibly because the guards had taken away her dress, leaving her nothing else to wear, she assumed the man clothing once again. This was labelled by the tribunal as a lapse into heresy, for which she was condemned to the stake. Thus making her one of the first people in history to be convicted on a technicality. She was literally “fitted up.” Joan of Arc was condemned and executed on the same day (as was Jerome of Prague), beatified in 1909 and then canonized in 1920.


On May 30 1536, Henry VIII married his third wife, Jane Seymour, which was mighty quick work on his part, seeing he’d had his second wife, Anne Boleyn, executed only eleven days earlier on the 19th. For adultery among other things, ironically enough, especially given that his own illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, was there to witness the beheading. Anne was another one to later make it into Foxe’s Martyrs, though Henry would have to wait over four centuries to be voted in at a modest number forty in the 2002 BBC poll of Great Britons, finishing below Eric Morecambe (32) and Guy Fawkes (30), and well short of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who was seventh. He did, however, beat Dickens and Boy George.


Jane Seymour, the favourite of Henry’s wives, was noted for her beautiful and elaborate needlework, with the result that, after her death, Henry was reported to be an “enthusiastic embroiderer.” Though, like many another head of state, of the truth mainly. Catherine of Aragon died on January 7 1536 and Anne on May 19, followed by Jane on October 24 1537 so, having lost so many queens in such a short time, perhaps it’s little wonder that Henry held back for three years before diving in again, only to find himself saddled with Anne of Cleves (the so-called Flanders Mare), though the marriage barely made it seven months to July 9 1540. Having learned nothing whatsoever from all this (nor had the Tudor womenfolk, it would seem, seeing being Henry’s queen was still considered well worth the risk), Henry, who must have loved the taste of wedding cake, then sprinted into marriage number five less than three weeks later (July 28), this time with Catherine Howard, when he was a gouty, irascible and obese forty nine and she was a lively and lascivious seventeen year old much given to losing her heart to dashing young men. For which she lost her head on February 13 1542. Which was a Friday, as it happens.

On May 30 1539 Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto discovered Florida, a peninsular of some 66,000 square miles, where he promptly set about hunting for gold, silver and, bizarrely enough, a passage to China, which was an odd place to be looking for that, thus making him not so much a Conquistador but more one of your prototype Ryanairioes. Presumably his luggage made landfall somewhere around Mexico. What he did find was the River Mississippi (a bit hard to miss really, seeing it’s seven miles wide at one point, making him something of a specialist in discovering things of whacking great sizes), an event later commemorated on a $500 bill.


Again on May 30 and still in America, Andrew Jackson killed Charles Dickinson (1806) in a duel after Dickinson had accused Jackson's wife of bigamy. Well, so the legend has it. In fact, the two had been feuding for some time, mainly over a wager on a horse race that got out of hand when Joseph Erwin (Dickinson’s father-in-law) had to pay an $800 forfeit when his horse went lame. Various associates spread various rumours, there were misunderstandings and eventually insults were exchanged, including when Dickinson used the Nashville Review to call Jackson a “worthless scoundrel, a poltroon and a coward.” To which Jackson responded by calling Dickinson a “worthless drunken blackguard,” and, even though Dickinson was a notorious duellist and expert shot, “demanding satisfaction.” Because duelling was illegal in Tennessee, the two met inches over the border in Kentucky and, because Dickinson was such a good shot (not to mention supremely confident, enough to have demonstrated his shooting skills along the way there), Jackson decided to let him have first shot, in the hope that he might rush it, the major flaw in the plan being he might not. In fact, he hit Jackson in the chest, though his lean frame, loose clothing and careful sideways stance meant he survived to take his own shot, though his gun stopped at half cock, so he drew back the hammer and aimed again. Dickinson bled to death, whilst Jackson went on to become the seventh President of the United States (1829-1837), for which he was commemorated on the $20 bill, despite his reputation being tarnished and his suffering with chronic pain ever after from the bullet, which could not be removed.


A good day for science and invention also, including: patent for the Rubber Fire Hose, James Boyd, 1821; patent for wireless telegraphy, Marlon Loomis, 1872; the invention of the brassiere, Ermine Cadolle, 1889 (though supportive devices had been sported since at least 2100 BC), Cadolle’s creation being dubbed “le Bien-Etre” or “Well Being,”; and then, of course, there was the patent on the ice-cream freezer, Nancy Johnson for a small hand-cranked one in 1843 (which established the basic method still used today) and William G. Young for a more industrial-scale one in 1848 but, though ice-cream has been around since 400 BC, it took a team of British scientists, including a youthful Margaret Thatcher, to discover a method of doubling the amount of air it contained, thereby reducing costs whilst giving the impression that you were getting a lot but were, in fact, getting nothing but an overpriced dollop of sweetened air. An idea that the Conservative Party would later develop into an entire policy initiative.


May 30 has proved popular with space scientists also, suggesting to us who are not of the astronomical bent that the earth must happen to be facing in the right direction for it on that day or some such, but in 1966 Surveyor 1 was launched on its journey to the moon, where it soft-landed on June 2, only three years before Neil Armstrong would become the first man to set foot there (June 20 1969).
In 1971, it was the turn of Mariner 9 as it headed off for destination Mars, becoming the first craft to orbit another planet when in arrived there on November 14, just a month in front of the Russians this time. Then, in 1986, it was Europe’s go when Ariane-2 was launched, though the third stage failed to ignite and it had to be destroyed, thus blazing the trail for a similarly ill-fated Beagle 2 in 2003. The problem with Beagle 2 may well have been missing the May 30 tradition and only launching on June 2, but some theorists have argued that it disappeared when it was shot down by a UFO. Well, you never know …

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