Friday, 1 August 2014

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

August 1

Plenty of events for this day throughout history but, for some reason, most of them in the form of conflict. Starting in 30 BC, when Octavian entered Alexandria, thus bringing Egypt into the Roman Empire. Well, we say Octavian, though he was named Gaius Octavius when he was born in 63 BC and pretty much stuck with that until his “posthumous adoption” by Julius Caesar in 44 BC (if you’re wondering how JC managed that from beyond the grave, he did it in his will), when Octavius then became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, quickly dropping the Octavianus so that people could refer to him simply by the cognominal (and forelock-tugging) Caesar. Still not content with that though, he thought that Divi Filius (Son of the Divine) would sound pretty impressive on the team sheet, making him now Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius, but, even then, it still needed a little more work on it, the Gaius and Julius being far too friendly and overfamiliar, so he then settled on the straightforward Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (basically Emperor Ruler, August Son of the Divine), so everyone would know where they stood (well, knelt). To be fair, it was the Senate that voted him this last title (the bunch of spineless toadies) following his victory in Egypt, though the historians were later able to redress the balance by referring to him as plain old Augustus.

Even his entry into Egypt was less about landgrabbing than giving the rebellious Mark Antony and Cleopatra a bit of a bloody nose, finally running them to ground in Alexandria. The routed Antony, having been told that Cleopatra was dead, then fell on his sword (the blade in the gut routine, that is, not the version employed by useless bankers and executives, who “fall on their swords” by walking swiftly out the door with armloads of cash). Sadly, however, he managed to botch this too and the bloodflow stopped, at which point the notdead Cleopatra sent for him but, instead of opening the door, she threw down ropes for him, so he was duly trussed up (like the apocryphal kipper, one assumes) and then hauled windowward, which just about finished him off. On seeing him, Cleopatra tore off her clothes, raved and ranted, beat her breast and indulged in a spot of self-mutilation. Antony told her to calm down (possibly not the best advice in the situation), drank a glass of wine and then promptly died.

Cleopatra famously died from the bite of an asp (or from two asps, or from a toxic ointment, or from drinking poison, or from being killed by Augustus), generally believed to have been on her arm, though it makes for a better story (one even Shakespeare went in for), and certainly a more eye-catching Victorian painting, if it is supposed to be on the breast, as this obliges the handmaidens who were present there too to be depicted completely topless also, for the sake of historical accuracy.

On this day in 527, Justinian I was crowned as ruler of the Byzantine Empire, another Roman who indulged in the name game, though not quite so flamboyantly as Augustus, being known as Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus Augustus (you wouldn’t want to have to sew the name tags in his togas, would you?) or, more commonly, as Justinian the Great, and even St Justinian to his mates in the Eastern Orthodox Church. He has also been called “The Last Roman” because of his (only partially successful) efforts to reconquer lost parts of the Roman Empire and because he may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. He did manage to outdo Augustus in the end, by getting a plague named after himself, the Plague of Justinian (541-542), which he himself contracted. But survived.

In 1086, the results of the Domesday inquiry were presented to William the Conqueror, though the date is very much disputed and it wasn’t called Domesday until the late twelfth century, being known as the Book or Roll of Winchester, which was then the capital, being where the cash was kept. Commissioned in December 1085, the first draft was completed in August 1086 and contained records for 13,418 settlements, a monumental effort produced at staggering speed, and thought to be so authoritative that it is still used today in some cases at law. This despite the fact that great swathes have been missed out altogether, including Westmorland and Cumberland, Northumberland, the County Palatine of Durham (the bishop had the tax rights), London and Winchester (no tax at all) and “some other towns and counties.”  And then there was the fact that they were using Roman numerals for the maths, about as surefire a method of guaranteeing mistakes as could have been invented. If you don’t believe it, try dividing MCLXIII by XIX, and bear in mind they had no decimal point in those days, France being the first country to go metric, also on August 1, as it happens, in 1793. The answer is LXXXII and a bit, if you’re struggling – or do we mean just over XVIIIC? Who knows? Who cares? Certainly not the Normans, who took the Iain Duncan Smith approach of “not very accurate, not at all reliable, full of errors, but delivered on time, within budget and something that the previous administration conspicuously failed to achieve.”

In 1485, Henry Tudor set sail for England to seize the crown. The Tudor comes from his grandfather, Owen Tudor, whose Welsh name followed very much the trend of some of his Roman predecessors, being Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwr, Tewdwr being basically Theodore, thus making the Tudors the “Teddies,” though none of them turned out anywhere near that cuddly. This one, Henry VII, defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field on August 22 at the end of the Wars of the Roses. Which weren’t called that until Walter Scott coined the term in Anne of Geierstein as late as 1829, and he nicked the idea from Henry VI Part 1, where noblemen pick red or white roses to show whether they are Lancastrians or Yorkists, the play being by Shakespeare, of course, a man as unafraid of distorting history as an Elizabethan version of Mel Gibson. Rather than roses, Richard III’s device at Bosworth was his White Boar and Henry’s the (Welsh) Red Dragon, though the whole battlebadge idea hadn’t been properly thought through: at the Battle of Barnet (1471), Edward IV’s (Yorkist) Sun in Splendour looked remarkably similar to the Earl of Oxford’s (Lancastrian) Streaming Star, leading to the inevitable misunderstanding, an early incident of friendly fire, the Lancastrians fighting amongst themselves and thus to them losing the entire Wars of the Roses, a crucial incident in history but one which Shakespeare neglects to mention at all.

This day in 1714, Queen Anne, fondly known as Brandy Nan (though not to her face), died at the age of forty eight. As it goes, her face was plain and blotchy but she did have an “attractive speaking voice,” which is one of those comments, along with “nice hair” or “nice eyes” that we chaps learn to avoid at all costs from a very early age, being the compliment equivalent of “the cheque’s in the post.” Anne’s was the last of the six Stuart reigns, the Stuarts having taken over from the Tudors after Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII, produced three children (Edward, Mary and Elizabeth), all of whom reigned but died without issue, leaving the crown to the son of Elizabeth’s hated (and executed for it) rival, Mary Queen of Scots, a child fathered by the drunkard syphilitic Darnley, who murdered his wife’s secretary before himself being blown up and stabbed to death by Mary’s second husband, the rapist Bothwell, that child being James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England) who, thanks to all the inbreeding in royal circles, had an oversized tongue and so tended to slobber and dribble rather unappealingly. The Stuarts had a bizarre and unshakeable faith in the “Divine Right of Kings,” as if they were handpicked by God, which is odd, seeing what happened to them: the drooling James I was the Gunpowder Plot king; his son Charles I got beheaded; his son, Charles II was the Merry Monarch who achieved nothing bar a litter of at least twelve illegitimate children but no heir; his brother, the Catholic James II was usurped, by his own daughters amongst others; who were Mary (married William of Orange) and finally Anne, who died without issue. Though she was pregnant no less than eighteen times, only five surviving birth and none childhood, meaning that, in twenty five years married, she spent fully thirteen and a half of them pregnant.

The very last of the Stuarts was the Young Pretender, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, that gallant hero who abandoned his troops to massacre at Culloden so he could get rowed over the sea to Skye. His name (very much in thematic keeping) was actually Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, so you wouldn’t want to be the one making the announcements when he turned up at a do, would you?

 The same day that Anne quit this mortal coil saw Georg Ludwig, Prince-Elector of Hanover ascend to the British throne at the age of 54, this despite the fact that there were at least fifty other claimants closer to the throne than he was. Though they were all Catholics. In cash terms, he was very well endowed but, sadly, not when it came to intellect, being described as “an honest dullard” and “a blockhead.” His money he secured by marrying his first cousin, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, in 1682 (don’t say anything, but she was rather beneath his status, though she was loaded), whom he never much liked, preferring the company of his mistress, Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg. Sophia, by way of revenge, had her own romance with a Swedish count, Philip Christoph von K√∂nigsmarck, but they were discovered: Georg had him hacked to pieces, then locked his (by now ex-) wife up until she died over thirty years later. He didn’t arrive in England until 18 September 1714, blaming the weather for his delay (he hated England and especially the English) and with the longwindedly entitled mistress in tow (also known as “the Maypole,” being tall and scrawny), plus a spare, Sophia von Kielmansegg (“the Elephant”), actually his illegitimate half-sister, though the royal houses of Europe preferred to keep things in the family in those days. Georg was crowned on 20 October, thus becoming George I, giving us for our monarch a cretinous Hanoverian who indulged in incest and philandering, wife-torture and brutal murder. But at least he wasn’t a Catholic.

In 1774, academia at last got a look in, with Joseph Priestly discovering oxygen, though he wanted to call it "dephlogisticated air" (from the Greek for flame), followed in hot pursuit (well, in 1785) by Caroline Herschel becoming the first woman to discover a comet. She was the sister of Sir William Herschel, of course, and they too were born in the Electorate of Hanover, though there is absolutely no suggestion that they took after their infamous compatriot, Georg Ludwig, in any way whatsoever.

1 August 1798 sees the French fleet of Napoleon routed at Aboukir Bay, Egypt, in the Battle of the Nile, the British assault being masterminded by one of the country’s greatest ever heroes, Admiral Horatio Nelson. Though, in all honesty, he was short, sickly and weedy, and he was prone to severe bouts of seasickness and to losing various parts of his body every time he got into battle. Even today, a cricket score of 111 is known as a “Nelson” because the good admiral only had one eye, one arm and one … well, just don’t whistle Colonel Bogey if he happens to be within earshot. As ever, during the Battle of the Nile, the valiant Nelson was in the thick of things and, around eight o’clock, he was on deck when a piece of French shot hit him in the forehead. Blinded and half-stunned, with a flap of torn skin obscuring his good eye, he fell, crying out, "I am killed. Remember me to my wife." Mind you, when they carted him below deck, the surgeon took one look at the wound and pronounced it to be non-threatening, an early naval way of saying, “Pull yourself together, man, and don’t be such a big girl’s blouse.” Still, the injury did cost him his sight in that eye but would later allow him to crack the infamous joke of the Battle of Copenhagen when he put his telescope to it, saying, “I see no ships” (though it was actually a signal to “leave off firing” that he was refusing to see). The victorious fleet sailed from the Nile into enthusiastic celebrations in Naples, where Nelson was personally greeted by William Hamilton, who invited him to stay at his house. Little could he have suspected. Though the fact that his wife called her daughter Horatia may have given him a clue later on.

The last word must go to the wonderfully denominated Henry Drushel Perky and to his less-impressively entitled buddy, William H. Ford, who together received a patent in 1893 for a "Machine for the Preparation of Cereals for Food." Perky’s original intention was to sell the machines but he soon discovered that the biscuits produced were far more popular and so, by that autumn, he was operating a bakery in Denver to make the biscuits, a restaurant to serve them and a fleet of horse-drawn wagons to sell them door to door. An utterly astounding success story, especially when you consider that not only were the biscuits (a loose term, as you’ll see) none other than Shredded Wheat but that the two men had actually been able to construct a machine to extract every last molecule of flavour and moisture from the hapless wheat and then sell it on to an unsuspecting public. He wasn’t called Perky for nothing.
This was also the day in 1914 that World War One broke out but, for our purposes, that doesn’t count because in England it was a Bank Holiday weekend, so we couldn’t join in until the Tuesday morning …

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