Friday, 8 May 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

May 8

As days go, this wasn’t an especially good one for several of the early pontiffs, seeing today was when they “ended their reigns as Catholic Pope,” as some sites quaintly put it. What they mean is they all snuffed it. In 535, it was John II, who only got to be Pope on 2 January 533 and, even then, some of his cardinals got a bit sniffy about the whole thing, the trouble being that our Ionannes (as he would be in Latin) had actually been born as Mercurius, which is slightly ticklish when it comes to being Pope, if you happen to be named after a Roman pagan god. And not just any old god but one of the big ones, Mercury: patron of eloquence, messages and communication, and also of commerce and financial gain. Oh, and of trickery and thieves too, which is much the same thing anyway. While it is never explained quite why thieves should need a patron god of their own in the first place, the name Mercury probably derives from the Latin, merx, wares, as in merchant and commerce (and mercenary), which is hardly the thought you want uppermost in people’s minds in association with your particular papacy, is it? – “the great ecumenical issues may have been left unresolved during his residency in the Vatican but, by golly, he didn’t half know how to run a darn good giftshop.” So, all things considered, Mercurius decided on a change of name, to John, for being Pope under, the first one so to do, thereby setting up a tradition for the rest to follow. It took a fair old while to catch on as an idea, mind, though it’s just as well it did, otherwise we’d’ve ended up with ones called Pope Poppo (Damasus II), Pope Albino (John Paul I, who obviously had a bad feeling about the whole Poping idea, seeing he insisted on actually having The First as part of his regnal name and then he promptly pegged out thirty three days later) and even a Pope Lothario (Innocent III, which didn’t fool anyone).

What made things especially piquant for Mercurius whilst he was being Pope John II was that there happened to be an awful lot of simony going on around that time, which, as luck would have it, is (the sin of) buying or selling spiritual or Church benefits such as pardons and relics, the very sort of Indulgences Martin Luther would get so worked up about later, though in John II’s time it was thought of merely as dabbling in a spot of consumerism in order to turn a quick profit using a surefire methodology. No sin in that. Just a harmless bit of simony. Which sounds rather like it should mean “acting in a simonish fashion; behaving like a simon.” Which it does, the Simon in question (the questionable Simon) being Simon Magus, as we recall from Acts VIII, 9-24, a Samaritan (they weren’t all good guys) magician who felt the rough edge of St Peter’s tongue for trying to purchase apostolic powers. Meanwhile, the other Popes to hand in their zucchetti (that’d be the skullcap, from the diminutive of zuccha, pumpkin, which is what it resembles: half a pumpkin, right down to the stalk) this day were St Boniface IV in 615 (he converted the Pantheon into a Christian church, having dug up, it’s said, twenty eight cartloads of sacred bones from the Catacombs to place beneath the high altar, which may be what made the altar so high in the first place); and Pope Benedict II in 685, who didn’t even last a full year as pontiff, no thanks to Emperor Constantine IV, who kept him hanging about for months before finally letting him know he’d got the job.

Now, if you’re one of those people who think that gathering together the very worst kind of crackpots, rabid myopics and scurrilous, self-serving reprobates all under one roof and calling it a Parliament is a modern-day phenomenon that somehow oozed in with the Coalition, then you’d be about as wrong as a man who insists that Hilaire Belloc is not dead. It’s been par for the course for centuries. And, while we’re tarring everybody generously with the same brush, we’d best give a fresh coat to those slippery rascals of the monarchy who, throughout history, have tended to be arrogant, untrustworthy, greedy fellows, much given to telling the odd porky, if it gets them what they want. Which, as often as not, meant their hands on other people’s cash. Take Charles II, for instance, decidedly of the belief that kingship was his by Divine Right, even though, at the time in question (1660), he was actually an on-the-run son of an executed traitor and plain old Mr Stuart of downtown Brussels. When the English had finally realised that being lorded over by an endless line of joyless Cromwells was about as much fun as having your face slapped with a rotten kipper and then being asked to pay for the damage to the fish, Charlie starts to think this might be a good opportunity to get the old bot parked on the velvet and ermine cushions once more, where it belongs, and so he decides that he’s going to write a Declaration about what a good and faithful monarch he would make, how loyal he had always been to his people and how bygones would be bygones (except for the actual regicides), all that sort of tosh. So that’s what he sits down to do, fingers firmly crossed and tongue rammed into cheek, only for General Monck, then sort of caretaker boss of England, to rather pedantically point out that issuing it from the Spanish Netherlands might not go down too well at home, seeing the English had been at war with Spain since 1655. So much for loyalty, then, but Charles does (another) swift flit and thus manages to give the city of Breda its one and only moment of historical significance by signing his Declaration there on April 4 1660.

Meanwhile, Monck was busy getting together the Convention Parliament (basically one that summons itself because there’s no king around to do the job), which met for the first time on April 25 and then, on this day in 1660, they declared that not only was Charles II restored to the throne but that he’d also been monarch since the very moment his dad’s head was lopped off or, in other words, that the past nineteen years hadn’t actually happened. Typical shabby Parliamentarian trick, though they probably justified themselves by claiming something along the lines of “we cannot be held responsible for anything that may have occurred under a previous administration.” Even though they were arguing that there hadn’t actually been a previous administration, but let’s not split hairs, shall we? Charles made his triumphant return to London on 29 May, which also happened to be his birthday, so the day was promoted into a public holiday, commonly known as Oak Apple Day. Seems rather as if someone a tad disgruntled were having a sardonic dig at the Merry Monarch by coining that phrase: the Boscobel Oak, as we all remember, was the tree in which the then Prince of Wales had cowered after he’d been roundly thrashed at the Battle of Worcester and from where he legged it sharpish across the Channel to safety and exile at the first opportunity, moaning the whole time that his feet hurt because he’d been forced to wear peasants’ shoes, poor soul (like the ones his subjects endured all the time). Now, if you’re anything like us, you’ll be thinking it’s acorns as grow on oaks, not apples, but just hold your horses there a mo because this is where the irony comes in: there is such a thing as an oak apple, which is a big parasitic growth sometimes found in oak trees. A bit like fugitive Princes of Wales, you might say …

By now, Parliament was on something of a roll and so, on this day in 1661, the Cavalier Parliament (a name conveying both senses of the word) gathered for the first time. It was also known as the Pensionary Parliament on account of the number of cash awards it dished out to adherents of the king. Which, by lucky good hap, turned out to be mainly themselves. (Why does this sound so familiar?) Monck, for instance, ended up with a dukedom, seven thousand big ones a year and a one eighth share in what would later become both Carolinas in America. They decided that now Charles was rightfully back on the throne which, according to them, he’d never been off in the first place, well, he couldn’t have run up any debts (oh boy, he had, though), so they promptly paid ‘em all off to prove it. Then, in order to do the kinging business properly, he was going to be needing some cash on the hip, so they voted him an annuity. One point two million, in actual fact. Rather like a badger’s backside: not to be sniffed at.

The trouble was, however, it really was like a badger’s backside: they just didn’t seem able to lay their hands upon it. And then some bright spark leapt up onto his hind legs and pointed out that: “Look ye here, we’re a Parliament, aren’t we? Why don’t we do what all governments do in such a ticklish situation? When the idle rich are in need of a little extra folding to lash out on their nefarious pursuits and unspeakable mistresses, why not simply take it off the poor folks?” That was it! They could gather a tax per head, as it were. And then somebody else spoiled things rather by saying that that would make it a Poll Tax and surely to goodness nobody would ever be such a monumental damn fool to try that one ever again? Surely? So, in 1662, they did what was pretty much the same thing in effect, by introducing something entirely new: the Hearth Tax. Or Chimney Tax, as it actually was. The cunning part about it was that, whereas people tend to kind of disappear whenever the taxman shows his face, the chimney isn’t able to do such a strategic runner, though it did mean they had to go poking their noses into everyone’s houses in order to calculate how much they owed. And it was a shilling a go for each one, twice a year, which should bring in enough to keep even Charles on the Merry side. No getting out of it either by simply blocking up your chimney because then you got charged double. Of course, when the self-aggrandising Stuarts were finally chased out of power and William III (of Orange) swept to power by usurping the throne in the Glorious Revolution, he thought the whole thing entirely despicable. And promptly replaced it with the (exactly the same in all but name) Window Tax and we never looked back. Well, it’d be pretty hard to, once all your windows had been bricked up, wouldn’t it? But whatever next? A Bedroom Tax, perhaps? Perish the thought …
Not a good day for academia in 1794 down Paris way and for Antoine Lavoisier in especial. Which is a pity really, seeing things had been going rather swimmingly for him up until then. He had something of a sciencey bent and had done simply labloads of boffin stuff in his time, such as helping to construct the metric system, writing the first extensive list of the elements, predicting the existence of silicon and establishing that sulphur was an element. He discovered things as well, including the fact that, while matter may change shape or form, its mass remains the same. And he discovered hydrogen. And oxygen, of course, though there was very nearly some unpleasantness over that when Priestley claimed he was the one that had done the rooting out on that score so, in the end, they had no option but to settle the thing sensibly once and for all, with a best-of-three bout of arm-wrestling, though events would conspire against this outcome and, sadly, a definitive scientific conclusion to the debate was never to be achieved. Lavoisier was also known as the Father of Modern Chemistry, though this was largely down to his own innate abilities when it came to the matter of bigging himself up, being a shameless self-publicist and something of a purloiner of other chemists’ ideas.

The real trouble all started when some festering resentment boiled up over the way he went about funding all his chemical researches. Our Tony, it would seem, when he didn’t have his hooter dipped inside a test-tube, belonged to a clique known as the Ferme Générale, the members of which all got fabulously rich in next to no time and then lashed out all their excess dosh supporting French music, buying up paintings and sculpture, wearing all the latest fashions, and troughing anything and everything that had the least hint of luxury attached to it. None of which went down at all well with the wretched half-starved peasantry, who had been witnessing this kind of gluttony and gourmandising since the seventeenth century: fat toffs guzzling the lot whilst the workers were left to make do with the crumbs and bones of an inflicted austerity. The big beef about it all (well, more your scrag end, for the sake of social realism) was what these artisto oak apples had chosen to call themselves: the Ferme Générale, which translates into English as the Tax Farmers-General, a kind of privatised customs and excise collecting operation with posts handed out by the powers-that-be to their mates and muckers. (This was, however, eighteenth century France – nothing like that could ever happen here). Thanks to the most unfortunate circumstances and ill-timing, Lavoisier happened to be engaged in his cash-raking capers just at a time when the proletariat were deciding on taking a name for themselves, the sans-culottes, as it goes, a movement determined upon bringing about the complete downfall of the despised knee-breeches (not literally, mind) sported by the hated bourgeoisie and ensuring that the trouser came all the way to the ankle, just as god had intended. While they were about it, they also razed the Bastille to the last stone and then hit on a startlingly modern idea when someone coined the phrase: “Everyone who can work, should work,” only they extended it to its logical conclusion: “And all those who have been languishing around on their lardy ennobled backsides should be given a one-way ride to visit Madame Guillotine.” Which is precisely what happened next. So, on 8 May 1794, poor old Lavoisier (well, not so poor actually, though all his cash wasn’t going to help him here) found himself being tried, convicted and guillotined all on the same day.  

Ironically enough, even though he’d been at the tax-farming long and hard enough to make Charlie II and his Pensionary Pals well proud of his efforts, it wasn’t that that finally did for him. No, at the back of it all was that perisher, Marat who, despite the rather deceptive efforts of Jacques-Louis David in his portrait of him just after his mishap, was actually so ugly he made a warthog look comely. And he had a hideous skin disease that made him irritable and meant he had to spend the whole time in his bath, which is enough to leave anyone with a chip on their shoulder, wouldn’t you say? He hated the culottes (knee breeches) as fervently as any man with only half his wealth and so he decided he was going to get Lavoisier if it was the last thing he did. (It pretty much was, given that the chemist outlived the revolutionary by nearly a year). Marat accused him of … selling adulterated tobacco. Amazing, isn’t it? For years, Lavoisier had been thieving off the very poorest and downtrodden in the land in order to maintain a lifestyle of unbridled luxury and nobody turns a hair; the minute someone sniffs the air and asks, “has somebody been smoking?” and it’s a completely different matter. Same thing with James I: you’d think he’d be riled enough by the thought of Catesby, Fawkes and Gang having the temerity to assemble enough gunpowder to blow the uncouth monarch clean off his throne and back to the god he claimed had put him there, but what really got up his nose (nearly literally this time) was the fact that all the surviving plotters spent their trial puffing away at their pipes the whole time. You can see why they were so unanimously convicted and then sent to meet the fate they deserved.

In another sumptuous twist of irony, had it not been for David’s superb painting of him, not even an especially garrulous owl would have given two hoots about Marat, nor remember anything very much at all about him, come to that. Except perhaps, just perhaps, the fact that he spent most of his last three years in his bathtub. And that’s the funny thing: posterity has provided the most delicious denouement here because we know precisely what became of the bathtub, once it had rid itself of the hideous Jacobin. Marat’s grieving widow, well aware that her fickle husband had been “entertaining” a woman in his bathroom, lost no time in selling the copperbottomed article (the tub, as well you know) to a journalist neighbour, who then sold it on to a royalist (Marat must have been spinning under his willow tree at the thought), who left it to his daughter in his will, so she passed it on to a curé, who had an eye for the main chance and tried to sell it for cash to the Musée Carnavalet, though they blenched at the asking price, so he then tried his luck with Madame Tussaud's waxworks, who said they would pay the hundred thousand francs for it, only the curé’s acceptance somehow got lost in the post. Phineas Barnum then failed to get it and in the end the hapless clergyman had to let it go for a mere five grand, to the Musée Grévin, where it remains to this day.
Finally, as if Lavoisier hadn’t suffered enough already, a year and a half after his death he was let off by the French government (fat lot of good that was by then), sending his widow his private belongings and a note stating that he had been falsely convicted. Awfully sorry and all that caper, but these mistakes can happen, you know what bureaucracy’s like, Mrs L. To make amends, though not until a century later, they decided they’d best do right by the mistreated and maligned chemist, so they erected a statue of him to commemorate his achievements. Only it turns out that the sculptor hadn’t been able to copy Lavoisier’s head for it (most probably because it’d’ve been bunged into the basket with all the other ones when they hacked it from his shoulders) and so, hoping nobody would spot the deliberate error, he simply topped the statue off with a leftover one of the Marquis de Condorcet who, in another bizarre twist, had been due to go the same way as Lavoisier but managed to hang on to his own head (his real one, at least) by poisoning himself in his cell in the nick of time, so it seems only fair that Lavoisier got the spare one. Not that even that did him much good. The French melted down the statue during the Second World War. So let that be a lesson to us all: don’t go messing around with tobacco because it can prove harmful to your health …

[All views expressed herein remain entirely personal]

Mercury: Hendrik Goltzius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Peter with Simon Magus (Simon in black): By Creator:Avanzino Nucci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charles in Exile: Philippe de Champaigne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Oak Apple: Bob Embleton [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
George Monck (Workshop of Peter Lely): Workshop of Peter Lely [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Chimney Corner: Henry Mosler [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Lavoisier: Jacques-Louis David [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Marat: Joseph Boze [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Death of Marat (by David): Gioacchino Giuseppe Serangeli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sans-culottes: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lavoisier Engraving: By Louis Jean Desire Delaistre, after Boilly (Courtesy of Chemical Achievers) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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