Friday, 7 August 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

August 7

This day, down the ages, seems to have had more than its share of soaking in blood, with a few witches thrown in for good measure but, like many another, it also involves a new Pope taking up the hot seat. Probably, because there have been so blessèd many of ‘em – two hundred and sixty six, if anyone’s counting, and that’s without all the antipopes – you could pick any old day and there would be one pontiff or another getting started or heading upstairs to meet the boss but, in this case, it’s Stephen III back in 768. He started off as a Benedictine monk but then Pope Zachary took a shine to him and he soon found himself in the rarefied air of high office, helping out a string of Popes until he finally came to be at the bedside of the dying Paul I. Which is when all the jockeying for position really got started and, if there’s anyone who knew how to play dirty, it’s your eighth century pontifical candidates.

Just around now, which’d be 28 June 767 and poor old Paul not yet cold, a couple of antipopes appeared on the scene, wanting to know how the Pope’s shoes would feel on their feet, both supported by their own highly bloodthirsty factions. Archest of this pair of jokers was Constantine II, who came complete with thuggish brother, Toto, and they hotfooted it round to the Basilica of the Apostles where the papal court and nobility were gathering to choose a successor. Rather inconveniently, however, Christophorus, the top bod in these matters, made them all swear an oath that this election would be done properly, with the smoke and all that caper, and even Toto had to submit to this, though the minute Christophorus turned his back, Toto elected his brother Pope anyway. There was still one tiny snag to overcome before they could rest on their papal laurels, and that was the fact that Constantine was still a layman and only bishops qualified for the job, so something had to be done pretty sharpish. Not being one to observe all the niceties, Toto (and armed gang) persuaded a bishop that ordaining Constantine a monk would save the hapless clergyman a good deal of agony, so he reluctantly agreed. Next day, 29 June, they were back, this time to have the new monk upgraded, first to subdeacon and then, immediately, to actual deacon, totally against canonical law. Sure enough, back they came once again, on 5 July, this time to finish the job and claim the papal hat and that, as far as they were concerned, was the whole Pope business sorted. Christophorus, on the other hand, had other ideas. He’d been pretty browned off by the entire palaver, especially as he’d quite fancied having Stephen as the main man, so he’d gone off and got himself a load of butchering sorts of his own, and now, on 10 April 768, he was back. Toto at once got a short, and very sharp, dose of his own medicine, at which yet another brother, Passivus, decided that perhaps a swift run for it was in order and promptly ankled it over to Constantine to warn him, the pair of them deciding that, rather than fleeing, they’d hide. Only it turned out that Constantine was even worse at hiding than he had been at poping and they were quickly discovered and thrown into clink.

At that point, another antipope, Philip, came crawling out of the woodwork, though it wasn’t long before he sloped quietly off too, especially once he’d seen that the election of Stephen had a certain “inevitability” about it. And, if Stephen was going to get the papacy back on an even keel and restore a bit of order down Rome way, he would have to ensure that the troublemakers were quietened down a bit. So he had Passivus blinded and then Bishop Theodore, Constantine’s second-in-command, got the same, plus his tongue cut out while they were at it. Undaunted by this, the good folk of Alatri revolted in support of Constantine, got defeated, and then the ringleaders were blinded and had their tongues ripped out. Perhaps, judging by recent form, they should’ve seen that one coming? On 6 August 768, Constantine was then summoned to appear, bricking it most likely, though all that happened was that they officially dethroned him. Well, canonically degraded him, actually. And what beasts they were to the poor wretch. First, his pallium was thrown at his feet, by a subdeacon, and then his papal shoes were cut clean off his feet – it doesn’t get much worse than that. Actually, it did. Stephen was consecrated as Pope next day and, by way of celebration, he had Constantine blinded. Then beaten up for a bit, then put on a horse, on a woman’s saddle (the brutes), with heavy weights attached to his feet, then drove him through the streets for people to mock him, finally leaving him lying in the gutter and forbidding anyone to aid him. Mind you, having a blinded, beaten antipope with stretched legs strewn about the place does nothing for a neighbourhood and folk soon started complaining, so they eventually had to cart him away. Even then, they weren’t quite through with the hapless Constantine. Having not much on hand in April 769, Stephen thought they might as well have him back again to explain what he thought he was playing at being made Pope when he was only a layman, to which the response was that he’d been forced to do it – the old “some big boys did it and ran away” argument, never much cop in a ticklish situation – but the next day he recanted and said that he’d only done what all Popes do at times like that. Naturally, Stephen would’ve had him blinded for impertinence, only they’d already done that, so he had to settle for having his tongue ripped out instead. And not a peep was heard of Constantine ever again.

Some people reckon that Stephen III should be made a saint, though the Holy See won’t wear it for some reason. After all, as far as Popes go, he really was a blinding one …

It has been suggested that this day in 1606 was the one which saw the first ever performance of The Tragedy of Macbeth (to give it its full billing) but, seeing they can’t decide when it was actually written, any nearer than “between 1599 and 1606,” there may be a touch of dubiety about this. Still, let’s not be sticklers, especially when it presents such an excellent opportunity to lever in some witches at this point, so we’ll just say that 7 August 1606 is as likely a candidate as any other day and quickly move on. The play is set in Scotland, where a general (that’d be Macbeth) suddenly finds himself being hallooed by a trio of cackling witches who, after a bit of banter about some sailor’s wife who apparently might’ve had chestnuts in her lap for some unknown reason, and then Banquo being ungallant enough to point out that (choppy fingers and skinny lips aside) they, “should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so,” the witches then inform Macbeth that he looks like the stuff kings are made of. Instead of asking himself what a bunch of beardy crones is doing hanging around the blasted heath at night, or even telling them to, “get hence, vile hags, afore ye feel the sharp edge of a trusty claymore up the gizzard,” as any normal Scottish general might do, he decides that, actually, they may have a point there, especially seeing all he’d have to do was to murder (aye, mudder!) King Duncan and the crown would be on his own scalp before teatime. Which is precisely what he does. And, as we all know, it’s pretty much downhill all the way in from there.

The witches, not content with leading Macbeth into a life of crime and debauchery, also get the blame when it comes to the old theatrical superstition that the play is cursed, this being why actors never mention the title out loud, referring to it instead as “the Scottish play.” They won’t even quote from it backstage in case that should bring bad luck – so how come it’s OK to recite it word for word on stage, then, in that case? – and this is all because the Bard is said to have used the spells of real witches in his text, thus antagonising the witches he’s supposed to have purloined them from, enough to make them curse the play for evermore. (And, if you believe that, we might as well tell you that it was an infinite number of monkeys armed with a typewriter, the ones who came up with the script in the first place, who started spreading all these rumours). There are stories of accidents and misfortunes besetting production runs but, in actual fact, there have been more deaths during performances of Hamlet than in Macbeth. Has anyone, we wonder, informed Health & Safety about this Shakespeare sort and his hazardous plays?

Not long later – 7 August 1620, to be exact – and it’s yet more witchcraft. Well, there was an awful lot of it about in those days, so you probably won’t be too surprised to hear that someone got themselves arrested and banged up this day, on charges of sorcery, no less, which could be fatal back then. You may be surprised to hear that it was actually Katharina Kepler getting her collar felt, she being the mother of Johannes Kepler, of course, the mathematician and father of modern astronomy, though, given that he dabbled (albeit halfheartedly) in astrology too, the authorities may have thought that this rather iffy Kepler household could stand a bit of rummaging through to see what turned up. As luck would have it, Lutherus Einhorn was swaggering about the place at the time, in his role as Vogt of Leonberg (it just means beak or beadle, the sort of self-important civic official we all despise) and he happened to fancy himself as something of a Witchfinder, so he gets an investigation going and before you can say “does anybody still believe in all this fatuous mumbo-jumbo about cats and broomsticks in this day and age,” he’s got fifteen women on trial, eventually executing eight of them, just to be on the safe side. Then Katharina finds herself being dragged in when one Ursula Reingold, a victim of Katharina’s, comes forward to state that the accused had made her sick with an evil brew. (No doubt tempting her with the words, “here you go, Ursula, have a swig of this evil brew, see what you think”). The fact that this Reingold woman happened to be in a bitter financial dispute with Kepler’s brother, Christoph, at the time does nothing to undermine her impartiality as a witness, especially as the good townsfolk were still champing at the bit for the chance to see another witch get her deserved comeuppance. Johannes wisely whipped her off to Linz in December 1616, just until the dust settled and it all blew over but, when she returned on 7 August 1620, she was promptly nicked and her feet didn’t touch the ground until the cell door had banged shut behind her. And there she stayed. For fourteen months. During which time she was subjected to territio verbalis, a graphic description of the torture awaiting her as a witch, as a means of frightening her into confessing but, even so, she never uttered a dicky bird. Eventually, thanks partly to the shift Johannes put in to get her defence sorted out – to be honest, the complete lack of even a scrap of evidence didn’t help the prosecution case – she was finally released in October 1621 but died the following year. During the trial, Johannes had been so entangled in all the legal stuff that he got distracted from his normal line of work and had to focus all his scientific attentions on one particular theory. Oddly enough, the published work that emerged from it was Harmonices Mundi, as he called it. That’s Harmony of the World. What a sarky old boffin he was, to be sure …

Taking a leap away from witchcraft, we now find that we’ve landed right up to the armpits in gore once again as we come to Anna Mansdotter, who this day became the last women to be executed in Sweden. In 1890. Which does seem a very long time ago, in terms of capital punishment. Mind you, the last man to get the chop (the Swedes favoured the axe) met his fate as late as 23 January 1910, though in his case it was at the guillotine, the only time they ever used it. Before we run away with the idea that the Swedes were radically-minded trendsetters in the matter of being civilised, up until 1866 they had been keener than Judge Jeffreys when it came to dishing out the death penalty, being bested only by Spain in numbers despatched. So they had something of a rethink and cut back a bit, but what really turned things round was when the executioner died in 1920, meaning they’d completely run out of them and then they found they couldn’t get anyone else to take the job on. Nothing for it but to pack it in and so they abolished it completely the following year. A tad too late for Anna Mansdotter, however, seeing she’d carried out the Yngsjö Murder in March 1889, with her own son as accomplice, the victim being the son’s wife and her daughter-in-law. It seems that when Anna’s husband died, she began to indulge in unseemly sexual practices with said son and, in order to put a stop to the gossip, she married him off to Hanna Johansdotter, only this Hanna sort found out what’d been going on, didn’t she? Ticklish situation. Though nothing that couldn’t be resolved by a swift clout with a heavy stick and a bit of strangulation to follow, especially if they left her lying so it looked like she’d fallen down stairs. Only the authorities weren’t buying it and they both were given appointments with the headsman. In the end, the son got off with life imprisonment for some reason (they let him out in 1913) but she, being the scarlet woman, finished up with her head in the basket on 7 August 1890.

 Don’t quite know what it is about 7 August but it certainly fires you girls up enough to get stuff done: we now come to a couple of feats that really do deserve our admiration and respect, and which put us blokes in the shade rather (come on, lads, do buck up and try and compete). The first of which is from 1909, when Alice Huyler Ramsey became the first woman to drive across the USA coast to coast, completing a three thousand eight hundred mile journey from New York to San Francisco. On her fifty nine day trek she was accompanied by two older sisters-in-law, Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood (both “conservative” and in their forties) and an “enthusiastic” sixteen year old friend, Hermine Jahns. They were all non-drivers. So they did the map-reading. (Please, gentlemen, no uncalled-for comments here). Alice hadn’t intentionally set out to become a feminist pioneer or anything like that and, in actual fact, it was us blokes that got the wheels moving, as it were, firstly when her husband heard about how a speeding car had scared her horse and he thought it’d be safer all round if he bunged the “little woman” in a car of her own. Only she took to it like … well … like a young lady to driving (she was twenty one), clocking up a boneshaking six thousand miles in just that summer before ending up doing a two hundred mile endurance trip. Which is when bloke number two turns up with his bright idea, not to mention the obligatory ulterior motive we men always like to keep handy. Which was all the cheap advertising he’d get if one of his company’s cars could be driven all the way across America, and a cherry on top if it happened to be a woman behind the wheel. So, on 9 June 1909, off set the intrepid party.

Now, all you chaps who simply couldn’t resist a bit of a snicker when map-reading was mentioned should be reminded at this point that this was 1909. Only a hundred and fifty two miles of the journey were on “paved roads” and, much of the time, there weren’t even roads, so they ended up navigating by telephone poles, following the ones with most wires on the basis that they were more likely to lead to a town. Which they did. Over the course of the drive, Alice changed eleven tyres, cleaned the spark plugs, repaired a broken brake pedal and slept in the car when it was stuck in mud. They ran into a manhunt for a killer, got bedbugs in a hotel, and then surrounded by Native Americans wielding bows and arrows. But finally, amid a great fanfare and huge crowds, they arrived safely in ‘Frisco on 7 August 1909. Alice would later drive across the country more than thirty times and was named Woman Motorist of the Century in 1960.

Not sitting back on any laurels, you women were at it again in 1987, when another American, Lynne Cox, swam from the USA to the Soviet Union. Which left Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev a bit redfaced, seeing they’d been attempting to bring the two nations together for some time now, and she’d managed it in just two hours and five minutes. Lynne was no stranger to this swimming lark, or to diplomatic relations either, while she was about it. In 1971, aged fourteen, she swam across the Catalina Channel from Seal Beach in California in twelve hours and thirty six minutes – that’s some twenty seven shark-filled miles. 1972 saw her doing the English Channel and shattering the women’s world record for it. And the men’s, as it goes, repeating the feat in 1973, shaving another twenty one minutes off her previous best. Then it was back to the Catalina sharks in 1974, breaking the women’s record for that too. And the men’s. Crikey, she could shift. Then it was the Cook Strait between North and South Islands of New Zealand by way of a change before embarking on her peace work, following her Cold War swim with one across the Beagle Channel between Argentine and Chile as a way to promote cooperation between the two countries, plus taking in the Spree River between the newly reunited German Republics to highlight that event. 1994, it was Egypt to Israel, then Israel to Jordan in an effort to try and bring those three together round the table. But it was this day in 1987 that she did the Bering Strait number, setting off from Little Diomede (USA) to Big Diomede (USSR), getting into the extremely nippy water on 7 August, swimming for a tad over two hours, then clambering out onto Russian soil, by which time it was somehow 8 August. She’d crossed the International Date Line, of course. And made history. Again. So did Reagan and Gorbachev in the end but, being blokes, they settled for sitting down to a good dinner and working towards world peace that way.


Stephen III: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A Papal Death Proclaimed: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Blinding of Samson: Rembrandt [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Macbeth Meeting the Witches: Henry Fuseli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Witch (“Magic Circle”): John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Johannes Kepler: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anna Mansdotter: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alice Huyler Ramsey: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lynne Cox in 2012: By TEDxMonterey [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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