Friday, 9 October 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

October 9

This day in 768 sees Charlemagne and his brother Carloman I crowned Kings of the Franks as joint rulers. Which was a kind of follow-on from their father, Pepin the Younger (aka, erroneously, Pippin the Short) who’d had co-command with his brother, Carloman, in a partnership that hadn’t worked out all that well and only ended when Carloman was forced into a monastery to have a long hard think about himself. Still, no reason not to give it another go. The Franks (who were actually Germans) weren’t ones for wasting time thinking up new names, especially when they already had the highly functional Pepin and Carloman to be going on with, though it does tend to make this era of History a tad confusing. Charlemagne was born around 742 which, rather awkwardly, precedes the marriage of his parents in 744, with the obvious unfortunate consequences, over which he and Carloman (who was born in wedlock and took every opportunity to point this out) would have some Oasis-like fraternal disagreements. Usually, if you happened to be Carloman anyway, based on the notion that you had to be legitimate to be King, which didn’t go down any too well with his brother, who was only too capable of living up to his misbegotten status. It could only end in tears. Which it did. When, in 771, Carloman mysteriously died. Of natural causes: “Severe Nosebleed to Blame, Claims King.” 

Just to prove he had nothing whatsoever to do with this highly convenient episode of epistaxis, Charlemagne named his second legitimate son Carloman in honour of his deceased sibling. Though, by 781, he decides he’s not quite so keen on that name after all and settles for something completely different. Pepin. Perfectly good name, he reckons. Even though he’s already got a son called Pepin, descriptively known as Pepin the Hunchback, the two Pepin boys being half-brothers. This came about because the despicable and entirely unreliable Charlemagne had, in 770, signed a treaty with Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria (probably known as Tassilo the Utterly Gullible) and married a Lombard princess, Desiderata (all in order to get his hands on a vast swathe of lands), impregnated the poor girl with his vile seed (to produce the elder Pepin of the hapless soubriquet) and then promptly left her for a thirteen year old Swabian called Hildegard. Pretty much par for the course where Charlemagne was concerned, seeing he had eighteen children with his ten wives and concubines. Pepin (the elder) rather got the hump when his father, around 781, started calling Pepin (the younger, Carloman as was) Pepin of Italy, in a move to disinherit the Desiderata offspring, so a damp squib of a revolt was hatched by the disgruntled Pepin (it never got off the ground), which ended with his cruel demise. As revenge, they tonsured him and sent him to a monastery. Thus sending out a clear message to any such like-minded conspirators: don’t mess with us or we’ll shave your hair off.

Charlemagne was, in fact, a hardened supporter of the papacy and a mustardkeen spreader of the Christian message. Having undermined the Lombards (chiefly by marrying into them), he swept them from power in Italy and then, for good measure, had a pop at the Muslims in Spain. But his best efforts he reserved for the beastly Saxons, who were proving thoroughly resilient to the idea of conversion, so much so that Charlemagne was forced to make them choose: become Christian or be slaughtered horribly. It seems they opted for the latter and, before you could say “the Saxons are revolting,” the Saxons were revolting. And then four and a half thousand of the blighters found themselves in captivity, at the mercy of Charlemagne. Who wasn’t especially noted for his clemency and, haircutting being too good for this little lot, he went in for the Massacre of Verden instead, butchering every one of them and leaving them in little doubt as to what Carolingian Christianity stood for. Charlemagne, for his part, argued that he was simply behaving like a “true King of Israel” and was just dishing out the same treatment as King David had to the Moabites when he slaughtered them. Though, strictly speaking, David only had two in every three killed and, fair dos, he chose his victims by using a piece of string as a measure, as one tends to in such situations. Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was handed a sainthood in the twelfth century, but you won’t find him amongst the twenty eight Charles’s listed in the Roman Martyrology now. Can’t think why not.

By 9 October 1000, there were only four hundred and eighty two years left before Columbus would make his spurious claim to have discovered America so, clearly, something had to be done sharpish. As it turns out, in Greenland at that very time, there just happened to be a fellow by the name of Leif Eriksson, who had been giving that very situation some serious mulling over. Leif was born around 978 or 980, possibly in Iceland, son of Erik the Red (Erik Thorvaldsson), who himself was son of Thorvaldr Ásvaldsson. As we can see, the Vikings – that’s what they all were – didn’t put a great deal of effort into their naming either, thus Leif became “Erik’s Lad” and even Erik the Red comes from the prosaic reason of his beard colour. Anyhow, granddad Thor somehow managed to get himself banished from Norway by the Vikings (just how unpalatable would you need to be for that?) and so he went off into exile in Iceland, taking young Erik with him, who then got himself banished from Iceland, apparently for the manslaughter of a chap called Eyiolf the Foul (you’d’ve thought they might’ve been a bit more grateful in that case) and so he went off to a place he named Greenland, where he established the first permanent settlement in 986. Wanderlust, if not exactly on a voluntary basis, was already in the blood when along came Leif, later to become known as Lucky Leif.

Keeping up the family tradition, Leif set off for Norway in 999 but ended up being blown off course and having to spend the entire summer in the Hebrides. Which wasn’t all that lucky. When he did finally make it to Norway, he was converted to Christianity and then tasked with the mission of converting the Greenlanders to that religion – they were Vikings, remember, more into your bloody heathen rites, so a big ask but off he went nonetheless. By now, he would undoubtedly have heard (and been miffed by) tales of a merchant called Bjarni Herjólfsson, who claimed to have sighted a land to the west of Greenland that shouldn’t’ve been there (neither should Bjarni – he too had been blown off course), thereby beating Leif to the first sighting of America. Ah yes, but he hadn’t actually set foot there, had he? As luck would have it, on his way to Christianizing the butchering pagans of Greenland, Leif just happened to be blown off course (it’s amazing that the Vikings achieved as much as they did, what with the wind playing such havoc with their plans and fetching them up any old where) and, what do you know, he’s landed in America. What a stroke of luck! He’s not only avoided having to tell a bunch of bloodthirsty heathens about what went on a thousand years ago and what good news that all is, but he’s also going to go down in History for being the first man to reach America, on 9 October 1000. What he discovered there were “self-sown wheatfields and grapevines,” with more grapes than you could point a spathae at and so, naturally enough, he decided to name the place Vinland and lost no time in loading up his boat with a cargo of the berries (it seems, as the botanists will confirm, that grapes are berries – defined as being a fruit produced from the ovary of a single flower in which the outer layer develops into an edible fleshy portion, the pericarp). Not that Leif was at all bothered about such niceties. However, just as his thoughts were turning towards winemaking activities to come, he then made his second discovery there: a pair of bedraggled castaways. From Iceland. Which then made Leif the Third Man to Set Foot in America, which isn’t quite so impressive. Or all that lucky really. Still, he agreed to rescue them, just so long as they said nothing about the incident and simply let the world go on thinking he was the first man on American soil. Which he still is. If you don’t count the indigenous population, of course.

Incidentally, there may be one or two of the more nitpicking variety out there amongst you who might’ve noticed a certain vagueness about some facts along the way – such as “born around 978 or 980, possibly in Iceland” – and are now wondering how it is that we can pin down the date of Leif’s landing as accurately as 9 October. The answer to that is as simple as it is unimpeachable: this day was the one on which the first organised party of Norwegian immigrants landed in New York. In 1825. Besides which, 9 October in America is Leif Eriksson Day, so you can’t argue with that, can you? So, why was he called Lucky Leif when he was always being blown off course, given rotten jobs to do and didn’t discover America or set the first foot on it? Because Robert Calvert (of Hawkwind fame) would, some nine hundred and seventy five years later, record an entire album – Lucky Leif and the Longships – about the saga, which is pretty lucky in anybody’s book, we’d’ve thought.

Not a particularly good day in 1582, this one, for any of the good folk anywhere in Italy, Poland, Portugal or Spain. Nor either an especially bad one, come to that. In fact, nothing happened at all. Thanks to the implementation of the Gregorian calendar, they simply didn’t have a 9 October.

This day in 1604 and it’s a supernova, which would be called, would you believe, Supernova 1604 (it seems that the world would have to wait for inventive naming to really come into its own until Bob Geldof became a father), which is still the most recent one to have been observed with the naked eye in the Milky Way. That’s probably because it occurred no farther away than six kiloparsecs, which, for all the non-boffins amongst us, is about twenty thousand light years from Earth or a bikeride you’d probably want to pack sandwiches for. Just for the record, a parsec is equal to about 3.26 light-years (nineteen trillion miles) and a kiloparsec, as you may have guessed, is a thousand of ‘em. The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is around 1.3 parsecs from the Sun (you would’ve thought they’d’ve used that distance as nicely convenient for their parsec but, no, they had to get into all manner of ticklish calculations before they came up with their version) and the stars you can see in the night sky are all closer than five hundred parsecs. Back with our Supernova 1604, which was visible during the day for about three weeks, that was also known as Kepler’s Supernova, after the seventeenth century German astronomer. Not that he was the first to sight it (you don’t really need to do that, as we’ve seen with Leif Eriksson) but he did track it for an entire year and wrote a book about it, catchily titled, On the New Star in Ophiuchus's Foot, a big hit back in 1606. As far as we know, no songs have been penned about Supernova 1604 but there is at least one about Johannes Kepler, which kind of makes all his stargazing efforts worthwhile. And proves that there is a rhyme for perihelion.

This day in 1701 and the Collegiate School of Connecticut is chartered in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. It seems that the General Court there spotted a need for an institution to train up clergymen and sundry Christian word-spreaders and so ten worthy Congregationalist ministers got together to act as founders of the college. This group is now known as – you’ll never guess – The Founders. The school would move first to Wethersfield and then, in 1716, to its current home in New Haven. Colleges, in those days, might have been run by ecclesiastically-minded sorts but they weren’t above a bit of fighting amongst themselves, when push came to shove. The sixth president of Havard, one Increase Mather (nice naming job there, Ma and Pa Mather) was getting a tad fed up with his own institute’s lax attitude in religious matters and so he started championing the Collegiate School instead, in the hope of turning it Puritan. Increase would then go on to commit the highly un-Puritan sin of fornication, which resulted in him siring a son: not to be outdone by his parents, he called the boy Cotton.

This Cotton Mather would turn out to be every bit as Puritanical as his father and thus opposed to all forms of pleasure whatsoever, at the same time holding a rigid set of beliefs that denied the transubstantiation and pooh-poohed priestly vestments but did insist doggedly that there was such a thing as witchcraft and witches, no doubt about it. And he could prove it. Which he did to great effect during the Salem Witch Trials that saw twenty witches get their come-uppance at the end of a rope and which made Connecticut a far better place for the smugly pietistic to strut around in their sanctimonious self-righteousness. Busy man though he obviously was, Cotton Mather still found time to help the Collegiate School out by button-holing a successful businessman, son of one of the original pioneers, to see if he could get him to part with a bit of cash to help the school out. This was Elihu Yale but, rather than corrupt the Pilgrim Fathers with the temptations of Mammon, instead of cash he gave them nine bales of goods, which sounds a bit curmudgeonly but did turn out to be worth over £560. Cotton Mather thanked him profusely, with the promise that he’d get his reward in heaven but, when he perceived it was a hard-bitten capitalist merchant he was dealing with, he thought what the hell, how about we name the school after you? So that’s what they did. Though it wasn’t until an act of 1887 that it gained its shorter name of today: Yale University.

Yale University Library holds over fifteen million books, though that’s still only the third biggest university collection in America: being as it is Third Best, they might’ve had the decency to call it the Leif Eriksonnian, don’t you think? Still, Yale boasts a highly impressive list of alumni, including Presidents Ford, Bush, Clinton and Bush Jr, plus John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Gary Hart and Pat Robertson. Then there’re Paul Newman, Henry Winkler, Vincent Price, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Jodie Foster, Benjamin Spock, Norman Foster and Richard Serra, to name but a few. Oh, and let’s not forget Cole Porter, which brings us to the inevitable song that this day seems to require: he penned the Yale Fight Song (something to do with what our American cousins are happy to refer to as “football,” apparently), which glories in the line: “Bulldog, bulldog, bow wow wow!” Not perhaps his finest lyric but still going strong today. We should also mention Nathan Hale, who you may not remember at all, apart from one immortal line he is supposed to have spoken during the American Revolutionary War. We British got a hold of him and condemned him for his spying activities and, as he stood below the rope, he uttered these defiant words: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Stirring stuff, enough to have him made State Hero of Connecticut but, alas, possibly with a hint of Yale self-hype in there amongst it.

We now discover that we haven’t left time to even mention this day in 1855, when Joshua Stoddard patented the first calliope and, if you’re anything like us, you’ll be wondering Who He and what’s a calliope when it’s at home blasting the wax clean out of your lugholes? The first thing to establish is that the word has four syllables – Kah-lye-o-pee – and is pretty much Greek for beautiful voice, which is an outright lie. Stoddard was a noted apiarist and, when he wasn’t tinkering with bees, he thought he might as well invent a steam piano to replace the bells in churches. There were several snags to his plan, including the fact that it’s notoriously difficult to tune (and, with all that steam about, apt to go out of tune very quickly) and, once you have tuned the blighter, almost no variation in tone or volume so all you can manage by way of expression is timing and duration of notes. It is also unbelievably loud, so much so that the thing could be heard for five miles and so he ended up being banned from “playing” it within earshot of his home town of Worcester (Massachusetts). The instrument wasn’t entirely a dead loss, however, as Bruce Springsteen would make mention of one in the song Blinded by the Light.

Whisking swiftly past (mainly on the grounds that, as far as we know, they haven’t had songs written about them or gotten into any kind of naming difficulties) the opening of the Washington Monument (1888), St Paul’s being hit by a bomb (1940) and the first electric blanket sold (1946), we finally arrive at this day 1967, not a good one for Dr Ernesto Guevara. He’d been captured by the CIA on 8 October and the following day they decided to finish the job. Guevara, despite suffering crippling bouts of acute asthma, excelled as an athlete, especially in rugby union and cycling, and was also pretty nifty at chess. He read widely and avidly, authors such as Faulkner, Keats, Whitman, Kipling, Marx, Camus, Kafka and Satre, to name but a mere few. A CIA report of 1958 begrudgingly described him as “quite well read” and also “fairly intellectual” before adding, “for a Latino.” To be strictly fair, it was actually the Bolivians that did the dirty on him, once they’d caught him stirring up a revolutionary hornets’ nest in their back yard, and President Barrientos who issued the order for his execution, to save any possible awkwardness putting him on trial might involve, and with the aside that they should make it look like he’d been killed in a firefight. Mario Terán, a drunkard army sergeant, actually volunteered for the job. He shot him with a semi-automatic weapon. Nine times. In the legs and arms mainly, before finally hitting him in the throat (well, you try keeping a steady aim when you’ve had a drop or two). Then they cut off his hands and nicked his watch – despite the fact that he was such a staunch anti-capitalist, this turned out to be a Rolex.

So, finally, we’re back at names again. Guevara’s was actually Ernie, the Che being a nickname that means something along the lines of mate, boy or even dude. As a youth, however, he had been dubbed the somewhat less flattering Chancho, meaning pig, because of his appalling bathing habits and, all through his life, people would comment on his exuberant whiffiness, though rather less so, once he had the power to execute them on a whim. Which he often did, personally. He was also highly reluctant to change his shirt more than once a week, which is ironic really, seeing his iconic image would end up on so very many of them, even to this day.

Charlemagne: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tonsure: Carlo Crivelli (circa 1435–circa 1495) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charlemagne and the Pope: By Antoine Vérard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Leif Eriksson: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Leif Eriksson Discovers America: Christian Krohg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bob Calvert: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Kepler Drawing of SN 1604: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cotton Mather: By Peter Pelham, artist ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Testing a Witch: By Thompkins H. Matteson, painter (Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nathan Hale’s Execution: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bruce Springsteen: By Bill Ebbesen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Young Che: By His Father (Museo Che Guevara) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Che Image: By Alberto Korda (Museo Che Guevara, Havana Cuba) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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