Sunday, 21 December 2014


Kids partying while parents are away isn’t a modern phenomenon. It happened in Basel, 1536. Except then it was serious business for a young woman to lose her virginity. It made her damaged goods and hard to marry off.

And marriage wasn’t something that concerned only the two lovers. The cohabitation of a man and a woman is a civic matter and must therefore be agreed upon in public. Yes, the state had a say in what went on in the citizens’ bedrooms!

In this case, a young woman invited a young man to dinner while her parents were away, and dinner wasn’t the only thing that was consumed. She gave up her virginity to her lover because he had promised her marriage. The question was: Is a promise of marriage legally binding?

The answer in 1536: No, that would reward the dirty rascal with the woman he deceived. Besides,  an unmarried woman is under the authority of her father. Why then should anyone make her his own, against her father’s will? 

Oh morals! Oh laws! What times we are living in! The gist of the matter is: A virgin has lost her grace and honour, which we consider the principal part of her dowry. Who will marry her thereafter when she is marked by such a stigma? If someone steals my new clothes and returns them torn and stained with dirt, will he not be sentenced to return what he has taken away – that is, the clothes in their original state?

Unfortunately, virginity cannot be restored, so the scoundrel who took it should be made to pay a penalty. Let’s just go by the Old Testament law: if a man finds a virgin who is not betrothed …and lies with her, and they are found together, the man who lay with her must give the father fifty shekels.
There you are. Value of virginity: fifty shekels.

(Source: The Correspondence of Wolfgang Capito, Vol. 3 forthcoming; my translation)

Thursday, 18 December 2014


Here in Toronto we had until last year a mayor who smoked crack and had a problem with alcohol. So, he probably wouldn’t have endorsed moral laws. And I bet he never got a letter like the one received by the city councillors of Strasbourg in 1535:

Strict, noble, valid, circumspect, honourable, wise, and beloved lords! We urge you to punish vices promptly and to promote discipline and honourable conduct in the community.

To begin with, let’s get rid of fortune-tellers like the man called Batt von Haguenau. For a fee he’ll point out thiefs, adulterers, and other evil persons. In consequence citizens harbour grave suspicions against each other.

And then there is the painter who offers for sale shameful idols, causing great scandal. We are good Protestants. We don’t want any paintings of saints. You should prohibit such filth and stop him from making a living through blasphemy.

Because of your negligence, vices have seriously gained ground, such as excessive drinking. And young people have started to be disobedient to their elders and masters on account of such incitements.

Not to speak of the whores, who walk around in satin and velvet and other fine garments. There is bound to be trouble if wicked woman are free to indulge in all pleasure, pomp, and luxury. They give wrong ideas to pious women who are young and good-looking.
God forbid that they, too, would want to wear fine dresses!

Thank God, Torontonians don’t have to worry about that. The weather enforces a moral dress code. The women are all in black and bundled up. Not to worry about satin and velvet or any (goose)flesh showing in public.

(Source: The Correspondence of Wolfgang Capito, vol. 3 forthcoming, my trans.)

Sunday, 14 December 2014


Take Mark Twain’s handy test. Do you have
  • A large private income?Damn it, failed the first condition!
  • Experience of swell society life? Does being in the same room with Margaret Atwood count?
  • The gift of reserve – on occasion? I did show reserve on a few occasions.
  • The gift of talk -- on other occasions? I’ll be superb on those other occasions.
  • Personal dignity, native courtesy, trained good manners?  Uh-oh.
  • Familiarity with the French and German languages? Familiarity is the keyword, right? He doesn’t mention fluency anywhere.

I got 4 out of 6. How did you rate?
(Source: Mark Twain, American Representation in Austria)

By the way, Addison Harris, the American ambassador to Austria in 1899, fulfilled not a single one of these conditions, according to M.T.

Thursday, 11 December 2014


By 1891, the Union for the Resistance to Anti-semitism founded by Artur Suttner had 1100 members. In an open letter published in Die Neue Freie Presse he wrote:

The anti-Semitic party (inspired by Adolf Stöcker’s Christian Social Party in Prussia) lays moral siege to Austria and puts pressure on timid minds -- and there are more than enough of those. They conform because they don't want to be labelled  Judenknecht (a servant to Jews). 

Special laws against Jews such as those flourishing in Russia would soon have made their appearance…and laws against all who do not think as do those gentlemen of the persecuting partyThank God, there are still Austrians who resist their reign of terror. 

The anti-Semitic party first tried to make it a question of religion. Their purpose, they said, was to fight those who take up position against Christianity in favor of the Jews. But as Suttner pointed out, the Union had Catholic priests and Protestant pastors among its members.

Then they emphasized the racial difference. This approach was not very successful in multi-cultural Vienna. Finally they found an effective means of arousing hatred and envy: financial competition.

Concentration of money (Grosskapital) kill the little man, they say, and money is concentrated in the hands of the Jews….They neglected the fact that among Jews too there are people who have barely enough to eat, but that phenomenon does not exist for those logicians. They see only the little Christian and the big Jew.
Their arguments are built on feet of clay…but the average citizen is easily persuaded. They are taught all sorts of things in school, except logic.

One of our purposes is to stimulate independent thinking…our twin weapons should be reason and a sense of justice.

Suttner was confident that Austrians would come around to his point of view. The great majority today is better educated, and rowdy attacks in word and deed are not to the taste of cultured Austrians.
But a generation later…

(Source: Article in Neue Freie Presse, 22 July 1891, my translation)

Sunday, 7 December 2014


This phenomenon aroused lively disgust in us, Bertha von Suttner wrote in 1891. She wrote a number of articles against this reversion to the Middle Ages. But the Viennese newspapers turned them down on the grounds that the proper attitude toward [anti-Semitism] would be contemptuous silence.

Suttner objected: Wrong must be withstood if it is recognized as such. There is no other way. In such cases silence, though professing to express contempt, is itself contemptible. Not only the victims but their fellow citizens must act. No one should stand by when they see injustice. Silence is complicity.

The antisemitic movement in Vienna had led to brutal attacks, her husband, Artur von Suttner, wrote: I mention only the suburban heroes who smashed the windows of Jewish women and shouted threats of murder, the soldier who struck down an old man in the street, the schoolboy who thrust a knife into the eye of his Jewish fellow pupil.

To combat discrimination, he founded a Union for the Resistance to Anti-semitism. It was officially incorporated in the summer of 1891. The announcement  was published in Die Neue Freie Presse on 22 July 1891:

The purpose of the Union was to take action against that hostile movement which is aimed directly against a segment of our fellow-citizens.The fight against antisemitism would be carried on through public lectures and the dissemination literature, but (rather oddly, in my view) not through political action.

Politics is excluded: primarily because our Union is not political, and secondly because this is a question of social practices in the strict sense of the word and has nothing to do with the business of government (Staatspraxis).

At a time when societies are founded to protect animals from cruelty – and rightly so – it is, I think, only logical that we should at last take a stand also against cruelty to our fellow-men, all the more as the attacks have not been confined to assault on the honour of Jews, but have taken the form of actual assaults, which have given our Jewish fellow-citizens every reason to fear for their lives.

More on the subject in my next blog post on Thursday.

(Source: Bertha von Suttner’s autobiography and Artur von Suttner's article in Neue Freie Presse, 22 July 1891, my translation)