Thursday 30 January 2014

WEATHER UPDATE. Vienna 1597.

Don’t like the weather where you are? Let’s compare notes.
  • For the last month I’ve been in Los Angeles. Fires, drought, and the brown haze on the horizon that whispers pollution.
  •  Before that, I suffered through a December in Toronto. Ice storms, snow storms, minus degrees (and I’m talking Fahrenheit!).
  • But all that pales by comparison with Vienna, August 1597.
According to the Fugger Newsletter, it rained blood. The cobblestones are covered with blood. Explanation: A butcher cut the tail of a stubborn ox that gave him trouble. The blood flowed into the hairs of the tail, and the ox splashed it about, whisking his tail this way and that, thus sprinkling the whole road.
Okay, if you say so. But seriously,

On 16th September 1590, great havoc was wrought here in Vienna by an earthquake. It shook the houses in the whole of the town and lifted the people bodily into the air. Several houses collapsed and killed various people. Large pieces of masonry were hurled from the steeples of the churches. Likewise in the royal residence, bricks and chimneys split and broke off. It looked as though the Last Day of Judgment was upon us.

On the lighter side, a report on the weather in Cochin, India, 1580:
The country is equally warm in summer as in winter. There is no difference in seasons, except that it rains throughout the whole winter, which the summers are dry. The trees and grass remain verdant. Figs are picked from the trees year-round. It is a staple for rich and poor alike. Then there is another fruit on which the people live. It grows on beautiful tall trees called palms. They bear a fruit of the size and shape of a melon which contains much water. You cannot imagine all the things that can be made of this fruit.

Ah, palms! They reconcile me to the pollution in L.A. (And BTW: rain forecast today).

Sunday 26 January 2014

RENAISSANCE BEAUTY TIPS. Caution may cause undesirable side effects.

  • Care of teeth. Rub with barley bread-crumbs browned with salt. To whiten teeth, grind up sage, nettle, flour, myrtle, rose buds, coriander, lemon pips, and pine cones. Steep in wine for three days. Boil with alum and rub on your teeth. FYI: Alum –  potassium aluminum sulfate – is used today in taxidermy to prevent rotting. It turns skin into a kind of leather.
  • Removing unwanted hair.  Boil quicklime and arsenic sulfide. Test on a feather before applying to your legs. If the feather dissolves, the mixture is ready for use. Don’t leave it on too long. You did? Okay, treat burns with oil of roses.
  • Make-up. For that fashionable white skin, apply ceruse (lead paste) to your face. Well yes, it may cause hair loss. But look at the positive side: you no longer need to go through the hassle of dying your hair.
  • Bleaching your hair (a Lucrezia Borgia special). Add honey to the lees of white wine. Put on your hair and leave overnight. Then mix roots of celandine with oil of cumin seed and saffron. Leave paste on hair for 24 hours, wash off with ashes and lye of cabbage stalks.
  • Bright eyes: A few drops of belladonna juice will do the trick, as long as you don’t mind the nausea, confusion, and hallucinations that go with it.  
       (Tips courtesy of polymath Giambattista della Porta)

Thursday 23 January 2014

HOW TO PUNISH CLUMSY SERVANTS. Management hints, 1502.
Rule # 1 for people with servants: stay in control at all times. Or as Machiavelli said: It’s better to be feared than loved.
Messer Ramiro d’Orco called for wine. A page brought a fresh flagon from the buffet. He stumbled among the rushes on the floor and tripped over the feet of a guard. The flagon broke and splashed wine on the ankle of his master.
If there’s anything that annoyed Messer d’Orco, it was a clumsy page. He took the lad by the belt, and slung him into the fire of the hearth, seizing the nearest halberd and pinning the twitching body to the flaming logs. The hair, in a flash, was gone. The slim legs violently writhed outward, and fell still. Hose and leather jerkin peeled, and the white flesh hissed and blackened. Then, nothing but small ash showed where the boy had died, and the smell of roasted human flesh mingled with the smell of the meats.
The quote is from Chronicles of the House of Borgia by Frederick Rolfe. Not sure I share his admiration for the Renaissance as a time when virtue and vice were extreme, passion primitive and ardent, life violent, and… respectable mediocrity of no importance whatever.

Sunday 19 January 2014



THE BORGIA POPE IS DYING. A Diplomat’s Death Watch.

The demise of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, was keenly awaited. One of the jobs of the Venetian ambassador in Rome was to hang around the palace, make inquiries, listen to small talk, and fire off a bulletin to keep his government informed about what was going on. Among the pearls of his correspondence during the summer of 1503.

  • 11 July: Pope inconvenienced by diarrhea.
  • 14 July: Pope a little depressed.
  • 7 August: Pope worried about quartan fever. Ambassador, he said to me, all these sick people in Rome, all these deaths make me afraid.
  • 12 August: Pope feverish.
  • 13 August: Pope vomiting after dinner.
  • 14 August: Physician bleeds pope. Some speak of fourteen, some of sixteen ounces of blood…that is an enormous quantity for a man of seventy-three years.
  • 15 August:  Stonewalled. Palace officials keep a lid on info about Pope’s health.
  • 17 August: Pope given medicine, still feverish. Property locked down as a precaution against riots sure to break out on news of Pope’s death.
  • 18 August: Barring a miracle, the pope cannot live much longer.
  • 19 August: The pope is dead. The corpse was hideous and bloated beyond words…For the sake of decency, it was kept covered.

To which Frederick Rolfe, Chronicles of the House of Borgia, adds the footnote: The pope lies in state in the Chapel of the Trinity in St. Peter’s…with his feet protruding through the screen (to allow the faithful to kiss them).
I think Rolfe would have been great on Twitter.

Thursday 16 January 2014


Or should that be “Mrs. Saint Thomas More” since More was canonized in 1935 for standing up to that bully, King Henry VIII. More refused to recognize the King as head of the Church and suffered martyrdom. He was a saintly man. When he mounted the scaffold to have his head cut off, he didn’t think of himself. He thought only of the executioner.  My neck is very short, he said. For the sake of your reputation, make sure you don’t miss it. He didn’t want the man to become a laughing stock. No doubt Thomas More was a man of high principles, but I wonder if his wives thought of him as a saint. 
As a young man he contemplated a career in the Catholic Church. Trouble was, he couldn’t do without sex and so, as his friend Erasmus tells us, he chose to be a good husband rather than a bad priest. John Colt, an acquaintance who was blessed with several daughters, gave young More free hand to choose among them. He liked the second one best, but realized that her older sister might be offended if the girls weren’t married off in order. Out of a kind of compassion, he directed his fancy toward the eldest, Jane, and hoped for the best. His intention was to educate her and reshape her character in his own image. As it turned out, Jane was not easily reshaped and wept copiously when asked to do her homework. Old Mr. Colt, who was the traditional type, advised his son-in-law to give Jane a good beating to straighten her out. In the end no drastic measures were needed, however, because she died in childbirth.
Soon after Jane’s death, Thomas remarried -- so hastily that he had to obtain a dispensation from the bishop. Was he desperately in love? Not at all. He just needed someone to look after his household.  The new Mrs. More – Alice – was neither beautiful nor in her first youth, as More used to remark in jest. Not sure that Alice found the remark funny. But that was More for you: always joking. He seemed to be born for it, but he never went as far as buffoonery. Well, that depends on what you call buffoonery.
He once presented Jane with a set of precious gems. She was ecstatic and showed them around to neighbours and friends. More couldn’t understand her disappointment when he told her a few days later that they were fake. The price of gems was arbitrarily set by merchants after all. They were just stones, and if she couldn’t tell the difference between a gem and a piece of coloured glass, why pay an outrageous price for the real thing? As far as More was concerned, it was a teaching moment. And another instance of his merry humour.  
(The quotes are from Erasmus, Nicholas Harpsfield in modernized English, and Cresacre More).


Sunday 12 January 2014


Should President Bush have read Pierre Dubois’ treatise on how to conquer the Middle East before embarking on a war with Iraq? Here are some of the medieval writer’s recommendations:

  • How to combat the Islamists.
Set up a foundation to educate girls in Latin, logic, Arabic, natural sciences, and medicine. The instruction should be simplified as much as possible owing to the intellectual weakness of the female sex. Select girls who are attractive in face and figure. Dress them up so that they will be taken for daughters of princes and may be conveniently married off to princes in the Middle East. Brought up in the Christian faith, these wives will teach their children and husbands to adhere to their faith. Voila: no more Islamists.

  • And what are the benefits of converting Muslims to Christianity? Peace and mutual understanding? Naw, none of that idealist stuff. According to Dubois,
valuable commodities, abundant in those regions but rare and highly prized among us, would be transported to the West in adequate amounts and at a reasonable price. No, Mr. Bush, he didn't mean oil. He was thinking of spices, actually. And of pushing Western goods on the natives. Our products would be carried there in turn, and we could control the prices.

Before any of these things can happen, however, the Western World will have to unite, Dubois says.

When universal peace and harmony among all Christians has been established…they will be in a better position to subjugate barbaric nations.
(Quotations are from Pierre Dubois’ On the Recovery of the Holy Land).


Thursday 9 January 2014

GETTING RID OF UNWANTED GUESTS. Cruel fun in the Renaissance.

Here is the scenario: You can’t get around inviting your in-laws for dinner, but you want to make sure they leave really early. Follow the instructions of Giambattista della Porta, the Italian scientist known as the Professor of Secrets.

Sprinkle food with powdered leaves of cuckoo pine (arum), and your guests will start drooling copiously. Cut up harp strings and strew on hot meat. The little wires will writhe like worms and gross out your guests.

Breathe garlic on your female guests, and their make-up will yellow. Well, maybe that only works with Renaissance make-up made of white lead and mercury. In any case, breathing garlic on unwanted guests is always a good idea. 

Alternatively you could have some wicked fun with them.  A bit of belladonna dissolved in water will drive them temporarily insane. It is a most pleasant spectacle to behold their crazy whims and visions. Just don’t feed them too much belladonna, which will make them sleep for four days.

If your unwanted guests OD on belladonna and stay overnight, you may want to put extract of boiled chameleon into their bathwater and watch them turn green.

The Borgias, I understand, were more radical. They killed unwanted guests. Here is the recipe for the poison they used:

Catch a bear and make him swallow arsenic. He will start foaming at the mouth. Collect the foam on a silver plate. Bottle and use as needed.

Not sure I could handle the bear part. Besides, am I missing something here? Why didn’t they give the arsenic directly to their guests?


Thursday 2 January 2014


In the dark ages before laptops and printing, students created their own “textbooks” by taking down everything the lecturer said. This required very slow talking on the part of the lecturer and meant that he couldn’t cover much material. The university therefore passed a law requiring lecturers to utter the words rapidly so that the mind of the hearer can take them in but the hand cannot keep up with them. Lecturers found in violation of this statute were deprived of their licence to teach for a year. Students who opposed the statute by shouting, hissing, making noise, and throwing stones were suspended for a year.

Fast-talking lecturers meant more business for the booksellers, who bought existing course notes and hired scribes to copy them. (Copyright and copy machines were still only a glint in the eyes of visionaries!)

Sometimes the booksellers got a little greedy and put obstacles in the way of students by buying too cheaply and selling too dearly and thinking up other frauds.

The university therefore passed a regulation requiring those who acted as intermediaries between buyers and sellers to put the price of the book and the name of the seller somewhere where it can be seen and to charge their commission to the buyer. They also passed regulations against price-gouging for paper and parchment needed to make duplicates.

Some students were too poor to buy textbooks. They rented copies for a term or a year. Booksellers were responsible for the accuracy of the copied text and were required to verify that the scribe's work was a true and correct copy. The University also required booksellers to swear an oath that they would not demand from students anything beyond a just and moderate rent for their books.
(Quotations are from L. Thorndike, University Records and Life in the Middle Ages).