Sunday 30 November 2014


  • Abrasions: Wipe surface clean, using lint. Too bad I just had my jacket cleaned. No lint in my pockets.
  • Bites and rabid animals: Do not kill animal, tie it up and consult local health officer. God, it’s hard to tie up a porcupine!
  • Childbirth (sudden): Okay, so the baby is breathing. What do I do next? Save afterbirth for doctor’s inspection, and do not clean up blood clots, etc. Oh good, I didn’t have the energy to clean up anyway.
  • Foreign objects, extraction of: If the object is lodged in the nose, cause patient to blow nose violently. Insect in ear? Fill ear with olive oil, it will float to the surface. In case of child tie hands down. Crochet hook in hand? I don't know any violent crochet hookers, so I think we can skip that.
  • Fire (person on): Lie flat, flames uppermost, smother flames with anything handy. Call for assistance.
  • Cut throat: If patient is fully conscious, keep seated.

And no, I didn’t make any of this up.

(Source: Pocket guide to First Aid issued by the Grand Priory of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, 4th edition, 1946)

Thursday 27 November 2014

Douglas Fairbanks, Knight of the Order, 1958

I’ve just come across a POCKET GUIDE TO FIRST AID published by the Grand Priory of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in 1946. No, I did not make that up.
Here is some useful advice from that remarkable book.
  • Apoplexy: Lay patient on back. Send for doctor.
  • Drowning: Lay patient in prone position. Send for doctor as soon as possible.
  • Nose bleed: Place patient in sitting position head thrown back…Keep mouth open, no blowing of nose.
  • Shock: A serious condition which frequently follows severe accidents…Lay on back, loosen clothing, keep warm.
  • Frozen person: There must be no sudden application of heat to a frozen person…Thawing should be carried out in cool room with open window.

Okay, but do I lay the frozen person on the back or in the prone position?
  • Gas Poisoning: Remove from poison air.
  • Hysteria: Avoid sympathy, speak firmly.
  • Hanging: Do not wait for police…cut rope.

Okay, I’ll say it again: No, I didn’t make that up. It’s all in the book, which was published in Canada, by the way, and is therefore bilingual. En Français:
Apoplexie: Couchez le malade sur le dos. Envoyez cherche le médicin…

Sunday 23 November 2014


In the air there are foul and pestilent emanations, the waters are unhealthy, navigation perilous, winters harsh, the heat of summer unbearable, …and many diseases derived from food.
As in pollution and climate change? No, wait, we are talking 1526. Oh, they had those problems then, too?
Who could enumerate the kinds of poisons and black arts that conspire for man’s mutual destruction? So many weapons against a body so weak that a grape or even a grape pip stuck in his throat can choke him, and some people are suddenly carried off to their deaths for reasons unknown.
So much for the environment in 1526. And the people? Just as nasty.
They are driven by the wish to be superior to others and, worse than that, by the instinct to oppress, so that they can live a life of leisure and profit from the labours of others.
Sound familiar? Read on.
They hold all the power and are surrounded by a gang whom they have recruited by trickery or fear to support their tyranny.
And they think the only good thing is money.
Hence the common phrase: What was the benefit of that? What was the advantage of that?
But Vives wants you to change your attitude. Think beyond money.  If you want to benefit others, don’t give them cash. 
The most important and greatest good deed is to help another in the exercise of virtue…and to educate that most lofty part of man, the mind.
Give with no regard to usefulness!
So, please: not another word about soup kitchens.

(Source: Juan Luis Vives, De subventione pauperum, trans. C. Fantazzi)

Thursday 20 November 2014


In 1526 the philosopher Juan Luis Vives published a treatise On the Relief of the Poor. His book is addressed to the mayor and city council of Bruges and argues that it was the responsibility of the state to look after the poor. Sounds progressive? Well, not quite. The 16th century mentality prevails. Here is Vives’ advice to the poor:

First, they should consider that their poverty has been sent to them by God in a most just and secret design…Therefore they should not only tolerate poverty with resignation but gladly embrace it as a gift of God.
Question: If poverty is God-given, why try to fight it and waste taxpayer’s money on poor relief? A good editor would have cut that bit out. Instead, Vives develops the thought further:

And since they suffer evil in this life, let them strive and do their best not to fare worse in the next. In other words, be good and don’t make God angry.
Let them pray much and with pious sentiments for the good of their own soul and the souls of those who help them in the necessities of life, that the Lord Jesus may deign to reward them a hundredfold in the goods of eternity.
Okay, so that takes care of the goods of eternity, but what about temporal goods?

Let them beg and conduct themselves modestly and honestly…What is more intolerable than a proud pauper? Right. Let’s not overdo it with the self-respect.

One other bit of good advice:
Those who can work must not be idle. That’s the problem with the poor, see? They don’t want to work. Nothing is sweeter to them now than that slothful and torpid idleness.
And if they have kids (and usually do, what with all the sweet idleness),
let them bring up and instruct their children piously and religiously, and although they will not leave them any material goods, they will leave them virtue and wisdom, which is the preferred legacy.
Problem solved.

If they live in this way, I know and I dare to promise…that when food is lacking to them from human sources, it will never be lacking from God in heaven.
Stay tuned for Vives’ advice to the rich.

(Source: Vives, De subventione pauperum, trans. C. Fantazzi)

Sunday 16 November 2014


Yes, Nobel had a fine sense of irony. He supported Bertha von Suttner’s peace movement, but when she asked him to endorse her programmatic book DOWN WITH ARMS, he replied: That’s a little cruel. Where am I supposed to sell my new powder if world peace breaks out?

When he met with the Dynamiteurs, as he called the directors and administrators of the Society for Dynamite (yes, such a club existed!), he ardently wished for a new Mephistopheles to heat up the fire for those evil-doers (malfaisants). Well, maybe that was hypocrisy rather than irony. He was writing this to a pacifist after all.

You are a veritable Amazon, to make war on war, he tells Suttner.

From another letter to her: I feel old and worm-eaten…I want to finish a certain business I have in hand before retiring to the Hotel des Invalides, a Paris hospital built in 1680 for veterans.

Best example of Nobel’s irony? His “autobiography”:
A humane physician should have terminated my wretched half-life when I made my bawling entrance into life. Greatest merit: keeping my nails clean and burdening no one. Greatest failing: no family, no good mood, no good stomach. Greatest and only request: Don’t bury me alive. Greatest sin: Did not worship Mammon. Most significant events in my life: None.

(Translated from E. Biedermann, Der Briefwechsel zwischen Alfred Nobel und Bertha von Suttner)

Thursday 13 November 2014


Victor Karben: Purification ceremonies
They prepare for the 10th of September with fasting, alms-giving and other good works… They all go together to a stream and wade in up to their chest. They are naked and wear nothing, not even a loin cloth around their private parts… Then everyone stands in the water up to his chest and silently makes his confession, beating his breast and his heart with his fist, and not gently. Furthermore a male person must be present, either in the water or on the bank, who takes note and watches everything that is done. The people must dip their heads into the water three times to the point that no hair on their head is visible. If someone does this correctly twice, but not the third time, he is told to repeat the process… Coming out of the water and cleansed in this way, they believe they are as pure as they were coming out of the womb of their mothers.

Johann Pfefferkorn: The Kapparot Ceremony
Every Jew, young or old, obtains a white rooster; the women a white hen if possible; and if a woman is pregnant, she must obtain a rooster and a hen, for herself and the unborn child, although it has not committed any sin yet but has been conceived in carnal lust.  The master of the house stands with his rooster in the circle of his family. They keep a pious silence and ponder their sins. Thereafter, he takes his rooster by the legs and swings it thrice around his head, so that the rooster flutters his wings and claps them together. Then he says to him: You are the forgiver [“vergeber”] of my sins, which go from me to you and are transferred to you. I am now free of my sins, and you bear the guilt on my behalf. You die, and I go on to eternal life. ..Then they roast and boil the fowl.

Karben adds:
I should also mention that the Jews rise early on the 9th of September and curse the first Christian whom they meet and say: “May God make you my rooster for this year. And the women do the same thing with Christian women. No Jew minds if he has to wait in the same place for an hour or two until he meets a Christian, especially one who has grievously harmed him and whom he may curse on this occasion.

Pfefferkorn continues:
And if someone thinks that he has not been quite purified of his sins and still has scruples, he goes to his nearest friend and neighbour at the synagogue and kneels down with his head bowed to the ground. The other man lifts up his clothes in the rear, where some sins may be left, and strikes him thirty-nine times with a thong or a belt. After that his purification is complete. And they sit down happily at table and eat their confessors and their own sins until they are sated.
(Translated from Karben’s De vita et moribus Iudeorum, 1511, and Johann Pfefferkorn’s Die Judenbeicht, 1508)

Sunday 9 November 2014

I suppose Nobel had enough money to buy his own theatre, but he had his pride. So he discreetly informed Bertha von Suttner of his literary efforts. After all, she owed him a favour or two for all the donations he had made to her foundation, The Austrian Society of Friends for Peace:
Dear Countess and friend…I have written a tragedy…I have taken my subject from the touching story of Beatrice Cenci, but have treated it in a manner very different from Shelley’s. In deference to an inflexible public I have toned down the hateful subject of incest to the point of practically suppressing it. …I am curious to see whether someone will stage my little piece, in which the dramatic effect is quite good, in my opinion.
A week later Suttner writes back: 
Beatrice Cenci? That is a dramatic subject! I am curious. Besides, I am sure it is well written…If you believe that it is plausible in its dramatic effect and that the scabrous side is sufficiently played down, I am quite certain that a theatre in Vienna will take it. She even considered translating the play into German herself: 
If my name is attached to it, it will arouse interest… Beatrice Cenci would be a good role for Hohenfels or perhaps Sandrock (the famous actress who later had a stellar career in film).
Nobel has doubts about putting the play on in Vienna: It won’t be allowed in Austria because the clergy comes off as bullies. Besides, he says, the piece is written in Swedish.
Oh, Swedish? Suttner replies. I thought you had written it in French (the language in which they corresponded). And you are right: in Vienna one couldn’t risk putting on something that has an anticlerical slant. But one might try Berlin.
Nothing more was said about the matter. Six months later, Nobel was dead. I don't think his play was ever performed.

(My translation of the French text in E. Biedermann, Briefwechsel)

Thursday 6 November 2014

ADOPT A CHILD AND A SECOND DOG: Alfred Nobel’s advice to his lover.

In 1888 a friend congratulated Alfred Nobel on his marriage – an embarrassing mistake since the woman who called herself  “Mrs. Noble” was his Viennese lover, Sofie Hess. In fact he himself had addressed letters to her as “Mrs. Nobel” to camouflage their affair. Yet he complained to Sofie about her use of his name without his permission. This faux-pas – he called it Namenspfuscherei – made it impossible for him to meet her in Vienna.

A year later, he was still sore about this point: There is nothing more stupid than you staying in Vienna, he wrote to Sofie. You have compromised both me and yourself there. Every cobblestone can tell a story, but you are insensitive to all that because you haven’t the foggiest concept of honour.

A few weeks later he complained again about her using his name without permission, running around with diverse louts, presenting a filthy child as my niece, and expecting me to feed all of Israel -- he meant Sofie’s family! She was of Jewish descent.

He had this to say about their relationship:
There is no different between married and unmarried women as long as the two parties have freely entered into a union. This is not at all the case with us. I never asked you to be my lover and never agreed to you using my name. On the contrary, I advised you to return to your parents and absolutely forbade you the use of my name. And what do you do? You present yourself as my wife and run around with lovers… If my name wasn’t so well-known, it would matter less.

The subject comes up again:
To be married is good. Not to be married is good as well, but no decent man can tolerate the hybrid story you and your family have concocted, especially not a man like me, who is so sensitive to honour and morals.

Needless to say, Sofie was unhappy. Perhaps her biological clock was ticking. Nobel suggested she adopt a child and a second dog and move to a place where she could assume the persona of a young widow.
Instead Sophie got pregnant…
(My translation from the German. Source: E. Biedermann, Der Briefwechsel zwischen Alfred Nobel und Bertha von Suttner)

Sunday 2 November 2014


More excerpts from my translation of Karben’s The Life and Customs of the Jews , 1511

Chapter 15
Why the Jews discriminate against women.
They cannot even prove that they are Jews like their husbands or the other males, who can prove it by their circumcision. For this reason they are not considered worthy to have an eternal life or to converse with God. For God has often called on men, but never on women. See Proverbs 8: “O men, I call to you.” Thus Jewish men have a special prayer which they say every single day: “Praise to God in eternity for making me a man rather than a woman!” 

Chapter 16
The Feast of Yom Teru’ah.
They celebrate the 1st of September with great joy. They sing and blow trumpets and horns – not just any kind, but instruments made of bone and the horns of rams.  The origin of the custom is the biblical passage describing Isaac being spared because the ram’s horns are caught in a thicket.
Karben also connects the feast with the fall of Jericho’s walls at the sound of trumpets (Joshua 6). Furthermore, the Jews believe that demons cannot bear hearing the noise of those horns and therefore cannot prevent prayers from rising to heaven. The man who blows the horn must be an excellent and most respectable Jew worthy of that holy instrument. If he blows it properly, the people are incredibly pleased. If not, you will see them much aggrieved. For they say a mistake [in blowing the horn] does not happen without reason. No doubt it happened on account of their sins, and they believe they will not be successful in anything that whole year.
They also connect the first day of September with the creation of the world.
On that day they hope God will write their name in the Book of Life, and no one dares to sleep that day, lest God’s angel be obliged to sleep as well.
In the morning they go to a nearby river. They stand on the bridge that spans the river and carefully search the water for small fish. When they see them, they are full of joy and cast their clothes over them. As the fish scatter, their sins too are being carried away, or so they believe.
On the 10th day of September, they gather in the synagogue to pray. If a Christian saw them, he would certainly wonder at their uncoordinated movements and distracted behaviour. For as they pray to God, they yell and shout and at the same time move their bodies to the right and the left, forward and backward.

(Next: Yom Kippur, as described by Karben)