Saturday, September 30, 2006

Procopius: crazy little bastard?

Tomorrow I'm going back to talking about Snorri, because I think I've failed to convey fully what a fucking mensch he was. But today we're going to talk about an earlier historian who wrote possibly the most lunatic work of the late antique/early medieval period. Don't believe me? Read on!

Procopius of Caesarea was, in his own weird way, awesome. Procopius was a Byzantine historian, born sometime around AD 500. From 527 onward, he served as legal advisor to this guy Belisarius, who was a general in the Byzantine army, Emperor Justinian I's right-hand man except when the Emperor was suspecting him of being a threat to his power and recalling him to Constantinople in disgrace. It was that kind of relationship, you know?

Anyway, Procopius wrote histories, including an exhaustive (and exhausting) eight-volume History of the Wars, chronicling Justinian's various campaigns against the Persians, Vandals, and Ostrogoths. He was sometimes critical of the Emperor's treatment of Belisarius, but in a very restrained, implied way. Byzantine society just didn't roll like that.

I like to imagine that the strain of being polite about a guy he despised who could ruin his career or even have him killed built up and up inside the guy until he just couldn't take it anymore, and the end result is the document we call The Secret History. It is fucking awesome.

Let me set you up with a little contrast here. Here's the kind of thing Procopius has to say about Justinian in History of the Wars:
This twenty centenaria [tribute] Isdigousnas [a Persian envoy] wanted to take with him, but the Emperor wanted to pay four each year so that he would have a guarantee that Chosroes would not break his agreement. But later the Romans gave to the Persians the whole amount of gold on the spot, so as not to appear to be paying a yearly tribute. Men are usually ashamed of dishonorable names, not actions.

Check out that sly little dig there! He's just makin' a general observation on human nature, him.

But the Secret History, well... that's a horse of a different color. Observe:
At least, though the plague ... fell on the entire earth, as many men escaped as perished from it, either through never having caught the disease or else having survived it after they had contracted it. But no Roman whatever succeeded in escaping from this man -- he fell like a disaster from heaven over the whole race and left no one whatever untouched. Some he killed without cause, others he left contending with poverty, more wretched than the dead, praying to him to release them from their present troubles, even by a cruel death.

Whoah! What kind of person could do that? Let's ask Procopius:
He was extremely stupid...

Come on, Pro! There's got to be more to it than that!
dissembling, treacherous, false, secret in his anger, two-faced; a clever man, well-able to feign an opinion ... always deceiving ... an unreliable friend; an enemy who would not keep a truce; a passionate lover of murder and of money ... he was easily led to evil, but never for any reason did he turn to good ... nature seemed to have taken away wickedness from all other men and put it all in his heart.

Lord! Sounds more like a monster than a man to me!
They say that Justinian's mother told some of her friends that he was not the son of her husband Sabbatius, nor of any man. Before he was conceived, and unseen spirit came to her ... Some of those who were ... undoubtedly with him in the palace, men of pure sould, thought they saw a strange demonic apparition instead of him. One said that ... suddenly the face took on the appearance of featureless flesh, for the brows and the eyes were no longer in their place, and it had no other recognizable feature at all.

So that's Procopius's view of Justinian in a nutshell -- a superhumanly evil monster. But what did he think of the Emperor's lovely wife, Empress Theodora?
Frequently, she conceived but as she employed every artifice immediately, a miscarriage was straightway effected. Often, even in the theater, in the sight of all the people, she removed her costume and stood nude in their midst, except for a girdle about the groin: not that she was abashed at revealing that, too, to the audience, but because there was a law against appearing altogether naked on the stage, without at least this much of a fig-leaf. Covered thus with a ribbon, she would sink down to the stage floor and recline on her back. Slaves to whom the duty was entrusted would then scatter grains of barley from above into the calyx of this passion flower, whence geese, trained for the purpose, would next pick the grains one by one with their bills and eat. When she rose, it was not with a blush, but she seemed rather to glory in the performance. For she was not only impudent herself, but endeavored to make everybody else as audacious. Often when she was alone with other actors she would undress in their midst and arch her back provocatively, advertising like a peacock both to those who had experience of her and to those who had not yet had that privilege her trained suppleness.

So perverse was her wantonness that she should have hid not only the customary part of her person, as other women do, but her face as well. Thus those who were intimate with her were straightway recognized from that very fact to be perverts, and any more respectable man who chanced upon her in the Forum avoided her and withdrew in haste, lest the hem of his mantle, touching such a creature, might be thought to share in her pollution. For to those who saw her, especially at dawn, she was a bird of ill omen. And toward her fellow actresses she was as savage as a scorpion: for she was very malicious.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the foremost historian of his age just claimed that the Empress fucked a goose. You see why this is such a fascinating historical period?

Anyway, there's lots more of this stuff and you can read all about it in the man's own words, available to you by the magic of the internet.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Historians: also bad motherfuckers?

Your modern historian is a pretty sedentary sort. Happiest in an archive full of the great smell of books, or perhaps thinking Deep Thinks in some kind of Starbucks, absent-mindedly counting his change to see if he can afford that muffin and deciding that it would be better, more virtuous, not to have it anyway. Occasionally, he'll visit some exotic part of the globe and return with cautionary or hilarious anecdotes.

Things were different in Olden Days, I tell you what. Allow me to begin with the example of Snorri Sturluson.

Born in 1178, Snorri wrote some of the greatest quasi-historical stuff you're ever going to read in Icelandic or any other language -- in between being a wealthy landowner and lawspeaker of Iceland, of course. For an appetizer, let's take a gander at the Prose Edda, also known as the Snorri Edda. This is both a quick primer on Norse mythology (as over-educated scholar Snorri understood it) and a guide to writing praise poetry so that the King of Norway will give you expensive presents. It contains lots of gripping stuff about gods and battles, and also tedious lists of names and something called "kennings," which are stupidly elaborate Old Norse metaphors. Here, for instance, is a list of the names of dwarfs:
Nyi, Nidi, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Vestri, Althiolf, Dvalin, Nar, Nain, Niping, Dain, Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Onar, Oin, Modvitnir, Vig and Gandalf, Vindalf, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Fundin, Vali, Thror, Throin, Thekk ...


Anyway, in addition to this catalogue of traditional poetic nonsense, Snorri also wrote the wicked awesome Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway. Specifically, the ways in which the kings of Norway were hard as nails. I'm talking about stuff like:
King Harald laid his ship against King Arnvid's, and there was the sharpest fight, and many men fell on both sides. At last King Harald was raging with anger, and went forward to the fore-deck, and slew so dreadfully that all the forecastle men of Arnvid's ship were driven aft of the mast, and some fell. Thereupon Harald boarded the ship, and King Arnvid's men tried to save themselves by flight, and he himself was slain in his ship. King Audbjorn also fell; but Solve fled.

Now when King Harald Sigurdson saw this, he went into the fray where the greatest crash of weapons was, and there was a sharp conflict, in which many people fell on both sides. King Harald then was in a rage, and ran out in front of the array, and hewed down with both hands; so that neither helmet nor armour could withstand him, and all who were nearest gave way before him.

That's two different King Haralds, by the way. Snorri is also thought by many to be the anonymous author of Egils Saga, which, if true, would make him the author of the manliest work in European literature. No brag, just fact.

But the really great thing about Snorri is that he forgot the advice a great artist once gave: "don't get involved in politics; just play the gig." Snorri spent some time in Norway, where he got pally with people with names like "Hakon the Mad." And back in Iceland he was making enemies, feuding with his relatives. And when I say feuding I don't mean not sending a Christmas card; I'm talking about murdering each other's servants with axes. Snorri backed the wrong horse in one of Norway's interminable political struggles, and as a result he got assassinated by one of his own kinsmen.

It was a saga way to go out, anyway.

Next time: the long-awaited Procopius of Caesarea entry! Or maybe not!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A dream about the king of Sweden

Kill us, please, kill us.

I recently returned from a short research trip to Sweden, where in the tourist office of the old university town I was visiting I saw a picture of the current royal family. The Swedish royals seem like they're OK; I was watching the Olympics a couple of years back, and there was the King of Sweden in the audience when they were playing, I dunno, team handball or something. Sadly, he didn't have a giant blue and yellow foam hand.

Now, some people don't have as high an opinion as I do of the Swedish royal family, so let's take a moment to review some of their hardcase antecedents, just as a little reminder that behind every meek, gray public-building opener and his brood of dashing and/or disposable wastes of money there lies someone who is a fucking hardass.

Yeah, this dude's a real viking.For starters, check this shit out: the current Swedish royal family, the House of Bernadotte, is no more fucking Swedish than I am. They're descended from a French guy, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who was one of Napoleon's Marshals. He was also king of Norway, although that came a little later.

The thing about Napoleon's Marshals is that they are, almost invariably, hard as a coffin nail. The chaos of the Revolution let good soldiers rise to the top in some cases, so although Bernadotte was a private in 1780, he was a colonel in 1792. Further advancement followed, and just for the fucking icing on the cake he married Bonaparte's sister-in-law, which is basically like having your own seat on the gravy train. So despite it all, he basically manages to fall out with Napoleon -- the most powerful man in Europe, for those playing along at home -- but, long story short, the Swedes he'd worked with before liked him so much they elected him crown prince, and in due time he became king Karl XIV. Talk about landing on your feet.

Didn't speak a word of Swedish either.

And he is hardly the only fire-eater who's held onto that crown. To make my friend Ted very happy, I'll mention Gustav II Adolf, better known as Gustavus Adolphus, a hard-riding, hard-fighting kind of guy. The sort of cheerful, amiable character that acquires affectionate nicknames like "the Lion of the North." The Thirty Years' War is one of those tedious goddamn European affairs about Protestantism or something, and I hate to get into it, but there's something to be said for any war in which the king can get capped because, while leading a cavalry charge into a dense cloud of gunpowder smoke, he temporarily got separated from his men. Those were the days when a king might just up and cut your head off if he didn't like your tone of voice, or at least the language you wanted him to hear mass in or something.

He also has a special pastry made just for his holiday, Gustav Adolf Day.

Make fun of my mustache and I will stab you up.

Now I'm hungry.

OK, OK, last one, I swear. Actually, this is a twofer, because it would be wrong not to include at least a mention of Erik the Victorious, just for the name. A threefer, actually, because the king I want to talk about is actually two kings, Erik VII (king 1066-7) and Erik VIII (1066-7). So, yeah, for a short time, Sweden was allegedly torn up by a civil war between two claimants to the throne, both of whom were called Erik.

Man, this European royalty stuff is easy. I should do some more of it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Profiles in Toadying III: Asser

Unlikely to have actualy looked like this.And the change-up! Last time I mentioned Alfred the Great, it was in the context of making fun of Robert Powell's disgusting piece of toadying, The Life of Alfred. In this post, we're going to take a very brief look at the one that started it all, Asser's Life of King Alfred. When you're the king, you attract all sort of toadies and flatterers, and this nauseating little Welsh goblin was one of Alfred's. It worked, too, in that he got made Bishop of Sherborne and probably heaped with riches and so on.

Anyway, there is some debate at how much of Asser's Life was actually written by who and when, but if we assume for the moment that it was produced by someone in Alfred's circle, I'm going to go ahead and assume that Alfred, who had a bunch of elder brothers, had kind of an unhappy childhood, as evidenced by this passage:
Now, he was loved by his father and mother, and indeed by everybody, with a united and immense love, more than all his brothers, and was always brought up in the royal court, and as he passed through his childhood and boyhood he appeared fairer in form than all his brothers, and more pleasing in his looks, his words and his ways.

Bear in mind that all these brothers are dead. You can just see Alfred looming over the shoulder of this hapless monk, stabbing a Viking with one hand and building a cathedral with the other, all the while yelling "and don't to forget to mention how I was prettiest and everyone liked me best!"

That's a long time to hold a grudge, that's all I'm saying.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A brief note on unlikely parentage.

It's traditional to claim descent from Woden, or Zeus, or some other badass god. Julius Caesar claimed to be descended from Venus, which may seem like an odd match to you if your mental model of Roman religion and mythology is, like most people's, miles off. Not that I'm an expert or anything. Later writers thought that Merowig, or Merovech, or Meroveus, ancestor of the Merovingians, was partly descended from a sea monster. And an eleventh-century Anglo-Danish earl named Siward was later said to have had, as his great-great-grandfather, a bear.

A polar bear, if I recall correctly.

A real update soon, I promise.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is very odd sometimes.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is occasionally a highly entertaining document. For instance:

668. In this year Theodore was consecrated as archbishop.

669. In this year King Egbert gave Reculver to the mass-priest Bass, to build a minster in it.

670. In this year Oswiu, king of the Northumbrians, died, and Ecgfrith reigned after him; and Leuthere, Bishop Agilbert's nephew, succeeded to the bishopric over the land of the West Saxons, and Bishop Theodore consecrated him. Oswiu was the son of Æthelfrith, the son of Æthelric, the son of Ida, the son of Eoppa.

671. In this year there was the great mortality of birds.



Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Just a quick rundown on the monarch with, hands down, the coolest name in modern history, HM Zog I, Skanderbeg III of Albania (1895-1961, r. 1928-1939). The icing on the awesome-cake is that Zog I, in addition to having a killer barbarian-type name, was a fucking gangster.

Born to a minor gentry family in a nasty-ass stone castle in the Albanian hills, Ahmed Zogolli was educated in Ottoman schools, became governor of his region at 16, and basically lived the life of an Albanian hill-chief. When Albania became independent in 1920, he held a bunch of government posts, including Minister of the Interior. Prime Minister in 1922, President in 1925, and, oh yeah, King in 1928. His closest royal ancestor was this guy Skanderbeg -- a pimp in his own right, about whom I'll talk some other time -- in the middle ages, but he didn't let a little thing like his claim to royalty being totally spurious stop him.

Plus, he wore his big stupid hat at a jaunty angle.

Fuck you, my hat is awesome.

Now, when Zog was just a chief, he'd been engaged to another chief's daughter, as you do. But when he became king, he figured that he could just ditch the girl and get himself a royal bride. It didn't really work out, because no respectable European royal was going to marry someone whose claim to the crown was basically that he said so. The paint was still a little wet on that one.

Anyway, the point is that the father of the bride, by ancient Albanian custom, decided to put a cap in Zog's ass, and his partisans -- along with other factions who hated the king -- tried to assassinate Zog. A lot. By one estimate, Zog survived over fifty assassination attempts.

In one particularly exciting one, a bunch of goons tried to take Zog out while he was leaving an opera house in Vienna in 1931. As you do, Zog drew down on the attackers and started returning fire. You don't get that much with monarchs, that willingness to throw some brass if need be.

Anyway, Albania is tiny and poor as shit, so it was a natural place for Fascist Italy to want to take over. They spent a lot of time bolstering the Zog regime, and when he finally got wise and chucked them out they invaded and turfed him out. He seems to have absconded with the royal treasury and spent the rest of his life bumming around as king in exile.

Zog was basically a goon, a jumped-up bandit chieftain with unacceptable pretensions and a big, strong neighbor who picked on him. He's kind of a sad figure in a way; because his rank was so exalted, and because so many people were trying to kill him, he seems to have spent a lot of time just hanging out, playing cards with his sisters.

But for a man with that hat, and that moustache, and for the kind of approach to governance that leads to gunfights outside opera houses, I think we can spare a kind thought for old King Zog. Because if we had unkind thoughts about him, he'd probably cut our fucking throats.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Profiles in Toadying II: Anna Comnena

Anna Comnena is a towering figure in medieval history, one of the few women who had the opportunity to set down their thoughts on the events in their lives and have them survive to the present day. And since she was the daughter of the Emperor of Byzantium, the events in her life were pretty keen. Her Alexiad is worth a read for anyone interested in medieval history.

Today, however, we are going to talk about her thing for her Daddy, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1048-1118, r. 1081-1118). Now, the Byzantines had a higher standard of toadying than we do, especially when it came to the Emperor. A scathing criticism of Imperial policy in the 11th century would come off to us as pathetically servile. But even so, it's hard not to feel a little shudder when you read this stuff:

Alexius was not a very tall man, but broad-shouldered and yet well proportioned. ... When one saw the grim flash of his eyes as he sat on the imperial throne, he reminded one of a fiery whirlwind, so overwhelming was the radiance that emanated from his countenance and his whole presence. His dark eyebrows were curved, and beneath them the gaze of his eyes was both terrible and kind. A quick glance, the brightness of his face, the noble cheeks suffused with red combined to inspire in the beholder both dread and confidence. His broad shoulders, mighty arms and deep chest, all on a heroic scale, invariably commanded the wonder and delight of the people. The man's person indeed radiated beauty and grace and dignity and an unapproachable majesty. When he came into a gathering and began to speak, at once you were conscious of the fiery eloquence of his tongue, for a torrent of argument won a universal hearing and captivated every heart; tongue and hand alike were unsurpassed and invincible, the one in hurling the spear, the other in devising fresh enchantments.

I mean, you know? Daddy!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Profiles in Toadying I: Robert Powell

Robert Powell, mostly unknown lawyer and legal historian who, in 1634, decided to write The Life of Alfred, Or, Alvred: The First Institutor of Subordinate Government in this Kingdome and Refounder of the University of Oxford. Together with a Parallell of our Soveraigne Lord, King Charles, untill this yeare, 1634.

It is basically a brief and fanciful life of Alfred the Great (d. 899), one of Anglo-Saxon England's exceptional guys. Where it falls down is that it tries to tie in Alfred's great deeds with those of King Charles I, a king who was really not so Great. Powell is perfectly aware of this, and has to try to weasel out of it.

It is said of Alfred, that ad crastina bella victor pavebat, victus parabat; If unjust peace is to be preferred before just warre, we having the happy fruition of a just and honourable peace with all the Christian world, and having no need in the times of conquest, to dread adverse approaches, or of defeatures to prepare for fresh onsets, may glory in his Majesties assiduous and vigilant supervising of his military munition and provision both by Sea and Land, remonstrated [sic] by his frequent visiting his greatest Storehouse of his Ordnance, and other martiall supply, as also his godly number of Ships in severall harbours.

What now? Okay, let's get this comparison straight here: Alfred, having had all his brothers die on him, his father killed and his army smashed by the marauding Vikings, who by this time had overrun most of England and were pushing into Wessex, rallied a ragtag band of supporters around an island in the Somerset Levels and came back to kick some Viking ass at the Battle of Edington, following which he fortified towns, founded a navy, and expanded the kingdom a bit, capturing London. Charles visits the Ships in severall harbours.

That's OK, though, right? I mean, we can't all be fightin' men. Maybe Charles was Alfred's equal in more scholarly pursuits, right? Maybe he translated classical texts into his native language, or spearheaded the restoration and reorganization of a church shattered by years of constant fighting?

...his Highnesse pursuing the example of his deare Father ... hath by his Princely declarations vouchsafed a liberty to his subjects, concering lawfull sports to be used that day ... prohibiting the same to all wilfull and negligent Recusants, that shall not resort to their owne Parish Churches to heare Divine Service before their going to the said recreations

Um... lawfull sports, eh? I mean, I guess ... people like sports.

no rash oathes, nor temerous execrations breathe out of his sacred mouth...

It's important not to breathe out any temerous execrations, all right, but is this really the equal of Alfred's legendary learning and piety?

his highnesse in his commission directed to the then Lord Arch-Bishop, and others of his honorable Counsell, amongst many gratious directions is pleased to descend to the Stewards of Leets and to charge them, what they shall give in charge in their turnes and half-yearley viewes of Franckpledge touching Forestallers, Regrators, and other the obvious and enormous offences of the Countrey.

Oh, well, now that changes th... wait, what?

No, the summary is clear: Robert Powell, you are a craven little ass-kisser, and for comparing your bitch-ass king with Alfred the fucking Great you ought to be laughed at in the marketplace like a clown.

Gonzo History Project Activity Corner

Use each of the following words or phrases in a sentence:

  • Recusant
  • Regrator
  • View of Franckpledge
  • Oblectations