Friday Ramblings: Fun With History
Some curious and very nerdy historical anecdotes for this Friday:
* In 1914, Grigori Rasputin, the legendary Russian mystic and favorite of the last Empress, was stabbed in the abdomen by a former prostitute turned religious zealot. He survived the stabbing. Two years later, he was poisoned, shot, shot three more times, clubbed and finally drowned. And only just barely: after being thrown into the icy waters of the Moika River, wrapped in a carpet and bound with rope, the poisoned, four-times-shot and badly battered Rasputin managed to break free of his bonds and almost swam to safety. The story plays out like a straight-to-video martial arts thriller on drugs: one of the murderers, Prince Yusupov, would later testify that he had the phonograph on, playing Yankee Doodle in a loop whilst three of history’s most inept assassins tried their damnedest to bring down the Indestructible Monk.
* Circa 892, a Viking horde from Orkney, led by Sigurd the Mighty, invaded a portion of northern Scotland that was under the control of Mael Brigte, a Celtic chieftan. Brigte sent a proposal to Sigurd for the two men to meet with 40 troops each to settle their differences. Sigurd agreed, but treacherously brought 80 men instead of 40. Mael Brigte’s gang charged them anyway and was quite predictably slaughtered. Thereupon, Sigurd hacked off Brigte’s head as a trophy and tied it to his saddle by its long hair. During Sigurd’s ride back to the shore, his enemy’s severed head kept bouncing against his thigh, and at one point, Brigte’s buck-tooth pierced Sigurd’s skin. The wound became infected and Sigurd died soon afterwards.
* Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, became the ruler of Emilia-Romagna, a country in the north of Italy, that was very lawless. To pacify Emilia-Romagna, he brought in a strongman from Spain, by the name of Ramiro d’Orco. Ramiro d’Orco proceeded to impose a freakish reign of terror, which quickly brought the country under control and made everyone behave, but inspired a lot of hatred among the people for the new authorities. One morning circa 1500, the inhabitants of the town of Cesena woke up to find one half of Ramiro d’Orco displayed in one corner of the town piazza, and the other half of him in the opposite corner. Cesare Borgia made it known throughout the land that he had punished Ramiro d’Orco for his cruelty towards Cesare’s beloved people, of whom he was a loving father. He had no idea, you see. But once he learned of Ramiro’s atrocities, his justice was swift. Niccolò Machiavelli had a lot of admiration for Cesare Borgia, whom he considered as perfect a prince as one could get, in part because of this incident. Small detail an aspiring tyrant should note: if you are thinking of employing a sin-eater, choose a foreigner with no local ties. When the time comes for him to take the fall, he will have no family or clients to stand up for him, and people’s natural xenophobia will help deflect the blame.
* In 1140, King Konrad III of Germany besieged the town of Weinsberg, which was then held by the Duke of Welf. Eventually, the king prevailed, and a surrender was negotiated whereby the women of Weinsberg would be permitted to leave with whatever they could carry on their backs. Legend tells us the women left town carrying their husbands, and the king, true to his word, did not stop them.
* Joanna of Castile (turn of the 16th century) was so infatuated with her husband, Phillip the Handsome (of course he was), that she repeatedly made a fool of herself in front of courtiers and foreign dignitaries. Her publicly inappropriate behavior, complete with wild outbursts against her husband and his mistresses (one of whom was a “morisca” — which was especially humiliating because Joanna was a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella) earned her the monicker “the Mad”. So when Phillip died of typhoid fever at the age of 28, Joanna had him embalmed and for the rest of her very long life, never strayed too far from the coffin, making sure no women came close to it, and opening it from time to time. When she had to travel, the coffin traveled with her. Eventually, Joanna’s own father imprisoned her, and she spent over 40 years confined in a convent. She was allowed, however, to have her dead husband with her and to open his coffin to view and touch him. Which she did periodically until her own death.
* In 1724, Tzar Peter the Great discovered that his beloved wife Catherine was having an affair with her chamberlain, Willem Mons. As per standard operating procedure, Mons was tortured, convicted of “intruding upon matters that did not pertain to him” and publicly drawn and quartered. Peter loved his Tzarina too much to really harm her, but he did have to punish her in some fashion. And so, he ordered Mons’ head to be preserved in a jar of alcohol and to be placed upon Catherine’s nightstand, to remain there until further notice. Ever one to roll with the punches, Catherine assembled her entire household to contemplate her lover’s severed head, while she lectured them on modesty and sexual continence. “This,” she said, pointing to the horror on her nightstand, “is what happens when royal servants forget their duties and get frisky.”
* Niccolò Machiavelli, in describing the life of Castruccio Castracani, a legendary early 14th-century Luccan soldier and nobleman, tells us that one day Castruccio was invited to dine at the home of Taddeo Bernardi, a very rich merchant. Taddeo took Castruccio on a tour of his magnificent residence and among other things, showed him a room decorated with silks and beautiful tiles fashioned in the shapes of leaves and flowers. Suddenly, Castruccio spit on his host. He then explained to the dumbfounded Taddeo: “I didn’t know where to spit so it wouldn’t offend you.”