Showing posts from November, 2012

Chocolate - the Food for the Gods

[Women] think the most wonderful thing in the world is chocolate. [Men Behaving Badly]
In Aztec culture the god Quetzalcoati came down from the firmament with a cocoa tree that he filched from the Heavens.

The Aztecs ground the cocoa seeds and seasoned it with cereals and chilli peppers to produce the spicy drink they called chocolati.

Christopher Columbus, the last man to discover America, stumbled across it in 1502 when he robbed a native trader, and thought it was a kind of almond. 

“They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price. For when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when one of these almost fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen”.
But he failed to realise the importance of his chance discovery, and it was left to Hernando Cortez in 1519 to establish the first plantation for the growing of cocoa beans.

In 1528 Cortez introduced chocolate to the Spanish court of Charles V where they added sugar, vanilla and spices t…

Invasion of the Saucer People. Is it already too late?

The one thing we can be sure about conspiracy theorists who tell us that aliens from outer space have infiltrated positions of power on Earth in order to take over the planet, is that they are wrong.

For if there were space aliens in our midst we would know them at once by their appearance. The green skin, the three heads, the propensity to hop along the ground on their twelve pairs of legs, would all tend to convince us that they were not native and to the manor born. 

And even if they had evolved human forms, and had been able to adapt to the gravity of our planet, and to sustain themselves on our alien cuisine, and to master our languages, including the ones with the tricky prepositions, we still may get suspicious when one of them arrives for a job interview and announces: ‘My - name - is - Mr - Smith - querk! - and - I - have - an - appointment - with - Mr - Brown - querk! - Please - let - him - know - I - am - here - querk!’

And, yet, we could be wrong. When we see our leaders, our…

Yuletide, Saturnalia and the Feast of Fools

Lo!the Yuletide festivities are upon us once more, and already people will stocking up with the booze, the liver salts and the paper hats. But to what do we owe this our annual manifestation of silliness? Or put another way: From whence comes it thither? And for wherefore does it why?

The winter solstice celebrations, of which Christmas is a part, owe their origins to the ancient Roman tradition of Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn. 

During this period, which lasted seven days, all schools and law courts closed, prisoners went unpunished, and the population indulged in a frenzy of drinking and debauchery. Not very different from the office Christmas party, in fact.

Social boundaries of class and gender were also swept aside as all and sundry celebrated the coming of the New Year in a passionate sexual re-enactment of ancient fertility rites. Once again not very different to the office Christmas party.

In England, in mediaeval times, the Christmas festivities were presided over by the Lor…

Death of the Man in the Iron Mask

On 19 November 1703, a prisoner in France’s notorious Bastille Prison, his identity hidden behind a mask of black velvet, suddenly died. But who was the mysterious masked man who occupied the third chamber of the prison’s Bretaudière Tower? The elder brother of Louis XIV? The illegitimate son of Oliver Cromwell? It is a mystery which has continued for over 300 years.

What is known about the celebrated prisoner, named in the burial register as M. de Marchiel, is the day and the circumstances of his death. According to his gaoler, Du Junca, on 19 November 1703, after attending Mass, he suddenly felt ill, and had to be helped back to his cell. There he quickly lost consciousness and died at about 10 o’clock that night. 

The prison doctor was summoned, but could find no cause for the prisoner’s terrible death. The following morning he was secretly buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. Paul. According to the gaoler, the funeral expenses amounted to forty pounds.

Du Junca also recorded i…

Artists of the Place Clichy, Paris

The Place Clichy is one of the most animated squares in Paris, so it is not surprising that it has attracted many artists, such as Manet, Renoir, Signac, Pissarro, and most notably Pierre Bonnard.

The square also caught the attention of Italian-born Giovanni 'Master of Swish' Baldini (1842-1931), best known as a portrait artists, who subjects included Sarah Bernhardt.

More paintings of the Place Clichy through the eyes of painters here.

Popes' Palace, Avignon

Avignon is located in the Rhone Valley of France. The main attraction of the town is the Popes’ Palace, which in 1309 became the business headquarters of the Papal Empire.

It came about as the result of a quarrel between two of the principal stakeholders - Philip the Fair, King of France, and Pope Bonifice VIII. 

Philip was unhappy that Rome was extorting vast sums of money from the Christian nations to finance its Crusades. It was creating an imbalance between the spiritual and the temporal powers of Europe, with the spiritual gaining the upper hand. So he determined to stop the drain from his dominions.

He began by prohibiting the export of gold and silver without a licence, and requiring the clergy to pay their taxes directly to him. Pope Boniface responded by excommunicating the king. 

Being excommunicated was the thing that Christian souls feared the most, so it was a useful weapon in the Vatican’s armoury. 

It was also good business, since persons who were excommunicated were compell…

Pope Leo X - open for business

Leo X was pope from 1513 to 1521. He was pope while syphilis, introduced to Europe by the companions of Columbus, was spreading across the continent with wonderful rapidity. He may have contracted the disease himself. 

But syphilis or not, he never let it interfere with his money making activities. He spent his own income and squandered the savings of his predecessors. He created hundreds of new offices and put them up for auction. In all this he was following the habits of his predecessors. As Bishop Alvaro Pelayo 200 years previously had said: “Whenever I entered the apartments of the Roman court clergy, I found them occupied in counting up gold-coin, which lay about the rooms in heaps”.

Seated behind the pope on his right in Raphael's portrait of 1518/19 is his cousin Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clement VII, who advocated an aggressive approach to the spreading the Word of God. And hovering on his left is Cardinal Luigi de’ Rossi, on whom he had bestowed (or sold)…

Theresa Garnett - a scolding for Mr. Churchill

3 p.m. on Saturday 13th November 1909 and Winston Churchill is alighting from a railway carriage at Bristol station. Suddenly a mad woman comes rushing towards him brandishing a dog whip. “Take that, you brute!” she screams as she tries to beat Mr Churchill with the whip. 

The woman is Theresa Garnett, a 21-year old suffragette militant from a time in which feminists preferred physical confrontation to baring their boobs. Her assault on Mr Churchill was reported in The Times as follows:

'Mr Churchill … had just alighted from the carriage and had introduced his host, Sir William Howell Davies, M.P., and others to Mrs Churchill. Surrounding the party was a number of Bristol detectives in a semi-circle. Mr Churchill was recognized, and a crowd began to assemble. Suddenly a woman broke through the cordon of police, shouting frantically and flourishing a dog whip. She gripped Mr Churchill’s coat with one hand, and with the other which held the whip she aimed a blow at Mr Churchill. She f…

Guy Fawkes and J.M.W. Turner

Mr Fawkes's intention, of course, was to blow the building up, or to burn it down, he probably didn't care which.

He failed in this endeavour, though the edifice was finally consumed in flames in 1834, and witnessed by the artist J.M.W. Turner. 

Angelica Kauffman (1741 - 1807)

Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman was an artist child prodigy. As a teenager she was painting portraits of the European nobility. She spoke Italian, German, French and English. She played musical stringed instruments and was an accomplished opera singer. In mid-1760s London she was the darling of the portraitists counting royalty among her clients. Her alluring beauty had men throwing themselves at her feet.   But she was duped into marrying a confidence trickster posing as a count. She got out of the marriage only when the husband died in 1780. She married a second husband in 1781 and spent the last 25 years of her life in Rome, where she died on 5 November 1807.

Louis VIII - the French king who refused doctor's orders

“Your Majesty is dying. The only remedy for you is to deflower this young virgin”.
Such was the proposition made to Louis VIII of France on 8 November 1226 as he lay on his death bed. But the king replied that he was in love with his wife, Blanche de Castille, whom he had married when both were twelve years old, and must therefore refuse his physician’s thoughtful advice.

Louis had the cognomen ‘the Lion’, and had fallen sick on his way back to Paris from the Crusades in the south of France. He was struck down with a fever and debilitating diarrhoea and was probably suffering for dysentery, a common illness of soldiers at the time, though some think he may have been poisoned. On 3 November he took to his bed and became delirious. His doctors consulted and diagnosed a severe case of sexual abstinence due to several months of campaigning, and that the remedy was a night of passion with a young virgin. As reported by Guillaume de Puylaurens: 

‘…. coming back from the Crusades in Albigeois t…

Place Masséna, Nice

Nice's beautiful Place Masséna owes its name to Marshall André Masséna, a lieutenant in Bonaparte's Italian Army. He saw victory in Zurich in 1799, distinguished himself at the siege of Genoa in 1800, defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Caldiero in 1805, and was conqueror of the Kingdom of Naples in 1806. In 1804 he was made Marshall of the Empire, in 1808 he became Duke of Rivoli, and in 1809 Prince of Essling. But he fell from grace after reverses in Portugal in 1810. More interested in pleasure than in patriotism, he aged prematurely and died in 1817.

An important date for Nice, and for the Place Masséna is 26 May 1832 as this is the day that the king Charles-Albert established an institution with the task of creating an urban plan which would determine the shape of the modern city. This led in 1844 to the creation of the Place Masséna with Boulevard Barthélemy (later Avenue de la Victoire, now Avenue Jean Médecin) to the north. 

And in 1928, Jean Médecin, an energetic an…

The History of England from 1625 - 1689

In 1625 James I of England is succeeded by his son Charles I. If the Scottish James did not understand the English, his less intelligent son understands neither the English nor the Scots. Moreover, he has Catholic sympathies, marries a Catholic princess, and favours the High Church party of William Laud. This puts him into conflict with an increasingly Puritan Parliament. The king argues with Parliament, and for eleven years from 1629-40 dispenses with Parliament altogether. Laud persecutes the Puritans and many seek refuge in New England where they found Massachusetts and Connecticut. When Charles tries to impose the Laudian Church on Presbyterian Scotland the Scots rebel and occupy parts of northern England. Parliament meanwhile passes a series of Acts to limit the power of the crown and make it financially dependent on Parliament. Then Parliament introduces the Militia Bill transferring the control of the military to Parliament. Charles tries to arrest leading members of the House,…

Alexander the Great, King Porus of India, and the Battle of the Hydaspes

'Porus, gathering forty beasts around him, drove at the enemy with the whole mass of his elephants and inflicted grievous losses. Moreover, he himself was far superior to his companions in arms and in physical strength ... so that he hurled his javelin with the strength of a catapult.' Diodorus Siculus, 1st Century BC.
In 326 BC Alexander marched his army against the Indian King Porus, electing to cross the Hydaspes River during the summer monsoon. He succeeded in crossing with 6,000 infantry and 5,000 horsemen. Facing him were 300 chariots and 200 war elephants deployed by Porus as his front line. But the chariots proved useless in the sodden ground of the battlefield, and Porus, wounded several times, was forced to surrender. 

'Losses in the Indian infantry amounted to 20,000, or very nearly, the cavalry lost around 3,000, and all the chariots were destroyed. Porus's two sons were killed. So were the commanders of the elephant and chariot regments...'Arrian Campaig…

Pope Alexander VI and those wild Vatican nights

On the night of 31 October 1501, Pope Alexander VI organised a wild party to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of his daughter Lucrezia Borgia to Alfonso d'Este, the future Duke of Ferrara. Among the guests is Vatican chaplain Johann Burchard, who records the night's events in his diary.

It begins with a banquet of food and drink, then Alexander gives the signal for 50 dancers to enter and perform lascivious, pagan dances for the titillation of the guests. The men hurl obscenities and the dancers start to remove their clothes. Servants throw chestnuts into the air, and the dancers get down on all-fours to gather them up.

The Supreme Pontiff then calls for a virility contest with prizes for those guests that display the most ardour among the naked courtesans. The laymen guests remove their trousers, the priests remove their cassocks, and the courtesan-dancers open their legs. Later, exhausted and ecstatic, the winners collect their prizes.

Some may have found the proceedings to b…


What wouldn’t we give to have been a fly on the wall at some of the dramatic (and melodramatic) moments in history. The day, for instance, that Shakespeare announced to his wife Anne that he was quitting the family home and shooting off to London to seek his fame and fortune. Would the Prince of Words have found the phrases necessary to mollify any discontent on the part of his old wench? Or would he have been too busy dodging the items of crockery that said wench was hurling his way?

The fly has a compound eye made up of several thousand lens, so very little would have escaped its beady attention. Consider the dramatic moment outside Moscow in 1812, when Napoleon made the commander's heroic decision to abandon his retreating army and scoot off to the arms of Maria Walewska, his Polish mistress in Warsaw. Did he, perhaps, address his army in the following terms: “My loyal troops and comrades in arms. As you know, zee Russian army iz approaching, and zay are not in a good mood. So I…