January 28

The king is dead, long live the king

Rulers of nations and empires can die any day of the year, but it is remarkable to find three such consequential monarchs passing on the same calendar date.

814 Charlemagne

First to go was Frankish emperor Karl, aka Carolus Magnus, aka Charlemagne, second of the Carolingian dynasty. He unified and greatly enlarged Frankish  territory creating a dominion that stretched from Denmark to the Spanish Marches, from the Atlantic to the Pannonian plains. He issued legal codes, encouraged Christian evangelism of pagan tribes, sponsored a renaissance of learning and arts, judged popes, crushed Lombards, Saxons, and Avars, and was crowned Emperor in Rome on Christmas Day, 800. His realm was splintered and frittered away by his son Louis the Pious and his quarrelsome grandsons.

1547 Henry VIII

An unpleasant character, mean and foolish in so many ways, Henry’s reign saw important changes in England. His marital woes led him to create the Church of England, which he meant to be Catholic in doctrine but under his thumb instead of the pope’s. He carried out the greatest redistribution of wealth in the country’s history by seizing vast monastic land-holdings – this profited his noble supporters more than it enriched the crown. He permitted the printing of the first English Bible – with his portrait on the title page. In order to justify these acts in the eyes of his political class he validated them through Parliament. This greatly enhanced the powers of that institution. He murdered wives, cardinals, monks, and rebels. Few mourned his passing. 

1725 Peter the Great

After a tumultuous rise to the throne, marked by conspiracy and rebellion Peter achieved unfettered rule in 1696 at the age of 24. His impressive titles tell us a lot about the historical expansion of the Russian state: By the grace of God, the most excellent and great sovereign emperor Pyotr Alekseevich the ruler of all the Russias: of Moscow, of Kiev, of Vladimir, of Novgorod, Tsar of Kazan, Tsar of Astrakhan and Tsar of Siberia, sovereign of Pskov, great prince of Smolensk, of Tver, of Yugorsk, of Perm, of Vyatka, of Bulgaria and others, sovereign and great prince of the Novgorod Lower lands, of Chernigov, of Ryazan, of Rostov, of Yaroslavl, of Belozersk, of Udora, of Kondia and the sovereign of all the northern lands, and the sovereign of the Iverian lands, of the Kartlian and Georgian Kings, of the Kabardin lands, of the Circassian and Mountain princes and many other states and lands western and eastern here and there and the successor and sovereign and ruler.

Peter significantly modernized the backward Russian state, created a new capital city of St. Petersburg, improved the military (especially the navy), smacked down Swedes and Tatars, introduced Western ways, and laid the foundation of Romanov rule for centuries.

January 27

Feast of the Translation of the Relics of St John ChrysostomYou may have noticed that the more important Christian saints have a number of feast days dedicated to them. One good reason to mark their life is if their relics have been moved from one spot to another, usually a more honoured, location — such a shift in bones is called a translation. On this day in 438, the remains of the most celebrated preacher of the ancient Church were moved from where he had died on his way to exile to Constantinople’s Church of the Holy Peace. 

John had been banished in 407 for upsetting the sensibilities of the Empress Eudoxia who was offended by his comparison of her to the evil wife of Herod. In 438 Proclus, the patriarch of Constantinople convinced Emperor Theodosius II, son of Eudoxia, to fetch the saint’s bones back to the imperial capital. The story goes:

The emperor, overwhelmed by Saint Proclus, gave his consent and gave the order to transfer the relics of Saint John. But those he sent were unable to lift the holy relics until the emperor realized that he had sent men to take the saint’s relics from Comana with an edict, instead of with a prayer. He wrote a letter to Saint John, humbly asking him to forgive his audacity, and to return to Constantinople. After the message was read at the grave of Saint John, they easily took up the relics, carried them onto a ship and arrived at Constantinople.

Safely in his new home, John’s body was visited by Theodosius who apologized for this mother’s actions.

In 1204 Latin crusaders broke open the tomb and stole the relics but in 2004 some of them were returned by Pope John Paul II and are now ensconced in St George’s Church, Istanbul. A silver and jewel-encrusted skull is held in the Vatopedi Monastery in Greece and the monks of Mount Athos venerate it as John’s but the Russian Orthodox Church claims that Vatopedi sold the skull to the Russian czar in the 17th century and they now have it in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Not to be outdone, two Italian churches also assert that they have the saint’s head.

January 26

A word about The Mahdi

Earlier on this site, I have commemorated General Charles “Chinese” Gordon on this date in 1885 who fell defending the city of Khartoum in Sudan from the forces of an Islamic jihad. Today let’s look at the leader of that movement, Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah known as “The Mahdi”.

Muhammad Ahmad was born in 1844 to a family of boat builders in Sudan who claimed descent from Muhammed, the 7th-century founder of Islam. At an early age he took an interest in religion and after studying with local Sufis, developed a reputation for wisdom and piety. He began to preach and began to attract followers; in 1881 he announced that he was The Mahdi.

The Mahdi is a figure in Islamic eschatology, prophesied to appear in a time of crisis and, accompanied by the Prophet Isa (Jesus), to usher in a new era of justice and universal peace. The hadith literature gives certain signs by which to know the true Mahdi but a multitude of local legends and variations have allowed for wide disagreement in Islam about the figure. Numerous Muslims of Muhammed’s lineage have appeared in history claiming the title.

Recognizing the potential for unrest attendant on anyone claiming the title, the Egyptian government of the Sudan first tried bribing and then arresting Muhammad Ahmad. He eluded capture and began to assemble forces large enough to pose a military threat. He defeated force after force of Egyptian troops, some of them led by British officers. By 1883 after his defeat of Hicks Pasha at the battle of El Obeid he controlled half of Sudan with more tribes coming over to him.

The reign of the Mahdi was not a happy one for those who doubted his claims. His variety of Islam was of the harsh and fundamentalist sort; he also restored the slave trade which the Egyptian authorities had suppressed. His success prompted the British to withdraw from most of the Sudan and to send Charles Gordon to oversee the evacuation of Egyptian garrisons, civilians and administrators. Gordon attempted to convince The Mahdi to come back to obedience and offered him a governorship iii he agreed. The reply was stark: “I am the Expected Mahdi and I do not boast! I am the successor of God’s Prophet and I have no need of any sultanate of Kordofan or anywhere else!” Gordon was unable to hold Khartoum and along with all his troops was massacred when the city fell to the Mahdi, who ordered that Gordon’s head be cut off and stuck in a tree “where all who passed it could look in disdain, children could throw stones at it and the hawks of the desert could sweep and circle above.”

The Mahdi did not long survive Gordon, dying six months later of typhus. His successor, known as the Khalifa, ruled Sudan until a British expedition retook the country in 1898.  General Kitchener took the opportunity to desecrate the Mahdi’s tomb, throw his body in the Nile and carry his head home as a souvenir.


January 25

The Conversion of St Paul celebrated

The Church named January 25 as the festival day for the celebration of the conversion of St Paul (aka Paul of Tarsus) described in Acts 9. It was once the occasion of a colourful procession in London, whose patron saint was Paul. In 1555, in the reign of Mary and Philip, it is recorded that:

On St. Paul’s day there was a general procession with the children of all the schools in London, with all the clerks, curates, and parsons, and vicars, in copes, with their crosses; also the choir of St. Paul’s; and divers bishops in their habits, and the Bishop of London, with his pontificals and cope, bearing the sacrament under a canopy, and four prebends bearing it in their gray amos; and so up into Leadenhall, with the mayor and aldermen in scarlet, with their cloaks, and all the crafts in their best array; and so came down again on the other side, and so to St. Paul’s again. And then the king, with my lord cardinal, came to St. Paul’s, and heard masse, and went home again; and at night great bonfires were made through all London, for the joy of the people that were converted likewise as St. Paul was converted.

Connected to this day was the yearly presentation to the cathedral’s clergy of a fat buck and doe, an obligation incurred in 1375 in recompense for the enclosure of some of the Dean’s land. It sounds pretty darn pagan to me.

On these days, the buck and the doe were brought by one or more servants at the hour of the procession, and through the midst thereof, and offered at the high altar of St. Paul’s Cathedral: after which the persons that brought the buck received of the Dean and Chapter, by the hands of their Chamberlain, twelve pence sterling for their entertainment; but nothing when they brought the doe. The buck being brought to the steps of the altar, the Dean and Chapter, appareled in copes and proper vestments, with garlands of roses on their heads, sent the body of the buck to be baked, and had the head and horns fixed on a pole before the cross, in their procession round about the church, till they issued at the west door, where the keeper that brought it blowed the death of the buck, and then the horns that were about the city answered him in like manner; for which they had each, of the Dean and Chapter, three and fourpence in money, and their dinner; and the keeper, during his stay, meat, drink, and lodging, and five shillings in money at his going away; together with a loaf of bread, having in it the picture of St. Paul.

January 24

41 A busy day in Rome

One of the cleverest twists in historical fiction was achieved by Robert Graves in his novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. It was his literary conceit that Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the fourth emperor of Rome, was not the bumbling fool that historians portrayed but rather a clever survivor and acute observer of murderous imperial politics. On this day in 41 A.D. Claudius succeeded to the throne after the death of the incumbent, the mad Gaius “Caligula”.

Caligula (b. 12 A.D.) was a very bad fellow indeed. His accession to power in 37 was a popular one as his predecessor Tiberius had turned paranoid and cruel and the young man was the descendant of both Caesar Augustus and Mark Antony. After a few months of stability, Caligula began to murder family members, Senators, and military officers and to squander public funds on vast and useless projects. He began to think himself divine and demanded to be worshipped – previous emperors had been regarded as gods only after their deaths. He awarded himself a triumphal parade for having vanquished the ocean, committed incest with his sisters, and is said to have thrown spectators in the arena to be killed by wild animals when a shortage of prisoners had spoiled the show. When members of the political class began to fear for their lives, they joined in a plot to assassinate Caligula whom they stabbed to death; his wife and daughter were also murdered. The Praetorian Guard took revenge on the conspirators. When one of the guardsmen discovered Caligula’s uncle, the last male of the Julio-Claudian line, hiding behind the curtain it seemed they had found a suitable successor.

Claudius was by this time in his 50s; he limped and stuttered and was widely considered to be a harmless fool, which probably saved him from deadly court intrigues. He was happy to have been spared by the Guard, promptly granted them bonuses and ordered the execution of the assassins. Claudius’s reign was generally successful – Rome expanded militarily while the imperial bureaucracy and tax collecting powers were made more efficient. The emperor’s personal life, however, was a disaster. During the reign of Caligula Claudius had unwisely married the fifteen-year-old beauty Messalina. The young woman turned out to be promiscuous on an industrial scale and plotted against him, forcing the poor fellow to order her death. His fourth and final wife, Agrippina, ended the farce by poisoning him to put her son Nero on the throne.

January 23



Pascal publishes the first of his Provincial Letters.

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was an enormously influential French scientist, philosopher and religious writer. His work on hydraulic power, geometry, mathematics and mechanical computation helped to energize the nascent Second Scientific Revolution.

In his 20s Pascal became acquainted with Jansenism, a Catholic movement with pronounced ideas on grace which ran into controversy with Church authorities who labelled it a heresy. Before the sect was outlawed by the pope and Louis XIV, Pascal began to write on religious subjects. On this day in 1656 he published the first of his Provincial Letters, which were eventually to number eighteen. In them, Pascal, under a pseudonym, used brilliant satire and elegant language to attack current notions on grace and the Jesuit use of the philosophical tool known as casuistry, which Pascal condemned as a mere clever use of language to rationalize moral laxity. The series of essays won wide praise for its literary style but condemnation for its religious content. The king ordered the writings shredded and publicly burnt; Pascal had to go into hiding.

The Provincial Letters remain a monument of French literature, praised by critics of all sorts. The agnostic philosophe Voltaire and Bossuet, the ultra-orthodox Catholic bishop, were both admirers. Even the 20th-century Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc, who attacked Pascal’s accusations against the Jesuits, spoke of the work’s “wit and fervour”.

Pascal is probably best known for his famous wager about the existence of God, outlined in his Pensées and a giant step in probability theory.

 If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is…God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is infinite chaos that separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it.

“No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

January 22

1561 Birth of Francis Bacon

In the midst of a world steeped in “disinformation”, it may be useful to consider the thoughts of an English politician whose brilliant public career ended amid rigged accusations of bribe-taking. Francis Bacon, Viscount St Albans, was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, a favourite of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth I, and an intellectual giant. This is the man who coined the phrase “knowledge is power”, who wrote the first essays in the English language, penned our first science fiction and, by proposing that observation and induction replace all previously-accepted knowledge, laid the foundation of the scientific method. He is believed by many to be the “real author” of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He wasn’t but he was an important figure in the philosophical history of the Anglophone world.

Bacon was born into a family which was prominent in Elizabethan religion and politics. His father Nicholas was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and his uncle was William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s closest advisor. He entered politics at age 20, rose to be the Queen’s legal counsel and the Attorney General of her successor James I. His enemies brought him down in 1621 on grossly-inflated charges but he never lost the respect of the thinking classes.

In his ground-breaking Essays, Bacon claimed that humans were barred from seeing reality by four obstacles. The first of his three barriers to clear thinking dealt with individual eccentricities, common superstitions, and false knowledge; the fourth was what he called “Idols of the Market-place”  on account of the commerce and consort of men there. For it is by discourse that men associate; and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions or explanations wherewith in some things learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves, by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

 For Bacon, words wrongly used could keep people from discovering the truth and this was a tragedy. For North American politicians, truth-avoidance has become precisely the point. Spokesmen of each party in debates, press releases, and speeches use language as a means of obfuscation more than clarification; the power of words to cloud issues is valued over its ability to shed light.

Bacon died in 1626, possibly the victim of his own belief in scientific observation, having caught pneumonia while conducting an experiment in refrigeration.

January 21

1908 New York bans women smoking in public

Though the prohibition of alcohol is a story well-known to fans of Elliot Ness and the Untouchables, less attention has been paid to the serious campaigns waged against the consumption of tobacco.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a leader in this campaign, urging boys and girls to take the Clean Life Pledge: “I hereby pledge myself with the help of God to abstain from all intoxicating liquors as a beverage and from the use of tobacco in any form.” At the turn of the 20th century a number of states and municipalities had enacted legislation banning the sale of cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Particularly worrisome to the nation’s legislators was the sight of the fair sex ingesting the smoke of the demon weed.

On January 21, 1908 New York City passed an ordinance, the Sullivan Act, forbidding women from smoking in public. The very next day, a female scofflaw named Katie Mulcahey was arrested after striking a match against the wall of a house and lighting a cigarette.

The officer protested, “Madame, you mustn’t! What would Alderman Sullivan say?”

“But I am,” Mulcahey replied, “and don’t know.”

In night court she stated her views to the judge, who was, of course, a man: “I’ve got as much right to smoke as you have. never heard of this new law, and don’t want to hear about it. No man shall dictate to me.”

The shameless hussy was found guilty and fined $5.00 but she refused to pay and was thrown in jail for her impudence.

The Sullivan Act lasted only two weeks before being vetoed by Mayor George McClellan. Smoking attracted women as a symbol of liberation and sophistication, especially in the post-World War I period. Here is a picture of my parents in the late 1940s. What makes my mother’s cigarette addiction so important is that she was a recovering tuberculosis patient with only one lung.

January 20

1888 Birth of Lead Belly

Huddie William Ledbetter was born to a poor African American family in Louisiana but moved at an early age with his parents to Texas. There he learned to play a number of musical instruments and by his teenage years was making money singing and playing playing his 12-string guitar “Stella”. Working in clubs, saloons, and brothels, he adopted the nickname Lead Belly.

Ledbetter was of a violent disposition and served time in prison for murder, attempted murder, and assault. It was in jail where he met the folklorists John and Alan Lomax who were touring the South making field recordings of prison musicians for the Library of Congress. The Lomaxes employed him and introduced him to audiences in New York. There, in the 1930s his reputation as a singer of folk songs grew. His renditions of “Midnight Special”, “Goodnight Irene” and “TB Blues” won him a recording contract and a tidy living playing on the radio, university campuses and touring. He died in 1949 of  Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Lead Belly’s influence on the folk music scene was immense. Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and the Beatles all cited him as an inspiration. In my teenage years a Smithsonian LP of his greatest hits had my young toes tapping. Here he is:

January 19

1095 Death of a saintly bishop

The Norman Conquest of England which began in 1066 was supported by the papacy partly out of a desire to reform the English Church which was seen as backward and corrupt by the reform movement in Rome. All of the Anglo-Saxon bishops except one were replaced by continental clerics such as Lanfranc, the new Italian Archbishop of Canterbury. The single bishop left in place was Wulstan, aka Wulfstan, (1008-95) of Worcester. Robert Chambers explains why:

St. Wulstan was the last saint of the Anglo-Saxon Church, the link between the old English Church and hierarchy and the Norman. He was a monk, indeed, and an ascetic; still, his vocation lay not in the school or cloister, but among the people of the market-place and the village, and he rather dwelt on the great broad truths of the Gospel than followed them into their results. Though a thane’s son, a series of unexpected circumstances brought him into the religious profession, and he became prior of a monastery at Worcester. Born at Long Itchington, in Warwickshire, and educated at the monasteries of Evesham and Peterborough, the latter one of the richest houses and the most famous schools in England, he was thoughtful above his years, and voluntarily submitted to exercises and self-denials from which other children were excused. To Wulstan, the holy monk, the proud Earl Harold once went thirty miles out of his way, to make his confession to him, and beg his prayers. He was a man of kind yet blunt and homely speech, and delighted in his devotional duties; the common people looked upon him as their friend, and he used. to sit at the church door listening to complaints, redressing wrongs, helping those who were in trouble, and giving advice, spiritual and temporal.

Every Sunday and great festival he preached to the people: his words seemed to be the voice of thunder, and he drew together vast crowds, wherever he had to dedicate a church. As an example of his practical preaching, it is related that, in reproving the greediness which was a common fault of that day, Wulstan confessed that a savory roast goose which was preparing for his dinner, had once so taken up his thoughts, that he could not attend to the service he was performing, but that he had punished himself for it, and given up the use of meat in consequence.

At length, in 1062, two Roman cardinals came to Worcester, with Aldred the late bishop, now Archbishop of York; they spent the whole Lent at the Cathedral monastery, where Wulstan was prior, and they were so impressed with his austere and hardworking way of life, that partly by their recommendation, as well as the popular voice at Worcester, Wulstan was elected to the vacant bishopric. He heard of this with sorrow and vexation, declaring that he would rather lose his head than be made a bishop; but he yielded to the stern rebuke of an aged hermit, and received the pastoral staff from the hands of Edward the Confessor. The Normans, when they came, thought him, like his church, old-fashioned and homely; but they admired his unworldly and active life, which was not that of study and thoughtful retirement, but of ministering to the common people, supplying the deficiencies of the parochial clergy, and preaching. He rode on horse-back, with his retinue of clerks and monks, through his diocese, repeating the Psalter, the Litanies, and the office for the dead; his chamberlain always had a purse ready, and ‘no one ever begged of Wulstan in vain.’ In these progresses he came into personal contact with all his flock, high and low—with the rude crowds, beggars and serfs, craftsmen and labourers, as well as with priests and nobles. But everything gave way to his confirming children — from sunrise to sunset he would go without tasting food, blessing batch after hatch of the little ones.

Wulstan was a great church builder: he took care that on each of his own manors there should be a church, and he urged other lords to follow his example. He rebuilt the cathedral of his see, and restored the old ruined church of Westbury. When his new cathedral was ready for use, the old one built by St. Oswald was to be demolished; Wulstan stood in the churchyard looking on sadly and silently, but at last burst into tears at this destruction, as he said, of the work of saints, who knew not how to build fine churches, but knew how to sacrifice themselves to God, whatever roof might be over them.

It cannot be said of Wulstan that he was much of a respecter of persons. He had rebuked and warned the headstrong Harold, and he was not less bold before his more imperious successor. At a council in Winchester, he bluntly called upon William to restore to the see some lands which he had seized. He had to fight a stouter battle with Lanfranc, who, ambitious of deposing him for incapacity and ignorance, in a synod held before the king, called upon the bishop to deliver up his pastoral staff and ring; when, according to the legend, Wulstan drove the staff into the stone of the tomb of the Confessor, where it remained fast imbedded, notwithstanding the efforts of the Bishop of Rochester, Lanfranc, and the king himself, to remove it, which, however, Wulstan easily did, and thenceforth was reconciled to Lanfranc; and they subsequently cooperated in destroying a slave trade which had long been carried on by merchants of Bristol with Ireland.

Wulstan outlived William and Lanfranc. He passed his last Lent with more than usual solemnity, on his last Maundy washing the feet and clothes of the poor, bestowing alms and ministering the cup of ‘charity;’ then supplying them, as they sat at his table, with shoes and victuals; and finally reconciling penitents, and washing the feet of his brethren of the convent. On Easter-day, he again feasted with the poor.

At Whitsuntide following, being taken ill, he prepared for death, but he lingered till the first day of the new year, when he finally took to his bed. He was laid so as to have a view of the altar of a chapel, and thus he followed the psalms which were sung. On the 19th of January 1095, at midnight, he died in the eighty-seventh year of his age, and the thirty-third of his episcopate. Contrary to the usual custom, the body was laid out, arranged in the episcopal vestments and crosier, before the high altar, that the people of Worcester might look once more on their good bishop. His stone coffin is, to this day, shewn in the presbytery of the cathedral, the crypt and early Norman portions of which are the work of Wnlstan.

If your interest in Wulstan has not been exhausted, I direct you to the splendid A Clerk of Oxford site where you will find more on the saint: https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2015/01/st-wulfstan-of-worcester-sole-survivor.html