May 26

1201 Murder of a Pilgrim Saint

According to CatholicSaints Info, the Scotsman William of Perth (aka William of Rochester) led a wild and misspent youth, but as an adult he had a complete conversion, devoting himself to God, caring especially for poor and neglected children. He worked as a baker, and gave every tenth loaf to the poor. He attended Mass daily, and one morning on his way to church he found an infant abandoned on the threshold. He named the baby David, and adopted him, and taught him his trade.

Years later he and David set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. During a stop-over in Rochester, England the boy David turned on William, clubbed him, cut his throat, robbed the body, and fled. Because he was on a holy journey, and because of the miraculous cures later reported at his tomb, he is considered a martyr.

A local insane woman found William’s body, and plaited a garland of honeysuckle flowers for it; she placed the garland on William, and then on herself whereupon her madness was cured. Local monks, seeing this as a sign from God, interred William in the local cathedral and began work on his shrine. His tomb and a chapel at his murder scene, called Palmersdene, soon became sites of pilgrimage, second only to the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Remains of the chapel can be seen near the present Saint William’s Hospital.

The stained-glass portrait in Rochester Cathedral above shows William with the traditional pilgrims’s hat, staff, purse, and cockleshell emblem. He is the patron saint of adopted children.

May 23

1618 The Third Defenestration of Prague

When political turmoil grips the Canadian people, the government responds by appointing a Royal Commission, and in the years it takes to issue a final report, the brouhaha always dies down. In times of national crisis, Czechs are wont to throw people out of windows.

The First Prague Defenestration (from the Latin fenestra, and thus the German das Fenster and the French la fenêtre) took place in 1419 when angry Hussites tossed the burgomaster and civic councillors out of a window in the Town Hall to their deaths on the cobblestones below. In 1483 religious quarrels again led to the fatal hurling of the Prague burgomaster and his colleagues through windows.

In May, 1618 sectarian hostility led to a confrontation in the Bohemian Chancellory  between four Catholic regents and a group of Protestant noblemen. The latter demanded to know whether the regents had played a part in provoking the King Ferdinand II to issue harsh anti-Protestant decrees. Two of the regents accepted responsibility for supporting those moves, whereupon they and their secretary were propelled out the window 70′ above the ground. Their survival was attributed by the Catholic faction to a miraculous intercession of the Virgin Mary and by the Protestants to a fortuitous soft landing in a dung heap. The Thirty Years War soon erupted.

May 22

1520 The Alvarado Massacre

It’s hard to say a good word about the Spanish conquistadors; a scummier bunch of rapacious, dishonourable murderers would be hard to find. On the other hand, one is hard-pressed to be a fan of the Aztecs, cruel imperialists who conducted human sacrifices on an industrial scale. A tragic event in May 1520 would prompt a clash between the two cultures that would eventually end very badly for the natives.

In 1519 the Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortes had marched to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and taken Emperor Moctezuma prisoner. The Spaniards and their native allies were housed in their own compound of the magnificent city on the lake, relying on the locals for food. They were a tiny, uneasy band surrounded by a hostile populace resentful at their god-leader’s capture.

While Cortes was absent, dealing with another band of Spaniards on the coast, the Aztecs informed his deputy Pedro de Alvarado that they would be holding a festival in honour of one of their gods. Alvarado was also told by his allies that this was a cover for the start of an Aztec uprising and that the Spaniards were sure to be overwhelmed and sacrificed. Alvarado chose to react violently. He sealed off the square where the dancing was taking place and butchered the unarmed participants.

Here is an Aztec account:

Here it is told how the Spaniards killed; they murdered the Mexicans who were celebrating the Fiesta of Huitzilopochtli in the place they called The Patio of the Gods.  At this time, when everyone was enjoying the celebration, when everyone was already dancing, when everyone was already singing, when song was linked to song and the songs roared like waves, in that precise moment the Spaniards determined to kill people. They came into the patio, armed for battle. They came to close the exits, the steps, the entrances [to the patio]: The Gate of the Eagle in the smallest palace, The Gate of the Canestalk and the Gate of the Snake of Mirrors. And when they had closed them, no one could get out anywhere. Once they had done this, they entered the Sacred Patio to kill people. They came on foot, carrying swords and wooden and metal shields. Immediately, they surrounded those who danced, then rushed to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off both his arms. Then they cut off his head [with such a force] that it flew off, falling far away. At that moment, they then attacked all the people, stabbing them, spearing them, wounding them with their swords. They struck some from behind, who fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out [of their bodies]. They cut off the heads of some and smashed the heads of others into little pieces. They struck others in the shoulders and tore their arms from their bodies. They struck some in the thighs and some in the calves. They slashed others in the abdomen and their entrails fell to the earth. There were some who even ran in vain, but their bowels spilled as they ran; they seemed to get their feet entangled with their own entrails. Eager to flee, they found nowhere to go. Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a while. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again they [the Spaniards] would see them and kill them. The blood of the warriors ran like water as they ran, forming pools, which widened, as the smell of blood and entrails fouled the air. And the Spaniards walked everywhere, searching the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They ran everywhere, they searched every place. When [people] outside [the Sacred Patio learned of the massacre], shouting began, “Captains, Mexicas, come here quickly! Come here with all arms, spears, and shields! Our captains have been murdered! Our warriors have been slain! Oh Mexica captains, [our warriors] have been annihilated!” Then a roar was heard, screams, people wailed, as they beat their palms against their lips. Quickly the captains assembled, as if planned in advance, and carried their spears and shields. Then the battle began. [The Mexicas] attacked them with arrows and even javelins, including small javelins used for hunting birds. They furiously hurled their javelins [at the Spaniards]. It was as if a layer of yellow canes spread over the Spaniards.

This atrocity greatly imperilled the Spanish position in the capital. Moctezuma would be repudiated by the Aztec elite and an uprising in June would eventually drive the conquistadors from the city with great losses. Much more blood would be shed before the Spaniards could crush the native resistance.

May 21

1776 Battle of the Cedars

When Canada defeats an invading army, as occurred 246 years ago this week, we know how to boast about it. Behold the mighty monument to our victory over the Americans at the Battle of the Cedars, 1776! It puts that puny Arc de Triomphe to shame.

In 1775 a Continental Army invaded Quebec. The American forces succeeded in taking Montreal but failed in their siege of Quebec City. By May 1776 their position was untenable and they began to withdraw back to New York. This left their garrison at The Cedars, south of Montreal, exposed to attack. 

When a detachment of British regulars, some Quebecois militia, and hundreds of Iroquois showed up outside the wooden fort, the American commander Isaac Butterfield tried in vain to negotiate an armed withdrawal. When that option was denied, he surrendered. Other American troops at nearby Quinze-Chênes put up a fight but they too yielded. The British officers were able to persuade the Iroquois not to massacre their prisoners but the captives were looted by the natives. 

A prisoner exchange was arranged and the American soldiers were released but Congress, arguing that the Iroquois had committed atrocities, refused to honour their side of the swap. 

May 20

1631 The Sack of Magdeburg

One of the comedic gems of the late 20th century was Ripping Yarns, a BBC production written by two ex-Pythons, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. The series made sport of English boys adventure books. Episodes such as “Across the Andes by Frog” and “The Curse of the Claw” are hilarious but my favourite is “Roger of the Raj”, a tale of a young British officer in India. The colonel of the regiment is a kindly old duffer but his wife is a fierce colonialist, as is evidenced by this bedtime conversation:

Lord Bartelsham: You know, I often think that if people had been a little more kind to each other, we could have avoided many of the wars which have plagued society through the ages.
Lady Bartelsham: Rubbish, dear.
Lord Bartelsham: Well… maybe.. but just suppose for a minute that when Wallenstein reached the gates of Magdeburg in 1631, instead of razing the city to the ground and putting its inhabitants to the sword, he’d said… “What a lovely place! How lucky you are to live here. I live in Sweden.. you must come and see me some time.” Just think what a difference it would have made he’d have gone down in history as a nice chap, instead of the Butcher of Magdeburg.
Lady Bartelsham: Eat up dear, and stop talking piffle.

Lord Bartelsham may have had his heart in the right place but he got some facts wrong about the destruction of Magdeburg which took place on this date in 1631. First of all, Count Wallenstein was not the Imperial general besieging Magdeburg — the title of Butcher of Magdeburg is held jointly by Count Tilly and Graf Pappenheim. None of those generals was Swedish. Bartlesham was doubtless thinking of Tilly and Wallenstein’s opponent Gustavus Adolphus.

Regardless of who was in charge of the Catholic forces who stormed Magdeburg, the ensuing massacres and atrocities were the low point of the Thirty Years War. Tilly was proud of himself. He wrote to the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II, “Never was such a victory since the storming of Troy or of Jerusalem. I am sorry that you and the ladies of the court were not there to enjoy the spectacle.” Pope Urban VIII thought it a fine deed, telling Tilly “You have washed your victorious hands in the blood of sinners.” 

Fourteen Pieces of Wisdom

It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured. – Tacitus, Annals, c. 105

The cobra will bite you whether you call it cobra or Mr. Cobra. – Indian Proverb

Permit me, sir, to give you one piece of advice. Be not so positive; especially with regard to things which are neither easy nor necessary to be determined. When I was young I was sure of everything. In a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before. At present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to man. – John Wesley, London Magazine, 1775

Do not let a flattering woman coax and wheedle you and deceive you; she is after your barn. – Hesiod, 8c B.C.

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. – Carl W. Buehner, 1971

Money swore an oath that nobody who did not love it should ever have it. – Irish proverb

God has promised forgiveness to your repentance, but He has not promised tomorrow to your procrastination. – Augustine of Hippo, “Commentary on Psalm 145”, c. 400

Nothing has more strength than dire necessity. – Euripides, Helen, 412 BC

What they do in heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not do we are told expressly. – Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting, 1703

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1974

We are human beings, not creatures of infinite possibilities. ­ Robertson Davies, Conversations with Robertson Davies, 1989

A fanatic is someone who looks at beauty and sees injustice. – Theodore Dalrymple, Midnight Maxims, 2021

Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares. – Daniel Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, 2005

Every man has some reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself, and every decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away. That is, one can even say that the more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind. – Feodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground, 1864


Thoughts on Writing

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy. – Dorothy Parker, Esquire, 1959

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. – William Faulkner, interview in Paris Review, 1956

I don’t think Henry James ever knew how ordinary people behave. His characters have neither bowels nor sexual organs. He wrote a number of stories about men of letters, and it is told that when someone protested that literary men were not like that, he retorted, “So much the worse for them.” Presumably, he did not look upon himself as a realist. Though I do not know that it is a fact, I surmise that he regarded Madame Bovary with horror. On one occasion Matisse was showing a lady a picture of his in which he had painted a naked woman, and the lady exclaimed, “But a woman isn’t like that”: to which he answered, “It isn’t a woman, madam, it’s a picture.” I think, similarly, if someone had ventured to suggest that a story of James’s was not like life, he would have replied, “It isn’t life, it’s a story.” —W. Somerset Maugham, “The Short Story”, Points of View, 2011

There isn’t any symbolism in [The Old Man and the Sea]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. – Ernest Hemingway, letter to Bernard Berenson, 1952


May 17

1903 Birth of “Cool Papa” Bell

James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, a Negro League outfielder was reputed to have been the fastest player in baseball. How fast was he?

He was so fast that he could turn off the light and be under the covers before the room got dark.

He was so fast that he once hit a pitch up the middle of the field and he was struck by the ball as he slid into second base.

He was so fast that he stole home on an infield bunt. (True story).

1944 Birth of Jesse Winchester

One of the greatest singer-songwriters of his generation was born in Louisiana and migrated to Canada in 1967 in order to avoid the Vietnam draft. In Montreal he began to compose songs that could rock but were usually marked by a kind of sweet melancholy. He became a Canadian citizen in 1973 but returned to the USA after Jimmy Carter’s amnesty, becoming better-known among fellow performers than the general musical public. Winchester died of cancer in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2014.

Here is a selection of his music that I hope will encourage readers to investigate him.

“Rhumba Man”

“The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”

“Just So Much”

“Lay Down the Burden of Your Heart”

“Sham-A- Ling-Dong”


The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste

Last autumn I was strolling down a street in the old part of Tbilisi, Georgia when I chanced upon a monastery dedicated to the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. “That’s a lot of martyrs in one place, ” I remarked and thought no more about it.

A week later I am in the Caucasus mountains in the village of Mestia which has a world-class museum of ethnography, housing treasures that have been stored by the clans for over a thousand years. Imagine my delight when I come across this icon. Yes, it’s those 40 martyrs.

While Emperor Constantine was legislating religious toleration in the western part of the Roman world, his colleague in the east, Licinius, was persecuting Christians. In 320, when it was discovered that members of the Twelfth Legion stationed in Asia Minor were Christians who refused to renounce their faith, they were ordered to strip and freeze to death on a nearby ice-covered lake. One of their number weakened and headed for a heated bath house but a guard watching over them was converted and joined the martyrs. 

This incident inspired numerous portrayals in icon form, some of them, like the one immediately below, showing the apostate heading for the bath house (where he immediately died of shock) and the guard disrobing.

May 9

Given the current unchecked spate of lies and misinformation polluting our society, it may be worthwhile to consult the opinions of Thomas Jefferson on the subject, written in an 1807 letter, substituting the word “newspaper” with the phrase “social media”.

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted so as to be most useful, I should answer “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood.

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.

I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time: whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.

General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, but no details can be relied on. I will add that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.

Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this: Divide his paper into 4 chapters. Heading the 1st. Truths, 2d. Probabilities, 3d. Possibilities, 4th. Lies. The 1st. chapter would be very short...

Such an editor too would have to set his face against the demoralising practice of feeding the public mind habitually on slander, & the depravity of taste which this nauseous aliment induces. defamation is becoming a necessary of life: insomuch that a dish of tea, in the morning or evening, cannot be digested without this stimulant.