February 28

On the day of his 38th birthday, Michel de Montaigne had the following inscription placed on the crown of the bookshelves of his working chamber:

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.

In 1580 Montaigne published the fruit of that seclusion in the first edition of his Essais. Here are some of his observations:

“No wind favors him who has no destined port.”

“He who lives not to others, lives little to himself.”

“Philosophy is doubt.”

“Ambition is not a vice of little people.”

“The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. ” 

“On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.” 

February 27

In the fourth century when Christianity became a legally-recognized religion, emperors had much to say about doctrine. Constantine I backed the Trinitarian definition — a coequal God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit — but his sons and later rulers favoured the Arian position of the Son as a lesser, created being. Julian the Apostate, on the other hand, favoured a return to the good old pagan pantheon.

On this date in 380, the co-emperors (Theodosius and Valentinian are portrayed on the coin above) opted for a return to Trinitarianism and condemned other views as heretical. The proclamation reads:


It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our Clemency and Moderation, should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.


Within a few years imperial “desire” turned to persecution and Arian churches were ordered shut down. Like all ancient decrees, however, there was always a large gap between proclamation and enforcement; Arianism continued to be popular in parts of the empire, especially after the borders were penetrated by Arian-professing barbarians.

February 25

1534 Death of Count Wallenstein

The Thirty Years War (1618-48) is a phenomenon not nearly as well-known as it ought to be. It was the last of the great European religious wars and the Treaty of Westphalia which brought it to a close marked the beginning of the age of nation-states.

One of the most significant figures of this conflict was the champion of the Catholic cause, Count Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein who rose from being a mercenary captain to be an Imperial generalissimo, a prince, and one of the richest men in Europe.  He was successful in all but one of his battles but was suspected (quite rightly) of overweening ambition and treachery, suspicions which led to his assassination.

I had long been aware of Wallenstein’s military genius but not until reading this passage in Chambers’ Book of Days did I learn of the man’s astonishing grandiosity.

Born of high rank in 1583, Wallenstein found himself at forty chief of the imperial armies, and the possessor of immense wealth. Concentrating a powerful mind on one object, the gratification of his ambition, he attained it to a remarkable degree, and was for some time beyond doubt the greatest subject in Europe. In managing troops by a merciless discipline, in making rapid marches, in the fiery energy of his attacks upon the enemy, he was unrivalled. In but one battle, that of Lützen, where he met the Protestant army under Gustavus of Sweden, was he unsuccessful.

Wallenstein’s immense riches, his profound reserve, and theatrical manners, were the principal means he employed to exalt the imagination of the masses. He always appeared in public surrounded by extraordinary pomp, and allowed all those attached to his house to share in his luxury. His officers lived sumptuously at his table, where never less than one hundred dishes were served. As he rewarded with excessive liberality, not only the multitude but the greatest personages were dazzled by this Asiatic splendour. Six gates gave entrance to his palace at Prague, to make room for which he had pulled down one hundred houses. Similar chateaux were erected by his orders on all his numerous estates. Twenty-four chamberlains, sprung from the most noble families, disputed the honour of serving him, and some sent back the golden key, emblem of their grade, to the Emperor, in order that they might wait on Wallenstein.

He educated sixty pages, dressed in blue velvet and gold, to whom he gave the first masters; fifty truants guarded his ante-chamber night and day; six barons and the same number of chevaliers were constantly within call to bear his orders. His maître-d’hôtel was a person of distinction. A thousand persons usually formed his household, and about one thousand horses filled his stables, where they fed from marble mangers. When he set out on his travels, a hundred carriages, drawn by four or six horses, convoyed his servants and baggage; sixty carriages and fifty led horses carried the people of his suite; ten trumpeters with silver bugles preceded the procession. The richness of his liveries, the pomp of his equipages, and the decoration of his apartments, were in harmony with all the rest. In a hall of his palace at Prague he had himself painted in a triumphal car, with a wreath of laurels round his head, and a star above him. [See above for a mural from his palace.]

Wallenstein’s appearance was enough in itself to inspire fear and respect. His tall thin figure, his haughty attitude, the stern expression of his pale face, his wide forehead, that seemed formed to command, his black hair, close-shorn and harsh, his little dark eyes, in which the flame of authority shone, his haughty and suspicious look, his thick moustaches and tufted beard, produced, at the first glance, a startling sensation. His usual dress consisted of a justaucorps of elk skin, covered by a white doublet and cloak; round his neck he wore a Spanish ruff; in his hat fluttered a large red plume, while scarlet pantaloons and boots of Cordova leather, carefully padded on account of the gout, completed his ordinary attire. While his army devoted itself to pleasure, the deepest silence reigned around the general. He could not endure the rumbling of carts, loud conversations, or even simple sounds.

One of his chamberlains was hanged for waking him without orders, and an officer secretly put to death because his spurs had clanked when he came to the general. His servants glided about the rooms like phantoms, and a dozen patrols incessantly moved round his tent or palace to maintain perpetual tranquillity. Chains were also stretched across the streets, in order to guard him against any sound. Wallenstein was ever absorbed in himself, ever engaged with his plans and designs. He was never seen to smile, and his pride rendered him inaccessible to sensual pleasures. His only fanaticism was ambition. This strange chief meditated and acted incessantly, only taking counsel of himself, and disdaining strange advice and inspirations. When he gave any orders or explanations, he could not bear to be looked at curiously; when he crossed the camp, the soldiers were obliged to pretend that they did not see him. Yet they experienced an involuntary shudder when they saw him pass like a super-natural being. There was something about him mysterious, solemn, and awe-inspiring. He walked alone, surrounded by this magic influence, like a saddening halo.

The end of Wallenstein was such as might have been anticipated. Becoming too formidable for a subject, he was denounced to the Emperor by Piccolomini, who obtained a commission to take the great general dead or alive. On the 25th of February 1634, he was assailed in the Castle of Eger by a band, in which were included one Gordon, a Scotsman, and one Butler, an Irishman, and fell under a single stroke of a partizan, dying in proud silence, as he had lived.


February 20


Cancellation of the Avro Arrow

Want to get a Canadian historian all teary-eyed and remorseful? Want to see him clench his fists and trouble deaf heaven with his bootless cries? If so, just sidle up to him and whisper “Diefenbaker canceled the Arrow”, but step back quickly lest you be caught in the sudden outburst of mingled lachrymosity and rage.

The CF-105, Avro Arrow, was surely the most beautiful fighter aircraft ever built. It was also the most advanced interceptor of its era, designed to counter the threat of Soviet bomber attacks on North America. Capable of Mach 2 performance and armed with nuclear missiles that could destroy whole waves of attackers, the Arrow was far superior to its predecessor, the CF-100 Canuck, and other fighters of the time such as the Delta Dart, the Voodoo, and the Mig-21.

In February 1959 the Diefenbaker government abruptly cancelled the Arrow program and ordered all prototypes, plans, and parts destroyed. This decision crippled the Canadian aerospace industry, and resulted in tens of thousands of lost jobs and a brain drain of engineers and scientists to the USA and Britain. One of the big winners was NASA which scooped up dozens of Arrow technicians for its missile and moon mission projects.

A cold calculus might back the government’s decision. The Arrow was an enormously expensive programme and the development of Russian ICBMs meant that a bomber threat was less likely. Canadian counter-intelligence suspected a Soviet mole at work in the project and it was they who demanded the destruction of the aircraft. (Parts of the plane and its plans were, nonetheless, smuggled out by workers for preservation.) The money that was to be saved by cancelling the Arrow was spent on the ultimately useless Bomarc anti-aircraft missile, dubbed “the world’s most expensive lawn dart”.

The Arrow lives in in Canadian mythology as a lost moment, a bit of greatness that might have been but never was.


February 18

1478 The death of the Duke of Clarence

Second murderer: Take him [the Duke of Clarence] on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey-butt in the next room.

First Murderer [to the Duke of Clarence, stabbing him]: Take that, and that. If all this will not do, I’ll drown you in the malmsey-butt within.

This is how Shakespeare treats the death of George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. Before and after the Bard’s version, historians have debated how Clarence died and who was responsible for his death. In the sixteenth century it was widely believed that Gloucester had ordered the execution while more recent historians have expressed the possibility that Gloucester opposed his brother’s death.

By the standards of the time, Clarence certainly deserved to get the chop. He had betrayed his brothers and allied himself with this family’s dynastic rivals, Henry VI and the Lancastrian faction, but eventually deserted them to rejoin his Yorkist siblings. Never quite stable, mentally, he then seems to have again aroused suspicions of disloyalty in Edward’s mind and he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

His two surviving children who lived into the 16th century were both murdered on the orders of Henry VIII, whose Tudor father Henry VII had usurped the throne from Richard III.

February 13

St Valentine’s Eve

During the 19th century, inhabitants of the eastern English city of Norwich celebrated the unique custom described here in Chamber’s Book of Days.

At Norwich, St. Valentine’s eve appears to be still kept as a time for a general giving and receiving of gifts. It is a lively and stirring scene. The streets swarm with carriers, and baskets laden with treasures; bang, bang, bang go the knockers, and away rushes the banger, depositing first upon the door-step some packages from the basket of stores—again and again at intervals, at every door to which a missive is addressed, is the same repeated, till the baskets are empty. Anonymously, St. Valentine presents his gifts, labelled only with “St Valentine’s love,” and “Good morrow, Valentine.” Then within the houses of destination, the screams, the shouts, the rushings to catch the bang-bangs,—the flushed faces, sparkling eyes, rushing feet to pick up the fairy-gifts—inscriptions to be interpreted, mysteries to be unravelled, hoaxes to be found out —great hampers, heavy and ticketed “With care, this side upwards,” to be unpacked, out of which jump live little boys with St. Valentine’s love to the little ladies fair,—the sham bang-bangs, that bring nothing but noise and fun—the mock parcels that vanish from the door-step by invisible strings when the door opens—monster parcels that dwindle to thread papers denuded of their multiplied envelopes, with fitting mottoes, all tending to the final consummation of good counsel, “Happy is he who expects nothing, and he will not be disappointed.” 

This lovely practice disappeared but there are recent attempts in Norwich to revive the custom.

February 10


HMS Dreadnought and the arms race

With the exception of Great Britain, all of the major European states had adopted universal military service after 1871. Standing armies grew enormously, with millions of men under arms in many  countries. Moreover, all had copied the German General Staff and had adopted  their ideas on the scientific study of war and preparation for war. Thousands  of specialists in each country pored over maps, employed spies, sought out  enemy spies, assessed intelligence, and considered the problems of topography, ordnance, transportation and logistics. Once this sort of machinery had been put in motion, it was inevitable that they begin to have an influence on policy decisions. This was particularly true in France with its obsession about revanche and Germany, fully aware of French feelings and planning a “preventive war”. Militarism took an increasingly large part of national budgets: the British taxpayer who paid $3.54 for the armed forces in 1870 paid $8.23 in 1914; France went from $2.92 to 7.07; Germany from $1.28 to 8.19. The Dreadnought Race is symptomatic of this.

In 1906 the Royal Navy launched a new type of battleship: heavily armoured, all-big gunned, steam-turbine-powered, and fast. It made all other battleships obsolete. The problem was that HMS Dreadnought also made British naval superiority obsolete at a stroke. Hitherto Britain had insisted that its navy be as large as the next two navies combined so that no alliance could challenge its power at sea. Now, however, its numerical advantage was useless; what mattered was how many ships of the dreadnought class a nation could produce. Germany was particularly eager to compete and started building similar ships of their own, forcing the British into an ever more expensive arms race and heightening tensions that eventually exploded in 1914.

February 9


The Beatles’ first appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show”.

With so few entertainment choices, in the 1960s popular culture was still relatively uniform. It had not finished dividing into the many sub-categories we endure today; a television variety program like Ed Sullivan’s could attract a multi-generational audience with a variety of performers ranging from night-club crooners, Chinese plate-spinners, Mexican ventriloquists, borscht-belt comedians, and rock musicians.

The British Invasion that was changing the sound of pop music was led by those four lovable mop-topped lads from Liverpool, the Beatles. By early 1964, their hold on youth was so strong that my church youth group was resigned to letting us teenagers go home early to watch their first North American tv appearance. I sat on the polyester rug in our living room and sang along while my parents watched, manifestly unimpressed.

In the end, Sullivan’s show lost its appeal to those advertisers seeking to court the youth market and his show was cancelled in 1971.

February 6

1952 The succession of Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith succeeded her father George VI on this day. She received the news while visiting Kenya as part of a royal tour. As part of Elizabeth’s formal accession she was required to sign this document:

The formal insistence on the monarch’s Protestantism was a product of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and is still a part of the job requirements. The Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England; whether her putative successor, the future Charles III, will be comfortable with that is open for debate. The great lummox had said he would prefer to be known as “Defender of the Faiths” [sic] but was, apparently, talked out of it.

The standard version of the royal anthem (which my generation regularly sang as schoolchildren) is:

God save our gracious Queen!
Long live our noble Queen!
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen!

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all.

Thy choicest gifts in store,
On her be pleased to pour;
Long may she reign:
May she defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the Queen!


February 5

By now every high school and college teacher has read one of the collections of student bloopers that circulate relentlessly on the Internet. “Francis Drake,” we are told, “circumcised the world with a hundred-foot clipper.” “Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife”. “Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock”, etc. It behooves me, therefore, to salute some of my University of Manitoba students who in their essays and exams contributed these gems.

• Who defeated the Spartans at Thermopylae? “The Persian emperor Xerox”.

• Aristotle was one of the “Immorals of Science”.

• Emperor Charles V “abolished Luther at the Doctrine of Worms”.

• Clovis, king of the Franks was a “barbaric worrier”.

• Define “buboes”: “The black plaque that hid Europe.”

• Define hedonism: “Geek pleasure”.

• One of Luther’s doctrines? “The just shall live by fate.”

• One of the contributions of medieval philosophy? “Ockham’s Raisin”.

• At what point did the French Revolution become less radical? “The 1794 Thermodynamic Reaction”.

• Who were the Flagellants? “The people who wiped themselves”.