August 20

A particularly grim day in history


The murder of Jan de Witt

Jan de Witt was the leading Dutch politician of his age, known for his opposition to the Orange family’s dynasty in his country. After a series of military defeats Jan and his brother Cornelis were set upon by a well-organized mob in The Hague, tortured, murdered, and, then cannibalized. De Witt’s supporters and most historians blame William of Orange for instigating the violence. William later assumed the throne of the Netherlands and England.


The attack on Leon Trotsky

The creator of the Red Army, the instigator of the Red Terror, and brilliant Marxist theoretician, Leon Trotsky was one of the chief architects of the Bolshevik success in the Russian Revolution. He fell out, however, with Joseph Stalin and was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. Stalin’s wrath was not pacified by Trotsky’s absence and the dictator continued to seek his rival’s destruction, condemning him in absentia to death in a show trial. A couple of murderous attempts on his life during Trotsky’s exile in Mexico had failed but in August, 1940 Ramón Mercader, a KGB agent, struck him with an ice axe, causing his death the next day.


The end of the Prague Spring

Under Premier Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovakian Communist party had attempted a policy of relaxing controls on freedom of expression, producing more consumer goods, and hinting at multi-party democracy. This “socialism with a human face” aroused fears among Party hardliners and their masters in Moscow. Fearing lest Dubcek’s ideas spread, Soviet leader Brezhnev ordered an invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces. Under the pretext of foiling a pro-Western coup, 20,000 troops and 2,000 tanks from the USSR, Poland, and East Germany crossed the borders and took control of the country. Dubček was deposed, replaced by a hard-liner, expelled from the Communist Party and given a job as a forestry official. His reforms were undone but his example seems to have inspired Soviet thinkers 20 years later in the period of glasnost.


August 19


The trial of the Salmesbury Witches

The European Witch Craze took the life of about 40,000 women and men in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and it has been the subject of much study and debate ever since. Was it caused by the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism? Was it a war on women? Did it emerge more in mountainous regions or on the plains? Was there an economic basis for it? Did the views of witches vary among the social classes? Were witches really the practitioners of an ancient folk religion? The arguments continue.

One thing is certain and that is that the accusations of witchcraft were far more numerous in countries using a form of Roman law which allowed the torture of witnesses. In places such as England and Ireland, under common law, torture was generally forbidden and witch trials were far fewer. This changed somewhat, after the accession to the English throne of King James of Scotland. James was a believer in witchcraft and he even wrote a book on it, Daemonologie, where he stated: “The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine … to resolve the doubting … both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished.”

In 1612, Grace Sowerbutts, a Lancashire girl, aged twelve, accused three women of the village of Salmesbury of being witches, and of practising infanticide and cannibalism. Jane Southworth, and Grace’s grandmother and mother, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley were said to be able to transform themselves into dogs and consort with demons. They had killed a local baby and disinterred the child and eaten it. Neighbours testified that one of the women had the reputation of being a witch. Things looked bad for the three accused until the judge re-examined Grace and her story fell apart. She confessed that she had lied and had been coached in her testimony by a Jesuit priest, hiding illegally in the area. The judge instructed the jury to find the defendants not guilty.

Others accused of witchcraft at the same time were less lucky and some of their trials resulted in them being hanged by the same judge who had released the Salmesbury Three.

August 18

“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” So said G.K. Chesterton, in his 1910 Alarms and Discursions. “Not silent enough,” is the verdict of poetry lovers who have encountered the following:

Ode on the Mammoth Cheese Weighing over 7,000 Pounds

We have seen the Queen of cheese,

Laying quietly at your ease,

Gently fanned by evening breeze --

Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you'll go

To the great Provincial Show,

To be admired by many a beau

In the city of Toronto.

Cows numerous as a swarm of bees --

Or as the leaves upon the trees --

It did require to make thee please,

And stand unrivalled Queen of Cheese.

May you not receive a scar as

We have heard that Mr. Harris

Intends to send you off as far as

The great World's show at Paris.

Of the youth -- beware of these --

For some of them might rudely squeeze

And bite your cheek; then songs or glees

We could not sing o' Queen of Cheese.

We'rt thou suspended from a balloon,

You'd caste a shade, even at noon;

Folks would think it was the moon

About to fall and crush them soon.

– James McIntyre, 1884

Scotsmen may boast of William McGonnigal as the world’s worst poet but Canadian hearts beat faster at the mention of James McIntyre. To be sure, McIntyre was born in Scotland in 1828 and emigrated to Canada in 1851, but is in the True North where McIntyre’s muse led him to a career of hymning the praises of cheese. His greatest work is printed above but connoisseurs of the pressed curds of milk also point to his “Oxford Cheese Ode”: The ancient poets ne’er did dream/ That Canada was land of cream,/ They ne’er imagined it could flow/ In this cold land of ice and snow,/ Where everything did solid freeze/ They ne’er hoped or looked for cheese.

An annual cheese-themed poetry competition is held in his adopted home of Ingersoll, Ontario.

August 17


The End of the Prayer Book Rebellion

The English reformation of religion in the sixteenth century was a notoriously top-down affair and many government mandates were met with violent resistance. During the reign of Henry VIII, the dissolution of the monasteries prompted the massive Pilgrimage of Grace when the conservative north of the country rose in defence of the monks. Caught unawares the king was forced to conciliate the rebels with sweet promises until he had assembled enough of a military force to crush them. When Henry was succeeded by his Protestant son Edward VI attempts to enforce the new religious order was also met with outrage and violence.

The Prayer Book Rebellion (or the Western Rebellion) broke out in Cornwall and Devon in 1549. There the peasantry was already upset by the imposition of new taxes, painful price inflation, and the destruction of ancient religious sites by outside commissioners. The announcement that the old Latin rite that the countrymen had worshipped with for centuries was to be replaced by the English-language Prayer Book sparked riots and mass gatherings of armed men. Local landowners took leadership of the rebellion; the city of Exeter was besieged and gentry fled to their manor houses for safety as the two western counties saw thousands of angry Catholics under arms.

Judging by the list of demands drawn up by the rebels, the rising was a combination of religious grievances and social unrest. We can see the former in these three articles:

“First we will have the general counsel and holy decrees of our forefathers observed, kept and performed, and who so ever shall speak against them, we hold them as heretics.” 

“Item we will have the Lawes of our Sovereign Lord Kyng Henry the VIII concerning the Six Articles, to be used as they were in his time.”

“Item we will have the mass in Latin, as was before, and celebrated by the priest without any man or woman communicating with them.

But the dire economic situation of what historians have called the Iron Century also led the rebels to demand that lords restrict the number of their servants and to reform landholding practices.

Though successful at first, the rebels were ultimately defeated by royal armies containing large numbers of hardened foreign mercenaries. On this day in 1549 the decisive battle of Sampford Courtney was fought. Thousands of the men of Devon and Cornwall died in battle and thousands more were rounded up and killed out of hand by government troops. This would not be the last English rebellion over religious reform.

August 16

Some pithy observations drawn from the very words of “A Curmudgeon’s Commonplace Book”.

You might as well hope to detect typographical errors in Finnegans Wake, as hope to detect factual or logical errors in Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, etc. It is a perfect waste of time to read authors, and wonder whether they have got things right, when there is no possible way one could tell if they had gone wrong. – David Stove, Cricket versus Republicanism, 1995

A pessimist is an optimist in full possession of the facts. – Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

It is, above all, autumn that moves the heart to tears. – Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness, c. 1330

Alonso of Aragon was wont to say in commendation of old age, that age appears to be best in four things: old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read. – Francis Bacon, Apothegms New and Old, 1625

One melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realization that you can’t make old friends. — Christopher Hitchens, Harper’s, 1999

August 15



Christians lose control of the Levant

On this day in 636 began the Battle of Yarmouk in which forces of the first Islamic Caliphate defeated a Byzantine army in what is now Syria. It was a long-held part of Byzantine strategy to avoid major winner-take-all battles but the arrival of a massive Arab army that had already rolled up Persian and Christian holdings in the Middle East forced the Byzantines to concentrate their forces. They were outmaneuvered and driven from the field leading to a rapid Islamic conquest of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, territory that would not be regained until the First Crusade in 1099.

A plethora of other Church-related activity also took place on this day.


Frankish co-ruler Carloman retires to a monastery leaving his brother Pepin the Short in charge. Within a few years Pepin will win papal approval for deposing the Merovingian dynasty and setting up the Carolingian line. In return Pepin will invade Italy to defeat enemies of the pope and grant the Bishop of Rome the lands that become the Papal States.


Lanfanc, a Benedictine monk from Italy, will be named Archbishop of Canterbury. Working with the recently-victorious William the Conqueror he will reform the English church, cutting down on corruption and sexual immorality in the clergy. He will also resist papal pressure and avoid entangling England in the battles between church and state that raged on the Continent.


The cornerstone for the most striking of all Gothic cathedrals will be laid in Cologne. The building would house the relics of the Three Magi and be finished only in 1880.


The Knights of St John seize the island of Rhodes and use it as a base against Islamic states in the eastern Mediterranean. They will stay in their huge fortress until being driven out by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1521.


Pope Sixtus IV consecrates the Sistine Chapel.

Take the gorgeous Virtual Tour. Copy this link into your browser.

August 14

A big day for battlefield fans.

1040 Macbeth’s forces slay King Duncan

William Shakespeare was not one for historical accuracy if altering the facts could make for a better plot. His 1606 thriller Macbeth portrayed Duncan’s death as a midnight murder at the hands of the thane of Cawdor and his wife, but, in reality ,the king of Scotland was killed in a punitive raid on Macbeth territory. Serves him right.

1385 Battle of Aljubarotta

This was the fight that secured Portuguese independence from Spanish kingdoms. Aided by French heavy cavalry, King John I of Castile invaded his neighbour in an attempt to incorporate the Portuguese realm into his own. He was met by a combined force of English longbow men and Portuguese infantry protected by ditches and the slope of a hill. The result was a bloody encounter that ended in a massacre of the invaders and the establishment of the Aziz dynasty.

1720 Defeat of the Villasur expedition

In the early 18th-century, penetration of the interior of North America by the French and the Spanish led to clashes as claims to territory overlapped. In 1720 the Spanish authorities in New Mexico sent a small force of cavalry and native Apache and Pueblo warriors into the Great Plains, where French priests and traders had been becoming active. At the confluence of the Loup and Platte Rivers in what is now Nebraska, the Spanish were ambushed by Otoe and Pawnee fighters who resented the intrusion. Very few survivors made it back to Santa Fe and the result of the battle was an end to Spanish interest in that area.


August 13


Arrest of a Spanish Heretic

Michael Servetus was born in Aragon about 1510 to a respectable family of the lower nobility. Well educated at the universities of Toulouse, Paris and Montpellier, Servetus demonstrated brilliance in a wide variety of fields: medicine, astronomy, law, geography and Biblical languages but it was his unorthodox views on the Godhead that brought him persecution and death.

In 1530 Servetus became a very junior part of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (he who had faced Luther at Worms in 1521). In his travels with the emperor he encountered a number of Reformation thinkers and books and began to drift away from the Catholic faith. For the next decade Servetus became a renowned scientist and physician while also publishing works attacking the traditional notions of the Trinity. Despite a friendly correspondence with John Calvin in Geneva Servetus also condemned the notion of predestination, which helped lead to a break in his relations with Calvin who said: “Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word; for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.”

By 1553 Servetus had discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood but the authorities were closing in on his heretical views. Forced to flee France, he headed for Italy with an ill-advised stop-over in Geneva. He was recognized in a church service on August 13, was denounced and arrested on charges of denying the Trinity and of attacking infant baptism. Calvin pressed hard for his execution, though since Servetus was neither a resident nor had he taught any doctrine in the city, banishment was the legal punishment. On October 27, 1553 he was burnt alive on a pile of his own books. Though most Protestant leaders supported the execution, it is an act that has blotted Calvin’s reputation to this day.

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A shark could swim faster than me, but could probably run faster than a shark. So in a triathlon, it would all come down to who is the better cyclist.
Emma Manzini

If you have anything better to be doing when death overtakes you, get to work on that.

The church is near but the road is icy; the bar is far away but I’ll walk carefully.
Russian proverb

Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.
David Bentley Hart

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August 12


Night of the Murdered Poets

On August 12, 1952, thirteen major Soviet Jewish figures were executed. Their alleged crimes included espionage, bourgeois nationalism, “lack of true Soviet spirit,” and treason, including a plot to hand the Crimea over to American and Zionist imperialists.  In the group were famous writers such as Peretz Markish (above, winner of the Stalin Prize) , David Bergelson, and Itsik Fefer—which is why the date has come to be marked annually as the Night of the Murdered Poets—but the murdered also included an actor, a former deputy foreign minister, a scientist, and a general.  A fourteenth defendant died during the four years the group suffered in Moscow’s dreaded Lubyanka prison, and a fifteenth was merely sentenced to exile.

Though Jews such as Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had featured prominently in the leadership of the Bolshevik Revolution, the fate of Judaism in the Soviet Union was not a happy one, especially during the Purges of the 1930s. During World War II when Stalin needed the help of the West, members of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, were sent to the United States to raise money and awareness. After the war this connection to international Judaism was perceived as a threat. In 1948 a series of murders and arrests by the secret police took a toll among the Jewish intelligentsia. In the grim cells of the Lubyanka Prison went former artistic luminaries, including men like Fefer who had loyally toed the Party line and informed on his fellows. They suffered years of torture to produce false confessions and were finally put on trial in 1952 when Stalin’s anti-Semitism was increasingly unchecked.

Following a cursory, secret trial, the thirteen were executed. After Stalin’s death in 1953 the new Soviet government reexamined their cases and declared them posthumously rehabilitated.