St. Lidwina (1380 – 1433): Skateaway

Our daughter has taken to ice skating in a big way and raised the question of where the sport originated.   Google tells us that pre-historic types   strapped bones to their feet and trekked across ice with these and some sort of ur-ski poles.  Sounds more utilitarian than anything else.   As far as free form  goes, it was the Dutch who came up with the idea of metal blades and real boots some time in the thirteenth century.

What you see here is the first visual representation of ice-skates.  The girl in blue is named Lidwina, from the Dutch town of Schiedam, near Rotterdam.   Her father had come from a family that had once been rich  and respected but fallen on hard times;  her mother had never known any but poverty.   Together these two produced nine children, one of them Lidwina, who took an early and serious interest in matters religious. Continue reading

Bernhard von Breydenbach (1434-1497*): On The Road Again

Von Breydenbach was a rich man, a doctoral graduate of the University at Erfurt,  the canon of Mainz who had, by his own accounts, lived a somewhat loose life, wicked enough that he thought a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would do his soul some good. So in April of 14, 1483 he gathered his friend the artist Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht and with a few of other titled and moneyed traveling companions, set off to see the sights of the Middle East.  

The trip itself was pretty standard tourist fare for the time. Venice first, as Venice had regular water connections with the Muslim Levant.  There they spent any number of days waiting for the ship to be ready, time he spent in seeing the local sights, then as a now spectacular. Once at sea it was to the Venetian held territories of Modon, where he met Gypsies, whom he describes not as being Egyptian (never mind India), but from the nearby town of Gippe.  Stood to reason, of course.  Continue reading

Georg Johannes von Trapp (1880 – 1947): Crossing the Streams

I was taken to (subjected to, if you like) the Sound of Music while in single digits, and the one thing I could not understand was how the Austrian Captain Von Trapp could possibly be a naval officer in a land locked country.

Turns out those every mountains he climbed were far from his birth place in the now Croatian city of Zadar on the Mediterranean coast; his choice of a naval career was keeping things in the family, as his father was in the service.  He was apparantly up to snuff, served on the  armored cruiser Kaiserin und Königin Maria Theresia   during the Boxer Rebellion in China .  The ship arrived late to the happenings, but soon enough for Lieutenant von Trapp to get decorated for bravery. Continue reading

Abul Tayyeb al Mutanabi (915-965): The Would-be Prophet

The desert knows me well,
the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword,
the paper and the pen.

The Wall Street Journal last Saturday did an appreciation of Firdausi, author of the Persian epic the Shahnamen Book of Kings.  He’s a well enough known name (that is to say, I’ve actually heard of him), but who is the best of the Arab poets?

Short answer is, Al-Mutanabi. Continue reading

Maria Leontievna Bochkareva (1889-1920): Womens’ Battalion of Death

The recent graduation of three women in the Marine Infantry School revives the whole women in combat issue, and invariably commentators have brought up the story of Soviet women in WWII and their military accomplishments.

There was in fact precedence from the First World War.  Not just individual women (there were several of those), but the entire First Women’s Battalion of Death.  The crew was the brainchild of a blooded veteran of the eastern front, one Maria Bochkareva.

She was a peasant woman of Novgorod with a history of unfortunate choices in men. She married at fifteen and when he became abusive, dumped him for companion number two.  He was exiled to Siberia for criminal misbehavior, she dutifully walked off to join him. And when he repeated the pattern, and became abusive, she dumped him as well and headed back west.  Besides, there was a war on and she wanted to do her bit. Continue reading

Dr James Still (1812-1888): Did No Harm

And rather a lot of good, if contemporary accounts are to be believed.

He was the son of slaves who bought their freedom in Maryland and moved east to New Jersey for some peace of mind.  The father was of a strict frame of mind:

“I often thought his whole soul was wrapped in the twenty-fourth verse of the thirteenth chapter of Proverbs, which reads, ‘He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chastiseth him betimes.’ I had no particular love for that passage of Scripture.” Continue reading

Anthony Henley (1700-1767): “Dear Sir, Please Go Jump in the Lake”

It is a commonplace that our elected officials do not really have their constituents best interests at heart.   They neither write nor read the legislation they vote into existence, collecting money from the moneyed interests to whom they are in thrall.  Independent minds are few indeed,  court jesters at best, no threat to anyone, really.

But then we tend not to elect people like Anthony Henley.

Henley was the eldest son of his namesake, who was himself a Whig MP, a friend of Jonathan Swift, patron of the Purcells, and said to be a great wit and possessed of a £3,000 a year (on top of a marriage settlement of £30,000) , which benefice came to the son in 1711.  (That’s the father’s picture you’re looking at – I could find none of the son himself.) Continue reading

George Fabian Lawrence aka Stoney Jack (1861-1939): Items of Interest

Son of a  pawnbroker and initially a pawnbroker himself.  The standard objects of failed enthusiasms (musical instruments) or changing tastes (mustache cups) or romance gone bad (old wedding rings) held only so much interest for him.  He had a taste for the unusual and put word out among the mudlarks who scoured the Thames at low tide and the navvies who dug the foundations of new construction over old that he would pay cash and ask few questions if they had anything of interest to show him.  Continue reading

Commodore Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862): Anchors Aweigh

“My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors… I am an American, a sailor and a Jew.”

– Commodore Uriah P. Levy, USN

It’s reasonably well known that Thomas Jefferson for all his cleverness was a complete duffer with household finance and died in debt, his estate sold off for pennies on the dollar.

A scandal, really, and as the government at that time did not take much interest in history in general or historical artifacts in particular, the lands and buildings of Monticello were more or less allowed to go to wrack and ruin. Continue reading

Thomas Dallum (ca. 1575 – ca.1614): Don’t Shoot, I’m Only the Organ Player

Back in the day, the day being any time between, say, 1520 and 1600, the way to the heart of the Turkish sultans was through clockwork.  Makes sense.  When you have the wealth of the world at your disposal,  you want the unusual and the unique. Toys, essentially, the fiddly wind-up spring machine types that whirred and turned and chimed and bonged.  Fortunately for Europe,  there were men who excelled in this kind of trivia.

As with anything that is not a mere commodity, the novelty value had to gear up over time.  A simple one handed  pocket watch becomes a bore, and so further complications – second hands, moon phases,  twittery birds – have to be grafted onto the basic work.  By the turn of the seventeenth century, it would take something very complicated indeed to turn the head of a jaded potentate.   And as at that time, Britain, not yet fully engaged with its eventual empire,  was still wooing the sultans in hopes of profitable trade arrangements for the Levant Company,  the gift had to be spectacular indeed.

So in 1598, what were the good merchants of London going to send to Mehmed III? Continue reading