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

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

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

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

George Hoby (1759 – 1832): Boots, Boots, Boots, Boots

Long boots and half boots, Hessians,  Hussar,  top boots, and for the ladies, low cut shoes or pumps – if you wanted them in the age of Hornblower, you went to the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s Street and the establishment of George Hoby, boot maker to George III.   The king was not alone.  The Iron Duke thought so much of the man that he worked with the bookmaker to  modify a Hessian boot a bit higher up than was standard,  and so created the Wellington.

Which gave him particular interest in the battles the Iron Duke was waging in Spain.  He was fitting the Duke of Kent when news of the victory at Vittoria came in.  “If Lord Wellington had had any other bootmaker than myself, he never would have had his great and constant successes; for my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all his difficulties.” Continue reading

The Reverend Robert Walker, 1755 – 1808: Icecapades

We’ve the good fortune of having a year round ice skating rink nearby, which makes for a nice break in a steamy July day.  This provides me a contrived intro for the Raeburn chestnut to our left.   You know the piece. The Reverend Something Something skating on Someplace Someplace.  That one.

The Reverend was the third child of William Walker and Susanna Sturment, he a Scotsman and she a Virginian, of all things.  The father also a man of the cloth was called to minister to the Church of Scotland ex-patriots at the Scottish Kirk in Rotterdam (destroyed in the last war, alas).

What is a boy to do in the Netherlands when the winter cold freezes the canals?  Continue reading

Ewald Georg von Kleist, 1740 -1748: Shock of the New

The recent death of Ewald von Kleist, last of the July 20 conspirators,  who but for bad scheduling would have assassinated Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1944, set me to wonder  about the rest of the family.

There are the usual suspects, a long line of more or less prominent military men, the writer Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist  (who started out as a solider), minor professionals who left no particular marks behind them.   And then there was Ewald Georg, jurist and cleric and Bishop of Pomerania.   Continue reading

The Rev. John Castleton Miller, 1775-1828: Whilst I Breath I Hope

(Actually, that’s the family motto of Sir Charles Drake  Dillon, Bart.  More on him in a minute.)

Who doesn’t like a good divorce?  Someone else’s, by preference.  1817 saw a rather nasty one that excited a London public that had gotten little enough of excitement since the end of the Napoleonic wars.

The Reverend John Castleton Miller was chaplain to the British Army at  Malta, and married, we can hope happily, to Sarah Paget.  After a brief time in Malta, a time that saw the birth of one child,  Mrs. Miller was compelled for reasons of health (dodgy liver)  to return to England.  The year was  1809, and her stay was supposed to be a short one.  Continue reading

François de la Chaise, S.J., 1624 – 1709: Requiscat in Pace

For a certain kind of tourist, one major draw to Paris is  Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise cemetery.

Well, we all have our slightly ghoulish sides, I suppose, and graveyards are generally peaceful places, even those with lizard kings and other assorted hell-raisers.

The cemetery itself was a creation of the First French Republic, Bonaparte declaring that even the non-Catholics of the world had the right to be buried somewhere.   Not that France at the time was overflowing with non-Catholics.   1804 being one of those Age of Reason years, the authorities felt no need to consecrate the place, and so good Catholics (and presumably even bad Catholics hedging their bets) stayed away in droves.

Faced with this clear and utter flop, the Public Relations folk stepped in. How to make the neighborhood desirable?  You bring the artists in, of course.  Officials dug up  Molière (a comic playwright – fitting, no?) and re-potted him on the hillside.  Still nothing. Okay, let’s go the romantic route, make a memorial for Abelard and Hèloise.

It appears to have done the trick – we are talking France, after all, and who better to combine religion and l’amour than those two?  The place hasn’t looked back since. You want in? Take a number. Continue reading