Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Startling Saints—Saint Clare of Montefalco

The miracle-working saint with a very special heart (quite literally)

(St Clare of Montefalco, circa 1670, from the Iglesia del Convento de Nuestra Señora del Pópulo de Agustinos Descalzos. Sevilla, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Clare Damiani was born in the Umbrian town of Montefalco in 1268. She was introduced to a cloistered life at an early age. When Clare was six, she was sent to live with her sister, Jane, who was the mother superior at the Saint Illuminata convent. Before she reached adulthood, Clare decided to remain in the convent lifestyle. When she had grown into a young woman, Clare and all of the nuns under superior Jane’s care, were transferred to a newly built convent—Santa Croce, also known as the Holy Cross Convent.

Saint Clare was the type of person that develops a natural aura of importance around them. She quickly garnered a reputation as an honorable, pious and virtuous woman. As such, when Jane died in 1298, the nuns of Santa Croce quickly elected the thirty-year-old Clare as their new mother superior.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Startling Saints—Jolly Saint Nicholas

The Saintly Bishop of Myra Who Evolved Into A Magical Christmas Entity

(Left: Santa Poster by the U.S. Food Administration. Educational Division. Advertising Section. (01_15_1918 - 01_1919), [Public Domain-US] via Creative Commons. Right: Image of St. Nicholas from the Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod, c. 1294, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Most cultures that have been influenced by Christianity have some sort of magical or supernatural persona who gives out gifts to children on Christmas Day. Many of these figures trace back to Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century CE bishop of Myra. His legend fused with other traditions, cultures and myths and eventually came to the United States by way of Dutch immigrants as Sinterklass. From there, he was commercialized into Santa Claus, and spread back across the Atlantic to his original homeland in Europe.

Now, the new Santa Claus figure has assimilated into many countries. He is known as Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) in Germany, Pére Noël in France, Father Christmas in Britain and Father Frost in Russia. The Scandinavian mythological (and often demonic) pagan beings of Krampus, and the Yule goat Joulupukki, have also been influenced and transformed by Santa Claus. Let’s not worry the kids, however, with all this talk about Santa Claus being fabricated—Jolly Saint Nicholas was, for the most part, a very real, historical figure. This is his story:

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Strange, But Successful—The Inchon Landing

This extremely effective military operation turned the tide of the Korean War.

War After War
At the end of World War II, Japan lost control of the empire it had acquired throughout the Pacific Ocean. One of the regions that gained freedom after WWII was Korea. Like much of the rest of the post-war world, Korea was divided between communism (in the north) and capitalist democracy (in the south). Though Japan had been expelled from Korea, and World War II was over, peace did not last long—in June, 1950, North Korea invaded the south, catching the South Korean military inexcusably by surprise.

(With her brother on the back a war weary Korean girl trudges by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea. c. June 9,1951. Maj R. V. Spencer, USAF, [Public Domain-US] via Creative Commons)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Last Witch Trial Of Nördlingen, Germany

Maria Holl Survived 62 Sessions Of Torture During the Late 16th-Century Witch Trials

In the last decade of the 16th century, a respectable woman who owned a restaurant along with her husband in Nördlingen, Germany, was put under arrest by the authority of the town council on suspicion of witchcraft. At first, Holl was patient with the council and their questioners; she was confident that she would be released without much of a hassel. Unfortunately for Maria Holl, the council, inquisitors and the citizens of Nördlingen all believed that she was truly a witch.

(“Examination of a witch”, c. 1853, from the Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, originally by Author Thompkins H. Matteson, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Successful Failure of Pearl Harbor

Though Pearl Harbor was a victorious surprise attack for Japan, they missed their most vital targets.

Ascent Of An Empire
The Pearl Harbor attack, a day in which thousands of lives were tragically lost, will continue to ‘live in infamy’ within the hearts and minds of many citizens of the United States. The attack’s position of high notoriety has only recently been usurped by the horrendous terrorist attacks of 9/11. Like the al-Qaeda atrocity, the attack on Pearl Harbor first shocked the American population, and when their minds were cleared of the immediate grief, quickly unified the United States for war.

(Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, just as the USS Shaw exploded, owned by the US government, [Public Domain-US] via Creative Commons)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Startling Saints: The Saxon Saint Caedwalla

Exile, Kingship, War and Conquest—The life of a 7th Century Warrior Saint

In the region of Wessex, during the middle of the 7th century CE, there lived a king of Saxon descent who conquered much of southeastern England. Several kings were put to death by his executioners, and various communities were ravaged or massacred on the whim of this conquering king. This was King Caedwalla of Wessex—but there is a catch. He would later be recognized by the Christian church as a saint, and was even laid to rest in St. Peter’s Basilica.

(16th century mural of Caedwalla and Wilfrid painted by Lambert Barnard, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Reformation-Era Augsburg: The Tense Stage of Christian Conflict

Strained Coexistence, Theocracy and Religious Politics

A Time of Church and State
The Protestant Reformations occurred in a time when there was very little separation between church and state. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and his predecessors, were seen as the defenders of Christendom. Henry VIII of England placed himself at the head of the Anglican Church. Evangelist reformers, such as Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer and John Calvin, imposed a quasi-theocracy upon their cities of Zurich, Strasbourg, and Geneva. Martin Luther also supported a closely-tied church and state, suggesting that the nobles lead the pace of reformation in their domains. The German city of Augsburg, like most other places in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, followed this trend of a closely-allied church and state.

(Perlach, Augsburg marketplace in 1550,Heinrich Vogtherr II (1513-1568)[Public domain], via Creative Commons)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Misadventures of Publius Clodius Pulcher

The Odd, but Awesome, Story of Julius Caesar’s Popular Hooligan of the People

On a fateful night in 62 BCE, women of the highest caliber in Rome met together for an evening of festivities. No men were invited to this house party, for this was no ordinary party, and the location was definitely not the average mundane home.

No, this was the festival of the Bona Dea, the Good Goddess, now only remembered as Fauna. The goddess had powers in the field of fertility and fruitfulness, and was well-honored by the Romans. The celebration took place in the palace of the highest priest of Rome, the pontifex maximus, and was hosted by his mother, Aurelia, and the Vestal Virgins, a sisterhood of full-time priestesses of the hearth goddess, Vesta. The pontifex maximus’ wife, Pompeia, was also in attendance. This festival, however, was more than a sacred ceremony. It was also a time for the women of Rome to relax and enjoy each other’s company away from their bothersome husbands and fathers.

(Illustration of Pompeia, published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) ("Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum") [Public domain], via Creative Commons)

Military Coups and Massacres in Indonesia

The Rise of the Suharto Regime and the Unimaginable Mass Murder of Around 1,000,000 Indonesians

The Quagmire of Independence
The Indonesian people began making huge leaps and bounds toward independence in one of the most tumultuous centuries in recorded history—the 20th century. In that bloody span of 100 years, there were two World Wars, a Cold War of ideologies, and numerous contained wars, where the United States, the Soviet Union and China battled it out within smaller, allied states, such as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. It was a time when every nation believed their own philosophy to be superior, and all countries were pressured to pick sides—Allies or Axis, NATO or Warsaw, capitalist or communist. Unfortunately for Indonesia, this was the world stage that their country was thrown into when they declared their independence.

(President Sukarno in Washington D.C. in 1956, photographed by Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report [Public Domain in U.S.], via Creative Commons)

Magdalena Bollmann: Tortured to Death in a Trial of Witchcraft

10 Weeks of Torture and Fatal Abuse

(The Magic Circle, c. 1886, painted by John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Creative Commons)

In the region of southern Germany now known as Baden-Württemberg, there lived a woman named Magdalena Bollmann. She lived in the 18th century, a time when the public hysteria of witch-hunts was becoming less and less commonplace. Nevertheless, the inquisition and witchcraft trials continued to survive like cockroaches, infesting neglected villages and cities.

The Trung Sisters: Rebel Queens of Vietnam

How two women were dangerous thorns in the side of Han Dynasty China from 40-43 CE

Around 40 CE, Governor To Dinh of the Han Dynasty in China discovered that a plot was brewing to undermine his authority in his province of the Chinese-controlled lands in modern northern Vietnam. Dinh received word that multiple native lords in his jurisdiction were meeting in clandestine gatherings, discussing possible resistance to Chinese rule and disruption of Dinh’s policies.

(Map with the approximate boundaries of the Roman Empire (red), Parthian Empire (brown), and Chinese Han Dynasty (yellow) around 1CE, created by Gabagool, via Creative Commons)

Mythology Madness: Magna Mater Cybele

Blood and Body Mutilation in the Great Mother’s Cult

At the start of the 3rd century BCE, the Roman Republic was desperate. One of the greatest military geniuses in history, Hannibal of Carthage, had led a formidable army eastward through Spain and France and entered Roman territory through the frozen and mountainous Alps. Hannibal then massacred a major Roman military force at Cannae in 216 BCE, and was able to move freely throughout Italy. He had control of the Italian countryside, but lacked the men or materials required to break his way into the Roman cities; The Second Punic War was at a precarious stalemate. By 204 BCE, Rome was willing to accept any help they could receive to turn the tide of the war against the Carthaginians.

Grasping for any leverage or path forward, the leaders of Rome searched through their collection of prophecies—the Sibylline Books. What they found in the prophecies sent them eastward to the city of Pessinus, in the land of Phrygia, the home of a goddess who had a wide following in both Phrygia and Greece. The Romans sought out a meteor, or statue, or image (or a combination of the above) that was venerated by the goddess’ adherents and transported the item from Phrygia to the city of Rome, where the goddess was formally adopted into the growing family of Jupiter and the Capitoline Gods on the Palatine Hill. The Magna Mater (Great Mother), Cybele, was home.

(Roman Statue of Cybele c. 50 CE, photo by Marshall Astor, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Assyrian Queen Sammu-Ramat and the Goddess, Semiramis

The ascent from impressive mortality to legendary immortality

Powerful Women
Even today, despite an increasing global awareness of civil rights, gender equality and morality, there remain far fewer women in positions of power than men. That, unfortunately, is the way the world is today, and that is how much of human civilization has been for the majority of our existence. Therefore, it is no surprise that humans become awed and inspired by powerful, brilliant women who prove themselves to be more competent than men. Though more and more women are achieving positions of power today, in the man-dominated history of our past, women in power were such anomalies that their very existence caused myth and legend to form around them—enter the Assyrian Queen Sammu-Ramat, who after death, transcended into the realm of the Mediterranean gods.

(Semiramis Illsutration from an eighteenth century book, ''Semmiramide Regina di Babillone,'' [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Ancient War, Modern Consequences

The Punic Wars

The Roman Empire spanned from Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland to the coastlands of North Africa; and from the Iberian Peninsula of Spain to the far reaches of the Middle East.  This ancient empire can be argued to have survived until the Fifteenth Century, when it fell with the Byzantine Empire.  During the long years of Roman conquest, only one other Mediterranean superpower, Carthage, was able to announce itself as equal in military might to the Italian conquerors.  The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage left Rome as the supreme Mediterranean power and decided the foundation of western civilization.

(Map of West and East Rome around 395 AD created by Geuiwogbil, via Creative Commons)

Strange, But Successful, War Tactics—Patience at the Battle of Versinikia

How the Bulgarian Khan Krum defeated a powerful Byzantine army by doing almost nothing at all

In the early 9th century, multiple Byzantine emperors warred with Bulgaria. The Bulgarian khan of the time, named Krum, faced an invasion from Emperor Nicephorus I (also spelled Nikephoros) into Bulgarian territory. By 811 CE, the Emperor and his son were leading their army into Bulgaria. Their campaign, however, did not go as planned—Emperor Nicephorus I died in battle on Bulgarian soil and his son was mortally wounded.

(Depiction of Krum feasting after defeating Nicephorus I, from the Manasses Chronicle circa 14th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

The imperial throne passed over the dying son of the emperor and was bestowed upon a reluctant Michael Rangabe (Emperor Michael I), who was related to the former emperor by marriage. Michael I had very little time to settle into his new position as emperor, for Krum and the Bulgarians knew that imperial successions could leave the Byzantine Empire in a tumultuous and unstable state, ripe for invasion.

(Coronation of Emperor Michael I, from Chronicles of John Skylitzes circa 12th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Khan Krum moved into the Byzantine-controlled regions of Thrace and Macedonia in 812 CE, occupying cities such as Develtus and Mesembria. With the Byzantine cities in his possession, Krum had the captured occupants shackled and sent back to Bulgaria to be forced into servitude. The khan sent an invitation to the Byzantine Emperor to begin a negotiation for peace, but the emperor, understandably, refused to consider an end to the war—after all, he was in the midst of gathering a massive army from the far reaches of his empire.

By 813 CE, the Byzantine army had grown enough for the emperor and his generals to confidently march against the Bulgarian forces. Michael I led his troops toward the Bulgarian front and camped his men at Versinikia, near Adrianople. Krum and the Bulgarians arrived at Versinikia soon after Michael I, and camped across from the Byzantines. For around two weeks, the Byzantine and Bulgarian forces held defensive postures, with no aggression or movement to be seen on either side. Despite having a much larger force than Krum, Michael refused to attack—a decision that made Byzantine soldiers, both officers and fresh recruits, disgruntled, anxious and mutinous.

(Approximate location of Battle of Versinikia (modern day Edirne Turkey) via Google Maps)

Eventually, Michael I lost control of the situation. His troops no longer wanted to wait. John Haldon, a Princeton professor of history, claims that one Byzantine general, named Aplakes, who controlled an entire wing of Michael’s army, decided to charge the Bulgarian forces against the wishes of his emperor. Michael I, furious at his disobedient general, had the rest of the army continue to hold its position. Unaided by the other Byzantine troops, Aplakes and his men were cut down in what many call a massacre while the rest of the army was ordered to do no more than watch.

This event triggered something in Leo the Armenian, commander of the other Byzantine wing. With either disgust for the emperor’s actions, or a treacherous eye for the emperor’s throne, Leo gathered his men and withdrew from the battlefield. The men in the Byzantine middle, commanded by Emperor Michael, were in a terrifying situation—one wing of the army was massacred and the other had abandoned the emperor. With their fellow countrymen either dead or fleeing, Michael’s own troops lost the will to fight and fled from the battle.

(The battle of Versinikia from the 14th century Bulgarian copy of the Manasses Chronicle, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

On the other side of the battle, the Bulgarians were likely just now looking up from the corpses left behind from the fruitless Byzantine charge. Krum’s men must have expected to be encircled by the remainder of the Byzantine army, or at least involved in a second engagement. When their eyes focused on the other Byzantine divisions, however, they were astonished to find the large army of Michael I fleeing from the scene. Krum and the Bulgarians were so surprised by this sight, that they expected the retreat to be a clever ploy to pull the Bulgarian forces into a trap. Krum, however, soon realized the retreat was genuine and eagerly sent his cavalry to run down the Byzantine soldiers who were still in range.

Though the Battle of Versinikia, itself, was tragic and humiliating for Emperor Michael I, there was more yet to come. Leo, who had withdrawn from the fight, did not stop at abandoning his emperor in the midst of a battle. No, he used his troops to occupy the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople. He also used the example of the Battle of Versinikia to spread rumors of Emperor Michael I’s military incompetence.

By the time Michael made his way back to Constantinople, Leo had gained significant admiration and support from the Byzantine people. Michael still had a formidable force of loyal soldiers, but he refused to begin a civil war. Michael, who was reluctant to even take the throne only two years previously, decided to peacefully abdicate the throne to Leo, who became Emperor Leo V in 813 CE.

(The proclamation of Emperor Leo V the Armenian from the 12th century Chronicles of John Skylitzes, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Michael and his family were spared from the political assassinations and murders that plagued the monarchal shifts in power throughout much of history. That does not mean, however, that Michael and his family were treated well. Michael was separated from his family and forced to spend the rest of his life in a monastery located on the island of Prote, and at least one of his sons (the eldest) was ordered by Emperor Leo V to be castrated.

The Battle of Versinikia was certainly a strange battle. Emperor Michael and the Bulgarian Khan Krum both used the same tactic—waiting. For Michael, this led to a humiliating defeat and the end of his dynasty. For Krum, however, doing nearly nothing at all during the Battle of Versinikia allowed him to defeat a much larger Byzantine army and begin events leading to another imperial succession that resulted in the downfall of Michael I and the rise of Leo V.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

  • John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History (811-1057) translated by John Wortley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 
  • John Haldon. The Byzantine Wars. Gloucesterchire: The History Press, 2008. 

Strange War Tactics—The Sieges of Nisibis (337-350 CE)

The Persian flood of a Roman desert city

(Nusaybin location via Google Maps)

Some city and region names continually reappear in history. One such place is Nisibis, modern-day Nusaybin, an arid city on the Turkish-Syrian border. In early history, Nisibis repeatedly changed hands from conqueror to conqueror. The Assyrians took Nisibis, followed by the Babylonians. Alexander the Great conquered the region and brought it into his empire in the 4th century BCE. After Alexander’s death, the Seleucid Empire continued the Hellenistic rule of Nisibis. The Seleucids lost Nisibis to Armenia and by the 1st century CE, Parthian Persians took the city. The Roman Empire, however was also interested in Nisibis. During the 3rd Century CE, the Romans and the Sasanian Persians lost the city to each other multiple times, but the Romans controlled the region well into the beginning of the 4th century. This brings us to the clash between two emperors, Constantius II and Shapur II, over none other than the city of Nisibis.

The Artist That Painted Britain Orange and Red

The 18th century revolutionary arsonist—Jack the Painter

Centuries ago, one man terrorized the streets of Britain. Fearful citizens organized into patrols to keep their cities safe. The King, government councils, and even private citizens, offered monetary rewards for the capture of this particular individual. The alias of this perpetrator was Jack. This was not Jack the Ripper—no, this was Jack the Painter, who went on a rampage of arson in 1776.

(Illustration of Scottish John the Painter circa 1777 [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Strange Era of the Protestant Reformation—The Reformer

Martin Luther

The World Luther Faced
During the 14th-16th centuries, the Papal States struggled with corruption and questionable activities. As a result, on Halloween day, in 1517, Martin Luther publicly questioned the actions of the church in his hometown of Wittenburg, leading to the Protestant Reformation. His Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences initiated a European dialogue which brought into question the legitimacy of Papal authority and the long accepted customs of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s theses grasped the attention of European citizens and monarchs alike. Pope Leo X and papal supporters denounced Luther, and criticized his interpretation of scriptures. Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus were in the ranks of Luther’s critics.  (Read more information about events leading to the Protestant Reformation in the first part of this series, The Catholic Low-Point).

Desiderius Erasmus was born in 1466. He lived during the reigns of several corrupt popes (Popes Alexander VI and Julius II) and experienced the reformations of Martin Luther. Thomas More was another humanist who lived in the time of the Protestant Reformations. They both criticized aspects about the Catholic Church, but when a divide between Protestant and Catholic occurred, both Erasmus and More defended the Roman Catholic Church against Martin Luther and his followers. (Read more about Erasmus and More in the second part of the series, The Defenders of Catholicism).

Martin Luther

(Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, from the Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) [Public domain], via Creative Commons)