Let Them Eat Cake

“Eat the Rich!” is certainly a common refrain these days. Pandemics and economic recessions aside, the chasm between the haves and have-nots has only seemed to widen for decades. The anger of people tired of the way things keep going is starting to seem palatable, riots and protests a weekly occurrence, and with the recent tone deaf renovation of the White House’s Rose Garden on the taxpayers dime–the resemblance to the 18th century French Revolution is starting to feel a little uncanny. That comparison also brings up the inevitable article headlines shameless in their failure of quick fact checking–Let Them Eat Cake! and Marie Antoinette are once again dragged through the street and scorned in the name of reform. But it’s time to put this misattribution to the guillotine. 

If you’ve heard the name Marie Antoinette, there’s a strong chance you might know her only as the queen who supposedly said ‘Let them eat cake’ in response to her citizens being unable to afford bread and who was later decapitated for it. Though the latter is an unfortunate reality, there is no record, witness, or biographical assertion that traces this phrase to her. In fact, the first time Marie Antoinette became associated with the phrase is in Alphonse Karr’s satirical magazine Les Guepes in 1843. 50 years after she was killed by revolutionaries. [1]

So how in the world did a queen who had written, “It is at the same time amazing and wonderful to be so well received two months after the riots and in spite of the high price of bread which unfortunately continues. It is certain that when people who are suffering treat us so well, we are even more obligated to work for their happiness.” instead get associated with a flagrant disregard for her people and unwillingness to humble herself to the plight of the common folk? [6]

“She is an amiable and honourable woman, rather young and unreflecting; but she has a core of honour and virtue which has often surprised me.”

Emperor Joseph II in 1777 upon visiting the queen. [4]

First, let’s trace the origin of the phrase. Let Them Eat Cake isn’t even the original words. The French version is explicitly, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. Brioche is eggy and delicious but not cake or gâteau. This sentence makes its first appearance on record in the autobiography of famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Confessions, Rousseau recalls a time when he had stolen some wine and had been looking for some bread to go along with it, because what kind of insane person wouldn’t. Apparently, while dressing up a little too fancy for the bakery, he recalled these words–”At length I remembered the last resort of a great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: ‘Then let them eat brioches.’”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau started writing in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was 9-years old and the 15th child of Empress Maria Theresa. To say she was an inconsequential princess at the time would be a hilarious understatement. No one would have thought those words could have been hers. There were likely candidates, however, ranging from various French elite to The Sun King Louis XIV’s wife. [1]

So why was the phrase given to Marie Antoinette almost 100-years later? A lot of that has to do with how Marie was perceived and later scapegoated as a harbinger of disenfranchisement to France during her reign.

When Marie Antoinette first arrived to the Palace of Versailles, she was a 14-year old Austrian princess who was to be married off to the grandson and heir of King Louis XV of France in an attempt to solidify an alliance between the two rival nations. At first, the people of France were taken by Marie–her innocence and beauty celebrated. [4]

“I cannot tell you, dear Mother, the transports of joy and affection they displayed. What happiness in our station to win the friendship of a whole people at so small a price! Nothing is so precious, and I shall never forget it.”

Marie Antoinette in a letter to her mother describing her first visit to Paris. [4]

But opinions soured over time. The Palace of Versailles was a viper’s nest of political intrigue and an unassuming teenager without any care for the obfuscated etiquette at court led Marie to unintentionally snub and offend many. Of the elite among the court were also those who were critical of the alliance between Austria/France, potential rivals for the throne, and other threatened influences like the King’s mistress Madame du Barry. These rumormongers were the first to leak stories and scandalous accusations against Marie to the smut-peddling pamphlet publications that were like today’s version of tabloids. One of the more disastrous claims was the lack of consummation in her marriage with Louis XIV–of which was true. It took the couple 7 years to finally get busy–but during that time, all of the blame was placed squarely on Marie Antoinette. [2]

Without motherhood and an heir of France to keep her position secure, Marie Antoinette spent most of her time in Versailles in a constant battle against neverending boredom. If she wasn’t sleeping with her husband, these gossipers reasoned, then she must be getting around somewhere else. Accusations of promiscuity were leveled against her, attendance of masked balls questioned, her close friendships with duchesses presumed sexual–even when she did give birth to Louis XIV’s first child in 1778, the pamphlets guessed it was the product of an illicit affair. The people of France started to think of their new King as a weak, infantile man–impotent and worthless. But as much derision as was foisted his way, came the misogynistic characterization of Marie Antoinette as a controlling, deceitful wife who could move her husband to her will. Who was ruling? Recall the tenuous at best relations between Austria and France, was an embedded Austrian spy running the show? With France becoming embroiled into disastrous wars at the behest of Austria, it certainly started to seem that way. [2]

“Sire, I speak to you in friendship; believe me, we never let ourselves be led around by our wives. I have one who is sweet as a lamb, because, foutre, I always showed her the fist when she wanted to play the mistress. It’s even more deadly if a king lets himself be governed by women. Women have caused throughout time the misfortunes of France…Remember the hideous reigns of the abominable Medicis; recall Henry IV always ready to do some stupidity for his mistresses…tell your wife that you took her to breed your children, not to mix in affairs of state and turn your kingdom upside down. Among your people, these people who adore you, you will find your security.”

Jacques-Rene Hebert 1790 in his newspaper Le Pere Duchesne. Like Rupert Murdoch of the day, 14% of his published headlines between 1791-1794 were spent disparaging Marie Antoinette and trying to rally the people against her. [3]

France at the time was no simpering fawn. Revolution has no single defining moment, and for the 18th century there’s decades of falling dominoes that will eventually lead to the end of the monarchy of which Marie Antoinette was precariously sitting, giggling at the card tables and ignoring the gossip as she gambled away with her friends. Why should she pay any mind to rumors that she knew were hilariously untrue? They drew her as a salacious bestial monster, half woman half tiger. They wrote of her and her friends throwing lesbian parties in the Petit Trianon, the epitome of depravity. And there was the Diamond Necklace Affair–something Marie herself had nothing to do with–in where Comtesse de La Motte attempted to get a necklace worth around $2 million by pretending it was requested by the queen. After forging letters and dressing up a prostitute as the Queen, La Motte’s plan failed and yet she still blamed Marie Antoinette. Considering the state of the economy in France at the time, people were pretty upset to hear that their queen supposedly had her eye on millions worth in jewelry rather than their inability to afford bread. Needless to say, the hatred for Marie Antoinette escalated. [2 & 3]

This is supposed to be Marie Antoinette. How lovely!

“Women! Women! Especially princesses, and worst of all queens.”

Madame La Motte [2]

When a series of revolutionary events ignited in quick succession–Storming of the Bastille in 1789 followed by the Women’s March on Versailles, the royal family attempting to flee to Austria in 1791, and the Storming of the Tuileries in 1792–the writing was already on the wall. It was too late to sway public opinion, the people wanted Marie’s head. She knew it too. There is the story of the march on Versailles where revolutionaries had sieged the palace and the Queen, humbled, came to them on the balcony. Prostrating herself on the railing after 10 minutes of silence, while the crowd leveled muskets, the revolutionaries were momentarily warmed by her act of courage. Cries of “Vive la Reine!” reached her ear but this sentiment was temporary and spoken in vain. Death would come to her soon. [5]

“Kill! Kill! We want to cut off her head, cut out her heart, and fry her liver. There she is, the filthy whore! We don’t want her body, what we want is to carry her head to Paris.”

– An unnamed participant in the Women’s March. [2]

Eventually captured by revolutionaries and kept in abusive confinement for weeks, Marie awaited the same fate her husband had met only nine months before. There was little hope for her on trial, despite insisting that every treasonous action she was accused of was in the interest of protecting her children and husband. When the libelous newspaper publisher Hebert testified against her, claiming that she had committed incest with her son, Marie’s response seems tired and even subdued. “If I have not responded it is because nature refuses to respond to such a charge made to a mother. I call upon every mother here.” But reason didn’t matter. [3]

Marie Antoinette was sentenced to face the guillotine on October 16th, 1793. 

“More bloodthirsty than Jezabel, more conniving than Agrippina…her life was a calamity for France…her fall a triumph for liberty…the widow Capet…died under the guillotine. The globe is purified! Long live the Republic!”

[2]

So, an attempt to answer the question of how Marie Antoinette came to be associated with a phrase that there is no evidence of her ever having uttered seems more or less a tragic realization of how someone can be destroyed by the trial of public opinion. A constant victim of lies and malice, Marie’s crime was perhaps not paying enough heed to the words spoken of her. Perhaps if she had come to her own defense sooner, she would be remembered more today for her lavish acts of giving to numerous charities like founding Maison Philanthropique with Louis XVI or how she sold royal objects to support families struggling during the famine of 1787. Maybe she’d be remembered for the simple white dress she requested to be depicted in for modesty which later became a fashion symbol for revolutionary women. Or she could be thought of fondly for how many children she adopted and supported financially when their parents passed away. Or perhaps she would be given more due credit for helping to secure France’s aid in the American Revolutionary War which helped lead the colonists to victory against the British Crown. [7]

Instead, we have the life and memory of a queen who, persistent through time, continues to be lambasted by those who don’t know her at all. The image of a rich, unsympathetic queen who is out of touch with reality was created over 200 years ago by people meant to do her harm and was peddled by those who needed an idol to rally revolutionary fervor against. [2 & 3]

I suppose the continued pattern into modern day of Marie Antoinette being accused of saying something she didn’t is just the icing on the cake of her tragic story.

Fact Check it, Yo!

[1] Temerson, Catherine (2000). Marie-Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. St. Martin’s Griffin. pp. 63–65

[2] Barker, N. (1993). “Let Them Eat Cake”: The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. The Historian, 55(4), 709-724. Retrieved August 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24448793

[3] Colwill, E. (1989). Just Another “Citoyenne?” Marie-Antoinette on Trial, 1790-1793. History Workshop, (28), 63-87. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4288925

[4] Gooch, G. (1949). MARIE ANTOINETTE. History, 34(122), new series, 221-234. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24404219

[5] Schama, Simon (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Vintage Books/Random House. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.

[6] Lettres De Marie-Antoinette (in French). 1. Nabu Press. 2012. p. 91. ISBN 978-1278509648

[7] Vidal, E. M. (2012, February 18). A Reputation in Shreds. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from http://www.marie-antoinette.org/articles/reputation/

Thumps Up for Roman Gladiators

Jean-Leon Gerome Pollice Verso.jpg

Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) by Jean-Leon Gerome 1824-1904

The image of a Roman gladiator’s fate being decided by a thumbs up or down is iconic–one that can be recalled in many Hollywood films including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the famous painting Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome. Many may find themselves familiar with the painting but might not know that the image above became the basis for our pop culture idea of a crowd of plebeians jeering and viciously stabbing their thumbs downward– signaling that they wished for the defeated gladiator to pay for his loss in combat with his life. It is also where Ridley Scott drew his inspiration while directing his movie epic, blessing us with one of the best Joaquin Phoenix performances before Joker danced his way down a flight of stairs.

But, like most beliefs cribbed from famous works–this one turned up false.

Joaquin Phoenix Commodus GIF - JoaquinPhoenix Commodus Gladiator GIFs

Histastrophe’s barometer of historical accuracy as determined by an ego-maniacal Hercules impersonator.

If one were to find themselves judging the outcome of a gladiatorial match in a Roman arena (look, I don’t know your life), it might be helpful to know that if you were to signal with a thumbs up that everything is cool and kosher and you totally don’t wish any ill-will towards the defeated combatant–you might be that idiot screaming in surprise when the loser ends up spurting blood everywhere because your poor judgment resulted in his swift execution. You just sentenced that dude to death, man!

According to Anthony Corbeill, Classics Historian and author of works such as Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, whomever was in charge of administering the judgment of death over the defeated combatant would use ‘the hostile thumb’ or infesto pollice and that it would have been turned upward rather than down. [1] We learn this from 1st c. AD orator/teacher Quintillian who wrote that:

“Even in the fierce arena the conquered gladiator has hope, although the crowd threatens with its hostile thumb.” – Quintilian, Book 11 Institutio Oratoria [2]

We have a couple of reasons to suspect what this would look like–there are a few examples in Roman works that describe orators using certain gestures that were thought of as somewhat obscene. This hostile thumb was also described by Apuleius in his aptly named Golden Ass “like an orator, shutting in the two lowest fingers, extending the rest straight out, and beginning calmly with the infesto pollice.” [3] Naturally, this sort of position would suggest the thumb would be pointing upwards rather than down. Go ahead and try it the wrong way–I’ll wait. Quintilian often remarks on orators who speak with an uplifted hand being rather fond of using the hostile thumb as well–similar to those who enjoy ‘flipping the bird’ which is another gesture that was well in use in the Roman Empire. Both the thumbs up and the middle finger represent phallic imagery and aren’t thought of as particularly kind things to do with one’s hand, least of all one that would denote mercy.

“…numerous examples attest to gestural language outlasting spoken language.” – A. Corbeill, Thumbs in Ancient Rome: ‘Pollex’ As Index. [1]

Interestingly, there’s a great deal of thought and attention in Roman writings put on the power of the thumb. In possibly the most Italian thing ever, the common belief in Rome was that gestures contained a stable essence. Many Roman writers waxed poetic on the thumb (pollex) and were quick to point out the similarity with another Latin word pollet which meant “has power”. Roman writer Macrobius believed the thumb had moral superiority over the other fingers like it was some sentient, Twitter hashtag activist simply because it didn’t take as kindly to ornamentation. Methinks Macrobius simply never found a decent thumb ring. Other writers thought the thumb held power and sway over the remaining fingers by this virtue alone. Some weirdos thought the thumb was somehow connected to sexual organs and thus had regenerative powers because that makes a whole lot of sense. But not as much sense as Pliny the Elder who prescribes the right thumb of a virgin in curing someone of epileptic shock. Basically, Romans were crazy about their thumbs and, oddly, the rest of the ancient world was pretty sure that the thumb was simply connected to the hand. You know, like a normal finger ought to be. [1]

“…the thumb, either as the primary agent or acting by itself, has complete control over grasping and controlling, as if it were the guide and moderator of all things.” – Lactantius [4]

With this kind of obsession, and it stands to reason that gestures survive in cultural context better than verbal language does, it should be no surprise that throughout the timeline of Italian history, there are mentions of an erect thumb pointing at objects or people as one of scorn–from Dante’s Renaissance all the way up to the 20th century–some form of the Hostile Thumb lived on. It’s not even uncommon in other neighboring countries to view the ‘thumbs up’ as a sexually offensive one and it wasn’t until World War II and the influx of American G.I.’s that the cross-contamination of the gesture changed in Italy. [1]

So if you wanted to save a gladiator, what gesture would you use?

Medaillon de Cavillargues –  The inscription reads STANTES MISSI which means ‘released standing’. Depicting an act of mercy for both combatants signaled with a closed fist type gesture. [1]

Remember that the thumb has otherworldly powers, especially over the other fingers. There’s a whole thing from Pliny the Elder which discusses a ‘well-wishing’ thumb exists in proverb where one means to show approval when pressing down the thumb on something, like a hand or upon an enclosed fist. Because these are the Romans we’re talking about, of course pressing the thumb on things held a power in and of itself. Pressing a thumb on things might even cure you of pains and other ailments, and certainly pressing your thumb on your fist would save the life of a gladiator in the arena who maybe lost the fight because he ate too much garum sauce and was a bit sickly. Let him fight another day!

“Raising the hands and closing the fists, therefore, were expressions of power capable to concede life.” Michel de Montaigne [4]

Now, since we’ve gotten this far, I’m sure most of you are well and myth-busted and smartly know that the thumbs up is an ancient signal for death in the gladiatorial arena. For those left feeling a little skeptical still (I get it, magical thumbs are weird) I’d ask you to think on another well-known gesture you are already familiar with that similarly employs the hostile thumb.

How about the “You’re dead” gesture, cutting the throat with a thumbs up like a sword?

Image result for thumbs up cutting throat gesture gif

Yeaaaaaah–maybe rethink your thumbs ladies and plebes.

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Corbeill, A. “THUMBS IN ANCIENT ROME: ‘POLLEX’ AS INDEX.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 42, 1997, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4238745.

[2] Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria. Book XI: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Quintilian/Institutio_Oratoria/11C*.html

[3] Apuleius, The Golden Ass: https://archive.org/stream/TheGoldenAss_201509/TheGoldenAsspenguinClassics-Apuleius_djvu.txt

[4] Corbeill, A. (2004). Nature embodied: gesture in ancient Rome. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

The Roman Vomitorium – A Regurgitating Myth

Colosseum

The Colosseum should just be renamed ‘The Vomitorium’ so people finally get it.

Nothing makes me want to hurl more than oft repeated historical misunderstandings. ‘Christopher Columbus discovered America’ is a saying that forces me to eat copious amounts of cake to feel sane, hearing “Napoleon Bonaparte was really short” and I can be seen adding glasses of wine to the mix, and listening to another geographical wizard exclaim that “Cleopatra was Egyptian” and now I’m trying to find the nearest room to chuck it all up in–which if I were living in the Roman Empire would be convenient, right? Except they didn’t actually have a room for this as is popularly believed.

An illustration found in The Washington Post before Google existed.

‘Vomitorium’ sounds like one of those words one could easily decipher. It’s Latin and clearly using the root word for ‘vomit’ and ‘orium’–so a functional place to vomit. The mind puzzles over what exactly a ‘vomit place’ could be and knowing the extravagant splendor of Roman indulgences of the elite class–wouldn’t it make sense that in between all of those supposed orgies, Emperor assassinations, and dishes slathered with garum sauce, the Romans would require a room in which to purge their feast-ly contents just so they could go back to eating and partying anew?

Sure, if there was any evidence of it.

Unfortunately, the reality of what a ‘vomitorium’ actually is amounts to a much more mundane truth. The term does derive from the same root of the word vomit, in this case “to spew forth” which is exactly what the function of a vomitorium serves as, just not in keeping a toga party raging until dawn. In Roman amphitheatres and stadiums, it became necessary to create a passage way in which a large crowd of people could leave as quickly and efficiently as possible–exactly like the contents of a stomach after consuming those questionably cooked fish tacos from last night. When you’re a civilization of bread and circuses, evacuating a stadium like projectile pea soup ala The Exorcist certainly becomes a high priority in architectural ingenuity. [1]

Related image

Don’t even think about puking in me, culus

So where did this retched misconception come from other than a misunderstanding of architectural terminology and why did it continue to be hurled around as a ‘fun fact’ of Roman history? First, let’s start with the primary sources.

…but all naked and panting as they are, the instant they leave the bath they seize hold of large vessels filled with wine, to show of, as it were, their mighty powers, and so gulp down the whole of the contents only to vomit them up again the very next moment. This they will repeat, too, a second and even a third time, just as though they had only been begotten for the purpose of wasting wine, and as if that liquor could not be thrown away without having first passed through the human body. – Pliny the Elder on ‘Drunkenness’, BOOK XIV. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FRUIT TREES. [2]

The usage of the word ‘vomitorium’ doesn’t appear until the 5th century AD when it is used by the Roman writer Macrobius in his work The Saturnalia to describe these passageways in stadiums as being designed to ‘disgorge’ an audience from the venue. Seems as if the word itself should have been able to survive into modern times intact with its original meaning then, but instead it was muddled with other accounts and hurled together into the misconception it is today. [3] We can look at the works of Seneca the Younger, a lucrative philosopher of Stoicism (A philosophy also noted for it’s teachings in discipline and freedom of passions), in which he lambasted the indulgence of certain Roman’s in a letter to his mother Helvia where he metaphorically implied that “They vomit so they may eat and eat so that they may vomit.” which seems to have been taken as a literal source of evidence by later centuries of writers who believed this to prove the need of a purge room like the infamous ‘vomitorium’. [1]

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Yo, Dickus Manickus–you gonna eat that?

This misunderstanding is not helped either by satirical works such as the Satyricon which scholars believe was written by Petronius, a courtier of Nero, in the 1st c. AD. Yeah, that guy of reputable shenanigans. Petronius describes a dinner celebration in which the patrons were not only busy fornicating in an orgy but also throwing up the contents of their feast. Even if this were a work of non-fiction, and one that would have been applied to a particularly abominable Emperor, he does not mention a specific room where these events would have supposedly taken place. Other writers such as Cassius Dio, Cicero, and Suetonius mention specific stories in which vomiting after excess had taken place (Julius Caesar was said to partake in purging antics) but, again, no mention of a puke room specifically. [1]

Sure, there is also Aulus Cornelius Celsus who recommends vomiting as a medicinal treatment where he suggests that “…after a dinner of many courses and many drinks of diluted wine a vomit is even advantageous” but continuing to clarify “When anything in the dinner is felt to disagree, he should provoke a vomit, repeating it the next day“. So this is not necessarily meant to suggest that one should be purging the contents of their dinner just so they could resume ingesting as much as they desire immediately after. Also, not to mention, Celsus is a practitioner of the imbalances of humors and prescribes vomiting to ease in the plethoric and bilious. And even then, he specifically states -“I allow that vomiting should not be practiced for the sake of luxury…no one who wants to keep well, and live to old age, should make it a daily habit.” So this supposed practice of binging and purging wasn’t exactly one that was encouraged either. [4]

Yet, despite ‘vomitorium’ clearly being used to describe architecture in its first usage and the lack of a ‘purge room’ being mentioned in sources detailing acts of vomiting among Romans, we get to the 20th century where Aldous Huxley publishes his novel Antic Hay in 1923 which serves as a comical narrative lampooning the lifestyle of exorbitance among the London elite.

“The door of his sacred boudoir was thrown rudely open, and there strode in, like a Goth into the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter…”  Ch. 18 [5]

It’s here that Huxley calls back to the Satyrion as mentioned earlier and applies the term ‘vomitorium’ incorrectly to the salacious acts of binging and purging described by Petronius. From here the association of a room in where Romans would purge their food and resume their feasts enters into the pop culture lexicon and Aldous Huxley is credited with creating a brave new world of alt-historical realities. [6] Almost one hundred years later and people are still regurgitating the same misconception–an idea further perpetuated by any clever writer who thinks the concept of a ‘vomitorium’ a sick one to include in their works or just passed around by people who heard it secondhand.

Clearly, the misuse of ‘vomitorium’ is about as contagious as the stomach flu. Let’s do us all a favor and keep the myth down so we don’t all get sick with a case of ‘being wrong’, yeah?

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Partying it up Bacchus style

Fact check it, yo!

[1Alice P. RADIN Fictitious Facts: The Case of the Vomitorium: 

https://web.archive.org/web/20030320192257/http://www.apaclassics.org/AnnualMeeting/03mtg/abstracts/radin.html

[2] Pliny the Elder, BOOK XIV. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FRUIT TREES, Ch. 28: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:phi,0978,001:14

[3]  Macrobius, The Saturnalia: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Macrobius/Saturnalia/home.html

[4] Celsus, On Medicine, Book III: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Celsus/3*.html

[5] Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay, Ch. 18: https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/huxleya-antichay/huxleya-antichay-00-h.html

 

 

 

 

Midas Touch – When Archaeology and Myth Craft a Delicious Beer

Image result for midas touch beer dogfish

Liquid gold

History being a life long passion of mine, I often inform people of this fact when dancing through the usual small-talk ‘get to know you’ questions. This is something that usually doesn’t inspire much interest and most of the responses I receive are something along the lines of, “Ah, that’s cool–always found it boring in school though.” History is more than just memorizing dates, I’d exclaim! It’s insanely dramatic and fun, filled with stories so crazy half the thrill of it is knowing it happened for real–and sometimes, it even uncovers ancient recipes for booze that can be reproduced for us modern day plebeians to try! How are you not entertained?!

Almost 50 years ago, Penn University excavated a tomb found at the ancient site of Gordion, Turkey. Gordion was famous for being where the impossibly legendary Gordian Knot was tied and prophesied to be undone only by someone destined to rule all of Asia. That someone turned out to be Alexander the Great because if there was ever a prophecy, it certainly applied to him most conveniently. Geez, Alexander, leave some table scraps for the rest of us! Gordion was also famous for being the seat of the kingdom of Phrygia which was home to a famous ruler you may have also heard tales of. That being King Midas of poorly chosen wishes. Though the tomb hasn’t been definitively proven to be that of Midas [1] (the other assumption is that it may instead belong to his father Gordius), Archaeologists are sure that the tomb certainly belonged to a beloved Phyrgian king from the Iron Age because they discovered the body of a 60-65 year old male adjourned in purple and surrounded by over 150+ bronze drinking vessels left over from a celebratory farewell feast held outside of his tomb.  The collection was whisked away and sent off to the Penn Museum for safe keeping and forgotten about until Dr. Patrick McGovern, basically the Indiana Jones of ancient alcohols & beverages became bored one day and decided to take a closer look at the contents. [2]

Phrygian jug

Sexy drinking vessel

Using an array of micro-chemical analysis including, but not limited to, infrared spectrometry, gas and liquid chromatography, and mass spectrometry (I don’t know what any of this means but I wanted to include it so I could make any of the science nerds in the audience warm and fuzzy), he was able to isolate the marker compounds of specific natural products that were contained in these vessels by studying the sticky residue found in the remains. And what he found was shocking–besides the completely normal consumption of spicy, barbecued lamb and lentil stew, he found evidence to suggest that the drink of choice among these funeral revelries was a booze concoction hinting of grape wine, honey mead, and barley beer together. A mixture that made him blanch at the thought!

That doesn’t even sound good, right? Ever curious, however, Dr. Patrick McGovern issued a challenge to micro-brewers while speaking at a convention, and invited any one of them to join him in the labs the next morning to see if they could reverse engineer the drink found in Midas’ tomb. At least 20 micro-brewers took him up on the offer, but only one came out the victor–Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery. Together, they created Midas Touch–a craft brew you can actually purchase and drink today! It’s completely based off of the components found in the drinking vessels making it the oldest ancient ale recipe. It’s made with white muscat grapes, honey, and barley–actually a pretty delicious combination having tried it. It falls more on the line of mead in my opinion. It also contains the addition of saffron–it’s a bit of conjecture, but since the bittering agent hops wasn’t introduced to Europe until around 700 AD, they went with this extremely valuable spice which was found prominently in Turkey during antiquity and which is possible to have been the component responsible for the yellowish color found in the residue in the drinking vessel remains. The beer isn’t the cheapest in the world, thanks to the saffron, but it’s an insanely yummy drink and I personally love it not being much of a beer drinker myself. Makes for a fun immersive history experience too, now you have a taste for what ancient peoples drank! [3]

Now, if you’re a bit hazy on the details of Midas and why you remember his name, I got you–there are a few mythological traditions that his story comes from thanks in part to Aristotle and the diligent re-tellings of Ovid in his Metamorphoses XI. 

Image result for king midas painting

What Gordian Knot?

There are a few variations, but one of the more well known ones has Dionysus, the god of wine and other wild pleasures making him the favorite of Dude-Bros everywhere, hanging out with his gang of satyrs and the like. One of the satyrs, Silenos, gets super drunk and finds himself kidnapped by a bunch of filthy peasants and brought to King Midas. One variation has Midas actually lacing a drinking fountain with wine because apparently Silenos, when drunk, spouts all kinds of useful wisdom and quips and lashed out a positively delightful one upon being abducted to court:

The best thing for man is not to be born at all, and the second best thing is to die as soon as possible. [4]

Yikes. Either way, King Midas recognizes Silenos and pays extra attention to his comforts, lavishing him with entertainments for 10 days before returning him to Dionysus who is surprised and exceedingly grateful. Dionysus tells Midas that he’ll grant him one wish in thanks for not raping or murdering the hell out of Silenos which most ancient men are want to do in these days and Midas takes next to no time in deliberating on what his true desires are. Clearly lacking in the gift of hindsight, which he should have wished for instead if you ask me, he requested that everything he touched be turned instantly to gold.

Wish granted, Midas was pleased to see that he could turn all matter into glittering gold, most likely singing the line from Smash Mouth’s All Star as he did so. He was delighted when twigs and leaves shifted to aurum with the slightest touch and skipped on back to his court excited for a future filled with endless wealth. He began to regret his wish pretty quick, however, when he realized his new golden touch also applied to anything he tried to drink or eat–apparently not being a dickish enough king to demand being hand-fed to by his servants. He soon became so inconsolably hungry and thirsty, that he went crying back to Dionysus asking for the wish to be taken back. Dionysus told him to stop being such a whiny baby and go wash off the wish in the river Paktolos which could be found near Sardis. Doing as he was told, Midas washed away his golden touch in the river which is said to be why the sands of the river are forever golden. [4]

That’s the most famous story of King Midas but there were others. Another one has Midas’s bad judgment continuing when he foolishly insists Pan to be a better musician than Apollo, which results in the god furiously cursing him with donkey ears for being such an ass. Then there is the supposed bastard son of Midas, Lityerses, who is some kind of proto-Dexter serial killer who tricks travelers into competing against him in an unwinnable contest and then ceremoniously whipping, beheading them, and then stuffing up his victims into a corn stack while singing a playful tune (probably also All Star by Smash Mouth). Herakles came across him and was like nah brah and gave him a piece of his own medicine. [4]

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In a much later version, Midas’ daughter becomes the victim of his golden touch.

 

But whether or not you believe in Greek Mythology being in any way factual (no judgments from me), there really was a King Midas of Phrygia which is why Archaeologists assume he could be the occupant of the tomb they found and the owner of the vast amount of residue-y drinking vessels. The Midas most likely featuring in these tales reigned around the 8th century BC during the time of Sargon II. He showed up a few times in correspondences and was known as an aggressive and powerful ruler who allied himself with Hittite kings (basically Troy, ya’ll) against the Assyrians. He also cooperated in coordinated military campaigns with the Greeks, which might explain why they adored him enough to feature him in stories (whether or not they were much for flattery). Sources also suggest that he had dedicated his throne to Apollo in Delphi (perhaps as an apology in hopes of getting his old human ears back, no?) and that he had married a Greek princess and daughter of King Agememnon of Kyme (Not that Agememnon). Her name was Hermodike II and she’s credited with inventing Greek coinage which might explain the whole gold thing, who knows. [5]

Oh and also, this was secretly a Kingslayers post all along (Hah! Got you!) According to sources, which include Herodotus, this King Midas committed suicide by drinking bull’s blood. [5]

Because why in the gods names would you do such a thing.

 

Cause of Death: Drinking the blood of bovines when he should have been drinking Dogfish Craft Beer, clearly.

 

Fact Check it, yo!

 

[1] Krill, Richard M. “Midas: Fact and Fiction.” International Social Science Review, vol. 59, no. 1, 1984, pp. 31–34. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41881501.

[2] McGovern, Patrick. Midas Touch, www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology/?page_id=143.

[3] Johnson, Marilyn. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. Harper, 2014. Ch. Extreme Beverages

[4] March, Jennifer R. The Penguin Book of Classical Myths. Penguin, 2010. Pgs. 532-534

[5] Berndt-Ersöz, Susanne. “The Chronology and Historical Context of Midas.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, vol. 57, no. 1, 2008, pp. 1–37. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25598415.

 

 

Illuminating the Dark Ages

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Depiction of King Valdemar IV of Denmark in 1361. Painting by Carl Gustaf Hellqvist 1851-1890.

There are two ways people generally look upon the past, either with fondness and nostalgia or with scrutiny and disdain. That’s why we can never all quite agree on whether or not high school is the worst or best years of your life or if the 90’s really were all that and a bag of chips. Historically, it’s no different–was the Classical era a time of heightened scholarship and monuments or was it a barbaric time lacking of spiritual sense and with an inclination towards bloodshed? Many scholars during the Renaissance would certainly argue that point. So it was then, during The Enlightenment era of the 18th century in particular, that it seemed only fitting to look upon the time between history bookended by the fall of the Western Roman Empire to Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas as a period of considerable dimness. Both metaphorically and intellectually. A time in between two eras commonly thought of as periods of prosperity and culture. We know it as The Dark Ages and I’m calling bullshit on that conception.

What do you think of when your brain mulls over The Dark Ages? I’m sure squalor and peasantry comes immediately to mind, probably with a healthy dose of Bubonic plague coupled with high infant mortality rates for the helluva it. Not to mention self-flagellation, the burning of suspected practitioners of devil worship and witchcraft, and The Crusades. You’re probably picturing monks with tube-ring hairdos, Norsemen with burly beards and a fondness for pillaging monasteries, and a whole lot of chainmail. It’s easy to imagine this time being one of darkness since all of that does sound pretty bleak, I know, but is it a fair assessment to have? Is it not incorrect to view history through the lens of progress? After all, what will future civilizations think of us when they look back at our historical era?

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Nefertiti versus Nefertari

anne-baxter

Guess who I’m supposed to be…

Here at Histastrophe!, I make it a personal goal to arm my readers with random factoids they might have the pleasure of one day ‘Well, actually…” utilizing in everyday conversations to exert their historical dominance. Life is too short to go through in ignorance, after all. And while I’ve covered myths and misconceptions before, sometimes a common knowledge mix-up is nothing more than just a bit of confusion in differentiation. History certainly didn’t make it easy on us, especially with the insistence on naming all those damn kings Louis, for example.  Here’s looking a heavy side-eye at you, Kate & William

First up, two completely different famous Egyptian queens who ruled a Dynasty apart and have, unfortunately, similar monikers. Here’s how to tell the difference!

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French Etiquette

Marie Antoinette's Execution

Pardon me, sir, I did not mean to do it.

-Marie Antoinette’s, the last Queen of France, supposed last words before being guillotined on October 16th, 1793 during the French Revolution. She had accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot.

 

Memoirs of the Sansons, Chapter XXXI ‘The Queen’: [1] Source written by the executioner Henri Sanson’s grandson. Makes no mention of this comment, yet other passing phrases between The Queen and her executioner are as follows:

“Have courage, madam!”

“Thank you, sir, thank you.”

He then offered to support her to the scaffold to which she was said to have replied,

“No, I am, thank Heaven, strong enough to walk that short distance.”

Memoirs of Marie Antoinette, by Madame Campan; Removal of the Queen: [2] Memoirs on the court of Marie Antoinette as told by her lady in waiting, Campan. The below is a quote from Alphonse de Lamartine from his Histore des Girondins, a French poet, writer, and politician who helped to compile the Memoirs with Campan:

The Queen, after having written and prayed, slept soundly for some hours. On her waking, Bault’s daughter dressed her and adjusted her hair with more neatness than on other days. Marie Antoinette wore a white gown, a white handkerchief covered her shoulders, a white cap her hair; a black ribbon bound this cap round her temples …. The cries, the looks, the laughter, the jests of the people overwhelmed her with humiliation; her colour, changing continually from purple to paleness, betrayed her agitation …. On reaching the scaffold she inadvertently trod on the executioner’s foot. “Pardon me,” she said, courteously. She knelt for an instant and uttered a half-audible prayer; then rising and glancing towards the towers of the Temple, “Adieu, once again, my children,” she said; “I go to rejoin your father.”

This is, perhaps, the origin–and though most contemporary sources of her time weren’t without bias or accusations of cake eating, this is one of the few sources painting Marie as a sympathetic figure. Unfortunately, with the politics surrounding the French Revolution, it’s a mess to separate fact from fiction.

Marie Antoinette's Prayer Book

Prima Nocta or Prima “Not”?

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One classy evening after a long night of getting paid to repeatedly explain where the restrooms were and pouring the occasional decaf, I felt like unwinding with a game of Animal Crossing (had some big loans owed to that skank Tom Nook) and a viewing of Braveheart because I’m rock n’ roll and really like that scene where Mel Gibson gets hanged, drawn, and quartered. Oops, spoilers.

There must have been a considerable amount of time since I last saw the movie and between that must have had tea and crumpets with a history book because, suddenly, I took offense at the very mention of ‘Primae Noctis’ and the fact that all those Scotties were prancing around in kilts (but that’s a post for another day).

For those unfamiliar, Primae Noctis or the French version Droit du Seigneur, was the idea that a lord was within legal rights to take the virginity of a serf’s daughter, most notably, on her wedding night. We see this concept perpetuated in Braveheart when crotchety ol’ King Edward I of the Britains enacts this law to “breed out the Scots” and we see a few fug lords wedding crash on the friend of William Wallace which escalates quickly into war and the entire point of the film and Mel Gibson’s career.

Braveheart isn’t alone, though. The Office, Game of Thrones, Merlin, and Family Guy reference it. And if you were living in the Enlightenment Era, you had the Marriage of Figaro or some of Voltaire’s sass to help spread the fire. What is even more strange and can possibly be found to prey victim to the widespread misconceptions present through these times is that some notable scholars even believe it, toting around ‘evidence’ where there is none.

So how did this happen?

Obviously, with something like this, you need an account or source that has either witnessed, observed, or found any sort of legal documentation of this act being practiced. Curiously, with a right as supposedly as widespread as we are led to believe, almost nothing exists and yet a few scholars are determined to hold the belief that it was a real thing. Or it happened in the Dark Ages, duh. Or France at least, yes, at least France. (Always France).

These select few will point to Herodotus (who, if you’ve been keeping up with me, know that I am already familiar with) and say, “Herodotus claims daughters of Babylon had to offer their virginity to a stranger!” [citing paragraph 199 Book 1]

The fact that Babylon =/= Medieval Europe and a vastly different political climate and caste system is neither here nor there because a closer look at what Herodotus actually said is more illuminating and vastly more interesting.

After detailing how Babylonian men found wives during marriage auctions (It’s like the dowry, women are either property or a burden) Herodotus goes on to say,

…has now fallen into disuse and they have of late years hit upon another scheme, namely the prostitution of all girls of the lower classes to provide some relief from the poverty which followed upon the conquest with its attendant hardship and general ruin. [Book 1 para. 196]

No sign of putative legal rape here, folks, just the exercise of the oldest profession in the world. Oh, but wait. Here’s the passage being referenced in support of the claim (Book 1, para. 199) check it out:

There is one custom amongst these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Aphrodite and there give herself to a strange man.

Oh, sure. Taken out of context, I suppose you could take out some phrases and compare this to a feudal sex crime, but what this is actually referring to is a form of phallic worship which was common in the area as detailed by Westermarck in the penultimate History of Human Marriage. Herodotus goes on to detail that the woman enters the temple, is offered a silver coin as bargain, and slept with in order to complete the religious rite. This can be seen as a form of ‘sexual sacrifice’ in the form of worship which wouldn’t be all to dissimilar with the antics of Aleister Crowley’s crew.

Herodotus DOES, however, write in Book 4 about the Adyrmachidae tribe in Libya who are guilty because

They are the only Libyan tribe to follow this practice, as also that of taking girls who are about to be married to see the King. Any girl who catches his fancy, leaves him a maid no longer. [para. 168]

But note the “only” and the “Libya” and a few thousand years, and this example is further away from Medieval Europe than indoor plumbing.

So Herodotus had a small mention, but how did this translate into a giant boogie laden finger pointing at Europe?

Well, Dr Karl Schmidt, a German and a doctor so enuff said, believes it “was only a learned superstition” and that it originated from culagium, a requirement that a serf get permission to marry, and such a permission often required the peasant to pay a fee or give some kind of service (not prostitution, okay, calm down). This apparently appeared to come up in the consequence of marrying under the lands of another Lord, as it would be like losing a ‘headcount’ and a laborer by right so compensation was in order. So the “right of the Lord’ was more likely a tax rather than a romp in the Motte-and-bailey.

And the idle belief that the higher clergy practiced Droit du Seigneur in Middle Age France? (Geez, again with this? Let them rebel in peace)

This misconception could have stemmed from the symbolic “possession” of a man’s wife by the church as it was a requirement that for three days and three nights to go by before any copulation happened because of the “spirit of solemn devotion”. But, mostly, because any ecclesiastical authority could be thus payed off with a nice meaty fee if you wanted the privilege of the dirty deed on the first night instead. Certainly, there was a legal rape happening here, but not one of the flesh…

Of course, there is also Boece, an established uncredible source who fabricated many narratives, who wrote of an event that happened more than 700 years before he did. I shudder to think this may have been the basis for Braveheart

And othir law he maid, that wiffs of the commonis sal be fre to the nobilis; and the lord of the ground sal have the maidenhead of all virgins dwelling on the same. [The Chronicles of Scotland. 1938.]

Perpetrator of myths not history. And if this didn’t help spread it, Voltaire’s cheeky comedy ‘Le Droit du Seigneur: Comedie en vers’ and his parallel criticisms of a pre-revolution/enlightenment satirical view of early France has probably got him giggling around in his grave now that common knowledge totes Primae Noctis around like a slutty party girl.

Either way, somewhere between no evidence to shady business to disrespectful double-takes and biased views of civilized society, we have a gross pock mark on the history of Medieval Europe (well, two, if you’re also counting the pestilence. Gosh, I’m witty.) I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I’m sure a position of power and dominance led to frequent abuse of lower classes and sexual violence against women. But it certainly wasn’t a cultural or legal custom that was practiced without prejudice all across Europe. And in the case of Braveheart, there is no evidence to support an event of this nature occurring on the British Isles unless you want to go sit over there with Boece and the guy who wrote about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree.

So, the next time you’re out making a reference about claiming someone’s wife for a night ala Prima Nocta, that’s me staring you down in the corner and predatorily stalking you with a conversation about violent youth, knighthood, and the Crusades. So just don’t do it, okay?

Fact check it, yo!

Secondary Sources:

Old Babylonian Marriage Ceremonies and Rites. S. Greengus. Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1966)

The History of Human Marriage. Edward Westermarck. 1891. pp. 72-76-80.

Jus Primae Noctis: Eine Geschlichtliche Untersuchung. Schmidt, K. (1881)

Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Brundage, J. (1987)

Jus primae noctis or droit du seigneur. Vern L. Bullough. The journal of Sex Research, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb. 1991), pp. 163-166.

Primary sources:

The Histories Herodotus

Other:

The Chronicles of Scotland. 1938. Boece.