A Touch of Classical Wisdom VI

The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or to write what is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is the man who can do both.

-Pliny the Younger in a letter to Tacitus describing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and the death of his famous uncle Pliny the Elder. [1]

The Land of Wa!


Say waaaaa?

…deepest apologies for that.

Anyway, the land formerly known as “Wa” is actually a place all of you are familiar with. Perhaps the Chinese decided to call them that because there was a “Great Wave” of crying after finding out the Four Inventions were created by someone other than the inventors of, well, nope, the Chinese invented Ramen too. On the same moon phase now? Good! (Also, do you know what the “Four Inventions” are? See if you can guess; the answer is on the bottom! Ganbatte!)

Since I know very little about the History of Japan other than that Tom Cruise saved the Samurai from being forgotten in time (I kid), I’ll be doing a bit of studying that goes beyond reading volumes of Rurouni Kenshin.

So, to prepare myself and you for this journey into the Empire of the Sun and Sailor Moon, I leave you with a passage I came across which describes Early Japan (Yayoi) from a 3rd century AD Chinese perspective! And to get you all on track, 3rd century AD means we’re talking about Han Dynasty and afterwards the Three Kingdoms. So Dynasty Warriors. Okay, enough talk!

The social customs [of the Wa] are not lewd. The men wear a band of cloth around their heads, exposing the top. Their clothing is fastened around the body with little sewing. The women wear their hair in loops. Their clothing is like an unlined coverlet and is worn by slipping the head through an opening in the center. [The people] cultivate grains, rice, hemp, and mulberry trees for sericulture. They spin and weave and produce fine linen and silk fabrics. There are no oxen, horses, tigers, leopards, sheep, or magpies. Their weapons are spears, shields, and wooden bows made with short lower part and long upper part; and their bamboo arrows are sometimes tipped with iron or bone…

The land of Wa is warm and mild [in climate]. In winter as in summer the people live on vegetables and go about bare-footed. Their houses have rooms; father and mothers, older and younger, sleep separately. They smear their bodies with pink and scarlet, just as the Chinese use powder. They serve meat on bamboo and wooden trays, helping themselves with their fingers. When a person dies, they prepare a single coffin, without an outer one. They cover the graves with sand to make a mound. When death occurs, mourning is observed for more than ten days, during which period they do not eat meat. The head mourners wail and lament, while friends sing, dance, and drink liquor. When the funeral is over, all members of the whole family go into the water to cleanse themselves in a bath of purification.

When they go on voyages across the sea to visit China, they always select a man who does not arrange his hair, does not rid himself of fleas, lets his clothing [get as] dirty as it will, does not eat meat, and does not approach women. This man behaves like a mourner and is known as the fortune keeper. When the voyage turns out propitious, they all lavish on him slaves and other valuables. In case there is disease or mishap, they kill him, saying that he was not scrupulous in his duties.

Yikes. Paint a vivid picture?

Fact check it yo!

Tsunoda and Goodrich, Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories–
Later Han Through Ming Dynasties,
pp. 10-11.

A History of Japan R.H.P. Mason & J.G. Caiger. Revised Edition, 1997.

The Four Great Inventions were: Gunpowder, Papermaking, Compass, and Printing! Thanks, China!

Prima Nocta or Prima “Not”?


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


The Chronicles of Scotland. 1938. Boece.

The Travels of Marco Polo: The Prologue Part 2

Part 1

When last we followed the Polo Brothers, the predecessor adventurers of the renown Marco, they had been outed ‘Caucasian’ and promised a “molestation” free all expense paid journey to visit the great Kublai Khan in the East.

Rusticello da Pisa (if you’re still with me, the convict turned author of The Travels of Marco Polo) assures us that Pops and Uncle Polo saw many great things on the year long journey to the Khan, but ain’t nobody got time to document that, and, besides, “Messer Mark, who has likewise seen them all, will give you a full account” later. So tune in later for that. In the mean time, imagine rainbows, raptors, and cheesecake. That’s what they have over there, right?

So anyway, fast forward to the court of the Great Khan where our heroes are met with honor, hospitality, and a riveting game of 20 questions. And no sign of cheesecake, my bad.

Clearly passing this initial test of questioning and divulging all the secret information about the mystical beings known as the “Latins”, Kublai Khan must have been incredibly inspired by this, because he immediately wanted to send an Embassy to the Roman Pope which would include one of his own Barons and, of course, the master riders of tail coats, the Polo brothers themselves. The goal was to pass along a love note in class which expressed the hope that the Pope would send over a hundred Christians who could call themselves intellectuals and fair acquaintances of the Seven Arts. (Knowledge of Rhetoric, Logic, Grammar, Arithmetic, Astronomy, Music, and Geometry. Liberal Arts degrees used to be worth something, kids. Not to mention, music would have never been considered back than to be in a position of budget cuts as the ability to play or have knowledge of music was the mark of a brilliant man. Now of course, today, we have Justin Bieber.)

The reason Kublai was so interested in making friends with people who habitually drew fish in the dirt wasn’t to throw a lavish Christmas party. He was inviting them to knock on his door and provide logical discourse in comparing the Law of Christ with all those other hokey religions. If they were successful in proving the superiority of a relatively adolescent and already fractured religion over other ones, than he would gladly convert himself and his people to Christianity. Also, he really wanted some Oil from the Lamp that burns in Jerusalem on the “Sepulchre of Our Lord”. If you forget the oil from the lamp than I will SEND IT BACK.

Kublai sent his new Polo owls on their way with a Tablet of Gold (shown above with a very white looking Khan) which worked like a passport and just to remind everyone of how badass he was. Good thing too, because the Khan’s probably “green” Baron who was accompanying the group got sick and was not at all suspicious that the Polo brothers were totally happy and cool with going on without him and taking the shiny gold tablet with them.

Well, apparently they journeyed for three years. (Mmmhmm. I know, right? More like journey straight into a BROTHEL for 3 years) When they finally arrived in Acre (a major Crusader Kingdom) in 1269 AD. When they got there they learned that the Pope who Kublai so desperately wanted to makey friends with was dead. Like, really dead. Whoops.


To be continued. And also, WHERE IS MY OIL FOR ZE LAMPS?!

Travels of Marco Polo: The Prologue part 1


Marco Polo. Proclaimed “wise and noble citizen of Venice”. They knew him for his families travels to Constantinople and further Asian excursions. We know him for being the subject of an awesome pool party game. I know him for teaching me to never trust 10 year olds because I swear those little bastards were peeking.

For the most part, though, people know who he is. He’s that Italian dude who had adventures in Asia or something. Oh, and he was on an episode of Doctor Who.

But he was also the “author” of The Travels of Marco Polo, a book that famously introduced a narrow European world to the culture and life of their eastern brothers and sisters. Technically, Marco dictated his stories to Rusticello da Pisa, a writer and, well, prisoner. They were in prison together. I’m crossing my fingers for a Morgan Freemen narrated Italian brofest that leads to epic book writing and a trip to Mexico.

Unfortunately, none of the original text still exists, so as my nerdy heart cries over the loss of an irreplaceable relic, what we have instead is a messy bunch of editions and alterations that when collected equal a tremendous potentially embellished tale of travels through Asia, Persia, China, Indonesia, and speaking terms with Kublai Khan. And they could all very well be fabricated bull.

Despite that, The Travels of Marco Polo is a well-known primary source and if it wasn’t riddled with bias and error it wouldn’t be any fun!

Prologue Part 1:

“And we shall set down things seen as seen, and things heard as heard only, so that no jot of falsehood may mar the truth of our book, and that all who shall read it or hear it read may put full faith in the truth of all its contents.”

Regardless of what Rusticello says here, ignore him. There were about 150 different versions and if anyone knows anything about the telephone game, sometimes “I like cats” becomes “Cindy has herpes”.

“For let me tell you that since our Lord God did mould with his hands our first Father Adam, even until this day, never hath there been Christian, or Pagan, or Tartar, or Indian, or any man of any nation, who in his own person hath had so much knowledge and experience of the divers parts of the World and its Wonders as had this Messer Marco!”

So, with only one small down payment of 500 Augustals, this information can be yours! Send all payments along with the messenger Scammy McScamkins before the next Crusade! No refunds.

Also, what are a “women”?

And, side note: Marco Polo spent 67 years exploring. I have nothing to say to this other than to shut my book for a moment and take a respectful bow. He just barely beat out Indiana Jones on the old codger leader board.

~ ~ ~

The year was 1260 when Marky Mark’s father, Nicolas, and Uncle Maffeo were chillin’ in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul if you aren’t friends with me) as merchants when they realized the gettin’ was better somewhere else. Probably true, honestly, this would have been under the reign of Baldwin II who was practically going door-to-door to various kingdoms begging for money. He’s probably more known for selling off the Crown of Thorns, you know, Jesus’ fancy kingly only-used-once-so-almost-brand-new headgear, than being the last emperor of a Latin constantly limping along Constantinople.

First they went to Soldaia, an integral Silk Road trading post and Tartar punching bag, and than decided to hang with Barca Kaan, a Tartar prince in Sara. …I mean…you guys, it’s a city. A CITY.

Turns out, Princes love them some jewels, so after a generous gift, the three of them got on famously for a whole year until Barca barked up the wrong tree in a war with fellow Tartar lord, Alau.

Not wanting to get captured or blood on their pointy shoes, the Polo brother’s journeyed onward to Ucaca, then passing the Tigris river (famous for cradling Babylon with the Euphrates river) ,and than on to an unnamed desert. Then they showed up in Bocara whose king was Barac and okay this is getting confusing. Anyway, they stayed in Not-Obama’s city for 3 years.

Than that guy, Alau, who messed up their prince friend, sent a bunch of envoys who show up and are all like,” Whoa! You guys are so WHITE! Wanna know who hasn’t seen white people before? Kublai Khan! Come with us?”

Not having the heart to tell them what a pestilent conquering awkward dancing people the whites are, the brothers agreed to travel to the court of the Great Khan!

Bum bum BUM!

(To be continued…)