January 14, 1500: For the Ass Was a Donkey, You See

The Feast of the Ass held on January 14 from around 1100 until 1500 was meant as much as teach-in as a party-in, a way to present religious doctrine to the illiterati who had no books or Internet access. This festival, held primarily in France as a cousin to the Feast of Fools, celebrated the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt.

Traditionally, the most beautiful young woman in the village splendidly attired in gold-embroidered cloth, carrying a small child and riding a donkey would be led in a solemn procession through the town to the church. The donkey would stand beside the altar while a mock Mass was performed. Instead of the usual responses to the priest, the congregation would “hee-haw.” At the end of the service, instead of the usual benediction, the priest would bray three times and the congregation would respond with another round of hee-hawing. The choir would then offer up a hymn and everyone would bray along — except for the ass who thought the whole thing rather ridiculous and that these people were all making you know whats of themselves.

Another story from these Years of the Ass featured King Henry IV (of France not England as in yesterday’s post). The king was visiting a small town where he found himself listening to and growing tired of a long and rather stupid being delivered by the mayor. As the mayor spoke a donkey brayed loudly and the king with a tone of the greatest gravity and politeness, said: “Pray, gentlemen, speak one at a time, if you please.”

How Cold Was It?

January 14 is also St. Hilary’s Day which honors 4th century bishop St. Hilarius who sounds like a pretty jolly fellow.  In England, the day is considered the coldest day of the year, probably because of the great frost that began on this day in 1205 and lasted through March.  In many subsequent years, folks would hold festivals with thousands of them stomping around on the frozen Thames.

. . . pickpockets were sticking their hands in strangers’ pockets just to keep them warm.

. . .  politicians had their hands in their own pockets.

. . . the squirrels in the park were throwing themselves at an electric fence.

. . . when I turned on the shower I got hail.

. . . mice were playing hockey in the toilet bowl.

 

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January 13, 1404: Silver Threads and Golden Needles

On January 13, 1404, the British Parliament under the guidance of King Henry IV signed into law an act that would endear them all to millions of today’s schoolkids — the Act Against Multipliers. Oops. Turns out he wasn’t outlawing multiplication tables. Back then multipliers were what we know as alchemists.

Alchemy actually had a somewhat noble background. Alchemists sought to purify, mature and perfect certain things — an elixir of immortality here, a cure-all for disease there, perfection of the human body, perfection of the human soul. But what really got the alchemists’ juices flowing was the use of philosopher’s stone to transform base metals into “noble metals” such as gold and silver.

And that’s exactly what Henry was making illegal — the possibility of some commoner making himself very rich, causing a redistribution of wealth and income equality that would bring ruin on the state. It would be as if in the U.S. today any Tom Dick or Harry could own as large and garish hotel as a president.

Therefore “none from henceforth should use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication, and if any the same do, they incur the pain of felony.” Off with their heads, most likely.

Philosopher’s stone is available from Amazon.

Where’s a Henry IV When You Need Him?

On January 13, 1854, alchemist turned musical inventor Anthony Foss received a patent for his accordion, a strange device shaped like a box with a bellows that is compressed or expanded while pressing buttons or keys which cause pallets to open and air to flow across strips of brass or steel, creating something that vaguely resembles music. It is sometimes called a squeezebox. The person playing it is called an accordionist (or squeezeboxer?)

The harmonium and concertina are cousins. And, yes, there is a World Accordion Day.

M – I – C.  K – E – Y . . .

The first Mickey Mouse comic strip appeared on January 13, 1930:

 

January 7, 1785: Jean-Pierre and the Airgonauts

HotAirBalloonBoy-GraphicsFairyBalloonomania was in full swing in Europe by the year 1785, and our intrepid French airgonaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard was right in the middle of it. Since his initial hot-air balloon flight nearly a year earlier, the frenzy had grown with balloon images plastered everywhere and even people adorned in clothing au ballon, a style that made them look like walking hot-air balloons.

But a sort of holy grail of ballooning was still to take place – the crossing of the English Channel. Blanchard had gone to England after his early successes, where he staged several flights in his strange-looking craft propelled by flapping wings and a windmill. Blanchard’s third flight there with American John Jeffries as co-pilot departed Dover Castle on January 7, 1785, bound for the coast of France, and the two men became the first to cross the Channel by air.

It wasn’t a particularly pretty flight; the two men nearly crashed into the Channel along the way. Their balloon was weighed down by questionable extra supplies such as anchors, a hand-operated propeller that didn’t work, and a set of oars with which they planned to row their way through the air. With France in sight but seemingly just out of reach, the two balloonists threw everything they could pry loose out of the balloon. When all looked bleak, Blanchard even threw his trousers overboard, lightening the craft enough to make a terra firma landing. The 2½ hour trip was a success.

Blanchard was awarded a substantial pension by Louis XVI. He later toured Europe, demonstrating his balloons and staging first flights in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. He ballooned before monarchs, such as his flight at the coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia in Prague, and presidents, Washington, Adams. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe in the United States.

Charles Addams, born January 7, 1912:addams

addams1

December 30, 1865: You’re a Better Man Than I Am

Rudyard Kipling was one of the most popular writers in England, in both prose and verse, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Born in Bombay,

India, on December 30, 1865, Kipling is best known for his works of fiction, especially The Jungle Book (a collection of short stories which includes “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”), Just So Stories, Kim, “The Man Who Would Be King” and such poems as “Gunga Din,” “Mandalay,” and “The White Man’s Burden.” He is considered a major “innovator in the art of the short story,” and his children’s books have become true classics.

Kipling became synonymous with the concept of British “empire” and as a result his reputation fluctuated and his place in literary and cultural history inspired passionate disagreement during most of the 20th century.  Nevertheless, critics agree that he was a skilled interpreter of how empire was experienced.

Young Rudyard’s earliest years in Bombay were blissfully happy, in an India full of exotic sights and sounds. But at the age of five he and his sister were sent back to England, as was the custom, to be educated. In his autobiography, published 65 years later, Kipling recalled the stay with horror, and wondered ironically if the combination of cruelty and neglect he suffered from his foster family might not have hastened the onset of his literary life: “I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture—religious as well as scientific. Yet it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell: and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort.”

Kipling traveled extensively throughout the world, and his travels included a stay of several years in Brattleboro, Vermont, an unlikely spot in which to create The Jungle Book, although he did, along with Captains Courageous.

During his long career, he declined most of the many honors offered him, including a knighthood, the Poet Laureateship, and the Order of Merit, but in 1907 he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1936 in England (even though a few years earlier he had written “Never again will I spend another winter in this accursed bucketshop of a refrigerator called England.”)

kipling

December 6, 1882: The Postman Always Writes Twice

Born in 1815, Anthony Trollope had a successful career as one of the most prolific English novelists of the Victorian era. Some of his best-loved works, collectively known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire, revolve around the imaginary county of Barsetshire. He also wrote novels on political, social, and gender issues, and on other topical matters. He simultaneously enjoyed a successful career with the General Post Office.

This dual career makes Trollope a role model for would-be writers everywhere.

Trollope’s postal career began somewhat ignominiously in 1834 as a postal clerk, and the first seven years of his official life, during which he gained a reputation for unpunctuality and insubordination, were, according to him, “neither creditable to myself nor useful to the public pillarservice.”

A move to Ireland altered his postal career and began his writing career.

Given a fresh start, Trollope became a model employee. And, having decided to become a novelist, he began writing on the numerous long trips around Ireland his postal duties required. Writing on a rigid schedule from 5 a.m. To 8 a.m. every day, his output was prodigious. He wrote his earliest novels during this time, occasionally dipping into the “lost-letter” box for ideas.

In 1851, Trollope returned to England to reorganize rural mail delivery in southwestern England and southern Wales. The two-year mission took him over much of Great Britain, often on horseback. Trollope describes this time as “two of the happiest years of my life”.

During these travels, he conceived the plot of The Warden, the first of the six Barsetshire novels. The novel was published in 1855, bringing him to the attention of the novel-reading public. He immediately began work on Barchester Towers, the second Barsetshire novel and probably his best-known work. Trollope ‘s postal career was also going well.  By the mid-1860s, he had reached a senior position within the Post Office. He made postal history with his introduction of the pillar box, the ubiquitous bright red mail-box, thousands of which were found in the United Kingdom and throughout the British Empire of the time.

Trollope also aspired to a political career; he had long dreamed of a seat in the House of Commons. He agreed to become a Liberal candidate, and in the election of 1868, he finished number four of four candidates. Trollope called his short-lived dip into political waters “the most wretched fortnight of my manhood”.

 

Trollope died on December 6, 1882, having written 47 novels as well as numerous short stories, nonfiction works and plays – three hours a day, every day.

November 27, 1703: What Do We Do with a Drunken Sailor?

The Eddystone Lighthouse sits atop the treacherous Eddystone Rocks off the coast of the United Kingdom. The current lighthouse is actually the fourth to hold sway there.

eddystoneThe original Eddystone Lighthouse was an octagonal wooden structure whose light first shone in November of 1698. It was destroyed just five years later on November 27 during the Great Storm of 1703. The unfortunate builder Henry Winstanley was on the lighthouse, completing additions to the structure at the time. No trace was found of him, or of the other five men in the lighthouse.

The fame of the lighthouse spread well beyond those using it for guidance in the English Channel. It became the subject of a sea shanty sung by drunken sailors around the world. Shanties are those songs sung on board ship to relieve the boredom of shipboard tasks, but during the 20th century and particularly during the mid-century folk craze, sea shanties were adopted by landlubbers everywhere. The Eddystone Light became a particular favorite of many a drunken sailor, armed with a guitar or banjo and a good supply of beer, no matter how far away the nearest navigable waters.

Oh, me father was the keeper of the eddystone light
And he slept with a mermaid one fine night
From this union there came three
A porpoise and a porgy and the other was me

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

One day as I was a-trimmin’ the glim
Humming a tune from the evening hymn
A voice from the starboard shouted, “Ahoy”
And there was me mother a-sittin’ on the buoy

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

Oh what has become of me children three?
Me mother then she asked of me
One was exhibited as a talking fish
The other was served in a chafing dish

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

Then the phosphorus flashed in her seaweed hair
I looked again, but me mother wasn’t there
But I heard her voice echoing back through the night
The devil take the keeper of the eddystone light

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

 

calv-snow

November 22, 1247: Time Flies Like an Arrow . . .

Robin Hood has been celebrated through story, song and film as that charming rogue who, along with his merry men, robbed from the 1 percent and gave to the 99 percent, a nobleman cheated out of his birthright by the nasty Sheriff of Nottingham, a patriot in service to Richardrobin hood the Lionhearted, fighting the villainy of that usurper Prince John.

Disney isn’t entirely responsible for this whitewash; the English have long raised Robin Hood to mythic status as well as giving him religion through Friar Tuck and romance through Maid Marian.

Earlier accounts, however, have him born to wealth but squandering his inheritance through carelessness and overindulgence, after which he was forced to adopt the life of an outlaw in the forest. He collected around him a band of thieves – who may indeed have been merry – to assist in his predatory operations. Chances are they robbed mainly the rich because the rich were the ones with something to steal. To the consternation of the authorities, Robin Hood and his gang carried out their trade for a number of years.

As Robin Hood ushered in his 87th year, his arrows began to get a little wobbly and off-target. He increasingly felt the infirmities of his age, and was eventually convinced to seek medical attention at the local nunnery. The prioress evidently took an instant dislike to the merry old man, which she vented by opening up an artery and allowing him to bleed to death. The date of his demise is reckoned to be November 22, 1247.

But before he turned his toes completely up, Robin realized that he was the victim of treachery (flowing blood will do that), and he blew a blast on his bugle (kept handily at his bedside for just such a situation). This summoned his compatriot Little John who forced his way into the chamber in time to hear his chief’s last request. “Give me my bent bow in my hand,” he said. “And an arrow I’ll let free, and where that arrow is taken up, there let my grave digged be.” Rhyming right to the end. Which came just after he shot the arrow through an open window, selecting the spot where he should be buried. Which he was.

. . . fruit flies like a banana. — Groucho Marx

 

November 5, 1605: And Brer Fawkes, He Lay Low

Please to remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot
I see of no reason why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow…

Guy Fawkes, also known as Guido, was a protester some four hundred years ago, a member of a group of English Catholics who were dismayed at having a Protestant as King of England.  Their protests eventually moved beyond the verbal assaults (“Hi de hay, hi de ho, King James the First has got to go”) down the slippery slope to gunpowder, treason and plot.

Guy Fawkes was born in England in 1570 but as a young man went off to Europe to fight in the Eighty Years’ War (not the entire war, of course) on the side of Catholic Spain.  He hoped that in return Spain would back his Occupy the Throne movement in England.  Spain wasn’t interested.

Guy  returned to England and fell in with some fellow travelers.  Realizing that the Occupy the Throne movement required removing the person who was currently sitting on it, the group plotted to assassinate him.  They rented a spacious undercroft beneath Westminster Palace  where they amassed a good supply of gunpowder.  Guy Fawkes was left in charge of the gunpowder.

Unfortunately, someone snitched on them and Fawkes was captured on November 5.  Subjected to waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation methods, Fawkes told all and was condemned to death. (Evidently, James I was not amused.)  Just before his scheduled execution, Fawkes jumped from the scaffold, breaking his neck and cheating the English out of a good hanging.

Since then the English have celebrated the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 with the November 5 celebration, an integral part of which is burning Guy Fawkes (and sometimes others) in effigy.  Seems like a long time to hold a grudge.

 

It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man. ~ Jack Handey

October 29, 1636: Hermit of Grub Street

Henry Welby was a gentleman of fortune, education and popularity in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth who suddenly secluded himself from all public life – not as a hermit off in the Grub_street_hermitwilderness but right in the middle of London. His irrevocable resolution to live a solitary life followed an incident in which his younger brother, displeased over some trifle or another, attempted to shoot him at close range, certainly with the intent to kill.

To fulfill his resolution, Henry took a house at one end of Grub Street, known primarily for bohemians and impoverished hack writers. He occupied three rooms himself – one for dining, one for sleeping and one for study. The rest of the house was given over to his servants. A technical quibble here perhaps: can a man truly be a hermit with servants?  But it would seem that he managed. While his food was set on his table by his cook, he would wait in his bedroom. And while his bed was being made, he would retire into his study, and so on – thus avoiding any actual contact with his servants.

He ate only a salad of greens and herbs in the summer and a bowl of gruel in the winter. He drank no wine or spirits, only water or an occasional cheap beer. Occasionally, on a special day, he might eat an egg yolk, no white, or a piece of bread, no crust. Yet he provided a bountiful table for his servants.

And in these three rooms, he remained – for forty-four years, never ever leaving them until he was carried out on a gurney.  Not one of his relatives or acquaintances ever laid another eye on him – only his elderly maid Elizabeth ever saw his face. And she didn’t see much of it because it was overgrown by hair and beard. Elizabeth died just a few days before Henry’s death on October 29, 1636.

Books were his companions for those forty-four years, and not once did one of them shoot at him.

I drink to make other people more interesting. ― Ernest Hemingway

October 27, 1666: I Did It with My Box of Matches

When the ashes settled after the great Chicago Fire, folks looked to assign blame and pointed their fingers at a cow.  The English were fire-of-londonalso looking to fix blame for a fire some two centuries earlier.  In early September 1666, a major fire broke out in Pudding Lane in the City of London and within days had destroyed 80 percent of the old city.
Accusations were flying in all directions — strangers, the Spanish, Dutch, Irish and most particularly the French, Catholics, even King Charles II.

Enter one Robert Hubert.  Hubert was a simple watchmaker who wasn’t quite wound up  — and he was a French Catholic.  He obligingly confessed to being the culprit, telling authorities he deliberately started the fire in Westminster.  He was arrested, but one little problem cropped up: the fire hadn’t even reached Westminster, let alone started there.

When confronted with the fact that the fire originated in a Pudding Lane bakery.  Hubert adjusted his story, saying that he had actually started the fire there, tossing a fire grenade through an open window.  What’s more, he did it because he was a French spy in service of the Pope.

Hubert was hauled before the court.  His story turned out to be riddled with problems.  The bakery had no windows, and Hubert was judged to be so crippled that he could not have thrown the grenade.  An even bigger problem:  he was not in England when the fire started, according to the testimony of the captain of a Swedish ship who had landed him on English soil two days after the outbreak of the fire.

Nevertheless, the court found Hubert guilty, and on October 27, 1666, he was hanged at Tyburn, London.  A year later, the cause of the fire was quietly changed to ‘the hand of God, a great wind and a very dry season.’

Don’t You Be a Meanie

Oh, Mr. Paganini
Please play my rhapsody
And if you cannot play it won’t you sing it?
And if you can’t sing you simply have to . . .

Mr. Paganini, aka (If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It became a paganinifixture in Ella Fitzgerald’s repertoire back in the 1930s. The Mr. Paganini to whom she refers is composer and violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini who was born on October 27, 1782. During the height of his career, the legendary “devil violinist”  set all of nineteenth-century Europe into a frenzy. He was a headliner in every major European city.  His technical ability was legend, and so was his willingness to flaunt it. His fame as a violinist was equaled by his reputation as a gambler and womanizer.

Alas, his grueling schedule and extravagant lifestyle took their toll, and he suffered from ever increasing health problems. He died in 1840.