Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

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 speech 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:

Island in the Sun, Conclusion

Several days passed before the bulldozer arrived.  During that time, Santo kept a constant vigil at the olive tree.  During the day, tourists passing by would sometimes stop to talk to Santo.  Most had already heard of the crazy man and his olive tree, but Santo’s disarming smile and his bullfriendliness would make them wonder whether he were crazy or merely a man with a cause, which is hardly so crazy.  Knowing that he remained night and day at the tree, some would bring him food and would sit and talk with him while he ate.

The young couple from the south of England shivered as Santo told them about sleeping on the dock in Trinidad after loading a banana boat and awaking to find a fat tarantula sitting on his chest staring at him.  The three ladies from California gushed over his tales of Spain during the last days of Generalissimo Franco.  And the young Montrealer listened until well after midnight as Santo talked of his time in Algeria with the French Foreign Legion.

The bulldozer arrived early the next morning.  Santo had to shake himself awake, and for a moment, he thought he was awaking from a nightmare in which he was about to be eaten by a huge yellow monster.  But even with his eyes open, the yellow monster remained, growling at him.

“Go away, crazy one,” shouted Luis Jordan from atop the chugging beast. Luis was a young man who had come to the island to do construction work; he didn’t belong on the island.  He was an angry, combative young man, frequently picking fights, and Santo didn’t like him much.  “You don’t think I’ll plow you down, do you, crazy man?”

“I am not crazy,” answered Santo.  “Go away.”

“Don’t be smart with me, crazy man.  You won’t stop me.  I don’t care if you live or die.  You’re trespassing.  I can plow you under and nobody will say anything.  I’ll take down that damn tree, and I’ll take you down with it.  Believe me.”

“I believe you.”

“As you should,” boasted Luis.  “Now stand aside.”

“I can’t stand aside.  This is my place.  It was my mama’s and my papa’s, and it was their mama’s and papa’s.  Go away and leave me alone.”

“I warned you,” said Luis, grinning as though he were really happy that Santo would not move, that he would have the pleasure of plowing him under.  “Good riddance to your lunacy.”  The bulldozer’s engine whined, and the beast lurched forward.  Santo stood his ground as the yellow monster bore down on him, it’s driver laughing.  Santo closed his eyes.

The Crystal Coral Beach Club was a magnificent place.  It straddled a mile’s worth of white sand beach and bathed it in grandeur and opulence.  Open for the first time this season, it was an unqualified success, drawing tourists from throughout the world and remaining fully occupied.  Hopes were high that it would bring years of prosperity to the tiny island.

On this day, the first anniversary of groundbreaking for the beach club, a large throng of tourists had gathered together.  The story of the Beach Club’s shaky beginnings had traveled from the swimming pool to the tennis courts to the lounge and to the bright blue water and back.  This was to be a celebration of that day of confrontation.

The olive tree had grown to nearly ten feet and was beautiful to behold; looking at this tree, it was hardly surprising that so many people considered olive trees holy.  Santo emerged from the modest house just beyond the tree, a house flanked by hibiscus, bougainvillea, and the beach club’s 156 luxury rooms.  Santo the celebrity beamed as he joined the others at the tree and shared a toast with the couple from the south of England, the three ladies from California, the Montrealer, and the others who had been here last year, the ones who had ignored the metallic whine of impending doom to suddenly join Santo in front of his tiny tree, linking their arms with his in defiance of the bulldozer.

With a grin, Santo pointed to where, even though it defied all the rules of horticulture and all the laws of botany (but didn’t surprise Santo or his friends one little bit), a single olive clung tenaciously to a branch of his olive tree.

 Listen to Island in the Sun

Island in the Sun is one of 15 stories in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

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NOVEMBER 5, 1605: AND BRER FAWKES HE LAY LOW

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.

 

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NOVEMBER 4, 1702: PURSUING THE FRENCH

PURSUING THE FRENCH

John Benbow was an admiral in the British Royal Navy at the turn of the 18th century. Known as Old Benbow, he is mostly known for his misfortunes during one of England’s endless kerfuffles with France.

It was 1702, and the pesky French were threatening English interests benbowin the West Indies with a squadron of five ships. Benbow sailed after them with seven ships. Upon overtaking the French, Benbow gave the signal for his ships to engage, but nothing happened, and Benbow was forced to disengage. It seems Benbow’s officers were in a bit of a snit over Benbow’s offensive manners and thought disobeying his orders would teach him a nice lesson.

The following day, Benbow once more gave the order to advance, but the captains of five ships continued to defy him. Pissed but undaunted, Benbow had at the French with just two ships, battling for the entire day until one ship became disabled and was forced to withdraw.

The following day Benbow resumed battle with just one ship against the five French ships. Three times Benbow boarded the French admiral’s ship, and three times he was driven back. He suffered severe wounds to an arm, a leg, and his face. But still he persisted. He had his cot brought upon deck and continued to bark orders as he lay bleeding. When one of his lieutenants expressed regret at his shattered leg, Benbow replied: “I am sorry for it; but I had rather lost them both than have seen the dishonor brought upon the English nation.”

The French moved in for the kill, and Benbow was just able to extricate his ship and sail to Jamaica. There he ordered the ship captains arrested and court-martialed. One of the captains died before trial, two were convicted and shot, one was cashiered and imprisoned, and two were acquitted due to extenuating circumstances (one having been drunk during the initial insubordination, but repentant when sober).

Even though Old Benbow was shown to be blameless for the escape of the French squadron, he was despondent. His wounds grew worse during the following weeks and on November 4, 1702, he died.

 

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OCTOBER 29, 1636: HERMIT OF GRUB STREET

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.

Alice in Donaldland, Part 8: Stipulations and Legal Briefs

“Is this the Queen’s court?” Alice asked the two funny-looking men blocking the big iron gate.

“Who wants to know?” they chimed together.

“I’d like to join the Queen for some golf,” answered Alice.

“She’d like to join the Queen,” they taunted, looking at each other. “Do you have a nondisclosure agreement?”

“I’m afraid I don’t, but I’m not the sort of person to disclose things. Are you the Queen’s guards?”

“Guards?” They looked at each other and laughed. “Do we look like guards? We are the Queen’s personal lawyers — Tweeedledum and Tweedledumber, attorneys-at-law. Here, sign these.” They each pushed a pile of papers at Alice.

“What are these?”

“Sworn statements that the Queen didn’t grab you, wouldn’t grab you, and was miles away when the grabbing occurred.”

“But the Queen probably won’t — ”

“Of course he will. The Queen has big hands and — ”

“– a big heart. I know, I know.”

“You also stipulate that grabbing isn’t a crime if the Queen grabs,” said Tweedledum.

“It’s not even naughty,” added Tweedledumber.

“And Collusion isn’t a crime if the Queen colludes. Obstruction isn’t a crime if the Queen obstructs. Subtraction isn’t a crime —

“Okay, I stipulate,” said Alice impatiently. “And the Queen isn’t a witch, and doesn’t grab girls and is making Donaldland great again.”

“I think she’s got it,” said the twin lawyers. “And what about the White Knight?”

Alice began to recite: “The White Knight and his nefarious throng of 98 — ”

” — 125 — ”

” — 125 dastardly democreeps are out to destroy the good Queen.”

“And the Queen is cooperating fully with his witch hunt and is willing to answer any number of questions. As a matter of fact, we have provided a list of answers to the questions the Queen is willing to answer.” Tweedledum handed a piece of paper to Alice.

She read: “Yes. No. Maybe. I couldn’t say. Fourteen. Uruguay. 1492. None of your damn business. Never. Maybe tomorrow. Gilligan’s Island. Wayne Newton. Crooked Hillary.”

“What more could we possibly do?” said Tweedledum.

“Legal is as legal does,” said Tweedledumber.

“Hand me the briefs, said Tweedledum.

“No,” said Tweedledumber. “It’s my turn to wear the briefs.”

“No, it’s my turn.”

“My turn.”

“My turn.”

“I’ll sue.”

“I’ll sue first.”

“I’ll counter-sue.”

“I’ll counter-counter sue.”

And off they went, arguing and leaving the gate for Alice to enter. Which she did.

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OCTOBER 27, 1666: I DID IT WITH MY BOX OF MATCHES

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.

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OCTOBER 25, 1642: MEDICINAL WONDERS OF BRANDY

MEDICINAL WONDERS OF BRANDY

Sir Hugh Ackland of Devonshire in England was seized with a violent fever, and having apparently died during that afternoon of October 25, 1642, was laid out as dead. A nurse and two footmen were assigned todeatbed sit up through the night to watch his corpse, lest it be stolen. Lady Ackland sent the night watchers a bottle of brandy to add a little cheer to an otherwise dreary task.  One of the footmen, a bit of a rogue, said to the others: “The Master dearly loved brandy when he was alive, and now, though he is dead, I am determined he shall have a glass with us.” The footman then poured out a glass and forced it down Sir Hugh’s throat. The corpse immediately made a deep gurgling noise, and its neck and chest shook violently. In a panic, the watchers rushed downstairs, the footmen stumbling and rolling head-over-heels, the nurse screaming in terror.

The noise awakened a young gentleman who was sleeping in the house. He immediately jumped out of bed and raced up to the room where the body lay. There, he found Sir Hugh’s corpse sitting upright with a look of confusion on his face.  The young man summoned the servants and ordered them to place their master in a warm bed. He then sent for Sir Hugh’s medical attendants. Sir Hugh was restored to perfect health, and lived many years afterward, recounting his strange story frequently enough that Lady Ackland regretted having sent up the bottle of brandy.

The footman received a handsome annuity.

Well, dinner would have been splendid… if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the maid as willing as the Duchess.  — Winston Churchill