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 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

November 9, 1918: And Mona Lisa Isn’t Talking

Guillaume Apollinaire, who died on this date in 1918, was a French poet and critic of the early 20th century. He was a fan of modern art and is credited with coining the word surrealism. To the French police, however he was just another voleur, but certainly not a petty one. Seven years earlier, they had arrested and jailed him on suspicion monaof aiding and abetting the theft of the Mona Lisa and a number of Egyptian statuettes from the Louvre. It didn’t help his case that he had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down.

The strange case began early on a Monday morning. Before the Louvre was opened for visitors,the Mona Lisa was stolen by a thief who acted quickly when no guards were around. The theft wasn’t reported until Tuesday; guards who noticed that the painting was missing assumed it had been removed to be photographed. Once museum officials realized the truth, however, all hell broke loose. The Louvre went into lock-down. Police arrived to question the staff, re-enact the crime and dust for fingerprints, a newfangled detection technique. The French border was sealed, departing ships and trains thoroughly searched.

By the time the museum re-opened nine days later, the theft was on the front page of newspapers around the world. Tips poured in from amateur sleuths, clairvoyants and your everyday would-be experts. Thousands of people lined up at the Louvre just to see the empty spot where the painting once hung. More it seems than ever viewed the painting itself, which was not widely known outside the art world until it was stolen (Nat King Cole had not yet sung about it). Giving the whole situation a Kafkaesque touch, Franz Kafka was among those who came to view the empty space.

The plot thickened (as plots will) when a mystery man called the Paris-Journal, which was offering a reward for information about the crime. The man showed up at the newspaper’s offices with a small statue, one of several that he claimed to have stolen from the Louvre. The anonymous thief turned out to be a bisexual con man named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret who had a questionable relationship with Apollinaire. Pieret implicated Apollinaire and he was arrested.

Under pressure, Apollinaire, admitted that Pieret had sold the pilfered works to his friend Pablo Picasso. Thinking they might have discovered a dandy crime ring, police arrested Picasso as well. Although Picasso admitted buying the objects, prosecutors couldn’t build a case that either he or Apollinaire had stolen them, much less the Mona Lisa, and both of them went free.

And what happened to the Mona Lisa? Conspiracy theorists tell us it was never found, that museum officials had to hire Leonardo DaVinci to paint a replacement. “How about a real smile this time,” they suggested.

But She’s Showing It All

This just in:  French experts have determined that a nude portrait that has been hiding at the Conde Museum at the Palace of Chantilly, north of the French capital is actually Mona Lisa herself.  She has been going under the alias Monna Vanna.  Curators have determined that Leonardo himself had a hand in the charcoal work.  Shocking!

October 18, 1963: Space, the Feline Frontier

The story of cats in space is a dramatic tale indeed. It begins in an unlikely place with the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik 2, carrying of all felicettethings a dog named Laika. Laika was a stray found on the streets of Moscow who could have been the star of a dandy rags-to-riches shaggy dog story, except that things didn’t go all that well and the pooch perished under mysterious circumstances.

This was viewed as an early skirmish in the superpower space race to which NASA responded by sending a chimp into space and successfully returning him.

The French meanwhile had been plotting their own animal space probe. Fifteen cats had been chosen to undergo extensive training involving centrifuges, compression chambers and other medieval torture devices for a space mission in which the French would prove that they belonged at the table with the big guys and a cat would demonstrate to its fanciers everywhere that cats were superior to dogs in yet another way.

A pretty black and white Parisian chatte was eventually selected for the mission, because she was the only one who hadn’t become overweight during training, something to do with croissants most likely. On October 18, 1963, at 8:09 am, Chatte Félicette boarded a Véronique AGI 47 rocket at a base in the Algerian Sahara Desert and was blasted 97 miles into space. Fifteen minutes later, she parachuted safely to earth and pussycat immortality. Voilà!

 

October 8, 1361: Doggie Justice

A French gentleman traveling through the forest north of Paris was murdered, as French gentlemen traveling through the forest north of Paris were apt to be in 1361. His body was buried dogfightat the foot of a tree. His dog, who was traveling with him, remained beside his grave for several days until hunger caused him to quit his vigil.

The faithful dog made for Paris and presented himself at the house of a good friend of his master’s, where after being fed he carried on so much that the friend was obliged to follow him back to the scene of the crime. There, he tore at the ground until the body of the murdered man was exposed to view.

No trace of the assassin was discovered for some time, but then one day the dog was confronted with a man named Chevalier Macaire. Well, that dog immediately lost his good-natured demeanor and lunged for the man’s throat and had to be restrained at some difficulty.  It happened again on other occasions. The dog spotted Macaire in a crowd and attacked.

Since the dog was normally a gentle soul, suspicions began to be aroused. These suspicions found their way to the king of France who ordered the dog brought before him. The dog remained perfectly behaved until Macaire was brought forward and again the dog attacked. “Hmmm,” thought the king.

During this particular time of history, judicial combat was often used to settle doubtful cases, on the assumption that God would provide victory to the person who was in the right.  Amusing jurisprudence perhaps, but who was to argue with the king when he ruled that a duel between Macaire and the dog would settle the matter.

The confrontation took place on October 8.  Macaire came armed with a large stick; the dog was given a cask into which he could retreat. On being let loose, the dog immediately attacked Macaire from one side then another, warding off the man’s blows. The murderer was quickly seized by the throat and thrown to the ground, where he hastily confessed before the king and the entire court — and was hanged, of course.

It’s Always the Cow

Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over,
Then winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”

Who is this Mrs. O’Leary, whose cow is supposedly responsible for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? Her legend has been kept alive for 145 years now and her name is synonymous with big fires. She was one Catherine O’Leary, an Irish immigrant, who actually had five cows. The cow named Daisy got the blame for kicking the lantern over, but since no one was in the barn to witness the event, all five cows could have had a hoof in it.

Conspiracy theorists have over the years suggested other scenarios: Naughty boys were sneaking a smoke in the barn. Spontaneous combustion. A meteor broke into pieces as it fell to earth October 8, setting off fires in Michigan and Wisconsin as well as in Chicago. Daisy had an accomplice; Daisy acted alone. A drunken neighbor started the fire. Obama may not have started it, but he should have stopped it.

August 30, 1794: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

In the late 1800s, many of the unfortunates who found themselves in English prisons were there as a result of debts they could not pay. Benjamin Pope had a different story; he found his way to prison for a debt he could easily have paid. Pope was a tanner and quite successful in his trade, enough so that he gave up tanning and became a money-lender and mortgagee. He proved successful at this endeavor as well, earning the nickname “Plum Pope.”

     Alas, his good fortune began to desert him, in no small part because of his greed. His grasping ways scroogein the lending of money led him afoul of the usury laws, and he was frequently brought before the court. In one particularly blatant case, he was fined £10,000.

Instead of paying the fine, he stole away to France with all his property. There, he complained bitterly to anyone who would listen about the unfairness of the English laws. The French naturally commiserated. Nevertheless, he eventually returned to England, but still refused to pay the fine. He went to prison instead. At one point, he could have secured his release by paying just £1000 of the £10,000 fine. Not Plum Pope.

     While in prison, he carried on his avocation as a money lender, albeit on a more limited and cautious scale. While always a penny-pincher, he became more so and more eccentric about it. He would drink beer with anyone who would give it to him, but would never buy it. He would not eat meat unless it was given to him. He chewed his gum twice. When he died on August 30, 1794, after 12 years in prison, he still owed the debt that had sent him there, even though he left behind more than enough to pay it.

Any man who would walk five miles through the snow, barefoot, just to return a library book so he could save three cents — that’s my kind of guy. — Jack Benny

August 17, 1978: Give ‘Em Helium

Three Americans from New Mexico completed the first transatlantic balloon flight, landing in a barley field 60 miles from Paris, 138 hours and six minutes after lifting off from Presque Isle, Maine. The helium-filled Double Eagle II covered 3,233 miles in its six-day journey.

Almanac devotees will remember (having most certainly taken notes) that Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel to great fanfare some two hundred years earlier.

Balloonists began attempting the Atlantic crossing in the mid-1800s, with 17 unsuccessful flights, balloonresulting in the deaths of at least seven balloonists. Two of our three balloonists gave it their first shot in September 1977, aboard the Double Eagle I, but were blown off course, landing off Iceland after 66 hours.  After recovering from bruises, embarrassment and frostbite, they were ready to foolishly rush in again.  A third pilot was brought in to spread the pain.

The Eagle Junior was a big balloon – 11-stories of helium.  It made good progress after blastoff, but during mid-trip, plunged from 20,000 feet to a hair-raising 4,000 feet, forcing them to jettison ballast material and many of their inflight amenities.  Among the items chucked overboard was evidently all of their finer cuisine, for they were forced to finish the trip dining only on hot dogs and sardines. Toward the end of the trip, one balloonist was heard to remark somewhat testily: “Skip the bun; just grease up my hot dog with mustard real good and I’ll shove it in my ear.”

Panic set in when the balloonists couldn’t find the Eiffel Tower.  Blown off course, they touched down just before dusk on August 17, 1978, near the hamlet of Miserey, missing the wine and ticker-tape parade in Paris. Parisians, not wanting to give up a celebratory occasion, amused themselves in honor of the storming of the Bastille.

 

In order to understand mankind, we must look at the word itself, “mank” and “ind”. What do these words mean? Maybe we’ll never know. ~ Jack Handey

July 27, 1793: Off With Their Heads

On July 27, 1793, Maximilien Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, whose function was to oversee the government of France and protect it against its enemies, foreign and domestic. Exactly one year later, he was removed from office. One day later, his head was removed.

During his year as committee member and president of the National Convention, he came to exercise virtual dictatorial control over the French government and proved himself a bit of a black hat. Faced with the threat of real or imagined civil war and foreign invasion, he inaugurated what was lovingly referred to as the Reign of Terror. He compiled himself a rather lengthy enemies list – some 300,000 suspected enemies made the list and were arrested. At least 10,000 died in prison. Robespierre proved himself mighty handy with a guillotine, executing 17,000 of them as “enemies of France”.

But just as he was getting the guillotine really smoking, the threat of a foreign invasion just up and disappeared, and those who still had their heads formed a coalition to oppose Robespierre and his followers.

And on July 27, 1794, Robespierre and his allies were placed under arrest by the National Assembly. When he received word that the National Convention had declared him an hors-la-loi, he shot himself in la tete but only succeeded in wounding his jaw. Nevertheless troops of the National Convention helped him finish the job the very next day – as French sages often say, live by the guillotine, die by the guillotine.

Fast forward a couple of centuries: Richard M. Nixon had himself an enemies list, though not nearly as long as Robespierre’s.  And his Saturday Night massacre pales by comparison. But on July 27, 1974, didn’t they vote to impeach him anyway. At least, there was no guillotine.

There is only one cure for grey hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine. − P.G. Wodehouse

July 14, 1789, 1973: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Every écolier and écolière knows that the breakup of France – Révolution française – began in 1789, its defining moment the storming of the Bastille on the morning of July 14. 1789. This storming_the_bastille[1]medieval fortress in the center of Paris represented royal authority. That the Bastille housed only seven inmates – all with good reason to be there – was unimportant. It was a symbol of the abuses of the absolute monarchy, and the French had had it with monarchs, aristocrats, and pretty much anyone in power. Bring on liberté, égalité, fraternité.   King Louis XVI, exit stage right.

Another momentous breakup took place on the evening of the same day, nearly 200 years later, in 1973, at Knott’s Berry Farm in California (Knott’s Berry Farm was America’s first theme park and probably the only one devoted to grapes and strawberries and such things). Every schoolgirl and schoolboy knows that the Everly Brothers were one of America’s most successful pop duos, lending their sibling harmony to such hits as “Bye Bye Love”, “All I Have To Do is Dream” and “Wake Up Little Susie”, a franchise that would seemingly go on forever. Well, forever is a long time, and brothers Don and Phil had, by the end of the 1960s pretty much had it with liberté, égalité, fraternité and most definitely with each other.

The defining moment of their breakup came in the middle of their set when the stage manager told the audience that the rest of the show had been canceled because brother Don was “too emotional” to play.  In reality, Brother Don was too drunk to play. His skipped guitar notes and bungled lyrics sent brother Phil into a real snit. Phil smashed his guitar and stormed off stage into a solo career, promising he would “never get on stage with that man again.”

Phil and Don reached a sort of detente a decade later.  Louis XVI, on the other hand, was beheaded.

(Phil Everly died in January 2014).

I have no intention of sharing my authority. — King Louis XVI
I grew up as a Roy Rogers fan, of course.  — Phil Everly

June 19, 1885: Beware the French Bearing Gifts

In 1885, the French ship Isere sailed into New York Harbor carrying 214 crates filled with 350 libertypieces of a 305-foot high jigsaw that had been crafted in France and would, over the next four months, be re-assembled on an awaiting pedestal on Bedloe Island (now called Liberty Island) – there to stand for the next 132 years (so far).

Once constructed, this would, of course, be the Statue of Liberty or “Liberty Enlightening the World,” to those not on a first-name basis. It was a gift from France to the United States back during the two countries’ honeymoon days.   Actually it was something of a joint enterprise, the French providing the statue and the U.S. the pedestal on which it would stand.

French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi began designing the statue in 1876, working with Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower. Richard Morris Hunt, designer of New York City’s first apartment building, designed the pedestal. Given his background, one might have expected his pedestal to house several luxury apartments, a missed funding opportunity: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to rent 3BR LUX APT, LWR FLR, UNF, HRBR VIEW.”

As it was, funding of the statue was a bit of an issue. Both countries faced challenges in getting money for the project. The French charged public fees, held fundraising events, and used money from a lottery to finance the statue. One notable fundraising method in the U.S. was a traveling arm. The statue’s torch-bearing arm was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in 1876.  After the exhibition closed, it was transported to New York, where it remained on display in Madison Square Park for several years before being returned to France to be reunited with its torso. The French, in a bit of Gallic oneupsmanship, exhibited the head at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair.

The plan to display Lady Liberty’s breasts in Boston was banned before it got off the drawing board, and a nationwide tour of her feet failed to muster sufficient enthusiasm.

The Statue of Liberty is no longer saying, ‘Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses.’ She’s got a baseball bat and yelling, ‘You want a piece of me?’ Robin Williams