A Higher and More Powerful Title

Jimmy Carter had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, in which he extols the virtues of human rights.

Fortunately for all of us, free speech is one of the actual human rights, and state-sponsored “protection” from free speech (aka “hate speech laws”) is not. People like Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are nothing more than lawfully-elected criminals running a protection racket: we elect them, they promise to “protect” us from “hate speech.”

Neither Carter nor Obama believe the words they speak. If they did, they would stop trying to redefine “citizen” as “undocumented resident.”

Yes, that’s the new phrase for “undocumented immigrant.”

In this civic atmosphere of “no borders” and “sanctuary city” resolutions, it is richly ironic (or, more accurately, cravenly pathetic) that Carter writes this paean to America: “In our democracy, the only title higher and more powerful than that of president is the title of citizen.”

“President” Obama literally tried to end-run the Constitutional rights of citizens with “a pen and a phone” – that, and the power of the Department of Justice.

In contrast, I actually believe that the “higher and more powerful” title is “citizen.” If only Jimmy Carter really believed that.

Barack’s Christmas Story

“This week, many of us will hear a familiar story about a young couple in a foreign city, just looking for a place to stay for the night, and being told over and over again that there is no room for them. And I hope in the spirit of this holiday, we’ll take the time to think about how we can come together and live up to the founding ideals of this country.” – Democrat Party fundraising email from Barack Obama, Dec. 21, 2015.

Bethlehem was not a “foreign city” – it was Joseph’s home town. Why was there no room at the inn? As Luke 2:1 tells us, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.”

Barack would have us believe that all the innkeepers were white Roman elitists named Ebenezer Scrooge, and the “young brown foreign couple” were kept out because they were illegal immigrants.

The truth is that Mary and Joseph were turned away because the tax policies of the God Emperor ensured there were LITERALLY NO ROOMS LEFT in the city.

If Barack had his way, he would have forcibly ejected other customers to “spread the wealth” of rooms in favor of Mary and Joseph. And, in the process, he’d have compromised beyond repair one of the most storied truths of Christianity: that Christ was truly a man of the people, having been born in a manger instead of a hotel suite.

Since the President is lying about the Christmas story – using even the birth of Christ himself to slander opponents of illegal immigration for craven political gain – let’s look at one alternate universe if Barack’s version of the story had come to pass.

The young couple get a hotel suite instead of a manger. They consume an unfair amount of limited resources, contribute to Global Warming, and bring their child into a world of privilege. Jesus grows up a Jew in the apartheid state of Israel, but his father wisely abandons the family and his faith to become a pantheist Man of the World. Jesus questions his identity, agitates for a two-state solution with the Roman Empire, and dies in a riot after helping stone a woman to death for adultery. The Apostles go on to found the Muslim faith, and the Religion of Peace brings Joy to the World at the point of a sword. In 2008, Barack becomes Caliph of the World.

For Christ’s sake (and I say that respectfully) why does anyone believe anything Obama says? He’s a proven Liar of the Year – if you like your Christmas Story you can keep your Christmas Story – who sows division among the people while pretending to bring us together.

The Kidnappings that Launched a Thousand Ships

As the process of writing my novel comes to an end, I don’t waste much time on books that lend nothing to the story. I’m making an exception for Herodotus.

In my story, an ancient unreadable manuscript finds its way from Istanbul to the Baltic. (Sorry, no spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book…) In an earlier draft, this manuscript was an ancient version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which told the tale of an even more ancient migration from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. My fevered author’s brain imagined that my book could mirror a mythic reversal of that epic journey.

Alas, my storytelling skills were not up to the challenge.

But my interest in that ancient world has not waned, and thus I bought a copy of Herodotus: The Histories for fifty cents at a garage sale.

The kidnapping of Helen brought about the Trojan War, but Herodotus tells us what brought about the kidnapping of Helen. And so, without further ado…

“Herodotus of Hallicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds — some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians — may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two people’s fought with each other.

“Learned Persians put the responsibility for the quarrel on the Phoenicians. These people came originally from the so-called Red Sea; and as soon as they had penetrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the country where they are today, they took to making long trading voyages. Loaded with Egyptian and Assyrian goods, they called at various places along the coast, including Argos, in those days the most important place in the land now called Hellas.

“Here in Argos they displayed their wares, and five or six days later when they were nearly sold out, a number of women came down to the beach to see the fair. Amongst these was the king’s daughter, whom Greek and Persian writers agree in calling Io, daughter of Inachus. These women were standing about near the vessel’s stern, buying what they fancied, when suddenly the Phoenician sailors passed the word along and made a rush at them. The greater number got away; but Io and some others were caught and bundled aboard the ship, which cleared at once and made off for Egypt.

“This, according to the Persian account (the Greeks have a different story), was how Io came to Egypt; and this was the first in a series of unjust acts.

“Later on some Greeks, whose name the Persians fail to record — they were probably Cretans — put into the Phoenician port of Tyre and carried off the king’s daughter Europa, thus giving them tit for tat.

“For the next outrage it was the Greeks again who were responsible. they sailed in an armed merchantman to Aea in Colchis on the river Phasis, and, not content with the regular business which had brought them there, they abducted the king’s daughter Medea. the king sent to Greece demanding reparations and his daughter’s return; but the only answer he got was that the Greeks had no intention of offering reparation, having received none themselves for the abduction of Io from Argos.

“The accounts go on to say that some forty or fifty years afterwards Paris, the son of Priam, was inspired by these stories to steal a wife for himself out of Greece, being confident that he would not have to pay for the venture any more than the Greeks had done. And that was how he came to carry off Helen.

“The first idea of the Greeks after the rape was to send a demand for satisfaction and for Helen’s return. the demand was met by a reference to the seizure of Medea and the injustice of expecting satisfaction from people to whom they had refused it, not to mention the fact that they had kept the girl.

“Thus far there had been nothing worse than woman-stealing on both sides; but for what happened next the Greeks, they say, were seriously to blame; for it was the Greeks who were, in a military sense, the aggressors. Abducting young women, in their opinion, is not, indeed, a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about avenging it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be. The Asiatics, according to the Persians, took the seizure of the women lightly enough, but not so the Greeks: the Greeks, merely on account of a girl from Sparta, raised a big army, invaded Asia and destroyed the empire of Priam. From that root sprang their belief in the perpetual enmity of the Grecian world towards them — because the Persians claim Asia and the barbarian races dwelling in it as their own, Europe and the Greek states being, in their opinion, quite separate and distinct from them.

“As to Io, the Phoenicians do not accept the Persian account; they deny that they took her to Egypt by force. On the contrary, the girl while she was still in Argos went to bed with the ship’s captain, found herself pregnant, and, ashamed to face her parents, sailed away voluntarily to escape exposure.

“So much for the what Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgement on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks; then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.”

Siege Mentality

Wallenstein Besieges Stralsund, by CA Dahlstrom

Wallenstein parleys with the defenders of Stralsund. Engraving by CA Dahlstrom.

The year is 1628. The war has been dragging on for ten years and Ferdinand II — Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and Croatia, Archduke of Austria — is scheming against Protestant rulers. In less than a year he will force them to restore more than 500 bishoprics, monasteries, abbeys, and other ecclesiastical properties that had been secularized since 1552. And now the Emperor’s undefeated army is at the gates of Stralsund, Germany, a key strategic port city on the Baltic Sea.

The war had officially begun in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague, when a crowd of Protestants threw two members of the Catholic government and their secretary out the castle window. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that rumblings preceded hostilities.

The underlying cause for the outbreak of a war that would last 30 years was thus the pathological fear of a Catholic conspiracy among the Protestants and the equally entrenched suspicion of a Protestant conspiracy among the Catholics. As a Bohemian noblewoman, Polyxena Lobkovic, perceptively observed from the vantage point of Prague: “Things are now swiftly coming to the pass where either the papists will settle their score with the Protestants, or the Protestants with the papists.”

Ferdinand is 50 years old in 1628, older, wiser, emboldened by successful policies in his homeland of Styria and determined to carry them out in Germany. C.V. Wedgwood describes him in her seminal work, The Thirty Years War.

Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor

Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor

Ferdinand’s policy combined cunning with boldness; he undermined the Protestants by civil disabilities, seduced the younger generation by education and propaganda, and gradually tightened the screws until the Protestants realized too late that they no longer had the means to resist. …

[He was] a cheerful, friendly, red-faced little man with a reassuring smile for everyone. Frank good nature beamed from his freckled countenance and shortsighted, prominent, light blue eyes. Sandy-haired, stout and bustling, he presented a wholly unimpressive figure …

General and private opinion flattered the archduke’s virtues but not his ability. Kindly contemptuous, the greater number of his contemporaries wrote him off as a good-natured simpleton wholly under the control of his chief minister Ulrich von Eggenberg. Yet Ferdinand’s apparent lack of personal initiative may have been a pose; as a young man he had been taught by the Jesuits to cast the onus of political decisions on to others in order to spare his own conscience. …

Repeatedly in the course of his life he twisted disaster into advantage, wrenched unexpected safety out of overwhelming danger, snatched victory from defeat. His contemporaries, unimpressed, commented on his astonishing luck. If it was luck, it was certainly astonishing.

The Emperor’s general, Albrecht von Wallenstein, says of Stralsund, “The town shall yield,  though it were bound with chains to Heaven.”

It is not to be. A spirited defense is raised by Scots, Danes, Swedes, and native Stralsunders themselves. Wedgwood writes, “The show of violence fluttered the Hanseatic League but still had not the desired effect, for, instead of accepting imperial friendship, the deputies of the Hanse merely offered Wallenstein eight thousand talers to withdraw. He proved incorruptible and on July 6 1628 arrived in person before Stralsund.

An article about the siege by the English Civil War Society of America (which staged a reenactment in 2005) describes the situation.

Imperial General Von Arnim had had provocation enough. He commenced his attack in early May. By day, he subjected the city to artillery bombardment, by night he sent parties to attempt to surprise the garrison. The Stralsunders sent pleas for help to the Northern Kings, and help arrived with surprising speed.

The first help came from the Danes. On the 28th of May (Old Calendar) British troops of MacKay’s regiment under Lt.-Colonel Seaton and Major Robert Monroe made a hazardous sea landing at Stralsund. While approaching the harbor, they came under heavy fire from the culverins (large cannon) in von Arnim’s land batteries. Monroe’s ship had its main mast shot off, and almost grounded in the channel. Despite these dangers the Scots landed safely in Stralsund, accompanied by Hatzfeld’s “Deutch” Regiment . The commander of the relief expedition was Colonel Heinrick Holke, and he became the de facto, if not de jure, Governor of Stralsund.

While Arnim kept up his bombardment and harassing attacks. Wallenstein arrived in mid June, and immediately reconnoitered the city’s defenses. He determined that the defenses before the Frankendore Gate was the best spot for an assault, and prepared several thousand men to attack the outworks.

"Belagerung Stralsunds durch Wallenstein 1628, Kupferstich auf einem zeitgenössischen Flugblatt." - Artist Unknown

“Belagerung Stralsunds durch Wallenstein 1628, Kupferstich auf einem zeitgenössischen Flugblatt.” – Artist Unknown

My own novel is not about the war, but one of the main characters, a boy named James, lives through the siege. He is young, and finds himself on the street with another boy, scrambling to find shelter. St. James Church, near one of the main gates into the city, is close by.

They emerged into a single cavernous room on the third floor, morning light streaming in through twelve very tall, very narrow windows on the eastern wall. The western wall was still standing, but James could not see how. Every window had been shattered completely, and a massive hole in the center of the wall gave an unobstructed view of the besieging army of the Holy Roman Empire.

“Don’t fall through.”

“Yeah,” said James. “What’s your name? I can’t remember.”

“Georg. I’m not surprised. You’re lucky to be alive after that shell hit your house. Anyway, come on! We’re missing the action!”

Georg pulled James to the pile of rubble under the hole in the wall, and they scrambled toward the edge. James pushed a few sharp-edged bricks from under his body and felt a gusty north breeze on his face. He breathed deeply and looked out.

The three western gates were under assault. From behind a shield of thick smoke, moving slowly with the wind across the battlefield, columns of men swarmed across two narrow bridges toward the outer walls. Greater masses of men streamed down the gentle slope and waded across the shallow lagoons. The dead were everywhere, some identifiable only by flashes of color in the churned earth, others in heaps where they had fallen attacking the outer bastions. From the Knipes Gate in the north, to the Tribsee Gate in the south by St. Mary’s, the voices of ten thousand attackers urged one another to victory. Inside the walls, musketeers returned fire, and from every part of town men ran toward the gates.

From the defensive hornworks in the lagoons, musket fire decimated ranks of attacking soldiers. As rows of men fell in the shallow water, those behind stepped on their bodies and continued the charge. The new front row was cut down with the next volley, but it looked to James like an endless supply of men would eventually overwhelm the city walls.

A thousand yards from the city, near the top of the rise, artillery targeted the fortifications between the gates. Some cannonballs bounced off the sloping walls, exploding in the air and raining shrapnel onto defenders and attackers alike. Others detonated inside the walls, throwing dust, bricks and body parts a hundred feet into the air.

Inside the cocoon of his concussion, James was terrified. He wanted to run and hide, but the terror couldn’t find its way outward to his body, and so he lay next to Georg and watched. The other boy had an exultant grin plastered to his face, and every so often James could hear him shout over the terrible sounds of the battle. Time was passing, but he couldn’t tell how long he’d been laying in the rubble. The shadows of the church towers were getting shorter, and the wind had changed direction. The smell of gunpowder dominated the breeze, but underneath it he could taste something dank, moist and almost sweet. From the back of his dazzled mind an image of the local slaughterhouse emerged – he and his friends running, trying in vain to catch the slippery eyeballs of dead cows – and he finally recognized the smell. Fresh blood.

Stralsund in 1652, by Mattheaus Merian

Stralsund in 1652, by Mattheaus Merian

Spanking, seduction, pregnancy, violence – and spinning bees

Spanking seems to be making quite a comeback, thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey. Beatings? Not so much. But back in the 16th and 17th centuries things were a bit different. Martin Luther’s complaints against Catholicism in the early 1500’s had led to a religious and cultural Reformation. Printers began to churn out pamphlets and books by the millions. The combination made for some interesting reading.

I’m not going to delve too deeply into the literature. I’ll leave that to you, dear reader. The following illustrations should give you someplace to start. First, German History in Documents and Images notes “the rapidly growing literature on the conditions  of a happy marriage and on codes  of behavior reinforced gender roles.” The following two images are from a woodcut by Abraham Bach, produced in the latter half of the 17th century.

Plate 1:  a man beats  his  wife for being proud, impious , lazy, and drunk

Plate 1: a man beats his wife for being proud, impious , lazy, and drunk

Plate 2:  a woman beats  her hus band for gambling, drinking, gluttony, and chas ing pretty girls

Plate 2: a woman beats her husband for gambling, drinking, gluttony, and chasing pretty girls

Second — and from an author I’ve mentioned before, Alison G. Stewart — comes a treatise on “Distaffs and Spindles: Sexual Misbehavior in Sebald Beham’s Spinning Bee.”

Sebald Beham, Spinning Bee, woodcut, ca. 1524, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford

Sebald Beham, Spinning Bee, woodcut, ca. 1524, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford

In Nuremberg, an imperial city answerable only to the emperor, spinning bees served as meeting places for rural girls and women during the fall and winter evenings. Spinning bees were widely called Spinnstuben and Rockenstuben in German, but Lichtstuben in Nuremberg’s Franconian dialect. Despite their ostensibly female nature, spinning bees were also visited by men. Indeed, in the sixteenth century, spinning bees throughout Germany were officially viewed as centers for scandalous socializing and were forbidden under penalty, although forbidding spinning bees was not the same as abolishing them, as we will see.

Here are a few enlargements (no pun intended) of certain portions of Beham’s woodcut.

Sexual Misbehavior 3Sexual Misbehavior 2Sexual Misbehavior 1

Yep, they’re getting jiggy, alright.

Undoubtedly, the sexual behavior characterized at spinning  bees has much to do with the phallic shape of the primary spinning  implements used at the time — distaff and spindle. Just as round forms encouraged association with the womb and the female, the word “spindle” stood for the penis in Late Medieval English, French, and German. For example, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (ca.  1599)  (1.4.108-10), Sir Andrew Aguecheek looks for a bride. Sir Toby Belch remarks directly that the former’s hair “hangs like flax on a  distaff; and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off.”  Although spinning was a female activity, spinning tools assumed unquestionably  male shapes. This gender-jumping seems to have appealed to contemporaries.

It might not be Fifty Shades of Grey, but, as Stewart notes, “Beham’s Spinning Bee indicates a chaotic, violent and oversexed world where female sexuality and virtue serve as the point of departure for male desire, aggression, and humor. Beham’s woodcut needs to be  understood within  its  cultural context at a time in Europe when women, as well as men, were viewed as lustful, although women then and since antiquity were seen as the more susceptible sex.”

Big noses and the bawdy aesthetic

Perusing my collection of scholarly papers, in search of some facts about city life in the Early Modern era, I rediscovered Large Noses and Changing Meanings in Sixteenth-century German Prints, by Alison Stewart. I first found the paper almost a year ago, and it’s been sitting ever since in my digital stack of research, waiting.

Or perhaps it’s been panting, wheezing or ejaculating, because the topic of the paper is just what you might think after reading the title.

Woodcuts produced by the Nuremberg school during the early sixteenth century provide insights into the history of taste, in particular the changing nature of the bawdy aesthetic so prevalent in the art of the time. Sebald Beham’s Nose Dance of c. 1534 offers a good case in point. The print represents in the foreground a group of large-nosed men and one woman, and a fool who exposes himself (at lower right).

The scene is a popular peasant holiday of the time, Kermis, “the celebration of the anniversary of a church or of the name saint to whom the church is dedicated.” Contemporary documents indicate that the nose dance was performed routinely.

The dancer with the largest nose will be crowned king of the dance and gets the garland. Second prize is the nose mask, and third the underpants. The garland is, of course, a traditional attribute or the victor; the nose mask mirrors the shape of the nose, and may well have been worn by some of the contestants; while the underpants reminds us of the popular belief that the size of a man’s nose is indicative of the size of his penis …

The description of the woodcut is by Nuremberg poet-shoemaker Hans Sachs.

Narrated in the first person, the text relates that numerous drunk peasants can be seen at the kermis held in the town of Gumpelsbrunn: there they eat, drink and yell, a maiden sings to the accompaniment of a bagpipe, two shawm players arrive to play for the row dance, and the young men run, wrestle and throw each other down on their stomachs, many smashing their penises. Gingerbread is for sale, and a rooster dance takes place, involving wonderful tricks waddling, bowing and turning around, so that one can see up the women’s skirts. Sachs describes the rows and disputes, with two men attacking three, and even a flogging.

The entire paper is worth reading, and some passages remind me of more recent events.

While not discounting altogether the moralizing aspects of the image and text, it is important to keep in mind that although they may seem outrageous to many today, sixteenth-century audiences would have found them highly entertaining. Nuremberg was then a loud and dirty place, the behaviour found there uncouth and often violent. People talked loudly in church – and even defecated in the street: an announcement was issued to warn residents not to use the streets in this manner during the Emperor’s visit, but to avail themselves of the public Sprachhauser, or latrines.

All that’s missing today is the fornicating, the violence, the maypole, and the fool exposing himself. Oh, wait, all of that did happen during the nationwide “Occupy Wall Street” protests. Perhaps today’s society is not as evolved as we pretend.

From Istanbul to Gottorp: Maps for the Journey

“Mina stared at the rough men across the fire, felt the eight hundred miles of darkness at her back, and wished she could be a girl again. She unconsciously rubbed her calloused fingers together in a nervous rhythm. Fifty hard days ago in Ankara, Pococke’s caravan had veered south for Aleppo while her map insisted that she go east. Since the roads overflowed with soldiers aiming for Erivan Fortress, since Erivan lay between her and the Caspian Sea, and since traveling alone meant a quick death at the hands of bandits or worse, she had joined the camp followers on the road to war.”

— From Empires of Truth, Chapter Two, “Out of the Faithful Nation.”

Eight hundred miles have fallen behind her, and the journey has only just begun. In her pack, a stolen manuscript of uncertain origin might make her fortune or seal her fate. Ahead lay an uncharted path through the Caucuses to the Caspian Sea, where, if God or Allah wills it, she will be allowed to join a caravan bound for the Baltic.

It has been almost five years since I set out on my own journey of creation. Six drafts later, after countless hours of research, the story is coming to its end. Below are some of the old maps I’ve used for routes and place-names. Some of the cities along Mina’s route include Istanbul, Ankara, and Erzurum. Crossing into Armenia, under the watchful gaze of Mt. Ararat, she travels through Erivan, Berdkunk and Kot. At the eastern end of Lake Gokcha (now called Sevan) the pass of Zodsk leads her into Persia, and the city of Berdaa. Turning south, she travels to Ardebil, known today for its carpets but famous in the 1600’s for its cats. A day’s journey takes her to Astara, on the western shore of the Caspian. Northward she crosses the Volga River into Astrakhan, where sturgeon, melons and rock-salt are staples of trade. Two thousand miles to the northwest, the Neva River links to the Baltic Sea, the location of modern-day St. Petersburg. Along the Baltic coast to Reval, Riga, Stralsund, Lubeck, and finally Schloss Gottorp where the journey ends.

I hope you enjoy these maps as much as I do.

‘I have learned from your letter of the wonderful agreement that allows you now to blow fire out of your sweet little Anna’s ass’

Lucas Friedrich Behaim was a young man recently returned to Nurnberg from four years of “bachelor journeying”. It was 1612, less than a decade before the continent would explode into thirty years of war, and Lucas wanted to get married.

His story is told in the book, Flesh and Spirit: Private Life in Early Modern Germany, by Steven Ozment. Love letters and other correspondence between family members and the betrothed take us back in time, and into the minds of the long-dead lovers.

Lucas is a passionate Lutheran, but he is also a man who has experienced the world. His youthful travels took him to Paris, Venice, Crete, Tripoli and Jerusalem, among other cities. He only missed seeing Constantinople because his ship was rerouted due to a report of plague.

His letters to his beloved, Anna Maria Pfinzig, are — as Ozment says — full of  “lust and piety”, a fact which did not much surprise me.

Dear Maiden Bride, in my solitude, I contemplate your good and faithful heart intently and I am comforted by it alone. I rejoice in it with my whole heart, and yes, I kill most of my leisure in such pleasant thoughts of you. … Therefore, I ask you very kindly, my darling, to send me a portrait of your beautiful physical form, so that I might, from time to time [by looking at it], know true consolation and singular joy when such sad thoughts arise.”

Unbeknownst to their parents, Lucas and Anna had exchanged private vows before their wedding, a fact which thankfully remained hidden from Nurnberg’s disciplinary Committee of Ten. The agreement was known to several of their family members, notably Lucas’s cousin Albrecht who wrote Lucas a letter of his own, the text of which did surprise me.

“I have learned from your letter of the wonderful agreement that allows you now to blow fire out of your sweet little Anna’s ass, something I would also dearly like to do to her myself, if only my own dear maiden would give me permission. Were she to do so, I think it could not be better done than by inserting my self-extended reed into her from the front and then blowing bravely into it, whereupon the coals and excess heat generated in her hind quarters would sail forth. If this plan of mine pleases you, perhaps you could write to my maiden [Juliana] and ask her if I may be allowed to try it. For were I to proceed without her foreknowledge, the soup would surely turn sour and kind words become dear. I am also pleased to learn that your penis is loyally standing by you, giving you your first wakeup call of each day. I shall make this happy news known to Anna Maria on Sunday, Capis Casari, when I console her and counsel fond patience [during your absence].”

Clearly, the pious Lutherans of the Early Modern age were not as pious as we sometimes believe.

Nurnberg

Nurnberg, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, 1572

Astrakhan, Burlaks, and the Song of the Volga Boatmen

Long after the Mongol Empire died, and the Silk Road vanished along with it, the city of Astrakhan remained an important stop for merchant-travelers. Situated at the northern end of the Caspian Sea, in the vast Volga Delta, it was a crossroads of cultures. Indians, Armenians, Persians, Turks and Europeans mingled with Russians and the local Tatars.

For several hundred years, gangs of poor men and women — the burlakshauled boats from Astrakhan to Moscow and back again, up and down the Main Street of Russia: the Volga River. An old Russian song says, “Volga, thou art our mother,” but the burlaks sang a different song, first published in 1866 as “The Song of the Volga Boatmen.” The song inspired Russian artist Ilya Repin to paint Barge Haulers on the Volga  in 1870.

Astrakhan is also a stopping point for the characters in my forthcoming novel — tentatively titled Empires of Truth, Book 1 of The Antiquary Trilogy. A European mission to Persia is returning to the Baltic, and they stop in Astrakhan for six months to build boats and prepare for the voyage up the Volga.

The quartermaster, a Swede named Jens who is related to his country’s royal family, is overseeing the transfer of their caravan across the Volga and into their temporary quarters outside the walls of Astrakhan.

Clusters of buildings were scattered across the plain between the river and the city. Against the rising sun, on the tops of all the tallest buildings, Orthodox three-bar crosses raised Christ’s crucified body into the air, another reminder that the mission had arrived back in familiar, if not quite friendly, territory. Five towers on this section of wall created a sawtooth shadow on the ground, and the road from the main gate cut through rough earth to the solitary dock where a few ships were tied up. Most were anchored out in deep water, while smaller boats had been run up on the beach for teams of men to work their cargo. All had given way to ten flat-bottomed barges that rested against the far bank, the ten ropes stretched from one side of the river to the other, and the two hundred barge-haulers who were ready to bring the Persian caravan across.

“If you’re ready to begin, I’ll give the order,” the soldier said.

“Yes. We’re ready.”

The soldier shouted something to one of his men and a flag went up.

Jens thought the burlaks who manned the ropes looked exactly like Adam’s translation – from the Tatar word meaning “homeless” and the Latvian for “violent criminals.” Their faces and arms were darkened by days in the sun. Their clothes were a patchwork of soiled rags sewn together, and fragments of white skin showed where new holes had been torn. When the flag dropped, their muscled bodies strained against leather straps, and the loose-hanging ropes snapped up out of the water. He expected their faces to contort with the intense physical effort of pulling the loaded barges off the beach, but there was no change at all. The day’s work had just begun, and every man’s eyes already held an immutable look of exhaustion and despair.

The burlaks did their work expertly and without supervision, starting with the barge furthest downstream. As the Volga’s current swept one barge away from the shore, the next upstream gang of men started their haul, until all ten boats were in the water in a staggered symphony of backbreaking labor. And then the men started singing. Jens didn’t understand the words, but he heard the repeating chorus that echoed their trudging steps until all the boats were safe on the eastern shore, and he made a mental note to ask Adam about the haunting song.

The song that the burlaks sing is haunting indeed. The English translation does not do it justice, but here are the first two stanzas.

Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more
Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more

Now we fell the stout birch tree,
Now we pull hard: one, two, three.
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Now we pull hard: one, two, three.

You can listen to two different versions at the Wikipedia page.

Beauty and Cruelty

The 17th century was a time of innovation and devastation on a worldwide scale. Kind of like the 20th century, only less automated. Researching my latest novel has been an adventure of discovery for me, and one of the hardest things to understand is the attitude toward cruelty displayed by virtually all levels of society. The images below, from Braun and Hogenberg’s Cities of the World (Civitates Orbis Terrarum), illustrate perfectly the beauty and cruelty that suffused the world. I suppose it should be easier for me to comprehend, given the situation in Somalia today (just one example of many), but I’m glad that I have that difficulty.

Imagine yourself on the road from Dresden to Prague today. And then imagine seeing this as you travel the 90 miles:

“Above seven score [1 score = 20] gallowses and wheels, where thieves were hanged, some fresh and some half rotten, and the carcasses of murderers broken limb after limb on the wheels.”  (From The Thirty Years War, by C.V. Wedgwood.)