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.”

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How he would like to be kissed

A poem by Paul Fleming, whose portrait is my public face.

How he would like to be kissed

Nowhere but on the mouth,
Then it sinks to the bottom of the heart
Not too freely, not too forced,
Not with nasty, stinking tongues.

Not too little, not too much!
Or both will be just childish things.
Not too loud, and not too quiet,
Both in measure is the right way.

Not too close, not too far.
This brings sorrow, that one woe.
Not too dry, not too moist,
Like Adonis gave to Venus.

Not too hard, not too soft.
Sometimes together, sometimes not together.
Not too slowly, not too fast.
Not without variety in place.

Half biting, half brushed.
Half lip dipped in lip.
Not without variety in time.
More alone than among people.

May everyone kiss now
As he knows, wants, should and can.
Only I and my dearest know
How we should kiss each other aright.

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.

‘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