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Home / Poetry R. M. Rilke / Poetry / Short stories Historical misconceptions 2



Our cherished

historical misconceptions


It should not amaze but at best amuse us how we go through life carrying our bag of misconceptions and prejudices. Most of these, however, have a redeeming quality, which is their simplistic nature, whereby we rest confidently upon their plausibility and go on to more important things. Misconceptions or superstitions add colour and spice to life and serve the important function of providing a form of free entertainment. Interestingly enough, literature is a prime source of historical misconceptions. Indeed, we owe good people like Aleksandr Pushkin and Friedrich Schiller our totally wrong impressions of Boris Godunov and Don Carlos, to name but two examples. Poetic license has done its share in misinforming the public. Alas, musicians have done at least as much to perpetrate myths and other libelous impressions. Verdi and Puccini were notorious practitioners of character idealization and/or assassination.

I do not suggest in this article that we should abandon our misconceptions - at least not the pleasant ones -, and I hope that exposing their falsehood won't take away too much of their fun value. Thus, when I tell you that the Germans are not Huns, or rather, that the Huns are not Germans, I surely do not expect this venerable four-letter word to fall into desuetude. That would deprive us of a pithy term to refer to the men and women who brought us Sauerkraut (or did they? - see below). Believe me, I would no more ask you to forsake our cultural anachronisms and misnomers than to give up horoscopes, which bring us, after all, a great deal of merriment.

Anyway, here are a number of cherished historical falsehoods that have gone into our folkloric heritage:

I. Attila the Hun (406?-453 A.D.) was a Hun all right, and a barbarian par excellence. The Huns, however, were a non-germanic tribe of nomads of east Asian, principally Mongolian origin. Their round heads, flat noses, slanting eyes, swarthy complexion and black hair distinguished them from their Indo-European adversaries whether Roman or German. The word "Hun" comes from the chinese Hiung-nu, meaning nomads, and their great migration started 36 BC after they were defeated by the Chinese near Lake Aral. They then moved westward through Asia and pushed into Europe. After the death of their King Attila, alias "the Scourge of God", the Huns settled in Hungary and Bulgaria. The term "Hun" as applicable to Germans comes allegedly from a 1904 speech delivered by Kaiser Wilhelm II to his soldiers on the way to quell the Boxer rebellion in China, exhorting them to be as resolute and ruthless as the Huns. The World War I propaganda machine picked that up and made it a household word. Mirabile dictu.

II. Sauerkraut or sour cabbage isn't really of German origin. It was already known and eaten by the Romans, who prepared their cabbages by adding salt and vinegar for long conservation. The great improvement in its preparation was introduced in Germany in the middle ages. The method was copied from the Slavs, who probably learned it from the Tatars.

III. The Colossus of Rhodes, a mighty bronze statue 100 feet high of the sun god Helios, stood overlooking the harbour of Rhodes. Contrary to popular belief, ships did not pass between its legs on entering the harbour, since the statue rested fully over land. This fifth wonder of the ancient world was built in the year 300 BC by the master Chares of Lindus, and was destroyed 227 BC by an earthquake.

IV. Although the story of the struggle of the Hebrews and Philistines has become so formalized that it is no longer susceptible to revision, alteration or reassessment (Judges, Chapters 15, 16; First Kings (Samuel), Chapters 4, 5, 13, 14, 17, 18, 29; Second Kings (Samuel), Chapters 5, 21; Jeremia, Chapter 47) a few words can be devoted to a clarification of the slur "philistine", which carries with it the connotation of being "a crass, prosaic often priggish individual guided by material rather than intellectual or artistic values" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary). Matthew Arnold first used the term in this sense - and it stuck - showing the need for an epithet to describe inveterate ignoramuses.

The Old Testament tells us that the Jews suffered for centuries under the Philistines, although from time to time a leader like Samson was able to play some very nasty tricks on the Philistines. It was not, however until young David put Philistine laureate Goliath out of commission, that Israel came into its own and shortly thereafter the Philistines were soundly defeated by the newly anointed King David. From this time on the Philistines were clearly the underdog of the area. However, there is no reason to believe, as the name now implies, that the Philistines were insensitive to culture. In fact, they left attractive ceramics as testimony of their civilization, which the Assyrian invasion of 734 BC put an end to. There is hope that current archaeological excavations may shed additional light on their culture.

Besides the slur that the word Philistine now represents, this tribe gave its name to Palestine, which means "Land of the Philistines".

V. Nero (37-68 A.D.) never played the violin or fiddle because violins did not exist until the fifteenth century A.D. If he played any instrument at all, it is possible that he played the harp. It is true, however, that Nero thought himself a good singer and actor - when he committed suicide at the age of 30 he expressed deep regret at the loss to the world of such a great artist. Qualis artifex pereo. Nero was aged 26 at the time of the burning of Rome. There is no proof that he ordered the city burned, or that he engaged in musical pursuits while watching. True is that he took good advantage of the tragedy to put the blame on the Christians and to persecute his enemies.

VI. In 1793, during the height of the French Revolution Terror and the enormous devastation of churches and palaces caused by unruly mobs, generally incited by the Jacobins, the French Bishop of Blois, Henri Grégoire, coined the term vandalism to characterize this wilful and malicious destruction or defacement of private and public property. He thus permanently defamed the Vandals, who were a germanic tribe that migrated from the Vistula westward through Germany, crossed the Rhein into Gaul, the Pyrenees into Spain, Gibraltar to North Africa, conquered Carthage in 439 A.D. (where they established a government which preserved Roman law and Roman institutions) and finally in 455 A.D. under their King Geiserich raided Italy and delivered Rome over to a thorough pillage lasting two weeks. The first sack of Rome, by the way, took place in 410 A.D. courtesy of the Goths, and occasioned St. Augustine to write his famous City of God in order to rebut the frequent pagan accusation that the abandonment of Rome's gods had caused her fall. Yet, in spite of this raid, the Vandals were civilized enough to be regarded as "foederati" by the Roman Emperor. The other German Foederati were the Franks and the Burgundians. On the other hand, the Angles and the Saxons of England left no trace of Roman government there, and were accordingly not regarded as foederati by Rome.

In any case, the Vandals did not engage in "vandalism" any more than the other barbarians did. Moreover, the term "barbarian" did not have the negative connotation that it has today. It only meant people who spoke funny like "bar-bar", instead of civilized tongues like Latin and Greek, which now sound like "bar-bar" to us. The modern equivalent of "barbarian" would be the rather colourless word alien.

VII. The notorious Borgia (Borja) family was not Italian but Castilian Spanish in origin. Cesare Borja (1475-1507) first went to Italy 1494 as Cardinal Archbishop of Valencia. Unscrupulous and ambitious, Cesare chose "Aut Caesar, aut nihil" as his motto (Either Caesar or nothing). Machiavelli took him as model for his "Prince". Cesare's equally famous sister Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, was married three times and died in childbirth at the age of 39. She is not to be confused with another famous Lucrezia, a Roman lady who committed suicide after being raped by Sextus Tarquin, son of the seventh and last king of pre-imperial Rome, Tarquin the magnificent. According to legend, the rape of Lucrezia occasioned the fall of the dynasty in the year 509 BC. This event has of course been immortalized in countless paintings (by Rembrandt, Dürer, Rubens), that have nothing to do with Lucrezia Borgia's more prosaic end. The Borgia family also contributed two rather unscrupulous members to the papacy - Alexander VI and Calixtus III. The former especially engaged in what may be termed "systematic nepotism".

VIII. Lucrezia Borgia. No one should rely on opera libretti for one's knowledge of historical trivia. Whoever knows Donizetti's opera (1833) may think he knows all he needs to know about this lady of rather loose morals, of her relationship to her natural son Gennaro, who supposedly turned against her before a final recognition and reconciliation. Modern scholars discount this tale, as they do part of the stories accounting for her ill-reputation. What remains is that she was the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia, 1492-1503) and that she probably had incestuous relations with her infamous brother Cesare. But the real reason why she has come down to posterity burdened with such imputations is simply that as a Borgia and a Spaniard in Italy, her family's power and political activities in Italy inevitably made her a natural target for hatred, gossip, scandal and legends, later picked up even by respectable novelists like Victor Hugo, who wrote a play about her.

IX. The much celebrated and sometimes well sung Don Carlos was indeed the first son of King Philip II of Spain, but unlike the favourable and idealistic portrayal in the drama "Don Carlos" by Friedrich Schiller and in the opera of the same name by Giuseppe Verdi, he was actually physically and mentally underdeveloped and showed the outward signs of genetic degeneration through excessive inter-family marriage. Both his father Philip II and his mother Maria of Portugal were grandchildren of Juana la Loca. For these reasons Philip removed Carlos as heir to the Spanish throne. It is true that Carlos then attempted to flee to the Spanish Netherlands, presumably with the intention to press his claim to the throne, but he was arrested and imprisoned in the Royal Castle in Madrid, where he died six months later. The very idealistic and simpatico Marquis de Posa is a literary creation of Schiller to dramatize the forces of protest against the Spanish Inquisition. De Posa, however, never existed and Don Carlos was too dull-witted to oppose the Inquisition. This historical note, of course, does not in any way detract from the dramatic impact of Schiller's play or from the rapturous beauty of Verdi's music.

X. Unlike Parsifal and Lohengrin, who are pure medieval, legends, Tannhäuser (1200-1270 A.D.) is a genuine historical figure, a professional Minnesinger, or lyrical poet from whose pen we have six extant lyric plays, a few dance songs and parodistic love songs as well as sprüche or gnomic poems. The Manesse Manuscript in the Heidelberg University Library contains an early 14th century miniature of the bard, known to have led a wandering life gone on a Crusade to the Holy Land (1228-29), and participated in the singers contests at the Wartburg in Thuringia. Wagner's music drama (1845) does not go too far in depicting Tannhäuser as a good singer who knew how to appreciate female beauty, particularly blithe and buxomly, and did not decline an occasional orgy. Tannhäuser was no monk! But Wagner sends the poor guy off on a pilgrimage to Rome in order to seek forgiveness for his sins, since he had paid Lady Venus (a Toulouse-Lautrec caricature) a long visit at her magic Hörselberg, also called the Venusberg, for it is the realm of the goddess of love (a medieval Place Pigalle). Pope Urban IV told the fun-loving Tannhäuser that he could no more expect God's forgiveness than hope for the Papal sceptre to bring forth green leaves. So the dejected knight departs in despair, seeking to return to the Venusberg. Meanwhile at the Wartburg, his chaste girlfriend Landgrave Herrmann Elisabeth has been praying for his forgiveness. He arrives just in time to catch her funeral, and to die himself on her bier. Bad timing, very bad timing, for just then more pilgrims arrive carrying the Pope's staff, which has sprouted with green. Happily, the real Tannhäuser was spared the melodramatic exit. Wagner is not alone guilty for the miracles and anachronisms of his opera, since he borrowed generously from the folk ballad of Tannhäuser, by Jobst Gutknecht (Nuremberg, 1515).

XI. Wilhelm Tell is not only the fourteenth century Swiss hero, but also the main character in Friedrich Schiller's play (1804), subsequently made into a mediocre libretto and set to music by Giacchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868). As in Don Carlos, Schiller uses the figure of Tell primarily as a vehicle for his own moral and political idealism. Besides allegedly piercing an apple on the head of his son, a feat of prowess with bow and arrow, he gained political stature by defying Austrian authority and killing the Habsburg governor and tyrant Gessler (1307), thus signalling the people to rise up against Austrian rule and ushering Swiss liberation in 1308. Unfortunately, Tell's historical existence is contested and the marksman's test is parallelled in Danish and British ballads. Still it is a nice story and well worth retelling: Se non é vero, é molto ben trovato.

XII. The Biblical Salome may or may not be historical, but the theatrical Salome invented by Oscar Wilde and put to sensuous gyrations in her dance of the seven veils by Richard Strauss makes her a most memorable slut. Father-in-law Herod Antipas, a notorious dirty-old-man who was not satisfied with Herodias, his brother's divorced wife, offers Salome emeralds, topazes, yellow as the eyes of tigers, pink as the eyes of wood-pigeons, green as cats' eyes; opals that burn with an icelike flame, rubies and hyacinth stones, three wondrous turquoises. But the capricious little princess had an account to settle with prophet John the Baptist, whom Oscar Wilde claims she wanted to kiss. Alas, the prophet had rejected her with misogynic vehemence: "Never! Daughter of Babylon, daughter of Sodom... Touch me not!" So, not only did John pass up a good time, his weird chastity so excited the lady that now she wanted his severed head. Bizarre wish. Yet, the prudent and superstitious Herod was not about to call the executioner: "Salome, you know my white peacocks, my beautiful white peacocks, that walk in the garden between the myrtles. I will give them all to you..." The girl remained adamant. Thus the Tetrach of Galilee offered her even the mantle of the high priest, the veil of the sanctuary. Oh! Blasphemy. But what in the world would Salome do with that? No dice: she stood her ground and got what she wanted, on a silver platter: "Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, John. Well, I kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit". I guess I'll spare the reader the rest... it actually gets worse. And then at the end, accompanied by possibly the most sublime music written by man, she exclaims: "If thou hadst looked at me thou wouldst have loved me, John... And the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death". In a supreme unhistorical turn, the lecherous Tetrach orders all torches out, "Hide the moon! Hide the stars!" Horrified he watches a moonbeam falling on Salome, covering her with light. At that moment he orders his guards: "Kill that woman!" The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salome Princess of Judea. Sad, very sad. And who would see this opera but Kaiser Wilhelm II himself! Disdainfully he remarked: "It will do Strauss a great deal of harm!" Years later the composer observed: "Thanks to the harm I was able to build my villa in Garmisch".

So where is the falsification of history? Practically all over. First, it was not Salome but her mother Herodias who wanted the itinerant Evangelist killed because he termed her relationship with Herod Antipas incestuous. Salome did dance before Herod on his birthday, and he did swear on oath to give her anything she wanted, (Matthew 14, 1-12; Mark 6, 21-29) even be it half of his kingdom. Salome then went to her mother for advice. When she got the platter, she did not drool over it. She presented it to her vindicated mother. Thus it was banal revenge and not frustrated passion or lust, or even unrequited love that cost John his head. Moreover, Herod certainly did not have his niece and step daughter crushed by his soldiers. Besides being in very poor taste, this would have cost him unending nagging from his wife. Legend has it, however, that Salome subsequently perished in an accident, drowned when the ice under her feet broke while dancing on a frozen lake in Judea (??!!). Another medieval legend depicts not Salome but Herodias as being infatuated with John. Oscar Wilde added Herod's infatuation for Salome for good measure. It is interesting to note that the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing at the end of the first century A.D., recounts that John the Baptist was arrested and put to death because Herod Antipas feared that his eloquence and influence over the people would lead to sedition or disorder. By the way, the Tetrach Herod Antipas should not be confused with his father Herod the Great, who was recognized as "King of the Jews" by Rome in 40 BC. and ruled until his death in 4 BC. The Evangelist Matthew blames the earlier Herod for the massacre of the male children of Bethlehem; this in turn indicates that Jesus was not born in the year of the Lord (Anno Domini, zero hour), but at least four years before that. And one last caveat: our Salome should not be confused with Salome, wife of Zebedee and mother of the Apostles John and James. A good Jewish mama, she asked Jesus for prominent posts for her sons. The pious woman was one of those who went to the sepulchre on the morning of the Resurrection (Mark 15, 40). Our Salome should also not be confused with the sister of Herod the Great.

XIII. Another Biblical heroine that reappears in opera - is the seductive Philistine Dalila, who Camille Saint-Saëns (1834-1921) immortalized in Samson and Dalila (1877). Gazing provocatively at Samson, this sensuous maiden dances while singing such wonderful arias as "printemps qui commence". She seduces him at her home in the valley of Sorek, surrounded by luxuriant tropical foliage. But here again the librettist "improves" on the Biblical story. Faithful to the story, Dalila asks our Old Testament Hercules "Tell me the secret of your great strength" (Judges, Chapter 16, verses 4-22) and in the end Samson takes her completely into his confidence and confesses "no razor has touched my head". So far so good, but in the Old Testament she then receives money from the lords of the Philistines and calls for a barber to shave off his seven locks of hair, while he peacefully sleeps on her lap. Now, how unlikely! Chez Saint-Saëns it is Dalila herself who does the cutting and she gets no money for it. Later, after Samson's hair grows back, he finds himself blind, bound with bronze fetters and a prisoner in Gaza. In the Biblical story we do not hear anymore about Dalila. Chez Camille she gloats over her deed in the second act and continues singing throughout the third act, mocking him in a dramatic refrain "laisse-moi prendre ta main". At the closing sacrificial rite in honour of the Philistine god Dagon, Samson brings down the house, including his beloved Dalila, by grasping the middle columns on which the temple rested and bracing himself against them.

XIV. Czar Boris Godunov. Unlike Ivan IV, known as the Terrible (1533-1584), who was indeed cruel and did kill his son the Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich with his own hands, his successor Tsar Boris (1598-1605) was not a murderer. Once again the pen of poets and composers have created folklore that has little to do with historical truth. Aleksandr Pushkin wrote about Boris, Modest Mussorgsky consecrated legend in Russia's most formidable opera. Every bass worth his salt aspires to sing this magnificent, tragic role. But the real Boris, who used to play chess with Tsar Ivan, certainly did not murder the young Prince Dimitri, Ivan's last son by his seventh wife. Nor did he go after the throne following the death of Ivan's other son, Tsar Feodor (1584-1598), a feebleminded man who, it is reported, had a fancy for ringing bells. Upon Feodor's heirless end, the Council of the Realm had to agree on a new Tsar. They found Boris, who was modestly in seclusion at Novodevichy monastery just outside Moscow. At first Boris refused to accept the crown, but when he did, Russia gained a capable and progressive ruler. Unfortunately, his reign was beset with severe famines, which Boris tried to remedy by generously dispensing food to the peasants, so that he was called "Boris the Bright-Souled". Unfortunately for Russia, he died in 1605, his work unfinished. A victim of a heart attack, he did not succumb to guilt or remorse, as we are wont to think after Mussorgsky's powerful "Bozhe! Smyert! Prostí menya... Prostite". His death was followed by the "Time of Troubles", an eight-year period of anarchy and confusion that finally ushered in the Romanov dynasty.

XV. Mozart and Salieri. The bicentennial of Mozart's death has done its part to demythologize Wolfgang Amadeus. We admire him at least as much, but we pity him less. After all, he lived a very good life, earned more than four times what a medical doctor earned, had a beautiful wife and two children who survived him. On 4 April 1781 Wolfgang wrote his father "Believe me, my sole purpose is to make as much money as possible; for after good health it is the best thing to have". And money he made - and spent - in bundles. Of course, he died young (35) and was buried in an unmarked grave at the Vienna cemetery of St. Marx. But the fact is that at the time only the privileged and nobility were buried otherwise; besides, Mozart did have a dignified funeral at the Cathedral of St. Stephen, attended by some prominent friends and musicians, including Antonio Salieri. As to his premature death, it should be remembered that average life expectancy in the eighteenth century was under forty years; actually, Mozart did not do as badly as others. Poor Schubert died at the age of 31; Georges Bizet at the age of 36; Frederic Chopin at the age of 38, of tuberculosis; the greatest poet of the English language (in my humble opinion), John Keats, at the age of 26, again of tuberculosis; Percy Bysshe Shelley at the age of 29, drowned near Pisa; the Russian poets Michail Lermontov and Aleksandr Pushkin, both of them in duels (but not against each other), at the respective ages of 27 and 37; and even the very happy, wealthy and successful Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy died at the age of 38, of apoplexy.

Another composer of the period, who lived to the ripe old age of 75, Antonio Salieri, seems to have gained greater notoriety as a result of his links with Mozart than because of his own works. Of course, Antonio was no quantité négligeable. He was composition teacher of both Beethoven and Liszt, composer of several operas, sacred, choral and chamber music, Court Kapellmeister in Vienna and murderer of Mozart (??!!). No, Salieri had nothing to do with Mozart's death (Mozart died of uraemia, as Gustav Mahler 120 years later). But it is nonetheless true that Mozart disliked him and paranoically thought that Salieri wanted to do him in. This legend was subsequently picked up by the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin in his piece "Mozart and Salieri" (1830) and by the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov in his opera of the same name (1882). While only a few of us are familiar with Pushkin's and Rimsky Korsakov's libelous treatment of Salieri, the author of the Broadway play, Peter Shaffer, "Amadeus" certainly was not. And surely more people have seen Milos Foreman's film "Amadeus" than read a book on Mozart - let alone on Salieri. What can be learned from all this? Nothing terribly worth while, except that Mozart had wanted Salieri's job at the Vienna Court, but Salieri beat him to it - not because he was more talented or because of dirty intrigues - but simply because Salieri was at the right place at the right time. Sounds familiar? Still, Salieri has not suffered too great an injustice. First, he lived more that twice as long as Mozart. Secondly, the scandal has kept some of his works on the repertoire, if not just because of their intrinsic worth, at least because of their curiosity value.

XVI. When people think of Bizet, they think of Carmen, and when they picture this rapturously seductive gypsy they hear the "Habanera". Wait a minute there! The drama takes place in Seville, Spain, not in far-off Havana. Carmen, however, did work in a cigarette factory, and the tobacco probably came from Cuba. Still, a "habanera" is simply a slow dance in 2/4 time, which at the time was popular in Cuba, before the mambo, rumba and cha-cha-cha. Thus, Carmen is no more Cuban than the love-stricken Don José, but she does bewitch him with her "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser... l'amour est enfant de bohème, il n'a jamais connu de loi: si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime; si je t'aime, prends garde à toi!"

XVII. Richard III (1452-1485). This much maligned king of England (1483-1485) was indeed controversial in his age, but the factual monarch was less blood-curdling that the tragic figure immortalized by Shakespeare (1594). He was the third son of Richard, duke of York, and brother of King Edward IV, upon whose death in 1483 he seized the throne by declaring himself protector over his nephews, the young Edward V and his brother Richard. Active in the "War of the Roses", he was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, and head of the rival house of Lancaster, who later became Henry VII. Shakespeare depicts Richard as a blood-thirsty monster who systematically plans the extermination of all who hinder his succession. In order to strengthen his position, he orders the murder of his nephews and disposes of his wife, promptly to sue for the hand of his niece Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV. His marriage plans were thwarted at Bosworth Field, where his horse having been killed, Richard had to fight on foot, desperately shouting "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse." Thus he died at the age of 33, a capable ruler of great promise, denigrated nonetheless by Thomas More in his "History of Richard III" but subsequently rehabilitated by Horace Walpole. But Tudor propaganda dies hard, and people still think of him as a malignant villain and hunchback, in spite of the noble efforts of the Richard III Society, founded in England in 1924 under the name Fellowship of the White Boar (Richard's emblem), An American Branch of the British association was established in 1969, with the objective to prove that he was deformed in neither soul nor body.

XVIII. George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) may not be everyone's hero, but his romantic lifestyle and hedonistic attitude endear him to many, possible more so than his lyrics. Personally, I do not particularly admire his oft-quoted "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage". I rather prefer his "Prisoner of Chillon", which I still fondly remember from my high-school literature book, where it was prominently featured, together with a picture of the Chateau of Chillon. But, let us not forget that Byron himself subtitled his poem a "fable", thus indicting that he had not intended to give a historical account of François Bonivard's imprisonment. Still, most friends whom I take to the Chateau, insist that Byron's tale accurately depicts the seven year ordeal of the sixteenth century Genevese Bonivard, who was imprisoned by the Duke of Savoy because of his political and religious activism. Some even pretend that Byron himself was imprisoned there, which, of course, is romantic rubbish. Yet, it is true that both Byron and his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley did visit the Castle on 26 June 1816, and that he very much understood his poem as a protest against man's inhumanity to man.

My heart also reacted to Byron's unpretentious poem "written after swimming from Sestos to Abydos" (some two kilometres), which he wrote on 9 May 1810, barely one week after he accomplished the crossing in an hour and ten minutes. Here Byron acted out his love of mythology, copying the legendary feat of Leander, the youth of Abydos, who swam nightly across the Hellespont to Sestos, where he visited a priestess of Aphrodite known as Hero. And so often did Leander swim from the European to the Asiatic shore until one stormy night he drowned, thus causing Hero's suicide. Byron, who tried the feat only once, survived it, but not without suffering a bad case of the ague. Fourteen years later he would return to Greece and succumb to malaria. There are many heroic stories about his untimely death. Many think that he died in battle against the Turks in the struggle for Greece's liberation. Surely the Greek cause did capture his imagination, and he established contact with Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, the leader of the Western Greek revolutionaries. He even put four thousand pounds of his own money to prepare the Greek fleet for sea service. He even made plans to attack the Turkish-held fortress at Lepanto, but he contracted a fever, which was aggravated by the pseudomedical treatment of blood-letting. Poor man, the doctors quite literally bled him to death. Sceptical about what was going on, he remarked "Drawing blood from a nervous patient is like loosening the chords of a musical instrument, the topes of which are already defective for want of sufficient tension." As he grew weaker, the doctors even applied leeches to his temples. Such "purging", and no Turkish bullet, led directly to his death. By the way, the use of leeches to drain blood was quite popular in Europe in the nineteenth century, and many diseases were so treated, including mental illness, tumours, skin disease, headaches, gout and whooping cough.

XIX. Roncesvalles (Roncevaux). Whoever travels to Spain from France or to France from Spain should consider taking the Roncesvalles pass in the Pyrenees. There, in 778 Basque mountaineers ambushed the rear guard of Charlemagne's army. Folklore grows with time, and out of a defeat clever people can make good literature - and politics. In the medieval romance "La Chanson de Roland", the ambush is attributed to treachery and the good Basques become an army of Saracenes. "Roland est preux, mais Olivier est sage". Many a tear has been shed over this sad story about young knights being slaughtered for the honour and glory of their king. Surely Roland would have preferred to spend the night near his wench, the Basques with their maidens and the Muslim Saracenes with their veiled beauties in far off Cordoba.

XX. President Washington's Farewell Address and General Robert E. Lee's Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia (Appomattox) have something in common: both were written and circulated but never actually spoken by their authors. They have, nonetheless, been put on tape, accompanied by solemn, respectful music.

XXI. The "Spanish" Inquisition (inquisitio haereticae pravitatis) was not a Spanish invention at all, but rather an assiduous imitation of the Italian and French models. Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) is attributed with definitely establishing the Papal Inquisition and with appointing members of the Dominican Order as its judges or "Inquisitors". The immediate occasion for the establishment of the Inquisition was the eradication of the Catharic heresy (from the Greek cathari, the pure), which had dangerously spread through southern France, having its most formidable stronghold in the town of Albi. The central doctrine of Catharism was "a belief in an eternal struggle between a god whose dominion was the realm of the spirit and an evil deity, or the devil, who ruled the material universe". It was thus not unlike Persian Manichaeism in holding all matter and flesh to be evil, and thus in rejecting the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. Pope Innocent III first tried to persuade the Albigensians to recant, and failing there proclaimed a holy war against them. The ambitious French King Philip II and his successor King Louis VIII, eager to expand their lands in the south, gladly participated in the sanguinary Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), which, it has been estimated, may have cost as many as 500,000 lives. At Béziers, the entire population, to the number of some 20,000, were slaughtered, and after the capture of Minerve, in place of the usual massacre, the 140 leading heretics were burnt together in one huge bonfire. Here credit should be given to the German Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II who in the year 1220 introduced the death penalty (for heresy) by burning at the stake. The Albigensian Crusade did not end until the Count of Toulouse Raymond VII agreed to persecute the few remaining heretics and to submit to the Inquisition, which by then was an established and functioning court for judicial inquiry, with a regular procedure based primarily on canon law and secondarily on Roman civil law. It was from the latter that the practice of torturing the accused in order to obtain quicker confessions was derived - a practice which Pope Innocent IV authorized (1252) in "stubborn cases". After the eradication of Catharism in France, the French-accented Inquisition continued to flourish, making a particularly big splash with the famous trial of Joan of Arc at Rouen, Normandy in 1431. The poor peasant girl from Lorraine who claimed to have heard the "voices" of Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret telling her to go to King Charles VII of France and bring him to Reims to be crowned (which she actually did!) was captured by the unsympathetic Burgundians, who turned her over to the English. She was then brought before a formidable Court of Inquisition presided by Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais under charges of witchcraft and heresy. After ten gruelling weeks of inquiry and torture, she finally confessed to being bewitched by the devil. Unfortunately, she recanted her admission, whereupon the Inquisitors found her guilty of being not only a heretic and witch but also a relapsed heretic, to wit, a recidivist! Thus she was turned over to the civil authority, which at the time was English, and by it she was burned at the stake. After her trial and through the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Inquisition in France survived more or less on a dilettantish basis.

By comparison, the high-point of activity of the Inquisition in Spain was not reached until the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. There the ecclesiastical court of the Inquisition passed from papal to royal control and was extensively used against Moslems and Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Another peculiarity of the Spanish Inquisition was that the Grand Inquisitor was empowered to prosecute not only heresy but also all common civil (and political) crimes, and thus not all the victims of the Spanish Inquisition were genuine garden-variety "heretics". Tomás de Torquemada (1420-1498), the most famous of Spanish Grand Inquisitors (about whom even our gentle Longfellow wrote a poem) was a devout Dominican priest and Confessor of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella. The last auto-da-fé in Spain took place in 1781 and shortly thereafter even the hated Spanish Inquisition went out of business. In Italy, however, the institution of the Inquisition lasted until 1859 and claimed perhaps as many victims as its Spanish counterpart. Its most famous victim was perhaps Girolamo Savonarola, Dominican priest and political reformer burned at the stake for heresy in 1498 in Florence.

Another famous, but less obstinate, heretic was Galileo Galilei (1563-1642), who was tried in 1633 because of his teachings, or rather because he was a staunch advocate of Copernicus's theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. Although as early as 1616 the Inquisition had pronounced the Copernican world view to be a heresy, Galileo went on to espouse it in his 1632 publication Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue on Two Chief World Systems). When this brought him into conflict with the Inquisition, and being threatened with torture, the aged and wise astronomer preferred to recant. As the story goes, however, he was heard to mutter: "Eppur si muove" (and yet she still moves), while rising from his knees. This anecdote was first told by the Abbé Trailh in his "Querelles littéraires" (Paris, 1761). We are permitted to surmise that had Galilei really said this to the Church fathers, who had very little sense of humour, he would probably have followed in Savonarola's footsteps.

Germany was dull ground for the Inquisition, and I know of no colourful German witches. But two celebrated heretics were burned at the stake after the Council of Constance: John Hus in 1415 and Jerome of Prague in 1416. "O sancta simplicitas" exclaimed Hus when an old peasant woman was bringing a small piece of wood to add to his pyre.

Meanwhile England and the Netherlands also had an Inquisition, but only until the Reformation. However, occasional witch-hunts and executions did continue in both countries through the seventeenth century.

In the American colonies, of course, there never was an official Inquisition. On the other hand, we all know about the tolerance of the Puritans and remember the witchcraft trials and executions (1692) in Salem and elsewhere in New England. Even in easy-going Virginia "witches" were persecuted, although none was executed. And who has not been horrified by a reading of Cotton Mather's "Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions" (1689)? It is little wonder that hundreds of witches were jailed, many hanged, and at least one unfortunate person was pressed to death in the best medieval style. In America.

XXII. Atahualpa, chief of the Incas, was defeated by Pizarro and subsequently strangled. Legend erroneously portrays him being burned at the stake, which was the preferred method of dealing with those who refused to see the light. In spite of our sympathies for the underdog, it should be brought to mind that Atahualpa was not the rightful king of the Incas, but a usurper. He battled and killed his own half-brother Huascar, the rightful heir and last crowed king of the Incas, just months before he himself was killed by the Spaniards. "He who lives by the sword..."

XXIII. The controversial 1936 Olympics were actually won by Germany (42 gold medals). The United States won 25 gold medals and Hungary 10. However, the USA carried the day by winning track and field and by the remarkable personality of Jesse Owens. Contrary to popular belief, the German press was quite enthusiastic about Owens, not withstanding the Führer's chagrin. It should also be noted that during the 36 Olympics the practice was initiated to carry the Olympic flame from Greece to the games.

XXIV. When as a young man I first discovered Voltaire, I felt optimistic about the power of reason and the need for tolerance. My favorite quote from this wise and frequently tongue-in-cheek François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), better known under his anagram, became "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Supposedly, he wrote it in a letter to his friend, the philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvetius, but I never found the actual quotation. Then I looked for it in vain in his "Traité sur la tolérance" (1763). Subsequently, I saw a reference to a similar statement, which he purportedly addressed to a certain M. Le Riche on 6 February 1770 "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write". The Voltaire Museum in Geneva confirmed the existence of a letter to Mr. Le Riche, of the same date, but, unless there are two letters, no such citation can be found in the extant piece. Finally, I learned that it was not Voltaire, but his biographer Evelyne Béatrice Hall, writing under her pseudonym Stephen G. Tallentyre, who originated the famous remark ["The Friends of Voltaire" (l907), p. 199]. Thanks to Burdette Kinne of Columbia University we now know what actually happened. As Miss Hall, alias Tallentyre, wrote her on 9 May l939: "The phrase 'I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it', which you have found in my book 'Voltaire in his letters' is my own expression and should not have been put in inverted commas. Please accept my apologies for having, quite unintentionally, misled you into thinking I was quoting a sentence used by Voltaire (or anyone else but myself). I am surprised my books on Voltaire still find a few readers -- I thought I was quite a back number." Thus, true or not, I think we would agree that it was an apt description of Voltaire's attitude, and the best expression of the "right to be wrong". More recently, I discovered Robert Brault's perceptive paraphrase: "Most people would rather defend to the death your right to say something -- than listen to what you have to say."


Now that we've taken our promenade through history and nonchalantly poked fun at a handful of established myths, a sobering thought from Abraham Lincoln seems to be a good way of ending this adventure in unorthodoxy:

A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded.

Far be it from us to disregard universal feelings, especially if they are ill-founded. In a future promenade we shall seek them out and pay them our most sincere regards.


Copyright ©2004 Alfred De Zayas. All contents are copyrighted and may not be used without the author's permission. This page was created by Nick Ionascu.