Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Haunted History: Cats, Crones, Foul Air & Black Kings

As Halloween approaches, I am seeming more and more of the ubiquitous inflated goblin or ghoul poking their balloon heads out from behind my neighbor’s bushes.1 And of course, because I love history, it has got me thinking about what people feared in the past. What were the boogie men of 16th century Europe? Ghosts may have roamed the graveyards, but what other scary creatures would frighten the kiddies out of their candy corn. Here is my short list of the scariest things of the 16th century:

I had blogged in the past about how dogs ruled royal palaces. Well, while dogs were whooping it up in the 16th century, cats were trying to escape kitty persecution. Unlike dogs, cats were seen as weak and feminine. Scariest of all, they were linked with witchcraft because they were believed to be really witches in disguise called familiars. Cats were so demonized by the Catholic Church that they were even ritually slaughtered on All Saints Day. (The Pope endorsed the past time with religious zeal) And it wasn’t just the Catholics that persecuted cats. At the succession of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, an effigy of the Pope made out of a wicker basket was set on fire. Inside the basket were helpless cats. This especially horrid display of kitty cruelty was meant to signify the releasing of demons. It really only released a dead cat smell.

Old people
I love the seniors but I have to tell you...old people of the 16th century were downright creepy (especially old women). Little medical care, rampant disease, sketchy hygiene, and death in child birth all added up to an average life span of 35 years in London. Yikes. I would be over the hill by now. But some lucky folks did manage to buck the system and live into their 70s and 80s. It was these wizened octogenarians that scared the daylights out of the Elizabethan kids. We can imagine that someone who made it to 70 might have looked like they were about 100. Some historians have even argued that aged midwives became an easy target for the witch hunts because they not only used herbs and delivered babies, but also typically lived on the outskirts of society with little male protection. Everyone basically thought these ancient midwives must be sippin the witch’s brew and bathing in baby’s blood to live that long. (Most of the witches put to death were over 50) It was this fear of old people (otherwise known as Gerontophobia) that led to many an innocent senior getting hung or burned for witchcraft.

Philip II
There is a reason why Philip always dressed in black and never smiled in his portraits. The King of Spain was one scary bad ass. Under the regency of Catherine de Medici and the later rule of her sons, France spent most of the 16th century tip toeing around Philip trying not to piss him off and get embroiled in a war they couldn’t win. Elizabeth I had to continuously avoid plots from Spanish assassins trying to off her. And for the rest of the world (especially the Netherlands), there was good reason to fear Philip. Spain was a Catholic superpower whose military might was continuously fed by the pilfered gold and silver from the Americas.2 You would think all this gold might put a smile on Philip’s face, but he was too busy chasing the Protestants out of the country to enjoy his booty. It was rumored that the only time Philip smiled was after he heard of the slaughter of Protestant men, women, and children at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Now there’s a guy that you might not want to take a candied apple from.

Foul smells
As a young boy Henry II of France was held captive in a Spanish prison with his brother. When he was finally released, the constable of Castile gave him two white horses as an apology for his imprisonment. In response to this token of goodwill, Henry promptly turned around and unloaded the only ammunition that he had on his young frame…he farted in the constable’s face. Innocent childhood prank? Hardly. Smells were deadly. The ruling medical theory from the 16th to the 19th century was that bad air carried diseases. For this reason, women wore pomanders filled with sweet scents close to their body. And to avoid plague infections, doctors wore long beaks filled with sweet smelling incense to mask the smell of death and disease. Looking like a parrot may have saved their noses, but hardly their immune systems.

(1)I personally find inflatable Halloween props much scarier then anything on this list.
(2) Elizabeth’s Pirates stole a good chunk of it.


katie said...

i'm hooked!

thanks for all of your work in putting this all together for history lovers like me :)

Mb said...

First post!

Well, I usually like your blog, except when it comes to posts like this one, above all the part of Phillip II. Yes, I'm Spanish myself, and I have studied quite a bit this period from both sides, so I come to debate a few of the "facts" that you state here:

First of all: Phillip did not wore black because he was some "scary bad ass". He wore black because the Spanish court was quite a rich one ( mostly at the beginning of his reign, at the end of it, Spain had gone through several bankrupcies). Black was an incredibly hard dye to find, so you had to pay a lot for it, so it was pretty much Phillip's way of saying "Hey you guys! I'm the most incredibly rich king in the world because I can afford a lot of black clothes!" Oh, and y the way I would have chosen another portrait of Phillip to illustrate this. (You know, that one where he actually wears black)

Second: Most of the pilfered gold and silver went to pay the several debts Spain had since the reign of Charles I, Phillip's father, to flemish and italian bankers, so the smile on Phillip's face wasn't that much.

(continues in the second comment)

Mb said...

(comes from the other comment)
Third: "You would think all this gold might put a smile on Philip’s face, but he was too busy chasing the Protestants out of the country to enjoy his booty"

There were only a few protestants prosecuted in comparison to other countries. Phillip had forbidden actually most of the protestant books that were circulating in Europe, and protestants weren't that idiot to go where they weren't wanted, so don't try to make Phillip II the Spanish Henry VIII. In fact, when he was King Consort of England, he was surprised at the fanatism of Mary I, being always more moderate than her in those questions.

Fourth: "It was rumored that the only time Philip smiled was after he heard of the slaughter of Protestant men, women, and children at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre"

Phillip didn't smile in the portraits because the Habsburgs NEVER smiled in public (and never drank water in public, and never did a thing in public), and that includes the portraits, not because he was such an asshole. Try to show me one portrait of any monarch of the era that is actually smiling, you'll find that all (or at least most of them) pose with their serious faces. Even Elizabeth I, of whom I pride myself to know quite a few portraits of, is not smiling in any of them.

Of course he did smile in his intimate moments with his family. He loved his daughters, Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela (and was incredibly devastated when he knew of her death), of his third marriage (with Elizabeth de Valois). And by the way, his first son, Carlos, was not killed by Philip's orders, he died of complications due to exccesive eating after a failed hunger strike(He was insane).

I know that is easy to put Phillip as the evil guy in the story, but he isn't different from several kings and queens from the era (and not only catholic, protestant rulers were also quite a bit of assholes, check the story of Miguel Servet, spanish physician and theologian who was burnt at the stake in effigy at France, and in presence at Geneva).

Finally, I want to state that I'm not Catholic. In fact, I declare myself agnostic and most of my family are fervent atheists; I'm neither monarchical,but I do believe that a Republic is the ideal government. And finally, I apologise if anything here offended you, because I'm usually quite passionate in history questions, specially with a king so demonised as Phillip II. Most of the time I ask people what would they actually do if they were in his time and in his place as rulers of an empire "in which never was a sunset", and although they never answer, I'm pretty sure that they would make the same mistakes.

And never forget that we owe him pretty much that we can go outside whenever we want, with the looks we want, and not having to wear a burka or a veil, or being reppressed for speaking our minds here at internet, because the troops of his half-brother, Don Juan de Austria, stopped the Turkish advance at Lepanto.

Anyhow, I hope you read this and take it in account to further your research. Because, seriously, we weren't responsible for everything bad that happened in history.

But if you are now here, at the end of the comment, I thank you for taking your time.

(Oh, and check the story of Queen Maria Luisa de Parma and her lover Manuel Godoy. I'm pretty sure it would make interesting material for your blog)

Mb said...

PS: And I apologise for any spelling mistake you may find in my comments. English is my second language so I don't have mastered it that much as my mother language (Spanish)

Bearded Lady said...

Maribarbola – It’s always good to find someone passionate about history. All joking aside, Philip is a very complex ruler in history and one that always stirs a lot of debate. And although Philip was certainly a brilliant ruler, I can’t venerate him either. His decision to reinstate the Inquisition had dire consequences for Europe and he must be help accountable for his actions. His orders in the Netherlands that led to the wholesale slaughter of anyone who was not Catholic cannot be glossed over either. 18,000 people were executed under the Duke of Alva. In several letters he bragged to Philip about the slaughters knowing his ruler would be proud.

Black was an expensive color to wear but not as expensive as cloth of gold or purple. Philip’s decision to wear black had very little to do with cost. He was actually one of the more frugal and less showy kings of the Renaissance. And of course, no one smiled in portraits but Philip looks especially menacing...at least menacing enough for me to make a few jokes about his portraits.

Yes, it is true that Philip inherited much dept. But he also suffered from many a ruler’s greatest nemesis – greed. He had pilfered so much silver to pay for war that silver depreciated in value. The result was the cost of food sky rocketing. (This happened everywhere but Spain got hit the worst.) Having more gold and silver does not always make a ruler richer. There is always a tipping point. Philip learned this the hard way. (as did many rulers of the time.)

I often too try to say – what would I do in these circumstances? It is true that Philip danced a little jig when he heard about St. Bart’s massacre...and even living in the times, I wouldn't dance over so many deaths. The massacre weakened France and made Philip feel more secure.

I do agree that he took a more moderate stance than Mary I in matters of religion. But IMO, his moderate stance had nothing to do with religious conviction. He understood that Mary’s popularity was plummeting. Although misguided, at least Mary’s actions were deeply rooted in the conviction that she was saving souls.

Philip is often viewed as the “most Catholic king” and although he certainly was devout, his actions seem more Machiavellian than religiously motivated. In truth, he was in a constant power struggle with the Papacy. People often forget that he was the one that persuaded the Pope not to excommunicate Elizabeth I. He also refused to rescue the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots from her imprisonment even though the Pope had urged him to do so.

Is he any worse than other rulers of his time? I can't answer that.

But I do want to clarify - Philip being a “bad ass” has nothing to do with religion. I am not sure this term is translating correctly. When Americans say bad ass they mean someone who will not be pushed around. Philip certainly qualifies.

Thanks for your comments. I would welcome you doing a more serious and objective guest post anytime. You could dispell some of the myths surrounding Philip that I am sure would be of interest to many readers of this blog. Please contact me if you are interested.

Mb said...

Hi! It's me again.

I came back to this blog last week (last months have been quite busy and to be honest, I had forgot about it)and re-read my comments.

First of all, I would like to apologize because the way they are written is actually rude at several points, and though it wasn't my intention I became exalted.

And I didn't state my sources, something which makes me quite ashamed of my self (I swear that I always do, this was an exception).

I have no excuse and I know this comment comes way later than expected, but hey, better late than never, or so they say.

And by the way, thank you for your response. And I'll think about the idea of the post about Philip. I always love doing a bit more of research, but University and another type of research (this time for my first screenplay) occupy most of my time. But I can always make room when it comes to Habsburg Spain and Tudor Englad (This summer I went both to El Escorial- for a summer course about Spanish Civil War and the media- and London and I though I would explode from pure glee).