Saturday, April 30, 2016


     For the last time, stop being so literal-minded!  (Get it?  "For the last time," because this is Z and the Challenge is now over?)  There were no actual 16th-century zines.  Come on!  Moveable type had only been invented in 1439!  But by the early 1500's, pamphlets had become a thing, and from there to the creation of periodical magazines, it was only a matter of time.
     Pamphlets were short, unbound or loosely bound booklets that could be printed at low cost and could be distributed by anyone willing to stand on street corners for hours at a time (or to pay someone else to do it for them).  Basically, pamphlets were a tool used by people who wanted to rant - about religion, about politics, about specific authority figures they hated - you name it. 
     In Italy, our buddy Aretino started out as a pamphleteer so he could spread his anti-authority satires far and wide.  In Germany, Martin Luther used pamphlets very effectively to promote the Protestant reformation. 


     Of course, the Church could play the pamphlet game too.

pamphlet depicting Luther as a seven-headed beast

     In England, writers like Thomas Dekker, Thomas Nashe, and Robert Greene used pamphlets to distribute their romantic fiction and social or literary criticism, Francis Bacon published his Essays as a series of pamphlets, and King Henry VIII had pamphlets distributed to publicly defend his break from the Catholic Church.  ("Like it's my fault they won't let me divorce my first wife after 20 years to marry that hottie Anne Boleyn!")
     French writers also distributed their fiction in pamphlet form.

     In the 1560's, long before the first newspapers were invented, pamphlets first began to be used in England to convey news to the public. 

     Unlike a book, a pamphlet describing a political event could be written and printed up within hours after it occurred, enabling people outside of court circles to quickly be in the know.  Elizabethan England also became the base for "pamphlet wars" - the use of pamphlets by groups holding opposing viewpoints to carry out public debates on issues ranging from the civil war to the roles of women in society.  In fact, pamphlets became so popular that the Queen herself recognized their propaganda value and took to participating in these discussions.
     Pamphlets continued to gain popularity well into the 17th century, and only began to die out after newspapers and journals became widespread.

                                   *                   *                    *                    *

     So there you have it, folks.  There were times when I thought I would never make it through this Challenge, but I survived, thanks in large part to the support and encouragement of a lot of amazing A to Z bloggers who, in addition to consistently writing wonderful posts on their own blogs, also somehow found the time to bloghop and offer kind words.  Sincere thanks to everyone who visited here, either to leave comments or just to read.  I love learning more and more about the 16th century.  For me, it's a well that never runs dry.  And I love sharing the things I learn with as many people as I can.  Blogs work so much better than 16th-century pamphlets in that regard!
     It's been a lot of work for me, but so much fun that it was worth every hour of research.  Ciao for now, and I hope to catch up with you next year, if not sooner!

Friday, April 29, 2016


     No, silly, there was no system for members of the public to log in and rate everything they had ever experienced, from restaurants to acupuncturists.  There was no such democratic forum in the 16th century, but there were critics - drama critics, literary critics, art critics - and the things they wrote mattered to people.  Unlike present-day critics, however, they were often active participants in the arts which they discussed in their writings.  And they didn't focus their attention on a specific book or play or work of art.  Instead, it was all about theory.
      The greatest literary theorist of the Classical world was Aristotle, and once his Poetics had been translated into Latin in 1498, European literary theory constantly referred back to it.

 In Aristotle's view - at least as interpreted by Renaissance scholars -  all drama had to abide by the Three Unities: unity of action - almost complete focus on one main plot element; unity of time - all action to occur within a 24-hour period; and unity of place - all action to occur at the same location.  It's easy to see at a glance how constraining it would be for a playwright to have to follow those rules, and yet the 16th century was an age of Neoclassicism, and the notion of rejecting the Unities seemed like heresy to many intellectuals.
      One hot topic during the 16th century was the purpose of poetry (which basically included fiction in any form).  Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558) exalted classical Roman authors (ironically in keeping with his first and middle names), and rejected any modern innovations that aimed to improve on what Scaliger considered perfection.  He also held the mainstream belief that poetry must serve a moral, didactic purpose.  This view was in direct contradiction to that of Luigi Castelvetro (1505-71), who wrote that the aim of poetry should be to keep the common people happy.  A completely different third view was voiced by the Englishman Sir Philip Sidney in his Defence of Poesy (published posthumously in 1595), in which he argued that the poet exists separately from society and is a creator of a new and variant form of nature.
     When it came to 16th century art criticism, one figure towers above all others.

Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) was an Italian artist, architect, and most importantly, author of a masterwork: Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1650-52).  This book earned him his reputation as the father of art history.  Vasari did not just present the biographies of artists; he also rated three periods of Western artistic development: the Classical (top-notch); the Dark Ages (the pits); and the Renaissance (a return to former glory).  Vasari was a juicy biographer, who didn't mind filling in gaps in his knowledge of individual artists with gossip and innuendo, but he was also a first-class theorist, and his views have influenced the study of art history right up to the present day.
     Maybe none of these people sound much like what we 21st-century folks tend to think of as critics, but the world has changed a lot since then, and the profession of criticism has changed along with it.  It's been a 500-year-long road, but trust me - it leads directly to Yelp.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


     Come on, admit it.  You've been waiting for the post about 16th century porn, haven't you?  Well, my friend, your wait is now over.
     It all started in 1521 with the death of Pope Leo X and the elaborate process of electing his successor.  People of influence set to work pushing their own favorite candidates, and satirists had a field day with the corrupt nature of the process - and of the candidates.  One such satirist, Pietro Aretino, wrote charming verses like:

          If Filisco [becomes] Pope, he'll go for a whole year without suing anyone.
          [If] Mantua's Pope, he'll try to avoid [touching] small boys.
          Ponzetta will spend all the money in lavish parties,
          And Grassi will have to desert his [illicit] wife, poor dear.
          Valle will have to give up his brats, Cesarini his whores,
           And Trani [will give up] his poor ma, who loves him so.

And Aretino would sign them with his real name, too, because what could possibly go wrong? 

Portrait of Aretino by Titian
But when the lucky winner of the papacy contest turned out to be Adrian VI, who had a reputation for extreme sternness, Aretino prudently decided to leave Rome and go live in the countryside for awhile.  Adrian died a year later, and apparently Aretino, thinking the coast was clear, returned to Rome and to his old tricks of publicly mocking the rich and powerful.  Probably to his delight, he managed to deeply offend Giovanmatteo Gilberti, a high official of Clement VII, the next Pope after Adrian.  Gilberti threatened that if Aretino didn't stop his hijinks, Gilberti would "find a way to cut his tongue from his loud mouth."  Naturally, this only encouraged Aretino to take it to the next level.
     That same summer, an opportunity fell into his lap.  An artist named Giulio Romano, during his breaks from painting saints in the Vatican, dashed off sixteen very explicit sketches of people having sex. 


     Marcantonio Raimondi of Bologna came across the sketches and made Romano a business proposition:  Raimondi would make copper engravings of Romano's drawings, print and sell a few hundred copies, and split the profits with Romano.  This plan worked out great for both of them until Raimondi got a little too careless about keeping their enterprise semi-private, and he ended up arrested and imprisoned.  But wouldn't you know it?  Raimondi happened to be friends with Bad Boy Aretino, who had a lot of important connections (high-ranking people often figured it was safer to be his friend than his enemy) and managed to get Raimondi released.  The grateful Raimondi then showed Aretino the engravings, thus providing him with just the kind of inspiration Aretino was seeking.

          I was inspired by the same spirit that had caused Romano to paint them...
          and I amused myself by writing sixteen [corresponding] sonnets. I
          dedicate these to all hypocrites, for I am all out of patience with their
          scurvy strictures and their villainous judgment and that dirty custom
          that forbids the eyes to see what most delights them. What harm is
          there to see a man possess a woman? Are the beasts freer than we?

     Aretino's sonnets - which he called his Sonetti Lussuriosi (Lust Songs), were written in the form of extremely graphic dialogues between a prostitute and her client.  Then, worried that he had perhaps not been offensive enough, Aretino thoughtfully assigned the names of political figures (including, of course, Gilberti) to some of the men, and of notable women to some of the prostitutes.  With the publication of this illustrated work, Aretino achieved the distinction of being called the father of "literate pornography" in Europe.
     A copy of the engravings with their attached sonnets somehow found its way into Gilberti's hands (imagine that!) and he ordered Aretino's arrest, but once again Aretino had slipped away.  He next turned up in Mantua, from whence he continued to write and publish scandalous works about Gilberti, who could not retaliate directly because evidently Mantua was outside of his jurisdiction.  But one day in July of 1525, in the early morning hours as Aretino was riding home from a night of drinking and partying, a masked man on foot approached, seized the horse's reins, and stabbed Aretino twice in the chest with a dagger.  Aretino was not expected to survive this assault - but he did, and made a full recovery, which allowed him to continue with his career as a professional troublemaker.
     In 1527 Aretino settled permanently in Venice - the "seat of all vices," as he gleefully boasted - and developed a new side-career as a blackmailer.  He was well known as a gay man (no sham marriages for him), and sometimes closeted gay men visiting Venice would seek him out as a guide to the underside of the city.  Aretino would happily oblige, and then threaten to expose his clients' secrets if they didn't pay up.  For Aretino, it was an easy way to supplement his income.  He himself lived without fear of prosecution: everyone had secrets, and he made it his business to know them all.  It was quite obvious that he would be more than happy to ruin the career of anyone who tried to mess with him, and as a result, after Gilberti, no one ever did.
     But Aretino also wrote things that were maybe R-rated, or maybe occasionally even PG: six plays (five comedies and one drama),  six published volumes of letters, and many vicious satirical attacks on powerful people he didn't like.  He also wrote books: Ragionamenti  ("Discussions") (1534-36), written in the form of a dialogue between an older and a younger prostitute, and I Dialoghi  ("Dialogues"), another very frank conversation between two prostitutes about the three roles available to women - wife, whore and nun - and the pluses and minuses of each.
     Aretino lived exactly the way he wanted to live into his mid-sixties, utterly unrepentant, and is said to have died of suffocation from laughing too much.  Here he is in his later life - rich, famous, and wearing a ginormous gold chain given to him by a king:


Wednesday, April 27, 2016


     As you might imagine, the 16th century was a wiki-less world.  Is that any wonder?  There were only two ways to gain knowledge: find something out through your own experience, or read about it in a book.  The limits of both of these methods should be fairly obvious.  Knowing everything was simply beyond human capacity.
     And yet, working alone against insurmountable odds, one person devoted his life to trying.  And here is where I shamelessly plagiarize myself by copying one of my posts from last year's A to Z Challenge.  It's cheating, I know, but Konrad Gesner's scholarly ambitions and accomplishments were so extraordinary that I don't feel the least bit guilty about shining a light on him once again.

                                                                  (1516 - 1565)

     Honestly, I'm not at all sure how to categorize Gesner.  Some of the people I've been posting about make it easy: painter, midwife, astronomer.  Gesner is not one of those people.  He's often referred to as a naturalist, but if I had to categorize him, it might actually be as a categorizer!  Essentially, he created exhaustive databases compiled through laborious research, which he conducted both hands-on and through information received from his huge number of correspondents located around the world.  Had he lived in our century, he would have invented the first Internet search engine.  Living as he did in the 16th century, he did the very best he could with the tools available to him, and his very best was nothing short of astounding.
     For a thumbnail sketch of this man, I couldn't hope to do better than Daniel Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress and ongoing Knower of Everything, so I'm just going to quote this paragraph from p. 427 of his book, THE DISCOVERERS:

          These opportunities (voyages to the New World) inspired a new generation
           of encyclopedists of nature. The most remarkable of them, Konrad Gesner,
           had a genius for grafting the new onto the old. Prodigiously learned in
           several languages, Gesner was torn between what he had read and what he
           saw. He was born into a poor Zurich family in 1516, educated himself as
           a vagrant scholar, and, when he was only twenty, wrote a Greek-Latin
           dictionary. In the next thirty years he turned out seventy volumes on
           every conceivable subject. His monumental Bibliotheca Universalis (4
           vols., 1545-1555) aimed to provide a catalogue of all writings that had
           ever existed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Gesner listed eighteen hundred
           authors and titles of their works in manuscript and in print, with summaries
           of their content. Thus he earned his title as the Father of Bibliography.
           What cartography was to explorers on land and sea, bibliography would
           be to libraries.

     If by any chance your mind is not yet blown, I'll now go on to tell you about his five-volume Historia Animalium, which, in Boorstin's words, "supplied everything known, speculated, imagined, or reported about all known animals."  Gesner divided the animal kingdom into quadrupeds, amphibians, birds, fishes and snakes.  Because he was being as inclusive as he could with this catalogue, it featured some animals with which you or I might not be particularly familiar:

     But truly - the last thing I want to do is mock Gesner.  If he didn't know for a fact that a particular creature didn't exist, he included it just in case it did.  (Fun fact: the Historia Amimalium  made it onto the Church's list of Banned Books.  Was it, perhaps, because he included mermaids, unicorns and basilisks?  Nah.  It was because he was Protestant!)   Gesner's approach to every academic subject was far beyond thorough.  Which reminds me - Did I mention that he was primarily a botanist?  And, oh yeah - also a physician.  And a mountain climber.  If he wasn't the guy for whom the term "Renaissance man" was coined, he gets my vote for the title.
     Gesner's education wasn't quite as haphazard as Boorstin suggests; his intelligence was so apparent to all his teachers that at an early age he acquired some important sponsors who supported him financially and put him through top universities.  At the age of 21 Gesner became a professor of Greek at the Academy of Lausanne.  The steady income enabled him to devote time to studying botany.  After teaching at Lausanne for three years, he left to attend medical school at the world-renowned University of Montpelier in France.  He received his degree in 1541, when he was 25, and relocated to Zurich to practice medicine and to teach physics at the Collegium Carolinum, the precursor to the University of Zurich.  In 1554 he became the city physician, and he remained in Zurich for the rest of his life.  It was during this settled period that he began his writings in earnest. 
     In addition to his other interests, he was also a linguist, and in 1555 published a book describing about 130 known languages.  He was always collecting samples of plants and having his farflung friends send him even more samples.  Although only two of his botanical books were published during his lifetime, his extensive notes and woodcuts of plants were circulated and used by other authors for hundreds of years.
     Gesner climbed mountains not only to collect botanical samples, but also for the sheer joy of it.  He wrote a letter to a friend in 1541 declaring his intention to climb at least one mountain every year for the rest of his life.  He authored what might well be the first written account of climbing.
     When he was only 49, Gesner contracted the plague.  Legend has it that when he knew he was about to die, he asked to be brought to his library where he could be surrounded by his beloved books.  At his death, he left behind 18 unpublished manuscripts in addition to the veritable mountain of his published works.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


     Look, obviously there were no computer-generated role-playing video games in the 16th century.  Give me a break!  But I contend that a kind of antecedent did exist back then.  In modern role-playing video games, the player takes on the stylized persona of someone else - an avatar - and in that role, s/he has to improvise his/her way through an experience.  I don't think it's too much of a stretch to trace such games back to the commedia dell'arte tradition which sprang to vibrant life in Italy during the 16th century.

       Commedia performances essentially were a form of improvisational street theater.  Individual street performers banded together to form traveling  troupes, and the players developed their own chosen roles.  The first record of a commedia troupe dates to 1545.  The most famous early troupe, the Gelosi, was founded by a husband-and-wife team and performed from 1568 to 1604.  Over time, universal stock characters were created: vecchi (old men/masters), a category which included Il Capitano, a bullying braggart in military uniform who is always revealed to be a secret coward; innamorati (young lovers), who must overcome obstacles thrown at them by the vecchi;  and zanni (eccentric servants/ clowns, including Pierrot and Harlequin.  This is the origin of the English word zany). 

Renoir's "White Pierrot"
     The actors who played the zanni were often acrobats, singers or musicians, and during intermissions would present their own performances, called lazzi, that entertained the audience but had nothing to do with the main event (basically, half-time shows).  Audiences could identify the characters by the distinct costumes and masks each wore.  The lovers were the good guys, the characters the audiences rooted for; the authority figures were the bad guys, the funsuckers, and they were the ones the audiences loved to hate.  Plots were minimal and generic.  The most common were rom-coms, in which the lovers had to outwit the scheming vecchi  with the help of the silly but loyal servants.  Other common plots involved adultery, jealousy between husbands and wives, or the outwitting of a buffoonish character by his cleverer servant.  The acting style was exaggerated, over-the-top.  There was usually a happy ending.  In short, everything was about as far removed from classical drama as it could possibly be, and audiences just ate it all up (and still do.  Where would Jennifer Aniston's career be without it?).
     Although the basic parameters of character and plot were preplanned, all of the dialogue and some of the stage business would be improvised, which allowed talented actors to adapt their schtick to suit the preferences of particular audiences and to add topical humor to the mix.  Just as in modern-day improv, the players had to be witty, flexible and creative.  In short, the phenomenon of commedia dell'arte (literally, "comedy of professional artists") introduced the concept of professional actors to Italy, and from there, to the rest of Europe.

Watteau, "Italian Comedians"
     Commedia dell'arte became wildly popular in Italy during the sixteenth century, and its fame spread to France, England, Spain and Bavaria.  By the end of the seventeenth century, though, the art form came to lose much of its charm and spontaneity, and died out soon afterward.  But its influence is still apparent in puppet shows, mime and slapstick.
     And video games.  Stay with me now.  Role-playing: check.  Stylized characters: check.  Clearly identified good and bad guys: check.  Need to improvise:  check.  In my opinion, all fans of role-playing games owe a debt of gratitude to these 16th-century innovators.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


     Tinder: a system for judging a potential partner solely by his/her physical appearance.  I've never participated in it myself, but from what I hear, sometimes it works and sometimes it really, really doesn't.  For a 16th century example of the latter, I give you the story of King Henry VIII's blink-and-you-missed-it marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (whom I briefly mentioned in my B is for Bathrooms post - sorry, Anne.  I'm glad you never knew that history would remember you chiefly for your body odor).
     Unlike any of Henry's previous or subsequent wives, Anne didn't live in England, but in her native Germany, when he was considering her as a prospect.  In order to determine whether he would be attracted to her (or to her sister, another prospect), Henry sent Hans Holbein the Younger, the highly regarded portrait painter, to travel to the Duchy of Cleves, paint both of the women's portraits, and return to England so that Henry could decide if either of the sisters met his standards.  Here's the portrait of Anne which Holbein presented to the king:

     Despite the weird lifelessness of the painting, Henry apparently found Anne acceptable, and the marriage negotiations went forward.  At the urging of Thomas Cromwell, who thought the match would create a good strategic alliance, a marriage treaty was signed in October 1539.
     When Anne herself arrived in England in January of 1540, however, Henry was considerably less pleased with the real-life version than he had been with the portrait, and famously described her as a "fat Flanders mare."  (I believe the word we're looking for here is "gallant.")  After her formal reception, he was heard to gripe, "She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported."  But by then the marriage was a done deal; Henry couldn't back out without infuriating Germany.
     The wedding took place on January 6th.  The next day, Henry reported to Cromwell that they hadn't had sex, because "I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse."  His publicly-voiced objections included both her body odor and her sagging breasts.  Things between them did not improve, and on June 24th Anne was commanded to leave the court.  Soon after that she was asked to consent to an annulment, and she agreed.  The marriage was annulled on July 9th, just six months after it had begun.
     On July 28th, two important events occurred: Henry married Wife #5,  Catherine Howard (this one didn't end well either - for the wife, that is), and Thomas Cromwell, who had engineered the marriage to Anne, was executed for treason - because how could he not have known that Henry wouldn't want to sleep with her?
     Fortunately for Anne, Henry chose Cromwell, not her, as a scapegoat for his "need" to seek an annulment.  She made a smart move when she took the deal.  Henry provided her with a generous settlement, including several royal palaces, and until his death he treated her as an honorary member of the royal family, referred to as "the King's beloved sister."  She was often invited to court to play cards, a favorite pastime of hers.  Apparently either someone had told her about the 16th-century equivalent of deodorant, or Henry wasn't bothered by the way she smelled from across a card table.  And she certainly dressed well.

     I find it satisfying that Anne had the last laugh.  She outlived both Henry and his sickly son and heir Edward, who in 1547 became regent at age 9 after Henry's death and died himself at the age of 15.  When Mary then took over the throne, Anne participated in her coronation ceremony. 
     Anne never returned to Germany.  Her remaining life wasn't long - she died, probably of cancer, shortly before turning 42 - but it was comfortable and peaceful, and it seems fair to assume that it would have been a whole lot shorter if she hadn't gone along with the annulment.  She was the last of Henry's six wives to die, and the only one to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

     That epitaph raises an interesting question: if the marriage was annulled, doesn't that mean that - retroactively speaking - she was never Queen of England in the first place?  Not that I begrudge her anything, in her life or her death.  If you ask me, she deserved a medal for putting up with Henry's insufferable crap.
     Please note: none of this happy-ending stuff should be interpreted as an endorsement of Tinder.  Play at your own risk.

Friday, April 22, 2016


     Who needs comedy clubs when you can have your own personal jester(s) on call 24/7?  If the jester is a member of your household, you don't ever have to worry about the show being sold out before you've had a chance to score tickets. 

     The jester could have many talents - singing, dancing, juggling, acrobatics, magic tricks - but primarily, his job  was to make people laugh, with his jokes or with his physical comedy or both.  Not only royals, but also wealthy aristocrats, kept jesters as household members.  Recruitment was apparently a pretty casual process, as shown in this 1662 account of the recruitment of a man named Tarlton to be a jester for Queen Elizabeth I:

          Here he was in the field, keeping his father's swine, when a servant of
          Robert Earl of Leicester... was so highly pleased with his happy/
          unhappy answers, that he brought him to Court, where he became
          the most famous jester to Queen Elizabeth.

     To quote from Beatrice K. Otto's FOOLS ARE EVERYWHERE: THE COURT JESTER AROUND THE WORLD (University of Chicago Press, 2001), an online excerpt of which has provided me with much of the information I share in this post:

                        An individual court jester in Europe could emerge from a
                        wide range of backgrounds; an erudite but nonconformist
                        university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for
                        nun frolics, a jongleur [juggler] with exceptional verbal
                        or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village
                        blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman.
                        Just as a modern-day television stand-up comedian might
                        begin his career on the pub and club circuit, so a would-be
                         jester could make it big time in court if he was lucky
                         enough to be spotted.

     Some jesters were witty and well-educated.  Some were just naturally funny people, the smartasses of their era.  Unfortunately, others were chosen from among the ranks of the physically or mentally handicapped.  Dwarves abounded in the profession..  

      There were also a fair share of "naturals," people with intellectual limitations who were, on the one hand, mocked and infantilized, but on the other hand, were treated with a measure of awe because they were thought to be divinely inspired.
     Otto contends that "the court jester is a universal phenomenon," and cites to historical records from China, India, Japan, Russia and Africa.   But fortunately for 16th-century European jesters, the long tradition of their profession was given a boost by the 1511 publication of a short book by the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus called IN PRAISE OF FOLLY:

                         We have all seen how an appropriate and well-timed joke
                          can sometimes influence even grim tyrants... The most
                          violent tyrants put up with their clowns and fools, though
                          these often made them the butt of open insults.

     According to Otto, "the fortunes of the European court jesters rose and fell with the tsunami-scale wave of medieval and Renaissance fool mania that engulfed the continent."  Thanks to Erasmus, folly became a hot topic in Europe, and professional "fools" became hugely popular for their illustration of the concept as well as for their entertainment value.

traditional jester's hat sporting three points, each ending in a jingle bell

older-style jester's costume, featuring hat with ass's ears
     But there was a second aspect of jesterdom that Otto says was also universal: "jesters everywhere were allowed and encouraged to offer counsel and to influence the whims and policies of kings."  Instead of being expected to fawn over and flatter their masters like everyone else, jesters were given unique liberty to speak their minds and to offer criticisms that might have gotten anyone else thrown into a dungeon, as the above quote from Erasmus demonstrates.  This situation led to the paradox of the "wise fool," a societal outcast who sees and says things more clearly and truthfully than anyone else.  A prime example is the Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear, who repeatedly (and with impunity) chastised the old king for his poor judgment and egotistical shortsightedness.  On the other hand, once Lear was dethroned by his conniving daughters and had become a demented, friendless, homeless old man, the Fool was the only person who loyally stayed by his side in his wanderings.

     In short, a jester's master might have had the jester at his beck and call, but in exchange, he would have to put up with whatever verbal abuse the jester felt like dishing out.  So it really was like stand-up comedy in a way; the Fool would get heckled, but he would heckle the audience right back.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


      The sixteenth century was the dividing line between the Dark Ages - haunted by the Black Plague, governed by superstition - and the Renaissance, when the world was reborn at what must have felt like lightning speed.  Science began to replace myth; the advent of printing spread new knowledge around the globe; the Protestant Reformation loosened the Catholic Church's iron grip on European society.  But transportation of people and goods remained virtually unchanged.  Horses, mules and ships provided the only ways to get from one place to another without having to walk.  Both land and sea routes were fraught with danger from thieves and pirates, who flourished pretty much unchallenged by law enforcement, and sea routes were also beset by storms, rocks, and other natural causes of shipwreck.  In short, things were a mess.
     Enter Francesco de Tasso of Lombardy (1459-1517), also known in Germany as Franz von Taxis and in France as Francois de Tassis.

     Members of the de Tasso family had been operating courier services in some of the Italian city-states since the very end of the 13th century, but things didn't really take off until 1490, when the German king (later Emperor) Maximilian commissioned Francesco, along with his brother and his nephew, to build postal and courier lines throughout the Holy Roman Empire.  They responded by setting up the first relay-style postal system (think Pony Express) with stations along the route for the couriers to change horses.  By 1505, de Tasso's system was operating in France and Spain as well.  He obtained a monopoly on carrying both government and private mail, thus creating the very first mail service to which the public could have access for a fee.  De Tasso employed as many of his own relatives as he could, and apparently they shared his work ethic, because the business flourished and was constantly expanding into new locations.  In 1512, Maximilian, now an emperor, granted the family a patent of nobility (hence the name VON Taxis).  They acquired a fancy coat of arms:

     Franz died in 1517, but as international trade increased throughout the 16th century, a dependable postal service became even more indispensable in almost every aspect of life.  Well into the 19th century branches of the von Taxis family continued to run both national and local postal services in Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Belgium and the Netherlands, eventually employing up to 20,000 messengers at a time.

     The family also became incredibly wealthy along the way, as you might be able to tell from some glimpses of their humble homestead.

     No, these aren't photos of Buckingham Palace, although you could be forgiven for thinking so.  Not too shabby for a family of mailmen, am I right?

     And as to the Uber reference in my post title: the de Tasso/von Taxis family never did get involved in transporting passengers from place to place, but did you ever wonder where the word "taxi" came from?   Well, wonder no more!


     This is going to be different from my other A to Z posts.  While all the other ones are designed to illustrate that there is nothing new under the sun, this post is going to be about an area in which significant progress HAS been made - not so much because we're so awesome, but because 16th century conditions were so horrifying.
       Throughout history, some cultures have tolerated (or even endorsed) homosexuality to varying degrees, but Judeo-Christian culture has never been one of them.   Both the Old and New Testaments strongly condemn homosexual practice, and those proscriptions were taken seriously throughout Europe.  Thomas Aquinas, who lived during the 13th century, ranked sodomy as second only to murder among all sins.  But as a practical matter, during the Middle Ages the general policy was often "don't ask, don't tell."  There were no police forces, after all, and presumably not many cities wanted to waste their scarce judicial resources on victimless crimes.
     All of that changed dramatically during the Renaissance.  Ironically, the historical period famous for major artistic, intellectual and scientific advances was also the period when most of Europe, led largely by the Catholic Church, enacted brutal crackdowns on gay people.  Part of the hysteria seems to have stemmed from the fact that the practice of sodomy was widely believed to contribute to the spread of both the Black Plague and syphilis.  In short, if there was a queer culture in 16th century Europe, it had to remain deeply hidden, or its members would risk being executed.

Execution of homosexual monks in Ghent

     In Spain and all its colonies, the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, and it was not formally abolished until 1834.  At least 500 people were prosecuted as sodomites (a term often used interchangeably with homosexuals, although it also had broader meanings) in Spain during the Inquisition, and the first sentence of burning (to death) was carried out in 1572.  Everything is relative; it's been noted that the Inquisition executed relatively few consenting adults for sodomy, focusing instead on rapists and child abusers.  In 1532, the Holy Roman Empire enacted a law making sodomy punishable by death.   In France, first-time offenders were castrated; second-time offenders were punished by some form of dismemberment; third-time offenders were burned.  Lesbians received punishments of similar severity.

     In 1533, Henry VIII of England and his pal Thomas Cromwell passed the Buggery (a.k.a. sodomy) Act,  which provided that all acts of male-male sexuality were punishable by hanging, followed by confiscation by the government of all one's property.  Even priests, monks and nuns, who could not be prosecuted for murder, could be convicted and hanged as sodomites.  Conveniently enough for the King, this would lead to the confiscation of monastery lands.  Perhaps this was why the Catholic Queen Mary abolished the Act when she assumed the throne in 1553, and why her younger sister, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, reinstated it when she succeeded Mary ten years later.
     The city of Florence was well-known in the 15th century as one place that did have a fairly open and widespread homosexual culture.  In 1432 the city established a troop of Officers of the Night, whose job it was to root out sodomy.  From then until 1502, more than 17,000 men were charged with sodomy in Florence, and 3,000 were convicted.
     Michelangelo, arguably the greatest artist of the Renaissance, was widely believed by his contemporaries to be homosexual.  The debate as to whether or not he actually was still rages, but the fact is that he was never prosecuted for sodomy (unlike Leonardo DaVinci, who actually seems to have been asexual, but was charged - probably falsely - with sodomy by a rival painter and was jailed for a few weeks).  But then again, Michelangelo was Michelangelo.  His genius was undisputed, and it's reasonable to believe that he was considered above the law.

Michelangelo drawing
     The persecution of homosexuals gradually became somewhat less intense during the 17th and 18th centuries, but once again, everything is relative.  The first western European country to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults was revolutionary France, in 1791.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


     16th century Europe didn't have rock stars, movie stars, or star athletes.  On the other hand, they had all of the above rolled into one: royals.  People gathered in droves when they heard that kings and queens would be on public display.

     In July of 1574, Henri III, the new successor to the French throne, was on his way with an enormous entourage from Poland, where he had been living in exile, to Paris, to claim his kingdom.  He decided to stop in Venice along the way.  Venice was a proud republic, and had been so for many years, but that didn't mean that its citizens weren't as gaga over royalty as anyone else, if not even more so. 

     The first (unpublished, of course) book I ever wrote was a middle-grade novel set in the year 1574 in Murano, a tiny island off the coast of Venice that was the traditional home of the city's glassblowers.  Because this A to Z post is the only way any of GLASS ISLAND will ever see the light of day (see title of blog above), I'm going to offer an excerpt of the scene in which I describe (based on research into contemporary accounts) the crowd of spectators gathered near the water in Murano to watch Henri's arrival in Venice, as seen from the viewpoint of young Tommaso, the main character.

On the evening of July 16th, more than thirty thousand people, all mad with excitement, stood jostling and pushing at the Murano pier. Tommaso's family had been stationed there since midafternoon.  Papa, Uncle Luigi, Marco and Tommaso all stood, legs braced, arms around each other's shoulders, creating a small semicircle of space into which Mama, Aunt Rosanna, and the younger children were all packed. The boys were under strict orders not to move, no matter what happened. But Marco, who was still not speaking to Tommaso, found many opportunities to pinch and shove him when the adults weren't looking. 
As the sun began to drop into the sea, the woman standing directly behind Marco suddenly stopped scolding her children, gave a gasp and fainted in the heat, almost knocking Marco over, but he stood his ground like a soldier. 
A gondola carrying a group of Turkish merchants drew up at the waterside. Their appearance drew angry mutterings from the crowd. One red-faced man, who had been drinking wine at least since Tommaso had been there, refused to move over to make room for them. "You don't belong in Venice!" he shouted, shoving aside a portly Turk with a long gray beard."Walking around as free as the rest of us, and you're probably all spies for your heathen government! Go back to your own filthy country!"
A shriveled little man with no teeth took up the chant.  "They ought to be kept in pens if they have to be here. Gathered up in one place so they can't do no harm to the rest of us." 
Fortunately, the Turks either didn't understand Venetian dialect, or were wise enough to pretend that they didn't. They squeezed themselves humbly into the smallest possible space, and silently waited for the King. Since the red-faced man and his toothless friend couldn't draw any response from them, they soon gave up and sank back into a bleary-eyed silence.

Just as twilight turned to dark, a new commotion began less than ten yards from where Tommaso and his family stood. 
"Move over, swine!" 
"I was here first, son of a dog!" 
"Aargh!  You spit on me!"
"I didn't!"
"Liar!  Here's what I have for you!"
Screams and shouts filled the air. Tommaso couldn't see what was going on, but he could hear excited voices. "My God! He's got a knife!" "Stop him!" "He's bleeding!" "Give him room! Room!  The man's been stabbed!"
All was unimaginable chaos. Eventually, the man with the knife was wrestled to the ground, and the injured man, moaning in pain, was lifted over the heads of the crowd and carried off into the nearest house to have his wounds bandaged. To Tommaso's great relief, word came back that he would live.

An hour after the torches were lit, the King finally did arrive, accompanied by a

fleet of more than two thousand gondolas. The mass hysteria reached new heights,

but none of the people crammed together at the dock actually got to see him.

Surrounded by hundreds of his entourage, including armed guards, Henry was rushed

under a canopy through the crowds to the palace of Bartolomeo Capello, where he

was to spend the next two nights.  The disappointed mob seemed almost ready to

storm the palace walls.

Henri III arrives in Venice
     Of course, everywhere the royals went in Europe, people lined up along the roads to watch them pass by, but for most of them the sight of a royal entourage was at least an occasional occurrence.  For the Venetians, who had no royalty of their own (they always had a doge, a chief magistrate, who made very fancy public appearances from time to time, but he was just a well-connected Venetian politician so it wasn't quite the same), that July day in 1574 was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Monday, April 18, 2016


to bring you this important photo of Leo, my newest family member!

     Leo is an approximately 7-year-old cockapoo who was found so neglected, his coat so hopelessly matted, that the shelter had to shave him down to the skin.  His hair is still growing back, as you can see, and he still needs to put on some weight, but what a handsome little boy he'll be!  He and Finney (partially seen to the right) got along just fine during our meet-and-greet, after an initial warning growl or two.  Leo is friendly, gentle and affectionate, and his temperament will remind us every day of our beloved Murphy, whom we lost to cancer in February.
     Leo isn't home with us yet because we're going to Washington next weekend to visit our adult son, but we're picking up our new baby on our way back on Sunday.  And now we know what to do when he arrives home, thanks to the video posted on Saturday by Giulie Castillo, fellow A to Z blogger and dog rescuer extraordinaire, at Life in Dogs!  Thanks, Giulie!  Thanks, Animal Alliance of Lambertville, New Jersey!  And thanks to whatever higher powers have brought little Leo into our lives!


     In age-old European tradition, jails were used as holding facilities for people charged with crimes but not yet sentenced.  That's still how jails are used in the 21st century, although now prisoners are segregated by gender and by an age of majority.  Back then, everyone was just jammed together in one disgusting common area.  But nowadays, there are also prisons - places to which people get sentenced as punishment for their crimes.   Before the 16th century, that concept didn't exist.  Punishment for petty crimes usually consisted of some form of humiliation, like public flogging or being exhibited in the stocks (also called the pillory).

     For more serious crimes, the punishment was usually execution in one grisly form or another.   I won't go into detail about these methods because some people might inexplicably find it unpleasant to read about, but if you do have a perfectly understandable curiosity about practices such as drawing and quartering, you can just look it all up yourself.  Sorry, but I'm here to talk about prisons.
     In the 15th and 16th centuries, crime rates soared throughout Europe as populations increased, economies suffered, and rural residents fled to the cities to try to make a living.  If they couldn't succeed there in feeding themselves and their families by legal means, many turned to illegal ones.   The traditional penal systems started becoming unmanageable, and it was apparent that something was going to have to change.
     That change started in London in 1553.  In that year, Bridewell Palace, originally built for King Henry VIII in 1515, was donated by Edward VI to the city, which revamped it into a prison facility for petty criminals.  That category included "vagrants," i.e., homeless people.  Instead of being subjected to brief public humiliation, the prisoners - all of them poor - would instead be both punished and (so it was thought) reformed through a period of enforced hard work, for which they would be paid a small wage.  More than half of the prisoners were also beaten.  And yes, the opening of Bridewell Prison was indeed considered a reform; after all, it gave the benevolent state the opportunity to help the poor to help themselves! 
     One actually beneficial innovation at Bridewell was providing services to homeless children.  Operating as the prison's charitable component, which was called a "hospital," Bridewell provided to its apprentices a rudimentary education and a course of training under masters in useful trades. 

     But of course, it was the "reformist" system of managing indigent populations through incarceration, and not necessarily the "hospital" idea, that soon spread throughout England and the rest of Europe, along with the name "Bridewells."  I'll put in my own two cents here by saying that the system still sounds shockingly familiar to me as a 21st-century American. 
     And then things got even worse in the prisons when the Black Plague swept through Europe in the mid-1500s.  Aware that the terrible sanitation conditions (see my B for Bathrooms post) and cramped living quarters conditions among the poorer classes quickened the spread of the outbreak,  the Powers that Be hit upon the novel idea of sending debtors to prison in vast numbers.  After all, the more poor people who were locked up, the fewer there were still out on the streets to spread disease, possibly even (OMG) to the upper classes.  In the prisons, the reasoning went, the only people they could infect was each other, so...  really, how much of a loss could that be?
     The Plague eventually died out, carrying with it about a third of Europe's population.  But the practice of debtors' prisons persisted into the 19th century, when it ensnared the father of the young Charles Dickens, among countless others.

"Debtors Prison," by William Hogarth

Saturday, April 16, 2016


     There was no shortage of fashionistas in the 16th century,

but cosmetic surgery was unheard of  - with one exception.  Physicians performed rhinoplasties - otherwise known as nose jobs - although I'm using that term in a misleading way.  We're talking about full nasal reconstruction procedures, not small tweaks.  Men of that era tended to have a nasty habit of lopping each others' noses off during duels and swordfights.  In fact, that's what happened to Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the renowned Danish astronomer, who lost most of his nose in a duel and for the rest of his life wore a metal (some say silver) prosthesis over it.  And diseases like cancerous tumors and syphilis did their fair share of nasal damage too.
     But the history of cutting off someone's nose to punish or humiliate them goes back much farther than the medieval era.  An article by plastic surgeon Larry Nichter, M.D., provides the following information:

     Examples abound in Asian and European literature. In the ninth
     century the Danes slit the noses of Irishmen who could not pay
     the annual levied tax of one ounce of gold. Sixtus Quintus of
     Rome (1521–1590) ordered nasal amputation of thieves and
     other rogues. In 1769–1770 Pritivi Narayan, the Ghoorka King
     of India, ordered the amputation of nose and lips of all 865 male
     inhabitants in the recently captured city of Kirtipoor, Nepal. Only
     musi­cians who played wind instruments were ex­cluded. Adding
     insult to injury, he changed the city’s name to Naskatapoor, which
     means “city without noses.”15 In recent times, too, the Da­coits of
     Northern India plundered a village and punished resistance by
     amputating the noses of their enemies.

Nichter also says that in India, mutilation of the nose was practiced "on women suspected of infidelity, on sexual offenders, and as a prime means of 'mortal revenge.'"  Because nasal mutilation was not uncommon in that country, it's thought that the practice of nasal reconstruction originated in India.  The first detailed description of nasal replacement is found in a classical Indian text written in about 600 B.C.  The method employed was removal of a flap of skin from the patient's cheek, attaching it to the bridge of the nose to maintain a blood supply, sewing it in place over the nose area, and binding it all together with bandages until healing was complete.  At some later point, the "Indian method" of nasal reconstruction came to involve the use of a flap of skin from the middle of the patient's forehead, rather than from his cheek.

     Gradually, Indian medical knowledge spread to the West.  In 15th-century Italy, the Branca family of Sicily - whose members were NOT physicians - developed a new and innovative technique for nasal reconstruction using a flap of tissue taken from the upper arm.  This knowledge was apparently transmitted to an Italian surgeon, Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545-1599), a professor at the University of Bologna, who went on to popularize the procedure as the "Italian method," and to discuss it in detail in his 1597 treatise, De Curlorum Chirurgia per Insitionem, the first text in any language to discuss plastic surgery exclusively.
     What made the Italian method unique was that it involved only partially removing the skin flap from the arm.  One end would remain attached so as to continue the blood flow, and the free end would be shaped into a nose and grafted onto the patient's face.  How?  Like this:

     The arm would be held immobilized in that position for weeks while the graft firmly attached itself, after which the flap would be cut from the arm and the new nose would be molded into shape.  The bottom line, I would say, was that nobody in his or her right mind would undergo this kind of torturous procedure just to remove a bump or two.  The intent was to give noses to the noseless.  In Tagliacozzi's words:

          We restore, rebuild, and make whole those parts which nature hath given, but
          which fortune has taken away. Not so much that it may delight the eye, but that
          it might buoy up the spirit, and help the mind of the afflicted.
     Healing the wounded body and the wounded spirit at the same time.  It sounds like good medicine to me.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


     I will grudgingly admit that you can't play laser tag without laser, and no, laser had not been discovered in the 16th century.  But there were games resembling tag, and one of them seems to have been popular among adults - the laser tag of its day, so to speak.
     There was a children's game called "hide-fox and all after" which is widely considered to have been identical with hide-and-seek.  There was also a rustic game, popular with all ages, known as "base," "prison base," or prison bars."  And here I will quote at length from an article describing various games which are mentioned in Shakespeare's plays:

The success of this pastime depended upon the agility of the candidates, and their skill in running. Early in the reign of Edward III ([which lasted from 1327-1377] it is spoken of as a childish amusement, and was prohibited to be played in the avenues of the palace at Westminster during the session of Parliament, because of the interruption it occasioned to the members and others in passing to and fro as their business required.  It was also played by men, and especially in Cheshire and other adjoining counties, where it seems to have been in high repute among all classes.  Strutt [Joseph Strutt, 18th-century antiquarian and historian] thus describes the game: "The performance of this pastime requires two parties of equal number, each of them having a base or home to them-selves, at the distance of about twenty or thirty yards.  The players then on either side, taking hold of hands, extend themselves in length, and opposite to each other, as far as they conveniently can, always remembering that one of them must touch the base.  When any one of them quits the hand of his fellow and runs into the field, which is called giving the chase, he is immediately followed by one of his opponents.  He is again followed by a second from the former side, and he by a second opponent, and so on alternately until as many are out as choose to run, every one pursuing the man he first followed, and no other; and if he overtake him near enough to touch him, his party claims one toward their game, and both return home.  They then run forth again and again in like manner until the number is completed that decides the victory.  This number is optional, and rarely exceeds twenty.

Got all that?  Sounds like some form of group partner-tag, with only one person that each pursuer can tag.  The game sounds okay, but what I really love about this quote is the mental image of kids (and possibly adults) running around like lunatics in the halls of Parliament, tripping everyone in their path.  Could this be the missing ingredient that might actually make the U.S. Congress functional?  

p.s.  Both of these illustrations come from paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, about whom you read in my "I" post.  But if you didn't read my I post yet, it's not too late!