09 30 massive gunsToday is the birthday of Alfred Daniel Wintle, who was born Mariopoul, South Russia in 1897. He was the son of an English diplomat and a soldier during the First and Second World Wars. Normally that wouldn’t be the sort of thing that interested me but Wintle was an eccentric. I couldn’t find a picture of him that I can use, so here are some massive guns instead.

In 1915 he spent four months training at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, came out as a commissioned officer and a week later found himself at the front. On his first night, a shell burst near him, blowing up his sergeant. They’d only just been introduced. Wintle overcame his fear as the bombardment continued by standing to attention and saluting. He must have found this helped because he later wrote: “Within thirty seconds I was able to become again an Englishman of action and to carry out calmly the duties I had been trained to perform”.

After many other lucky escapes and a lot of being an Englishman, he was wounded in 1917. He was helping to pull a massive gun-carriage through the mud and ran over a shell which exploded. He lost his left eye, a kneecap and several fingers. The sight in his right eye was also damaged and he wore a monocle for the rest of his life. He was sent back to England to convalesce by doctors who he referred to as ‘infernal quacks’. He wasn’t happy. He began to plan an escape from the hospital. Wintle managed to attended a dance disguised as a nurse and from there he made good his escape. Though apparently the monocle had been a bit of a giveaway. He returned to France with a warrant signed by a friend of his father’s. There in 1918, he took 35 prisoners all by himself and wound up winning the Military Cross.

Between the wars, he was pretty bored. Wintle said that his work was mostly: “remaining seated for long periods in the presence of writing materials.” his diary for June 19th 1919 reads: “Great War peace signed at last.” and for June 20th 1919: “I declare private war on Germany.”

At the outbreak of World War II he asked his superiors to send him to France. When they refused, he planned to resign his commission and gather his own private army to: “take the war to the Hun”. After France surrendered, he demanded an aircraft which he planned to use to rally the French Air Force and persuade them all to fly to Britain and carry on fighting from there. When he was refused he pulled a gun on an RAF officer and threatened to shoot him. For this he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was escorted there by train by a young soldier who lost his arrest warrant. Wintle declared the soldier incompetent and went to get a new arrest warrant. But there was no officer to sign it, so Wintle signed it himself.

He had a splendid time at the Tower, was visited by friends and one of the guardsmen was assigned as his servant. At his trial he not only admitted threatening to shoot the RAF officer, but also produced a list of other people he thought ought to be shot. One of them was the Secretary of State for War. You’d think that would have made things worse for him, but it didn’t. Someone must have approved of his list because he was let off with a formal reprimand.

Wintle was eventually sent to France where he was captured whilst disguised as a French schoolteacher. He was imprisoned for thirteen months. There, he informed his guards that it was his duty to attempt to escape. He almost made it when he lifted his cell door of it’s hinges and hid in a sentry box but he was recaptured within a week. After that he went on a two week hunger strike as a protest against the: “slovenly appearance of the guards who are not fit to guard an English officer!” They persuaded him to end his strike after thirteen days, but it was 7.30 in the evening and he told them he always dined at 7.00, so it was too late and they must wait until tomorrow. He eventually sawed through his prison bars, jumped into a passing dustcart and returned to Britain via Spain.

After the war he became famous for being one of the very few non-lawyers to win a court case in the House of Lords. It was over his Cousin’s will. She had died unexpectedly and suspiciously left a substantial part of her fortune a solicitor named Nye who wrote her will. His cousin, Kitty, was another unusual individual. She owned two houses and, whichever one she was staying in, she sent a letter every day to the other house, addressed to herself and containing tram tickets or passages copied from books. She then kept all the letters in bags under her bed. Kitty had never been certified insane but she was clearly a vulnerable individual who needed looking after. She was looked after pretty well by Wintle’s sister, and it was to her that Kitty had first left the bulk of her estate. Wintle suspected Nye of taking advantage of his cousin and pursued the case through several courts but kept losing. Eventually he tricked Nye into meeting him, forced him to remove his trousers, took two photographs of him, threw him out into the street and then called the police to tell them that there was a man in the street with no trousers on. Wintle received a six month sentence in Wormwood Scrubs, but it drew attention to the case and he was eventually able to take it to the House of Lords where he won his case, making one of the most famous amateur lawyers in all legal history. Nye was removed from the role of solicitors.


09 29 cervantesToday is the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, which is a remarkable piece of seventeenth century meta-fiction. He was born (probably) on this day in 1547 possibly in Alcalá de Henares, a little north east of Madrid. We can’t know for sure, it was a very long time ago. Nor do we know much about his early life. His family seem to have been fairly nomadic and he once fell in love with a barmaid who he was deemed not to be good enough for. At some point he left Spain and travelled to Italy, we don’t know why. Perhaps he was a student, perhaps he was on the run. In any case he steeped himself in the art and literature of the Italian Renaissance.

In 1570, he joined the Spanish navy and was involved in a battle in which he was shot three times, twice in the chest. As a result of his wounds, he lost the use of his left hand. In 1575 his ship was attacked by pirates, the captain was killed and he and other crew members were kidnapped and sold into slavery in Algiers. Cervantes was enslaved for five years and during that time he led four unsuccessful escape attempts. He was eventually freed and returned to Spain where he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada and later as a tax collector. During this time he was imprisoned at least twice for irregularities in his accounts. In 1584, at the age of 37, he married an eighteen year old called Catalina. It seems not to have been a particularly happy marriage. They didn’t spend much time together. But her uncle may have been the inspiration for the character of Don Quixote.

09 29 don quixoteStories of chivalry were quite popular in Spain in the early seventeenth century. Their themes of adventure and romance were large but didn’t really ever tell us what the people in the stories were really like. Cervantes wanted to write a his chivalric story in a contemporary setting with real people, not just idealised versions of a knight or a lady. What he did was shrink the whole world of medieval chivalry so that it fitted inside the head of a single mad man. His hero has become mad through reading too many stories about chivalry and imagines himself to be a knight errant. He declares a neighbouring farm girl to be his lady love and renames her Dulcinea del Toboso. She has no idea of this fact and never makes a personal appearance in the story. Don Quixote sets off on a series of adventures with his decrepit horse Rocinante and later his ‘squire’ Sancho Panza, a local farm labourer. He imagines himself to be battling all sorts of imaginary foes. What actually happens is that he leaves chaos, or at the very least, bemusement, in his wake and usually gets beaten up. A fact that he generally puts down to the fact that he was fighting an ‘enchanted Moor’. Cervantes presents his story as a retelling of a tale from a much earlier manuscript. He even breaks off half way through a battle to declare that the source of his stories end here. He then continues to describe how he came across a second manuscript at a market which was written in Arabic and which he has had translated. He continues his story, adding that if it is wrong we must blame the translator.

Don Quixote was published in 1605 and became very popular. it was quickly translated into several languages. In 1614 another author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, wrote a sequel to the novel. Cervantes was probably already working on his own sequel at the time, which was published the following year. In it he has Don Quixote meet with Avellaneda and is outraged because the spurious author has declared him to be no longer in love with Dulcinea. He also decides not to go to joust in Zaragosa because it was something that happened in Avellaneda’s novel. He also meets with one of Avellaneda’s characters and has him swear that they never met before.

Throughout the second part, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet with people who know who they are because they have all read Don Quixote part one. This makes them vulnerable and the other characters use what they know about the pair to play a series of tricks of them. Cervantes ends his second novel in a way that makes it absolutely clear that Don Quixote’s adventures are at an end and that any further published stories about him would be a lie.

These two massive novels are far from being the only things that Cervantes wrote. His first book, La Galatea, is a pastoral romance which is mentioned in Don Quixote as one of the books in his library. He also wrote several plays and a series of twelve novellas, some of which seem to draw on his own life experiences. There is one about a man who marries a woman much younger than himself. Worried he will lose her, he keeps her imprisoned in a house that has no windows facing the street. Despite his efforts, she meets a young man and one day he comes home to find his wife in the arms of her lover. Literary tradition at the time would demand the death of the adulterers, but her husband forgives them because he realizes that he was also at fault for trying to isolate her. He dies of grief.

In another story he has his hero travel all over Italy enjoying the art and culture as Cervantes himself had done. But then the young man is given a love potion which poisons him and afterwards he believes he is made of glass. We mentioned this story in an earlier post when we wrote about the glass delusion. The man in quite sane in all other respects but fear that he will break leads him to wrap himself in thick clothing and to travel in a pannier packed with straw. Rather in the same way that Don Quixote can appear perfectly sane – until anyone mentions chivalry.

Getting Away With Murder

Today’s post is about an unusual court case, and it starts with a murder that happened on this day in 1749 in Braemar, a remote area of Aberdeenshire. The victim was an English sergeant called Arthur Davis. This happened less than ten years after the Jacobite uprising. Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson to the deposed king, James II, had tried and failed to regain the throne from the Hanoverians for the Scottish royal house of Stuart. So it was understandable that a single English soldier, lost and separated from his regiment, might meet with some animosity from the highlanders.

No one knew what had become of Davis for almost five years, but in 1754, two men; Duncan Terig and Alexander Bain MacDonald were put on trial for his murder. It was known that Davis had on his person a fowling piece (a shotgun) and some rings which the two men were known to have among their possessions. It seemed that robbery was a likely motive for the murder.

But then the court heard evidence from Alexander MacPherson, a young farm labourer. MacPherson spoke no other language but Gaelic and needed an interpreter. His account of the murder had come from an unusual source, the ghost of the murdered man. He had been in bed in his cottage, when a figure appeared and asked MacPherson to follow him out of doors. Thinking it was his neighbour, a man named Farquharson, he did as he was asked. But once outside, the apparition explained that he was the ghost of Arthur Davis and asked him to go and find his mortal remains and bury them. He would find them, the ghost said, hidden in a place called the Hill of Christie, and he must take his friend Farquharson to help him.

The next day he had gone to investigate and found the bones of a human body with much of the flesh decayed, but he did not bury it. A few days later the ghost came to trouble him again. He was angry with MacPherson for breaking his promise. The witness asked the ghost who had killed him and he replied with the names of the prisoners at the bar. After that he had asked his friend to help him bury the body. When Farquharson was called to give evidence, he told the same story.

MacPherson’s story of the ghost was further corroborated by a woman called Isabel Machardie whose bed was in the same room. She had woken to see a naked figure come into the room. It had been stooped over and moved in such a frightening way that she had pulled the covers over her head. Unfortunately, even though there was other evidence against the accused, the appearance of a ghost in the testimonies cast an air of doubt over the proceedings. The defence questioned MacPherson on which language the ghost had used to communicate his information. He replied that he had spoken in perfect Gaelic. The council for the defence then pointed out that that was pretty good considering he was the ghost of an English sergeant. The jury found in favour of the defendants and they were set free.

It is possible that MacPherson was using the excuse of a ghost to impart information without seeming to personally incriminate his fellow countrymen. But that does not explain the corroborative evidence of Isabel Machardie, or the fact that the events referred to had happened three years before two men were formally accused in court.

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

09 27 santa by nastOn this day in 1937 Charles W Howard opened the world’s first Santa Claus training school in Albion, New York. We don’t have a picture of him, but this drawing of an archetypal Santa Claus was drawn by Thomas Nast, who was born on this day in 1840. Charles Howard was already famous for his appearances as Santa in department stores and parades. He first played the part in a school play when he was in the fourth grade. As an adult, he continued playing the part and his reputation grew until he was the most sought after Santa in the area and eventually, the whole of the United States.

Then, in 1937 a local journalist suggested that he should open a Santa Claus school so that he could pass on his methods and philosophies to others. At first he taught from his home, but in the late 1940s he built Christmas Park which had a classroom and dressing room where he could teach. He also had reindeer and a miniature train ride. Children could visit at any time of year, visit Santa and pet the reindeer. At it’s peak, the park welcomed around 80,000 visitors a year.

He taught people everything they needed to know about being a really good Santa. Howard thought Santa should be: “a man of dignity, a man of years and wisdom, a rugged outdoors man who dealt regularly with reindeer, multitudinous gifts and physical labours.” He taught his students child psychology and that they should be sure never to promise anything. If a child wanted an expensive gift then Santa would ‘see what he could do’. If a child who’s father was a soldier, fighting overseas and they just wanted him home for Christmas, then Santa must promise that he and Mrs Santa would pray for him. He taught them all the history of Saint Nicholas and the names of all the reindeer so that they could be prepared to answer any questions and also how to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in sign language. He made sure they knew a bit about all the popular toys that year. Santas took dance lessons so they knew how to appear light on their feet. They learned that their etiquette and personal hygiene must be impeccable. They also learned that the best Santa Claus beards were made from bleached Yak hair. Howard also ran a correspondence course for potential Santas. Among his students were James Cagney and Orson Welles.

Charles Howard was Santa in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from 1948 until he retired in 1965. He was also consultant on the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. After he retired his Santa Claus School passed into the hands of Nate and Mary Ida Doan and was re-located to Michigan. It now belongs to Tom Valent and is still going strong. It’s the oldest Santa Claus school in the world.

Not all Santas are such shining examples as graduates of Charles Howard’s Santa Claus School. In 2013, at a farmers market in Poland, a Santa and his helper were taken to hospital after a drunken fall from their sleigh. In 2004 in Wales a Santa charity run ended with a drunken brawl between thirty Santas. The battle was eventually broken up by police armed with batons and CS spray. In 1996 in Leicestershire, a taxi driver had a narrow escape when he picked up two passengers only to find that they were being pursued by 22 angry Santas who smashed the back window of his cab. Thinking about bad Santas has made me remember this, in which my friend Bob plays a very bad Santa indeed.

Flying Duchess

09 26 mary russellToday is the birthday of Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford. She was born Mary Du Caurroy Tribe in Stockbridge, Hampshire in 1865. She grew up in England but at sixteen moved to Lahore in India where her father was an Archdeacon. There she found life a lot more free than it had been in Victorian England. She could ride for miles across the Indian countryside and even sit astride the horse when no one was looking. Ladies were expected to sit side-saddle in England. She met and married Lord Herbrand Russell in 1888 in Barrackpore. Afterwards they moved to Scotland where their only child, a son named Hastings, was born.

There has been some speculation that Mary suffered from post-natal depression. No one knows for sure because she never wrote or talked about it, but her relationship with her son was very distant. Instead she threw herself into other activities. She climbed mountains, sailed to remote areas of Scotland, enjoyed skating, photography and painting. She also learned about mechanics and how to build radios.

In 1891 her husband inherited the title of Duke of Bedford after his brother died childless. They moved to Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. Her husband ran the estate on military lines and once again she found herself with nothing much to do. Mary was very interested in medicine and nursing, but had been unable to pursue either as a career as they weren’t suitable occupations for a lady. With her husband’s support she opened a cottage hospital in 1903. At the beginning of the First World War she had another hospital built in the Abbey grounds where wounded soldiers were treated. She employed a surgeon called Bridon Glendenning who encouraged her to study radiography and radiology. At the hospital, Mary didn’t expect any of her staff to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. She would be up at 5.45 every morning scrubbing floors and preparing the operating theatre. She became an excellent theatre nurse and even performed some minor operations.

Mary was also a member of the Women’s Freedom League, a militant suffrage movement who refused to pay their taxes or cooperate in the 1911 census. When she refused to pay her taxes in 1913 she had some of her property seized. She later pointed out in a newspaper article that the seizure had been illegal because, as a married woman, she wasn’t even liable for tax. She had allowed it to happen because she wanted to use the incompetence of the authorities to highlight the cause of women’s suffrage. As she said: “Obviously it is not my business to point out the law to those whose duty it should be to understand it.”

At the age of 61 she discovered the joys of aviation. It was a hobby she took up after finding that it helped with her tinnitus. Even though she was twice the age of most of the people flying at the time, she threw herself into her new hobby with enthusiasm. She employed a pilot, Lt Barnard, who appears to have shared her sense of adventure. In 1929 they flew 10,000 miles from Lympne airport in Kent to Karachi and back to Croydon airport in the record time of only eight days. The following year, they broke another record, flying the 9,000 miles to Cape Town and back. On these journeys they would have had to make frequent stops to refuel, often on runways made from sand. If anything went wrong with the plane, they would have to wait days for a new part to arrive. It could also be dangerous. On one occasion, they landed in the desert to find a couple of bullet holes in their plane. Unknown to them, someone had shot at them from the ground.

At the age of 71, she had 199 hours and 4 minutes of flying time under her belt. She wanted to renew her pilots licence and needed another 56 minutes to bring her up to 200 hours. In March 1937 she set out on a solo flight over Cambridgeshire. It was a clear day when she set off but the weather quickly changed for the worse. When, after an hour and a half, she hadn’t returned, her husband became concerned and called the police. A search was made, but neither she or her plane were ever seen again.

Man Who Knew Too Much

09 25 richard porsonToday I am celebrating the life of Richard Porson, an amazingly talented classical scholar and insatiable drinker. He was born in 1759 and died on this day in 1808. His last meal was wine, jelly and brandy.

As a child he was found to have the most amazing capacity for learning. For example he could work out the cube root of a number in his head when he was nine. Porson was educated first by a local clergyman then at Eton where he excelled in languages. He had a truly excellent memory. In one lesson he managed to give a very good translation of a passage by Horace, even though he had forgotten his text book and was looking instead at Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He wasn’t particularly keen on his school though. The thing he remembered most fondly was rat hunting in the Long Hall.

After Eton he went on to study classical literature at Trinity College, Cambridge where he attracted attention and praise for his work on the texts of Theocritus and Virgil. His first appointment post-university seems to have been as tutor to a young gentleman on the Isle of Wight. Porson was forced up give to his post though, after being found drunk in a turnip field.

He became well known for his work in Greek translation, particularly an edition of the plays of Euripides and in 1792 he was appointed Professor of Greek at Cambridge. It was not a well paid job, but oddly involved no obligation to lecture or even visit the university. He was also appointed Principal Librarian of the London Institution, but no one saw much of him there either.

His excellent memory was both a blessing and a curse. Once a friend asked him about the meaning of a particular Greek word in a work by Thucydides. When he mentioned the word, Porson repeated the relevant passage from memory. His friend was amazed and wanted to know how he guessed which part he was looking at. Porson replied that the word occurred only twice in the work, once on the left hand page, once on the right. He had seen which side of the page his friend was looking at and remembered and repeated the passage. An astounding feat, but he found himself unable to forget anything, not even the things he didn’t want to remember. Possibly that was why he took to drink, in the hope of forgetting.

Porson really took to drink in a big way. Lord Byron remembered him as being constantly inebriated. After attending a dinner party, he would go back into the dining room when everyone had finished eating, tip all the remaining dregs of alcohol into one glass and drink it. A friend remarked that he would rather drink ink than not drink at all. On one occasion, he was dining at the house of a friend who was ill in bed. When the friend’s servant was sent to fetch a bottle of embrocation that was on the mantelpiece, he was told by Porson.: “I drank it a hour ago.” On another, he went to dine with a Mr Hoppner, but when he arrived was told that Mrs Hoppner had gone out, taking with her the key to the wine cellar. He settled instead for sending out for beer from a local alehouse. Later in the evening though, he said he was quite sure that Mrs Hoppner must have a little something tucked away for her own private drinking, perhaps in her bedroom? Mr Hoppner was quite indignant and was sure that his wife had no such thing. But Porson was insistent, a search was made and a tiny bottle of liquid found. Porson drank it and declared it to be the best gin he had drunk in a long time. Hoppner was pretty upset and told his wife the next day how his friend had found her secret stash and drunk every drop. “Every drop?” she exclaimed “My God, it was spirits of wine for the lamp.” This probably says as much about the general quality of gin in eighteenth century London as it does about his drinking habits.

His friend, a Mr Maltby, described him as: “generally ill-dressed and dirty.” and looking as if he: “had been rolling in a kennel.” whereas in fact, he had just spent two days at a party. I think of him as being a bit like this. His drinking got gradually worse until in 1808 he was seized by an apoplectic fit and collapsed in the Strand. He couldn’t speak and no one knew who he was. He was taken to the workhouse and an advertisement was placed in the paper describing his clothes and the contents of his pockets: a gold watch and a note book, mostly full of Greek medical notes with some Latin and Algebra. A colleague recognised his description and came to fetch him back to the library where he worked. There he recovered a little over the next few days and was able to speak, though more easily in Greek than in English. His last visitor was a Doctor Clarke with whom he spoke about Greek literature and then ,even though he was barely able to walk, accompanied his friend to a nearby coffee house where he had a last meal of wine, jelly and warm brandy and died shortly after returning home.


09 24 horace walpoleToday is the birthday of Horace Walpole, son of the first British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. He was born in London in 1717. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he seems to have managed not to take a degree, then spent two years doing a Grand Tour in Europe. He later became MP for a constituency in Cornwall that he never visited and later of a Rotten Borough near Kings Lynn. None of these things are great, and they reek of over-privilege but there are two things he did that I want to tell you about.

Firstly, he built himself a splendid house called Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, which was then south west of the capital. It seems eighteenth century Twickenham was bit of a rural retreat for London’s wealthy and artistic people. I’m not entirely sure why as a quick look at the history of the area tells me that it was also home to factories that produced sulphuric acid and gunpowder. The house that he bought there was a relatively modest dwelling belonging to a coachman which was called Chopped Straw Hall. The name didn’t suit him at all and a search through the archive turned up an old lease which called his new acquisition Strawberry Hill Shot., much nicer. What he really liked about the original building was it’s asymmetry.

09 24 strawberry hillThe original house wasn’t nearly grand enough though, and he began to add to it. Strawberry Hill sprouted Tudor style chimneys, medieval battlements and pointed Gothic windows. It was an odd mix of architectural styles that would become known as Strawberry Hill Gothic which foreshadowed the Victorian Gothic Revival. Walpole loved Gothic architecture and he continued the theme in the interior of the house. There is a gallery with an amazingly ornate ceiling in white and gold inspired by the ceiling of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The shelves in the library are based on the an illustration of a doorway in Old St Paul’s Cathedral and there is a fireplace which was influenced by the tomb of Edward the Confessor. What Walpole was after was the ambience of an ancient building, something for which he coined the term ‘gloomth’.

Strawberry Hill is not at all the dark sort of place that we would associate with Gothic architecture today. The corridors were dark but the rooms they opened into were bright and jewel like with lots of stained glass. Nor was the exterior gloomy, it was painted a brilliant white, making it look like some sort of fantastic piece of confectionery. The gardens were cheerful too. No fake ruins, no hermitage for him. He thought it was: “…almost comic to set aside a quarter of one’s garden to be melancholy in.” He thought Gothic should be confined to architecture but gardens should be all about the gaiety of nature, something that he referred to as ‘raint’.

09 24 giant helmetWhile Walpole was building his house and being an MP he also found plenty of time for writing. His most famous novel is ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is cited as being the first Gothic novel. It begins with a forthcoming marriage but then the groom is killed when a giant helmet falls out of the sky and hits him. There’s a lot of intrigue, ghosts, unrequited love some tragic death and everyone lives miserably ever after. It would influence later writers such as Mary Shelley and ‘Bram Stoker.

Hidden In Runes

09 23 snorri sturlusonA couple of days ago, I wrote about the Hobbit and mentioned that Norse mythology was a huge source of inspiration for Tolkien. Today I am celebrating the life of the author of one of those sources: Snorri Sturluson. He died on this day in 1241. Actually, he was killed in a cellar on the orders of a king who he had once written a fine poem about, but, as that’s clearly not brilliant, I’ll leave that aside.

In the 1220s Snorri wrote a book about Icelandic myths called the Prose Edda. It was intended to explain the meaning of ancient Icelandic tales about their Pagan gods. These tales can be found in an earlier book by another author, which is referred to as the Poetic Edda. The stories of the Poetic Edda are full of metaphors and allusions that we couldn’t hope to understand without Snorri’s explanations. At the time that he wrote his book, Christianity had really taken over as the major religion in his country and people were beginning to forget about the old stories and what they meant. Every line of verse, every name was full of meaning and Snorri didn’t want them to be lost forever.

The preachers of the new Christian religion were not interested in the old ways. More than that, they wanted them gone forever. Any books found about the old religion were considered threatening to the doctrines of the church and were burned, any of it’s followers would be burned too. You’d think that the Christians could have learned something about what it was like to be persecuted for you beliefs and been a bit nicer about it. Sadly though, it seems to be a thing that the more fanatical believers of an evangelising religion never learn. The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda are the only survivors from this period of Icelandic history . The Poetic Edda survived as a single copy, referred to as the Codex Regius, which came to light in 1643. It’s contents had been considered so inflammatory that it was hidden away for around 400 years before anyone dared show it to a member of the clergy. Snorri’s Prose Edda survived for a different reason. He presented it as a historical work rather than a fictional one. He began with a prologue explaining that belief in the Old Gods was rooted in ancestor worship. He said that the Norse Gods had originally been human. That they were Trojan warriors who had left Troy to settle in northern Europe where they were revered because of their superior culture. That remembrance ceremonies at their burial sites had eventually become cults and the warriors had then become remembered as gods. The Christians were fine with the stories if they were looked at from this point of view. They could handle pre-Christian history, just not pre-Christian religion.

Snorri’s book is therefore a tool to help people study and understand the legends. Or, as he says: “ I wrote this book so that young students of poetry might understand that which is hidden in runes.” He wanted to keep his country’s poetic tradition alive and in doing so has given a great gift to later generations. Without his work the meanings of the stories in the Poetic Edda would be lost to us.

09 23 mead of inspirationMany legends of the Norse gods are found only in these two works. We found a great story about how Odin managed to acquire the Mead of Inspiration from some giants. The mead was made by dwarves from the blood of a very wise, half Trojan god called Kvasir which they mixed with honey. To get it, Odin had to transform himself into a snake, back into a god, spend three nights of passion with a lady giant, drink the wine, then transform himself into an eagle and fly away. He then vomited up the wine into some cups that the other gods had waiting for him. But some of the mead spilled out and it is from the spilled mead that poets gain their inspiration. That’s a pretty wild story. I’ve had an interesting day learning a bit about the Eddas, this morning all I knew about Icelandic Sagas came from this Monty Python sketch

Undecorated With Limbs

09 22 EmmeramToday is the feast day of Saint Emmeram of Regensburg. It seems a while since I came across a crazy martyrdom story. So here is what Arbeo of Freising says about what happened to Emmeram. The saint was a bishop of Poitiers who travelled to Regensburg in Bavaria because it was full of pagans worshipping idols and he wanted to convert them to Christianity. It seems that Emmeram saw this work as a kind of battle for which his ultimate reward would be martyrdom.

Theodo I, Duke of Bavaria welcomed Emmeram to his court and things went pretty well for about three years. Then he asked for permission to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. Before he was able to leave, he was visited by the Duke’s unmarried daughter, Ota. She was pregnant with the child of a man in her father’s employment. If the truth was discovered, both she and the baby’s father would face the death penalty. Ota begged for the bishop’s help. Emmeram advised her to name himself as the father and then abruptly left on his journey to Rome. But after three days he stopped at a place called Helfendorf and waited.

Meanwhile the Duke and his son, Lantpert, had found out about Ota’s pregnancy and been told that Emmeram was responsible. Lantpert was furious. He gathered together a group of friends and set off to avenge his sister’s honour. He found the bishop waiting for him at Helfendorf. Emmeram denied his accusations and asked to be allowed to proceed to Rome and seek judgement from the Pope on the matter. Lantpert and his posse tied the bishop to a ladder and proceeded to torture him. They began to cut off his limbs and extremities piece by piece. First his fingers then his hands, followed by feet, legs, arms, nose, ears, tongue and finally his genitals. Then they left him for dead. But Emmeram was found still living by his companions, Vitalis and Wolflete. Somehow, even though his tongue had been cut out he managed to ask for water and Vitalis answered: “Why do you seek relief, when nothing of you remains but your stubby trunk, undecorated with limbs? I would think you should wish for your death rather than live with such shame.” Emmeram replied that he didn’t want to die quickly. It seems the longer he could drag it out, the more likely God was to notice him.

The story tells us that his body was shining with a wondrous light, I don’t know whether his skin shone or whether the light was shining out of his wounds, either way it sounds pretty disturbing. They tried to take his body to a nearby church at Aschheim, but he died on the way. We are told that on the spot where he died, for ever afterwards it was always spring. Against his wishes, he was buried at Aschheim. Afterwards it rained for forty days, an indication of his displeasure. His body was removed to Regensburg. There is now an abbey there that was built in his name. There they keep his leg bones in a silver box, so presumably his friends gathered up all the bits of him that were cut off too.


09 21 hobbitIt was on this day in 1939 that The Hobbit was published. If you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to go into much detail about the story.

Bilbo’s story is that of a quest and in some ways it is also a coming of age story. He is a down to earth sort of fellow who is persuaded to leave his home and go on an adventure. Whilst the dwarves remain essentially the same all through the book.,they want to get back their lost treasure and are not interested in the trouble that might cause for anyone else, Bilbo changes and grows. At the beginning he is comfortable in his little world and not interested in other peoples’ problems. But by the end he has discovered a different side to his nature. He has become a brave, clever and thoughtful hobbit.

Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. He knew a great deal about languages and the way they developed over time. In 1917 he began apply that knowledge to develop his own language. Elvish. It is really the depth of his knowledge of languages and myths that allowed him to create the massive and believable world of Middle Earth. He had a lifelong passion for Norse Mythology and the names of the dwarves and Gandalf himself are all derived from old Norse names.

The Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf was an important source for The Hobbit. In the 1920s Tolkien began to work on a translation of Beowulf and although he finished it in 1926 it was not published until 2014. He did deliver a very well received lecture on the poem though. He may have been the first critic to see it as a work of literature rather that a historical source. Previously people had ignored all the magical elements of the story and looked at it only as a source of information about the way the Anglo-Saxons lived. Tolkien realised that the magic was important because it tells us a lot about the way people understood the world around them. Many of the elements in The Hobbit are lifted straight from Beowulf. A named sword with magical powers that is covered with runes is a very Anglo-Saxon thing. Tolkien’s dragon, Smaug, is an intelligent animal, not at all like the one we find in legends like St George and the Dragon where the creature is little more that an allegory. Like the unnamed dragon in the Beowulf legend, Smaug in robbed of a precious cup, and when he finds out about it goes on a furiously destructive rampage and is killed.

During the First World War, Tolkien was a Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He served in France for a time and was present at the Somme. It is possible to see The Hobbit also as a reflection of his war experiences. A hero torn from his rural home and forced to take part in a war far away. Tolkien’s descriptions of a desolate world burned by a dragon or destroyed by war would have been something that he had no difficulty in calling to mind.

Tolkien also illustrated his story and designed the book jacket for the first edition. He was very particular about the design of the book, particularly the maps in the back and front. The first print run of only 1,500 copies was sold out by December. It was so popular that his publishers immediately asked for a sequel. He showed them a draft of another book he had been working on, The Silmarillion, but they didn’t really get what it was about and weren’t interested. They wanted more Hobbits. That is when he began to work on The Lord of the Rings.

As he began to think about extending the story he found that he needed to make changes to the original book to make it fit with his new ideas. In the first edition Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is very different. He willingly bets his ring on the outcome of their riddle contest and when Bilbo wins the two part on good terms. Gollum’s curse: “Thief! Thief, Thief, Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” does not appear until the 1951 revised edition. He explains away this change by saying that in the original version Bilbo, while under the influence of the Ring had told him a lie, but now he had the truth of it.