07 18 rudolph ii portraitHoly Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, was born on this day in 1552 in Vienna. Rudolph was also King of Germany, King of Bohemia and King of Hungary. He became something of a recluse, rarely leaving his palace in Prague. He ruled at a difficult time when, as Holy Roman Emperor, he was meant to be Catholic, but a lot of his subjects were not. He tried to occupy the middle ground and it didn’t really work out too well for him. He was eventually deposed by his more ambitious brother. All this makes him sound rather dull, but he really wasn’t.

Rudolf was an enthusiastic patron of both the arts and sciences. This meant his court harboured all sorts of interesting people. Under his rule, Prague had a reputation for being full of dissidents, heretics and heliocentrists. The idea that the earth might go round the sun, instead of the other way round was not a popular one. In 1599, he made Tycho Brahe, who is probably my favourite astronomer ever, his court astronomer, after he was exiled from his home country of Denmark. But Rudolph was also fascinated by alchemy and the occult. Both of these subjects were, at the time, every bit as credible as astronomy. In the 1580s, he was visited by the famous mathematician and alchemist John Dee along with his questionable friend Edward Kelley, who Rudolph later locked up in a castle.

07 18 rudolf IIThe Emperor was an extremely keen collector of both art objects and scientific instruments. As well as collecting well-known artists like Dürer and Brueghel, he commissioned many new pieces. This unusual portrait on the left is Rudolph as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. The artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he did a lot of paintings like this, but mostly they have titles like ‘winter’ or ‘the librarian’. This is the only one I could find that is of a specific person.

Rudolf amassed an amazing ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ that included one hundred and twenty astronomical and geometrical instruments and more than sixty clocks. His collection was the finest in Europe and it occupied three large rooms of his palace. As the private collection of a recluse, not many people got to see it, so we can’t be sure of everything that it contained. Certainly he kept a live lion and a tiger, which roamed freely about the castle. We know this because there are documents relating to the payment of compensation to those who had been attacked by them or, if it had gone particularly badly, to their families. Rudolf himself insisted that he owned a grain of earth from which God made Adam, two nails from Noah’s Ark, a basilisk and some dragons.

Rudolf never married, but it is rumoured that he had numerous affairs at court with both men and women. He had several illegitimate children, one of whom seems to have suffered from schizophrenia and did some terrible things. Rudolf was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, who suffered terribly from inbreeding and do not have a happy history of mental stability. Rudolph himself seems to have suffered from bouts of melancholia, which was common in his family. Two of his favourite objects were a cup made of agate, which he believed to be the Holy Grail, and a six foot long horn, which came from a narwhal, but Rudolf thought it had belonged to a unicorn. When he was at his lowest he liked to take these two things, draw himself a magic circle with a Spanish sword, then just sit in it.

Some believe him to be one of the owners the Voynich Manuscript, a very interesting document which I mentioned briefly when I wrote about Edward Kelley. It has been carbon dated to some time in the early fifteenth century and is written in an unknown language. It has defied all attempts to translate it. Most of the illustrations are botanical and there are some with what look like star charts. But some are really weird. There are a lot of drawings of naked women that also feature an elaborate system of pipes. They seem to be conveying something really specific, but we have no idea what. So, naturally, they make everyone who sees it really want to know what it says. It seems to contain information about plants, medicine, biology, astronomy and cosmology. It doesn’t appear to be written in code, but rather in some, now lost, language that is possibly Middle Eastern in origin, but no other examples of the language have ever been found. If you’ve never come across it before, you can find a facsimile here

07 18 voynich cropped by me.

Rudolf, as you may gather, was a deeply superstitious man. Tycho Brahe once informed him that he shared a horoscope with his favourite lion cub. When it died, years later, the Emperor shut himself up in his rooms and refused all medical attention. He died three days later. His successors were less enthusiastic about his collection. It was packed away and forgotten about. Later, much of it was stolen when Swedish troops attacked Prague Castle in 1648 and many of its items later ended up in the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Silly Money

07 16 chinese paper moneyToday, I am told, is the date that the first European banknotes were issued by the Swedish bank, Stockholm Banco, in the year 1661. Banknotes are quite a weird thing, if you think about it, so I thought we might take a look at how we came to accept what is essentially just a piece of paper in place of something that has any intrinsic value. Paper money had been used in China for around eight hundred years. The Ancient Chinese also produced some of the earliest known coins. They were generally round, though there are older coins that are shaped like spades or knives. The coins had a rectangular hole through the middle so they could be strung and worn around the neck. The problem was, if you had a lot of them, they were a bit heavy. So people started leaving their coins with a trustworthy person which was exchanged for a slip of paper stating how many coins had been deposited. These slips of paper could then be used later to retrieve the money. Eventually the notes began to be passed from person to person instead of the coins.

07 16 kublai kahnTravellers from Europe such as Marco Polo brought back tales of the strange paper money. In fact in his ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ he devotes a whole chapter to it. He describes how the Emperor, Kublai Khan, had notes made from the bark of mulberry trees, which he had plenty of. He paid for everything with the notes and they were used by all his subjects in place of coins. No one was allowed to refuse the notes, on pain of death. Furthermore, merchants coming to China from abroad, bringing gold, silver, jewels or pearls were allowed to sell to no one but the Emperor. They were paid with his notes, which could be exchanged for anything in his Empire. If there was anyone else left who happened to have any gold, silver, gems or pearls, they could take them to the Royal Mint and get a good price for them, but they were paid in notes made from mulberry bark. So that was how the Emperor ended up with all his empire’s wealth, yet it cost him almost nothing to acquire it. “He hath”, said Polo, “ the Secret of Alchemy in perfection”. The idea of issuing promissory notes travelled to medieval Italy and Flanders and they began to be used as an alternative to transporting cash over long distances, which was both impractical and dangerous.


As in China, the notes that were issued in Sweden were also due to the difficulty of carrying heavy money around. Their problems however, were much bigger. Basically there were two currencies that were both called the daler, but one was made of copper and the other of silver. This was a problem because they were both meant to be worth the same amount. Copper was much cheaper than silver, so the copper coins needed to be bigger. Then suddenly copper got really, really cheap. The coins became enormous, huge slabs of copper weighing several kilograms. The largest denomination, the ten daler weighed almost 20 kilograms, that’s 44 lb. Unsurprisingly, people didn’t much want to carry them around, they wanted to deposit them at the bank. The promissory notes they received in exchange were much easier to use. A note could be put in an envelope and posted whereas even a single coin might require a horse and cart.

Sadly, Stockholm Banco decided it would be okay to print more notes than the value of the copper that they held. That didn’t really work out. They went bankrupt after three years. Swedish banks did not issue paper money again until early in the nineteenth century. The Bank of England began to issue paper notes in exchange for real money in 1695, when it was trying to raise money to rebuild the country’s navy after a particularly disastrous war with France. Eventually, paper money became pretty normal everywhere. Coins made from gold, from silver, from copper, could be often too dangerous, and sometimes massively inconvenient to carry around, so everyone was persuaded to accept little pieces of paper, that are essentially useless until you exchange them for something else. Now, of course, we don’t often have the pieces of paper either, just a small plastic card. Money feels even more imaginary but, unfortunately, our world would grind to a halt if we stopped believing in it.

Stormed It

07 14 bastilleToday, most people in France get a day off because it is the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison in Paris, which had the reputation of being a place where you could be locked up without trial, just for doing something that the King didn’t like. The prison had held assassins and spies, booksellers and magicians. It also held members of the nobility whose behaviour had been deemed too shocking to be revealed in a public trial. But what that actually meant, was that anyone with an embarrassing relative could have them locked away, if they could get the King to agree to it. During the reign of King Louis XIV, some 2,320 people were detained there. It wasn’t necessarily a bad place to be. If you were rich enough, you could take your own clothes, you’re own furniture, even your own servants if you could persuade them to go. But it wasn’t necessarily a good place either. There were tales of torture chambers and mysterious prisoners who had lain forgotten for years. A tremendous amount of secrecy surrounded who was actually held there. People didn’t like it very much but, in truth, by the reign of Louis XVI, it was barely used at all and there were plans to demolish it. Nevertheless, it was a looming symbol of royal oppression, so after the people of Paris stormed the building and freed the prisoners held there on July 14th 1789, it quickly became a symbol of everything the Revolutionaries stood against.

What the people who stormed the building were really after was the gunpowder that was stored there. Earlier in the day, the same crowd had stormed L’Hôtel des Invalides, which does not sound quite so glorious, in order to steal weapons. It was a sort of hospital and retirement home for war veterans. There, they had seized around 30,000 muskets but had found no ammunition.

When it occurred to them that it would be politically expedient to free the prisoners of the King while they were there, they began to search the cells. They found only seven inmates. Four were forgers, who couldn’t believe their luck and immediately absconded. One was an aristocrat named the Comte de Solages who was held there at the request of his family, possibly for kidnapping his sister. There were also two lunatics. One had been imprisoned for telling everyone that he had been involved in a plot to assassinate the present king’s grandfather, Louis XV. The other man was either British or Irish. His name was Jacques-François-Xavier de Whyte. He had a long white beard and looked far more like the sort of prisoner that they were hoping to find. He looked like a man who had been cruelly imprisoned for years on the whim of an uncaring monarch. They paraded him through the streets. De Whyte was delighted and smiled and waved to the crowds, but then he did believe that he was Julius Caesar…

When the liberators realised that there wasn’t a suitably heroic prisoner in the Bastille, they simply made one up. The Comte de Lorge had supposedly been imprisoned for thirty-two years and bore a striking physical resemblance to De Whyte. Despite the fact that someone claimed to have met him and even wrote a book about him, there is no evidence that he ever existed at all.

Had the Revolutionaries arrived ten days earlier, they would have found an eight prisoner. The Marquis de Sade had been transferred to an asylum at Charenton on July 4th. He was moved because he had been shouting at passers-by from the battlements, yelling that prisoners were being killed inside. When he was confined to his cell he continued to shout from his window using an improvised megaphone. His behaviour fuelled unrest in the city so he was bundled out of his cell in the night. He left in such a hurry that he left behind a manuscript he had been working on: ‘120 Days of Sodom’. To the end of his life, he believed that it had been lost during the subsequent looting of the prison but it was later found hidden in the wall of his cell.

07 14 bastille foundationsThe prison itself was raised to the ground, pieces of it were taken away as souvenirs. Nothing now remains of the building, excepting a few foundation stones that were discovered during the construction of the Paris Metro in 1899. On the site where it stood though, there was, for thirty-two years, a large plaster elephant that was also a fountain. When I say ‘large’, I really mean it, it was seventy-eight feet high. It was protected by a guard who lived in one of its legs. The plaster elephant was actually just a stand-in for a bronze elephant, that the Emperor Napoleon planned to have cast from the cannons of his defeated enemies. He imagined people being able to climb up the inside and stand on a platform at the top to take in the view. But Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the project was abandoned. By 1820, people were pretty fed up of the plaster elephant because it was full of rats. But it was not removed until 1846. Its base was used to support the column that now stands there, which commemorates the second French Revolution in 1830.

07 14 napoleon's plaster elephant

When I started to think about Napoleon’s elephant, it occurred to me that the Parisians seem to have been oddly obsessed with buildings that are also elephants. Napoleon probably had his idea from an architect names Charles Ribart, who, in 1758, had proposed building a giant elephant on the site now occupied by the Arc de Triomphe. He imagined that banquets and balls could be held inside it. There also seems to be a little forest, which I’m guessing is a theatre.

07 14 ribart elephant

In 1889, Paris hosted a World Fair to commemorate the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. I know that the exhibition included a model of the prison, though I couldn’t find a picture of it anywhere. I also know that there was a large elephant. I know this because it was afterwards purchased by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler. Creator and manager of the Moulin Rouge. They installed it in their garden where it served as either a venue for belly dancers or an opium den, possibly both.

07 14 moulin rouge elephant


07 08 artemisia gentileschi self portraitToday I want to tell you about a famous female painter of the Italian Renaissance. But before I start, I wanted to warn you that my research today has involved reading through the details of a seventeenth century rape trial, which I will be mentioning. If it’s a subject you find distressing, and frankly, why wouldn’t you? Maybe give this one a miss.

July 8th is the birthday of Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in 1593, in Rome. Her father, Orazio, was a painter, her mother, Prudentia, died when she was twelve. She showed much more artistic talent than any of her younger brothers and her father taught her drawing, how to prepare colours and how to paint. Orazio was much influenced by the work of Caravaggio, who was his contemporary and both his work and that of Artemisia share his dramatic use of light and dark.

07 08 susannah and the eldersIt couldn’t have been particularly easy for a young girl to make her way in a profession dominated by men. Her first signed painting, here on the left, is dated 1610, when she was only seventeen. It depicts the story of Susannah and the Elders. Susannah was a young married woman who was bathing alone in her garden. Two old and lecherous men were spying on her. As she returned to the house, they accosted her and said that they would tell everyone that she had been planning to meet a young man there, unless she promised to have sex with them. She refused, was arrested and was about to be put to death when Daniel, of Lion’s Den fame, came along and saved her. He questioned the two men separately and their stories did not match, so they were proved to be liars. It has been a popular subject in classical art, but Artemisia’s painting is one of the few that shows it as a traumatic event. Artemisia knew what it was like to be at the mercy of an older man.

In 1611, her father was working with another painter called Argostino Tassi. During that time, he employed Tassi to teach Artemisia about perspective. Tassi forced his attentions on Artemisia and he raped her. There’s no need to dwell too much on the details but she put up a fight. She scratched him, she threw a knife at him, but he was too strong for her. Tassi was fifteen years older than her. He promised Artemisia that they would be married and continued to visit her for the next nine months. Then, it turned out that he wasn’t going to marry her at all. Her father Orazio, accused Tassi of rape, and also of stealing a painting. In 1612, there was a huge and very public trial which lasted for seven months. Tassi at first claimed that he had never touched Artemisia, or even been alone with her. Then he changed his mind and said that he had visited her only to protect her honour. He produced witnesses who swore that the Gentileschi household was practically a brothel, slandered her dead mother and claimed her father had committed incest with her and then sold her for a loaf of bread. They were blatant lies and some of the witnesses were afterwards prosecuted for it. During the trial it transpired that Tassi had been aided by another man called Cosimo Quorlis, who had previously been rejected by Artemisia, and that a woman called Tuzia, who she had previously trusted, had allowed Tassi into the house through her apartment. It was also revealed that Tassi was married, had previously raped his sister-in-law and that his wife was missing and presumed murdered by him. Up until half way through the trial, Artemisia did not even know that he was married. Artemisia was subjected to a gynaecological examination and she was tortured with thumbscrews to prove she was telling the truth. Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to prison. He was forgiven and released after only eight months.

A month after the trial, Artemisia was married off to a friend of the family and moved to Florence. Either during or just after the trial she painted this picture of Judith beheading Holofernes. Artemisia herself is the model for Judith. It’s a very powerful painting by, I can’t help feeling, a very angry woman.

07 08 judith beheading holofernes

Again, the subject of Judith and Holofernes was a popular one. I mentioned it back in January when I wrote about Elisabetta Sirani. Most artists had previously shied away from depicting the beheading part of the story, choosing to show instead, Judith and her maidservant carrying the head away. Probably the closest earlier example is this one by07 08 judith beheading holofernes caravaggio Caravaggio, painted around 1598. Caravaggio’s Judith is filled with revulsion as she slices through the neck of Holofernes and her maidservant stands aside holding a bag. Artemisia’s Judith is very focused, devoid of emotion and her maidservant is helping to hold him down. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that her Holofernes was based on the likeness of Tassi.

Artemisia got on pretty well in Florence. She painted for the Medicis and for Michaelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, who was building a museum in honour of his famous great uncle. There she painted a second, larger and even more bloody version of Judith beheading Holofernes with an even bigger sword. There is another of Judith and her maidservant escaping with the head in a basket. Not all her 07 08 allegoria dell'inclinazionepaintings deal with such violent subjects, on the left is a painting from Casa Buonarroti. But around ninety percent of those that survive show a female protagonist, or one who is at least the equal of men. It’s not surprising that most of her paintings feature women. As a female artist, she would not have been allowed access to male models. Whilst in Florence, she also became friends with the astronomer Galileo Galilei and became the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of Arts and Drawing. Her new husband did not fair so well. He got them into a horrible amount of debt and, in 1621, she left him and returned to Rome. After Rome, she moved to Venice, then to Naples, where her daughter was married in 1634. In 1638, she went to England, at the request of King Charles I, where her father was already working. She collaborated with him on a large commission at the Queen’s House at Greenwich.

It was probably at the court of Charles I that she painted the self portrait at the top of this post. She has painted herself as an allegory of painting. Abstract concepts like painting were often represented as female figures and, as a female artist, Artemisia was in the unusual position of being able to put herself in the picture. Her father died in England in 1639 and we don’t know much about what happened to her after that. She went to Naples and may have died during a plague there in 1656. What we do know is that the terrible rape case in her early life, and possibly deserting her husband, left her with a tarnished reputation. Artemisia Gentileschi worked as an artist her whole life, overcoming not only the difficulty of being a female in a male dominated profession, but also her reputation as a fallen woman. It seems as though her early experience with Tassi coloured the rest of her life. There is certainly a lot of power and a lot of rage in many of her paintings. I like to think that she might have turned this to her advantage and found herself a rather niche client base who really enjoyed paintings of powerful women.

Paying the Piper

06 26 pied piper 2Today is Rat Catcher’s Day in Hamelin, Northern Germany. It celebrates not only rat catchers, who do a nasty job and deserve to be recognised, but the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin for which the town is famous. There are actually two dates on which this event is commemorated. The other, July 22nd, was first put forward at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But my gut feeling is that it belongs here, between the wild celebrations of Saint John’s Eve and the legend behind ‘Seven Sleepers Day’ which I will tell you about tomorrow. Not everyone realises that it is not just a fairy tale. There is some truth in it.

According to the earliest sources, on this day in 1284, one hundred and thirty children from the town were led away by a mysterious piper and were never seen again. This is, of course, not a cause for celebration, it’s awful. But it’s a curious tale and its lack of explanation has made it the subject of much speculation. The story tells us that the town was plagued by rats. The piper was employed by the mayor of the town to lure the rats away. He achieved this by charming them with a tune from his pipe and led them all to the river, where they drowned. The mayor then refused to pay the agreed sum and the piper left promising revenge. He returned on June 26th, the feast day of John and Paul and this time he played a different tune. The adults were all in church as he led the children away. Up to three children were left behind to explain what had happened. One was lame and couldn’t keep up, One deaf, who could not hear the tune. The other was blind and could not see where he was going. In one version the children disappear into a mountain, in another they are drowned in the river like the rats.

06 26 pied piper

We know there is some truth in this story because the earliest written records from the town of Hamelin dating from 1384 begin ‘ It is a hundred years since our children left.’ also there was a stained glass window in the church commemorating the event which dates from around 1300. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1660 but the above illustration is a drawing of it dating from 1592.

The earliest written accounts do not mention rats at all, this part of the story didn’t appear until the sixteenth century. So what we have is a tale of how the children of the town were lured away by a man in a multi-coloured (pied) costume who played them a strangely irresistible tune. Some think that the children were the victims of a plague and that the piper symbolises death. Others think that the piper was a member of some odd religious sect who lured the children away. It is true that some of the features of the Pied Piper, the trance inducing music and the colourful clothes, reminded me of the people who were thought by some to have been responsible for the dancing plagues that I wrote about a few days ago. A rather uncomfortable theory is that, at a time when everyone was grindingly poor, perhaps unable to provide enough food for all their children, they may have been sold into slavery. Another explanation is that ‘children’ does not necessarily refer to very young people. It may just mean people who were born in the town. Around that time an area of Eastern Europe was being resettled following a war and young people may have been lured there in hope of finding a better life.

The tale of the Pied Piper and the missing children has now been told and retold for well over seven hundred years and has undergone many changes. It is one of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm and it appears in a poem by Robert Browning. Like many folk tales, it has received the Victorian treatment and been re-purposed as a story with a moral message. It’s hard to know what a child is supposed to take away from this story though. The children of Hamelin are victims and really can’t help what happens to them. It is good to learn that we shouldn’t renege on a promise, but probably if we learn anything from this story it is not to live in a time when the previous generation has taken loads of stuff and then decided not to pay for it. Hmmmm…

Don’t Stop Me Now

06 24 dancing plague 2Today is, as I mentioned yesterday, the feast day of Saint John the Baptist but, as I’ve already mentioned that, lets have a look what happened on this day in 1374 in Aachen, Germany. There was a sudden outbreak of Saint John’s Dance. A Dancing Plague was not an uncommon occurrence, there are many instances between the seventh and seventeenth centuries and their true cause is not known. The outbreak in Aachen was a pretty serious one. People began to dance hysterically and also to experience hallucinations. More and more people were drawn in and over the ensuing days thousands were involved. They danced until they were exhausted. They danced until and fell to the ground twitching and foaming at the mouth. Then, they got up and danced again. The plague spread to nearby towns and onwards across Europe for the next two years. The victims certainly were not enjoying their dancing. They were in pain. They often screamed for help and begged for mercy. Dancing Plagues were seen as a curse from Saint John or from Saint Vitus, but we can only guess at why they happened.

Several explanations have been put forward for the cause of the outbreaks. Ergot poisoning has been suggested. Ergot is a fungus that grows on wheat which would certainly have caused convulsions and hallucinations, but more commonly limbs were affected resulting in gangrene. You’d think if that had happened as well, someone would have mentioned it. It is also quite possible they occurred because people were under a great deal of psychological distress. Europe had been devastated by the Black Death and, in the area around Aachen there had been a terrible flood that washed away all the soil and would have made growing crops very difficult. Similar conditions preceded another outbreak of the Dancing Plague in Strasbourg in 1518. Some people probably just cracked and went crazy and then others followed suit.

No successful cure was really found. Many thought it was caused by demons and tried exorcism. Oddly, some people thought that music could be the cure. Some musicians were engaged to encourage the dancing in the hope that those afflicted would just become exhausted and stop. Others tried to play music to match the pace of the dance, hoping that if they gradually slowed the tune, they could bring the dance to a halt. In the Strasbourg outbreak, a special stage was constructed in the centre of the town in an effort to contain the dance. It didn’t work. Putting the dancers in such a prominent position only encouraged more to join in. Some attempts were made to remove things that seemed to upset the afflicted and make the dancing worse. For example, they seem to have been especially troubled by the sight of anything red. They also had a particular aversion to pointy shoes.

Although the dancing plague in Aachen is pretty well documented, I’ve found it hard to get to the historical accounts as medieval German isn’t one of my strong subjects but I did find a few fragments suggesting that those who started the dancing were not the townsfolk at all. They are described more like a band of travelling pilgrims of a peculiar dancing sect who wore colourful clothes They sought out holy places to perform their rituals. One chronicler notes that ‘in their songs, they uttered the names of devils never before heard’. Another that ‘many dance manias turned into mass orgies.’ It seems to be the Czechs and Bohemians that were regarded as responsible for the plague as they were considered well known for ‘sexual immorality including annual festivals involving the free partaking of sex.’ So it may have been, for some, just a more attractive proposition than praying in church, especially if you could blame it on a plague.

Incidentally, I found out the dancing plague is not the town of Aachen’s only claim to dancing fame. In October 1959 it possibly opened the first discothèque. That is, a dance hall in which records were played instead of having a live band. So it also may have employed the first DJ, a man named Klaus Quinine who called himself DJ Heinrich. I’d love to be able to say he rolled in from Bohemia with a crate of twelve inch remixes under his arm. But I can’t.

Wheels on Fire

06 23 john the baptistToday it is Saint John’s Eve, the day before the feast of Saint John the Baptist. John was cousin to Jesus and the Bible tells us that he was six months older. So, we have his feast day now, around midsummer, because we have Christmas around midwinter. But most of the traditions associated with the celebration seem to have little to do with a desert-dwelling saint. Like some of our Christmas traditions, its pagan roots are definitely showing.

Saint John’s Eve was quite a significant celebration in Europe up until the nineteenth century. As Christmas replaced the Winter Solstice, the feast of Saint John was placed around the time of the Summer Solstice. We know that these days were significant in ancient times because many of our stone circles and burial chambers are aligned with the sunrise on those days.

06 23 saint john's eve fireCentral to the Saint John’s Eve festivities was the bonfire, which was often built at the top of a hill. It was thought to offer protection from evil spirits who were generally on the loose at this time of year. In Sweden, for example, it was thought that, on this night, the mountains cracked open and trolls were set free. According to a thirteenth century monk from Winchcomb Abbey in Gloucestershire, the fires were built from bones instead of wood. Indeed the word bonfire is most likely a corruption of bone fire. The idea of building a fire of bones was to create as much foul-smelling smoke as possible. This, he says, was necessary to drive away dragons which it seems were a particular problem at this time of year. The whole difficulty with dragons at midsummer, was that this was the time that they gathered in the air to mate. This caused them to drop their ‘seed’ into rivers and wells which poisoned the water which was clearly awful. Though I would have thought that a dragon, of all things, would have been used to the smell of burning bones. Maybe they weren’t the fire-breathing kind.

A second tradition mentioned by the monk was rolling a wheel down a hill. The wheel, he tells us, “is rolled to signify that the sun then rises to the highest point of its circle and at once turns back; thence it comes that the wheel is rolled.” These kind of events feature in the Saint Johns Eve celebrations all over Northern Europe and sometimes the two were combined. If we skip to the sixteenth century, in the village of Konz, in the Moselle Valley, we find people rolling their bonfire down a hill. A wheel would be covered in brushwood or straw and set on fire at the top of the hill. It would then be guided down the slope by a couple of brave souls. The aim was to roll it into the river. It wasn’t easy as there were plenty of vineyards to negotiate on the way. If they succeeded, they were entitled to a wagon load of wine. If they failed, their cattle would be attacked by fits of giddiness and convulsions and would “dance in their stalls”.

Like other ceremonial fires, the smoke from a Saint John’s Eve bonfire was thought to protect livestock and the ashes were supposed to have protective qualities too. They could be taken away and buried it the fields to protect crops or placed in the eaves of a house to protect it from lightening or from fire in the following year.

06 23 larkspurFlower garlands were often an important part of the celebrations too. In some places they were cast onto the bonfire, in others they had to be rescued from the flames. I found that, in several areas of Germany, people believed that looking at the fire through a garland of flowers, particularly larkspur or mugwort, was supposed to protect one from eye diseases in the following year. I really can’t explain why protection against eye diseases in particular, should be a feature of this festival. The problems with dancing cattle and poisonous dragon sperm are equally opaque, but they don’t seem to have much to do with the story of John the Baptist.