Magic Pope

05 12 pope sylvester iiToday, I want to tell you about Pope Sylvester II. I don’t know when his birthday was, but he died on this day in the year 1003. If I tell you that Sylvester was an excellent mathematician, you might not be very interested. But if I tell you that people believed he was in league with the devil and that he possessed a magical talking head, I may have you’re attention. Happily, both those things are true.

Sylvester’s birth name was Gerbert and he was born in the year 946, somewhere in the Auvergne region of central France. He was a clever child and was lucky enough to be taken to study mathematics and astronomy in Spain. The thing that is important about this, is that Spain was, at that time, home to a lot of Islamic people, known as the Moors. Much of what had been learned about mathematics and astronomy by the Egyptians, the Persians and the Ancient Greeks had been lost and forgotten in the West. But in Islamic countries, they had retained that knowledge and built on it. They were also in contact, through trade, with India and China and they absorbed many of their ideas too. Their knowledge of these subjects was the most advanced in the world. Back then, the greatest Christian library held about a thousand books. But in the Moorish capital of Córdoba in southern Spain there was a library that contained four hundred thousand books. They had other libraries too, around seventy in Spain alone.

So Gerbert learned his skills from the Moors, spending three years at the monastery of Vic in Catalonia. He learned to study the movements of the stars and, as we know, astronomy and astrology were once pretty much the same thing. Trying to divine the future and find out what God had in store for us was very wrong. He also learned how to make calculations using Arabic numerals. The numbers we use today, 0-9, are based on this system and it was much easier to use them to do difficult calculations in your head than Roman numerals. Gerbert also re-introduced the abacus to Rome, which was an idea he had from the Moors. All this knowledge made Gerbert seem like some kind of magician. So that was what people decided he was.

05 12 sylvester iiThere was also the fact that he rose through the ranks, from abbot of Bobbio in Italy in 983, to archbishop of Reims, then of Ravenna all the way to Pope in the year 999, despite not being liked very much. So maybe he had made a pact with the Devil. There is a great legend about him that he practised the Black Arts and once stole a book of spells from an Arabic sorcerer. He fled, and was pursued by the magician, who could divine his whereabouts by studying the heavens. But Gerbert climbed over the side of a wooden bridge and hung by his hands beneath it. Thus suspended, between heaven and earth, the sorcerer could not find him. Or perhaps he prayed to Satan for help and was wafted away by him. Then, the only way he could get back home was by promising the Devil his soul. In return for his promise, Satan would furnish him with greater power than the book of spells could ever provide, and that was how he became Pope.

05 12 brazen headThe other weird story about him is that he built a brazen head which could speak and answer questions with the answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The idea of a talking head, either magical or mechanical, comes up quite a lot when I’m looking at people accused of sorcery. Thomas Browne, who wrote a myth-debunking book called ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ in 1646, dismissed the idea as a misinterpretation of alchemical texts. Luckily for Gerbert, his head, unlike the statue built by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas that I mentioned back in March, would only speak when spoken to. He asked it if he would become Pope and it replied ‘yes’. He asked if he would die before he got to preach in Jerusalem and it replied ‘no’.

Gerbert was a clever sort of fellow and he knew just what to do. He would simple never go to Jerusalem. But you can’t cheat fate, and one day he had to read mass in one of the smaller churches in Rome, the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which means, the Holy Cross of Jerusalem or as it was commonly known, just ‘Jerusalem’. In one story he was attacked by the Devil in the church. He gouged out the Pope’s eyes and gave them to his demons to play with. Another tale has Gerbert fall sick and die. He dies raving, insisting that his body be cut up and spread about the city. In cesspools and on rubbish dumps. Presumably to make the Satan’s job of collecting his debt as difficult as possible.

There have been many Popes who did really terrible things, but I rather suspect Gerbert has been unfairly dealt with. While he certainly gained seemingly magical knowledge from Moorish texts, it seems unlikely that he stole it. There is a, somewhat misplaced, belief that his bones will rattle in his tomb when the present Pope is about to die. Poor Gerbert, dead for more than a thousand years and still expected to predict the future.

Keeping It In The Family

11 06 joanna of castilleToday is the birthday of Joanna of Castile, also known as Joanna the Mad. She was born in 1479 in Toledo, the Capital of the Kingdom of Castile, now in Spain. Joanna didn’t have a great life, certainly not a brilliant life, so I feel the need to explain why I am choosing to celebrate her life today. One of the things that first got me interested in the odd lives of historical figures, and hence an inspiration for this blog, was a podcast called The Bugle presented by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver. In the early days it had a segment called ‘Hotties from History’ in which listeners were encouraged to email with the names of characters from history to whom they were attracted. It all started with Florence Nightingale it was very silly. It was full of snippets of bizarre information about all sorts of people I knew nothing about. Joanna the Mad and her odd life featured quite heavily so I can’t possibly ignore her today.

Joanna was the third child of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon who did a great job of uniting and strengthening the country that would become Spain. They also aided Christopher Columbus in his discovery of the New World. Although women were allowed to inherit the throne of Castile, Joanna was never thought of as a potential ruler and, although she had a good education, was very clever, and spoke several languages, she wasn’t really taught anything about leadership or diplomacy. In 1496 she was shipped off to Flanders to be married to Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy and member of the Habsburg dynasty. They were both madly in love to begin with, but then Philip began to take mistresses. Joanna was still in love with him and was very jealous. This led to heated and sometimes violent arguments.

11 06 philip the handsomeBy 1500 both of her elder siblings had died, leaving no heirs. Joanna was next in line to inherit Castile when her mother died. Philip was pretty happy about it because he assumed that would make him king of Castile. They travelled to Spain so that Joanna could swear an oath making her official heiress. Joanna was pregnant with the couple’s third child and her parents tried to use this as an excuse to keep them in Spain. Philip refused and went home, but Joanna found herself held in a castle against her will. She made it quite clear that she wanted to leave. She kept her bags packed She refused to eat. When she realised they had raised the drawbridge to imprison her, she ran out and clung to the portcullis and refused to go back into the castle. Eventually her parents had to let her leave.

When she arrived home she found that her husband had found himself a permanent mistress. She was furious, she cut off the woman’s hair at the roots. When Isabella died, Joanna should have inherited her throne; but it was behaviour like this that led both her husband and her father to declare that she was mad and unfit to rule. Both of them thought they could make a better job of it. The matter was decided when, in 1506, Philip died. What seems to have happened after that was that Joanna journeyed all around Spain, travelling only at night, with her husband’s corpse. Repeatedly opening the coffin, embracing his body and talking to him. It’s quite possible that this version of the story comes from her father Ferdinand. She did travel a long time with Philip’s body, because he wanted to be buried in Granada, which was quite a long way away. Also Joanna was pregnant with their sixth child and it was too hot for her to travel during the day. She definitely did open his coffin though, as she had become paranoid that someone had stolen his body.

Although Joanna was nominally queen of Castile, she was never allowed to rule in her own right. So we’ll never know if she would have made a good job of it. In 1509 she was imprisoned by her father and remained in prison for the rest of her life. Even when her son Charles inherited her titles, he did not treat her any better. So, although Joanna of Castile wasn’t very well, she was certainly not helped by being surrounded by men fighting over who ought to be allowed to rule in her stead.

11 06 charles ii of spainAlso born on this day was her great-great-great-grandson, Charles II of Spain in 1661. Almost 200 years after Joanna was born, the Habsburg Dynasty had become hopelessly inbred; to the extent that all eight of Charles’s great-grandparents were descendants of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Charles was not very well either, generations of inbreeding led him to be physically and mentally disabled and he was also infertile. He could not speak until he was four or walk until he was eight. Yet he inherited the throne when he was just three. He suffered from a condition known as the Habsburg Jaw which made it difficult for him to speak or even eat. Mostly, others did his ruling for him, but he did order an investigation into the activities of the Inquisition that had some very damning things to say about them. The Inquisitor General was most unhappy, he persuaded Charles to burn it. When his successor Philip V took the throne, he called for a copy of the report, none could be found.

Towards the end of his life Charles became very odd indeed. He insisted that the bodies of his family be exhumed so he could look at them. There is even a story that he slept with the body of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the hope that it would cure him. I can’t confirm this. Maybe this and the behaviour of Joanna of Castile are signs of insanity, or maybe there’s just something about renaissance Spanish people and their relationship with the dead that I just don’t understand, He died in 1700 and an autopsy was performed on his body. They said it didn’t contain a single drop of blood, that his heart was the size of a raisin, that he had one single blackened testicle and that his head was full of water.


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.

Around The World

09 06 victoriaOn this day in 1522 the ship Victoria returned to Sanlúcar in Spain. Her sails were in tatters and her small crew were constantly pumping water out of her to keep her afloat. This single ship and her eighteen crew were all that was left of the five ships and 270 men who had set out three years earlier with Ferdinand Magellan on the first ever round the world voyage.

At that time the world had been divided in two, half belonged to Spain and half to the Portuguese. Portugal had control of the eastern shipping routes that led to the Spice Islands, a valuable source of trade. The voyage was largely funded by the Spanish Crown and the intention was that they could gain access to the islands by sailing west. No European had ever sailed beyond the Southern tip of the Americas before, it was uncharted territory. The maps were blank. Magellan though, was confident that he knew of a way through.

They set off in September 1519 and reached the coast of Brazil in December and in January they reached the mouth of the River Plate. Magellan must have thought it was the route beyond the continent that he had been looking for and he must have been extremely disheartened to find himself in a fresh water river. They turned back out to sea and continued southwards down the coast. In March they anchored at a place they named Puerto San Julián in Patagonia. They overwintered there and we are told that they met with a race of giants. Antonio Pigafetta, who was one of the few survivors and chronicled their journey describes them as twice the height of a normal man. Probably they were a tribe called the Teluelches who were unusually tall, but certainly not that big. The idea that there were giants in Patagonia persisted for around 250 years and early maps of the New World often included the Region of Giants.

09 06 strait of magellanIt was a tough winter and supplies were scarce. Also Magellan had a mutiny to contend with. His crew had begun to think that his crazy obsession with trying to find the route to the east would lead them all to their doom. Three of the ships’ captains were against him. He had most of the mutineers killed. Their bones would be found years later by Francis Drake when he made the same voyage. As the search for a route through to the east continued, one of the ships was wrecked and another turned back for Spain. In October, the remaining three ships arrived at a place they named the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins, an odd name but it is named after a saints’ feast day. There they found a salt water channel that would later be called the Straits of Magellan. It took them more than a month to thread there way through the strait. When they reached the ocean on the other side the water there was so calm the Magellan named it the Pacific Ocean.

Once in the Pacific he assumed that they were close to their destination. He had no idea how big the Pacific was. It was more that three months before they sighted land. The men were forced to eat
rancid biscuit crumbs, leather hide and even the rats aboard the ship. Many starved.

09 06 elcanoWhen they arrived in the Philippines in April, Magellan became involved in a war between local kings that was really a result of his desire to convert everyone to Christianity. He was killed there, he never made it back to Spain. The remaining crew sailed on. In May they were forced to abandon another of their ships. They no longer had enough crew and one of the ships was so worm eaten that they set it on fire and left it. They arrived at the Spice Islands in November and loaded up with what seems to have been principally cloves. The Victoria was now under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano. It was he who decided to continue sailing westwards back to Spain. Magellan had never intended to sail right around the world. He had expected to sail back the same way they had come. The second remaining ship, the Trinidad, had to remain behind for repairs but the Victoria sailed across the Indian Ocean, around the cape of Good Hope and northwards back to Spain.

The ship carried 26 tonnes of spices which were worth more that their weight in gold. But all the crew had to eat on the last part of their journey was rice. Twenty of them starved to death before they reached home. The remaining crew were never properly paid for their service. The cargo was siezed by the crown as compensation for the lost ships.

Although Magellan is often credited as being the first to sail around the world, he did not complete the journey. He didn’t even get to the Spice Islands. The credit should more properly go to Elcano and the seventeen other survivors. You could even argue that the first man to sail right around the world was Magellan’s slave, Enrique, who had been with him since 1511 and was born in the Spice Islands. He completed his circumnavigation in 1521, over a year before the Victoria returned to Spain.