Oct 15 2017140 The Adventures of Oliver Cromwell’s Severed Head

When he died, Oliver Cromwell was embalmed and given a funeral befitting a head of state. However, upon restoration of the British monarchy, Cromwell was exhumed and given a postmortem execution. His severed head was placed on a spike over Westminster Hall, and for twenty years his dead visage leered down upon London. The head was eventually dislodged by a storm, and for years it found itself in the hands of several owners, exchanged for debts, exhibited as a curiosity, and passed around at drunken parties.

Jun 16 201685 Mandeville, Part Two

As the Travels of Sire John Mandeville move away from the familiar and the Holy Land, they get progressively more bizarre. The laws of convention and even reality seem to break down as Mandeville encounters cannibals, dog people, weaponized elephants, and headless humans who have faces on their chest. In one particularly striking passage Mandeville says that not only is the world round, but that one can circumnavigate it, and he also characterizes the Kingdom of the Great Khan as perhaps the most advanced nation in the entire world. The book ends with description of the Earthly Paradise, the one spot on the globe that Mandeville, despite all of his experience, cannot reach.

Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
dog-people

Jun 09 201684 Mandeville, Part One

Supposedly, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is about an English knight who sets out for the Holy Land in the 1330s. However, the journey to Jerusalem and the surrounding environs are only a small part of a larger narrative that involves fantastical creatures, foreign kingdoms, and wonders both inspiring and gross. During the first part of his journey Mandeville describes the life and religion of the Greeks (including their opinions on beards), a woman who was turned into a dragon (and the knights who failed to save her) and the temple of the Pheonix. That’s only the beginning, though. Next week, we’ll stay with Sir John Mandeville as he ventures further into the unknown and into even more bizarre foreign lands.

Among the pseudohistory of Mandeville’s travelogue is the theory that the pyramids were meant to store grain, pictured below.

Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by The Vivisectors

grainpyramids

Mar 24 201673 Jamie Jeffers on the Dating of Easter

Easter jumps around. Sure, it’s always on a Sunday, but unlike, say, the U.S.’s Labor Day (which always falls on the first Monday in September) Easter jumps around. It could be on the third Sunday in March. Or the fifth. Or the fourth. Or sometime in April. It jumps around.¬†The dating of Easter comes from a combination of lunar and solar calendars, astronomical events, and religious tradition all crashing together. The result is that Easter is sometime in March. Or April. It’s complicated.

To help shed some light on when Easter is actually supposed to happen, we sat down with Jamie Jeffers, the man behind the excellent British History Podcast. Jeffers has previously gotten into some of the controversies surrounding Easter on his own show, and has detailed how fights over the holiday led to actual, real violence among early Christians. Also, there were some very bad haircuts involved. Again: It was complicated.

Pictured below: The Council of Nicea, which tried (tried) to sort this all out. They only kind of did.

Nicea (1)

Feb 25 201669 Kingdom of the Mahdi, Part Three

Mahdist Sudan died violently.

The religious state persisted for approximately a decade and a half but after that the British, eager to solidify their influence and control in the region, brought the country to heel. Egypt had never recognized Sudanese independence, and thought of the new country as little more than a renegade province. Under British control and influence, the Anglo-Egyptian forces crushed the independent Sudanese state, making short work of the armed forces. The key to their victory was a new technology: The machine gun.

After the British victory the military and cultural foundations of the Mahdist state were destroyed, and Sudan was soon in the same state of repression that it had previously been in, though instead of dealing with the Ottoman boot, now it suffered under the British.

Omdurman

Feb 11 201667 Kingdom of the Mahdi, Part One

In the early 1880s Sudan suffered under the heel of the Ottoman empire. Military occupation and heavy taxes led to widespread discontent that eventually led to a religiously-infused rebellion. Muhammad Ahmad styled himself as the Mahdi or “expected one,” a prophesized Islamic figure, and drawing on discontent, Ahmad led a rebellion throughout the country.

The British officer Charles George Gordon (pictured below) was put in charge of evacuating Egyptians and other foreigners from the Sudan. But, because of his poor relations with the British and the Ottoman-Egyptian governments, Gordon ended up holed up in Khartoum, under siege by the rebel forces, and eventually dead at the hands of the Sudanese. The Mahdi had successfully defeated the foreign occupiers, and a new state formed under his religiously-inspired revolutionary power.

General_Charles_George_Gordon

Dec 17 201561 Puritans Versus Christmas

There is no war on Christmas. But there was.

Contemporary political commentators have, in the past, complained and ranted about a supposed secular war on Christmas, a crusade to erase spirituality and religion from late December, a campaign to turn the occasion of the Nativity into merely “the Holidays.” But, Christmas has always been a season more about revelry and celebration than spirituality. The holiday is a re-appropriating by Christianity of pre-existing Roman festivals such as Saturnalia and the birthdate of Sol Invictus the sun god. Christian reinterpretations are just that: Reinterpretations.

One group that knew this very well was the Puritans, who saw Christmas as a fundamentally ungodly holiday, and sought to ban it and all of its various trappings in both England and Massachusetts. Puritan leaders such as Cotton Mather (pictured below) saw the holiday not as something for the glory of God or Christianity, but directly counter to it. In Puritan-controlled areas shops and businesses stayed open on Christmas, and anyone caught celebrating the offensive holiday was fined the sum of five shillings.

Cotton_Mather

Nov 19 201557 The Mysterious Affair of the Irish Crown Jewels

The Irish crown jewels were stolen in 1907. To this day, no one knows who absconded with the regalia. While known as the “Irish crown jewels” today, they were not referred to as such until after their theft. In fact, they were the regalia of the Order of St. Patrick, a British Knightly Order associated with Ireland (England and Scotland had the Order of the Garter and the Order of the Thistle, respectively) and were worn by either the British monarch or their stand-in during investiture ceremonies or other state events.

When they were stolen in 1907 from a safe in Dublin Castle, there was no sign of a break in, no forced locks, an no other damage of any kind. Since 1907 theories about the theft of the crown jewels have ranged from an operation carried out either by Irish Unionists or British Republicans to humiliate the monarchy, blackmail and bacchanals at Dublin Castle, jewel stealing femme fatales, and simple drunken incompetence. To this day, the fate of the jewels remains an enduring mystery.

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Nov 05 201555 The Pig War

Nowadays the US-Canada border is one of the most peaceful international boundaries in the world, but in 1859 the US almost went to war with British North America in what is now Washington State. A war sparked by a pig.

The 1846 Oregon Treaty was poorly worded and it left San Juan Island itself in something of a state of limbo. This island was claimed both by the British Empire and the United States, and for several years American settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company mutually occupied the island. However, an American frontiersman shot a British pig, and the squabble between neighbors threatened to turn into an international incident. The two powers were ready for armed conflict and, had a British rear admiral not disobeyed orders to engage the Americans, the conflict might very well have turned violent. In the end, it was a bloodless conflict. There were no casualties, excepting, of course, the pig.

San Juans

Aug 20 201544 Live at the Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, Thoughts on Richard III

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most compelling villains. Unlike other tragic figures who do terrible things (Macbeth, Othello, Brutus) Richard does not fall. He does not have some kind of tragic flaw that drives him to perform an evil act. Instead, he is a through-and-through villain from the very first scene of the play, and is all the more compelling for it.

As you can imagine, the actual, real Richard III was somewhat different.

Last week I spoke at a Portland performance space, The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, about some differences between the real Richard and the character in Shakespeare’s play. The event was a benefit show for an upcoming performance of Richard III that Steep and Thorny is putting on, and the evening also featured dancing, music, and other performers.

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Related Links:

More about The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven here.