True, Strong and Free

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Sint Saint

Yes, Oct. 25 is St. Crispin’s Day, as we all know from Shakespeare’s Henry V and that wonderful speech the playwright had the king give before a famous if pointless victory (see It Happened Today, Oct. 25, 2015). But I always wondered if the king had problems with his pronunciation.

As you doubtless recall, Henry initially says “This day is call’d the feast of Crispian” but later speaks of “Crispin’s day” then stammers “Crispin Crispian” before winding up magnificently with “Saint Crispin’s day”. But it turns out there were two of him. Not in the usual a bit confused folklore sense. They were twins. Or at least brothers.

Born to a noble Roman family, they fled to Soissons and preached by day while cobbling by night, which is why they are the patron saints of cobblers, curriers, tanners and leather workers. (Curriers, in case your currious, took the tanned hide and further treated it to be strong, supple and waterproof before handing it to the guys with scissors, needles, hammers etc.) They so annoyed the local governor by being so pious, upstanding and do-goody that he had millstones tied round their necks and thrown in a river and, after that failed to do them in, the Emperor had them beheaded. Which I guess constitutes failing upward.

Unless they were born in Canterbury and fled to Faversham after their father was beheaded, where they took up cobbling and in some unspecified way later died. At any event they wound up with a plaque there and a pub in nearby Strood.

They were booted out of the universal liturgical calendar following Vatican II, still tied together. But at least they still apparently existed unlike Saint Valentine who might be another guy with the same name.

Anyway, nobody can boot them out of Shakespeare. And now I know why Henry says it two different ways.

I also like the very British name Strood, for what that’s worth.


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Nice roof. Mind if we shoot it?

According to Wikipedia, on October 24, 1260, “Chartres Cathedral is dedicated in the presence of King Louis IX of France; the cathedral is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.” Perhaps they felt that this was a fitting elevation of the Cathedral to truly grand status. It does not feel that way to me.

The cathedral is a magnificent achievement of Gothic architecture, that stunning and enduring tribute to the vision of the Middle Ages. Nothing, it seems to me, has quite the magnificence of a medieval castle or cathedral. History is still regarded in some circles as a largely unbroken tale of progress, or perhaps a tale of progress with a long dismal medieval dip. But I can think of nothing in all of architecture to rival these sorts of buildings, and in my view most of the stuff that even comes close is older, like the Temple of Hatshepsut.

Chartres is remarkable for a number of reasons including the speed with which it was built, dramatically renovating an older building on a site on which five cathedrals have stood. Hence it does not have the sometimes excessive rambling of buildings put together over centuries with several compelling but not entirely compatible visions directing different parts of the work. It was done when Gothic was at its height and in full possession of its powers and its confidence. And it has survived largely intact.

True, one spire was smitten by lightning in 1506 and rebuilt in the “flamboyant” style that is, as you may guess, rather flamboyant. And it was almost sacked by a mob during the French Revolution before the Revolutionary Committee decided in Taliban-like fashion to blow it up, only to be deterred by a local architect saying the explosion would choke the streets with rubble for years. Then the radicals melted the roof for bullets before arguing that a building without a roof was an expensive hassle to maintain.

The stained glass was wisely removed before World War II and an American Army officer, Col. Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. saved it from bombing during that conflict by personally scouting to make sure the Germans weren’t using it as an observation post. (He was killed the next day; perhaps God was so impressed He wanted to tell him to his face immediately.)

In 2009 the French Ministry of Culture decided on a major renovation including painting it on the theory that it would look like new. Others have condemned this notion in part because Gothic architecture ages well which you can’t say of the most of the disposable junk we build.

Which brings me to the UNESCO designation. The Cathedral was built as an expression of Roman Catholic religious faith and the civilization to which it had given rise. Something specific, proud and dynamic. The UNESCO designation, by a branch of the worthless-when-not-actively-harmful UN, is bland and anodyne, a grudging admission that it’s a nice relic of something people once thought, to be admired in a bland and ecumenical spirit that has no idea what true and false even are.

I know they meant it as a compliment. But it slides off a building this old, to which modernity has done so much in a militant or self-satisfied spirit that was not an improvement.


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Lend me your ear

British operations in the Caribbean Sea during the War of Jenkins' Ear. (Wikipedia)

British operations in the Caribbean Sea during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. (Wikipedia)

On this date in history the best-named war ever started. Well, maybe not the best. But certainly in the Top 5. Specifically the War of Jenkins’ Ear which started on October 23, 1739.

The details are not unimportant. It was among the struggles between a rising Britain and a fast-fading Spain that we should be glad the British won. And it wound up merging with the War of the Austrian Succession, a classic hostile takeover and by a war with a much more boring name. Which would you rather be told you’re going to study in history class?

It also matters that people died in it, no less horribly for the quaint name. Not including Jenkins. What did happen to him, years earlier, was that he was caught smuggling by the Spanish, tied to a mast, and Spanish Captain Julio León Fandiño sliced off his ear and contemptuously told him to warn King George II that he would suffer the same fate if caught.

Somehow Jenkins retained the ear, had it pickled, and displayed it before a sympathetic Parliamentary committee in 1738, leading to diplomatic threats and then war. Jenkins himself seems to have enjoyed a distinguished career before fading from history and, serves you right, Julio León Fandiño was captured by the British along with his ship in 1742.

There’s one other curious thing about this war. It was cited by Honoré Mirabeau in the French National Constituent Assembly in 1790 to argue against giving the legislature the power to declare war lest it be swayed by this sort of emotional appeal.

To my knowledge no subsequent war was ever triggered by the display of a pickled appendage before enflamed popular representatives. There were significant geopolitical and political reasons for war which this particular outrage merely served to focus.

Besides, executive authorities have not proved more restrained in the sorts of things that set them off including what’s his name, that Corsican French guy. They just don’t usually manage to send others to fight and die under such picturesque names.


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Wish I’d said that – October 23, 2016

“we need to recognize that another religion will have another morality, and that in so far as there is a division of morality, there will be some division of sympathy. The Victorians talked as if religion were not merely a private affair but a family joke; a personal accident that could have no effect at all upon public action.”

G.K. Chesterton “A Modern Bigotry”, in G.K.’s Weekly 19/12/31, reprinted in Gilbert Magazine Vol. 17 #8 (July/August 2014)


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What Could Go Wrong Part MDCCCLXXXIII

Lenormand jumps from the tower of the Montpellier observatory, 1783. Illustration from the late 19th Century (Wikipedia)

If I confess to any familiarity whatsoever with “Monster High” what little credibility I might possess is liable to plummet ignominiously. But there is an episode in which several of the characters manage to get onto a reality TV show called “Or Die Trying” involving ever more hazardous challenges. And it reminds me of the history of invention.

For instance the guy who made the first recorded parachute jump on October 22, 1783. And as a plot spoiler, he invented the word “parachute” … two years later. So he survived.

His name was Louis-Sébastien Lenormand and he was French; they were very big on this “in the air” thing in those days (see for instance the September 24, 2016 It Happened Today). And what struck me initially as Lenormand plunged past was that he made the jump from 3,200 feet. Or rather, being French and all snootily metric, 1,000 metres.

That’s a long way up. And I thought man, you’ve gotta have some kind of confidence to do the first one from that height. Wouldn’t it be safer to kind of ease into it? But then I realized being killed in a 100 metre fall is no less lethal whereas succeeding is less spectacular. And you’d feel like a fool being killed from 100 metres because a parachute that would have worked from 1,000 didn’t have time to open. So I guess it was actually a nice, careful approach to hurling yourself into the void tied to something that might work. Maybe. Who knows?

Two years later, another Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Blanchard demonstrated the parachute as a practical way of escaping a failing hot-air balloon. With a great deal more prudence than most of the contestants in my version of “Or Die Trying: The Human Ingenuity Version” including Lenormand himself. You see, Blanchard threw his dog out with a parachute on rather than, say, jumping himself.

He later claimed to have done it for real himself in 1793 when his balloon ruptured but nobody saw that one. And don’t try this with your cat; a dog will thank you for letting him be part of the adventure while a cat will secretly claw your balloon in revenge.

Now at this point I should say that the whole parachute story shows rather more prudence than most of these let’s-put-a-steam-engine-under-some-hydrogen ventures in which people demonstrate that you can always find a new way to die. You see, it turns out there are sketches of parachutes going back to the 15th century including, you guessed it, one by Da Vinci. But in the “very dangerous, you go first” spirit that has struggled with “Or Die Trying” since somebody grunted “Hey, let’s tame fire” or even earlier, nobody actually tested their own parachute design or got conned into testing someone else’s for three entire centuries. And when someone finally did, he used sufficient skill and common sense that he improbably survived.

If anyone can use common sense and make the first ever parachute jump. I have my doubts. But Lenormand did make it, and instead of plummeting ignominiously got to name the working device years later. And thanks to him we’re all much safer today in hot air balloons. Even if we’re French dogs.


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Wish I’d said that – October 22, 2016

“I never in my life said anything merely because I thought it funny; though of course, I have had ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny because I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t.”

G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy


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