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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If you don’t pack your brain

On this date in history, October 21, 1096, the “People’s Crusade” was crushed by the Turks at the Battle of Civetot. It’s one of those episodes that seems to prove religion can make you stupid, although a better lesson may be being human can make you stupid and if you expect God to provide you should try to meet Him half-way. It’s like asking God to rescue you from a flood then refusing to swim to safety as a mark of faith.

In case you haven’t been subjected to this particular outburst of foolish and unstructured religious enthusiasm, it happened as Pope Urban II was organizing the First Crusade, which was a proper military expedition with religious motives that paid attention to mundane things like logistics, weapons, knowing how to fight and having sensible leaders. But while it was brewing this clown called Peter the Hermit, a charismatic monk who claimed to have not only a commission from Christ but an actual letter, went around encouraging people to march on Jerusalem armed only with their faith.

A surprising number felt that this proposition made good sense, including women and children and a few actual soldiers including Walter Sans Avoir. He is often miscalled Walter the Penniless but in fact his name comes from being the lord of Boissy-sans-Avoir. Although common sense was one thing he did not apparently avoir and he died at Civetot when he acquired as many as seven arrows express delivery from the Turks.

The entire People’s Army lacked many other things, from food to sense to decency. Part of their plan to liberate Jerusalem from Muslims involved slaughtering Jews in Germany, something the Church tried hard to prevent them from doing. Then they wandered south-east, puzzling and plundering people who didn’t want to seem inhospitable or impious but also didn’t want these vagabonds eating all their food before falling in the river or having their heads cut off with scimitars.

It ended about the way you’d expect. They finally blundered into battle with the Turks in as tactically hapless a manner as you’d expect and were mostly slaughtered, although the victors generally spared women, children and those who surrendered (not spared in the sense of let them go, of course, but in the sense of let them be slaves) while a few thousand managed to hole up in an abandoned castle, withstand a siege and eventually be bailed out by Byzantine soldiers who knew what they were doing. As for Peter, he slipped away for more supplies and lived on for decades as an increasingly minor celebrity and died in obscurity.

So yes, religious enthusiasm without structure can lead to disaster both practical and moral. But nobody said God wanted you to be an idiot… except people who don’t believe in God. So don’t be an idiot.


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Wish I’d said that – October 21, 2016

In the 1930s “Britain and France had come to prefer as leaders the rhetoricless businessman type. And while they had emasculated themselves, there appeared an evil lover to whom Europe all but succumbed before the mistake was seen and rectified. For while the world must move, evil rhetoric is of more force than no rhetoric at all… Britain was losing and could only lose until, reaching back in her traditional past, she found a voice [Churchill] which could match his accents with a truer grasp of the potentiality of things. Thus two men conspicuous for passion fought a contest for souls, which the nobler won. But the contest could have been lost by default.”

Richard Weaver The Ethics of Rhetoric


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Calico rope

Aaaaarrh, matey. Have ye ever been… hanged?

Perhaps it’s a rude question. But I bring it up because October 20 marks the capture of “Calico Jack” by the Royal Navy back in 1720. And that’s a great name for a pirate.

It gets even better. His real name was John “Jack” Rackham, which will necessarily put Tintin fans in mind of “Rackham the Red”. And he designed the classic Jolly Roger though some sources say his had crossed swords rather than bones beneath the skull. And he was a pioneering feminist, having two females among his crew including his lover Anne Bonny who he apparently pinched from her husband which seems quite a modern thing to do although I gather such incidents were not unknown before 1963 and possibly he was glad to see her go. But I digress.

The point is, that’s some kind of pirate. And he enjoyed a career of mayhem and so forth lasting… um… two years. Or maybe a bit longer. He first turns up as quartermaster on a pirate ship called the Ranger in 1718, the same year he led a mutiny that voted their current captain Charles Vane a coward and put Rackham in his place.

I should note that on a rather unpiratical note Vane was not cut down like so much pork, cruelly marooned or tossed to the sharks. Instead he and those who’d voted for him were given a smaller ship, plus ammunition and supplies.

A year after deposing Vane, Rackham accepted a pardon from the governor of the Bahamas, settled down, bounced back up and started messing with Anne, whose husband brought her before the governor to be whipped. Rackham offered to buy her in a “divorce by purchase” which she refused as demeaningly similar to a cattle sale, so Rackham kept the money and they eloped semi-romantically on a stolen ship.

The next year Rackham was captured while drunk, taken to Jamaica, tried and hanged. Bonny and her female co-pirate Mary Read both claimed to be pregnant to try to avoid immediate execution, which sounds a touch old-fashioned, and Read died the next year probably of complications from childbirth while Bonny’s fate is unknown.

Most of the rest of Rackham’s associates were swiftly executed. And as for Vane, well, he was hanged in 1721. Which isn’t surprising because if you look into the career of most pirates, you find yourself reading a short story that ends with a, hmnnn, twist.

The point is, piracy isn’t romantic. You may get cool clothes, a cool nickname and an extra-cool flag. But you also get to dance the “yardarm jig” and that right smartly. And “Hemp necktie Jack” just doesn’t have the same insouciant charm.


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The creation of Spains

Here’s a weird one. And not out of keeping with the series, you may say. But what I have in mind this time is the October 19, 1469 union of Ferdinand and Isabella that didn’t create modern Spain.

If you’re wondering why it should have been expected to, or thinking a list of historical events that did not create modern Spain would be unreasonably long, I should note there that Ferdinand was heir to the kingdom of Aragon and Isabella to that of Castille; she duly succeeded when her brother died in 1474 and he in 1479.

Now Aragon and Castille were not formally merged into a single political unit until Philip V in the very early 18th century, by which time the once-mighty Spanish empire was on the skids and Spain was headed for stagnant irrelevance on the margins of Europe. Which you’re probably wondering how it could happen if there was, as I and the lawyers maintain, no Spain. Except that’s not quite what I said.

I said it didn’t create modern Spain. And I say it’s weird because Spain did have protoparliaments at that time, the Cortes. Aragon had one and so did Castille. And you’d think the decentralized structure of the Spanish country-like thing would be ideally suited to their development as effective checks on the power of the monarch.

Instead they were basically swept aside. Ferdinand and Isabella decided to limit the power of the bourgeoisie and the nobles so they did, essentially turning the Cortes into rubber stamps except, for a while, on taxes, where they had some capacity to resist. And the result was a Spain that was somehow glittering yet hollow, apparently modern and dynamic yet fundamentally stagnant and ineffective.

How can this be?

Rest assured, English monarchs would have loved to break or disperse Parliament. But they never could. It was too deeply embedded in the national, social as well as political fabric. And a major reason why is that it included the common people. But we could get into a kind of logical circle here, asking why in England it was impossible to exclude the common people and getting the answer that they were too firmly included and vice versa. Which takes us back into the “Dark Ages” and the fact that self-government in the Anglosphere has very deep roots in Anglo-Saxon-Jute habits of self-government laid atop the remarkable and in many ways unique culture of Roman Britain.

It also reminds us that self-government is not easy or natural. In retrospect historians can easily explain the growing power of the English parliament as natural given the rise of the bourgeoisie or some such. They can also easily explain the shrinking power of European parliaments as natural given the rise of the national state or some such. What calls out for explanation, and appreciation, is the two processes running parallel but in opposite directions on the continent and in the UK.


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