Decoding the Heavens

By Jo Marchant

In autumn 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kontos and his crew of sponge divers were sailing home from their summer diving grounds off Tunisia. They were heading for the island of Symi in the eastern Mediterranean, but were blown off course by a storm and sheltered by a barren islet called Antikythera.

After the storm’s retreat, they discovered on the seabed a spectacular shipwreck . A Roman ship from the first century BC, it was carrying stolen Greek treasures, including statues, armour and jewellery.

The divers salvaged the wreck for the Greek government, and the artefacts were taken to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Among the haul was a lump of rock no one unnoticed at first. Then it cracked open, revealing gearwheels, inscriptions, and dials. This “Antikythera mechanism” turned out to be the most stunning scientific artefact we have from antiquity. Nothing close to its complexity appears again for more than a thousand years.

For much of the last century this mysterious machine was largely ignored by mainstream historians. But thanks to a succession of men who devoted their lives to decoding the device (see video), its secrets have finally been revealed. It was a clockwork computer for calculating the varying movements of the Sun, Moon and planets, and even predicting future eclipses.

I first heard about the Antikythera mechanism in summer 2006. A paper revealing its workings was due to appear in the science journal Nature, where I was on staff as an editor. The story grabbed me immediately, and I travelled to Athens to see the remains of the mechanism, and meet those who had studied it.

In my new book, Decoding the Heavens, I describe the 100-year quest to understand the device. But along the way I became intrigued by the bigger tale, of where this unexpected technology came from and where it went for a thousand years. I was stunned to discover that the expertise embodied in the device was not lost. Traces were passed to the Islamic world, and back to Medieval Europe, where this ancient knowledge triggered much of the technology that shapes our lives today.

Jo Marchant in the author of Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets, published by Da Capo Press

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Let's Drink Like a Pope!

By Roger Collins

Not long after his death in 1342 Benedict XII had his life written by a French monk, who took the precaution of remaining anonymous, as what he had to say about the pope was not flattering. 'Hard', 'mean', 'hating friars' and thinking all of his cardinals were liars, were just some of the accusations made. Our author also said that Benedict drank so much wine that he gave rise to the popular toast Bibamus papaliter, or 'Let's drink like a pope'!

This was not the first time that this particular pope had received a bad press. Before he was unanimously elected in 1334, he had been bishop of Pamiers, near Toulouse in south-western France, and there had led the inquisition in its investigation of Cathars or Albigensians in his diocese, most notably in the village of Montaillou. His detailed records of these interrogations, partly preserved in his own notebook now in the Vatican Library, provided the material for the famous French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie to reconstruct so much of the life and thought-world of that community in his book Montaillou of 1975.

Unsurprisingly, some of those who appeared before Bishop Jacques Fournier, as he then was, felt he was 'the spirit of evil', and 'a demon infesting the land.' One of them wished he 'would fall into a precipice.' For historians today, however, Benedict XII is a an austere reformer, who resisted the temptation to reward his own relatives in the way so many of his immediate predecessors and successors did, and who tried to impose higher standards of conduct in the Church; for example reproving the 'infinite' number of Spanish priests said to be living openly with their mistresses. Other contemporary authors, who shared his ideals, reported sadness at his death and miracles at his tomb. But his successor, who became Clement VI, was far more generally popular, as he quickly showed that his nature lived up to his name.

Roger Collins is author of KEEPERS OF THE KEYS OF HEAVEN: A History of the Papacy (Basic Books).

Image: Pope Leo X, courtesy of Basic Books

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Book of the Week: Keepers of the Keys of Heaven

By Holly Tucker

Here is an assignment that would send deep panic through my writerly self: Please write, in 500 pages or less, a history of Popes from the beginning to the present day.

Roger Collins has risen to the task magnificently! Written with clarity and verve,
Keeps of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy is an approachable and deeply satisfying read on the big History (big H) of Popes that is interwoven with lots of intriguing behind-the-scenes history (little h).

For example, who knew that a woman named Donna Olimpia was the first and only woman ever permitted to address the secret-shrouded conclave following the death of Pope Innocent X, in 1655?

Donna Olimpia was the pope's sister-in-law and had been rumored to be his mistress. She was a formidable business woman who shepherded the family fortune, while also making time to take over the licensing of brothels in Rome. Brothels, it seems, were regulated by the papal administration until Olimpia made the case that this was an activity completely unbecoming of God's church. Makes sense.

My guess is that there was also a little bit of financial incentive for her work. In fact, as Collins explains, the licenses that appeared over the doorways of houses of ill-repute soon bore her family arms. Thus giving her then nickname of La Pimpessa.

Ever curious, I have an email out to my colleagues who teach Italian for the full 17th century vocabularies of Italian Madams. I'm so curious about the play on words between Pimpessa and Papessa--which were, it seems, Olimpia's nicknames.

Professor Collins will also be here on Thursday to talk about Popes and booze. Amen.

And for those of you who can't get enough of Church trivia, you might take a peek at this gem about the Virgin's fertility belt.

Sacred Relic or Heavenly Accessory

Miracles of Prato

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Magic Squares

By Ian Stewart

According to a Chinese myth, the Emperor Yu, who lived in the third millenium BC, came across a sacred turtle in a tributary of the Yellow River, with strange markings on its shell. These markings are now known as the Lo Shu ("Lo river writing").

The markings are numbers, and they form a square pattern:

4 9 2
3 5 7
8 1 6

Here every row, every colum and every diagonal adds to the same number, 15. A number square with these properties is said to be magic, and the number concerned is its magic constant. Usually the square is made from successive whole numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on, but sometimes this condition is relaxed.

In 1514 the artist Albrecht Durer produced an engraving "Melancholia," containing a 4x4 square. The middle numbers in the bottom row are 15-14, the date of the work. This square contains the numbers

16 3 2 13
5 10 11 8
9 6 7 12

4 15 14 1

and has magic constant 34.

Using consecutive whole numbers 1, 2, 3,...., and counting rotations and reflections of a given square as being the same, ther
e are precisely:

. 1 magic square size 3 x 3
. 880 magic squares of size 4 x 4
. 275,305, 224 magic squares size 5 x 5

The number of 6 x 6 magic squares is unknown, but has been estimated by statistical methods to be about 1.77 x 10 (19)

From the book Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities by Ian Stewart. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

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Historical Footprints

by Martha A. Sandweiss

In Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, I unravel the hidden life of Clarence King, the celebrated western American explorer, who crossed the color line from white to black to marry the woman he loved. For thirteen years, from his marriage in 1888 until his death in 1901, King lived a secret double life as a black Pullman porter named James Todd. His prominent white friends never knew that King had an African-American wife and five mixed-race children. And Ada Copeland, the woman he married, had no idea of her husband’s true identity. Not until King lay dying in 1901, did he disclose his true identity to his wife.

King sought to ensure that no paper trail of his secret life would exist. But most families in late nineteenth-century America left behind some trace in the historical records, and this one was no exception.

The federal census records proved essential to my search. Historians of a certain age will recall the tedium of scrolling through endless microfilm reels of census data. Now the data is digitized and searchable. One can track characters across time. Minor characters spring instantly to life. Broad hypotheses are easily checked. I could quickly calculate, for example, how many Georgia-born African Americans lived in Manhattan in 1880. Not very many. I could then infer that Copeland had exercised a rare sort of ambition in moving north from her native state.

My students initially find census records uninteresting. But they soon see their potential. They can figure out who lived in a particular neighborhood, imagine the languages that would be heard on the street or think about the work places where people spent their days. They can ask hard questions about family structure, gender, and literacy. In short, they can make these historical records speak to individual life stories as well as to larger themes of American history.

Years ago, I approached an academic library to request that they subscribe to Ancestry.com, the best and most easily navigated of the proprietary digitized census sites. We don’t buy resources for genealogists, they said. I quickly showed them what academic historians might do with these resources and won them over. Now the librarians are among the database’s biggest fans, and I incorporate census research assignments into many of my undergraduate courses. Students initially get hooked by finding the trace of a grandparent. But they quickly discover that they can become real historical sleuths, as well, able to recover forgotten bits of the past.

Image: Wallace King, Ada and Clarence's son (right) in the family's home, 1950s. Courtesy of Patricia Chacon.

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Book of the Week: PASSING STRANGE

By Holly Tucker

Wonders & Marvels
most often profiles history and historical fiction on pre-1800 topics. But Martha A. Sandweiss' Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Decption Across the Color Line is just too good to pass up. And it's always a treat to help spread the word about well-written books by fellow academics. (Sandweiss is a Professor of History at Princeton.)

Passing Strange tells the story of Clarence King who is best known for his work as a geologist and writer. But King had a secret--a big one. In order to marry the woman he loved, he lived a double life as a black man. Sandweiss' book presents King's work, love, and life, in the context of racial politics from the late 19th century into the 1960s. An extraordinary story told by a writer with a keen historical eye and deep respect for her subjects.

The New York Times ran not just one, but two reviews of the book. And if you're still not convinced, you might take a peek at a third in the Washington Post, by Annette-Gordon Reed. If the reviewer's name sounds familiar, it is. Reed is author of The Hemingses of Monticello.

Image: Clarence King, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior

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Childbirth as a Spectator Sport

By Catherine Delors

At Versailles, not only the Queen, but princesses of the royal blood were required to give birth in public. Why? To prevent any substitution of the infant in case he was destined to reign. I say “he” by design, because France’s unwritten constitution prevented women to step unto the throne in their own right, though they could, and often did govern the Kingdom as Regents.

In the case of Marie-Antoinette, her first laying-in was all the more eagerly awaited that she had been married for eight years without presenting her husband with an heir. For a Queen, this was a glaring failure. Her sister-in-law, the Comtesse d’Artois, married to the King’s youngest brother, had already been delivered of two healthy little boys. Marie-Antoinette had attended the deliveries, as required by the etiquette, and deeply felt the political and personal humiliation of her own childlessness.

Now at long last she herself was pregnant. The stakes could not be higher: if the child were stillborn, or a girl, the heir to the throne would remain the Comte de Provence, another brother of Louis XVI. The Comte de Provence was cunning, ambitious, and probably the most dangerous enemy of the royal couple. Every year that passed without Marie-Antoinette giving birth to a Dauphin brought him closer to the throne (to which he would eventually ascend, decades later, under the name of Louis XVIII.)

Let us listen to what Madame Campan, First Chambermaid to Marie-Antoinette, tells us in her irreplaceable Memoirs: “The Queen’s laying-in approached; Te Deums were sung and prayers offered up in all the cathedrals. On December 11, 1778, the royal family, the Princes of the royal blood, and the Great Officers of State spent the night in the rooms adjoining the Queen's Bedchamber.” This, by the way, was days ahead of time because the child would not be born until the 19th of December.

Finally, before noon, it became certain that the birth was imminent. “The etiquette,” continues Madame Campan, “allowing all persons indiscriminately to enter at the moment of the delivery of a queen was observed with such exaggeration that when the obstetrician said aloud: “The Queen is going to give birth!” the persons who poured into the chamber were so numerous that the rush nearly killed the Queen. During the night the King had taken the precaution to have the enormous tapestry screens which surrounded Her Majesty’s bed secured with cords; but for this they certainly would have been thrown down upon her. It was impossible to move about the chamber, which was filled with so motley a crowd that one might have fancied himself in some place of public amusement. Two chimney-sweeps climbed upon the furniture for a better sight of the Queen.”

Marie-Antoinette fainted. Was it simply pain? The body heat created by the crowd packed in the bechamber? The feeling of being exposed to strange eyes in a circus scene? Or the pressure to give birth to a boy? Apparently Marie-Antoinette and her friend the Princesse de Lamballe, Head of the Queen’s Household and member of the royal family, had agreed on a sign the Princesse would make to inform Marie-Antoinette of the child’s gender as soon as it became apparent. Normally that announcement would have been made more formally minutes later, and Marie-Antoinette wanted to know right away. And the child turned out to be a girl! Maybe the disappointment was enough to make the Queen lose consciousness.

The obstetrician decided that the patient needed to be bled (indeed what patient wasn’t in need of a good bloodletting in the 18th century?). More sensibly by modern standards, he called for the windows to be opened wide.

The King sprung to action. The windows had been stopped up (Versailles has always been notoriously drafty) and he rushed to force them open. Let us not forget that Louis XVI was a man of unusual height and strength.

The Court’s head surgeon then seized his lancet and bled the Queen. Whether thanks to his ministrations or more likely the rush of fresh air in the stifling room, she opened her eyes. At this moment the Princesse de Lamballe, who was much given to what was then called “nervous spasms,” added to the general confusion by fainting herself. She had to be carried through the crowd “in a state of insensibility.” Only then was it deemed necessary to empty the room of all idle onlookers. “The valets,” writes Madame Campan, “dragged out by the collar such inconsiderate persons as would not leave the room.”

“This cruel custom,” continues Madame Campan, “was abolished afterwards. The Princes of the family, the Princes of the blood, the Chancellor, and the ministers are surely sufficient to attest the legitimacy of a prince.”

Certainly it was an improvement, but that still left a few dozen people to attend every royal birth...

Catherine Delors is author of Mistress of the Revolution. She also keeps a fascinating blog on all things royal during the eighteenth century.

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Alchemy's Secrets

By Holly Tucker

Natural philosophers and alchemists everywhere should head over to Yale's Beinecke library to explore their latest exhibit.

Book of Secrets: Alchemy and the European Imagination, 1500-2000

From the exhibit guide and online blog, all beautifully done:

"European readers were familiar with alchemical motifs and literature, even when they did not believe in alchemy or were actively critical of its practitioners. Ben Jonson, so knowledgeably mocking of alchemical practitioners and processes in The Alchemist, was only one of many satirical commentators on alchemy. In Areopagitica, his famous polemic against censorship, the poet John Milton uses alchemical allusions scathingly, arguing that “I am of those who beleeve, it will be a harder alchymy then Lullius ever knew, to sublimat any good use out of such an invention [i.e., book licensing].” This was no passing flirtation with alchemical imagery, but the mining of a metaphor which Milton knew would be familiar to his readers in its many complexities: the science of alchemy, its authorities such as Raymond Lull, and the tenuous state of alchemy’s premise that its practitioners could transform base metal into sublime material. Alchemy, as Milton knew, occupied a place in the cultural economy, circulated by poets and authors in the coinage of verse, satire, literary defense, and attack."

Image: Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Collections

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18th Century Domestic Violence

By Wendy Moore

Wife-beating was both widely tolerated and sanctioned by law in 18th-century England. Yet the ordeal suffered by Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, at the hands of her husband so shocked Georgian sensibilities that she not only won landmark legal battles but her husband was banished to prison.

Marital violence is as old as marriage itself. In Georgian England, husbands were legally entitled to strike their wives in order to ‘correct’ their conduct so long as moderation was the watchword. One judge, Francis Buller, even went so far as to specify that a husband could beat his wife with a stick so long as it was no thicker than his thumb, earning himself the nickname ‘Judge Thumb’ in satirical prints for his wisdom.

But even when domestic abuse far exceeded such nice distinctions, wives enjoyed little recourse to the law. The torment endured by Mary Eleanor Bowes was among the most extreme.

A wealthy young widow, Mary was tricked in 1777 into marrying an Irish fortune-hunter, Andrew Robinson Stoney, who faked a duel to win her hand. Squandering her wealth, Stoney – who changed his name to Bowes – beat Mary with sticks, whips and candlesticks, tore out her hair, burned her face and threatened her with knives.

Terrified for her life, after eight years of torture Mary fled the marital home and embarked on audacious legal suits to win a divorce, reclaim her fortune and obtain custody of her children. Her divorce case in the church courts on grounds of adultery and cruelty, backed by courageous eye-witness accounts from servants, was one of only a handful of successful cases initiated by women when first resolved in 1786.

But her ordeal was far from over. Horrified that he might lose his fortune, her husband kidnapped Mary from a London street in a desperate bid to force her to rescind her case. Dragging her across snow-covered moors, Bowes threatened Mary with a pistol and with rape. Eventually rescued after eight days, Mary went on to win her divorce through two appeal stages as well as reclaiming her property and her children, while Bowes spent the rest of his life in jail for what The Times described as ‘a detail of barbarity that shocks humanity and outrages civilisation’.

When Mary died, in 1800, she asked for the blindfolded figure of Justice to stand guard at her tomb. But it would be nearly another century before women earned even minimal protection against abusive husbands.

Further reading
Wendy Moore, Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore (Crown, 2009).
Jennifer Ramkalawon, Love and Marriage (British Museum Press, 2009).
Elizabeth Foyster, Marital Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Image: "Judge Thumb or, Patent Sticks for Family Correction: Warranted Lawful!" (1782) Courtesy of the British Museum.

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Book of the Week: Wedlock

By Holly Tucker

This week's Book of the Week is Wendy Moore's WEDLOCK: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore.

I have to concur with the praise it received in a recent UK review: "This splendid book, well researched and richly detailed, is as gripping as a novel." Review in the Telegraph

Writing is a challenge, no doubt about it. But writing smart nonfiction and crafting it in ways that make it a page turner is incredibly difficult. WEDLOCK rises to the challenge marvelously. Wendy's work does not disappoint.

On top of it, Mary Eleanor Bowes is such a fascinating character. She was a target for strong opinion during her day. In the illustration above, she is shown suckling kittens on the grounds that she was allegedly more fond of her cats than her sons. The cartoon was almost certainly commissioned by her estranged husband, Andrew Robinson Bowes. Now that's a complicated marriage alright!

I also highly recommend Wendy's first book: The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery.

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