HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE, PART II

The world didn’t end with the first millennium, and alas for my readers, neither did this blog entry. The second thousand years are easier than the first, because there probably hasn’t been a day since the year 1000 when somebody we’ve all heard of wasn’t alive.  That allows me to pick and choose….

ELEVENTH CENTURY

Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) – Son of Æthelred Unræd, Edward was a so-so king (ruled 1042-1066) but a pious fellow—so pious, in fact, that he never consummated his marriage with Edith, which, of course, resulted in no children. That left the question about who would succeed him as king after he died. While in exile in Normandy years before he apparently promised the throne to William of Normandy (AKA William the Bastard, AKA William the Conqueror), but on his deathbed promised it to Harold Godwinson.  A council of nobles known as the witan elected Harold, which made William angry, with famous results. One major accomplishment of Edward was the building of Westminster Abbey.  Sadly, he died on January 5, 1066, before it was completed.

Pope Urban II (1035-1099) – In 1095 Urban convened the Council of Clermont to debate Church reforms. The most significant result of this was a call to arms to attempt to wrest the Holy Land back from the Muslims. This was the first of a series of clashes that would come to be known as the Crusades. There were a total of sixteen crusades over the next five centuries.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) – Persian mathematician and philosopher, Khayyam is best remembered for a series of quatrains (poems) he wrote in which he asked God some pretty tough questions. Seven hundred years later these quatrains were collected, translated, and put into a single narrative by Edward FitzGerald. You know this narrative as The Rubiat of Omar Khayyam.

Eleventh century people who didn’t get profiled on this list include Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (El Cid), St. Anselm, Lanfranc, Hermann the Lame, and of course, William the Conqueror.

TWELFTH CENTURY

Abelard (1079-1142) and Helöise (1098-1164) – Peter Abelard was one of the greatest philosophers of his age, but he is best known for his tragic love affair with Helöise. He was a wandering scholar, stopping here and there to teach, then moving on when his brilliant but unorthodox ideas offended local authorities. Helöise was a gifted student trusted to Abelard’s tutelage by her uncle Fulbert, a canon at Notre Dame in Paris. However, teacher and pupil soon fell in love. They secretly married and Helöise bore a son—though not in that order. Fulbert was really annoyed when he heard of the union, so much so that he sent some thugs to jump Abelard and, as my old Dad would say, “made a steer of him.” Abelard then joined the monastery of St. Denis and Helöise became a nun at Paraclete Abbey. They rarely saw each other, but they corresponded regularly, and those love letters have survived to become the stuff of legend. Abelard died in 1142 and was buried at Paraclete Abbey. When Helöise died in 1164 they were reunited. Their bodies lay side by side at the Abbey until the 19th century, when they were moved to Pére-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Genghis Khan (1162-1227) – He was the Mongol chieftain and military genius who conquered much of the world between the Adriatic Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Actually, “Genghis Khan” was not a name but a title that meant “universal leader.” His given name was Temujin. He had an equally famous grandson, Kublai Khan, who expanded his empire and for many years hosted Marco Polo at court during the latter’s travels

Left out: St. Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Beckett, Henry II of England, Frederick Barbarossa, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, King John, St. Francis of Assisi, and (if he existed at all) Robin Hood. Among others….

THIRTEENTH CENTURY

Roger Bacon (1220-1292) – An Englishman called Doctor Miribilis (‘wonderful teacher”) by his contemporaries, this great Franciscan philosopher preceded the High renaissance by two centuries, yet had a scientific genius that rivalled Leonardo da Vinci’s. Bacon studied mathematics, astronomy, optics, alchemy, and languages. He was the first European to mention gunpowder, recording its formula but warning of its potential for evil.  Bacon also proposed motorized ships and carriages and, like Leonardo, even flying machines.

Giotto (ca. 1267-1337) – The greatest Italian painter of his era, Giotto was a harbinger of the Renaissance to come. He started a trend away from the static Byzantine style of painting, and was one of the earliest artists to explore emotion and perspective in his work. His realistic depictions of Bible stories made Christianity more accessible to the common person. His emphasis on perspective was a small step in getting people to look at the world through human eyes, rather than Church dictates, which eventually led to the explosion of learning and art that became the Renaissance.

Left out: William of Occam, Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, William Wallace (“Braveheart”), Edward I of England, Robert the Bruce, Marco Polo, and Kublai Khan….

FOURTEENTH CENTURY

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375 – He was the Italian author of The Decameron, a combination of wit, drama, comedy, and bawdiness that was the model for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Boccaccio’s use of Italian finished what Dante had started in The Divine Comedy: elevating the vernacular to (nearly) equal status with Latin.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) – A minor official in the retinue of King Edward III, Chaucer produced some of the most beautiful writing in the English language. He wrote A Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Cresida, and of course his masterpiece, Canterbury Tales. Sadly, when he died in 1400, he hadn’t completed Canterbury Tales, leaving us with only a small fraction of the work he intended to write. Alas!

Henry V (1387-1422) – Henry was the king of England whose soldiers won a miraculous victory against overwhelming French forces at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. This was the decisive battle in the Hundred Years’ War.  The English army went on to capture so much territory that the French King Charles VI was forced to name Henry as his successor. Had Henry only lived two months longer, he would have become king of England and France, but he died of a fever at age 35, leaving his infant son, who he’d never seen, to reign as Henry VI.

Left out: St. Catherine of Sienna, Nicolas Pisano, Petrarch, Jan Huss, Wat Tyler, William Langland (Piers Plowman), Edward the “Black Prince,” John of Gaunt, and Brunelleschi….

FIFTEENTH CENTURY

Masaccio (1401-1428) – In his brief life Masaccio changed art forever. His frescoes and paintings used colors, shapes, perspectives, and emotions that even Giotto would never have imagined. This early Renaissance painter would influence literally every artist who came after him.

Thomas Malory (ca. 1405-1471) – The writer of Le Morte D’Arthur remains a shadowy figure. First of all, there were at least four guys named Thomas Malory wandering about England in the fifteenth century. The most likely candidate for our novelist was one Sir Thomas Malory, who, despite being a knight of the realm, was apparently a real skunk. In and out of prison for rape, assault, and theft, he had plenty of time to pen the first prose work about King Arthur.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) – What can I say? The man was a genius who could do damn near everything, and did.

Left out: This will be the last of the “left outs.” The 1400s were loaded with famous people, and it only gets worse from here. Trying to list them all would be impossible. Folks who inhabited at least part of this century include Joan of Arc, Fra Lippo Lippi, Johannes Gutenberg, Sandro Boticelli, Ghirlando, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella, Richard III, Michelangelo, Martin Luther, Huldrich Zwingli, Henry VIII, Savanarola, John Skelton, Donatello, Raphael, Titian, Ignatius Loyola, Lorenzo de and Medici, Lucretia Borgia, Niccolò Machiavelli, and on and on and on…

SIXTEENTH CENTURY

Michel de Nostradame  (1503-1566) – Yup, he’s THE Nostradamus. A physician and astrologer, Michel began making prophecies in 1547. Because some of them appeared to come true, he became famous, and was invited to read the astrological charts for the children of Catherine de Medici and her husband, Henry II of France. Nostramus’s acclaim continues to this day, having purportedly predicted such things as the French Revolution in 1789, the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, and the assassination of the Kennedy brothers in the 1960’s. What do I think? Let’s just say his prophesies were written in a hodgepodge of languages and were so arcane and obscure that they could be interpreted to mean just about anything. Shoot enough arrows into the air, and you’re bound to hit something eventually….

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) – The second brightest light in the Elizabethan literary heavens, “Kit” Marlowe was, to me, much more interesting than his illustrious contemporary—Shaxpur, Shakspear, something like that. He was a government spy who disliked the Queen, an atheist with a Masters in Divinity, a homosexual in an age when such an “alternative lifestyle” was even more frowned upon than it is now, a smoker of that new-fangled fad, tobacco weed, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and oh yeah, a pretty darn good writer. It was Marlowe who introduced blank verse to the Elizabethan stage. You’ve all read or heard some of his lines, the most famous of which undoubtedly is this from his Dr. Faustus: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” Marlowe was two months older than that other guy, but before his untimely death at 29 his talent was more developed than that of his famous rival. He was so good, in fact, that the Bard freely stole from himj. Here’s Shakespeare’s version of the line quoted above: “…the face that launched above a hundred ships.” Above a hundred ships? C’mon, Will, that’s not only plagiarism, but it’s bad plagiarism!  According to history Marlowe died in a tavern brawl, but there’s evidence that he was murdered for reasons involving the spy business. Whatever caused his death, though, imagine how enriched our literature would have been had his talent continued to grow. Shakespeare who?

Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) – A prelate in the Anglican Church, Ussher is now known, and frequently ridiculed, for counting all the “begats” in the Bible backward and declaring that creation occurred at noon on Saturday, October 23, 4004 B.C.

SEVENTEENTH CENTURY

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673) – You know him better by his stage name Molière. A prolific genius, Molière wrote such classic plays as The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and The Imaginary Invalid.

Isaac Newton (1642-1726) – Newton’s laws of gravitation and motion are as valid today as they were then. Everyone knows he was a great scientist, but he was also a devout Christian and an alchemist. He formulated his laws of physics within the framework of a biblical creator—there was no conflict between science and religion to Newton! While doing all that cool genius science stuff, he was also trying to figure out how to transmute lead into gold. Hmmm….

Edward Teach (1680-1718) – Also known as Edward Thatch, but best known as Blackbeard the Pirate. Teach was indeed a pirate, but he wasn’t as murderous as his reputation would suggest. A shrewd and calculating leader, he rarely used force, relying instead on his fearsome image to get cooperation from the people he robbed. Contrary to the modern-day picture of the traditional tyrannical pirate, he commanded his vessels with the permission of their crews. There is no known account of his ever having harmed or murdered those he held captive. However, he did run afoul of Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood, who sent a party of soldierly types to capture him. A nasty battle ensued, resulting in several deaths on both sides, including Blackbeard.

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – He was a gnarly philosophical dude who believed how you thought was more important than what you thought. In fact, he didn’t think people could truly know much of anything on a metaphysical level. In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas had written his five proofs of God. Five hundred years later Kant demolished those proofs and said, “You just gotta believe, baby. You can’t prove the existence of God, so it all comes down to faith.”

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) – The philosopher with a difference. He was a proponent of Utilitarianism, which simplistically put, states a person should do whatever s/he finds most pleasant. If you like going to the opera, cool. If getting stinking drunk is your thing, then do that. This is known as the Principle of the Greatest Happiness. Bentham was an odd fellow in life, and even odder in death. First, he instructed that his cadaver be dissected, embalmed, dressed, and placed in a chair, and to this day resides in a cabinet in a corridor of the main building of University College in London. According to tradition, every year on his birthday like-minded individuals haul out his body and drink a toast to him.

jeremy-bentham

Jeremy Bentham as he appears today

NINETEENTH CENTURY

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – Some applaud him, some hiss when they hear his name. He wasn’t the first to propose a theory of evolution, merely the most famous. His own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, for instance, suggested evolution and the connectedness of life many decades before Charles. An interesting bit of trivia: Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day, February 12, 1809.

Charles Dodgson (1832-1989) – You know him, of course, as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. What you don’t know is that he was almost certainly a pedophile with a taste for young girls. Whether or not he acted on his impulses is a matter of debate. But wait, there’s more. A book written several years ago accuses him of being—need I say it?—Jack the Ripper. This falls into the “if you were alive then you are a suspect” category. Take it from me, if Lewis Carroll was Jack the Ripper, then I was the second gunman on the Grassy Knoll in 1963.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) – You’ve all heard of the man who was Prime Minister of England during World War II, but did you know there was also an American author named Winston Churchill (1871-1947)? The two Churchills were acquainted, but not related. Interestingly, it was the politician Churchill, not the novelist Churchill, who wrote a famous essay called “If the North Had Won the War.” It’s told as if the South had won the Civil War, and then speculates what the world might be like had the North won. It’s a brilliant bit of alternate alternate history.

Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) – The oldest fully documented person to have ever lived. Ms. Calment was 122 years old when she died in 1997. She lived through 24 U.S. Presidents (25 if you count Grover Cleveland’s two nonconsecutive terms), from Ulysses Grant to Bill Clinton. She knew Vincent Van Gogh.  She was born before telephones or cars and lived to see cell phones and space flight. Pretty cool, eh?

The “Centurion Trio:”

Eubie Blake (1882-1982) – Wonderful jazz and ragtime pianist whose song “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was blatantly plagiarized by the folk singer Donovan in his hit “Mellow Yellow.” Blake, who wrote his first song in 1899, performed on Saturday Night Live in 1982 at age 100. He died shortly thereafter.

Irving Berlin (1888-1989) – Born Israel Baline, Berlin was a self-taught composer who couldn’t read music and played almost everything on the piano in the key of F# so he could stay mostly on the black notes. He hired a “musical secretary” to transcribe and harmonize his music.

George Burns (1896-1996) – His real name was Nathan Birnbaum, but by any name George Burns was a funny fellow. He never recovered emotionally from the death of his wife Gracie Allen in 1964, but he continued to entertain audiences up until about a year before his death, when a fall in the bathtub curtailed his extraordinary good health. He had been booked to play Vegas and London in his centennial year, but his fall, alas, made that impossible, and he died shortly after his 100th birthday. Say goodnight, Gracie.

NINETEENTH, TWENTIETH, AND TWENTY-FIRST CENTURIES

Emma Morano (1899-    ) – As of this writing, Ms. Morano of Italy is not only the world’s oldest living human, she is the last person left on earth who was born in the 19th century.  Must be quite a responsibility to be the only survivor of an entire century! She just turned 117 in November. Here’s to many more, young lady!

TWENTIETH CENTURY

There are so many that I could go on for years. I’ll settle for a little trivia.

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) – Austrian actress who later moved to America. While best known for her films, Lamarr, along with composer George Antheil, invented a radio guidance system in World War II that prevented Germany from jamming Allied signals. Their invention is still being used today in Wi-fi and Bluetooth technology, and in 2014 both were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The rest of these are a little morbid, centering on November 22, the date President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was assassinated.  Below is a list of some of the folks who also died on November 22.  Two of them, writers Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) died on the same day the president did in 1963. The rest of them died on November 22, but not in 1963. One of them didn’t even live in the 20th century, but we’ve seen him before in this column, so I’ll mention him again: Edward Teach (Blackbeard the Pirate), who died November 22, 1718.

Others who died on November 22 include:

Walter Reed (1851-1902) – Yeah, he’s the guy the famous hospital is named for.

Jack London (1876-1916) – Heard his last call of the wild on November 22, 1916.

Mae West (1893-1980) – She probably should have considered dying before she made the movie Myra Breckinridge, which was—what’s the word I’m looking for?  Oh yeah, dreadful.

Shemp Howard (1895-1955) – One of the Three Stooges, older brother of Jerome (Curly) and Moe.

Scatman Crothers (1910-1986) – Perhaps best remembered as Turkle the night watchman in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he had a long career in music, movies, and television. He was also in John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Parley Baer (1914-2002) – Who, you say? Okay, he’s obscure, but if you’ve ever seen The Andy Griffith Show, you’d recognize him as the mayor of Mayberry.

Mary Kay Ash (1915-2001) – The Queen of Cosmetics.

Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) – Author of many novels, including A Clockwork Orange.

Lana Peters (1926-2011) – Another “who?” At birth she was known as Svetlana Josifovna Stalina, the youngest child of Josef Stalin, who was a Very Bad Man.  Svetlana defected to the U.S. in 1967, married Wesley Peters in 1970, at which time she took the name Lana, and had a daughter, Olga, in 1971. She became a U.S. citizen in 1978, but in 1984 returned to the Soviet Union with Olga, where both were granted Russian citizenship. But wait, there’s more. In 1992 she also became a British citizen. She lived there until 2009, when she returned to the U.S. for the final two years of her life. Her daughter now lives in Oregon under the name Chrese Evans. Chrese is a tattooed Buddhist who runs an antique shop. When it comes to her grandfather, the apple rolled very far from the tree indeed!

TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

It’s not over yet, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m sure it has, and will continue to, produce thousands of noteworthy people. (Hey, all people are noteworthy, right?)

And so ends this blog entry covering 2,000 years of history, an unbroken chain of famous lives, one overlapping the other, from Jesus to Lana Peters.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

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