Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
During the Renaissance, French kings and queens built many palaces, in an area known as the Loire Valley. The royal family would travel from palace to palace to get away from Paris, the way you might head to a lake house. The Loire Valley is not very close to Paris. It’s about 110 miles from Paris to the palace of Chambord, for instance. I wondered how long it took sixteenth century travelers to make this journey—and why there were so many palaces.
First, the distance. Under the best of conditions (good roads, decent weather, level ground), humans can walk four miles per hour over long distances. Horses can’t do much better–maybe five mph—but a lot less if they’re pulling something or if roads are in awful condition. A horse can canter at 20 mph, but it can only do that for six to eight miles at a time, after which it will slow down and walk, or stop completely. So it would have taken a long time to get from place to place. Under the best conditions, a journey from Paris to Chambord would have taken three weeks.
But in fact, it took a lot longer than that. Because in the sixteenth century, the royal court didn’t just hop on a horse and head to their country home. They took everything and everyone with them, loading all the stuff onto the backs of horses and mules.
When Catherine de Medici was queen of France, she traveled with her ladies and gentlemen, foreign ambassadors, pet bears, servants, retainers, attendants, apothecaries, astrologists, tutors, musicians, cooking pots, food, clothing, portable triumphal arches, wall hangings, and furniture.
And the reason there were so many palaces is simply that the court in Renaissance times –thousands of people–had to move around from estate to estate so as to find new hunting grounds. Once they’d exhausted the food supply in the area, they moved on to the next estate. Also, the sanitation was dreadful. After thousands of people had taken up residence in and around a great estate for a few weeks, filth piled up, and with it, stench and disease.
The royal procession could be miles long. When Catherine de Medici’s court packed up and left for a new palace, the beginning of the royal caravan sometimes entered a town before those traveling at the back of it had left the last one.
Sara Albee's recent book is Why'd They Wear That?, published by National Geographic in 2015. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don'ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, you will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Renaissance Road Trips." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/renaissance-road-trips.
Nonfiction is the new black
During much of the sixteenth century, England was wracked by violence between Catholics and Protestants. Hundreds of Protestants were executed during the reign of Queen Mary (1553–1558), earning her the nickname of “Bloody Mary.” Her Protestant successor, Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) returned the favor by persecuting and killing Catholics. She was followed by James I, whose Catholic mother had been executed. James’s wife had recently converted to Catholicism.
English Catholics therefore hoped he would be more tolerant than Elizabeth. While the number of executions dropped off, James ordered Catholic priests to leave England and said that Protestantism was the one true faith. Despairing Catholics decided on a desperate measure. They would assassinate James and install his nine-old-daughter Elizabeth as a Catholic monarch.
The plotters secreted three dozen barrels of gunpowder in the basement beneath the House of Lords a few days before the opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters, planned to ignite a fuse when King James entered the chamber and then scurry to safety. With most members of Parliament and other high officials dead in the explosion, the resulting chaos would make it easier for the schemers to seize control of the government.
However, some of the conspirators realized that this plan would kill a lot of innocent people, including Catholics. So in late October, one of them sent an anonymous warning letter to a Catholic Member of Parliament. He passed along the message to the king’s guardians. Shortly after midnight on November 5, a search party discovered Fawkes and the concealed gunpowder. He was tortured for several days to reveal the names of the other conspirators and then executed. His body was hacked into several pieces. The grisly chunks were displayed in several parts of England as a warning to would-be traitors.
In celebration of the king’s salvation, many people lit bonfires on the night of the discovery. That began a tradition that continues to this day in what is known as Bonfire Night. Tonight in nations of the British Empire, revelers, many wearing Guy Fawkes apparel, are shooting off fireworks and building huge bonfires to burn effigies of the man regarded as England’s most notorious traitor.
Happy Guy Fawkes Day!
Jim Whiting has written more than a hundred books on many subjects. His is a very interesting person. Check out his website on Amazon.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Let's Blow Up the King!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Nov. 2017, http://www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/lets-blow-up-the-king.
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was a famous Spanish painter. He had a slave named Juan de Pareja (1606 – 1670). Call him an indentured servant if you want, but it’s more accurate to say he was Velazquez's slave, as he was not at liberty to leave. For years, Pareja prepared brushes, ground pigments, and stretched canvasses for the artist. While he was at it, Pareja observed his master carefully, and secretly taught himself how to use the materials, and how to paint.
Pareja was referred to as a Morisco in Spanish. One way to translate the word is that he had mixed parentage (the offspring of a European Spaniard and a person of African descent). Another way to translate the word is that he was a Moor—someone descended from Muslims who had remained in Spain after its conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella.
In 1650, Velazquez was preparing to paint a portrait of Pope Innocent X. As practice, he painted Pareja, who had accompanied the artist to Italy. Here is the portrait.
It's a pretty amazing picture, isn't it?
Velazquez got all sorts of praise for it from the artists in Rome—he was even elected into the Academy of St. Luke.
According to some sources, Velazquez would not allow Pareja to pick up a paintbrush. But one day, when King Philip IV was due to visit Velazquez, Pareja placed one of his own paintings where the king would see it. When the king admired it, believing it to be by Velazquez, Pareja threw himself at the king’s feet and begged for the King to intercede for him. Whether or not that story is true, Pareja did become an accomplished painter, and impressed the king so much that he ordered Pareja freed.
Pareja remained with the Velazquez family until his death.
It was hard to find examples of his paintings, but here are two that are attributed to him.
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "The Painter Was a Slave." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-painter-was-a-slave.
nonfiction is the new black
Accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip, the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth embarked on a tour of the then-British colony of Kenya in early February, 1952. Her father, King George VI, had been too ill with lung cancer to join them.
The royal couple stayed at Treetops, a three-room hotel built into the top of a large tree overlooking a water hole and salt lick. Just getting there could be dangerous. Angry elephants could unexpectedly charge arriving guests as they walked the considerable distance from the parking lot. Then guests endured a twisting 30-foot climb up a rickety ladder. At night leopards often prowled in the trees just outside the rooms.
The place was so perilous for guests that the hotel actually hired an experienced hunter named Jim Corbett. He had made a reputation for hunting men-eating tigers in India. Corbett remained on high alert through the night of the royal visit, his high-powered hunting rifle at the ready. Nothing happened.
Something very important happened in London, however. At some point during the night, the king died. Under the communication systems operating at the time, there was no way of contacting Treetops to inform Princess Elizabeth of her father’s death.
Unaware of what had happened, Elizabeth rose at dawn, added more photos to go along with those she had taken the previous day, then had a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. She and Philip drove to Sagana Lodge, a wedding gift to her from the Kenyan people. Officials there had received word of the king’s death and notified Philip. He took Elizabeth for a walk in the garden in mid-afternoon and broke the news to her. She was now the queen, and in fact had become Elizabeth II while she was still asleep at Treetops the night before.
She immediately made arrangements to return home and boarded an airplane that evening. When the plane was airborne, she excused herself and went to the restroom. Returning several minutes later she said nothing, but it was apparent to everyone on the flight that she had been crying.
Elizabeth has been queen ever since. If she is still reigning on September 15, 2015, she would surpass Queen Victoria and become the longest-reigning British monarch in history.
Jim Whiting has written on many subjects. Check out his page on Amazon.com
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Princess Who Went up a Tree and Came down a Queen." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 24 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-princess-who-went-up-a-tree-and-came-down-a-queen.
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
King Louis XIV (1638 –1715) was a famous king of France. In the year 1685, when he was at the height of his reign, his butt started to hurt. A lot. His royal physicians tried all kinds of treatments, trying to shrink the swelling, but finally, after months of suffering on everyone’s part, they called for a surgeon. This was a big deal.
Surgeons at the time were not considered respectable. They ranked many notches below physicians, on the level of barbers (in fact, most were barbers). The Church forbade doctors to cut into a living body. But the king and his physicians were desperate.
His butt problem was diagnosed as something called an anal fistula. If you think it sounds bad, you’re right. It’s a condition where a new channel opens up leading from the bowel to the outside of the body, but that is not the anus—the channel through which waste is supposed to leave the body. We won’t speculate as to how the king developed his fistula, although we do know that the king ate enormous quantities of food, and his diet was probably not what we would consider healthy today. Also, his hygiene was not good. He often ordered windows to be opened when he entered a room, so that his courtiers would not be overcome by his smell.
The surgeon, Charles Francois Félix de Tassy, requested to wait six months before operating. He practiced on a bunch of peasants, none of whom actually had anal fistulae. Some of them even died.
The king’s fistula operation was performed on November 18th 1686. Sources reported that the king was calm. The surgeon was not. Félix had designed a “royally curved” scalpel especially for that purpose, inserting it into the fistula with the help of a retractor.
The operation was a success. The king was sitting up in bed within a month. It became fashionable for courtiers to admit they had a fistula, too, in hopes of being able to walk around Versailles with their butts swaddled like the king’s.
Why is this story important? By operating successfully on the king, Félix raised the profession of surgery to a more prestigious level. Félix was knighted and given money and land. But he was said to be so traumatized that he never again touched a scalpel.
(c) Sarah Albee 2014
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "The King's Butt." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-kings-butt.