Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
A common punishment for those accused of a crime in seventeenth century Europe was to be sent to the galleys. That meant spending the rest of your life at an oar in the dark, stinking hold of a ship.
Wind and oars were the only known propellant of the age. Paid employment at the oar had been tried and dismissed. The only reliable way to produce the necessary speed and endurance to chase down (or escape from) enemy ships or Barbary pirates was to use the whip on your oarsmen, something that didn’t go over well with paid employees. But as condemned criminals were plentiful in that era, it wasn’t difficult to find oarsmen.
When in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes—a law passed by his grandfather Henry IV that had ensured the freedom of Protestant worship in France—many French Protestants (known as Huguenots) who tried to flee the country were sent to the galleys.
What was life like as a galley slave? We know something about it from letters and memoirs of Huguenot convicts.
After a long and often grueling march to the ports, the convicts would be sorted into groups of five—these would become the people with whom one would eat, sleep, and work, often until one died of old age or overwork or both. Each group of five men manned an eighteen-foot oar–and there might be fifty oars on a ship. The convicts remained chained to their places. With each stroke, they had to rise together and push the oar forward, and then dip it in the water and pull backward, dropping into a sitting position. During battle, rowers might be required to maintain full speed for twenty-four hours straight, and be fed biscuits soaked in wine without pausing in their exertions. Those who died—or lost consciousness—were thrown overboard.
Horrific, yes. But there were at least some brief respites from the wretched existence, periods of time when the wind’s sails propelled the ship and the rowers could rest. And when the ship overwintered in port, the life of a gallérien became almost tolerable. They had room to lie down and sleep. Many gallériens learned to knit, and others were already skilled wig makers, tailors, and musicians—and were allowed to employ their trades in rotating weeks ashore.
In his memoirs, a Huguenot named Jean Marteilhe wrote about his capture in 1701 as a boy of 17, and his experiences as a galley slave having been chained together with other deserters, thieves, smugglers, Turks and Calvinists for 6 years from 1707 to 1713. His account is entitled Memoirs of a Galley Slave of the Sun King.
Sara Albee's book Why'd They Wear That? is published by National Geographic. 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. "Row, Row, Row Your Boats." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 22
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Yes, they exist!
At the height of the Roman inquisition in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio ignored the rigid rules that guided what could be painted. Rather than follow the current style based on idealized human beings in ennobling religious stories, he used real people as models. More than that, he invented a genre based on daily life rather than on religious or historical stories. He taught people to see the holy in the everyday and the everyday in the holy. This alone was a tremendous act of rebellion and could have led to imprisonment, even death.
Caravaggio did go to prison, many times, but not for the crime of pictorial heresy. His first arrest was for carrying a sword without a permit— yes, you needed a sword license then, much as you need a gun permit today. His second arrest happened when an officer stopped him for carrying a weapon. Though Caravaggio had the permit, he refused to show it. The third time he was spotted carrying his sword, he showed the permit. The officer thanked him, but Caravaggio couldn't resist cursing out the policeman, so he was arrested for insulting an officer.
But the best arrest was for assault with a vegetable. This is the official deposition, taken 18 November 1599:
It was around five in the afternoon and the aforesaid Caravaggio, along with some others, was eating in the Moor of the Magdalene where I work as a waiter. I brought him eight cooked artichokes, that is four in butter and four in oil and he asked me which were cooked in oil and which in butter. I told him that he could smell them and easily know which were cooked in butter and which were cooked in oil, and he got up in a fury and without saying a word, he took the plate from me and threw it in my face where it hit my cheek. You can still see the wound. And then he reached for his sword and he would have hit me with it, but I ran away and came right to this office to present my complaint.
Caravaggio went on to be arrested many more times for more serious assaults, including murder. Now, though, he's not remembered as a criminal, but rather as an artistic genius who inspired generations of followers.
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599–1602) is the first of several paintings in which Caravaggio chose to depict the dramatic and gory subject of decapitation. Wikimedia
Basket of Fruit, c. 1595–1596, oil on canvas. Caravaggio's realistic view of things is exemplified in this still life. The bowl is teetering on the edge of the table, some of the leaves are withered, and the apple in the front is far from perfect. Wikimedia
Marissa Moss's book Caravaggio:Painter on the Run tells a compelling story that humanizes Caravaggio while describing the political and social atmosphere in which he lived.
Moss, Marissa. "Police Reports from the Sixteenth Century?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 24 01 2018, http://www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/police-reports-from-the-sixteenth-century6158812.
Nonfiction is the new black
When the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV came to power in 175 BCE after his brother was assassinated, he insisted on being called Antiochus Epiphanes (“Antiochus the Visible God”). To the Jews who had the misfortune to be among his subjects, he was Antiochus Epimanes (“Antiochus the lunatic”).
No matter his name, he was definitely bad news to the Jews. Because of his Greek background, Antiochus believed in many gods. The Jews, on the other hand, were monotheistic. Antiochus soon began imposing his beliefs on the Jews and making it much more difficult for them to practice their religion. For example, anyone caught circumcising their newborn children would be put to death.
In 168 he sacked Jerusalem. His forces cut down thousands of defenseless Jews of all ages, looted and desecrated the Second Temple, and erected a massive statue of the chief Greek god Zeus (using himself as a model for the sculptor who created the statue). Soon the altar ran red with the blood of swine that were slaughtered as sacrifices. For good measure, Antiochus also outlawed the Hebrew religion.
The outraged Jews fought back. An elderly priest named Mattathias and some of his men killed a group of Seleucid soldiers. That ignited a revolt against Antiochus’s rule. When Mattathias died, his son Judah assumed the leadership role. Judah soon acquired the surname of Maccabee (“the hammer”) for his skill in battle. After a series of successful guerrilla operations, he led his vastly outnumbered forces to two decisive victories that resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem in 165.
The first order of business was cleansing the temple so it could be rededicated. The ceremony began on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. According to legend, the small amount of purified oil that was readily available for the rites was expected to burn just a single night. Instead it burned for eight nights, when a new supply became available. That miracle gave rise to the ceremony of lighting one candle for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, which means “dedication.”
Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar-based, the dates of Hanukkah change each year. This year Hanukkah begins [December 12] at sunset and lasts until sunset on December .
To the Jewish families who celebrate the holiday, Happy Hanukkah!
The holidays are approaching and millions of people will be listening to Handel’s Messiah. Read all about the composer in Jim Whiting’s Masters of Music biography.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Story of Hanukkah." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 11 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-story-of-hanukkah.