History is full of epic moments, tragic moments, triumphal moments, and shameful moments. But, it’s also pretty chock full of some pretty odd occasions. Here are a handful of those unexpected, and maybe a little bit baffling, bygone events.
It’s something we just don’t see much in modern human history, volcanic activity so extreme that it plunges the world into a deep winter. This one lasted about a year and was documented by many historians, including Procopius who said “…the sun gave forth its light without brightness.” The sad side effect of this event was a season of crop failure and famine. It may also have been the reason why so many gold hoards have been found related to 6th century Scandinavia (appease the gods!) as well as the final death knell for Teotihuacan (failed to appease the gods?).
Okay, that first one was just to whet your appetite. It is rare, but maybe not so much ODD. So, let’s jump ahead over 300 years to “The Cadaver Synod”. The name has already got you wondering! This one has a convoluted history, but the short of it is that a bishop named Formosus went around converting folks all over to Chrisianity and generally looking politically good to the church. The Pope at the time, John VIII, excommunicated Formosus for empire building and being too keen on becoming Pope. John VIII was murdered shortly thereafter. A series of Popes came and went (with the coming and the wenting often being under questionable circumstances). In that time Formosus was reinstated and ultimately became Pope. He managed 5 years (shock!) and died of natural causes (double shock!) in 896. About a year later, Pope Stephen had Formosus dug up, dressed up, and seated for trial. Pope Stephen ranted and raved at the corpse in the chair, and, despite an ominous earthquake during proceedings, declared Formoses guilty, desecrated his corpse, and threw him in Tiber. Pope Stephen would be murdered in a jail cell just a few days later.
On to summer of 1233, when Europe is jumpy about witches. In Germany, one particular jumpy fellow, Conrad of Marburg, claimed there was a particularly nasty cult brewing in his region and asked the church to intercede. Pope Gregory IX created a papal bull, the Vox in Rama, to deal with the situation. The situation being, according to the bull, that the devil was half-cat/half-man and cavorting with German women. This was the first document to link cats to witches. This caused a panic about cats, specifically black cats and beginning in the district of Conrad of Marburg and spreading across Europe there was a wholesale slaughter of cats. But, these were people who neither knew of nor understood such things as food webs, epidemiology, or karma. By the 1300s there was such a significant decrease in the cat populations that the rats were running rampant … which may have led to Europe’s widespread bubonic plague.
I feel some of our readers may be very upset by the previous story about cat executions, so let’s go back to corpses. Like anything involving corpses, this has a bit of backstory. Pedro of Portugal, heir to the throne, took a shine to his new wife’s maid (the wife was new … and I guess so was the maid). As soon as his bride kicked off, he secretly married the maid, Ines de Castro. His dad tried to marry him off and eventually the jig was up and the couple announced their 8-year marriage publicly. King Pedro was furious and had Ines locked in a monastery and murdered in front of her child. King Pedro ALSO did not get the karma memo and popped his clogs less than 2 years later. This next bit is unsubstantiated, but widely circulated. It’s said that when King Peter 1 took the throne, he had his dead wife exhumed and her corpses placed on the throne next to his, requiring those who approached to kiss her hem. True or not, that’s a helluva story.
Royals giving other royals exotic animal gifts has a deep and strange history (see last week’s blog to check out that time a polar bear swam in the Thames). On this occasion, Lorenzo de Medici was gifted a giraffe by the Sultan of Egypt, al-Ashraf Qaitbay (most likely). Medici had a large menagerie and had wanted a giraffe and now he had one! She was fed treats by visiting nobles and her head could be seen passing by first-floor windows (second-story for Americans).
One day in 1518 in Strasbourg (in the Holy Roman Empire), Frau Troffea was walking along having an uneventful day. Until she went to cross the street and in the middle of the road began turning and shaking and generally looking as if she was turning the lane into her own personal dance floor. Her “dance” continued for a week. During that time many others joined in this random, flash-mob rave party. Physicians blamed it on overly hot blood and variously tried cooling people off or having encouraging them to move until the problem cured itself. The church marched people to holy ground to pray for their souls. Some people died dancing, but most seem to have simply stopped as mysteriously as they had begun. No one is really sure what caused this and it was not the only incident in Europe of spontaneous, protracted prancing. Perhaps a shared stress-induced neurotic break? Ergot poisoning? It’s a mystery. You can read more about it in Renaissance Magazine Issue #118.
In March of 1629, King of England, Charles I, was having a conniption. He felt he should get to make decisions without approval or input from Parliament. He convinced the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir John Finch, to adjourn. Three Members, Elliot, Holles, and Valentine, leapt up to physically hold the Speaker in his chair to prevent him for rising and therefore concluding the session. While Finch was held immobile, the House went on to pass several measures in defence against the King’s actions. For anyone following the news in England, this may sound very similar to an event which just transpired on September 10th.
Dr. John Wilkins, clergyman, scientist, and Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law, at the age of 26 and during a period of both scientific zeal and confusion, sought to put people on the Moon. It was held that other planets must also have people and, if they didn’t, then they were created by God for people to move. It was also reasoned that space was full of atmosphere. So, Wilkins designed the first space shuttle designed to travel to the Moon. Wilkins called it a “flying chariot” and it had everything a 17th century Moon rocket should have. It was gunpowder powered (say that three times fast), had feathered wings which flapped, and consisted of many cogs, gears, and springs. Basically, this thing would be right at home at Burning Man. Sadly, his idea never got off the ground because he could never quite get the funding and interest.
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