Although he didn’t ascend to the papacy until he was over eighty years old, Pope Gregory IX was the pope for 14 years -- and managed to do a lot of damage in that time. From picking on the Jews to taking a bizarre stance on cats that ultimately made the Black Death much worse, Gregory IX’s papacy offers several reasons why he was one seriously dangerous pope. Oddly enough, one of the more positive acts of Gregory IX was to establish a Papal Inquisition -- but more on that in a moment.
Pope Gregory IX and the Jews
In 1234, Pope Gregory issued Decretals -- which are papal decrees meant to address a point of canon law -- that were meant to reinforce his power over the Church. One such point of law was the doctrine of perpetua servitus iudaeorum, meaning “perpetual servitude of the Jews.” He invested this doctrine with the force of canon law, and it meant that the Jews would be in a position of political servitude until Judgment Day.
What this meant in practical terms was that the Jews couldn’t have any direct part in the political process. Also, because of the mistaken belief that Jews worshiped the Talmud, Gregory ordered that all copies of the Talmud be confiscated. As a result of this and of Christian-Jewish disputations, on June 12, 1242, 12,000 handwritten copies of the Talmud were burned in Paris.
Okay, we get it: Gregory IX was not a cat person. But he took his dislike of felines to the next level when he issued a papal bull, the Vox in Rama, that condemned devil worship...and, oh yeah, black cats.
The document specifically targeted black cats, which were alleged to be an incarnation of Satan. As a result, black cats were regularly killed up until the 19th century.
Because this cat-culling had a deleterious effect on the overall population of cats, it was easier for rats to proliferate in Europe in the decades that followed. Some historians posit that since the rat population was larger than it would have been had the cats been left alone, and because the bubonic plague is carried by rats, Gregory IX inadvertently caused the Black Plague that hit Europe a century after his death to be much worse than it otherwise would have been.
The Papal Inquisition of the 1230s
No, it’s not this Inquisition:
The Spanish Inquisition of the late 1400s was a different sort of affair from Gregory IX’s Inquisition. In fact, Gregory’s aim in instituting the Papal Inquisition was to keep local civil authorities and hordes of angry villagers in France and Germany from torching individuals suspected of heresy.
Because heresy was a crime against the state, not the Church, it could just as easily be used to conveniently get rid of one's political enemies as to target actual heretics. Gregory’s Inquisition actually saved thousands of people who, justly or unjustly, were accused of heresy or sorcery.
Pope Gregory IX also encouraged Crusades and squabbled with the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, for not making the Sixth Crusade happen in a more timely manner. So in Gregory IX, we have a Jew-hating, cat-hating, book-burning pope whose most laudatory act was an Inquisition. That’s why he gets our vote for one of the most controversial popes in history.
If you’ve never heard of Cesare Borgia, you’ve still probably seen his face. Or perhaps you’ve read a book based on his character and his rise to power. That’s because he was the basis for Machiavelli’s The Prince, and according to some writers and scholars, his face was quite possibly also the model for some of the most well-known images of Jesus, including the one below.
But who was Cesare Borgia, really?
Borgia was the illegitimate son of Rodrigo Borgia, who would become Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei. He was born in Rome in 1475 or 1476, and his siblings included Lucrezia Borgia, Giovanni Borgia, and Gioffre Borgia. Although Cesare Borgia was a cardinal and the son of a pope, he was also part of a family that was infamous for its political machinations and hunger for power.
Cesare’s rise to power began early: He was made a bishop at age 15 and a cardinal at age 18. He was in his early 20s in 1498, when he resigned the cardinalcy and was made the prince of a papal state in northern Italy. However, when his father the Pope passed away in 1503, Cesare’s power crumbled. He was on friendly terms with the new pope, Pius III, but Pius III was only the pontiff for 26 days -- after which Giuliano Della Rovere, an enemy of Cesare’s, took the pontificate as Pope Julius II, and Borgia was overthrown in just a few months.
It was while Cesare was a prince that Niccolo Machiavelli (whose portrait is below) paid him a visit in 1502-3, during which Machiavelli observed that Cesare Borgia was a prime example of the problems that arise when a ruler acquires a principality due to the influence of another person: When the more powerful person loses that power, many times, so does the one who was set up to rule.
Machiavelli also observed (and even admired) Borgia’s ruthlessness, but Cesare’s penchant for court intrigue and violence didn’t overrule his good looks and high connections in the Church. As a result, there are many scholars and authors who believe that Cesare Borgia was the basis for some of the most famous paintings of Jesus. Alexandre Dumas, who wrote not only The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and many other novels but also a book about the Borgias as part of his Celebrated Crimes series, was a proponent of this theory.
So below is the real (non-Jesus-ified) Cesare Borgia. Think he looks like the portrait of Jesus? (We think he looks more like a Nirvana-era Krist Novoselic, but the resemblance is there.)
So there you have it: the guy who was a powerful crime family scion, illegitimate son of a pope, sometime teenage bishop and cardinal, and the inspiration for The Prince and the way we picture Jesus, all rolled into one. Not bad for a guy who only lived to see age 31.
Just about any Game of Thrones fan can tell you the name of Arya Stark's diminutive sword ("Needle") and how she got it (Jon Snow, her supposed half-brother, had it forged for her when her father Eddard Stark refused to allow her to learn to fight). Being small and female, Arya can't fight using a heavy broadsword, so her rapier-like sword -- very like a fencing foil -- is well suited to her. And once her father sees that she's determined to learn to fight, he employs a Braavosi master swordsman to teach her the "Water Dance" style of swordfighting.
lthough Arya's owning a sword and learning to use it are portrayed as rebellious acts (on the part of a daughter of a noble house, anyway), you might be surprised to learn that women have been fencing for a long time. Foil fencing was one of the first sports in which women were allowed to compete in the Olympics (in 1924), but these photos show that women had already been learning fencing for decades at that point.
In the above photo, from 1885, two women are fencing while wearing corsets and the full Victorian getup in addition to their fencing vests and masks. (We're impressed.) But possibly because the corset and other women's clothing of the 1800s-early 1900s was very restrictive, there was a period in which women's fencing went topless: Women would fence naked from the waist up and wearing a full skirt.
The little heart patch you see in this and other photos on this page is not there to be cute -- it's a way of scoring points.
As women's fashions in general became less restrictive after the Victorian and Edwardian eras, women had more fencing uniform options, more safety gear, and less of a need to compete topless.
Today, female fencers can compete in the Olympics in women's fencing using the foil, epee or saber -- the three weapons used in modern fencing. And topless fencing and little felt hearts are long gone from the sport.
If you've ever watched one of Buster Keaton's silent films, you've probably been amazed by his grace, agility, strength (especially for such a wiry little guy) and his brilliant sense of comedic timing. But you'll probably be most impressed by his absolute fearlessness: Buster choreographed and performed all his own stunts with an accuracy that usually kept him safe from harm -- but not always. Case in point? The time he broke his neck and didn't know about it until 10 years later.
It happened when he filmed this scene for his film Sherlock Jr.:
At the very end of that scene, the water tower unleashes a torrent of water on Buster and knocks him to the ground. He gets up and continues the scene without missing a beat, but reportedly suffered from headaches for several days afterward. In the 1930s, Buster discovered that his neck had been fractured and figured out that this very scene is when it happened. (He and his crew had grossly underestimated the amount of force of the water.)
But usually, Buster Keaton's sense of space and timing were impeccable -- allowing him to do impossible-looking stunts that could go horribly wrong if his calculations were off by a second or an inch. For example, just consider the following scene that gave Buster Keaton's film crew fits. This famous clip of a house falling around (and almost on) Buster is from Steamboat Bill Jr.:
Happily, Buster wasn't injured in that stunt (despite a very near-miss by the house facade that weighed two tons). But the story goes that half of his film crew walked off the set before that scene was filmed, and of the remaining half, none of them could bring themselves to look until the dust had settled!
Although many of today's film fans have never seen a silent film, it's truly worth it to check out some of Buster Keaton's best work -- movies like the ones mentioned above, or The General, the movie that Orson Welles called "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made."
Even if silent movies aren't your thing, Buster Keaton's legacy lives on in the work of actors he's inspired, like Jackie Chan. But that's another story for another day...
Reading through Herodotus’ Histories is quite unlike reading a history book from today. In its pages gods, goddesses and mythical heroes rub shoulders with actual, verifiably real kings and other historical figures. He points out where Homer was erroneous in his telling of the Iliad (Helen and Paris made a detour to Egypt rather than proceeding to Troy) and gives us lessons in botany, such as the little-known fact that the tree that produces frankincense is guarded by flying snakes.
But then Herodotus also lists the provinces that existed in Persia under King Darius and exactly how much tribute was due from each, with an exactitude that lends credibility to a book that contains some pretty outrageous stories. And then there are the landmarks and wonders of the ancient world that he writes about in great detail -- enough to make the curious reader wonder, “Does that still exist?”
Case in point: The Tunnel of Eupalinos. Built in the 6th century BCE by order of Polykrates, the tyrant (ruler) of the island of Samos, this tunnel through Mount Kastro is described by Herodotus as a marvel of engineering. Under the leadership of Eupalinos, the first hydraulic engineer whose name has been passed down to us, two teams dug tunnels from opposite sides of the mountain to meet in the middle -- and amazingly, the two tunnels were only misaligned by a few feet.
The Tunnel of Eupalinos (also known as the Eupalinian aqueduct) is about eight feet high and eight feet wide, with a smaller channel dug along the side of the tunnel to act as an aqueduct -- the purpose of the tunnel being to bring water to the city of Samos from a spring on the other side of the mountain. This was important not only for the health of the city’s inhabitants, but also for their safety and defense: The inland spring that served as a water source was difficult to find and so was the aqueduct, meaning that an enemy would find it very difficult to block the city’s water supply during a siege.
The Eupalinian aqueduct was used for about a millennium, but was lost for a time before being rediscovered in the 1880s. You can still visit the Tunnel of Eupalinos if you visit the part of Samos Island now known as Pythagoreion. Part of the tunnel is open to the public.
So that's the tale of the Tunnel of Eupalinos. If ancient tunnels and other feats of engineering are your thing, you might be interested to know that Eupalinos' masterwork isn't even the oldest surviving tunnel of its kind. That distinction belongs to the Siloam Tunnel in Jerusalem, which is thought to have been built anywhere from the late 9th century BCE to the early 7th century BCE.
The posts on this blog are conceived of and written by various members of a homeschooling family. We're lifetime learners who delight in finding odd bits of history, obscure practices that were once commonplace, and forgotten cultural icons tucked away in books and on the Internet.