Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Dramatic Life Of The Mercian Queen, Osthryth

Osthryth had such a complicated family life that she could put Shakespeare’s story of Romeo and Juliet to shame. Her father was King Oswiu (or Oswy), ruler of Northumbria between the years 642 and 670. At that time, the Northumbrians had a bitter feud with the Mercians—Oswiu only became king of Northumbria after his brother, King Oswald (r. 634-642), was slain and dismembered by King Penda of Mercia. Oswiu avenged his brother by killing King Penda during the Battle of Winwaed, which occurred in 655. After Penda’s death, Oswiu occupied a portion of Mercia and let the rest remain ruled by a puppet ruler. The puppet, interestingly enough, was a man named Peada, who happened to be a son of Penda.

Despite the wars between Northumbria and Mercia, King Oswiu actively tried to strengthen the bond between the rival countries through marriage. He arranged for least two of his known daughters to marry sons of King Penda. The puppet ruler of Mercia, Peada, was married to Oswiu’s daughter, Alhflæd. The late king Penda’s youngest son, Æthelred, was married to Osthryth, who was mentioned earlier. Penda had another son, named Wulfhere, who did not marry a Northumbrian princess, but instead wed a woman from Kent.

As Osthryth was married to Æthelred, the youngest son of Penda, both wife and husband likely presumed that they would never sit upon the throne during their lives. As such, the couple followed the path taken by most royal family members that had little to inherit—they devoted their time to the church. Nevertheless, the course of events would take some unexpected turns.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Remarkable Tale Of The Kidnapped Noble, Dou Guangguo

Dou Guangguo was from an impoverished noble family based out of Qinghe in Zhao. Even though the rebellion against the Qin regime and the consequential rise of the Han Dynasty under Emperor Gaozu (king r. 206-202, emperor 202-195 BCE) was a time of tremendous social mobility, the Dou family remained of little significance, holding virtually no worth except the noble blood that ran in their veins.

The downtrodden Dou family, however, was given a door to future opportunities during the reign of Empress Dowager Lü, the wife of Emperor Gaozu and the mother of Emperor Hui (r. 195-188 BCE). Either during Empress Dowager Lü’s domineering years over her son’s reign, or in her own sole rule by means of young puppet emperors between 188 and 180 BCE, the empress dowager took an interest in Dou Guangguo’s family. Empress Dowager Lü had many relatives in need of consorts and concubines, so she was always on the lookout for young women from good families who could be integrated into the imperial court. As it happened, Dou Guangguo had an older sister who fit the empress dowager’s requirements. Guangguo was very, very young at the time, but he would later claim to have vivid memories of spending time with his sister, Lady Dou, before she left to become a palace attendant of Empress Dowager Lü.

Whereas the fortunes of Lady Dou were on the rise, young Guangguo would have a drastically different path in life. When Dou Guangguo was four or five years old, he somehow fell into the hands of a group of kidnappers. The criminals presumably gave Guangguo his nickname, Shaojun, as a new identity and then sold him to a family that was in need of a servant.

Young Shaojun, however, must have been a difficult child, for he was ultimately traded or sold to more than ten families before he found a more stable position with a family from Yiyang. The Yiyang family may have owned a charcoal burning business, or just wanted more spare charcoal for their home, because they eventually sent Shaojun (presumably now a young adult) into the forested mountainside to make charcoal alongside around a hundred other workers. While working with the charcoal burners, Shaojun apparently survived a catastrophic embankment collapse that killed most of his comrades. That accident evidently inspired him to seek a practitioner of divination to tell him of his future—the diviner unbelievably told Shaojun that he would one day become a landed noble with the rank of marquis.

Despite the enticing prophecy, Shaojun needed to work until his unlikely fortune came true. He either returned to the family in Yiyang or found employment as a servant with someone else. Whatever the case, he was ultimately sent by his employer to the capital city of Chang’an, arriving sometime after Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) succeeded to the throne. While there, Shaojun began to hear intriguing stories about Wen’s empress.

From gossip on the street, Shaojun learned that the new empress was of a poor, but noble, family from the Zhao region. She had been lifted out of obscurity to become a palace attendant of Empress Dowager Lü, and was eventually sent with four other women to the kingdom of Dai, where she became a favorite concubine of the imperial prince, King Liu Heng (ruler of Dai, r. 196-180). When Empress Dowager Lü died in 180 BCE, the government ministers supported Liu Heng over the puppet emperor that was left behind by the late empress dowager. After massacring the Lü clan, the Han ministers invited Liu Heng to come to Chang’an and become the new emperor. Liu Heng accepted the offer and was henceforth known as Emperor Wen.

At the time of his ascendance to the throne, Emperor Wen did not have an empress. During his days as the king of Dai, he had chosen a queen, but she unfortunately died and none of her sons lived past their father’s first year of rule as emperor. As such, the ministers quickly urged that Wen should choose an heir from among the sons birthed by his concubines. In 179 BCE, Emperor Wen agreed with his advisors’ suggestions and named his eldest living son, Liu Qi, as his heir and elevated Liu Qi’s mother to the position of empress. The woman in question was Wen’s favorite consort from Zhao and happened to be none other than Shaojun’s older sister, Lady Dou.

After learning of his sister’s fate, Shaojun wrote to Emperor Wen and Empress Dou, telling them of his bizarre background. The letter caught the attention of the imperial couple and they invited him to personally meet with them. In an audience before the emperor and empress, Shaojun told of how his birth name was Dou Guangguo and that he had been kidnapped at around five years of age; that he had been sold by his captors as a servant or laborer and had remained in that line of work ever since. Finally, he reminisced about his memories of spending time with Lady Dou before she became a palace attendant. He recalled how they picked mulberry leaves together and how she had washed his hair with rice-water shortly before departing on her fateful journey to Chang’an. After hearing these memories, Empress Dou confirmed that Shaojun was indeed her long-lost brother.

Upon being accepted by Empress Dou, Shaojun was showered with wealth and given prime real estate in the city of Chang’an. They even sent him several advisors and teachers to show him how to act properly in the imperial court. Finally, during the reign of Empress Dou’s son, Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), Shaojun was appointed as the marquis of Zhangwu.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cooking mural from a tomb in Aohan, c. Liao Dynasty, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Árni Magnússon And His Many Chests Of Original Icelandic Manuscripts

In the year 1663, Árni Magnússon was born in the region of Kvennabrekka, Iceland. The occupations and status of his family would serve him well in later life—Árni’s father was a local sheriff with some political clout and his grandfather and uncle were familiar with the processes of printing and scribing. As these latter two men oversaw Árni Magnússon’s early education, their love of books evidently affected the young boy’s future interests.

After graduating from the Skálholt School in Iceland, Árni Magnússon accompanied his father on a trip to Denmark in 1683. While there, he enrolled at the University of Copenhagen and found a job as an assistant to Thomas Bartholin Jr., the Keeper of the Royal Antiquities in Denmark. This trip to Denmark was a momentous event in Árni Magnússon’s life, as the Keeper of Antiquities would set the young scholar on a task that would become his lifelong passion.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Tragic Tale Of Puncker—A Masterful Archer From 15th-Century Germany

In the 15th century, there supposedly lived a man named Puncker (or Punker), who was renowned as a showman and a warrior in the Holy Roman Empire, an empire that consisted of Germany, Austria and other surrounding Central and Eastern European lands. The life of this legendary or semi-legendary person, interestingly enough, was recorded in the pages of the Malleus Maleficarum, a text on witchcraft and demonology that was published around 1486 or 1487.

According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker lived in Rohrbach and served under a certain noble named Eberhard Longbeard. The text did not specify anything further on this lord, but the authors could be referring to Duke Eberhard I of Württemberg (c. 1445-1496), who was also known as Bearded Eberhard. Other tales and bits of folklore claim that Puncker also interacted with the Rhineland Palatinate ruler, Louis III (r. 1410-1436). In both versions, the story has the same basic core elements, despite some differences in chronology and reasoning as to why parts of the story came about.

In any case, Puncker was likely one of the greatest bowmen to have ever lived. In his most famous archery exhibition, spectators watched with nervously beating hearts as Puncker aimed his arrow at a small coin precariously placed on a hat worn by the archer’s own son. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker flawlessly hit the coin with his arrow, and did so without harming the boy or even scratching the hat.

Puncker, however, was not just a showman who liked to show off his archery skill on inanimate objects. He was also a warrior whose talents were greatly utilized by the aforementioned Eberhard. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker played a major role in Eberhard’s siege of a certain Lendenbrunnen Castle. Putting to good use his uncanny accuracy, Puncker quickly became the scourge of the castle’s defenders by sniping at least three enemies every day. The bow seemed to be an extension of Puncker’s eyes—if he could see a defender, he could hit the defender. At the end of the siege, when Eberhard finally seized the fortress, Puncker was rewarded with a ring from the castle’s gate as a trophy of war. The famed archer proudly hung the ring from the door of his home in Rohrbach.

By this point in the story, many readers may be wondering why the feats of Puncker were recorded in the Malleus Maleficarum, which is a text on witchcraft, and not in a military history. Well, the Malleus Maleficarum was interested in the marksman’s story because 15th-century gossips believed that Puncker’s archery prowess was not natural. In fact, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum believed that Puncker was a bizarre kind of wizard that specialized in archery magic. According to them, Puncker’s miraculous accuracy was nothing more than a diabolical spell. They wrote that Puncker had prepared before every performance and battle by disrespectfully shooting arrows into a crucifix to infuse them with demonic power. According to the inquisitors’ theory, whenever these same diabolical arrows were shot for a second time from Puncker’s bow, demons would swoop in and ensure that the projectiles hit their targets. That is why, they explained, he would only hit three targets per day during the siege—he could supposedly only prepare three bewitched arrows on a daily basis.

Eventually, as Puncker’s renown grew, such accusations of magic began to gain momentum. In non-Malleus Maleficarum accounts of the story, the previously mentioned archery exhibition where Puncker shot a coin off the top of his son’s head was actually an attempt for the archer to clear his name of witchcraft allegations. In that version of the tale, Puncker claimed that if he was a wizard, God would punish him for his use of magic by making the arrow fall off course and hit the boy.

For whatever reasons, witchcraft or otherwise, Puncker eventually fell afoul of his neighbors and eventually suffered a painful end. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, Puncker was hunted down by a mob of peasants and beaten to death with shovels.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of archery practice by Geoffrey Luttrell, c. 1325, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • From The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971). 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Leucothea—A Mortal Greek Woman Of Myth Said To Have Become A Goddess

Among the exclusive club of Greek deities that could claim to have originally been mortal humans was an interesting immortal named Leucothea the White Goddess. She began her days as a proud Greek princess in an important Boeotian city, but, after a life of tragedy and madness, she became a protective goddess of the sea.