Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Odd Lifestyle Of Zhou Ren

In China during the 2nd century BCE, there lived an interesting fellow named Zhou Ren. He hailed from the region now known as Jining, Shandong, and through unknown means he managed to ingratiate himself into the imperial court of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE). While Emperor Wen was still alive, Zhou Ren became a palace counselor and joined the retinue of the imperial heir apparent, the future Emperor Jing. Before the ascendance to the throne of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), Zhou Ren became one of the new emperor’s closest and most intimate friends. Almost immediately after Jing became emperor, he appointed Zhou Ren to be the chief or chamberlain of all the palace attendants—a position Zhou Ren would hold for the remainder of the emperor’s reign.

Zhou Ren definitely was an oddball. He was described as something of an ascetic when it came to physical appearance and wealth. Even if a crowd of courtiers surrounded him, the peculiar figure of Zhou Ren could be immediately and easily identified from the rest of the masses. While other members of the court dressed in the latest fashions, Zhou Ren reportedly wore tattered robes that were barely kept intact by a network of sewn patches. His clothes were not only frayed and ripped, but also horribly dirty. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) described the striking visual and aromatic experience of meeting Zhou Ren: “He always went about in a worn and patched robe and urine-stained trousers, purposely presenting a dirty and unattractive appearance” (Shi Ji, 103).

Despite Zhou Ren’s monk-like asceticism in regards to clothing and wealth, he was allegedly far from restrained when it came to more sensual matters. Sima Qian categorized Zhou Ren as one of the “emperor’s male favorites” and, although the historian did not definitively state that Zhou Ren and Emperor Jing were more than friends, he did write that “it is not women alone who can use their looks to attract the eyes of the ruler” (Shi Ji, 125). Whatever the truth may be, Zhou Ren was evidently one of the emperor’s most favored and trusted courtiers. With trust came access to restricted quarters, and before long, Zhou Ren was able to wander in places where others could only dream of exploring. Sima Qian wrote, “Emperor Jing favored him and allowed him to go in and out of his private chambers; whenever there were secret revels in the women’s quarters Zhou Ren was always present” (Shi Ji, 103).

Despite rumors of Zhou Ren’s mysterious visits to Emperor Jing’s private chambers, women’s quarters and other such “dubious means to gain intimacy with the emperor” (Shi Ji, 103), Zhou Ren otherwise lived a virtuous and humble life in the imperial court. The reason he never was promoted from his position as chief of the palace attendants was apparently because Zhou Ren simply refused all offers of advancement. Similarly, he was said to never accept bribes, gifts or favors from courtiers or nobles. Zhou Ren’s reputation persisted even after the death of his patron, Emperor Jing, in 141 BCE. The new ruler, Emperor Wu, treated Zhou Ren with respect, but the aging chief palace attendant soon decided to retire. Although Zhou Ren never used his proximity to the emperors to ascend the social ladder, his children and grandchildren profited greatly from his intimacy with the imperial family. Sima Qian wrote that a majority of Zhou Ren’s descendants were given prominent positions in government.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Illustration of a Daoist immortal by Zhang Lu (1464–1538), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Life Of St. Magnus And His Supernatural Revenge

Around 1098, the Norwegian crown placed Orkney under direct royal control, but Hakon Paulsson, the son of a formal jarl of the region, was appointed to govern Orkney within a year or two after Sigurd the Crusader became king of Norway in 1103. Jarl Hakon Paulsson was portrayed as a willing retainer of the Norwegian kings in the Orkneyinga saga. Yet, Hakon had a cousin called Magnus Erlendsson who was less enthusiastic about being ordered around. Instead of behaving like Hakon Paulsson and serving his Norwegian liege, Magnus Erlendsson fled to Scotland and found shelter with King Edgar (r. 1097-1107). Magnus’ stay in Scotland, however, was only temporary and he decided to return home not long after Jarl Hakon Paulsson was appointed as jarl of Orkney.

Like Hakon, Magnus Erlendsson’s father was also a former jarl of the islands and he intended to press his claim. Multiple jarls coexisting in Orkney was nothing new—according to the Orkneyinga saga, the practice of dividing the governance of Orkney into halves and thirds was at least a century old by that time. When Magnus Erlendsson arrived in Orkney, he had powerful friends that flocked to back his claim, and the island population seemed accepting to the idea of a second jarl. Hakon Paulsson was undoubtedly less than enthusiastic about sharing power with his cousin, but he was convinced to accept the Norwegian crown’s decision on whether Magnus Erlendsson should become a jarl. The claimant sailed to Norway around 1107 and, to Hakon’s disappointment, Magnus Erlendsson was recognized as a rightful jarl of Orkney.

As Jarl Magnus was later considered a saint, it is not surprising that he was described as a tremendously virtuous man. He reportedly avoided war at all cost—his self-imposed exile to Scotland was allegedly done so that he would not be forced to go on Viking raids with his liege.  Yet, when it came to upholding law, Jarl Magnus was a staunch defender of the people, going to great lengths to hunt down thieves and murderers. He strove to help the poor and was never stingy with his wealth. As for Magnus’ personal life, he married a Scottish noblewoman, but he publicly behaved with such purity and restraint that the people of Orkney swore that he remained chaste during the entirety of the marriage.

After several years of joint rule, Jarl Hakon and Jarl Magnus found that they no longer could coexist. For unknown reasons, the faction of Hakon Paulsson began a civil war against the supporters of Magnus Erlendsson. Both sides eventually agreed to a peace meeting on Egilsay, which was set to occur just after Easter. Both jarls agreed to arrive on the island with only two ships. Magnus Erlendsson followed the prearranged agreement to the letter, sailing with a pair of ships and a limited amount of guards. Jarl Hakon, however, arrived with eight ships and captured Magnus without a fight. With his rival in his grasp, Hakon showed no mercy and ordered that Magnus be executed. According to legend, Hakon had a difficult time forcing his soldiers to carry out the order against such a virtuous man—one executioner was said to have refused the job outright and the replacement headsman allegedly began to cry as he prepared for his task. Nevertheless, Jarl Magnus, himself, was said to have consoled the executioner, forgave him for his sin, and encouraged him to swing true. In 1117, apparently with soldiers singing hymns in the background, Jarl Magnus Erlendsson was executed and Hakon seized the whole of Orkney. After the deed was done, Jarl Magnus’ body was brought to Mainland, Orkney, and entombed at Christ Church.

Magnus was proclaimed a saint in Orkney before the end of the century. Interestingly, although he had been a very peaceful man during life, the tales of St. Magnus’ postmortem miracles became quite vengeful, especially against anyone who mistreated him during life or neglected his shrine and relics after his death. Here are several accounts of St. Magnus’ supernatural payback that are mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga:

1) Although St. Magnus had forgiven his executioners during life, he apparently changed his mind after his death. According to the Orkneyinga saga, “the story goes that in general the men most deeply involved in the betrayal of the Holy Jarl Magnus died cruel and violent deaths” (chapter 52). Jarl Hakon Paulsson, however, must have been forgiven by St. Magnus, for he lived a long life and died of natural causes in his bed.

2) On another occasion, the spirit of St. Magnus apparently believed that his body was not being properly venerated and was disappointed that none of his relics had been displayed in the church. Therefore, Bishop William of Orkney was said to have been supernaturally stricken with blindness and he only regained his sight after swearing that he would prepare relics of Saint Magnus and place them in a prominent location in the sanctuary. St. Magnus even supposedly helped out the churchmen as they excavated his body: “When they started digging they found that the coffin had already almost reached the surface” (Orkneyinga saga, chapter 57). With the remains exhumed, Bishop William picked the choicest relics and placed them with honor above the altar in Christ Church.

3) A certain man of Shetland named Thord Dragon-Jaw reportedly refused to stop working on the day of St. Magnus’ Mass. When the over-achiever stopped for a while to have a drink, he went completely insane. Thord’s employer, Bergfinn, was convinced that the madness was St. Magnus’ doing. Therefore, dutiful Bergfinn donated silver to the shrine of St. Magnus on Thord’s behalf and also held a three-night vigil for his crazed employee. Eventually, the silver and vigils placated St. Magnus and Thord was cured after six or more days of insanity.

4) Another Shetlander named Sigrid made the same mistake as Thord Dragon-Jaw and St. Magnus once again retaliated. As the story goes, the dreaded St. Magnus’ Mass was approaching and poor Sigrid had not finished her daily allotment of sewing. She was convinced that she could finish before nightfall, but, alas, when the final string was sewn, it was already dark. St. Magnus struck her with madness as punishment for disregarding his holy day. Sigrid’s friend, Thorlak, brought her to the shrine of St. Magnus and cast lots to decide whether she should offer money to the shrine, free a slave, or go on pilgrimage to Rome in exchange for being cured. The cast determined that St. Magnus preferred the pilgrimage option and Sigrid was immediately cured. Once she had come to her senses, Sigrid immediately left for Rome.

5) St. Magnus did not abide theft in life and continued to despise thieves after death. According to the Orkneyinga saga, a man named Gilli and an unnamed accomplice from Orkney stole gold from the shrine of St. Magnus. In response, the saint unleashed his wrath on the thieves. Gilli reportedly drowned at sea, but the accomplice was attacked by St. Magnus’ signature holy madness. The madman, who uncontrollably mumbled confessions about his crime, was brought to the shrine of St. Magnus and vows were made on the man’s behalf that if he recovered, he would go on a pilgrimage to Rome. St. Magnus apparently accepted the promise and the man’s madness was lifted.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A scene of Olaf Tryggvason, by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Orkneyinga Saga, written anonymously approximately c. 1200, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Liu Pengli—The Serial Killer King Of The Han Dynasty

History has long hinted that absolute power can tempt even virtuous leaders into corruption. Yet, what happens when the one who gains power was never virtuous in the first place, but instead had murderous fantasies and psychopathic tendencies. This horrific second option reportedly became reality in China during the 2nd century BCE, when Liu Pengli became the king of Jidong. The Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), was a contemporary of the infamous king and wrote a short description of the dark events that supposedly occurred in Jidong during Pengli’s reign. The killer king was seemingly a figure that the Han Dynasty wanted to forget about, and consequently Sima Qian only devoted one measly paragraph to describing Pengli’s life. Nevertheless, the brief information that the Grand Historian packed into those few sentences was terrifying.

Unfortunately for the people of ancient China, Liu Pengli was extremely powerful and incredibly well connected. He was the grandson of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) and the nephew of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE). Pengli’s own father, King Xiao of Liang (brother of Emperor Jing), ruled one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Han Empire and was even a top contender to become the imperial heir before Emperor Jing finally nominated his son, the future Emperor Wu, as his definitive successor. When the disgruntled King Xiao of Liang died in 144 BCE, his wealthy kingdom was divided among his five sons, one of whom was Liu Pengli.

Before becoming king of Jidong around 144 BCE, Liu Pengli apparently had a spotless record, or, at least, his crimes were subtle enough to escape notice. If anything, he only had a reputation for being uncouth and arrogant. Yet, when he became a king, Liu Pengli’s behavior was said to have grown exponentially worse. He surrounded himself with people of ill repute and developed into a ruthless tyrant. Tragically, Liu Pengli would be given nearly three decades in power to spiral into depravity.

Make no mistake, all of the emperors and kings of Liu Pengli’s day were mass killers—uncounted scores of people died in their wars and were executed by their legal systems. They were not necessarily murderers, but their hands were undoubtedly stained with blood. Yet, something separated Liu Pengli from his powerful peers. Other nobles killed to uphold law, to protect their country and family, or simply for political or personal gain. Contrastingly, Liu Pengli reportedly did not kill for any of these reasons; instead, according to Sima Qian, he simply enjoyed “murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport” (Shi Ji 58).

It is unknown how quickly Liu Pengli’s alleged killing spree began, but by the end of his rule, the people of Jidong were living in a nightmare. According to Sima Qian, Liu Pengli recruited a band of around twenty or thirty like-minded disciples from the questionable courtiers that flocked to his kingdom. At some point in his reign, Pengli and his devoted cult of followers began skulking through the kingdom at night in search of random victims to rob and kill. The accumulating numbers of deaths sparked a panic in the kingdom and the people of Jidong eventually took to barricading themselves indoors at night so they would not be murdered. Over a long period of time, evidence began to grow against the king, and uneasy officials in Jidong started to suspect Pengli of perpetrating the killings. Even among the commoners of the kingdom, rumor spread that it was their king who was responsible for the wave of deaths. Yet, what could they do—Liu Pengli was Emperor Jing’s nephew and Emperor Wu’s cousin.

Fortunately for the people of Jidong, a letter accusing Liu Pengli of mass murder finally reached Emperor Wu around 116 or 115 BCE, the twenty-ninth year of Pengli’s reign. The emperor took the accusation seriously and launched an investigation into his cousin’s conduct. According to Sima Qian, the Han detectives discovered that the king had murdered over one hundred people without any just reasoning. The killings were done simply for the king’s pleasure, or, as Sima Qian stated earlier, as a sick form of sport.

Unbelievably, Emperor Wu was said to have spared his murderous cousin’s life. Liu Pengli was stripped of his nobility and was ultimately banished to live like a commoner in the region of Shangyong—an oddly light punishment for a convicted mass-murdering serial killer. That being said, it may be possible that Liu Pengli was framed. Emperor Wu and his father made serious efforts to divide and weaken the feudal kingdoms of ancient China, similar to the way Emperor Jing had divided the powerful kingdom of Liang into five more manageable domains. After Liu Pengli was stripped of power, his kingdom of Jidong was dissolved and the land was brought under the direct jurisdiction of the central Han government. In the scheme of things, Liu Pengli was one of several kings whose kingdoms were absorbed by Emperor Wu’s government after criminal trials. Nevertheless, because of the vague evidence left behind, we shall never know for certain if Liu Pengli was the victim or the victimizer.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (painting from the wall of Xu Xianxiu's Tomb of Northern Qi 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.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Life And Paranoid Retirement Of Marquis Zhou Bo

Zhou Bo was a decorated military officer and political official who served under the first emperors of the Han Dynasty. He came from humble origins, supposedly working as a silkworm rack manufacturer and a part-time musician in Pei. Yet, when widespread rebellions against the Qin Dynasty erupted in 209 BCE, Zhou Bo joined the rebels as a crossbowman and eventually became a follower of the distinguished rebel leader, Liu Bang.

Zhou Bo’s fortunes rose with the political ascendance of Liu Bang. Between 209 and 206 BCE, the rebels demolished the Qin Dynasty and began to restructure China into new kingdoms led by rebel leaders. The power vacuum allowed commoners like Liu Bang and Zhou Bo to rise to amazing heights. When Liu Bang became a marquis, he brought Zhou Bo along as a magistrate. In 206 BCE, when Liu Bang became the King of Han, Zhou Bo was appointed as one of his marquises. Finally, when the king of Han defeated his rebel rivals in 202 BCE and became known as Emperor Gaozu, the victorious emperor granted Zhou Bo even more land and bequeathed upon him the title of Marquis of Jiang.

Zhou Bo was not a particularly flashy general, but he was definitely dependable. According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (145-90 BCE), Zhou Bo crushed two armies, sieged three cities, conquered five provinces and successfully captured many distinguished prisoners during his career, including four prime ministers/chancellors and four generals (Shi Ji 57). As a result of his dependability, he became one of Emperor Gaozu’s favorite generals and was eventually promoted to the rank of grand commandant around 189 BCE, during the reign of Gaozu’s successor, Emperor Hui (r. 195-188 BCE).

Zhou Bo remained the grand commandant even after the premature death of Emperor Hui in 188 BCE. From 188-180 BCE, Hui’s mother, Empress Dowager Lü, continued to rule in China through puppet child-emperors. Although her reign was peaceful for the common masses, it was a time of bloody intrigue among the nobility. The empress dowager championed the Lü family in an attempted overthrow of her late husband’s Liu family. By the time of Empress Dowager Lü’s death in 180 BCE, several Liu princes had been assassinated and numerous Lü family members had become kings, marquises, generals and politicians. Yet, without Empress Dowager Lü at the helm, her family was totally incapable of maintaining power.

Only one or two months after the death of Empress Dowager Lü, the suppressed Liu family and their supporters came back with a vengeance, murdering the child puppet-emperor and assassinating virtually every member of the Lü family. Zhou Bo was a pivotal member of the conspiracy against the Lü clan—using his position as grand commandant, he seized the military garrison of the capital city, Chang’an, and it was his troops that carried out most of the executions of prominent Lü officials. Zhou was also a friend of the Bo family, and, perhaps, because of his influence, the son of Lady Bo and Emperor Gaozu was chosen as the next emperor. This prince, known as Emperor Wen, reached the capital city to assume the throne on November 14, 180 BCE.

As a reward for Zhou Bo’s loyalty to the Liu family, Emperor Wen rewarded the grand commandant by adding 10,000 households to his feudal domain and granted him a large amount of gold. Zhou Bo was also appointed as a chancellor of the Han Dynasty. He was at the height of his power, yet Zhou Bo interestingly becoming more and more paranoid. According to Sima Qian, Zhou Bo was a firm believer in the idea that those who rise too quickly to prominence are sure to fall just as quickly and dramatically. Zhou Bo had surely seen many instances of that phenomenon during his lifetime—many of Gaozu’s contemporary rebel leaders and companions had met violent ends after the Liu family became an imperial power. Zhou Bo had been able to stay alive because he had little ambition of becoming anything greater than a marquis or a state politician loyal to the Liu family. His conduct earned him powerful friends, including Empress Dowager Bo (Wen’s mother) and the Bo family. Nevertheless, Zhou Bo apparently had a feeling of impending doom and he abruptly decided to quit while he was ahead.

According to Sima Qian, Zhou Bo resigned from his position as chancellor after only one month in office. He also took a portion of the lands granted to him by Emperor Wen and gave them as a gift to the emperor’s uncle, Bo Zhao. Yet, although Zhou Bo was trying to distance himself from power, the emperor called him back to the office of chancellor around 178 or 177 BCE. For unclear reasons, Emperor Wen only kept the old warrior around for ten months before relieving Zhou Bo of his duties and instructing him to return to his fiefdom.

Not long after he was sent home, Zhou Bo fell victim to his paranoia. Fearing the backlash of karma against his success over the last decades, the old general habitually wore his arms and armor wherever he went. He also armed his staff and kept a personal army of bodyguards. Ironically, Zhou Bo’s attempts to fight off misfortune directly led to the most dire period of his life—when Zhou Bo’s private army and odd behavior was reported to Emperor Wen, the imperial court became extremely concerned. Fearing that the old general was building a rebel army, Emperor Wen and his ministers decided to arrest Zhou Bo and brought him in for questioning.

Zhou Bo must have felt that his worst fears were coming true, and, according to Sima Qian, the general’s paranoia and nervousness made him a poor self-advocate. Yet, as the interrogators were beginning to doubt their captive’s innocence, Zhou Bo’s powerful friends came to his rescue. The Bo family, especially, rushed to his aid. Even Empress Dowager Bo, who usually kept away from politics, spoke up in his defense, explaining that if Zhou Bo was disloyal, he would have proclaimed himself (or another claimant) emperor when he had occupied Chang’an in 180 BCE instead of throwing his support behind Emperor Wen. Thankfully for the prisoner, Emperor Wen heeded the advice of his mother, and released Zhou Bo. The old warrior, unlike many of his powerful contemporaries, survived to reach retirement and died peacefully in 169 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Terracotta warrior, [Public Domain] via and Creative Commons).

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

Monday, February 4, 2019

King Irminfrid—A Thuringian Monarch Who Gained Sole Rule By Killing Two Brothers, Only To Lose His Kingdom To The Franks

King Bisinus of Thuringia was a contemporary of Kings Childeric (r. 456-481 and Clovis (r. 481-511) of the Franks. In fact, according to The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), Childeric’s wife (Clovis’ mother) was Bisinus’ ex who ran away from Thuringia to be with Childeric in the land of the Franks. Therefore, it is possible that King Clovis and the sons of Bisinus were half-brothers. Whatever the case, King Bisinus died about the same time as Clovis (d. 511), and in the aftermath of the two leaders’ deaths, the Frankish Empire and the Thuringian kingdom both were divided among the sons of the deceased rulers. After Clovis’ death, the empire of the Franks was ruled by his sons: Theuderic, Chlodomer, Childebert and Chlotar. Similarly, the Thuringian kingdom of the late King Bisinus was divided between his sons: Baderic, Irminfrid (or Hermanfrid) and Berthar.

Whereas the sons of Clovis miraculously were able to coexist without too much sibling warfare, the Thuringian co-kings quickly descended into violence. According to Gregory of Tours, Irminfrid went to war against his brother, Berthar, and in that campaign he managed to bring around half of Thuringia under his control. Berthar was captured in one of the battles and summarily executed. Berthar’s wife was either dead already, or was executed along with her husband, for their daughter, Radegund, was left orphaned.

Next, Irminfrid set his gaze on the land of his last remaining brother. Baderic, however, was not idly waiting for his own destruction. Taking warning from Berthar’s death, Baderic must have devoted himself to building a sizable military force. Assessing his brother’s strength, Irminfrid ultimately decided that he would need help from an ally to succeed in the campaign. According to Gregory of Tours, Irminfrid was able to recruit to his cause King Theuderic (r. 511-534), one of the sons of Clovis. Together, Irminfrid’s Thuringians and Theuderic’s Franks marched against the forces of Baderic and were victorious. During the war, Irminfrid successfully captured Baderic and had him beheaded.

With Berthar and Baderic dead, Irminfrid became the sole ruler of Thuringia. Yet, the Franks coveted Thuringian land and Irminfrid had allegedly promised to cede some of his territory to Theuderic as payment for Frankish involvement in the campaign against Baderic. As Irminfrid’s goal was territorial expansion, he, of course, did not give away his hard-won lands to the Franks, which caused a rift between him and Theuderic. The Thuringian king likely knew that conflict with the expansionist Franks was inevitable—he began preparing defensive features such as pitfalls and trenches in locations where he thought the Franks might eventually march an army. Nevertheless, these preparations did little to stop the Franks when they decided to invade Thuringia.

King Theuderic and his brother King Chlotar (r. 511-561) spearheaded the Frankish invasion of Thuringia in 531. The pits and trenches slowed down and obstructed the cavalry of the Franks, but could not repel or stop the invasion. Somewhere along the River Unstrut, Theuderic and Chlotar fought the Thuringian forces in a decisive battle, which, according to Gregory of Tours, became a one-sided massacre that favored the Franks. King Irminfrid survived the battle, but his kingdom was occupied by the invaders. During the campaign, King Chlotar found Irminfrid’s orphaned niece, Radegund and soon after married her. Yet, their marriage was not very warm. This was possibly because the Franks assassinated her remaining kin. Her uncle, Irminfrid, reportedly died from a mysterious fall from a high wall around 532 and Radegund’s unnamed brother was also executed at a later date. Radegund never had any children with Chlotar and eventually abandoned the life of royalty (and her husband) to become a nun.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of the Thuringian princess, Radegund, being brought before King Chlotar I, as depicted in a medieval painting housed in the Bibliothèque municipale de Poitiers, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.