Sunday, August 24, 2014


There's only one God, ma'am. And I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that.
~ Captain America, The Avengers

I’ve always had a faint distrust of superheroes that has gradually increased over the years. In today’s era of increasingly better computer rendering, pretty much nothing is impossible. People fly through the air, buildings blow up, cities are levelled.
Superheroes seem to be in the business of regularly saving the world. Most of them grow up kissed by the gods and discover at some point that they have superhuman qualities; the rest are transformed into superheroes by doctors who dabble in science fiction.
(In case you couldn't guess)
Superheroes are too easy. Cities face destruction as evil villains rise up over cowering and innocent civilians. The superhero arrives just in time to save the world. Every time.
The thing most superhero stories and books overlook is that villains are created by the innocent people. Every arch enemy in history (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mau, Napoleon...etc…) would have been powerless without the support of his people. The people created their own destruction. Yes, they were deceived, but they still facilitated it even when all the sign posts pointed to their folly, and afterwards, they wanted the superhero to bail them out with as little inconvenience to them as possible. It’s human nature, after all.
A tiny wayside flower...the Scarlet Pimpernel
Because of this quality of mankind, superheroes go way back. We’re all familiar with the greats like Superman, Batman, Spiderman and the rest, but few know the origin of these super people. One of the first to grace us with his presence was the Scarlet Pimpernel, an English chapo who played dumb in public, but, in his spare time, saved innocents from under the blade of the Guillotine during the French Revolution. Baroness Orczy, his creator, started writing after she thought she could do better than the authors of the dime novels popular in the late 1800s.
My favorite Zorro- Guy Williams
Sir Percy, The Scarlet Pimpernel, touched off a snowball of heroism. Real people, inspired by his fictional heroism, braved death to save lives. Pimpernel Smith was a modern day (as of 1941) adaption of the Scarlet Pimpernel, that inspired Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, to do some rescuing. He’s credited with saving more than 15,000 Jews. And he wasn’t the only one stimulated by Baroness Orcsy’s superhero.
The Scarlet Pimpernel also inspired another story about a “hero with a secret identity”. Zorro, the fox, was the first Dark Knight. Dressed completely in black and wearing a mask, Don Diego De La Vaga, rode out into the night to save people from the evil Spanish in 19th century California.
Errol Flynn
But we can go back a lot further than The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Curse of Capistrano to find the origin of the superhero. In fact, Achilles, the greatest Greek during the Trojan War, has all the accruements of a modern day superhero. He has superhuman strength, practical immortality, special armour, skills, and a custom made superhero chariot with two super horses. He even has an Achilles’ heel (no pun intended), like many superheroes. The only thing he lacks is the perceived goodness of today’s superheroes.
That’s the thing with superheroes. They aren’t real heroes. Many attempts now-a-days have been made to humanize them, but they all seem to be born with more than their fair share of bravery. They’re a bit like Scotland Yard detectives, Navy Seals and Errol Flynn, all rolled into the same package. Real heroes don’t have superhuman strength, good looks or unusual bravery. They’re people, just like you and me. They weren’t born to be great, they made it there on their own, and if you asked them about it, there’s a good chance they’d say they weren’t anything special.
Cincinnatus reporting for duty
Cincinnatus is a hero Rose and I are particularly fond of. To put it in a nutshell, he was working on his farm one day when an invasion happened. Cincinnatus dropped everything to save Rome, and later agreed to become dictator, but he resigned the office as soon as everything had been ironed out. Duration of his dictatorship? Two weeks.
Cincinnatus cannot be mentioned without a nod to George Washington, the United States’ own personal hero. George was a farmer at heart, but he left Mont Vernon behind to take command of the army. After he trounced the British, he presided over the drafting of the Constitution, then took the reins for two terms as president. This was all fine and dandy, but his true heroism (in my humble opinion) is not what he did, but what he didn’t do. The states eagerly offered to make him King George, but he flatly declined. We came that close to having a dynasty of Washingtons in the White House.

Couldn't tell a lie...but he could chop down the cherry tree
In the end, heroes, real heroes, are often overlooked and forgotten, mostly because they made light of what they did. They rarely are reworded and often aren’t lauded in their lifetimes (and sometimes are forgotten afterwards). They didn’t come with powers any greater than yours or mine…in fact often times the powers they did come with (tempers, strength…) had to be curbed before they could do anything useful.
The truth is, a superhero isn’t going to come sweeping in to fix your bumbled mess for you. Probably if you saw a weirdo wearing red, yellow and blue (with his underwear on the outside), you’d most likely call the police. I know I would.
Superheroes are super, but they ain’t heroes. Heroism is about giving up everything, not gaining powers. Heroism is about humility, not fancy suits. Heroism is about being completely terrified, but doing it anyway. Two thousand years ago, my superhero gave up everything, was whipped, tortured and finally left to die, nailed by his hands and feet to a wooden beam.

I don’t think even Superman could have done that. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

How the Middle Ages Weren't Backwards

Construction on Pisa Cathedral was started in the 11th century
the bell tower was begun in the 12th; it started leaning almost at once
It’s hard to say when the Dark Ages ended and the Middle Ages began. Some people even argue that the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages were the same thing. After all, they were both Dark weren’t they? Of course, if the Middle Ages and the Dark Ages were the same thing, then part of the Renaissance occurred in the Dark Ages...
Probably one of the biggest misconceptions about the Middle Ages is that people never washed. They might have a bath once a year at the most…oh, and they believed the earth was flat.
Medieval illustration of a spherical earth from
the 12th century book, Liber Divinorum Operum 
by Hildegard of Bingen

In fact, bath houses were a common sight in the Middle Ages. The Romans had put them in and really, they never went out of fashion. There are even records of people taking baths once a week. It was considered good manners to wash your hands before and after dinner (and you couldn’t rest your elbows on the table). There was even communal bathing where lords and ladies ate their dinner while sitting in a bath…somehow, I’d rather not revive that fashion.
And as for the earth being flat…well, that went out of fashion during the Greeks and it was never seriously considered since. There are Medieval depictions of a round earth and most scholars even had a general idea how far it was in circumference. The only reason we were told they thought it was flat, was because Washington Irving took some liberties in a history of Christopher Columbus.
Roadside picnic? Possibly 12th century
As far as I can tell, the Middle Ages weren't dark and dreary. There was a host of musical instruments, many the precursors to instruments we are familiar with today. Not all songs were written for the Church, like Sumer Is Icumen In which is about summer time. The modern depictions of peasants wearing un-hemmed gunny sacks (who wouldn't hem their gunny sack?!) don't match any of the illuminations from the time. Bright colors were in during the Middle Ages and though the common peasants probably couldn't afford the rich dye the nobles could, many less brilliant colors can be produced with moss, berries or other homegrown plants. Modern forensic evidence also reveals that cathedrals would have been a brilliant riot of colors inside and drab gray stone, there.   
13th century ivory statue of Mary
and Jesus, made in France
Women weren't repressed during the Middle Ages, either. It’s true that they were used as political footballs, but so were the men. There are several accounts of powerful ladies kidnapping perspective husbands and forcing them into marriage. Robert the Bruce’s mother found this method particularly Useful. Women had trades and ambitions just like men. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen was a polymath who wrote a book on medicine and was so respected that Popes and Kings asked for her advice (a polymath is a genius in multiple areas; Leonardo Da Vinci was one). A woman even wrote the first autobiography in the English language. Her name was Margery Kempe.

This interesting Medieval painting
shows a woman riding astride in a skirt
clearly doing some damage with a sword
There were advancements in Science, as well. A friar named Roger Bacon shined light through a sphere of water and discovered that white light is made up of colours. Sorry Isaac Newton. Inspired by the story of Daedalus, A monk named Eilmer of Malmesbury made an attempt at gliding flight in the 11th century. He soared a little ways before he fell and broke his legs. He was forbidden from trying again even though he’d figured out that he’d need a tail to stabilize himself.
There are accounts of sailors using compasses as early as the beginning of 13th century (through the Vikings probably had compasses when they sailed to the New World in the Dark Ages) and glass reading stones used for magnifying text. An abbot named Richard of Wallingford made an astronomical clock in the 14th century. Before that, everyone used water clocks; they were useful for telling time…and putting out occasional fires.
Installed in 1410, the Prague Astronomical Clock
 is the oldest working Astronomical Clock in the world

Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux c. 1325-1328
Even Medieval medicine was surprisingly complex. They knew how to tie off arteries and insert drains in wounds and even had a rudimentary understanding of herbs and plants that would slow infection. And hospitals weren't uncommon, especially in the 13th century. Of course, the Black Death swept through Europe in the 1300s, but it only arrived after it had finished with Asia. In fact, in the first half of the Middle Ages, people were about the same height as they are today, which means that they had good diets and were generally healthy.
Canterbury Cathedral, an early example of Gothic
 architecture, was built in the 11th century
and figured into Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
The Middle Ages, of course, were the days of feudalism, where lords owned vast tracts of land, while peasants had to rent, and serfs were practically slaves. But, the roots of the middle class lie in Medieval society, only they were called the freeholders in those days. The Yoemen, for example, owned land, not less than one hundred acres, and were sometimes more wealthy than the gentry. The serfs were at the dead bottom and required to work for their lords in return for justice and the ability to work land for themselves…but to tell the truth, serfs were required to work for fewer days in a year than modern full-time employees.
European Beaker from the 13th century
Corning glass museum
Now, did the Catholic Church stifle learning? If you look above, you’ll see that the scientists that I’ve mentioned were all friars, monks or abbots…and they weren’t the only ones. The Catholic Church might have coloured the facts or reinterpreted them to suit it, but it also didn’t keep the Bible to itself, either. Before the advent of the printing press (which was invented in the Middle Ages) Bibles were copied by hand so meticulously that if there was one typo, the whole page was destroyed and started over (I’d better stop what I’m writing right now). Bibles were clearly very rare and expensive, but Henry the VIII still commanded that there be one chained in building of his new Anglican Church (after he'd demolished a lot of them, but that's another story).
The exquisite Gloster Candlestick
made in England c. 1104 -1113 
To put it in a nutshell, the Renaissance never happened for the simple reason that it didn’t need to happen. The Middle Ages were doing very well on their own. They didn’t need a rebirth; enlightenment had been around for years. Yes, there was  flowering of the arts and science, but the flower could only bloom because the stem had been growing steadily all through the Dark Ages.
Advancement was slower than in earlier and later years, but when a gigantic empire collapses and no less than three powers attempt to take over the world (not to mention a plague that wiped out a third of the population) advancement gets put on the back burner. Learning was a small flame that continued to burn, it only needed economic stability to blow it into a bonfire.