The Breton Bluebeard

Cassia Lupo Widower Bluebeard and the Red Key

“Widower Bluebeard and the Red Key” – a painting from Cassia Lupo’s wonderful series “Fables and myths.” Reproduced with permission and grateful thanks.

For very nearly all its course, the Blavet is a placid river. It winds its way through central Brittany: broad, unhurried, gentle and unthreatening, a favourite among fishermen, and – for the century or so since it was dammed at Guerlédan, creating a substantial lake – a magnet for holidaymakers, too. Yet even there, at the heart of an ancient county that knows its history as well as anywhere in France, not one person in a thousand could tell the awful history of the river. Few realise that there were times when it was not so tame, or can point to where the outlines of an ancient fortress can yet be traced, up on the heights above the dam. And almost nobody recalls the lord of that forgotten castle, or could tell you why, until about 150 years ago, Breton peasants crossed themselves at the mere mention of his name.

His name was Conomor the Cursed, and he lived in the darkest of the Dark Ages – in the first half of the 6th century, 150 years or more after the fall of Rome, when much of Brittany was still dotted with dolmens and covered by primeval forest, when warlords squabbled with one another other over patrimonies that were generally less than 40 miles across, and the local peoples were as likely to be pagan as they were Christian. We know almost nothing about him, save that he was probably a Briton, very probably a tyrant, and that his deeds were remembered long enough to give rise to a folkloric tradition of great strength – one that endured for almost 1,500 years. But the folk-tales hint at someone quite extraordinary. In local lore, Conomor not only continued to roam the vast forest of Quénécan,  south of his castle, as a bisclaveret – a werewolf – and served as a spectral ferryman on another Breton river, making off with Christian souls; he was also the model for Bluebeard, the monstrous villain of Charles Perrault’s famous fairy tales. Continue reading

Aqua Tofana: slow-poisoning and husband-killing in 17th century Italy

Detail from

Detail from “The love potion”, by the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite Evelyn De Morgan. The tangled tale of Aqua Tofana is intimately connected to the “criminal magical underworlds” of the 17th century, which supplied love philtres, potions, medicines and poisons to a mostly female clientele.

Early in the autumn of 1791, while he was still hard at work on the great requiem mass that would form such a large part of his legend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fell seriously ill. Convinced that there was no chance of recovery, he

began to speak of death, and asserted that he was setting the Requiem for himself… “I feel definitely,” he continued, “that I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea… Someone has given me acqua tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.

Scholars have wrangled now for two full centuries over the circumstances of the great composer’s passing. A handful have concluded that he really was murdered. Most support rival diagnoses of syphilis, rheumatic fever or even the deadly effects of eating undercooked pork chops. Whatever the truth, though, and however he died, Mozart was certainly convinced that there existed a rare poison, one that was colourless, tasteless, odourless, beyond detection – and also so flexibly murderous that a carefully-calculated dose could guarantee a victim’s death a week, a month or even a year after it had been administered.

Nor was the composer alone in this belief. Forgotten though it is today, the mysterious liquid that he feared so much was one of the great whispered secrets of early modern Europe. Aqua Tofana was credited with what amounted to supernatural powers, and blamed for hundreds of agonising deaths. Which is odd, since it is very far from clear that it ever existed – and, if it did, what it was, where it was invented, where first used, and when and how it got its name. Continue reading

Blonde cargoes: Finnish children in the slave markets of medieval Crimea

Testing a female captive's teeth in an eastern slave market.

Testing a female captive’s teeth in an eastern slave market.

The horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade have left an ineradicable mark on history. In the course of a little more than three and a half centuries, 12.5 million prisoners – at least two-thirds of them men destined for a life of labour in the fields – were shipped from holding pens along the African coast to destinations ranging from Argentina in the south all the way north to Canada. It was the largest forced migration in modern history.

When we think of slavery, we tend to think of this African traffic. Yet it was not the only such trade – nor was it, before 1700, even the largest. A second great market in slaves once sullied the world, this one less well-known, vastly longer-lasting, and centred on the Black Sea ports of the Crimea. It was a huge trade in its own right; in its great years, which lasted roughly from 1200 until 1760, an estimated 6.5 million prisoners were shipped off to new and often intensely miserable lives in places ranging from Italy to India.

Slavery in the Crimea, however, differed in significant ways from the model made so familiar by the trans-Atlantic trade. The slaves sold there were drawn for the most part from the great plains of the Ukraine and southern Russia in annual raids known as the “harvesting of the steppe.” Their masters were successively Vikings, Italians and Tatars – the latter being, for nearly half of the trade’s life, the subjects of the Crimean Khanate, a state that owed its own long life to its ability to satisfy demand for slaves. And most of the slaves themselves were not male labourers. They were women and children destined for domestic service – a fate that not infrequently included sexual service. The latter sort of slave was always fairly commonplace in the Crimea. When the Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi toured the north shores of the Black Sea in 1664, he noted down some examples of the local dialect that he hoped other travellers to the region might find useful. Among the phrases that Çelebi selected were “Bring a girl” and “I found no girl, but I found a boy.”

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Friedrich Engels’ Irish muse

Portrait of a young revolutionary: Friedrich Engels at age 21, in 1842, the year he moved to Manchester–and the year before he met Mary Burns.

Friedrich Engels lived a life replete with contradiction. He was a Prussian communist, a keen fox-hunter who despised the landed gentry, and a mill owner whose greatest ambition was to lead the revolution of the working class. As a wealthy member of the bourgeoisie, he provided, for nearly 40 years, the financial support that kept his collaborator Karl Marx at work on world-changing books such as Das Kapital. Yet at least one biographer has argued that, while they were eager enough to take Engels’s money, Marx and his aristocratic wife, Jenny von Westphalen, never really accepted him as their social equal.

Amid these oddities lurks another—a puzzle whose solution offers fresh insights into the life and thinking of the midwife of Marxism. The mystery is this: Why did Engels, sent in 1842 to work in the English industrial city of Manchester, choose to lead a double life, maintaining gentleman’s lodgings in one part of the city while renting a series of rooms in workers’ districts? How did this well-groomed scion of privilege contrive to travel safely through Manchester’s noisome slums, collecting information about their inhabitants’ grim lives for his first great work, The Condition of the Working Class in England? Strangest of all, why—when asked many years later about his favorite meal—would a native German like Engels answer: “Irish stew”? Continue reading

The demonization of Empress Wu

A 17th-century Chinese depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou, published c.1690. No contemporary image of the empress exists.

Most nations of note have had at least one great female leader. Not the United States, of course, but one thinks readily enough of Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, Russia’s astonishing Catherine the Great, or Trung Trac of Vietnam.

These women were rarely chosen by their people. They came to power, mostly, by default or stealth; a king had no sons, or an intelligent queen usurped the powers of her useless husband. However they rose, though, it has always been harder for a woman to rule effectively than it was for a man–more so in the earlier periods of history, when monarchs were first and foremost military leaders, and power was often seized by force.

So queens and empresses regnant were forced to rule like men, and yet roundly criticized when they did so. Sweden’s fascinating Queen Christina was nearly as infamous for eschewing her sidesaddle and riding in breeches as she was for the more momentous decision that she took to convert to Catholicism–while, mustering her troops in 1588 as the Spanish Armada sailed up the Channel, even Elizabeth I felt constrained to begin a morale-boosting address with a denial of her sex: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”

Of all these female rulers, though, none has aroused so much controversy, or wielded such great power, as a monarch whose real achievements and character remain obscured behind layers of obloquy. Her name was Wu Zetian, and in the seventh century A.D. she became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right.
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“Above the Senior Wrangler”

Philippa Fawcett. When she placed first in the Cambridge mathematical tripos in 1890, she forced a reassessment of nineteenth-century belief in the inferiority of the “weaker sex.”

To be a woman in the Victorian age was to be weak: the connection was that definite. To be female was also to be fragile, dependent, prone to nerves and—not least—possessed of a mind that was several degrees inferior to a man’s. For much of the 19th century, women were not expected to shine either academically or athletically, and those who attempted to do so were cautioned that they were taking an appalling risk. Mainstream medicine was clear on this point: to dream of studying at the university level was to chance madness or sterility, if not both.

It took generations to transform this received opinion; that, a long series of scientific studies, and the determination and hard work of many thousands of women. For all that, though, it is still possible to point to one single achievement, and one single day, and say: this is when everything began to change. That day was June 7, 1890, when—for the first and only time—a woman ranked first in the mathematical examinations held at the University of Cambridge. It was the day that Philippa Fawcett placed “above the Senior Wrangler.”

To understand why one woman’s achievement so shook the prejudices of the Victorian age—and why newspapers from the New York Times to the Times of India thought it worthwhile to devote thousands of words to an exam that today means little to anybody but the students themselves—it is necessary to understand why Cambridge mathematics mattered in the 19th century. Continue reading

Amazons: inside the King of Dahomey’s all-woman army

One of Dahomeys’ amazons, with a musket, club, dagger—and her enemy’s severed head. From Forbes, Dahomy and the Dahomans (1851).

It is noon on a humid Saturday in the fall of 1861, and a missionary by the name of Francesco Borghero has been summoned to a parade ground in Abomey, the capital of the small West African state of Dahomey. He is seated on one side of a huge, open square right in the center of the town–Dahomey is renowned as a “Black Sparta,” a fiercely militaristic society bent on conquest, whose soldiers strike fear into their enemies all along what is still known as the Slave Coast. The maneuvers begin in the face of a looming downpour, but King Glele is eager to show off the finest unit in his army to his European guest.

As Father Borghero fans himself, 3,000 heavily armed soldiers march into the square and begin a mock assault on a series of defenses designed to represent an enemy capital. The Dahomean troops are a fearsome sight, barefoot and bristling with clubs and knives. A few, known as Reapers, are armed with gleaming three-foot-long straight razors, each wielded two-handed and capable, the priest is told, of slicing a man clean in two. Continue reading