The Ptomaine Entree

Posted in General, On This Day on June 21st, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

First, I want to wish a Happy Summer Solstice to all my pagan readers. The day meant little to my desert ancestors: “Hey, Abe. God is giving us another two minutes of daylight and heat prostration.”

And I doubt that the ancient Celts would have been especially thrilled with the solstice. “Och, we have another two minutes to enjoy our picturesque destitution.” (You have to be desperate to even think of fermenting peat, although the results seem to be effectively numbing.)

Let’s face it: the Summer Solstice was just the Greeks and Italians coming up with any excuse for an orgy.

And since it is now summer, let’s discuss food spoilage.

Francis Bacon knew there was a correlation between cold temperatures and food preservation, so he began a scientific study of the phenomenon. In his experiment of packing a chicken with snow, Bacon unfortunately discovered a correlation between cold, bronchitis and death.

However, history does not know who first made the correlation. It had to be someone who actually was familiar with cold and hot seasons, and observed–perhaps barely surviving–the climatic effects on food spoilage. Was it some Roman sentry along Hadrian’s Wall, who noticed that there was less morta in mortadella? Was it a Hun who discovered his raw horse jerky was less enjoyable in Italy than on the Steppes? I wonder if some Hun or Vandal shaman even gave health lectures to the troops…


Barbarian Warrior: Sacking Rome is exhausting work. I could use a lunch break. Say, this restaurant looks tempting. Let’s loot it.

Shaman: Yes, those sausages look good, but who knows what’s lurking inside them? The Romans can’t put up a defense, but their food could kill you. So, if you must have meat this far south, make sure that it is still alive when you bite it.

Indeed, some of the barbarians apparently were quite worried about food poisoning. Believing that any taste was a sign of spoilage, the Angle-Saxons insisted on boiling everything until it was a pulp. However, the Franks went to the other extreme. They actually liked what mold can do to food. Ce botulisme est delicieuse! The idea of the Petri dish probably originated at Cordon Bleu.

The Magna Clause

Posted in General, On This Day on June 14th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Your social studies teacher insisted that the Magna Carta was the foundation of every liberty we now enjoy. In fact, the actual document reads more like the bylines of a country club.

Is there is a traffic dispute in falconry? Check the Magna Carta to see which hawk has the right of way.

What is the proper etiquette when two nobles show up at St. Cuthbert’s Fair wearing the same style of armor? (Whoever paid more has the right to disembowel the haberdasher.)

What is the proper way to torture a Jew? (Divide your torture instruments into meat and dairy implements. The rack is considered dairy; eye gouging is definitely meat.)

So, how did the Magna Carta gets that liberal reputation? It is all based on a single clause, the 39th if you are counting. “No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” King John did have a vicious temper, so that clause was a good idea. Now, every free man in England was protected! In fact, so were the serfs–nearly half of the population–because they were the property of freemen.

Of course, such an all-encompassing right was not the actual intention of the Barons who coerced John into signing the Magna Carta. It was more of a begrudged generalization.

They certainly meant the privilege for themselves–the greatest nobles of the realm. But then the Archbishop of Canterbury, being the token literate and official stenographer, brought up a good point! What about the knights who served the great lords? They were Normans, too, and of good stock; some were even in-laws, the type who would marry the Baron’s ugliest niece. Include them, too, in the clause.

However, if you include those knights, you have to cover their families as well. But some of the knights’ children were marrying into the trades, people who actually were English. The grandchildren wouldn’t even be speaking French. Does the right extend to knights but not their in-laws? Barons hated all the complications of thinking.

The Archbishop had another idea; he had a monopoly on them. “Let’s use the term freemen. Yes, it is broad and vague, but tactful. Besides, it only limits the tyranny of the king. You nobles still have the right to terrorize everyone on your estates.”

And with that comforting thought, the Nobles approved the Magna Carta.

Wedding Announcements

Posted in General, On This Day on May 12th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

May 12, 1191:  Richard the Lion-Heart Marries Berengaria of Navarre

RichardIWe are still waiting for the marriage to be consummated.  Richard evidently was unfamiliar with the adage “Politics makes straight bedfellows.”  In fairness to Richard, he never misled that poor Spanish princess.  His mother did.   Eleanor of Aquitaine was worried that her 33 year old son had yet to marry.  He was King of England, a hereditary position, and heredity usually requires a certain physical exertion.  His younger brothers were married–even the gnomish John.  (Yes, his bride was the unwilling one.)  So Eleanor was determined to get her favorite son a wife.

On parchment (paper had yet to be imported from China), Richard would have seemed a great catch.  He was King of England and Duke of half of France: you had to go to Constantinople to find a Christian boy with a better resume.  Furthermore, Richard was handsome and chivalrous.  What more could a princess want?  Well, yes, apparently the princesses of France and Germany had heard about “that”.  But the royal family of Navarre either hadn’t or couldn’t afford to be choosy.  The smallest, most precarious kingdom in Spain could use the butchest son-in-law in Christendom, and so Berengaria’s troth was really plighted.

Richard, who had no compunction about trying to kill his father, somehow couldn’t disobey his mother.  All right… he would get married, but he wasn’t making it easy.  First, they had to find him.  Richard was off to the Crusades.  His last known address was Messina, Sicily.  So his 69 year-old-mother, with Berengaria in tow, arrived there in March, 1191.  Fortunately, Richard was still in Sicily but it was during Lent, and he wouldn’t think of getting married then.  But rather than wait a few weeks, Richard now was in a hurry to get to the Holy Land.  After all, there were Moslems and Jews waiting to be killed, along with any unfortunate Greek Orthodox bystanders.  However, if Berengaria was willing to tag along, Richard would find the time to marry her.  Perhaps, after he captured Jerusalem…or Mecca.

Eleanor no longer had the patience or stamina to goad Richard to the altar.  She returned to France, but Richard had not completely escaped the chiding females of his family.  The dowager queen of Sicily happened to be his sister Joan,  and she was quite prepared to organize a wedding in the Holy Land.  When Richard set sail, Joan and Berengaria weren’t far behind.  A storm struck the fleet, however, and the ship carrying the theoretical bride and the aspiring matron of honor was driven off course to Cyprus.  There the Byzantine governor–demonstrating why his cousin the Emperor wouldn’t  trust him in Constantinople–attempted to seize the royal women for ransom.  Of course, the chivalrous Richard had to rescue the two damsels in distress.  He incidently conquered Cyprus, too.   (The Byzantines would never get it back.)  What happened next defies explanation but would make a wonderful ad for Cypriot Tourism:   Cyprus–where even the unwilling get married!  Yes, on this day in 1191, Richard succumbed to formality.

Berengaria went along on the Crusade, perhaps mistaking it for a honeymoon, but soon decided to return to Europe.  At least, she now had the expense allowance befitting a queen.  France could be very comfortable for the rich and, of course, who could blame her for dropping by Navarre to flaunt her position.  Ironically, Berengaria never visited Britain, the only Queen of England with that unique omission.  (Of course, Richard was rarely there, either:  six months out of his ten year reign.)  The King and Queen had a platonic marriage; in fact, they rarely saw each other.    The Pope felt compelled to advise Richard on marital duties.     In similar circumstances other women might have  succumbed to therapeutic sins, but Berengaria never did.  She evidently was saving herself for Richard.

He died in 1199:  a minor arrow wound but a very bad doctor.  The widow was in her thirties, but she never was  interested in a second–or real–marriage.  Indeed, she would eventually join a convent.  As Mrs. Plantagenet, she already had eight years practice as a nun.

What If…

Posted in General, On This Day on April 14th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Welcome to SciFi-History. What if Galileo had experimented with electricity instead of celestial voyeurism. The Church would not have objected–so long as Galileo did not deduce that Jesus was a robot. Now, in this technologically advanced world, here are the events of April 14, 1865:

President Lincoln would have preferred watching Artemus Ward on HBO, but Mrs. Lincoln demanded that they go out for the evening. They teleported to Ford’s Theamax and began their standard quarrel over what to see. Her choice was “Our American Cousin”; he didn’t like foreign films. Robert had suggested “Naughty Nurses of Atlanta” but the President didn’t dare see that in public: a private screening could be arranged. The Lincolns would end up spending two hours debating the merits of the fourteen films before giving up and going home.

All the while, John Wilkes Booth had gone from theater to theater, lunging into seven Presidential boxes and firing away. So far he had killed a meat packer from Wisconsin, a postmaster, and the Siamese ambassador. He had also shot a critic from the New York Times, but that had been intentional.


Posted in General, On This Day on March 23rd, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

January 9, 1822:  Pedro’s Independence Day

Breganza HammockWould you rather be Crown Prince of Portugal or Emperor of Brazil?  True, it is a hypothetical question because neither position is now available.  In 1822, however, that was the actual choice and the dilemma forced upon Pedro Braganza.   Through an astute choice of parents, he already was the Crown Prince of Portugal.  Even by the usual standards of royalty, Pedro was unfamiliar with his realm.   The twenty-three year old had last seen his birth place in 1807, when the royal family fled an invading French army.  A squadron of British ships was awaiting the fugitives.  Since the French Revolution and Napoleon, the British navy had a sideline in transporting dispossessed dynasties to genteel exile.  Most went to England, where these royal refugees would be threadbare guests in some spare country manor. The accommodations, if not the food, were still preferable to a French prison.  But Portugal’s House of Braganza did have an alternative, a land an ocean away but where the family would rule rather than beg:  Brazil.

On a map, Portugal might look like the backyard of Spain; and much of Portugal’s history was dissuading Spain of that impression.  A few successful wars and a number of dynastic marriages had obliged Spain to acknowledge its neighbor as a tolerated in-law.  If Portugal was just an enclave in Iberia, it was an empire around the world.  The Romans had appreciated its navigable coasts and accommodating bays; the country was named for its ports.  Venturing forth, the Portuguese pioneered European exploration and exploitation: Africa, India, Indonesia and Japan.  But Portugal’s greatest possession–in size and wealth–was Brazil.  The colony was an empire in itself, encompassing half of South America; its economy buoyed by gold, diamonds and sugar.  And, in 1807, Brazil was comfortably far from Napoleon.

The Braganzas arrived in 1808 and established themselves in Rio de Janeiro.  The royal family was both pessimistic and practical about the likelihood of returning to Portugal, certainly not in Napoleon’s lifetime. So Rio would be the new capital and it underwent a building boom befitting this privilege.  The city soon boasted palaces, government ministries, parks and boulevards.   Rio would have an European veneer; but the charm and pleasures of the New World could not be denied.  Ruling this luxuriant realm, the Braganzas were seduced.  However awkward, they preferred Brazil to Portugal.  So long as the French were in Iberia, the Brazangas enjoyed a tacit abdication.

Napoleon probably would have preferred Brazil, too.  Iberia had proved a catastrophe, the French armies trapped in a savage guerrilla war.  (In fact, the term “guerrilla” originated there.)  The French were also losing a conventional war to a British army.  Napoleon was too vain to pick capable subordinates, and his generals in Iberia were consistently humiliated by the British general Arthur Wellesley.  An exasperated Napoleon evidently thought that invading Russia would be a pleasant distraction.  By May, 1814 Wellesley was the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon was the proprietor of Elba.  A liberated Portugal now awaited the return of the royal family…and waited.

The excuse from Brazil was that the Queen was too ill to travel.   That happened to be true, and no one would drag the Braganzas from a death bed vigil.  Ironically, when the Queen died in 1816, her body returned to Portugal but the rest of the royal family did not.  Portugal was not simply snubbed; it had been demoted.  In December, 1815 a royal edict from Rio had redefined the basis of the realm.  What had been Portugal was now the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil.  If, as the edict decreed, Portugal and Brazil were equal and indistinguishable, then the King could rule from Rio instead of Lisbon.

In fact, King John VI did not care who ruled in Lisbon.  The British had liberated Portugal; they could administer it.  Yes, to London’s surprise, Portugal was a foundling on the doorsteps.  Britain certainly was not adverse to governing other peoples’ countries; just ask any Indian rajah.  But there is an etiquette to Imperialism, and the flippant Braganzas had flouted it.  Britain was stuck with Portugal; the alternative was letting the war-ravaged, impoverished country descend into chaos and revolution.  Britain would try to maintain an affable stagnation.  After some belated diplomacy, Rio did agree to subsidize the cost of the British administration. Furthermore, this whole arrangement was supposed to be temporary.  London meant it; Rio did not.

The administrative chores fell to William Beresford, the British general who had commanded Portugal’s troops against the French.   Now he was to defend Portugal against the Portuguese.  Neglected and shunned by their royalty, the Portuguese were not in a passive mood.  Some plotted the overthrow of the monarchy; but Beresford made a diligent policeman and those aspiring Jacobins were dissuaded with gallows.  However, the more popular sentiment was for a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislature.  In 1820 protests in one city soon spread throughout Portugal, and the overwhelmed regency simply conceded.  The bloodless coup is remembered as the Liberal Revolution.     At the time Beresford was in Brazil, once again haggling with the Braganzas over the terms of the British mandate.  He returned to Portugal to find a provisional government with no desire for his further services.  In fact, he was not even permitted to land.  Portugal declared herself free of the British, but Britain did not mind at all.  The Braganzas could deal with their own people.  For Beresford’s six years of aggravation, Britain solaced him with a Viscount’s title.

The provisional government demanded the royal family’s return.  If King John rued having to live in Portugal, at least he was spared having to work there.  An elected assembly was establishing a constitutional monarchy.  With the governance primarily left to the legislature, the monarch would reign rather than rule.   John might have appealed to the more reactionary powers of Europe; but neither Hapsburg nor Bourbon had any sympathy for an absentee monarch who only wanted to prolong his vacation.   Once, the Braganzas were back in Lisbon, however, their sovereign cousins would have accepted an invitation to invade.  To John’s credit, he preferred Portuguese liberals to foreign reactionaries.  (The same could not be said of all the royal family but that is another story and an ensuing civil war.)  So, in 1821, after 14 years in Paradise the Braganzas reverted to Portugal.  Only Crown Prince Pedro remained in Brazil, serving as regent.

While the Liberal Revolution guaranteed Portugal all the promises of the Enlightenment, that liberality did not extend to Brazil.  The new government did not like the King’s idea of a bipolar empire. This was a Portuguese empire, and Brazil was merely its colony. Brazil did not appreciate its demotion, and there was an increasing sentiment for independence.  At this very time, most of South America was in rebellion against Europe.  All Brazil lacked was its own Bolivar, and Prince Pedro was more than willing.  He had been ordered to return to Portugal, but he did have Braganza gift for delay.  Still Lisbon insisted; and on March 8, 1822, Pedro officially refused.  He was in rebellion against Portugal, and the rest of Brazil soon joined him.  He was the acknowledged if untitled sovereign; on September 7th, he formally declared Brazil’s independence.  Pedro would be the emperor of this new country.

Portugal did not graciously accede to this independence; but if it had exerted the full force of its army and navy on Brazil, would anyone have noticed?  Worse for Portugal, Britain was supporting Brazil.  Free of its French nemesis, Britain could now pursue its mercantile interests.  Trading with Brazil, without a Portuguese middleman, appealed to London.  British officers “took leave” to command Brazilian forces.  (With that sniff upper lip, British diplomacy could keep a straight face.)  Portugal made some effort at resistance; its garrisons in Brazil managed to be annoying before they finally surrendered.  In 1825, Portugal finally conceded the obvious.  Brazil was independent.

Dom Pedro I was not.  As it turned out, the renegade prince was still heir to the throne of Portugal.  When King John died in 1826, Lisbon declared Pedro the successor.  He begrudging accepted the throne, and within two months abdicated in favor of his seven year-old daughter.  Of course, Pedro would have a nasty younger brother who also wanted the throne.  There inevitably was a coup and a civil war.  Pedro would be embroiled in Portuguese politics for the remaining eight years of his life.  He ended up having to abdicate the Brazilian throne, leaving it to his six-year old son.

The reign of Pedro II lasted from 1831 until 1889, when Brazil politely declared itself a Republic.  For his exile, the second and last emperor of Brazil prudently avoided Portugal.

How John Law Enriched Your Vocabulary and Bankrupted Everything Else

Posted in General, On This Day on March 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

March 21, 1729:  Hell Gets a Chief Financial Officer

Mississippi Bubble finalWall Street did not pioneer the stock market crash.  No, that distinction belongs to France some 70 years before there was a New York Stock Exchange.  Yet, in a way the Crash of 1720 was America’s fault.   All those French investors were absolutely certain that there were gold mines in Louisiana, and that fortune was just waiting for them.  They had been assured of it by that widely-acknowledged financial genius John Law.

An economist by education, Law (1671-1729) actually earned his livelihood as a gambler; he may have been the pioneer of card-counting.  Law also was a convicted murderer; but since it involved a duel over a woman, the French only esteemed him the more.  The charismatic Scotsman managed to ingratiate himself with the Duke of Orleans and ended up as the comptroller of the French currency.

In that position, Law introduced the use of paper money in France.  The logic of the innovation was impeccable; paper money was easier to handle than bulky bullion and so would facilitate business. Of course, the paper money had to represent legitimate value and be redeemable for a guaranteed amount of gold or silver. However, the French government did not understand that specific principle; the printing presses of the Royal Mint produced reams of increasingly devalued paper.The notes were soon worth one-fifth of their face value.

But Law thought of a remedy for this: offering stock shares whose potential profits would more than compensate for the depreciating currency. At the time France claimed a vast tract of land in North America, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada: 828,000 square miles we know as the Louisiana Territory. Law persuaded the French government to grant him the exclusive mining and trading rights to the territory.  In so vast a territory, there had to be gold and silver mines.  Mexico had them, and the Louisiana Territory was almost next door.  The professional gambler thought he was playing the odds, and he managed to convince the French investors of a sure thing.  They would be fools not to invest in his venture, Compagnie d’Occident.

Their buying became a frenzy; the company’s shares went from 500 Livres in 1719 to 18,000 Livres in 1720.  Besides, as the French investors knew, their money was worthless so why not gamble with it.  The shares of Law’s company seemed preferable to the inflated currency.  However, even if Louisiana had gold mines, the price of the stock had become ridiculous.  And the tottering French economy would certainly not be saved by what Louisiana really had to offer:  crawfish.

The stock collapsed before the year was over, dropping to 300 Livres.  Bankrupt himself, Law found it wise to leave France.   Despite his notoriety–or because of it–he had no trouble finding sanctuary.  Any man who had done that much harm to France was always welcome in Britain.  (And in his flush days, Law  had “secured” a pardon for that murder charge.)  Law resumed his career as a gambler but could not resume his good luck;  he died in threadbare circumstances on this day in 1729.

The French monarchy itself had lost part of the Treasury in the market crash and would never regain solvency. Of course, it would continue to spend money as if Louisiana were made of gold.  (The monarchy’s IOUs finally came due in 1789.)  Historians refer to this scandal as the Mississippi Bubble.

Ironically, while the stock price was surging, the investors thought that they were rich–if only on paper. A term was coined to define the extent of their new wealth: millionaire.

A Compassionate Alternative to Hanging

Posted in General, On This Day on January 25th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

January 26, 1788:  Once You’ve Lost America, Where Do You Dump Your Petty Criminals?

AustraliaIn 1606, Dutch explorer Willem Jansz discovered a large land mass south of New Guinea.  From his tentative exploration, he found nothing to merit further interest.  The land was swampy, and the natives poor and hostile.  It would be another 36 years before the Dutch ventured a second expedition to this land.  Abel Tasman sailed along the western and southern coasts of what proved to be a very large island.  He found the lands there to be arid and uninhabitable.  Yet, however dismal, this territory required some designation on maps.  So cartographers gave it the generic name of Australis, the Latin for southern. 

Not until 1770 did anyone bother to explore the east coast of Australis.  British explorer James Cook found its land to be surprisingly habitable.  The climate was temperate and the soil seemed arable.  Eastern Australis could provide the basic requirements of a European colony.  Claiming the land for Great Britain, Cook named the territory New South Wales.  So Britain now had a distant island that offered a meager sustenance–and that proved exactly what Britain wanted.

In politics and science, 18th century Britain certainly was in the forefront of the Enlightenment.  But that energetic progress did not extend to British justice.  There the gallows was the usual recourse, dispatching thieves as well as murderers.  Still, there was some leniency in the system.  Shoplifters, poachers, prostitutes and debtors really did not deserve to hang.  For stealing food, seven years in prison was sufficient retribution.  The problem was that the prisons were teeming with these petty criminals.  Britain could make better use of them by transporting them to its far-flung colonies.  There, the felons could labor on government projects or be sold as indentured servants, working as slave labor for the length of their prison sentence.  The American colonies had served as a useful dumping ground for these criminals.  Indeed, Georgia had been founded expressly as a penal colony.  However, since 1775, those colonies proved completely uncooperative with any British policies.  With America lost, Britain found a use for New South Wales. 

In December1786, the British government authorized an expedition to establish a penal colony in Australis. Eleven ships–known in Australian history as the “First Fleet”– departed from Britain in 1787.  On board were 772 prisoners, of whom 189 were women, 247 marines as guards, and supplies to sustain the colony for its first year.  Sailing around Cape Horn and through the Indian Ocean, the Fleet reached New South Wales on January 18, 1788.  They first landed at an inlet called Botany Bay but the site lacked a source of fresh water.  Sailing a short distance north, the Fleet found a more promising site for settlement on January 26th.  It would be named for Britain’s Home Secretary:  Lord Sydney.  

The First Fleet would be followed by a Second Fleet, a Third Fleet and eventually no one bothered counting.  Each fleet had a cargo of criminals.  Over the next 80 years 162,000 shackled men and women would be transported to Australia.  Today, the Commonwealth has a population of 22 million.  Four million of them are descended from those convicts,  and January 26th is remembered as Australia Day.

Simon Says

Posted in General, On This Day on January 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 20, 1265:  The First Meeting of “Talking Place” (You know it might sound better in French)

MonfortIn 1215, rebelling against the repressive rule of King John, the barons of England forced the cowed monarch to sign the Magna Carta, a charter of concessions defining and restricting his power. Henceforth, the King could no longer arbitrarily arrest an Englishman or seize his property. Neither John nor any other English king would again be a tyrant. However, the Magna Carta did not guarantee the king’s competence. The monarch was still free to be weak, inept and reckless; and Henry III–the son of John–fully exercised those dubious prerogatives. In 1264, the barons rebelled again, now to impose some restraining responsibilities on the bankrupt Crown. And the rebels’ leader Simon de Montfort had a remarkable idea to accomplish that: a governing council with elected representatives.

Ironically, the pioneer of parliamentary government had nothing liberal in his pedigree or upbringing. Simon de Montfort was an aristocrat, the son of a warlord who had made a fortune in the Crusades. Nor was Simon even English, but French. France, however, afforded him few opportunities; his older brother would inherit the family estates. But he did have a tenuous claim to an English title. The last Earl of Leicester had died childless, and Simon was his great-nephew. So in 1230 the 22 year-old Frenchman travelled to England to become an Earl.

Thirteenth century England was a feudal society. The King and two hundred nobles ruled four million people. There were some 80 boroughs, their term for cities and towns; London was the largest–with a population of approximately 30,000. Most of the English–at least 80 percent–were peasants. Half of that number were serfs, little more than human livestock. The ruling class and their subjects barely spoke the same language. The French of the aristocracy and the Angle-Saxon of the commoners were gradually evolving into a mutually understood language: Middle English. And on the English throne was the affable catastrophe Henry III.

Simon de Montfort was not the only fortune-hunter at the English court, and most of them were French, too. The king had many Gallic relatives and they all made themselves his guests. But Simon, with his soldier’s bearing, stood apart from the fawning courtiers. Henry was impressed and so granted Simon part of the Leicester inheritance. Montfort could have the lands and income of the earldom but not the actual title. That would have to be earned. The King expected military service, but Simon chose a different type of campaign. Eleanor Plantagenet was an attractive, young woman; she was also the king’s sister. Simon married her, and Henry’s wedding present was the Earldom.

In his rise to prominence and power, the Earl of Leicester earned the envy and enmity of other courtiers. The King could be easily swayed by malicious reports, and so Simon often found himself the victim of the royal whimsy. Although he had certainly proved himself adept at court politics, Simon loathed it. He fled the sordid intrigues by going on a crusade in 1240. At least in the Middle East, his enemies were clearly defined and usually more honorable than English courtiers. He returned to England and the politics a year later, but would always speak longingly of the Crusades and their moral clarity.

When the King summoned the Royal Council, an assembly of England’s leading nobles and prelates, it was sometimes for their advice but usually for their money. The Magna Carta forbid the King from raising taxes without the Council’s consent. Of course, the Earl of Leicester was a member of the Royal Council. He had first been a staunch supporter of the King; that might be expected of a rising courtier and a brother-in-law. Overtime, however, experience and disillusionment turned him into a critic of the King. Henry’s rule was an appalling farce. Royal offices were doled out to corrupt, incompetent favorites. Wars were lost through cowardice and mismanagement. The King bankrupted the treasury pursuing ridiculous schemes; one was a campaign to win the crown of Sicily. And, in 1258, when the King wanted more money for this Sicilian fiasco, the Council not only refused but, led by Simon de Montfort, demanded constraints upon Henry and the reform of the government.

The outraged nobles could not be ignored. Each one had a personal army and their combined might could overwhelm the King’s forces. Intimidated, Henry agreed to abide by whatever reforms would be determined by a special session of the Royal Council. Representatives of the King and the Barons met at Oxford to create a program of reforms. They intended to limit the king’s power and to impose on government officials a standard of ethics and competence. Their proposals are now remembered as the “Provisions of Oxford.”

According to the Provisions, the King would be under the supervision of a 15- member governing council called a “parliament.” “There are to be three parliaments a year…To these three parliaments the chosen counselors of the King shall come, even if they are not summoned, in order to examine the state of the kingdom and to consider the commons needs of the kingdom and likewise of the King.” Note that the parliament would meet, regardless of Henry’s approval. The Provisions also imposed term limits of one year on all royal appointees, and these appointees would have to report to the parliament.

Henry agreed to the Provisions in October, 1158 and then spent the next two years stalling on their implementation. All the while, Henry was corresponding with the Pope, pleading for the Church to absolve him from his pledge. In April, 1261, the Pope did, and now Henry could sanctimoniously reject the reforms. However, the Church had not threatened to excommunicate Simon de Montfort and the Barons; so they could still demand the Provisions. With England verging on Civil War, Henry offered another proposal. King Louis IX of France was renowned for his sense of justice; why not let him arbitrate the dispute. Montfort agreed, putting his faith in the eventual Saint Louis. On this earth, however, Louis was still very much a king, and he was not going to undermine the principles of monarchy. In January, 1264 he decided in Henry’s favor.

The nobles had been outmanuevered but not pacified. They had no alternative but war; but they had no better leader than Simon de Montfort. He was 56 years old, an old man in those times, but still eager to lead this crusade. King Henry and his son Edward were gathering their forces at Lewes, in Southeastern England. Montfort had a smaller army but he knew Henry’s incompetence and Edward’s inexperience. The Earl attacked; by the end of the day, Henry and Edward were prisoners and Simon de Montfort was “the uncrowned king of England.” Henry would remain king, if only in name. The actual power would be in the hands of a triumvirate of regents: Montfort, of course, and his allies the Bishop of Chicester and the Earl of Gloucester.

But Montfort knew that this arrangement was expedient and temporary. There had to be a sound and lasting basis for responsible government. Both the Provisions’ proposed parliament and the Royal Council had been an assembly of aristocrats. Montfort wanted a parliament that drew upon the advice and consent of the commoners. So, he would convene a parliament in January 1265, and he ordered the 37 counties and some 80 towns of England to send elected representatives. It was unprecedented, and many of Montfort’s fellow barons were appalled. Some, including the Earl of Gloucester, would now conspire to restore the King. What happened at Montfort’s parliament? Ironically, we do not know the details of this momentous event. No records have survived. Montfort’s enemies might have destroyed them.

Those enemies were gathering strength. With the help of the treacherous Gloucester, Prince Edward had escaped and now was rallying an army in the west of England. Montfort led an army in pursuit, bringing along Henry as hostage. The Earl camped at Evesham and awaited reinforcements. They never came. Prince Edward, proving himself a bold and capable commander, had destroyed that force and now would surprise Montfort. The Earl was killed, and his body mutilated, its parts sent throughout the kingdom as trophies. King Henry was released from one captivity but placed in another. The real ruler would be Prince Edward. Ironically, Edward was exactly what the defeated Barons had wanted in a king: strong, efficient, and responsible.

He would also prove a statesman. When King Edward I summoned a parliament in 1275, he ordered the counties and towns of England to send elected representatives. A wise king would want the support and the advice of the commoners. So Montfort’s radical idea became the precedent of parliament, and the basis of representative government. Today, a descendant of Edward sits on the British throne, but the heirs of Simon de Montfort–the elected members of Parliament –rule Britain.

You Must Remember This

Posted in General on January 13th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 14th

CasablancaOn this day in 1943, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill set the standard for product placement by meeting in Casablanca. Perhaps FDR did owe a favor to Warner Bros., the only Democratic studio in Hollywood. Jack Warner was not deeply imbued with liberal principles; however, he felt compelled to be the political opposite of Republican Louis B. Mayer. Churchill went along with the choice of Casablanca, although he hated being mistaken for Sydney Greenstreet.

While the movie had only been planned as a B-list production, the actual Casablanca Conference was a Hollywood extravaganza. The location alone was thrilling. Here were Franklin and Winston in Morocco, which the Allied armies had just coerced from the Pro-Vichy French. (Warner Bros. would have staged better battle scenes than the French did.) If our leading men could meet in Casablanca, it was reassuringly obvious that that the Allies controlled the Atlantic. You did not see Hitler and Mussolini holding a conference in Havana (and I doubt that Meyer Lansky would have made Hitler feel welcome).

Although the North African campaign was not yet over, an Allied victory there was inevitable. True, the Axis still had four corps in Tunisia, but three of them were Italian and had been trying to surrender since 1941. Despite the proximity of Italy, the Axis was unable to either resupply or evacuate the trapped army there; how many men can fit in a U-Boat? Caught between Allied armies advancing from Algeria and Libya, the remnants of the Afrika Korps and Mussolini’s “Legions of Iron” surrendered in May, 1943.

If the ten day conference at Casablanca was supposed to have a memorable quote, it was “unconditional surrender.” The Allies would accept nothing less. The proclamation was meant to reassure Stalin as well as intimidate Hitler. The Soviet leader had been invited to the conference but he was somewhat preoccupied with an invading German army. The ongoing battle of Stalingrad would turn out to be quite gratifying, but Stalin still needed the Americans and British to open a second front against the Germans.

Of course, the Americans felt ready to land in France; after all the Germans had been such pushovers in 1918. However, the British remembered what pushovers the Germans had been in 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917; and they definitely had a second wind by 1940. No, the British favored an invasion of Italy; it was conveniently close to North Africa and the Italians were a congenial enemy. Roosevelt agreed. The Second Front would be against the Italians; Stalin must have felt so relieved.

Fools and Their Money

Posted in General, On This Day on January 6th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 6, 1721:  The First Government Report on a Stock Market Scandal

South Sea BubbleGreed knows no borders, and 1720 was a vintage year for it.  French investors had succumbed to the prospect of gold mines in Louisiana; for a short while, they had even become rich–on paper.  English investors were envious and eagerly sought a stock that would make them all rich, too.  So they placed their hopes and Pounds in the South Sea Company, a British business that could claim a lucrative privilege.  The Crown had granted the Company a monopoly on trade with South America.  The gold and gems, the spices, even the parrots–all the treasures of a continent–were ceded to the South Sea Company.  Its investors were certain of a fortune.

There was only one drawback to this wonderful monopoly; the wrong Crown had granted it.  Spain controlled most of South America.  The British did not even have Guyana at the time.  So the South Sea Company had to convince Spain to honor the British monopoly, and its timing was not opportune.  Britain and Spain had just recently ended an 11 year-long war;  England’s express aim had been to oust the Bourbon King from his throne.  The South Sea Company evidently hoped that Felipe V had either a good nature or a bad memory.  He had neither.  In fact, Spain restricted the Company’s trade in South America to one ship a year.

Even worse for the Company, the trade proved disappointing.  The British had hoped that the South Americans would want African slaves, but there really was not much of a market for them.  The Spanish already had the entire population of Latin America for serfs.

Those were the dismal facts and mediocre returns on the Company’s ledgers, but the Stock Market could ignore such minor details.  In  January the company’s stock was trading at 128 Pounds, but investors began bidding it up.  In March the stock’s price rose to 330 Pounds.  There was no real reason for that increase, but the gain only incited further demand for the stock.  The other investors couldn’t be wrong, and no one wanted to be the last to buy the stock.  The buying frenzy continued.  By August, the stock price was 1000 Pounds.

Of course, very few people actually had that kind of money; they were buying on credit–which is effortless until you have to pay it back.  Some creditor must have tactlessly asked for repayment, and suddenly no one wanted to pay 1000 Pounds for a 100 Pound stock.  That set off a cascade of selling.  By December the stock price was 124 Pounds.  Reality had its belated say in the market.

Parliament, especially the members who had lost money, insisted on an investigation. The government report was presented this day:  January 6, 1721.  As it turned out, the Company had bribed a number of government officials; apparently Crown monopolies are not granted solely on merit.  The directors of the Company had their estates confiscated; one government official went to prison.  Of course, the Prime Minister promised further reforms.  And with that stern retribution, nothing like this has ever happened again.

Reflecting on the market scandal, Isaac Newton said, “I can calculate the motion of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”  Having lost 20,000 Pounds, he was speaking from experience.

The absurdity inspired Jonathan Swift to write:

The Nation too, too late will find

Computing all their Cost and Trouble

Directors Promises but Wind

South Sea at best a mighty Bubble.


And, thanks to Swift, we now describe such financial lunacy as a bubble.