Here is the latest installment in the series: the Johnstown Flood.
Here is the latest installment in the series: the Johnstown Flood.
November 16, 534: The Justinian Code
What did the Byzantines do for fun? The eunuchs certainly indulged in wishful thinking, and everyone loved debating the correct prepositions in defining the Holy Trinity. But for pure hilarity the medieval Greeks had their own version of MadLibs: the Justinian Code.
The Emperor Justinian was a workaholic and he expected everyone else to be one, too. The legal department was ordered to compile 400 years of imperial edicts and publish them in one handy reference. Tactfully named the Justinian Code, it was a best seller. Every Byzantine bureaucrat bought a copy, if only to learn what laws he would have broken by not buying it.
Now the Byzantine magistrate knew all the legal precedents for judging a merchant who shortweighted anchovies on St. Halitosia’s Day. (That would be the St. Halitosia of Cappodocia, not the one of Epirus.) According to the Code, the correct punishment would be amputation of the right side of the nose. Furthermore, the Code would establish the cost of the surgery. If the amputation was performed by an in-network torturer, the government would cover the cost–after the victim’s initial co-payment. The government would cover only fifty percent of the cost for an out-of-network torturer.
Finally, establishing the definitive standard for government bureaucracy and human resource departments, the Code was in Latin and its audience read Greek.
The New York Times seems to have declared war on Pugs, denouncing the endearing little lapdogs as being designer-breed concoctions of recessive genes. Of course, you could say that the same thing about the couples in the Times’ wedding announcements. I will admit that Pugs have not retained many of their ancestral lupine traits. Even two thousand years ago, a pack of Pugs would have only hunted egg rolls dropped from the imperial banquet table.
Here is my tribute to the Pug.
It is said that owners resemble their dogs. I will never be that fortunate. As the nominal owner but actual servant of Pugs, I may yet achieve their wrinkles but Semitic inbreeding precludes the hope of a pug nose. Beyond my physical inferiority, I cannot emulate the charm and grace of a Pug. My Pugs have maintained their decorum despite the frequent queries, “Is that the dog in ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Men in Black’?” I am the one ready to snarl.
In its creation of Percy, the obnoxious lapdog of the wicked governor of Jamestown, “Pocahontas” depicts the Pug as the embodiment of imperialism: cruel, arrogant, avaricious and corrupt. Percy combines the worst features of Cujo and Oscar Wilde. That is a slanderous representation of the Pug’s ethics and its role in history. The Pug is the most politically correct of pets, with a pedigree of liberal causes.
A Pug could hardly be a symbol of western imperialism since it happens to be Chinese. As early as 600 B.C. the Chinese aristocracy decided that Pugs made better pets than entrees. With the advent of Buddhism, the Pug also acquired a reputation for sanctity: its affable stupor was regarded as a model of Zen contemplation. Pugs often were employed as the guard pet of temples; in a culture of silk garments, a shedding dog might be a deterrent.
The encrouching Europeans of the 16th century should have appreciated the Pug. Its small size and good nature accommodated theft. Yet, the Spaniards and the Portuguese showed terrified restraint. The customs officials of the Ming Dynasty could not have been more intimidating than the Aztecs.
This raises the question: Was the Pug Anti-Catholic? One could never be too paranoid in the Age of Torquemada and Philip II. No flammable person would want to risk the curiosity of the Inquisition by importing a furry avatar of Buddha. The Pug evidently was not permitted in Iberia unless it first converted to a Saint Bernard.
Dutch mariners may not have recognized the Pug as a fellow Protestant, but they clearly saw a market for the ecumenical charmer. One merchant, hopeful for future favors or mindful of past offenses, presented one of these rare oriental dogs to Prince William of Orange. That little bribe, named Pompey, was to save William and the Netherlands.
Through a web of political marriages in the early 16th century, the Spanish royal family got the Hapsburg chin and the Low Countries. Ferdinand, Isabella and Charles V could keep themselves busy in Spain, burning anyone with a suspicious reluctance to pork; but the tax revenues from the Netherlands would justify a little myopia toward Calvinism. Philip II, however, “would rather rule over a desert than a land full of heretics.” Since the Dutch did not appreciate being kindling, they rose in a rebellion led by William of Orange.
“Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!” This does not remotely refer to the Pug, but Prince William insisted on taking Pompey along on campaigns. It was an act of self-indulgence, but so is survival; and Pompey proved a better bodyguard than the Dutch army. One night in 1572, a troupe of assassins eluded the Dutch sentries but not Pompey.
In all probability, the Pug regarded the conspirators as an audience rather than a threat, but his snorts and capers awakened William to the danger. The Prince of Orange survived and, with him, Dutch independence. Without his leadership, the Netherlands might have been reduced to being the northern parish of Belgium. Neither the Prince nor his descendants forgot their debt to Pompey: the Pug became the official dog of the House of Orange and was conferred an orange collar.
Since the English were more interested in robbing the Spaniards rather than the Chinese, there were no Pugs in England (and certainly not in Jamestown) during Pocahantas’ lifetime. The first Pugs crossed the Channel in 1688, when William III of the Netherlands became William III of England. He had been hired by Parliament to replace his uncle and father-in-law, James II, who had been ousted for being too obnoxious and too Catholic. This is remembered as the Glorious Revolution, which established the constitutional supremacy of a mean and bigoted parliament over a mean and bigoted king.
William III proved just as dislikable and not as attractive as his predecessor, but he was impeccably Protestant. Furthermore, he did not need looks or charm; his Pugs provided that. The Pugs became popular as both a loyalty oath and a fashion statement.
Europe’s intellectuals began to regard the English as a race of idiot savants, whose savoir was government. Mindful of royal censors and dungeons, they did not dare openly to espouse the English political system, but owning a Pug was a discreet way of admiring English “fashion.” The Pug developed subversive popularity as an emblem of the Enlightenment. A Masonic Lodge in southern Germany was called the Order of the Pug. In the leading salons of Paris, Pugs associated with Voltaire and Diderot, and shared mistresses with Ben Franklin.
By the mid-19th century, the Pug had lived down any blame for the French Revolution as well as its resemblance to Napoleon. The Pug arrived in America after the Civil War, imported by a Nouveau Riche in need of status symbols. In the Victorian scheme of things, the Pug served as a consolation prize for slighted wives, bored mistresses, ignored children or anyone with a trust fund instead of a life.
Today, guilt by association has left the impression that the Pug is a decadent little twit. The Duke of Windsor certainly was, but his Pugs were not. Of course, Pugs love comfort but that is not a Fascist tendency. Even if a Pug did prefer to chew Mussolini‘s Gucci rather than Mao‘s sandals, who wouldn’t? The Pug’s politics should be judged by his character. Since the Pug is good-natured, naive, defenseless and ineffectual, it obviously is a Liberal.
November 11, 1918: Western Civilization gave itself a slight respite from self-destruction.
The Armistice lasted 20 years, allowing sufficient time for the toddlers of 1918 to grow into their boots and helmets. (And during that respite, corporals and sergeants promoted themselves to Fuhrers and Duces.)
We Americans did actually win the First World War simply because we still had a breathing generation of draft age men and we showed up in France at the right moment. Had the Chinese sent one million men to France in 1918, they could have won the war, too. Timing is everything.
America was barely involved in World War I. We entered the War in 1917, missing all the excitement of Gallipoli, the Somme and Verdun. More doughboys died from influenza than Krupp munitions. Our chief casualties may have been Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, who were constantly escaping “a fate worse than death” from the Hunnish clutches (or whatever the pertinent organ) of Erich von Stroiheim in Hollywood’s depictions of the War. (It should be noted that in her long film career Miss Gish was also nearly raped during the French Revolution and the American Civil War.) Given our limited participation in the Great War, we commemorate November 11 as a catch-all day for all of our Veterans.
However if you really want to honor the veterans of the most futile war in history, you can do so any day on Turner Classic Movies. Just turn on a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood and look at the British actors. To a man, they served in a far more harrowing theater than all the terrors of working with Bette Davis. Many of them were left scarred. Herbert Marshall had the unique distinction of being a leading man with a wooden leg. Claude Raines was blind in one eye. When you see Ronald Colman’s fencing in “The Prisoner of Zenda” you wouldn’t know that he had a kneecap shot off. Lieutenant Nigel Bruce was machine-gunned in the buttocks; that is not the kind of wound that gets the Victoria Cross. If Leslie Howard seemed introspective and other-worldly, shellshock can do that. In fact, to save time, let me recite the British actors who somehow avoided being maimed in France. Well, Leo G. Carroll was wounded in the Middle East; at least, he had that originality. And Captain Basil Rathbone, decorated for courage, really should have been awarded for remarkable luck: not a scratch!
The most veteran of the British veterans was Donald Crisp, the kindly father figure in so many films of the Thirties and Forties. (He did have an incestuous interest in Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms”; but you know, I am starting to have my suspicions about Miss Gish. Did the woman gargle pheromones?) Crisp fought in the Boer War and then served again in the Great War.
If you want to see a microcosm of British history, watch the 1940 production of “Pride and Prejudice.” The middle-aged actors–Edmund Gwenn and Melville Cooper– had served in the Great War. The younger members of the cast–Laurence Olivier and Bruce Lester–were to have their turn. The Armistice was about to end.
And Erich von Stroiheim would threaten a new generation of actresses.
November 7, 1917: One Day That Shook the World (John Reed padded the rest)
Under the tsars, the Russian people were oppressed by good-looking imbeciles with flawless table manners. Vladimir Lenin envisioned a new world in which tyranny would be based on pathology rather than pedigree. However, Russia was not ready for communism during the first decade of the century.
According to Karl Marx, the Revolution would occur in an advanced industrialized society in which the workers starved but read Hegel. In the early 20th century, Russia was still perfecting feudalism. Lenin became resigned to a life in exile, playing chess in Switzerland.
In 1914, after decades of extravagant militarism, the European powers surprised themselves by having a war. To protect Serbia from Austria, Russia went to war with Germany. (To protect Austria, Germany attacked Belgium. If anyone had possessed a sense of direction, it wouldn’t have been a world war.)
Russia couldn’t even supply all of its soldiers with rifles. In 1915, 25% of the Russian troops at the front were unarmed; they had to wait to inherit the guns of dead soldiers. At least the tsarist government demonstrated even-handed incompetence by neglecting civilians. The transportation system broke down, and the cities went without food and fuel.
By March 1917, the civilians were rioting and the soldiers mutinying. Tsar Nicholas II was at the front “inspiring” the troops. His imperious majesty would have been safer with the Germans. He found himself under arrest and confronted with a delegation of government officials demanding his abdication.
Thus, a new and liberal government came to power in Russia. All those cultured, sensitive souls from Chekhov plays were running the country. This provisional government commanded the fervent support of millions; unfortunately, none of them were in Russia. What is freedom of the press to a nation of illiterates? The provisional government inherited chaos and chose to perpetuate it. Although the world war had toppled the monarchy, the new government intended to keep Russia in the carnage. The Russian masses were ready for any leader or ideology that ended the war, and Lenin took this as his opportunity.
In late March 1917, Lenin walked into the German consulate in Zurich and offered to overthrow the Russian government. He must have learned the word “chutzpah” from Leon Trotsky. Lenin peddled the Bolshevik Revolution essentially as an initial public offering. If Germany provided him with the start-up capital for his venture, he would seize control of Russia and withdraw it from the war. Germany could then shift its eastern army to France and, with that additional million men, bludgeon its way to Paris and victory.
Though Lenin’s scheme was preposterous, the Germans were receptive to gruesome ideas. The Second Reich had already pioneered submarine warfare and poison gas, so it was willing to invest in proletarian uprisings. Germany provided the train and traveling expenses for Lenin and his cadre of Bolshevik exiles. They arrived in Russia in April 1917; they were in control by November. Today is the anniversary of their coup.
There was no one to defend democracy in Russia. Russian liberals made excellent novelists, but their idea of defense against a Bolshevik onslaught was to make a sarcastic remark in French. The Bolsheviks’ seizure of Petrograd was so boringly bloodless that Soviet film makers had to concoct battle scenes for the sake of drama. Most of the liberals survived the revolution (even Lenin thought that they were too amusing to kill) and ended up as tenured professors at Ivy League schools.
Lenin had promised peace to Russia. Indeed, the Russian army assumed that a promise was as good as a treaty; the soldiers began an impromptu retreat home. Germany, however, was not ready for peace. While it had achieved victory in the East for the price of Lenin’s train fare, Germany now wanted more for its investment. The Second Reich demanded control of Poland, the Baltic States, Finland and the Ukraine. Russia would lose 27% of her arable land and 73% of her coal fields. For all practical purposes, the Baltic Sea now would be a tributary of the Rhine. Lenin had no choice but to capitulate. An unopposed German army can be very persuasive.
Fortunately for Lenin, Germany never collected on the debt. There still was a Western Front, and Germany’s first encounter with Captain George Patton and an American army would be the precursor for the main event. While Germany was whimpering about the Treaty of Versailles, it was in no position to enforce its juice loan to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Germany might have taken some satisfaction from subsidizing the Bolshevik state. After all, someone had to threaten Western civilization, and if it couldn’t be Germany, why not the Soviet Union?
Voting has always been an act of faith. In ancient Rome, a votum was a religious vow. If you were underfoot a Carthaginan elephant or had encountered Caligula in one of his zany moods, you could promise the Gods a few sacrificed sheep in exchange for your survival. Those who actually kept their promises were said to be “devout” or “devoted.” By the Middle Ages, Europe’s theology had changed but the definition of votum had not. People were still eager to bargain with Heaven. To avoid the bubonic plague, you too might vow not to beat the serfs for a month.
Votum acquired its political character in 15th century Scotland. That rugged, hardscrabble land fostered an independent, feisty spirit that would not accommodate the king’s attempts to govern. The hapless monarch had only as much power as his quarrelsome nobles begrudged him. To enact any legislation or to organize a raid on England, his majesty had to wheedle a consensus from his lairds and clan chieftains.
Of course, even a tenuous government like Scotland’s had bureaucrats, and someone was recording the proceedings of the royal council. That scribe wanted a term to describe the machinations of arriving at a political decision. Demonstrating his erudition, he naturally chose a Latin word: votum. Unfortunately, it was the wrong one. The Latin word for vote is suffragium. Perhaps the Scottish bureaucrat thought that “votum” meant voice, which actually is “vox” in Latin. His error became the common term in Scotland.
In 1603, Queen Elizabeth of England died. Her reign was glorious, but a Virgin Queen is bad for a dynasty. She was succeeded by her cousin James, the King of Scotland. The Stuarts were long used to groveling to nobles, but they were not prepared to negotiate with a Parliament full of commoners. The Stuarts obviously felt that they had more divine rights than the Tudors did. Rather than face the demands and criticism of Parliament, James I decided to avoid it; he simply wouldn’t call it into session. Of course, he couldn’t raise revenues and the Crown verged on bankruptcy, but James was a miser by nature. His son and successor, Charles I, had more expenses-wars, a French wife and all those van Dyke paintings-so he called Parliament and attempted to bully it. If you don’t know the outcome, you could read his autopsy report.
Considering the Stuarts’ hostility to Parliament, it is ironic that the Scots introduced the “vote” to England. In its political context, the word was unknown. (In its religious context, the word had become rather risky since Henry VIII.) The Parliament had been founded in 1265 and, for more than three centuries, this assembly of gentry, clergy and burghers had been using the correct Latin terms for their legislative decisions. The noun was “suffrage”. The verb was “suffragate.” This was not just legal jargon. The words were in the English vernacular. In Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”, the title character addresses the people of Rome, “I ask your voices and your suffrages.”
However, when the English finally heard the word “vote”, they appreciated its succinct brevity. It was easier to say than “suffragate,” a word now mercifully obsolete. The term “suffrage” has survived but with a more limited meaning: the right to vote. A century ago, some justifiably indignant women made excellent use of the word. As for the word “vote”, it is now purely secular. Yet, it still retains some trace of its origins. All too often, the voter is confronted with a choice of idols, each promising miracles.
October 31, 1517: Professor Luther Defaces a Church Door
With all his Teutonic subtlety, Professor Martin Luther hammered on the doors of Wittenburg Cathedral his challenge to the Church. His “95 Theses” was a list of questions on the issue of Indulgences. The list could be summarized: Is the Pope a complete moron or just a shameless thief? For some reason, the Church declined the debate.
Why was the Church selling Indulgences? It wanted the money, of course. You can’t have a Renaissance on a medieval budget. Michelangelo was not cheap, and Raphael could charge even more because he was likable. The Church was undergoing a major redecorating binge….
Julius II: I think that this 1200 year-old church needs some work. I am asking the best artists of the Renaissance for their advice.
Leonardo: It is a camp pastiche. A little Byzantine here, a dab Gothic there, a soupcon Romanesque and mustn’t ignore the retro classic.
Bramante: It is also collapsing.
Julius: All right. Let’s build a new one.
Michelangelo: If you want any sculpting done, fine. Otherwise, I might beat you to death.
Julius: That is a fine way to talk to the Vicar of Christ, especially when I am dying of syphilis.
Leonardo: I think that the new cathedral should fly–a transfiguration motif. I will need at least six years to come up with the right shade for the blueprints.
Julius: Leonardo, the word genius doesn’t do you justice. I believe that the Greek words schizo and phrenia might be apt.
And now that we have torn down the old basilica, I have a little surprise: we can’t afford to build a new one! Maybe you should elect some rich idiot to succeed me….
Cardinal Giovanni de Medici: Hi, I was strolling by, trying to pick up altar boys, when I noticed a job posting for Pope. Let’s see the requirements: Catholics preferred and must be willing to bribe the College of Cardinals. I think that can be arranged. So now I am—
Pope Leo X: Bramante, love your plans. I still am not sure how we can afford it.
Bramante: You’re a de Medici. God borrows money from you.
Leo: Buying a Papal election is more expensive than you’d think. I guess that I could raise money by selling indulgences. No problem there. And I suppose that I could be polite to those pyromaniac lunatics in Spain–just in case they conquer any fabulously rich civilizations in the New World. On second thought, couldn’t you guys work in wood and wallpaper?
September 12th, 1683: The Ottoman Empire Begins Its Retreat to Oblivion
Once you have dispensed with the grateful tears and a few bars of Chopin (how else do you thank Poland), I will give you the actual history.
Yes, the Ottomans did besiege Vienna in 1683. However, this was not the Ottoman Empire of 1483 or 1583, but the bloated parody of its martial glory. Uma Thurman had become Shelley Winters. This Ottoman army was no longer led by warrior kings; the Sultans–now cretins by birth or choice–rarely could find their way out of their harem. The army was now led by whichever courtier had bribed or connived the command.
The commanding pasha at Vienna was Kara Mustafa. He had an army of 140,000 men, but only a third of them were actual soldiers and their weapons were outdated. The other 90,000 men were basically support staff–and the pasha was enjoying the best coffee and cushions. Setting off from Constantinople in April, the Ottoman army lumbered upon Vienna in mid-July. Since an Ottoman horde was hard to ignore, Vienna had ample time to evacuated the civilian population. There was only a garrison of 18,000 left behind the walls of Vienna.
Even with their geriatric armaments, by sheer force the Ottomans could have taken the city. However, that would have been unprofitable for the Pasha. If Vienna were taken by storm, the Turkish soldiers would be entitled to whatever they could loot. On the other hand, if the city were besieged and starved into submission, then the Pasha would receive Vienna’s treasures. Guess which strategy Kara Mustafa preferred?
There are worse places to siege than Vienna in the summer. The Ottoman army enjoyed a pleasant two months of pillaging the Austrian countryside. However, their vacation ended rather abruptly–on this day in 1683–with the arrival of an allied army led by Jan Sobieski. The Pasha evidently had overlooked that possibility. Worse, although Sobieski’s force was half the size of the Pasha’s, the Christian army was composed of soldiers rather than servants. It turned out that the Turkish army was much faster when retreating than advancing. And, indeed, the Ottoman Empire now would be retreating for the next 250 years.
(Yes, in their haste, the Turks left behind sacks of coffee beans. The Poles were entitled to the pick of the loot but were not interested in a sober beverage; so they gave the Turks’ caffeine to the Viennese who made it into an art.)
For his role in the debacle, Kara Mustafa did not receive the Medal of Freedom. He was strangled and then beheaded. So the Sultan was not a complete cretin.
And was Christendom saved? Well, it never was in danger. The Ottoman Empire had no plans for mosques in Moscow or Turkish baths in Bath. This was simply a turf war between Turkey and Austria, and the winner would get Hungary. Furthermore, if this had been a clash between Islam and Christendom, then Turkey had a very strange ally: the leading power of Western Civilization. You see, the Hapsburgs were fighting on two fronts: in the East against the Turks, and in the West against France. Yes, France and Turkey were allies of long-standing, with over a century of coordinated attacks against the Hapsburgs.
Indeed, while Austria was marshalling and mortgaging its resources against Turkey, there was little left to defend the west bank of the Rhine from Louis XIV. Perhaps the French victories offered some solace to the Turkish Sultan. He may have lost Vienna and then Hungary, but his French buddy now owned Alsace and Lorraine.
August 30, 1918: Fanny Kaplan Becomes One of History’s Greatest Footnotes
Fanny Kaplan is not the kind of name with any historical portent. In my old neighborhood, I might have known six of them, all friends of my grandmother. None of these elderly yentas would be thought of as Fanny the Great. So, who is the Fanny Kaplan? This one killed Vladimir Lenin. That sounds more erotic than it actually was. Comrade Kaplan actually shot Lenin.
She was a Socialist Revolutionary, a political party more radical than the Bolsheviks. It advocated land distribution to the peasants and terrorism. The Socialist Revolutionaries (let’s be informal and call them the SR) had been in the forefront of resistance to the Tsar–when the Bolsheviks were debating dialectic materialism and playing chess. Furthermore, the SR were just as defiant of Bolshevik tyranny. The SR certainly were more popular than Lenin’s gang. Russia had an election for a constituent assembly in November 25, 1917. With their agrarian platform in a land where 90 percent of the people were peasants, the SR won more than half the seats in the assembly. By contrast, the Bolsheviks came in a distant second. When the Assembly met in January 1918, the Bolsheviks simply disbanded it. The SR had the votes but the Bolsheviks had the guns.
Actually, the SR had guns, too. They attempted an uprising in July 1918. The Bolsheviks crushed it, but the SR still had recourse to political assassination. On August 30, 1918 in Moscow, Lenin was shot twice by Fanny Kaplan. One bullet did no worse than hitting his shoulder, but the other lodged in the neck. He did not die; by contrast, Kaplan’s execution was an immediate success.
However, the Russians were afraid to remove the bullet in Lenin’s neck. At first, ignoring the bullet seemed an effective therapy. Lenin seemed just as effective a tyrant as ever, leading the Reds to victory in a Civil War and initiating an agrarian policy of land distribution which he shamelessly stole from the SRs. (From their ability, to his needs…) Nor had Lenin lost his sense of fun; he sometimes ordered a Politiburo meeting to be conducted in English, German or French. Speaking Russian just wasn’t enough of an intellectual challenge.
But then Lenin began suffering from headaches and insomnia. He was physically deteriorating; the bullet in his neck clearly was threatening his life. So Lenin finally agreed to an operation. No doctor in the Soviet Union had the skill or the nerve; a German specialist performed the surgery in April 1922. The bullet was successfully extracted, and Lenin no longer had headaches and insomnia. However, there may have been one side effect; he had a stroke in May. He seemed to recover from it, but then a second stroke in December left him partially paralyzed. In March 1923, a third stroke left him mute and bedridden. He died in January 1924.
So, Fanny Kaplan killed Lenin, even if it took five years for him to realize it.
August 24, 1572
Catherine de Medici was having a bad week. First, she had to organize the wedding of her daughter Margo to Henri de Bourbon, King of Navarre. Even with her connections, the Queen Mother couldn’t get a better date for Notre Dame Cathedral than August. Who would want to be in Paris then? (Be sure to triple the order on the Church incense.) Then, there was a matter of finding a cleric willing to do mixed marriages. Royal marriages required at least an archbishop, but none seemed to approve of a Protestant bridegroom. Fortunately, someone in the groom’s family was still Catholic and he was a Cardinal. Of course, there was always the challenge of seating. The Guises hate the Montmorencys, and neither wanted to be near Huguenots. Finally, at the last minute, she had to plan the massacre of the Protestant guests.
Catherine was almost as surprised by this development as the Protestants would be; and it was all the fault of that Henri de Guise, Duc de Lorraine. Two days earlier, on August 22nd, a Guise employee had attempted to assassinate the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny. Perhaps Guise had his reasons: he was the leader of the militant Catholics and his father had been assassinated by a Huguenot. An Italian would never begrudge anyone a vendetta, but Catherine did not appreciate Guise’s sense of timing. It rather disrupted the ecumenical mood of the wedding festivities. At least Coligny had survived, and Catherine and her son–King Charles IX–had paid a visit to the invalid. But that good will gesture did not satisfy the outraged Huguenots.
So Catherine and her royal councilors had to come to a decision. (Charles rarely dared to have his own opinion.) Of course, in theory, they should punish de Guise. But De Guise commanded his own army, the Holy League; he was the most popular man in France and especially adored in Paris, and he was allied to Philip II. Any action against de Guise could lead to widespread rebellion, war with Spain and even some excommunications from Rome. So justice was out of the question.
As an alternative strategy the Crown could do nothing, as if the assassination attempt had never happened. But that would infuriate the Protestants and start a civil war in France. The whole point of the marriage between Margo and a Huguenot leader was to maintain peace among the antagonistic religions. However, there was a third way, one that would avert such a war: massacre the Huguenot leaders before they had a chance to rebel. Most of them happened to be in Paris for the wedding. There would never be a more convenient time and place to kill them all. And Catherine felt that she was only being fair. If the Huguenots had been the majority in France, she would have organized a massacre of the Catholics.
So, on August 24, early in the morning, the Duc de Guise got a second chance to kill Gaspard de Coligny. The Royal Guard had also been given a list of Huguenot victims. Some of them were wedding guests at the Louvre; of course, it would have been rude and messy to slaughter them in their beds. So they were dragged into the courtyards. Catherine was quite willing to dispose of her new son-in-law Henri de Bourbon, but for once King Charles stood up to his mother. The King felt that his brother-in-law should be offered the choice of conversion or death; as it turned out, Henri proved more pragmatist than Protestant. At the first opportunity, however, Bourbon escaped Paris and reverted to Calvinism. If the popular lore can be believed, Catherine would spend the rest of her life (another 16 years) trying to poison him.
Now, the massacre had been intended to be a society affair. These were “de” people and worth killing; but the population of Paris hated to miss out on the carnage. They began an unrestrained slaughter of every Huguenot: man, woman and child. Thousands were killed in Paris, and as the news spread through France, it was viewed as an invitation. Until early October, the massacres continued. The number of victims can only be estimated, and the estimations might reflect a certain bias. Whereas the Encyclopedia Britannica cites 50,000 dead, the Catholic Encyclopedia concedes maybe 1100 dead in Paris and perhaps 15,000 in all of France. (The Catholic Encyclopedia also insists that the killings were the work of Machiavellians, not real Catholics.)
Despite all that enthusiastic slaughter, there were still ample surviving Huguenots to plunge France into civil wars that lasted until 1598. Catherine de Medici did not live to see its outcome; however, undeserving, she died of natural causes in 1589. King Charles died in 1574, perhaps accidentally poisoned by his mother. The Duc de Guise was assassinated in 1589, but surprisingly not by a Protestant. Only Henri de Bourbon was left–and he now was the King of France. Of course, to attain the throne, he had to re-convert to Catholicism; but he did grant an edict of tolerance to his former fellow Huguenots.
So the massacre’s only lasting effect was its infamy. According to the Church Calendar, August 24th is the feast day of Saint Bartholomew. But since 1572, St. Bartholomew’s Day is not remembered for a feast.