Posts Tagged ‘history’

Looking for Mr. Good Book

Posted in General on March 4th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

Beset by bankruptcy, my local Borders bookstore is closing.  However, the corporation can still afford email and it has been barraging me with notices of the great sales at the soon-to-be shuttered locale.    “Everything Must GO!”  Today I had some free time and Karen trusted me with the car, so I decided to bargain-hunt.  You know, I didn’t have a comprehensive history of the Netherlands.  Well, I still don’t.  Everyone else apparently got it first.

Of course, I was open to any bargains.  Somehow the Twilight calendars didn’t appeal to me, however.  But the history shelves were not completely barren.  I was tempted by a history of Sicily, at least until I started perusing it.  The introduction certainly made a vivid first impression.  “When you say Sicily, you probably think of the Mafia.  But there is more to Sicily than that.”  Judging from the author’s tone, I would probably learn that Sicily is a big island in the Mediterranean Sea–which is filled with water.  Yes, I could see why the book was still for sale.

There was also a history of ancient Alexandria, and its author did have a style appropriate for an intelligent adult.  Borders almost had a sale, at least until I read the author’s biographical sketch.  He cited among his achievements being the historical consultant on “Elizabeth”, the film featuring Cate Blanchett as Miss Tudor.  That film did correctly depict Elizabeth’s hair color, and that the extent of its historical accuracy.  In other words, the consultant was bragging about being either a liar or a studio stooge.  I no longer could trust anything he had to say.   

I did finally find a book with an interesting topic and a reputable author.  It is a history of Germany’s Jews.  Now, don’t tell me how it ends.

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day:

An Immodest Proposal

Posted in General on April 21st, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 9 Comments

Finally, someone appreciates me.  I just received this email.


My name is Violet Smith, I represent adult dating sites.  We took a look at your site ( recently, and we are interested in a link exchange.

Our offer is actually quite interesting, a 3 way link as opposed to a reciprocal link. You link to and we link to you on SexDate*****.com  We offer the best type of link exchange. Also,SexDate****.com  has a very nice directory that we have been building so you are sure to find a category there for your site. If not, please just make your suggestion to us.

Here is our link info:

Hornymatches [hyperlink]

Have a great week and I hope that we can do business with you in the very near future.

Violet Smith

Of course, many of you have suspected that FinermanWorks really was a porn site.  Yes, I am a front for historic pornography.  Consider the portraits of  Byzantine empresses.  Under all those mosaics, they are naked!  True, it is a bit of an effort to pick away the right tiles to get to the good stuff. 

But if you order “Hot Babes of the Comnenian Dynasty” (in peel-off mosaics or peek-a-boo icons) , as a special gift, I’ll send you a collection of centerfolds from the Book of Kells.    See St. Brigid the way that you always wanted to!  (All right, those Irish monks couldn’t draw well but it is the closest we’ll ever get to Maureen O’Hara having nude scenes in “Miracle on 34th Street”.)

And if you happen to be that way, your panderer-in-chief can offer pictures of gay Japanese samurai from the 16th century.  Two of the leading warlords weren’t interested in warladies.  Really.  To Uesugi Kenshin and Oda Nobunaga, shogun was as much a proposition as a title.  

Remember, it is always an orgy at FinermanWorks.

The Unfortunate James Ussher

Posted in General on March 31st, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

January 4, 1581: Happy Birthday Bishop Ussher

Imagine being remembered for the most stupid thing you ever said.  And I mean “remembered“:  three centuries later, people would still be mocking you.  That is the pathetic legacy of James Ussher (1581-1656).  He’s the one who said that the universe was created in October, 4004 B.C.  Now stop your sneering.  He was not a village idiot or a charlatan, but a highly respected scholar and Anglican clergyman.  However preposterous his calculation now seems, it was a painstaking interpolation of history and the Bible.

His chronology was the culmination of four years of research.  Ussher was so diligent that he would not trust the Greek or Latin translations of the Bible; he went back to the original Hebrew.  (You may question the quality of Hebrew taught in 16th century Dublin, and if he ever practiced it with any “Dutch” merchants in London.)  The polyglot Ussher was also using the works of Greek and Roman historians to weave the pagans’ chronology with the Bible’s.   Finished in 1654, “Annales Veteris et Nove Testamenti” was in fact an unprecedented work of scholarship.

Until Ussher, ancient history had no precise chronology.  Yes, theater goers knew that Julius Caesar died on March 15, but the exact year was a guess.   When did Alexander the Great live?  You’d think that scholars would know; they didn’t.  History since Anno Domini had a defined order; but “before Christ” was a vague progression.  Rameses comes before Cyrus, who comes before Hannibal.  Ussher changed that and with an impressive degree of accuracy.  He was the first true chronicler of ancient history.  The battle of Marathon–490 B.C.: correct.  Babylonians destroy Jerusalem–586 B.C.: give or take a year.  King David died–970 B.C.:  seems plausible.  Yes, you notice the diminishing precision.

Being a clergyman (an Anglican archbishop, no less) Ussher regarded the Bible as an infallible historical work.   So his chronological interpolation would extend to the beginning of history, and I do mean “The Beginning.”  If you take the Bible literally, then Ussher’s calculation cannot be faulted.  The universe was created in 4004 B.C.  But that is a matter of faith rather than history.

Unfortunately, Archbishop Ussher is best remembered for his worst assertion, not his genuine and lasting contributions to scholarship.  But history isn’t supposed to be fair–just accurate.


Hollywood Hystery

Posted in General on April 15th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 7 Comments

Hollywood’s version of history is usually a juvenile simplification.  As long as the battle scenes are exciting, the facts can have a higher mortality rate than the featured infantry.  For instance, an attempted epic called “The Last Legion” found it convenient to depict the Byzantine Empire as being Indian.  Well, Byzantium was the eastern half of the Roman Empire but it wasn’t quite that East.  At least, “The Last Legion” was obviously silly and so no one would mistake it for real history.  While watching it, my blood pressure was never at risk.

However, “Elizabeth”–the 1998 Cate Blanchett travesty–could have killed me.   This film infuriated me.  It was more than the usual simplifications and inaccuracies; “Elizabeth” was fabricating most of the story.  The script got her name and hair color right–and that was about it.  You saw battles and executions that never happened.  Some historical figures were mutated beyond  recognition.  The real Francis Walsingham was a grim puritanical bureaucrat who headed the Elizabethan intelligence service; but for his competence, he could have been the 16th century Dick Cheney.  In “Elizabeth”, however, Walsingham has become an omnisexual James Bond; among his feats, he seduces and assassinates the Queen of Scotland.   I wonder how many film viewers believe that actually happened.

You can imagine my dread of the sequel.  Would Jennifer Lopez play Philip II?  I tried to avoid “Elizabeth: the Golden Age” but in my remote control meanderings I kept colliding with it.  The pageantry lured me, and I decided to risk my health and self-respect by watching the film.  I stopped counting the historical errors and fabrications after the first seven minutes.  (There already were five.)  I just sat watching in resignation and confusion.  Somehow Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake became the same person.  And the director and the scriptwriter eventually abandoned all pretense at coherence.  They could not quite explain how Raleigh/Drake managed with a single ship to sink the Spanish Armada.  In fact, the inanity became contagious.  I considered what absurdities they somehow had omitted from the film. 

Here are a few of my fabrications–which are available for the next sequel: 

Elizabeth visits Stratford-on-Avon Junior High and encourages one of the students to improve his penmanship.

Leonardo da Vinci offers to build Elizabeth an air force, allowing Britain to colonize America.

To confuse the Spanish Armada, Francis Bacon (painter or writer, what’s the difference) camouflages the White Cliffs of Dover to look like Sicilian olive groves.  Ferdinand Magellan, thinking he made the wrong turn at Cadiz, sails the Armada west to the Philippines where the fleet  is devoured by giant termites.  (Only Miguel Cervantes survives to tell the tale.)

I only hope that I am kidding…but I am willing to take the check.

Valkyrie Liaison

Posted in General on April 24th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

The German aristocracy had always despised Hitler’s table manners. By 1944, they had noticed that some countries disliked him, too–and were expressing their disapproval by leveling German cities and annihilating German armies. In an attempt to salvage something of their country, a number of these aristocrats plotted to kill the Fuhrer on July 20, 1944. Their plan was called “Operation Valkryie” since they apparently were hoping to free Wagner from Hitler, too. A bomb in a briefcase was carried into a conference with Hitler. The conspirators did succeed in getting streets and high schools named for them–at least in the new and improved Germany. (Austria has never heard of them…or Hitler.)

And now the film “Valkryrie”, starring that great German actor Tom Cruise, has been produced. (No, despite being short, dark-haired and unbalanced, Cruise does not play Hitler.) However, the film is rumored to be a bigger bomb than was planted near Hitler. Of course, the film’s dialogue would be hysterical; half of the cast is German, nearly half of the cast is Royal Shakespeare Company British, and then there is one California high school graduate.

A greater problem, however, would seem to be the modern audience’s ignorance of history. Your average American adolescent only knows World War II as a video game. Although teenagers have heard of Hitler, they would likely identify him as a Moslem who fought against Lincoln. And your teenage film viewer finds history laborious with all those details. Anything with a complicated plot should at least be science fiction and have great special effects. So, perhaps the film should be reedited to make the German officers into Jedi knights.

The public might also want a more recognizable villain than Adolf Hitler. Rupert Murdoch would be an obvious choice but he might refuse to advertise the film. There also has to be a way to explain why everyone in the film is in uniform. Hmm, I think I have the answer….

VALKYRIE–the story of a group of bellhops trying to kill Donald Trump.

The Unready

Posted in General, On This Day on November 14th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

If you are not fluent in 11th century English puns, the name of Aethelred the Unready sounds rather endearing. The Angle-Saxon English king might seem a vacillating, knee-knocking fumbler, the role model of Senator Harry Reid. In fact, Aethelred was an assertive, bold catastrophe. Whatever his royal ancestors had built and achieved over 150 years, Aethelred sabotaged and destroyed. Had he anticipated his great-great grandson, Alfred the Great would have had a vasectomy. Alfred had saved a ravaged England from the Vikings, and created the foundation of a prosperous kingdom; Aethelred did exactly the opposite.

Names do have meaning; no one thought of Aethelred for its lilting sound. In Olde Anglische, Aethelred means “well-counselled” , prudent or wise. So, as any medieval Englishman could tell you, “unready” means uncounselled or reckless. Adding the epithet of Unready to Athelred was an editorial pun. (It also demonstrates why English humor is best left to the Irish.)

Aethelred ascended the English throne in 978 at the age of ten, over the body of his half-brother. Aethelred’s mother had arranged that assassination; after all, he was only a stepson. (In posthumous compensation, the late king received a complimentary sainthood; the evil queen mother was also a generous benefactor to the Church, so presumably everyone benefited from the regicide.)

At the time, England was a prosperous country. The same could not be said of Denmark. Its King, Sweyn Forkbeard, had to pay tribute to the Holy Roman Emperor. Sweyn’s father, Harald Bluetooth, was unique among Viking raiders in that he actually lost battles. After some disastrous campaigns in Germany, Bluetooth could save his skin only by converting to Christianity and coughing up annual compensation to the Kaiser. Sweyn may have inherited better teeth but he was stuck with his father’s debts. So to pay the German tribute, Sweyn decided to extort tribute to England.

Beginning in 980 what would become an annual tradition, the Danish fleet would arrive in England, brushing aside the always inadequate defense, and rampaging until a satisfactory ransom was paid. Young Aethelred was no military prodigy; his attempts at battles were invariably defeats. He found it easier to amass tax collectors than an army. Gouging England to pay the Vikings’ tribute did not endear Aethelred to his subjects. So he took the precaution of hiring Danish bodyguards. (Of course, that required even more taxes.)

In 1002, however, Aethelred finally decided to free his kingdom from this Danish subjugation. On November 13th–St. Brice’s Day—he undertook this liberation by ordering the massacre of every Dane in England. The Vikings fleet had already returned home, so the Danes remaining in England were just merchants, artisans and tourists. At least Aethelred found Danes whom he could defeat. Hundreds were slaughtered. This certainly was Aethelred’s greatest victory, but was it really that decisive?

To put it in a modern context, imagine if the United States decided to solve our trade imbalance with China by ordering an attack on every P.F. Chang’s. Would the prospect of hundreds of dead waiters really force China to capitulate? Aethelred’s strategy actually did make an impression on Sweyn Forkbeard. One of the massacred Danes happened to be his sister. Sweyn now was determined to overthrow Aethelred.

It took 11 years but the next king of England was named Knut, a nice Danish name. Knut–alias Canute–was Sweyn’s son. As for Aethelred, he was spending his exile with in-laws in Normandy, a family connection that would assert itself in 1066. Any English resistance was left to his son, Edmund Ironside. Aethelred died of natural causes in 1016; his son managed to regain the English throne for a few months while Knut was busy in Denmark seizing that throne. Of course, upon Knut’s return, so did the English habit of losing. Edmund soon died; and very few think that it was from a natural cause. (One prurient theory postures that he was killed in a privy; apparently, his ironside did not extend all the way down.)

And for the happy ending, Canute proved an excellent king.

Flagging Efforts

Posted in General on April 12th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

What happens when you combine a Greek and a Jew?  Aside from 241 lawyer jokes, you also get the national flag of Great Britain.

Until April 12, 1606, the flag of England was ostensibly the “cross of St. George”, two straight red lines transecting on a white background. St. George was the patron saint of England, although you can hardly imagine a cosmopolitan 4th century Greek bishop visiting the backwoods of Britannia.

Until April 12, 1606, the flag of Scotland was ostensibly “the cross of St. Andrew”, two white diagonal lines intersecting on a blue background. St. Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland, although you could be certain that a 1st century Jewish fisherman never heard of Caledonia.

On April 12, 1606, however, the two flags were combined because both country were ruled by James, England’s first and Scotland’s sixth. King James was somewhat brighter than the average Stuart and considerably shorter, but he had the full extent of Scottish parsimony. (Being cheap did spare him a conflict over money with Parliament; his son should have been so stingy.) He probably thought that combining the two flags would save on fabric.

The flag soon was named the Union Jack, an allusion to the fact that the Latin form of James is Jacobus, alias Jack. Initially, the Union Jack was the monarch’s personal banner. England and Scotland continued to fly their respective “crosses.” But in 1707, someone kept Queen Anne sober enough to sign the Act of Union, combining Scotland and England into one country and under one flag.

In 1801, the Union Jack’s appearance was “freshened” and updated with the addition of a red sash of intersecting diagonal lines: “the cross of St. Patrick”.  Patrick was the patron saint of Ireland and, in an unprecedented coincidence, he really had been there.  You can just imagine just how thrilled the Irish were to be be represented on the Union Jack.

Wales, however, is excluded from the Union Jack. Its “cross of St. David” is two straight yellow lines transecting on a black background. Wales might have stayed independent if its soldiers had clashed as ferociously as its color scheme.

The Quality of Mercy

Posted in English Stew on February 25th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Mercy was the stock and trade of the Roman Empire. True, an Empire of mad Caesars, blood-crazed mobs and well-fed lions would not seem very charitable or lenient. (You could ask a Carthaginian if there were any left.) However, in its original Latin, mercy had nothing to do with virtue. It meant “trade.” The Latin word “mercari” proved remarkably versatile, the root for market, merchant, mercenary and even the name of a God. Fleet-footed and sleight-of-hand, Mercury was the patron of traders…and thieves. Mercari also provided France a way to say “thank you.” Finally, and unintentionally, mercari became the English word for clemency.

Let’s begin this mercurial odyssey. The Romans introduced “mercari” to Gaul but it hardly made a good first impression. After all, at Roman insistence, the Gaulish traded their liberty, land and livestock in exchange for the right to keep breathing. For four centuries, mercari meant supplying the local garrison with wine and pornographic pottery. Beginning in the fifth century, however, the word was reinvented, “new and improved” by a software company called Christianity.

Its sales force understood the principles of marketing. Prospective converts needed an incentive if they were to trade Jove for Jesus. So, the missionaries offered their customers a mercedes. No, it was not a deluxe German chariot, but it was a miracle of marketing. The word mercedes , in fact, was a variation of mercari, but its meaning had been embellished and burnished. A mercedes was more than a mere trade; it was a bargain, a reward, a blessing!

Those missionaries made a compelling sales pitch, guaranteeing morality and salvation. All that paganism could promise was provocative theater. The Gaulish realized which religion was the mercedes. In the fifth century, the conquering Franks came to the same conclusion and traded in Wotan. Since mercedes was synonymous with reward or blessing, the French began saying it to express appreciation. They did abridge it to two syllables-“merci”-but the French were never long on gratitude.

The English learned “mercy” from the Normans, and the lesson was in both Latin and French. The Norman conquerors included bishops as well as barons. The new prelates of England were bound by the tenets of Christianity, and the Church still promised “mercedes.” However, after six centuries in the Dark Ages, the Church really wasn’t feeling chipper. In this bleak 11th century perspective, the world was sinful, and mankind was unworthy of God’s mercedes. Such blessings were an undeserved favor. Of course, the Norman clergy were eager to terrorize their conquered congregations, promising eternal damnation unless the English proved abjectly servile. Even then, their hope of salvation was slim, dependent upon the generosity of Heaven. Any fate other than Hell was an act of mercedes.

Living under the Normans, the English already had a familiarity with Hell. The Normans were descended from Vikings who had overrun France. Over a century, they had acquired a facade of French culture, although the Norman idea of Christian conduct was limited to shaving. Now the new masters of England, they made no attempt to endear themselves to their subjects. On the contrary, the Normans routinely terrorized the English to teach them their place-with the livestock. The battered and cowed English became accustomed to abuse and degradation.

Then, the unexpected occurred in the 12th century. It might have been during Lent or in the wake of the Chivalry craze. An English servant had just finished his debasing drudgery (perhaps licking the stables) and now expected to receive a slap or a kick from the Norman lord or lady. Instead, the Norman muttered “merci.” The servant kept waiting for some affliction but nothing happened. The Norman repeated “merci” and waved the Englishman away. The amazed and relieved servant had never before heard the word “merci” but he could guess its meaning. The Norman was saying, “I won’t hurt you.”

By the 13th century, the distortion of mercedes and the misinterpretation of merci had converged into our meaning of mercy. So, from Roman greed, medieval gloom and Norman arrogance, we derived an expression of virtue. Whether or nor mankind is inherently sinful, we are habitually ironic.

On this day in 1910: The Moderate Bunch

Posted in General, On This Day on November 20th, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

Portfirio Diaz was the best President of Mexico that American business ever had. For just a reasonable–if continual–bribe, railroads, Standard Oil, and mining companies could exploit all that Mexico had to offer. Some of Diaz’s amassed fortune was trickling down to the populace, at least to his family, the crew of his yacht and the teenage girls who seemed to rejuvenate the elderly tyrant. However, that was not really a majority of Mexico’s population.

Diaz had been a war hero against the French in the 1860s; but 34 years of corruption seemed a sufficient veteran’s benefit. By 1910, Mexico was ready to overthrow the outrageous rascal, and the hopes and the grievances of Mexico would center around a most incongruous figure. As a revolutionary, Francisco Madero was the soul of well-mannered moderation. As a leader, he was innocuous rather than charismatic. The hope of Mexico’s impoverished masses was a wealthy aristocrat who had been educated everywhere but Mexico. But this education abroad had made him an admirer of societies that were neither feudal relics or shameless kleptocracies. Even if he did look upon Mexico from an Ivory Tower, it was with genuine compassion.

His liberal principles had earned him several bouts in a Mexican prison. However, having the advantage of being rich in the Diaz days, he could always bribe his escape. While in exile in Texas, Madero issued a call for the Mexican people to overthrow Diaz and reestablish democracy; it was on this day in 1910.

Rebellions began throughout Mexico, and even the army seemed loathe to defend the Thief-in-Chief. Six months later, Portfirio Diaz was on his yacht, cruising to Europe with his usual contingent of teenage girls; he lived happily ever after. Francisco Madero was the new President. On his private estates, he had genuinely improved his workers’ standard of living; he imagined that he could do the same with all of Mexico. Unfortunately, Mexico proved a little more difficult. Moderation seemed to please no one.

Revolutionaries wanted more drastic reforms than Madero was prepared to make. Conservatives wanted no reforms at all. Worse for Madero, his innocuous moderation terrified American corporate interests in Mexico. They evidently preferred paying bribes than taxes, and a scrupulous Mexican government might interfere with their business. The American Ambassador Henry Wilson, representing those business interests, initiated his own foreign policy: a military coup to overthrow Madero.

Assuming that everyone had his good intentions, Madero had not tried to purge the Mexican Army of Diaz’s cronies. Unfortunately, a number of generals proved quite nostalgic for the old kleptocracy and were eager to reestablish it. Ambassador Wilson had no trouble orchestrating the coup. Madero had entrusted his security to Gen. Victoriano Huerta. Huerta organized the firing squad.

If you have seen “The Wild Bunch”, “One Hundred Rifles”, or “Viva Zapata” you know what happened next. It was a free-for-all civil war. Any general could claim to be the President, and anyone could claim to be a general. The Conservatives fought the Revolutionaries, and the Revolutionaries fought each other. In hindsight, this probably was not the best environment for American businesses; it was impossible to keep track of whom to bribe.

By 1920, the civil wars had bled themselves dry, and Mexico had arrived at a political compromise that more or less has lasted to this day: a government of moderate thieves.