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Nine Historical Mysteries June 6, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

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***Dedicated to Moonman***

Thanks to an email from an old friend of StrangeHistory Beach found himself wondering about moments from history that are mysterious, and where this blogger would chop off his own digits to get at the truth. In what follows, he has avoided the classics because, to be frank, he just doesn’t care what happened to the Marie Celeste; the Loch Ness Monster does not exist (sorry); and if one day we were to discover which particular psycho eviscerated prostitutes in London in 1888 it wouldn’t change a thing. This is perhaps another way of saying that lists like this reflect the idiosyncrasies of their writers. You have been warned.

Any other suggestions for historical mysteries that are worth getting to the bottom of: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Greenland Colony.  We know that the western colony in Greenland disappeared sometime in the fourteenth century. But where and under what circumstances? Seaver is one of a handful of historians to suggest that the Greenlanders headed west and occupied territory on the coast of Canada. It is an outrageous claim – well over a century before Columbus – and yet she makes a surprisingly convincing case. Beach wants to be on the boat when the last Greenlander leaves the bay. If they are not heading for Labrador he needs to know where they are going: ‘back’ to Iceland? If they died before they got to the boat he needs to know how and where they are buried. He wants, in short, answers.

Britain 410 AD. The Roman Empire is crashing down and in desperate circumstances Britannia is lost. Save fifty or sixty Greek words nothing is really known about how and even the Greek words are highly suspect. For example, historians have serious doubts about whether Britain unilaterally declared independence or whether Rome threw Britannia to the wolves: certainly things got very sweaty very quickly in the ex-Roman province. Forget the distraction of King Arthur, Lancelot and co, a post Roman dream. Beach needs details on the geopolitical facts 410 plus: ten minutes alone in a room with a well-educated municeps from Londinium will do.

Lorenzo de Medici’s Last Confession. In 1492, while Columbus was ripping up the margins of western history, Lorenzo de Medici got a summer cold and was carried to his death bed. Realising that the end was nigh Lorenzo had his final moment of drama. He called, of all people, his enemy, the Dominican, Savonarola to come and give him last rites. Savonarola was left alone in the room with Lorenzo. One contemporary writer claims that Lorenzo was given the last rites and that Savonarola helped the Medici villain into the next world. A second contemporary account says that Savonarola refused to give Lorenzo the liberation he desired. Who cares? Well, actually Beach does. Think of it as the aesthetics of history…

Churchill and Halifax in the Rose Garden: A similar case of two people alone and no witnesses. 27 May 1940, the middle of the worst week in British history. The British war cabinet had fallen into two factions: the no-surrender majority led by Churchill and a tenacious and articulate we-should-probably-negotiate faction led by Halifax. At the height of the crisis Churchill and Halifax, after exchanging sharp words across the cabinet table, went for a walk together in the Rose Garden at 10 Downing Street and talked there. This private conversation was the turning point. Afterwards, Churchill slowly cornered and suffocated the negotiators. What was said? Oh to have been an aphid on one of those roses.

Spartacus: Arguments rage about whether Spartacus was a proto-class warrior, a thug or just a desperate man trying to save his own life. Beach is not sure (perhaps the second two?), but one mystery connected with Spartacus and the Third Servile War intrigues him. What was Spartacus’ aim? The slave army he had assembled strolled around much of southern Italy. But what were they doing and where were they going? It has been suggested that they were trying to get ‘home’, wherever that was. But an examination of their route is enough to scotch that. Did Spartacus and co seriously believe that he could defeat legion after legion? Is it true that they believed they could capture Rome itself? Beach has his doubts but would need a few minutes alone with the Thracian to find out.

Baldwin at Montgisard. Beach has few heroes from history: familiarity breeds contempt. But one man – in fact, a boy – who has always caught his imagination is Baldwin IV, the leper king of Jerusalem. Baldwin’s greatest achievement was at the battle of Montgisard, where aged sixteen, with his body literally falling to pieces, Baldwin knelt in the sands, besides a piece of the true cross, and prayed before his army. Minutes later he led his outnumbered host against one of the greatest war leaders of the Middle Ages and, somehow, defeated Saladin. What is there to learn? How a critically ill adolescent can inspire a crusading host to do something that was, on paper, practically impossible? You’d probably have to see the faces of the vanguard of his force to come close to understanding. Deus vult!

The Cathars at Montesgur: On Wednesday, March 16, 1244 the Cathars of Montsegur, who had been under siege for ten months, finally gave in. Over two hundred walked down the hill and onto a pyre that had been prepared for them and were burnt there alive, despite the offer of a free pass for those who renaged on their dualist faith. Most mysteriously in their number were perhaps twenty Christians who had converted to Catharism in the days before. These men had no doubt what fate awaited them. Why would they who could have walked away chosen to die in this excruciating fashion? Dan Brown and his ilk have given some invented answers featuring the Holy Grail and other unlikely containers. The truth is probably more prosaic and more interesting: a mixture of faith, bloody-mindedness and peer pressure. But, goodness, Beach would have liked to have been privy at the discussions when twenty odd ‘Catholics’ decided to be ‘perfected’ in the flames.

Ilkely Fairies: Beach has avoided Forteana here because he suspects that, in most cases, the truth would be extraordinarily banal and uninspiring. However, one curiosity that he would like to resolve, and that has all kind of personal associations for him, took place in the early nineteenth-century at Ilkley in Yorkshire. A bath man, William Butterfield, who was universally respected and admired in the town for his sobriety and reliability – i.e. he was a good witness – walked to his place of work at dawn, opened the door and saw half a dozen fairies having a bath.  Beach has serious doubts that WB saw fairies, but he would have liked to be there when the key turned in the lock, because something happened in or outside William’s head that was worth recording…

Christ on the Cross: According to some Christ is a figment of the historical imagination: Beach, though not a Christian, begs to differ. However, did JC really end up on the cross or was he stoned or hung or did he settle down and have kids? The sources point overwhelmingly towards crucifixion but then the Gospels are some of the most unusual sources ever written. All the better to be there with the Roman legionaries, throwing the dice. As to what happened after the body was cut down, Beach would rather not know. Some things are best left to the imagination.

25 June 2013: Here is a mystery from JB: As a resident of California and a former resident of Portugal I am fascinated by the conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. (Or was it Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho?) He is credited with being the first European to explore the California coast. There is a fierce debate as to whether or not he was a Spaniard or Portuguese. His alleged home town in Portugal has a high incidence of Inquisition persecution of crypto-Jews. I would love to spend a few minutes asking him about his childhood. Americans seem to think he was a Spaniard but the Spanish government says he was Portuguese. Then Stephen has an opinion on Baldwin: Tempted to  think the explanation for his astonishing victory may lie in something noted by Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah: quoting from memory, and I can’t remember from which translation: ‘For the core of any army you must have reliable, disciplined troops, used to fighting in close formation, who will stand their ground when attacked, and advance against the enemy when ordered to do so. For this reason, all the Muslim states of North Africa employ Christian European mercenaries, who are theologically objectionable but who can be trusted to stand and fight where Arabs would run away.” But not sure this applies to Montgisard: (a) many of Saladin’s troops Turks and Kurds (b) counter-example of Hattin. Thanks Stephen and JB!

30 June 2013: The Count on some mysteries: Of your historical mysteries, I think the most interesting has to be Jesus Christ. Though since he probably wasn’t feeling very talkative while being crucified, I’d choose to have a chat with him somewhat earlier. I think I’m correct in saying that, while the passage in which Flavius Josephus discusses Jesus is almost certainly a later interpolation, his mention of James the Just, brother of Jesus, is authentic, strongly implying that Jesus also existed, and founded the religion which his brother ran, along with Peter and John, for about 10 times longer than Jesus ever did, before being eclipsed by a totally fictional version of his own brother by Saul of Tarsus, who sounds like a very unpleasant man indeed, and quite possibly mad. It would be interesting to know what the real man was like. The departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 AD doesn’t strike me as all that mysterious. Since the Britons had for several centuries entrusted their entire infrastructure, including the army, to the Romans, the sudden loss of everyone who could run the place properly or fight at all well was a horrendous calamity, resulting in the ill-advised importation of foreign mercenaries to fight off opportunistic attacks by the Celts still holding out in Ireland and Scotland. Which of course turned out to be a dreadful idea, because the Anglo-Saxons & Co. decided to stick around and take over the entire country, and there was no way of stopping them! These do not sound like people who had recently thrown off the yoke of Roman imperialism by force of arms, do they? However, since I live in Edinburgh, at the extreme Northern limit of the Roman Empire, it would be fascinating to pop back in time while staying in the same place. This used to be to all intents and purposes the Wild West, with savage unconquered Picts a few miles away, and settlers who had been given large financial incentives to live in the hazardous land between Hadrian’s very effective wall and the far less successful Antonine earthwork. You’re quite right not to bother with the boring old Mary Celeste. In case you missed it, a totally plausible and almost certainly correct explanation has been advanced – since there was of course an official inquiry, extremely detailed records exist which sensational writers usually ignore. A small proportion of the ship’s cargo of industrial alcohol had accidentally been put in barrels made of the wrong wood, and had seeped out, filling the hold with alcohol fumes. This could very plausibly have ignited, causing a loud explosion powerful enough to blow off the hatch-cover, which was indeed missing. Fearing that the entire cargo was about to explode, the captain immediately ordered everyone into the longboat, pausing only to grab a few essentials, and let the ship tow them at the end of the longest available rope for a few hours until it either blew up or didn’t. One poorly-tied knot would have stranded them in mid-ocean with inadequate supplies while the ship went merrily on its way… Since the longboat and that particular rope were missing, along with the compass and one or two other things a captain might grab if he was leaving in a great hurry, that’s by a very long way the best explanation. A lot of the hype came from a sensational and not terribly accurate semi-fictionalized version called The Statement Of J. Habbakuk Jephson, notable mainly for being the first published story of one Arthur Conan Doyle. However, the Fortean event I’d most like to witness is Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting of the very first “flying saucers” (actually they were banana-shaped). There’s little doubt that Arnold, an extremely reputable man trained to observe aircraft who had no reasons whatsoever to make up a load of rubbish about something that wasn’t even fashionable yet, was telling what he thought was the truth. The question is, what did he see? Since large white birds seen through some type of mirage effect could very well look like silver boomerangs flying in a V-formation, that’s very likely what he saw. But it would be nice to have a photo, since, unlike Nessie, it seems much more likely than not that the witness did in fact see something he couldn’t explain. And look at the effect it had on popular culture! Oh, and I wouldn’t mind eavesdropping on Adolf Hitler’s private screening of The Great Dictator. Maybe I should apply to be the next Doctor Who? You never know, it might all be true!’ Then Norm K: On mysteries: where did the legend of white bearded gods come from that prevailed in the Americas before the Spanish started rooting around. A seventh century viking slaving voyage off the west coast of Africa, gone astray  might make for a book. The good doctor has the background for that one and as far as I know, it has not been done.  Thanks Count and Norm!