Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Deadly Wedding Feast Of Tian Fen



Tian Fen was not a man to be trifled with—as the younger brother of Empress Wang, Tian Fen was the brother-in-law of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE) and also the uncle of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). Furthermore, he was the marquis of Wuan, a chancellor of China and, in 135 BCE, he took a lead role in the regency council that advised Emperor Wu.

Many officials in the empire were afraid of Tian Fen’s power and would not dare to speak out against him. Yet, Marquis Dou Ying, and his friend Guan Fu, were not among the timid ranks. Instead, Dou Ying and Guan Fu seemed to clash with Tian Fen every chance they could. From property disputes to personal feuds and political arguments, the two sides rarely aligned. Only in their efforts to increase the role of Confucianism in Emperor Wu’s government could Tian Fen and Dou Ying find common ground. Yet, this common interest did little to stop the two ambitious marquises from descending into an ever more bitter rivalry.

The feud between Tian Fen and Dou Ying was exacerbated by the latter’s relationship with Guan Fu, whom the historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) described as “a very stubborn and outspoken man, especially when he had something to drink” (Shi Ji 107). As Sima Qian hinted, Guan Fu could be quite the belligerent drunk. After a few drinks, he was known to become argumentative, and, on particularly bad days, it was not unheard of for Guan Fu to end up in drunken brawls. Unsurprisingly, it was a drinking party which would eventually seal Guan Fu’s downfall.

In 131 BCE, Tian Fen became a married man. His sister, the Empress Dowager Wang, encouraged the nobles and officials of the realm to pay Tian Fen a visit and congratulate him on his marriage. These visits were basically drinking parties, where containers of alcohol would be passed around and attendees were expected to give toasts and speeches in honor of Tian Fen. Guan Fu, for his part, realized the potential danger he faced by attending such a party, and therefore initially declined his invitation. Dou Ying, however, was able to make his friend reconsider. In the end, they attended Tian Fen’s wedding party together—unfortunately, the event would not have a pleasant outcome.

Dou Ying was on his best behavior during the party, and Guan Fu also contained himself for a time. Nevertheless, as his cup continued to be refilled, Guan Fu’s control weakened, making him argumentative and less cautious about his wording. To Dou Ying’s dismay, Guan Fu eventually began making a scene. By the end of the festivities, Guan Fu had sneered at most of the high officials present at the party and had even insulted Tain Fen, despite it being his wedding feast. At this point, Dou Ying tried to drag his friend out of the party, but Tian Fen was now completely outraged—before Guan Fu could be ushered away by friends, Tian Fen had the man arrested, right then and there, at the party.

Tragically, repercussions for perceived crimes in ancient China often affected more than just the accused criminal. The case of Guan Fu was no different; instead of being content with imprisoning the belligerent drunk, Tian Fen put out warrants for the arrest of the entire Guan clan. Fortunately for the Guan family, Dou Ying and other sympathetic men of means were able to forewarn the family, allowing them to go into hiding before the authorities arrived.

With the Guan family safe, Dou Ying devoted himself to the cause of freeing his imprisoned friend. Utilizing all of his political skills and connections, Dou Ying set out to clear his pal’s name while also attempting to discredit Tian Fen. If Dou Ying had solely focused on lessening the punishment of Guan Fu and his family, he may have made progress, yet by bundling a political campaign against the feared and respected Tian Fen into this mission, Dou Ying lost many of his allies among the officials. In the end, the plan backfired—instead of freeing Guan Fu or harming Tian Fen, the result of Dou Ying’s protests was his own imprisonment. Both Guan Fu and Dou Ying were executed in 130 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (A reproduction of an earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) work of art, the reproduction is attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personstianfen.html 
  • http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personshanwudi.html 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wudi-emperor-of-Han-dynasty  

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Succession War Over The Bishopric Of Uzès



In the year 581, Bishop Ferreolus of Uzès died, creating a power vacuum that would lead to a succession crisis. Various candidates were put forth to lead the bishopric, with the locals of Uzès, the clergy, and the monarchy all favoring different people for the job. The locals, or more particularly the local government, made the first move. They put an ex-governor of Provence, by the name of Albinus, in command of the bishopric, presumably with the consent of the local clergy. The monarchy, however, was not at all happy at being cut out of the conversation and, therefore, sent another candidate, named Jovinus, to usurp power in the bishopric from Albinus. In case the people and government resisted this new candidate, the monarchy put Jovinus in command of an army.

As it happened, Albinus died that very year in 581, only three months after he had been proposed for office by the local government of Uzès. Despite the loss of this candidate, the regional powers in Uzès still did not want their bishopric to be ruled by Jovinus. Therefore, the clergy and the local government rushed through another candidate, a certain deacon named Marcellus, and consecrated him as their bishop before Jovinus arrived in the vicinity with his army.

According to the writings of Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), Uzès became quite a tense place when Jovenus arrived and found another bishop firmly entrenched in the city.  A confrontation ensued, and when Marcellus refused to give way, Jovinus brought his borrowed army into play and besieged the city. Uzès seemed to completely side with Marcellus, however, and its garrisons and local forces were willing to fight to keep their chosen bishop in power. Now that Marcellus had his own army manning the defenses of Uzès, the siege ground to a standstill. According to Gregory of Tours, Jovinus eventually became disillusioned with his mission and, after taking a bribe, admitted defeat to Marcellus and relinquished any claim to the bishopric of Uzès.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Bishop Absalon at Arkona, painted by Laurits Tuxen (1853–1927), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
  • https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ferreolus-uzes-st  

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Saint Olaf Carved His Own Figurehead For His Flagship



Around 1016, King Olaf II (Saint Olaf, r. 1015-1028) of Norway pulled together a fleet in preparation for the upcoming sea battle of Nesjar against his rival, Jarl Sweyn Hákonsson. It was a modest armada, reportedly numbering only seven or eight ships at the beginning, of which only three could be classified as warships. Before the day of the battle, Saint Olaf would recruit more ships and crews, yet his force was said to have still remained far fewer than that of Jarl Sweyn. What Olaf’s force lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality—before barging into Norwegian politics, Olaf had spent years as a Viking, giving him ample battle experience and enough treasure to equip his most trusted men with the day’s latest armors and weaponry. As such, even though Saint Olaf’s fleet in 1016 was not the largest sea force in the north, it was still a formidable fleet that Olaf was proud to call his own.

With the fleet formed, Olaf picked out which vessel was to be his flagship, but no ship, especially a flagship, could be complete without a figurehead adorning the prow. In this regard, Saint Olaf reportedly decided to give the ship a personal touch. Instead of commissioning an artisan, Saint Olaf was said to have procured a set of woodworking tools for himself and promptly set about carving his ideal figurehead with his own hands. The historian Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), claimed that Olaf “was skilled and had a sure eye for all kinds of handicraft work,” so the final product must have been an admirable piece of art (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, 3). Interestingly, out of all the fearsome creatures he could have chosen to depict, the king decided to adorn his prow with a simple kingly head. When the figurehead was complete, Saint Olaf gave his flagship the unimaginative name of Man’s Head. The regal wooden visage apparently became the next big ship-fashion trend, and, before long, other chieftains put in orders for their own ships to be decorated with various wooden faces.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Construction of longships, painted by Nicholas Roerich  (1874–1947), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/religion 
  • https://avaldsnes.info/en/informasjon/olav-den-hellige/ 
  • https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2018/12/03/the-battle-of-nesjar/ 
  • https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100229885  

Monday, September 16, 2019

Montezuma II’s Apartments Of Amusing Persons



In its heyday, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) was a huge and beautiful place, featuring wide causeways, bustling markets and navigable canals. For the Aztec rulers, the city was also a land of many amusements. Montezuma II, the first Aztec emperor who had the misfortune of meeting Europeans, devoted great amounts of resources to collecting and maintaining items, creatures and people that he found entertaining. Several villas and palaces, located both in and outside of Tenochtitlan, were reportedly used to house the Aztec emperor’s collection of oddities. From birds, to snakes, or weapons and armors, the emperor had space set aside for all sorts of animate and inanimate interests—including certain kinds of humans.

Hernán Cortés, in a letter to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1520, mentioned a “palace that contained a number of men and women of monstrous size, and also dwarfs, and crooked and ill-formed persons, each of which had their separate apartments” (Second Letter to Charles V, 1520). Each apartment had its own care team, tasked with seeing to the needs of those who were housed in the building. The residents of the apartments were brought out as entertainers when Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards likened the role these people played in Montezuma’s feasts as something akin to the jesters back in Europe.

In a different palace, where Montezuma kept his huge collection of birds, the Aztec emperor also housed another type of people who caught his interest—albinos. At that bird-adjacent apartment, wrote Cortés, “are men, women and children, whose faces, bodies, hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes are white from their birth” (Second Letter to Charles V, 1520). In his letter, Cortés was not explicit about the care given to these people, but the birds, alone, had a crew of reportedly over 300 Aztec keepers.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Map of Tenochtitlan, printed 1524 in Nuremberg, Germany, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.
  • https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1520cortes.asp (Cortes’ Second Letter) 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Montezuma-II 
  • https://www.biography.com/political-figure/montezuma-ii  

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Bizarre Death Of King Pyrrhus



Pyrrhus of Epirus is a bizarre figure to study. His was a very human character—a chaotic mix of short-term mastery and long-term flaws. Pyrrhus was the type of political schemer who knew how to pit his foes against each other, yet he could never quite deliver the final masterstroke. In his generalship, Pyrrhus could win battles with awe-inspiring military innovation and strategy, yet still lose the overall war. Not even Pyrrhus’s death was free of a certain sense of peculiarity. In fact, the way King Pyrrhus died may have been the most bizarre event of his life.

King Pyrrhus (r. 306-272 BCE) thrived in the political chaos brought about by the death of Alexander the Great. He came to power in a time when the late Alexander’s generals and their successors were fighting amongst themselves for different pieces of the lands that Alexander had conquered. From his seat of power in Epirus, King Pyrrhus was able to grow his domain by taking advantage of the Kingdom of Macedonia’s conflicts with the other splinters of Alexander’s empire. Yet, Pyrrhus’ greatest fame (or infamy) would come when he sailed with an army over to Italy in 280 BCE, intending to attack both Rome and Carthage. He won several ‘Pyrrhic victories’ there, which were so costly and indecisive that the victories did little to help his war effort. By 275 BCE, his Pyrrhic victories had become true defeats, and he finally decided to withdraw back to Greece.

King Pyrrhus’s death came in 272 BCE. That year, he was campaigning in the Peloponnesus as a result of his ongoing meddling in Macedonian politics. This campaign brought King Pyrrhus to Argos, which would be the last place on earth that the king would see. As the story goes, while King Pyrrhus was fighting in the city streets, he was attacked by an odd weapon, hurled by an even more unusual assailant. The mighty King Pyrrhus was reportedly cracked across the head by a soaring roof tile, supposedly thrown by an old Argive woman. Details of his final moments vary—some say the old woman killed him with the tile, while others say she just dazed the king long enough for warriors on the street to finish him off. Either way, it was a fittingly odd death for the strange life of King Pyrrhus.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Scene from the life of Pyrrhus, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pyrrhus 
  • https://www.ancient.eu/pyrrhus/ 
  • https://www.livius.org/articles/person/pyrrhus-of-epirus/pyrrhus-3/ 
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Wars_of_the_Diadochi/  

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Tale Of King Rodolf’s Oblivious Defeat



A clash between the Lombards and the Heruli occurred sometime between the years 494 and 508 in the middle Danube region. The conflict was noticed by scholarly circles in Constantinople, and the historian Procopius (c. 490-565) made mention of it in his History of the Wars. In addition to Procopius, the Lombard traditional account of the war would later be preserved by Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) in his History of the Lombards. Both sources detailed the same general outline and outcome in describing the conflict, yet their proposed reasoning for the war and their accounts of the resulting battle differed widely.

In the folkloric account of Paul the Deacon—the more entertaining, but likely less historical version of the story—the conflict between the Lombards and Heruli began with an argument between a man and a woman. According to the tale, Rumetruda, an outspoken daughter of King Tato of the Lombards, decided to invite the brother of King Rodolf of the Heruli over for a drinking party. At the time, the Heruli were a populous and powerful people, known for their military prowess. This reputation for power and might apparently gave Rumetruda a faulty preconception of what a Heruli man looked like. Therefore, when her guest turned out to be quite a short and scrawny fellow, the talkative Rumetruda openly began to belittle the Heruli nobleman. In turn, the outraged guest returned fire at the Lombard princess by criticizing her own looks and behavior. As might be guessed, the drinking party did not turn out well, and, before the end of the event, the Heruli king’s brother was eventually murdered at the instigation of the wrathful Rumetruda. Paul the Deacon claimed that this alleged murder was the cause of the war between the Heruli and the Lombards between 494 and 508, as King Rodolf supposedly attacked the Lombards as soon as he discovered that his brother had been killed.

Paul the Deacon’s account of the war, itself, was as quirky as his account of the war’s origin. In the History of the Lombards, King Rodolf of the Heruli was presented as an incredibly lazy and arrogant king. As had happened with Princess Rumetruda, he placed too much stock on the reputation of might and power that the Heruli people had cultivated. Therefore, when the forces of the Heruli and the Lombards finally clashed in a full-scale battle, King Rodolf was said to have let his army go off without its leader, as it was inconceivable that the renowned Heruli would lose the battle. Instead, according to the tale, King Rodolf chose to stay at his camp and play games with his aides. He did, however, place one observer in a tree, where the person could watch the ongoing battle. Yet, this scout was commanded to only report good news about the fight—negative news, according to the tale, was punishable by death.

As readers may be expecting, this blind confidence and obliviousness did not turn out well for King Rodolf. While the leader of the Heruli supposedly played games in his camp, King Tato of the Lombards personally led his troops on the battlefield and managed the ebb and flow of the fighting masterfully. As the Heruli lines began to bend and break, the scout in the tree continued to call down for his liege a fictitious and glowing account of how the Heruli army was performing. It was only when the Heruli forces were shattered and the Lombards were charging for King Rodolf’s camp that the scout brought himself to tell the king that the battle had been lost. Through indecision or last-minute bravery, King Rodolf reportedly decided to stand his ground in the camp, dying in battle against the victorious Lombards.

In contrast to Lombard tradition, the historian Procopius toned down the drama in his own account of the war between the Lombards and the Heruli. Like Paul the Deacon, Procopius agreed that the Heruli declared war on the Lombards—yet, instead of a scandalous murder being the cause of the conflict, Procopius claimed that King Rodolf simply declared the war to appease his warmongering warriors and to prove his own mettle in battle. The King Rodolf of Procopius’ account did not wait until the end of the battle to stand his ground against the Lombards; instead, Procopius claimed that Rodolf led his forces from the very beginning. Nevertheless, the two accounts end the same way, with the Heruli defeated and King Rodolf lying dead on the battlefield.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Battle of Stamford Bridge painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo  (1831–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
  • History of the Wars by Procopius, translated by H. B. Dewing. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1919. 
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Heruli 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Procopius-Byzantine-historian  

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Deadly Rivalry Between Wei Qing and Li Gan



In 119 BCE, the accomplished Chinese military leader, Wei Qing, launched one of his many incursions into Xiongnu territory on behalf of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE). With him was a subordinate general named Li Guang, a well-respected, but also well-aged, warrior. Although Li Guang was an inspiring officer, with a near-legendary skill with a bow, both Wei Qing and Emperor Wu had their reservations about the old general’s capabilities. Heeding these doubts, Wei Qing decided to remove Li Guang from the vanguard of his army, and instead sent him to reinforce the army’s right flank. Yet, while Li Guang and his forces were traveling to their new position, they unfortunately became lost and fell behind the rest of the army. In the end, Li Guang missed the battle between Wei Qing and the Xiongnu.

Despite Li Guang’s absence, Wei Qing won the day—he nearly encircled the enemy forces, but the Xiongnu leader was able to punch through the Han lines with his cavalry and escape. After the battle, Wei Qing summoned Li Guang to answer for his absence during the battle. Officials in the army would then send a report to the emperor of both the accusations and the general’s responses. The old military leader knew from experience that such unflattering reports could lead to a general being imprisoned, stripped of his titles, and possibly executed. Therefore, the seasoned warrior arrived at the meeting with Wei Qing in a grim state of mind.  According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the disgruntled Li Guang appeared for his hearing and abruptly stated “Now I am over sixty—much too old to stand up to a bunch of petty clerks and their lists of charges!” (Shi JI 109). He then unsheathed his sword and cut his own throat.

Many in China mourned the death of Li Guang, but the late general’s son, Li Gan, had the most visceral reaction. Li Gan, like his father, served in the Han military, and he distinguished himself enough in battle to be given the noble rank of marquis, a title also held by the aforementioned Wei Qing. The two marquises, unsurprisingly, did not get along. Li Gan held Wei Qing responsible for driving his father to suicide and Wei Qing, in response, was irritated by Li Gan’s attitude. The friction between the two men steadily built, and, in a moment of weakness, Li Gan lost his composure and physically struck Wei Qing. The general was injured, but the wound was not serious, as Wei Qing quickly recovered and neither he or his friends filed charges against Li Gan. Unfortunately, Wei Qing’s mercy over this incident did not mean that Li Gan was forgiven.

At a later date, both Li Gan and other prominent men of the empire joined the emperor at the Palace of Sweet Springs. Emperor Wu and his courtiers, as noblemen were often wont to do, decided to go on a hunting trip. Yet, the outdoor excursion would prove to be anything but calm and peaceful.

During the course of the hunt, Li Gan eventually paired up with Huo Qubing, a devoted friend and relative of Wei Qing. Unfortunately, only one of the two would survive the hunt. At an unknown time during the trip, Li Gan was found dead and his body contained a suspicious puncture wound. Huo Qubing reportedly witnessed the death and he told the emperor that the dead marquis was killed by a deer. He claimed that, as they hunted together, he and Li Gan encountered an aggressive stag. Despite both hunters being great archers, this stag supposedly rushed the noblemen and fatally impaled Li Gan with an antler. Emperor Wu, who was fond of Huo Qubing, believed (or did not question) the story and publicly backed Huo Qubing’s testimony. Sima Qian and other contemporaries, however, viewed the death with much more suspicion. By the time Sima Qian began writing his Records of the Grand Historian, he had become convinced that Li Gan was murdered:

“When the party reached the Palace of Sweet Springs, an imperial hunt was held. Huo Qubing, who was on very close terms with Wei Qing, took the opportunity to shoot and kill Li Gan. At this time, Huo Qubing enjoyed great favor with the emperor, and the emperor therefore covered for him, giving out the story that Li Gan had been gored and killed by a stag. A year or so later, Huo Qubing died [117 BCE]” (Shi JI 109).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The Qianlong Emperor Hunting Hare, by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Records of the Grand Historian (Shi Ji 109) by Sima Qian. Translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1993).
  • http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personsweiqing.html 
  • http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personshuoqubing.html  

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Horrible Year 580



According to Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), the year 580 was a particularly horrible year for people living in the regions of France and Spain. The poor 6th-century denizens of those regions reportedly faced threats from the air, ground and water, all combining to form a stew of horrible natural disasters and epidemics. Here are just a few of the events that Gregory of Tours claimed to have happened in the vicinity of France for the year 580.

Flood
Intense flooding was said to have occurred in the region of Auvergne, France, in 580. Gregory reported that several rivers overflowed and harmed the properties of nobles and peasants, alike. Crops and livestock were killed by the rising waters, and the flooding occurred so rapidly that human lives were also lost. Of the major cities affected by the floods, Lyons appeared to have been the most damaged, as its very walls were undermined by the rushing water.

Possible Meteor Strike
Gregory of Tours claimed that bright moving lights were seen in the sky near Tours and Bordeaux. When the light disappeared, a loud impact sound was heard in France. Gregory wrote, “a bright light was seen to traverse the sky and then disappear in the East. A sound as of trees crashing to the ground was heard throughout the whole region, but it cannot hardly have been a tree for it was audible over fifty miles and more” (History of the Franks, V.33). Within the same paragraph, Gregory claimed that “Villages around Bordeaux were burned by a fire sent from heaven” (History of the Franks, V.33). The lights, sounds and fire coincided with a series of earthquakes that shook southern France and the bordering regions of Spain. Whether or not these individual occurrences are truly connected is difficult to determine, but the earthquakes and fires were destructive, all the same, leaving many without shelter and food. Some refugees from these disasters reportedly fled toward Spain, but rockslides in the Pyrenees accompanied the earthquakes, crushing anything in its path.

Plague
Possibly exacerbated by the homelessness and poor living conditions caused by the floods, fires and earthquakes in 580, the entirety of France was reportedly hit by a devastating epidemic of disease. Gregory of Tours identified the illness ravaging the land as dysentery, and no one—young or old, rich or poor—was safe from its clutches. The household of King Chilperic of the Franks (r. 561-584) was particularly hard-hit. Chilperic personally fell ill, as did two of his sons. King Chilperic survived the disease, but his two afflicted children, unfortunately, were not as lucky. Chilperic’s brother, King Guntram (r. 561-593), also suffered loss because of the epidemic; his wife, Queen Austrechild, caught the disease. Two doctors, named Donatus and Nicolaus, were brought in to treat the queen, but despite their best efforts, Austrechild died—in consequence of their failure, the two doctors were executed.

Gregory of Tours was able to write about the deaths of queens, princes, counts and bishops without showing much emotion in his writing, but when he moved on to the toll that the epidemic took on children in France, his pain went unmasked. It ranks as one of the most emotional passages in his ten-book text. Gregory of Tours wrote:

“The epidemic began in the month of August. It attacked young children first of all and to them it was fatal: and so we lost our little ones, who were so dear to us and sweet, whom we had cherished in our bosoms and dandled in our arms, whom we had fed and nurtured with such loving care. As I write I wipe away my tears and I repeat once more the words of Job the blessed: ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’” (History of the Franks, V.34).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Sodom and Gomorrah afire, by Jacob Jacobsz (flourished 17th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Giant Siblings Of Bulghār



A 12th-century Granadan traveler named Abū Hāmid al-Gharnātī left his original homeland of Spain far behind to explore distant regions, such as the Aral Sea, the Volga River and the Hungarian kingdom of Geza II (r. 1141-1162). He wrote about his experiences in at least two books, the Gift of the Hearts and an Exposition of Some Wonders of the West. As the title of the latter book suggests, he was greatly interested in ‘wonders’—bizarre, otherworldly and folkloric animals, peoples and places that could supposedly be found on the frontier regions in which he traveled. Some wonders were reported to Abū Hāmid by informants, other wonders he read about in texts, yet there were a few wonders that he claimed to have witnessed with his own eyes. Of these oddities that Abū Hāmid personally witnessed, one of the most peculiar was a pair of sibling giants living around the city of Bulghār, on the Volga River.

Tales of giants were nothing new for Muslim travelers along the Volga. An Abbasid diplomat named Ibn Fadlān reached Bulghār in 922, and he reported that the khan of the Volga Bulgars had shown him a skeleton of a recently-killed giant, allegedly measuring 12 cubits in height (18 feet). Curiously, the account of Ibn Fadlān had reportedly been lost by the time of Abū Hāmid and would not be rediscovered until the 13th century. Despite the probability that Abū Hāmid never read Ibn Fadlān’s report, the Granadan traveler also would claim to see evidence of giants in the Volga region. Yet, while Ibn Fadlān saw only skeletal remains of dubious origins, Abū Hāmid claimed to have personally seen two living giants.

As the story goes, Abū Hāmid traveled to Bulghār around 1135 or 1136. While there, he claimed to have seen a man called Danqa, who was over 7 cubits (10.5 feet) tall. In addition to his height, the giant was reported to have been extremely strong. With only the use of his hands, Danqa was said to have had enough strength to snap in half the leg of a muscular horse, as if the horse’s bone was a mere bundle of herbs. Such size and strength made him a coveted prospect for the army of Bulghār, and, indeed, Danqa was said to have been successfully enticed to join the military through gifts of armor. Abū Hāmid wrote: “The king of Bulghār had a cuirass made for him, which he carried to battle with him in a cart, and an iron helmet like a great cauldron. He fought with a great wooden mace, thick and long, made from a massive oak which no man could lift, but in his hand it was like a stick would be in ours” (Exposition of Some Wonders of the West, Penguin ed. pg. 86). Despite the giant’s height, strength and enlistment into the military, Abū Hāmid claimed that the towering man was of the mildest and kindest of dispositions.

Besides Danqa, there was reportedly one more giant living in Bulghār at the time that Abū Hāmid paid the city a visit. The other giant was Danqa’s unnamed sister, who was said to have equaled her brother’s size and strength. Despite her physical prowess, very few feats of strength were attributed to her. As may be expected from a medieval text, marriage was considered her greatest accomplishment. The giantess’ marriage was said to have ended tragically, however, when she accidentally caused her husband’s ribs to implode during a passionate bear-hug.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The Giant Skrymir and Thor, depicted by Louis Huard (1813-1874), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Exposition of Some of the Wonders in the West by Abū Hāmid al-Gharnātī, translated by Paul Lunde and Catoline Stone. New York, Penguin Classics, 2012.