“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” — Napoleon
“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” Goethe’s remark is kind but romantic — Michelangelo’s frescoes ennoble the human spirit, but they also illustrate the dangers of scope creep.
The painter signed on in 1508 to repaint the ceiling, at first with simple golden stars on a blue sky. Lacking a project manager, he agreed to add 12 figures, and the slide began. Before he was done there would be more than 300 figures, in scenes depicting the Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the Last Judgment.
As the scale grew, problems multiplied. The Judgment drew objections from Cardinal Carafa, who was scandalized because now a fresco was showing human genitals inside the Vatican. And the artist was forced to make do with male models, because females were too rare and costly.
In short, the Renaissance was plagued by all the same devils that dog modern projects. At least Michelangelo met them philosophically and saw the project through. “If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery,” he said, “it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”
Everyone knows Richard the Lion-Hearted and William and Conqueror. Here’s a list of less auspicous royal nicknames:
- “Charles the Bad” (Charles II of Navarre)
- “William the Bastard” (William I of England)
- “Coloman the Bookish” (Coloman of Hungary)
- “Alfonso the Chaste” (Alfonso II of Aragon)
- “Peter the Ceremonious” (Peter IV of Aragon
- “Edmund the Deed-Doer” (Edmund I of England)
- “Henry the Fat” (Henry III of Champagne)
- “Louis the Indolent” (Louis V of France)
- “Edgar the Outlaw” (Edgar Atheling)
- “Constantius the Pale” (Constantius Chlorus)
- “Louis the Sluggard” (Louis V of France)
- “Garcia the Trembler” (Garcia II of Navarre)
Worst of all: “Constantine the Dung-Named,” Byzantine emperor from 741 to 775. Supposedly he defecated in his baptismal font in 718. Nice going.
Excerpts, evidence of a female millhand to parliamentary commissioners during an inquiry into factory conditions, c. 1815:
What time did you begin work at the factory?
When I was six years old.
What were your hours of labor in that mill?
From 5 in the morning till 9 at night, when they were thronged.
For how long a time together have you worked that excessive length of time?
For about a year.
What were the usual hours of labour when you were not so thronged?
From six in the morning till 7 at night.
What time was allowed for meals?
Forty minutes at noon.
Had you any time to get your breakfast or drinking?
No, we had to get it as we could.
Explain what you had to do.
When the frames are full, they have to stop the frames, and take the flyers off, and take the full bobbins off, and carry them to the roller, and then put empty ones on, and set the frame going again.
Does that keep you constantly on your feet?
Yes, there are so many frames and they run so quick.
Your labour is very excessive?
Yes, you have not time for anything.
Suppose you flagged a little, or were late, what would they do?
Did you live far from the mill?
Yes, two miles.
Were you generally there in time?
Yes, my mother has been up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and at 2 o’clock in the morning; the colliers used to go to their work at 3 or 4 o’clock, and when she heard them stirring she has got up out of her warm bed, and gone out and asked them the time; and I have sometimes been at Hunslet Car at 2 o’clock in the morning, when it was streaming down with rain, and we have had to stay till the mill was opened.
You are considerably deformed in person as a consequence of this labour?
Yes I am.
Where are you now?
In the poorhouse.
State what you think as to the circumstances in which you have been placed during all this time of labour, and what you have considered about it as to the hardship and cruelty of it.
“The witness was too much affected to answer the question.”
A villain worthy of DC Comics, Spring Heeled Jack leapt liberally around England between 1837 and 1904, attacking isolated victims who described him as a muscular devil in an oilskin.
If he was the devil, he wasn’t a very ambitious criminal, generally just crashing carriages and groping women. But he could jump 9-foot walls, perhaps using spring-loaded footgear, judging from some ill-preserved prints.
An anonymous letter implied that a human prankster was terrorizing London on a bet, and incidental reports began to mount. In 1838 four witnesses saw him breathe fire and jump to the roof of a house, and in 1845 he threw a 13-year-old prostitute from a bridge, his first killing. On the night of Feb. 8, 1855, long trails of hooflike prints were seen in the snow throughout Devon, crossing roofs, walls, and haystacks. By 1873 thousands were gathering each night to hunt the ghost.
Nothing seemed to stop him, including bullets, and he even attacked a group of soldiers at Aldershot Barracks in 1877. He was last spotted in 1904 in Liverpool, leaping over a crowd of witnesses and disappearing behind some neighboring houses.
There’s no good explanation. Some suspected the Marquess of Waterford, who was known to spring on travelers to amuse himself, but the attacks continued after his death. Others have suggested a stranded extraterrestrial, a visitor from another dimension, or a real demon. We’ll never know.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and science.”
That was true even in the Dark Ages, though the mysteries were a lot iffier back then. William of Newburgh records an “unheard-of” prodigy in East Anglia around 1150, when reapers were gathering produce during the harvest near some “very ancient cavities” known as the Wolfpittes. “Two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in gaments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations.”
Taken in by the villagers, they learned to eat beans and bread, which in time “changed their original color” until they “became like ourselves.” The boy died shortly after he was baptized, but his sister continued in good health and eventually married.
On being taught English, they told this story:
- “We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.”
- “The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or follows the sunset. Moreoever, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”
- “On a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”
William closes: “Let every one say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.” It’s poetic, in any case.
Children’s deaths listed in the London calendar of coroner’s rolls, 1301-1307:
- 1301. “On Tuesday the Feast of St Philip and James [May 4] a certain Hugh Picard was riding a white horse after the hour of vespers, when Petronilla, daughter of William de Wyntonia, aged three years, was playing in the street; and the horse, being strong, quickly carried Hugh against his will over Petronilla so that it struck her on her right side with its right forefoot. Petronilla lingered until the next day, when she died, at the hour of vespers, from the blow. Being asked who were present, the jurors know only of those mentioned. The corpse viewed, the right side of which appeared blue and badly bruised, and no other hurt. The horse valued at a mark, for which Richard de Caumpes, the sheriff, will answer. Hugh fled and has no chattels; he afterwards surrendered to John de Boreford, sheriff.”
- 1301. “On Tuesday [July 19], Richard, son of John le Mazon, who was eight years old, was walking immediately after dinner across London Bridge to school. For fun, he tried to hang by his hands from a beam on the side of the bridge, but his hands giving way, he fell into water and was drowned. Being asked who were present, the jurors say a great multitude of passers-by, whose names they know not, but they suspect no one of the death except mischance.”
- 1322. “On the Sunday before the Feast of St Dunstan, Robert, son of John de St Botulph, a boy seven years old, Richard, son of John de Chesthunt, and two other boys whose names are unknown were playing on certain pieces of timber in the lane called “Kyrounelane” in the ward of Vintry, and one piece fell on Robert and broke his right leg. In course of time Johanna his mother arrived and rolled the timber off him and carried him to the shop, where he lingered until the Friday before the Feast of St Margaret, when he died at the hour of prime, of the broken leg and of no other felony; nor do the jurors suspect anyone of the death, but only the accident and the fracture.”
- 1324. “On Monday [in April] at the hour of vespers John, son of William de Burgh, a boy five years old, was in the house of Richard le Latthere and had taken a parcel of wool and placed it in his cap. Emma, the wife of Richard, chastising him, struck him with her right hand under his left ear so that he cried. On hearing this, Isabella, his mother, raised the hue and carried him thence. He lingered until the hour of curfew of the same day, when he died of the blow and not of any felony. Emma forthwith fled, but where she went or who received her the jurors knew not. Afterwards she surrendered herself to the prison at Newgate.”
- 1337. “On Tuesday in Pentecostweek John, son of William atte Noke, chandler, got out of a window in the rent of John de Wynton, plumber, to recover a ball lost in a gutter at play. He slipped and fell, and so injured himself that he died on the Saturday following of the fall.”
Encounter with a Newfoundland mermaid, recorded by Richard Whitbourne, 1610:
“Now also I will not omit to relate something of a strange Creature that I first saw there in the yeere 1610, in a morning early as I was standing by the water side, in the Harbour of Saint Johns, which I espied verie swiftly to come swimming towards me, looking cheerefully, as it had beene a woman, by the Face, Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Chin, eares, Necke and Forehead: It seemed to be so beautifull, and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about upon the head, all blew strakes, resembling haire, downe to the Necke (but certainly it was haire) for I beheld it long, and another of my companie also, yet living, that was not then farre from me; and seeing the same comming so swiftly towards mee, I stepped backe, for it was come within the length of a long Pike.
“Which when this strange Creature saw that I went from it, it presently thereupon dived a little under water, and did swim to the place where before I landed; whereby I beheld the shoulders and backe downe to the middle, to be as square, white and smooth as the backe of a man, and from the middle to the hinder part, pointing in proportion like a broad hooked Arrow; how it was proportioned in the forepart from the necke and shoulders, I know not; but the same came shortly after unto a Boat, wherein one William Hawkridge, then my servant, was, that hath bin since a Captaine in a Ship to the East Indies, and is lately there imploied againe by Sir Thomas Smith, in the like Voyage; and the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boate, and did strive to come in to him and others then in the said Boate; whereat they were afraid; and one of them strooke it a full blow on the head; whereat it fell off from them: and afterwards it came to two other Boates in the Harbour; the men in them, for feare fled to land: This (I suppose) was a Mermaide.”
Account of the death of a chimney sweep’s boy, taken in evidence before the Parliamentary Committee on Climbing Boys, 1817:
“On Monday morning, 29 March 1813, a chimney sweeper of the name of Griggs attended to sweep a small chimney in the brewhouse of Messrs Calvert and Co. in Upper Thames Street; he was accompanied by one of his boys, a lad of about eight years of age, of the name of Thomas Pitt.
“The fire had been lighted as early as 2 o’clock the same morning, and was burning on the arrival of Griggs and his little boy at eight. The fireplace was small, and an iron pipe projected from the grate some little way into the flue. This the master was acquainted with (having swept the chimneys in the brewhouse for some years), and therefore had a tile or two broken from the roof, in order that the boy might descend the chimney. He had no sooner extinguished the fire than he suffered the lad to go down; and the consequence, as might be expected, was his almost immediate death, in a state, no doubt, of inexpressible agony.
“The flue was of the narrowest description, and must have retained heat sufficient to have prevented the child’s return to the top, even supposing he had not approached the pipe belonging to the grate, which must have been nearly red hot; this however was not clearly ascertained on the inquest, though the appearance of the body would induce an opinion that he had been unavoidably pressed against the pipe.
“Soon after his descent, the master, who remained on the top, was apprehensive that something had happened, and therefore desired him to come up; the answer of the boy was, ‘I cannot come up, master, I must die here.’ An alarm was given in the brewhouse immediately that he had stuck in the chimney, and a bricklayer who was at work near the spot attended, and after knocking down part of the brickwork of the chimney, just above the fireplace, made a hole sufficiently large to draw him through. A surgeon attended, but all attempts to restore life were ineffectual.
“On inspecting the body, various burns appeared; the fleshy part of the legs and a great part of the feet more particularly were injured; those parts too by which climbing boys most effectually ascend or descend chimneys, viz. the elbows and knees, seemed burnt to the bone; from which it must be evident that the unhappy sufferer made some attempts to return as soon as the horrors of his situation became apparent.”