Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Video: A Crash Course in Chinese History

I've been watching a bunch of these Crash Course world history videos.  Crash Course is pretty much a YouTube channel with videos on a variety of subjects.  John Green presents the US history and world history videos.  It's impossible to teach in depth history in one relatively small clip, but the videos are fun and interesting so I'd thought I'd share one about Chinese history.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lover, Sword Fighter, Diva - the Life of Julie d'Aubigny

Julie d’Aubigny was a 17th century fencer and opera singer. Also known as La Maupin or Mademoiselle Maupin, many stories about her life are more legend than fact. She sounds like something out of an adventure novel, but the basics are true. She was a star of the Paris Opera as well as traveling swordswoman.

Born in Paris in about 1670 (or 1673), Julie d’Aubigny was the daughter of Gaston d’ Aubigny, secretary of the Comte d’ Armagnac. Her father might have been the one who got her fencing lessons so she could defend herself. As a teenager she became the Comte’s mistress and he introduced her to life at court. To hide the affair, the Comte married her off to Maupin, of St. Germain-en-Laye, but the Comte ended the romance within a year.  Shortly after, the newlyweds separated as well.  There are separate accounts about their separation. Some indicate that her husband got a government position in another province. Others say she left him for a fencing-master a few months after they married.

Regardless of how they separated, she did meet Sérannes, an assistant at a fencing academy. Some sources say that it was Sérannes who taught her to use a small sword. She proved to be a better fencer than he was. In around 1688 Sérannes killed a man in an illegal duel, and the Lieutenant-General of Police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie went after him. The couple fled Paris for Marseilles. To travel safely, she dressed in male’s clothes and called herself Monsieur d’Aubigny. They didn’t have much money so they sang in inns and held dueling exhibitions. D’Aubigny fenced in male attire, though she didn’t hide that she was female – this probably made her more popular. Both reportedly had good voices, and despite knowing very little about music they were hired by the opera-house of Marseilles.

In 1690, the daughter of a rich merchant saw d’Aubigny on the stage and was smitten.  Sérannes all but forgotten, the equally smitten d’Aubigny tried to run away with the girl in the dark of night.  Some sources say that they were discovered and had to escape to a convent. Others say that the girl’s friends or family opposed their relationship and sent the girl to a convent in Avignon. After the girl was admitted to the convent, d’Aubigny went after her and became a novice. Soon after, a nun died. D’Aubigny stole the body, put it in her lover’s bed and there she set the room on fire. In the commotion, they ran away to a village. They hid for weeks but were eventually found. When officers appeared to take the girl back, d’Aubigny reportedly killed one and injured two others. The girl was returned to her family, and legend says that d’Aubigny was sentenced to be burned for kidnapping, body snatching, arson, and missing court proceedings.

But La Maupin had already headed back to Paris. On the way, she made money traveling from town to town singing in cabarets. In Paris she enrolled into the school of Lulli. Two months later, she debuted as Mademoiselle Maupin at the Opera in Lulli’s Cadmus et Hermoine. Audiences loved her contralto voice.

None of this kept her out of trouble with her fellow actors, one fellow named Dumenil in particular. In some accounts, Dumenil insulted her, so she thrashed him one night in the Place des Victoires. She made off with his snuff-box and watch. The day after, Dumenil told his colleagues that thieves had assaulted him and though he fought them bravely, they subdued him and made off with his belongings. La Maupin heard this lie and said:
"Fellow! you are a base liar and poltroon. It was I alone who assaulted you; and as a proof, I restore your miserable property." 
Then she presented his missing snuff-box and watch. In the other account La Maupin might have thought Dumenil insulted her.  So, during one of his performances, she jumped onto the stage, stopped the performance, and caned him in front of the audience.

One night in 1695, she donned her male attire and crashed a masked ball being hosted by King Louis XIV’s brother at the Palais Royale. She flirted shamelessly with a well born woman, and three jealous suitors were outraged, perhaps knowing that La Maupin was really a woman. La Maupin challenged them to a duel and they all went into the gardens. There she either injured or killed one or more of the men. It seems that the King himself pardoned her the next day because he concluded that anti-dueling laws could only applied to men.

Immediately after the ball, Mlle. Maupin left France for Brussels where her legend, beauty, and talent dazzled the people of Brussels. Maximilian II Emanuel von Bayern, Elector of Bavaria allegedly became infatuated with her. Their relationship lasted until the Comtesse d’Arco distracted him. He had the Comtesse’s husband give Mlle. Maupin 40,000 livres to leave Brussels. She reportedly flung the purse at the envoy and in a fit of rage left for Madrid hours later, taking the 40,000 livres with her.

After her stay in Spain, she returned to Paris in about 1698. She went back to the Opera and she was named prima donna since the soprano Marthe le Rochois had just retired. Her role in 1702 as Clorinde in André Campra’s Tancrède was written specifically for her. It was the Paris Opera’s first role for a female lead who wasn’t a soprano.

Towards the end of her life, La Maupin began a relationship with Marie-Louise-Thérèse de Senneterre, La Marquise de Florensac. After the marquise died suddenly in 1705, La Maupin was so heartbroken she left the stage. She reunited with her husband and they lived quietly together until he died. Soon after his death she went to a convent and died there in 1707.

Queens of Song by Ellen Creathorne Clayton
Chevalier, Louis-Joseph, prince de Grimberghen by Neil Jeffares
The Sketch Book of Character

Further Reading
Mademoiselle Maupin

Monday, March 18, 2013

15th Century Conical Headdresses

When I was a kid, I thought a conical hat was just part of the Medieval princess uniform.  My mother helped me make a a bright blue one that I wore to a Medieval fair at school.  As it turns out, those cone hats have a name.  And they weren't worn during the entire Middle Ages either.  A while back, I had to research them, and I had no idea what the heck they were called.  Googling 'Medieval cone hat' gave me a surprising amount of useless results - sorry to all the people selling cone hats with princess costumes.  As it turns out, the hats are called hennins.

 Maria Portinari of Bruges

These headdresses were especially popular in 15th century Burgundy, Flanders, and France, but noblewomen also wore them in England, Hungary, and Poland.  Women probably began to wear them in the 1430s and hennins became more noticeable after the 1450s.

Stylish women at the Flemish court wore hennins with veils at the top.  Flemish women plucked their hair and even their eyebrows for a desirable, high forehead.  Eyebrows were shaped into a slender line or totally removed.

A translucent or semi-translucent veil was often draped over the hennin and covered the wearer’s face.  Veils of various lengths could also start from the top of the hat and drape down over the shoulders.

 Mary, Duchess of Burgundy

By 1467 women had started to wear conical hats that sometimes measured at “half an ell” - an ancient measurement that changed over time. In the 15th century, the measurement of the ell differed with each country. In England it was the equivalent of 45 inches. In the Low Countries it was 27 inches. Therefore half an ell might be approximately a foot long. Some historians guess that the tallest hennins weren’t taller than two feet, though I’ve read that some could be as tall as 36 inches. The average hennin was probably between eleven and sixteen inches.

 It’s hard to figure out how exactly, the cones stayed on without sliding off. Some costumers make replicas with chin straps, but there don’t seem to be contemporary paintings showing a hennin with chin straps. Some conclude that because paintings of women wearing hennins show that their hair was drawn back very tightly, a forehead loop and an ear piece might have kept the hat in place.

During the 15th century, the hats were commonly referred to as “atours” or “tyres”, or another word that was used in a particular country. The word “hennin” was probably a French word used for an earlier headdress.

A variation on the hennin was the truncated hennin, which was flat at the top.

Truncated hennin

The hennin stopped being fashionable in the 1490s.

Constructing the Headdresses of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries by Marie Vibbert
Illuminating the Rennaissance

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Way out West: Images of African Americans in the Wild West

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the American West was a place that blacks felt they could start over.  Between 1865 and 1920, thousands of blacks left the South to establish towns, make money, and create better lives.  Movies tend to ignore their presence, but African Americans were a part of the Wild West as lawmen, outlaws, soldiers, cowboys, settlers, and adventurers.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves escaped slavery into Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma) sometime during the Civil War.  After working as a scout and a tracker he was hired as a deputy U.S. Marshal in 1875.  He reportedly made 3,000 arrests and killed 14 outlaws during his 32 year career.   

This flier promoted an anniversary celebration for Benjamin "Pap" Singleton's birthday.  Singleton was one of the leaders of the Exoduster movement of African Americans who left the hardships of the South and settled in Kansas.  Many of Singleton's colonies failed and life in Kansas was difficult for the new settlers.  Singleton's Dunlap Colony, however, was successfully established in the late 1870s.

 Henry Williams and Reece Switzer were settlers of Nicodemus, Kansas.  Founded in 1877, Nicodemus was one of the black towns established during the Exoduster Movement.

Nona Marshall photographed in her ostrich feather hat during the late 19th century or early 20th century in the Arizona Territory.

Also known as Ned Huddleston, Isom Dart was an outlaw in Wyoming Territory.  He was also nicknamed the "Black Fox" or the "Calico Cowboy", and rode with the Tip Gault Gang.  After life as a horse thief and cattle rustler he decided to give that up and set up his own ranch.  But some ranchers didn't believe he really gave up cattle rustling, and they hired hitman Tom Horn to take care of him.  Horn decided not to bring him in alive, and gunned Isom Dart down in 1900.     

 Lou Southworth was a settler and fiddler in Oregon.  His master took him on the Oregon Trail into Oregon Territory in 1853.  Southworth tried gold mining in southern Oregon and California to pay for his freedom, but he soon realized that he could earn more money from music than mining.  So, he became a violin instructor and played at dance schools in California and Nevada.  He earned enough money to pay for his freedom and became free in 1859.  

Paul Cephas Howell, about 1880.  Howell settled in Salt Lake City in 1874, and became the first black police detective in the United States.

George Stevens and his wife Lucinda Vilate Flake.  His mother was Spanish and her parents were African American, but they were legally married in Utah in 1872.  Interracial marriage became illegal in Utah in 1888 and would remain illegal until 1963.

Bill Pickett was a rodeo performer of African, European, and Cherokee ancestry.  Born in Texas in 1870, Pickett performed in silent films and the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show between 1905 and 1931.  He invented steer wrestling (or bulldogging), toured the world, and was friends with entertainers like Will Rogers and Tom Mix.   

"Stagecoach" Mary Fields arrived in the town of Cascade, Montana in 1884.  6 feet tall, and rarely without a pistol hidden beneath her apron, a shotgun, a jug of whiskey, and a cigar, Fields became the first African American and the second woman to work for the US Postal Service in 1895.  In her 60s, she rode a stagecoach across the dangerous Montana territory, delivering mail on time no matter the weather or terrain.  She didn't take any nonsense from any man - one newspaper said she had "broken more noses than any other person in Montana."  Fields eventually became a beloved citizen of the town of Cascade.  She could have free meals at a town hotel, and residents even rebuilt her house after it burned down in 1912.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Silent Film Starlet Louise Brooks Gets the Hollywood Treatment

It looks like Fox Searchlight has gotten the rights to adapt Laura Moriarty's novel The Chaperone.  The novel is about a 15 year old Louise Brooks and a fictionalized Alice Mills (Cora Carlisle in the novel), who chaperones her on her summer trip to New York City in 1922.  She's supposed to make sure Louise behaves.  Good luck lady.  Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern is attached to the film and will play the chaperone. It's been on my to read list because it's set in the 1920s (my favorite era), and because Louise Brooks is my favorite silent film star.  I can't wait to find out who will get to play her.

 Louise at about age 16, circa 1923

In her day, Brooks was apparently considered a "second-tier star".  We'd probably consider her a B-list celebrity if she was around today, but she became an icon over the years.

Her early years weren't always good.  A bachelor she dubbed "Mr. Feathers" or sometimes "Mr. Flowers" molested her when she was nine years old.  It was a memory she would block out for decades.  She ditched high school, left Wichita, Kansas and began her career dancing in 1922 after Ruth St. Denis invited Brooks to her dance company.

After being fired from the dance company she was hired to be a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1925.  Once a producer saw her in the Follies, she was given a contract with Paramount.  She was 19 years old.

Brooks had a reputation for being direct, and utterly unimpressed by Hollywood.  But the celebrity mags seemed to love her, especially her sleek black hair.  If Brooks got a mention in the fan magazines, so did her High-brow Bob.  Or her square bob.  Or her bangs.  Her love life - including her "wild and swift" romance with director Eddie Sutherland - was the source of endless fascination and speculation.

 Pandora's Box

Though half of her 14 films with Paramount are considered lost, it is her work outside of Paramount - 1929's Pandora's Box - that Brooks is most remembered for.  Originally, the film bombed, and the critics hated her performance ("Louise Brooks cannot act," one said bluntly), but as time went by, critics like Kenneth Tynan recognized her alluring paradoxes:
She has run through my life like a magnetic thread - this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly. She is a prairie princess, equally at home in a waterfront bar and in the royal suite at Neuschwanstein; a creature of impulse, a creature of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy; amoral but totally selfless, with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious. 
When she returned to Hollywood, her career in American films was practically over.  Silent film stars who wanted to stay in talkies had to make the transition fast, and she missed the opportunity by making movies in Europe for too long.

You can head on over to YouTube for a look at a rare interview with Louis Brooks in her later years.

Who would you cast to play Louise Brooks?

"The Girl in the Black Helmet" by Kenneth Tynan
"The Martyrdom of Lulu" by Dan Callahan
Photoplay Magazine (January-June 1927)

Further Reading
When Kenneth Met Lulu
Opening Pandora's Box by J. Hoberman

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Manuscripts of Medieval Timbuktu

Before militants fled Timbuktu last month, they set fire to the library inside the Ahmed Baba Institute. The library housed thousands of treasured manuscripts, some of which the militants tried to burn. But as it turns out, thousands of texts had already been stealthily removed by librarians and security guards. At night, library staff packed manuscripts onto donkey carts and transported them to boats on the Niger River. Then, the boats sailed to Mopti, which was out of militant control. From Mopti, a truck, took the manuscripts to Bamako, Mali’s capital. But even the few hundred manuscripts that the militants burned had reportedly already been digitized.

Manuscripts in the library included the Tariqh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan), a 17th century narrative of the history of the Songhai Empire. The Songhai Empire rose in the 14th century after the Mali Empire began to fall. The capital of the Songhai Empire was another historic Malian city – Gao. The Tariqh al-Sudan, called Timbuktu:
"a refuge of scholarly and righteous folk, a haunt of saints and ascetics, and a meeting place for caravans and boats." 
Other manuscripts also included Korans, inventories, receipts, letters and documents on medicine, chemistry, geography, history, astronomy, literature, poetry, grammar, magic, botany, mathematics, women’s rights and law. Most documents were written between in Arabic, but others were written in Songhai, Tamashek, and Bambara.

The new library in the Ahmed Baba Institute housed tens of thousands of manuscripts and it has been estimated that these manuscripts were one-fifth of all the texts in the Timbuktu area. Documents outside of the library were in Timbuktu’s public and private libraries or hidden in the city and in surrounding towns. The library staff wanted to restore and digitize Timbuktu’s documents, but residents were still reluctant to loan or even sell their manuscripts, wanting to protect their heritage themselves.

Over the years many residents of Timbuktu tried to preserve these documents, vigilant in their mission to protect their history from invasions from Morocco, the Songhai Empire, and France in the late 19th century. They have also had to face the challenges of termites, the passage of time, and illegal trafficking of manuscripts. Residents have hidden these family heirlooms under furniture or floors or in the desert sand to protect them. Sometimes old hiding places are found, the original owners long forgotten about the hiding place. During this most recent invasion by militants residents once again hid their family manuscripts to preserve their history.

Between the 12th and 17th centuries Timbuktu was a city of learning for scholars from all over the world. There were refugees from Spain, teachers and students from Cairo, Baghdad, and Persia, and intellectuals from the Mali and Songhai Empires. It developed from a trading center, and by the 16th century had become a university town. The learning spread to other cities like Gao and Djénné. It was in the early 16th century that Askia Mohammed ruled the Songhai Empire, a huge West African empire which included Timbuktu. During that time, adventurer and visitor Hassan ibn Muhammed al Wazzan al Fasi (also known as Leo Africanus) wrote:

“In the city are many judges, doctors, and clerics, all well-financed by the king, who greatly honors lettered men…Many hand-written books are sold there that come from Barbary, and from these more is earned than from any other merchandise.”

 Sankoré Mosque by Baz Lecocq

Camel caravans brought salt to Timbuktu. From the 12th century onwards, scholars came with these caravans, transporting thousands of texts on their journey. Merchants also brought textiles and spices from places like Granada to Mecca, in exchange for gold, ivory, and slaves from Ghana. Goods were bought and sold with cowrie shells and gold nuggets. Scholars began to leave Timbuktu after late 16th century invasions from Morocco forced them from the city.

In addition to manuscripts, modern Timbuktu is home to historical buildings. The most famous being three large 13th and 14th century earthen-brick mosques – Djingarey Ber, Sankoré, and Sidi Yahia – which formed the University of Timbuktu. The militants destroyed many of the tombs at these mosques several months ago.   Unesco officials are preparing to rebuild the tombs.

Further Reading
Ibn Battuta's: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354
Leo Africanus: Description of Timbuktu
Tombouctou Manuscripts Project

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Belle Époque Paris in Color

Paris 1914 has a collection of color photos of Paris taken between 1907 and 1930.  The Lumière brothers patented Autochrome in 1903, and this process was used to take color photos until the 1930s.  Banker Albert Kahn, commissioned photographers to record the era across five continents.  The Albert Kahn Museum has about 72,000 of these color photos.  Some of the photos go a few years beyond the Belle Époque, but I thought they were fascinating.

 Grand Palais exhibition in 1909, by Leon Gimpel


Notre Dame in 1909, by Leon Gimpel

 The airship Zodiac III, 1909

 Quai de la Corse, 1910

 Place de la Concorde on November 14, 1918

Mess Nessy Chic compares turn of the century color photos of Paris with contemporary ones.  You can also find more photos at Paris Unplugged.