The Courtesan and the Abolitionist: The Real-Life Love Story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox

 

honorable mrs fox by joshua reynolds

The Honourable Mrs. Fox. Joshua Reynolds, 1784-9. Note that they were officially married in 1795, and the marriage was not made public until 1802.

Of all the great love stories in history that ought to be made into movies, Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox must be near the top of the list.

Elizabeth was born in Greenwich in 1750. By the age of twenty-one, she was working at a high-class brothel in Soho run by the infamous Mrs. Mitchell. Her first known patron was the Viscount of Bolingbroke, known to his friends as “Bully,” and it was through him that she met her future husband, Charles James Fox.

Though only a year older than Elizabeth, Charles had had a very different upbringing. His father was Henry Fox, Baron Holland, and his mother, Caroline, was the daughter of the Duke of Richmond. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he got an early start in politics when his father bought him a seat in Parliament at the age of nineteen. It wasn’t long before he made waves. Critical of George III, Charles opposed the American War of Independence and even showed his support for the colonists by wearing the colors of Washington’s army to Parliament. By the time he met Elizabeth, he had already developed a reputation of his own.

Elizabeth and Charles moved in the same circles and became fast friends. They remained close as their respective careers progressed. Elizabeth became an actress, and her considerable success as a courtesan was noted in Town and Country in 1776, when they reported that she had made conquests of two dukes, a marquis, four earls, and a viscount.

The truth was a bit more impressive. Elizabeth was indeed popular among the nobility, and her patrons over the next few years included the Duke of Dorset, the Earl of Derby, Lord George Cavendish, the Earl of Cholmondeley, and the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. She was known for her good nature and intelligence as much as her beauty–she was tall and statuesque, with a strong physique and large bust. She had a sharp wit and a talent for languages that gentlemen found as fascinating as the rest of her.

Elizabeth knew exactly what she was doing. By the time she was thirty, she had a fortune of her own that included at least one residence, carriages, and several servants. Never one to be taken advantage of, she moved from patron to patron as effortlessly as she lived, and she never fell in love.

Unless, of course, she’d been in love all along. In the early 1780s, Elizabeth and Charles became lovers after a decade of friendship. It’s unknown whether it was out of the blue or if they’d had feelings for each other from the start, but they quickly became inseparable. Charles was a rake known for drinking, gambling, and womanizing–he had even been involved with Elizabeth’s rival, actress Mary Robinson–but he soon realized Elizabeth was the only woman for him. He treated her as an equal, encouraging her interest in politics by writing to her about his position and concerns as well as pledging his undying love on a regular basis.

The feeling was mutual. Elizabeth wouldn’t see anyone other than Charles and quickly fell into debt because of it. Their relationship meant the end of her career and may have posed a threat to his. She tried to call it off, but Charles made it clear he was serious about her. In one of his many letters to her, he wrote:

“You shall not go without me, wherever you go. I have examined myself and know that I can better abandon friends, country, everything than live without Liz. I could change my name and live with you in the remotest part of Europe in poverty and obscurity. I could bear that very well, but to be parted I cannot bear.”

In spite of his status, Charles was no longer wealthy. He had gambled away most of his money, and he refused to use his political office for profit. Elizabeth didn’t mind. She sold the properties given to her by her former lovers and bought a house in St. Ann’s Hill, where they lived together happily for years. Still unmarried, Charles was considered quite a catch. When Charles was offered the chance at an advantageous marriage with the daughter of wealthy banker Thomas Coutts in 1795, Elizabeth knew it would be better for Charles. She offered to leave, but Charles refused. He wrote:

“I cannot figure to myself any possible idea of happiness without you, and being sure of this, is it possible that I can think of any trifling advantage of fortune or connection as weighing a feather in the scale against the whole comfort and happiness of my life?”

Not only would Charles not consider it, but he married Elizabeth instead. Marrying her was considered more of a scandal than living openly with her as his mistress, so Charles reluctantly agreed to keep the marriage secret for a time. Elizabeth knew that it would hurt his career, but Charles–a radical politician accustomed to doing and saying exactly what he wanted–was less concerned. He made their marriage public in 1802, and although it caused a bit of scandal, Elizabeth was ultimately accepted by society due to her kindness and charm.

When Charles passed away of liver disease in 1806, his last word was her name. He was fifty-seven, and he and Elizabeth had been together for twenty-five years. After his death, Elizabeth remained close with their friends and devoted the rest of her life to charitable works. Though they never had children of their own, Elizabeth supported a school in the nearby parish of Chertsey. By the time Elizabeth passed away in 1842 at the age of ninety-one, her background as a sex worker had been conveniently forgotten. Her funeral was attended by scores of people from all classes who remembered her for her kindness and good works.

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Charles James Fox memorial. © 2019 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Charles was buried in Westminster Abbey. His monument is one of the most impressive there, which is no small feat. Completed by sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott in 1822, it shows Charles being mourned by a slave–he was a fervent abolitionist–and another figure representing Peace. He is held in the arms of Liberty, who looks just a little bit like Elizabeth.

Jessica Cale

Further reading

Davis, I.M. The Harlot and the Statesman. The Kendall Press, 1986.

Hickman, Katie. Courtesans. Harper Collins, 2003.

Les Scandaleuses: Histoire d’alcôve. Elizabeth Armistead, Mrs Fox (1750-1842). June 29th, 2013.

Rendell, Mike. In Bed With the Georgians: Sex, Scandal, and Satire in the 18th Century. Pen & Sword, 2016.

Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies. Tempus Publishing, 2005.

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Composer, Abolitionist, Hero: The Extraordinary Life of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

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The Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Mather Brown, 1787.

While you’re celebrating the holiday next week, have a drink for the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born Christmas Day, 1745.

Not only was he gorgeous enough to pull off that wig, he was also a champion fencer by the time he was twenty, a classical composer who inspired Mozart, Marie Antoinette’s personal music teacher, an active abolitionist, and (there’s an and!) he was the colonel of the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe.

So how did he achieve all of this? Well, it wasn’t easy. As a black man in eighteenth-century France, the odds were stacked against him. He was born Joseph Bologne in Guadaloupe to George Bologne de Saint-Georges and Anne Nanon, his sixteen-year-old Senegalese slave. George was married, but he loved Joseph and his mother, and he broke convention not only by acknowledging them, but providing for them. When Joseph was seven, George took him to France to be educated, and he brought Anne to France two years later. In France, Anne was free, and George set them up in an apartment in Saint-Germain.

As a teenager, Joseph drew attention for his extraordinary skill at fencing. While he was a popular student, not everyone was happy to see him succeed. He was mocked by Alexandre Picard, a fencing master from Rouen, which led to a public match between the two while Joseph was still a student. It drew a huge crowd as it was viewed as being about more than just the sport. The public was divided between people who were in favor of slavery and those vehemently against it. Never mind that it was a match between an adult professional and a child, it was held up as almost a demonstration about the validity of slavery.

Though he had significantly less experience, Joseph handily defeated Picard. It was quite an achievement, and it helped to push public opinion a little further in the right direction. Joseph’s father was so proud of his victory, he gave him a horse and buggy. Not long after, Joseph graduated from the fencing academy, becoming a chevalier. He took his father’s title and became the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

In addition to his considerable skill with a sword, Saint-Georges was an exceptionally talented musician. In 1769, he played violin in Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs. He became a concert master within two years, and played his first solos by 1772. His performance was much remarked upon, especially among the ladies of Paris, who were particularly fond of the handsome chevalier. He was fond of them too; he had at least one serious romantic relationship, but French law prohibited interracial marriage, so Saint-Georges remained unmarried until his death.

When Gossec took a position at another orchestra in 1773, Saint-Georges took over as director, and under his leadership, Le Concert des Amateurs became one of the best in Europe. He was such a success that when his father died in 1774, Saint-Georges was able to support himself and his mother from his earnings, eventually tutoring and performing with Marie Antoinette at Versailles.

By the mid-1780s, Philippe, duc d’Orléans became Saint-Georges’s patron, giving him an apartment in the Palais-Royal. It was with Philippe that Saint-Georges became involved with the abolitionist movement in France and England. When Philippe sent Saint-Georges—by then a celebrity—to England to secure the Prince of Wales’s support, his chief of staff, Brissot, privately asked Saint-Georges to meet with eminent abolitionists in England to ask for their advice on how to advance the movement in France.

Saint-Georges quickly became a court favorite in England, and the Prince of Wales had his portrait painted by Mather Brown in 1787 (above), which everyone agreed was an excellent likeness. While there, he met with abolitionists William Wilberforce, John Wilkes, and Reverend Thomas Clarkson. He spent the next two years between the two countries, continuing his work with the movement and having British abolitionist literature translated into French for the Société des amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks), a group he co-founded with Brissot.

St Georges_from_London_Morning_PostIn 1789, the Morning Post published this cartoon, titled “St. George and the Dragon,” (right) with the dragon symbolizing the slave trade. Note the woman boxing in the background—that’s his friend, the Chevalière d’Eon, a French spy, diplomat, and transgender woman.

We’ll get there.

When the Revolution erupted, Saint-Georges sided with the revolutionaries, eventually becoming colonel of his own regiment, the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. It attracted volunteers from all over the country, including Thomas Alexandre Dumas, the legendary father of author Alexandre Dumas. Dumas took over from Saint-Georges when he was arrested and very nearly executed during the Terror. Saint-Georges was held for months without ever being accused of any crime, and though he was eventually released, he was unable to reclaim his position in the army.

While he was imprisoned, his mother passed away at the age of sixty. During the Terror, she had taken the name Citizen Anne Danneveau in an attempt to help Saint-Georges by concealing her own African origins. She had lived out her life as a free woman in Paris, and left all of her belongings to her son, who had remained close with her until the end.

Though it was nowhere near the end of the struggle for emancipation in France, Saint-Georges was able to see some progress before the end of his life. Slavery was abolished in French colonies by the National Convention on February 4th, 1794.

By the time he passed away of a bladder infection in 1799 at the age of fifty-three, Saint-Georges was a legend. US President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe.” He had tutored a queen, founded a regiment, and furthered the abolitionist cause in England and France. In 2001, the Paris City Council named a street in his honor, the Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George. He left behind an impressive body of classical composition that can still be heard today. Listen to it this week and remember the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

Banat, Gabriel. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow. (2006)

Bardin, Pierre. Joseph de Saint-George, Le Chevalier Noir. (2006)

Duchen, Jessica. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: The Man Who Got Under Mozart’s Skin. The Independent, February 7th, 2016.

Garnier-Panafieu, Michelle. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. AfriClassical.com, January 1st, 2016.

“The Most Kissed Face in the World”: The Curious Case of l’Inconnue de la Seine

l'inconnue de la seine albert rudomine 1927

La Vierge inconnue du canal de l’Ourcq. Photo by Albert Rudomine, 1927

In the late 1880s, the body of an unidentified young woman was pulled out of the Seine at the Quai du la Louvre, not far from the museum of the same name. While the Louvre houses the Mona Lisa, the river offered up an enigmatic smile of its own, and the woman—only the latest in a string of presumed suicides—became a beauty icon in her own right.

Dubbed l’Inconnue de la Seine (the Unknown Woman of the Seine), her body quickly became the star attraction of the already popular public morgues in Paris. People turned out in droves to see her, moved not only by her young age—she was thought to be about sixteen—but by the curiously peaceful expression on her face. She was beautiful, yes, but what struck them was that she appeared to be happy.

A wax plaster death mask was cast so early, it faithfully reproduced her wet, matted hair and the droplets of water in her eyelashes. Her death was a mystery that remains unsolved to this day, and she was never identified. It has been argued that no one who had drowned—let alone a suicide—could have died with such a relaxed, almost joyful look on their face, leading many to speculate that her cause of death was not drowning at all.

Finding a young woman in the river was a heartbreakingly common occurrence. Bodies of sex workers were pulled out of the Seine almost daily, all of them assumed suicides unless there was clear evidence to the contrary. Because no injuries could be found on her body, l’Inconnue was presumed to be another sex worker who had tragically taken her own life.

The mask of l’Inconnue became an obsession of Bohemian Paris, inspiring art and literature for decades after her death. Albert Camus pointed out the parallel to the Mona Lisa, and women were all too happy to emulate her. While her life was presumably difficult and tragically short, she was a muse in death, and bizarrely, an erotic ideal. Copies of the death mask were mass produced and sold as spectacularly morbid household decorations through the early twentieth century, and there is a workshop that still makes masks from the same mold to this day.

Even if you haven’t heard of her before today, chances are, you’ve kissed her yourself. In the 1950s, Norwegian company Laerdal Medical gave l’Inconnue a new life that would become her most enduring legacy. When they were developing the first CPR doll, they decide they needed a non-threatening face people wouldn’t mind kissing. L’Inconnue was perfect—beautiful, widely known, and there was already a mold of her face. As Resusci Anne (CPR Annie), the face of l’Inconnue reached an even wider audience as a staple of CPR courses around the world. Though most don’t know about the macabre origins of the doll, it’s a fitting legacy for the Unknown Woman of the Seine that in death, she saves others from drowning.

Jessica Cale

 

Nellie Bly Takes the Gold Cure

Journalist and Traveler Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly in 1900

When Nellie Bly died in 1922, at least one obituary described her as “the best reporter in America.” She was certainly an impressive investigative journalist. As an advocacy journalist, she wasn’t shy about putting her opinions in her stories, and she could even be seen as a precursor for the later New Journalism, where the writer is part of the story.

She also was a feminist pioneer, and ran her husband’s iron works company after his death, patenting or co-patenting a better metal oil drum. She was a celebrity in her own right. Her name appeared in the headlines of many of her stories, and board games and playing cards were designed with her image. She was a phenomenon.

Bly is best remembered for her 1887 career-making series Ten Days in a Mad-house and for besting Verne’s hero Phileas Fogg’s time—and that of a rival journalist—by traveling around the world in seventy-two days in 1889. Both are still readily available online and in book form.

The Keeley Institute and the Gold Cure

Bly’s articles about the treatment of madness were written in New York near the start of her career. Near the end, Bly investigated a so-called “alcoholism cure” for the well-to-do in White Plains. In a way, this lesser-known chapter is a thematic bookend to her life as a reporter.

keeley institute

The Keeley Institute in White Plains, NY

While Mad-house dealt with life-and-death issues—the need for mental illness treatment reform among the mostly poor, foreign-born women on Blackwell’s Island—her 1894 story Nellie Bly Takes the Keeley Cure was less serious and ran in a single installment. It was as concerned with Bly’s preparations to pass herself off as a high-functioning absinthe drinker as the cure itself. It exposed The Keeley Institute, a fraudulent alcoholism cure clinic. While the mental asylum was making people worse, Keeley’s clinic may have been helping alcoholics, even though its “cure” was hokum.

Founded by Leslie Keeley in 1879 in Illinois and expanding to branches throughout the United States and Europe, the Keeley Institute’s slogan was “Drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it.” It also claimed to work for “opium inebriates” and “morphine fiends.” They treated people with Keeley’s proprietary “gold cure” for alcoholism, not available anywhere else.

Gold_CureThe gold cure was a potion that included something Keeley called “double chloride of gold.” Independent analyses found that the gold cure was a witches’ brew of varying ingredients—gold salts, alcohol, morphine, cannabis, and other substances—in colored water.

Despite the toxic and/or addictive nature of many of these ingredients—and remember, morphine was then legal and even heroin was sold over the counter in the United States until 1924—there were few if any claims of negative side effects or new addictions associated with the cure other than vomiting or dizziness.*

It was snake oil, but enough people reported that it worked—Keeley claimed a 95% success rate—that Bly’s antennae were out. Her stepfather had been an alcoholic, and she didn’t believe in easy cures. The cost was a hundred dollars paid in advance. Bly managed to negotiate a one-week stay for twenty-five, though she was told that was normally not allowed.

The cure was administered by syringe four times a day for four weeks, with tonics given at two-hour intervals. Bly rightly noted with horror that the male patients were all injected with the same needle, which was not cleaned between injections. Female patients, of which there were few at the time of Bly’s visit, were administered privately in their rooms.

1891-1892-CD-Keeley-Institute-300x184Each patient was also given a bottle of whiskey by the institute so they could taper off their drinking on their own. Bly said she “gave it to an expert, who pronounced it the worst rot-gut he had ever tasted.” As a purported absinthe drinker, Bly had to buy her own bottle from a local shop.

Some of the staff had taken the cure themselves. Bly noted approvingly that the attending medic Dr. Millspaugh had a red nose, assuming it revealed a past love of drink.

“It is as it should be, thought I, to have for a doctor one who has tasted the bitter and sweet of loving cups . . . For who could better doctor a man with snakes than one who killed many a one of his own? And who could better tell the condition of a head the next morning than one who had drank all the others under the table?”

Later, when he told her he was not and never had been a drinker, Bly wrote, “How can a doctor who doesn’t know the symptoms of drink doctor one for the complaint?”

Nelly Bly (Absinthe Fiend) Investigates

Bly was less impressed when she discovered that rather than one-and-done, some patients had taken the cure multiple times. The wife of one patient said she had no faith in the cure lasting, though her husband had stopped drinking after a week:

“They give the same tonic, the same injection to each and every man. What will cure the boy of twenty cannot surely cure my husband, who has drank so many more years. And they treat them the same number of times and the same number of weeks.”

Still, she told Bly, “So long as my husband believes it is all I ask. If he can be cured for even a few months, it is well worth the expense and time.” Their doctors had warned that he would be dead in a month if nothing was done.

Mr. J.J. Brown, the manager, explained to Bly why patients sometimes came back. “It puts people back where they were before they began to drink, (but) there must be a desire on the part of the patient not to drink. We can’t make it impossible to drink if they feel so inclined.”

Bly was unconvinced. She wrote: “I would not for the world cast discredit upon anything that would turn people from drink for even four weeks. But it is my honest opinion that the cure is no cure in itself.”

She declared that being “away from temptation, (with) plain, wholesome food, pure, bracing air (and) plenty of rest” make the patient “feel better. He credits it to the cure, and his faith grows stronger . . . He believes he is cured. That is the great thing. So long as he believes that and does not taste, he is all right, but woe to the Keeley patient who tries a drink!”

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Advertisement for the Keeley Institute in Greensboro, NC (Blandwood Mansion)

Bly was mostly correct in her analysis, but she was missing one thing. The reason the Keeley Institute worked as well as it apparently did was that it wasn’t just a vehicle to sell snake oil—though it undoubtedly was that—but it offered something else: dignity. The alcoholic was treated not as a lowlife, weak, or evil, but as someone with a disease.

In Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, William L. White explains: “The atmosphere was informal and friendly at the clinics, with a marked absence of the bars and restraints that were typical in most inebriate asylums of the period.” Also dissimilar to later programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Keeley didn’t include religion as a component. The institute didn’t include addiction counselors, though most of the doctors were former alcoholics themselves. According to White, “There were enough doctors on staff to go around.”

Apart from the dubious gold cure, modern addiction treatment does follow many of Keeley’s tenets, including the way alcoholism is viewed. The US Surgeon General’s 2016 Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health clearly states that “Addiction to alcohol or drugs is a chronic but treatable brain disease that requires medical intervention, not moral judgment.”

The institute promoted “mutual sharing and alternative diversions” as part of the therapy, much like the peer support groups recommended today. Bly credited much of the institute’s success to the healthy food, exercise, and fresh air, and these are often components of modern addiction rehab treatment too. It is now recognized that relapse is not uncommon among addicts, and that rehabilitation rarely works unless the patients want to get better.

nellie bly keeley institute white plains

Nellie Bly tries the “gold cure” at White Plains Keeley Institute

What makes the Keeley story an almost perfect bookend to Bly’s career is that alcohol and drug addiction often co-occur with mental health issues. They are related problems, also known as dual diagnoses—alcohol or drugs may be used to self-medicate for a mental health problem, or drug and alcohol use may exacerbate mental health problems.

Keeley was a conman, but he seems to have helped others in spite of himself, inadvertently using his bogus “cure” as a spoonful of sugar to help the real medicine go down. Call addicts irredeemable, and they’ll stay away. Pretend you have a cure, then distract them with healthy food and exercise, and maybe they will get better.

Nellie Bly knew that Keeley promised more than he could deliver and acted accordingly. A claim of a 95% success rate is crazy, and maybe that put her on her mettle. A better story would have been to find out how many people the Keeley Institute actually helped and why, or to compare its success rate to more traditional inebriate asylums.

Nellie Bly threw herself into her stories, tilted at windmills, slew dragons, suffered defeats, and left behind a record of achievement of which anyone would be proud.

Stephen Bitsoli writes about history, science, addiction, and related topics for several blogs. A former journalist and lifelong reader, he enjoys learning and sharing what he’s learned.

Sources

  1. Arlen, Michael. “Notes on the New Journalism.” The Atlantic, May 1972. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1972/05/notes-on-the-new-journalism/376276/
  2. “Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum.” American Oil & Gas Historical Society. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.aoghs.org/transportation/nellie-bly-oil-drum/
  3. Conliffe, Ciaran. “Terrible People from History: Elizabeth “Nellie Bly” Cochrane Seaman, Intrepid Journalist.” Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.headstuff.org/culture/history/terrible-people-from-history/elizabeth-nellie-bly-cochrane-seaman-journalist/
  4. “5 May – Nellie Bly.” Widow’s Weeds. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.thewidowsweeds.blogspot.com/2012/05/5-may-nellie-bly.html
  5. Bly, Nellie. Ten Days in a Mad-House. Ian L. Munro, Publisher, 1887. Nellie Bly: The Pioneer Woman Journalist, A Resource Website. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.nellieblyonline.com/herwriting
  6. Himmelfarb, Ben. “Local History: Addicts & Addiction Pt. 1: The Keeley Institute.” October 30, 2017. White Plains Public Library. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.whiteplainslibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/1984-6-10-NYWorld-Bly-1.jpg
  7. Hanson, Dirk. “The Strange and Secret Keeley Cure for Addiction.” September 11, 2011. Addiction Inbox. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.addiction-dirkh.blogspot.com/2011/09/strange-and-secret-keeley-cure-for.html
  8. “The Keeley Cure.” Digger Odell Publications, 2009. Bottlebooks.com. Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.bottlebooks.com/Keeley/keeley_cure.htm
  9. Detwiler, Jacqueline. “History’s Scariest Addiction Treatments.” The Fix, August 23, 2012.Web. Accessed July 26, 2018.thefix.com/content/grisly-addiction-treatments-history90510
  10. “Alcoholism is a Disease and I Can Cure It”: Dr. Leslie Keeley and the Keeley Institutes. Alcohol Problems & Solutions. Web. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/alcoholism-is-a-disease-and-i-can-cure-it-dr-leslie-keeley-and-the-keeley-institutes/
  11. Nickell, Joe. “Historic ‘Gold Cure’ For Addiction.” Center for Inquiry, March 18, 2016.Web. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://centerforinquiry.org/blog/historic_gold_cure_for_addiction/

*There have been some vague and undocumented claims of deaths, but if there were actual deaths, it’s hard to imagine Bly or other journalists ignoring them or making light of the Keeley cure thereafter.

Making a Medieval Murderer: The Exoneration of Gilles de Rais

Gillesderais1835

Gilles de Rais. Éloi Firmin Féron, 1835. 

You may have heard the story of Bluebeard—a woman marries a wealthy nobleman with a string of wives who had died under mysterious circumstances only to find said deceased wives congealing in an armoire. It’s a tale as old as time…or something. Variations have been told over the years, and a few real-life murderers have taken inspiration from it. What you might not realize, however, is that the Bluebeard of legend is said to be based on a controversial historical figure—the infamous Gilles de Rais (1404-40).

As the story goes, Gilles de Rais’ crimes were unspeakable. Rather than murdering a series of wives, he was ultimately convicted of sexually assaulting and ritualistically murdering up to 150 boys in his descent into the occult. He was accused of heresy, alchemy, sodomy, sorcery, and murdering countless—and unidentified—women and children. You know, in addition to the 100, 150, or 600 boys, depending on who you ask.

His crimes were so horrific and almost cartoonishly exaggerated, you have to wonder if they were even possible. Where did he find the time, how did he get away with it for so long, and who would ever do such a thing?

What does the history say?

Gilles de Rais fought in the Hundred Years’ War, where he distinguished himself as a courageous fighter. He was given the honor of guarding Joan of Arc by the dauphin in 1429. As her personal bodyguard, he fought alongside her in many of the most significant battles of her life. He helped to life the Siege of Orléans and earned the position of Marshal of France, the country’s highest military distinction.

When Joan of Arc died in 1431, de Rais was devastated. She had been a dear friend to him, and he believed in her wholeheartedly. In his grief, he retired to his estate and threw himself into religion and the preservation of Joan’s memory. Although his estate was one of the richest in France, he burned through his money at an alarming rate, employing armies of servants and soldiers and commissioning works of music and literature in honor of her.

In 1433, he funded the construction of the Chapel of Holy Innocents. The chapel featured a boys’ choir personally chosen by de Rais, a fact that many have pointed to as an early hint of the alleged crimes to come, but this is consistent with the enthusiastic attention to detail he applied to all of his projects.

In 1435, he financed a play he wrote himself about the Siege of Orléans, and it almost bankrupted him. More than six hundred elaborate costumes were made for the 140 actors with speaking parts and 500 extras; each costume was worn only once, discarded, and sewn all over again for each performance. He also provided unlimited food and drink to all of the spectators in attendance.

The play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, marks another turning point in his life. Not only was it regarded as fiscally irresponsible, but it amounted to the unofficial canonization of a woman who had been burned as a heretic.

To hear many tell it, this is when his descent into the occult truly began, but the only evidence we have of anything even remotely related is his interest in alchemy, which he later confessed to publically. Crucially, alchemy itself was not a crime unless it was accomplished with the devil’s aid; de Rais had not attempted to invoke any demons, he’d only read a book. This was not enough to seize his estates, however, and a far more serious crime had to be invented.

He was arrested in 1440 after kidnapping a priest over a minor dispute. Up until 1789, torture was considered a valid way to extract reliable testimony in France, and it was under these circumstances that de Rais confessed. Although the confession read by clerics at his execution named unspeakable crimes in lurid detail, his actual private confession was no more than a short verbal agreement to the charge of dabbling in alchemy. He was simultaneously hanged and burned alive on October 26th, 1440 in Nantes.

By all accounts, de Rais was oddly calm as he faced an execution not unlike that of his beloved Joan of Arc, who he could not save in spite of his best efforts. After his death, he was hailed as model of penitence, and a three-day fast was observed in his honor. Bizarrely, until the mid-sixteenth century, the people of Nantes marked the anniversary of his execution by whipping their children.

Exoneration 

In 1992, biographer Gilbert Proteau argued that de Rais was innocent in Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule de Loup and called for a retrial.

Proteau was not the first to notice the evidence against de Rais didn’t hold up. As early as 1443, there had been attempts to clear his name. While the evidence of his guilt was mainly limited to rumors, questionable witness testimonies, and the confession extracted under torture, there was one very good reason to want de Rais out of the way.

At one point, de Rais was the wealthiest man in Europe. His wealth has been used to explain his alleged corruption, but it is also a pretty convincing motive. His eccentricity and tendency to hemorrhage money after Joan’s death had caused a serious rift between him and the rest of his family. In 1435, his family petitioned the king to prevent de Rais from selling any more property. Charles VII agreed and issued an edict for de Rais to cease selling property and forbidding any of his subjects to enter into any contract with him. As far as they were concerned, de Rais was running the estate into the ground, and they wanted to keep it intact.

De Rais was not accused of murder until after a dispute with the church of Saint-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte in 1440, which resulted in him kidnapping a priest. Only after he had angered the church was there any investigation, and just two months after the kidnapping, the Bishop of Nantes presented witness testimony accusing de Rais of murder, sodomy, and heresy. Servants claiming to be de Rais’s accomplices testified against him, but no bodies, bones, or other physical evidence was ever found. Crucially, he was prosecuted by the Duke of Brittany, who received all of de Rais’ lands and titles after his death.

Centuries after his torture and execution, the Court of Cassation heard the appeal and fully exonerated de Rais in 1992. Although many French historians have long since accepted his innocence, many English-speaking historians persist in arguing for his guilt.

Fortunately, the movement to clear his name has been steadily picking up momentum, and many of the sources are available online. Since 2010, de Rais’ biographer Margot Juby has been making the case for de Rais in English through the website Gilles de Rais Was Innocent, providing almost a decade’s worth of evidence that the allegations against him were fabricated.

We were delighted to sit down with Juby for a closer look at the facts.

A Conversation with Margot Juby

DSH: We have been given two very different impressions of Gilles de Rais–on one hand, he’s this incredible war hero who fought with Joan of Arc, and on the other, he’s seen as this unspeakably horrible murderer–what do you think he was really like after Joan’s death? How did it affect him?

MJ: Most versions of Gilles’ life offer a very muddled account of his military career. They gloss over it and some even dismiss his heroism as an exaggeration. Too much is known about his part in the siege of Orléans and other battles for this to be viable. He was put in charge of protecting Jehanne, apparently at her own request, and came to her rescue at least twice when she was injured. He was also rewarded by the king for his bravery on several occasions, not least when he was made a Marshal of France at the age of 24. At the same time, he was given the highly unusual honour of a border of fleurs de lys (the royal emblem) on his coat of arms. This distinction was more often given to an exceptionally loyal town than an individual, and he shared it only with Jehanne and none of the other captains. Contemporary chroniclers all agree that he was the preeminent captain of Orléans and the Loire campaign; it was only later writers, after his death, who tried to play down his role.

When Jehanne was on trial for her life in Rouen, Gilles was just across the river in Louviers with an army and in the company of another of her captains, La Hire. Biographers try to explain his presence in occupied Normandy, far from his nearest estate, as some whimsical expedition to buy a horse, which is ludicrous. It is obvious that some rescue attempt was planned; the English knew it and threatened to throw their captive into the river if such an attempt was made. As we know, the plan failed and Jehanne was burned.

We can only guess how Gilles felt. The official story is that he had no particular feelings for Jehanne and yet, paradoxically, was so emotionally shattered by her death that he turned to diabolism and murder. Almost all accounts of his life are reduced to such paradoxes, because the two halves of his life simply do not fit.

After her death, his life fragments. There are plenty of events, but they lack coherence. He still maintains some interest in military matters, but he is no longer really a soldier. He dabbles in theatre, in the Church, and even in alchemy, at least according to his one confession that was not extracted by the threat of torture. He signs bizarre documents, seems to be afraid that his family is plotting his death, disinherits his daughter, compulsively sells properties to meet expenses that are not fully explained. And he constantly gravitates to Orléans, where he was happy and loved.

In 1435, to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the liberation of Orléans, Gilles paid for an elaborate mystery play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, to be performed, not just once but repeatedly, over a period of some months. Biographers are puzzled and disturbed by this and cannot work out what it might mean. Was it “discreet propaganda” (Jacques Heers) or “a cry of bruised love” (Gilbert Prouteau)? Whatever it was, it indicated that Jehanne had mattered immensely in his life. It was also a huge political error. It was virtually an unofficial canonisation of an executed heretic. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that it marks the moment when his family turned against him, and his enemies, some he thought of as his friends, started to plot his downfall.

DSH: What do you think are the most compelling pieces of evidence that Gilles de Rais was innocent?

MJ: What to choose? The case for his innocence is based on countless small details, which build up into an unanswerable refutation of the case for the prosecution. In fact, the evidence presented in court is so feeble that, properly examined, it is the strongest argument for the innocence of Gilles and his fellow accused. It was some 550 years before the first serious attempt at a biography was written, by the Abbé Bossard. The records of the trial were written in manuscript, in Latin and Old French, and there is no sign that anybody looked at them closely apart from René Mauldes, who transcribed them for Bossard. His is a redacted version, since he felt unable to write the sexual details even in the original languages (he had no such problem with the slaughter). Very few biographers since show any sign of having done more than glance at the records, if that. They have built up a cast-iron case, built on lies and half-truths.

The traditional version of the story is that hundreds of children disappeared and were attested to in court by their grieving parents. Gilles and his entourage would pass through a village and leave at least one bereft family in his wake. Charge 15 of the Articles of Accusation is quite explicit: “For the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour, [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls…”

Yet there are accounts of only forty or so missing boys, and only a dozen are given a full name. The rest have only a family name and sometimes an age. Several are simply “unknown boy”–there are no girls listed. Apparently there were no known victims between 1434 and 1436, and only one in 1437. Although many people testify in court, few are related to the supposed victims; the crowds of weeping mothers simply did not exist. The complainants allude to the fate of the disappeared children, which they could not possibly have known about. Where several complainants attest to the loss of a child, serious discrepancies appear–this is particularly true of the Hubert and Darel boys. On one occasion, Gilles appears to be in two places at once. Some cases are mere anecdotes–in one case, a man seen looking for his son. All this evidence is hearsay.

Moreover, the links between these disappearances and Gilles or his men are weak. Several take place in parts of the country which he was not known to frequent–a whole string of boys go missing in Machecoul while he is living at Tiffauges. To make up for this problem, we are told that several old women–among them the infamous Perrine Martin, La Meffraye (the Terror), and Tiphaine Branchu–scoured the countryside for handsome boys. These ladies were caught and imprisoned, but we do not have their evidence and we have no idea of their fate, although they apparently confessed and their confessions were conveniently made known to some of the complainants. Unfortunately, nobody told Poitou and Henriet, the only eye witnesses, or Gilles himself; they mention no female procurers.

It is fairly well known that the evidence of Poitou and Henriet shows clear signs of having been extracted by torture. What is less often noticed is that Gilles himself was almost certainly tortured–he was promised that, in return for a confession, his torture would be deferred till the next day, not that it would be waived. Unusually, the next day’s hearing took place in the evening rather than the morning, allowing time for the torture to be applied.

This is merely an indication of how biographers have cherry-picked the evidence to make a coherent narrative out of what is, in fact, a messy and contradictory tangle of hearsay and forced confessions. There is much, much more.

DSH: Although he was fully exonerated in 1992, why do you think so many English-speaking historians and biographers persist in believing he was guilty?

MJ: Several reasons. First, plain bad timing. News travels fast now, but back then there was no internet to spread it. Second, all the documentation was in French, and English-language newspapers only printed short, whimsical accounts. It was a nine-day wonder. It is actually more difficult to find out what happened in 1992 than to tease out the details of early 15th century events, and that, believe me, is difficult enough. You would think that, as the prime mover of the retrial, Gilbert Prouteau would have put all the salient facts in his book. You would be wrong.

Prouteau himself, excellent PR man though he was, is part of the reason the retrial is regarded with some suspicion. He was a naughty boy, and wrote a confusing and occasionally dishonest book. The first time I read it–in French, having naïvely waited some twenty years for somebody to publish it in translation–I was mystified. He wrote a novel, quite overtly, and tagged an account of a preliminary hearing (not the trial itself, which had not yet happened) onto the end. The novel section aped all the errors in the “magisterial” tome by Gilles’ first biographer, the Abbé Bossard, and that was clearly deliberate. Prouteau had done no original research, and the evidence presented in court was taken from the writings of earlier authors, such as Salomon Reinach and Fernand Fleuret. This was well and good, but certain elements from Prouteau’s fiction also crept into the peroration delivered in court. This is worrying, though I feel that behind his obvious mischievousness, he was perfectly sincere in his belief that Gilles de Rais was wrongfully convicted.

The retrial itself was not, as it is often claimed, an official process and the verdict carried no weight in French law. At the time, those who had spoken up in Gilles’ defence had planned to ask for the support of French President François Mitterand to look into the matter and formalise the rehabilitation. As far as I am aware, this was never done.

One final reason why many people refuse to accept that Gilles de Rais was neither a murderer nor Bluebeard: human beings hate to lose their villains. As seen by posterity, Gilles is the perfect model of a villain and his story is packed with excitement–black magic, murder, sexual depravity to rival the Caesars. Who would want to give that up to hear about politics and property transactions?

DSH: What do you make of his confession? Torture was clearly a factor. Do you think this was a case where he would agree to any ideas they suggested, or was it a total fabrication? The things he supposedly confessed to are so outrageously horrible, it would be difficult to dream them up, let alone actually do them. I keep thinking about it and wondering how they got there. It makes me think of the penitential literature of the period–a lot of the things people could confess weren’t things people actually did, they were just these lurid fantasies thought up by bored monks.

MJ: When we talk about a “confession” now, we mean something fairly spontaneous and given in the accused person’s own words. Even those can be suspect if the accused has been subjected to intense interrogation. In 1440, it was very different. This is what Professor Thomas Fudgé wrote in his 2017 book, Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages:

“Confessions in many inquisitorial proceedings relating to heresy or witchcraft are remarkably similar in many parts of Europe. This may be attributed to the nature and standardized questions asked of the defendant or deponent. Leading questions were often asked. In many records there are no specific answers provided, only the single word affirmat meaning the witness has affirmed the point in question. Sometimes a statement of confession written in the first person would be drawn up by the court, which the accused or deponent would be compelled to sign or otherwise affirm.”

Lazy writers will say that Gilles de Rais made two confessions before the ecclesiastical court. The first, made privately in his own quarters, is preceded by the Inquisition rubric that it had been delivered “voluntarily, freely, and without any coercion whatsoever.” We know exactly what this assurance is worth, since he confessed only under the immediate threat of torture. It is short, has little detail, and does not mention murder.

The public one, made in court some thirty-six hours later, is the one usually quoted from, as it is longer, far more circumstantial, and has all the gory details. However, there was an earlier confession, not produced by threats (as far as we know) in which Gilles accepted the truth of the earlier heads of the Acts of Accusation (1-11 and 14, interestingly omitting the two articles that dealt with the qualifications of the Inquisitor Jean Blouyn). This meant he really confessed to nothing, since the accusations only started at Article 15. He did go on to admit–aloud, in public–that he read a book about alchemy and evocations that he obtained in Angers, and that he practised alchemy, though he specifically denied dealing with demons. Now, alchemy was perfectly legal and considered to be a suitable hobby for wealthy men; at least one Pope had written a treatise on it. It only became illegal if the Devil’s aid was invoked, which Gilles denied, or if it was the low form known as arquémie, in which the alchemist attempted to turn base metals to gold. This was clearly what Gilles meant. It was a minor offence, akin to forgery. It was not sufficient to get Gilles executed and his property confiscated; more was required.

The other two confessions bear a marked resemblance to those of his valets, Poitou and Henriet. Their confessions were certainly produced under torture and seem to be textbook examples of the leading question followed by affirmation technique of interrogation. It is their testimony that is most often cherry-picked in accounts of the trial; Gilles’ account usually seems confused and lacking in detail, whether the subject is murder or evoking demons. In between the first, private confession and the second, in court, it is certain that torture was applied. He had been promised, in return for confessing, that the torture would be deferred, but not that it would be waived altogether. The second confession was delivered in an evening session; all the others except one, after the interrogation of his friends, had taken place in the morning. It is usually claimed that he confessed at the mere threat of torture, and implied that he was a coward, but this is based on skim-reading the documents.

The confessions themselves are riddled with inconsistencies. It is not even possible to determine exactly what form of sexual assault is described; the accounts given before the ecclesiastical court differ from those given before the civil court. The only eye witnesses, Gilles himself and his two friends, contradict themselves and each other at every turn, and state impossibilities as facts. All the bodies were burned to ashes (a thing that would have been impossible without leaving visible remains). Except, that is for the eighty that were left lying around for several years, unnoticed, and had to be burned in two batches, in mid-summer, without attracting attention. Some of the other cremations took place in a manor house in Nantes with the Duke’s castle at one end of the street & the Bishop’s palace at the other. Or were the bodies taken to Machecoul for burning? The accused men do not agree.

From The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais:

“Gilles is a serial killer without any discernible modus operandi. The children are killed in a number of different ways, sometimes by Gilles himself and sometimes by his henchmen. This is not wholly impossible, but it adds an air of improbability, as if a number of possible tableaux was being presented for the delectation of a shocked audience. Interrogated as to who killed them, [Poitou] responded that occasionally the said Gilles, the accused, killed them by his own hand, occasionally he had them killed by the said Sillé or Henriet or him, the witness, or by anyone among them, together or separately. Interrogated as to the manner, he responded: sometimes beheading or decapitating them, sometimes cutting their throats, sometimes dismembering them, and sometimes breaking their necks with a cudgel: and that there was a sword dedicated to their execution, commonly called a braquemard.”

All of the more lurid parts of these confessions, including the murders as well as the sexual assaults, are related with a detail and a relish that suggest the imaginings of a few frustrated and unworldly celibates vying with each other to appal. The charges are generic: Gilles de Rais was accused of the same crimes that all outsiders were charged with. Witches, Gypsies, Jews, heretics, the Knights Templar…all faced accusations of sodomy, child abduction, murder, dealings with the Devil. All except Gilles de Rais are now almost universally seen as innocent victims.

DSH: If you could tell the people reading this one thing, what would it be?

MJ: Believe nothing you read about Gilles de Rais. The internet thrives on copypasta, and the “facts” that you read will have been taken from unreliable sources, quite probably from fiction. I have seen Gilles described as “Joan of Arc’s serial killer brother” and read descriptions of sexual acts that even his judges never thought to invent. Biographies are not much better, since very few are based on original research. All rely heavily on his original biographer, Bossard, who was not a historian. He took many of his so-called facts from an utterly bogus version of the trial record written in the late 19th century by a sensationalist author called Paul Lacroix.

Much of what we think we know about Gilles was invented by Lacroix, parroted by Bossard, and passed on to other biographers in a process of Chinese whispers. The illustrated Suetonius that supposedly gave Gilles the inspiration for his crimes? Lacroix invented it. The Bishop rising up and veiling the crucifix at the most horrific moment of Gilles’ confession? Lacroix originally, elaborated and improved upon by the Decadent author J-K Huysmans in his novel Là-Bas. Biographies of Gilles de Rais are largely fictional.

Jessica Cale

Margot Juby is a writer and biographer from King’s Lynn, Norfolk. She studied English at Hull, where, as poet Philip Larkin remarked to her some time later, she “got a First and (did) bugger all ever since.” Well, not quite bugger all. After years writing poetry, she decided to revisit a biography on Gilles de Rais she had questioned in school, and hasn’t stopped reading the sources since. Her upcoming book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, is a labor of love nearly a decade in the making. You can visit her at http://www.gillesderaiswasinnocent.blogspot.com.

Voice, Votes, and Vibrators: Women’s Suffrage in England and the United States

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Women’s suffrage parade, March 3rd, 1913. Washington D.C. Actress Hedwiga Reicher is dressed as Columbia. During the pageant, Columbia summoned Justice, Charity, Liberty, Peace, and Hope to review the new crusade of women.

The Origins of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

The idea of “waves” in feminism was first coined by Martha Weinman Lear in her March 1968 article for The New York Times Magazine, titled “The Second Feminist Wave.” In that article, she identified the first as well as the second wave: the first wave is the fight for legal enfranchisement—suffrage—and the second, concurrent with the “women’s liberation” movement of the 1960s, is the fight for social equality. Lear’s coinage has become the standard taxonomy of feminism, and we are arguably regarded to be experiencing the fourth wave now. Each wave builds on the progress of, and in some cases challenges the tenets of, the previous waves.

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Christine de Pizan lecturing men, 1413

The suffragettes (in England) and suffragists (in the United States) of the mid 19th and early 20th century are the vanguard of the first wave—but, of course, women were crying out for their rights from the first moment they were denied them, and writing manifestos against misogyny from the moment they could put quill to paper. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun and poet, argued for women’s rights in the pre-Enlightenment 17th century. Christine de Pizan challenged misogyny even earlier, in the medieval era. Identified by Simone de Beauvoir in her important work The Second Sex as the first woman to write about women’s issues, Pizan’s work is now widely considered the origin point of the fight for women’s equality.

But Pizan is not considered the grandmother of feminism’s first wave. That would be Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, eventually catalyzed hundreds of years of women’s thought and struggle into a coherent movement for voting rights in both England and the United States. In the Vindication, Wollstonecraft takes Enlightenment ideas and expands them to include women, asserting a place for women in legal and social discourse.

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Mary Wollstonecraft. John Opie, 1797

Her work was, not surprisingly, enormously controversial and even scandalous in its time, and Wollstonecraft’s unconventional life (she openly had sexual relationships, and a child, outside of marriage) was used as fodder for widespread disapprobation of her writing. And yet the Vindication lives on, and the women who followed her carried her message into their fight, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Margaret Fuller, a noted American Transcendentalist thinker, and a woman who also lived an unconventional life, acknowledged Wollstonecraft’s influence on her own manifesto, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). And certainly Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other attendees of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, were channeling Wollstonecraft’s rethinking of Rousseau’s ideas when they wrote the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, an intentionally obvious revision of the Declaration of Independence to include women in that seminal document of the country’s formation. The Declaration of Sentiments is generally considered the inciting document of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

Supported by centuries of argument by brave women shouting into the void, the real fight for women’s suffrage, in both England and America, began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century. Suffrage was not won, however, in either country, until the end of the second decade of the twentieth.

Madwomen in the Attic: The His-story of Hysteria

We need to pause here in our discussion of the movement for women’s suffrage and focus on how very brave the women who resisted convention truly were, and what they truly risked to speak out against the patriarchy in a world in which women were denied autonomy, let alone representation. Women had virtually no rights that were not mediated through the men in their lives, not even the most basic rights to their own bodies.

Speaking out in such a world—openly, publicly, challenging the status quo—was more than an invitation to scandal and judgment. A woman without a man supporting her endeavors—a man who, in his social and legal responsibility for her, could serve as a shield—risked her freedom and her very sanity. A woman who claimed a voice of her own and demanded it be heard could, for no other reason than her resistance, be declared mentally ill and treated for such against her will—including commitment for insanity (Pouba and Tianen). In such a case, a woman’s body became the battlefield itself.

The hysteria diagnosis is as old as the medical profession, and deeply rooted in women’s sexuality and men’s appropriation of it. In fact, the “treatment” of hysteria is even coded into Greek mythology. When the virgins of Argos fled, Melampus, a healer, “cured” their “madness” by directing them to have sex with virile men. And thus was orgasm deemed the cure for hysteria, and a woman’s assertion of her autonomy was linked for many centuries to insanity and the need for (heterosexual/heteronormative) sex.

In the intervening millennia, women, with virtually no recognized rights, could be, and often were, diagnosed, by men, with mental illness and committed to asylums for nothing more than not conforming strictly to the narrow space of behaviors deemed permissible. And when they were diagnosed with hysteria, a catch-all term that in effect meant nothing more than “not behaving properly,” one of the accepted treatments, since the Greeks, was so-called “pelvic manipulation”—i.e., forced orgasm.

vibrator attachmentsComes the Vibrator: The Problematic Origin of B.O.B.

These days, the vibrator, in its vast array of interesting shapes and sizes, is a wonderful tool for sexual autonomy, play, and power, and modern discourse is full of memes and playful rhetoric about our “Battery Operated Boyfriends.” But its origin is not so full of pink sparkles.

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Doctor J. Mortimer Granville

The first vibrator was invented in 1880s England by Dr. J. Mortimer Granville, not for the pleasure of women but for his own ease. Manual pelvic manipulation was tiring for the doctor, and Granville was performing the “procedure” so often that it caused him chronic fatigue and pain in his hand and arm. He invented the device to save his time, strength, and energy.

Pelvic manipulation was frequently prescribed for women with a wide range of so-called maladies, and it’s true that the procedure was popular among many women of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, for whom sexual pleasure was supposed to be beneath their interest. And so, we have developed a lighthearted attitude about this element of women’s history. There are myriad examples in media and literature that find comedy in the idea of doctors’ waiting rooms crowded with women avidly awaiting their chance for “treatment.”

But that droll nostalgia doesn’t take into account the women who were diagnosed against their will, and forcibly “treated” with mechanical rape. In fact, the procedure’s apparent popularity became conflated with the idea of its success as a treatment, which strengthened the concept both of hysteria as a valid diagnosis and of “pelvic manipulation” as a valid medical treatment.

The end of the 19th century, as women’s dissatisfaction with their lot in the world crystallized into protest and resistance, was the high mark of hysteria diagnoses and its “treatments.” The women who banded together and fought most fiercely for their enfranchisement, who gave over polite rhetorical argument and did battle instead, understood what they risked—not only incarceration but commitment. Not only the constraint of their bodies but the forcible penetration of them.

That was their bravery—to risk their lives and bodies and minds in the fight for their voice.

As a sympathetic psychiatrist pointed out at the commitment hearing for Alice Paul, a hero of the American suffrage movement, “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”

Nasty Women: The Final Front in the Suffrage Fight: 1905-1920.

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Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913

In Manchester, England, in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst changed the face of the fight for women’s suffrage. Frustrated with the lack of progress in the cause, she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union, with the express purpose to radicalize the movement. The days of asking to be heard were over; it was time to demand the floor. Pankhurst shaped the WSPU with an overtly militaristic strategy. Though women had individually engaged in civil disobedience in support of suffrage for years, on both sides of the Atlantic—Susan B. Anthony was famously arrested for voting illegally in the United States—Pankhurst’s WSPU was the first time a significant organization promoted an explicit strategy of disruption and disobedience. They chained themselves to fences, lobbed bricks and rocks through windows, and even stormed Parliament to demand their rightful place.

The women of the WSPU began being arrested for their small acts of civil disobedience in 1905, and in response, they adopted the militaristic tactics of exiles from oppressive regimes. They learned how to conduct and survive a hunger strike from Russian exiles from tsarism (Grant), and they learned jiu-jitsu from one of their own, Edith Garrud, using it to protect themselves from police brutality during protests. Marion Wallace Dunlop engaged in the first hunger strike, in 1909. Following her example, it quickly became standard for imprisoned suffragettes to hunger strike immediately upon arrest—and to be force-fed in response.

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Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters, Sylvia and Christabel, were both active in the movement, and all three experienced imprisonment, hunger striking, and force-feeding. Sylvia described in clear detail the torture of feeding, making it clear that it, too, is a form of rape, a forcible, violent penetration of a woman’s body.

This was the world in which suffragettes fought, where they were treated with less humanity than murderers, because they were women, considered less than, refused any autonomy, and entirely subject to the will and demands of men.

And yet, upon release from Holloway Prison, suffragettes turned right around and picked up the banner again, volunteering for another turn on the cycle, knowing they risked imprisonment yet again, knowing they risked their lives and even their children. Imprisoned suffragettes were awarded medals by their sisters upon their first release, with new bands to place on them with every subsequent incarceration. It wasn’t unusual for a suffragette to earn four or more bands commemorating different incarcerations and hunger strikes.

Emily Davison, a particularly passionate suffragette, so militant that even the WPSU eventually set her aside, was force-fed 49 times before she died in 1913, when she jumped onto the track on Derby Day and was run down by the King’s racehorse. She held a suffrage banner in her hands.

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Part of Emily Davison’s funeral procession. June 15th, 1913

A young American graduate student studying in England during the rise of the WPSU, Alice Paul was inspired to bring Pankhurst’s tactics to her own country. She faced resistance from the leaders of the American movement, women like Carrie Chapman Catt, who saw the events occurring in England, decided that militarism was doing more harm than good for the cause, and continued the strategy of diplomacy in the U.S.

But Paul had been on the ground in London and had seen the passion of the suffragettes there. She’d heard Pankhurst’s arguments for civil disobedience and militarism, she’d protested and been imprisoned there, and she argued that it was time for the same at home as well. Admiring Catt and the others who’d led the American movement for years, Paul tried to work within the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and Catt tried to accommodate the younger woman’s zeal, finding new ways for her to work within the organization. Finally, though, their visions were simply not compatible, and Paul broke with NAWSA to form the National Woman’s Party.

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Program for the Women’s Suffrage Parade, 1913

The schism between the diplomatic and disobedient arms of the American suffrage movement began in earnest in March 1913, and the Woman’s Suffrage Parade that took place in Washington, D.C., on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration (see photo, top). Suffragists from around the globe participated in the spectacular event, thousands of women and men marching in support of the enfranchisement of women. Its significance transcended the spectacle, however. A crush of spectators, comprised mostly of men, reacted violently against the march, and it marked the first event of wide-scale violence in the American movement.

The shocking images of marchers being beaten, and police largely standing by and letting it happen, began to turn the tide of public opinion. And certainly, it turned the tide of suffragist strategy. After the Women’s Parade, Alice Paul and her like-minded sisters adopted Pankhurst’s strategies of disruption and disobedience. They began by simply standing outside the White House, on the sidewalk, wearing their sashes and holding banners calling out President Wilson. And they were arrested—for blocking the road.

American institutions of power reacted as the British had. American suffragists were imprisoned, beaten, tortured, force-fed, and threatened with commitment to asylums—and sometimes actually committed.

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Fay Hubbard. New York, 1910

However, word of their plight, described in heart-wrenching detail in illicit letters written from prison and sneaked out past those walls, worked on public sentiment the way the images and story of the Women’s Parade did. In both England and America, the notion of women beaten and abused conflicted with the patriarchal, patronizing image of, and sense of responsibility for, the “fairer sex,” and the public finally began to be shocked for the women, not at them. The women’s courage and passion found a new light, and the public opinion about their cause began to shift in their favor.

Conclusion: The Victory of Voice, for Voice

As is always the case, this kind of change comes slowly, and even faced with the horrors of the suffrage fight, public opinion didn’t shift dramatically all at once. The fight waged in all its horrors for years before true victory was achieved. In England, women aged 30 and over gained the right to an equal vote in 1918 (they have just recently celebrated the centennial). Women aged 21 did not gain their voice for another ten years. In America, a vaster, more various country, and a federal republic, the change came gradually at first, with states and territories giving women the right to vote individually, starting with Wyoming (as a territory, women had the right to vote in Wyoming from 1869, and as a state from 1890). The 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified in August 1920, giving women aged 21 and older the right to an equal vote across all the United States.

If not for the brave, mighty warriors, the “iron jawed angels” who laid their bodies on the gears of the patriarchy, who risked their lives, their families, and their sanity, women might yet be silenced.

The right to vote should never be ignored or taken for granted, and should always be exercised with the weighty sense of all that was sacrificed for the chance to make our mark.

Sources

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Cohen, Danielle. “This Day in History: The 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade.” Obama White House Archives. 3 March 2016. Web. Accessed 5 February 2018. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/03/03/this-day-history-1913-womens-suffrage-parade

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Dismore, David. “Today in Herstory: Suffragist Alice Paul Kept in Hospital During Hunger Strike.” The Feminist Majority Foundation. 18 November 2014. Web. Accessed 5 February 2018. https://feminist.org/blog/index.php/2014/11/18/today-in-herstory-suffragist-alice-paul-kept-in-hospital-during-hunger-strike/

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“WSPU hunger strike force feeding medal.” A History of the World. Web. Accessed 5 February 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/SDveJgRgQy-U_MhY8bBlpA nothing on earth cover

Susan Fanetti is an English professor at California State University, Sacramento, and an independent author. Her novel Nothing on Earth & Nothing in Heaven takes on the story of the fight for women’s suffrage in both England and the United States.

 

 

Fake Monks and False Envoys: To Live and Lie in the Khan’s Court

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Guyuk Khan

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Guyuk Khan

It may come as some surprise that a Mongol khan’s encampment was a pretty international place to be. When the Flemish Franciscan, William of Rubruck, arrived at Mongke Khan’s court in 1253, he found Hungarians, Alans, Russians, Georgians, and Armenians; there were Greek knights, Chinese clergy, an Indian envoy, a Parisian silversmith, Korean and Nicaean ambassadors, the son of an Englishman named Basil, a Christian from Damascus who represented the Ayyubid Sultan, and a woman from Metz who’d been captured in Hungary and since married a Russian builder.

Many, like this last couple, had of course not come there by choice but had been violently wrenched away from their lives. Others, though, had gone there for different reasons. For the right kind of person, the Mongols’ Asian steppe offered an opportunity for self-reinvention, though the consequences of a misstep could be severe (quite literally, if you set foot on the threshold of the khan’s tent, you were killed). Despite these risks, William’s report of his travels gives us two characters–con men, really–who lied about their identities before the great khan himself.

Pope Innocent IV Sends Dominicans and Franciscans to the Mongols

Pope Innocent IV sends Dominicans and Franciscans to the Mongols

After the Mongol armies vacated Central Europe in 1242, they sparked a series of fascinating travel stories as men made the long trip east to the khan’s court–enslaved, summoned, or sent. In the latter category were a succession of Franciscans and Dominicans on missions that fell somewhere along the spectrum between religion and diplomacy. For example, Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine started his journey in 1245 (at over 60 years old) to assess the Mongols’ intentions for Pope Innocent IV and to admonish them for their violence against Christians, and he actually made it all the way to witness the raising of a new great khan, Guyuk, grandson of Genghis, and receive a threatening letter to bring home. Other friars would go too, though not so far: Lawrence of Portugal, Ascelin of Lombardy, and André de Longjumeau. And then there was William of Rubruck.

Friar William wasn’t sent by the pope. Actually, he repeatedly claimed not to have been sent by anyone at all, and there is good reason to believe him; however, his trip was tied to a powerful man, the one he addresses in his written report as (in translation) “Louis, by the grace of God illustrious King of the French.”

King Louis IX was on crusade in the Holy Land, and the Mongols certainly knew about him. They’d been in touch, sending envoys even as he stopped at Cyprus at the outset of his campaign, and there had been men sent the other way too–friars, of course. Whenever Mongols encountered William, that’s exactly what they would have assumed he was, an official envoy of Louis. When one group demanded some gifts from him, as they often did, he refused, and they called him an impostor, a false envoy. It was a pretty serious charge, for the Mongols apparently killed such people whenever they could find them. Who were these con men then, and what did they want?

Ascelin of Lombary Delivers a Letter from Pope Innocent IV to Baiju the Mongol General

Ascelin of Lombardy delivers a letter from Pope Innocent IV to Baiju, the Mongol General

William never met the first man. He just heard of his story, the story of a cleric from Acre named Theodolus who showed up one day calling himself Raimond. “Raimond” had apparently traveled with King Louis’ 1249 envoy to the Mongols (André de Longjumeau), but we have no other record of his having done so. Maybe he’d simply joined Friar André along the way somewhere. Wherever he joined the friar, he didn’t make the whole trip with him, but remained in Persia, acquiring some musical instruments (sadly unspecified) and going on after André had returned, to the camp of Mongke Khan (Guyuk had enjoyed a fairly short reign). There, he sang a pretty extravagant song of letters from heaven and French submission.

Our other character is Sergius the Armenian monk, who William met in Mongke’s camp. In fact, the Armenian really came to dominate his time there. Sergius’ story is that of a hermit living in the area of Jerusalem who had suddenly begun to experience violent visions of God. With the first two visions, Sergius had been directed to go to the emperor of the Mongols but had not done so. At the third, God had clearly lost patience and cast him down upon the ground, threatening him with death if he continued to ignore his God’s commands. So, naturally, Sergius had gone to the khan, and like Raimond, he’d made extravagant promises that if Mongke would just become Christian, “the whole world would enter into subjection to him, and that the Franks and the Great Pope would obey him.” Sergius the monk was very keen for William to pledge the same. However, he wasn’t really a monk. He told William he had been ordained, but William would later find otherwise. Sergius was an illiterate cloth weaver making a new life for himself among the Mongols.

Audience with Mongke

Audience with Mongke

Raimond’s promise was not so different from the one Sergius made, but his story was. He initially claimed that he had served a mysterious “certain holy bishop,” and that this bishop had received “a missive written on letters of gold,” sent from heaven itself. Raimond was bringing that very letter from heaven to Mongke because the khan “was destined to become master of the whole world.” That all sounded pretty great to Mongke, but where was the letter? “If you had brought the letter that came from Heaven and a letter from your master, you would have been welcome,” he said.

Very welcome, one assumes. But of course, Raimond didn’t have it, and he went with an old excuse: he had been carrying the letters, but, most unfortunately, they had been lost “on the back of an unruly pack horse which had bolted off through forests and over hills,” never to be seen again, obviously. William helpfully noted that these things did happen and travelers did need to be careful to keep a hold of their horse when they weren’t on it.

Thus far, the two men had fairly similar narrative arcs, but their stories were about to diverge. While Sergius carved out a space for himself in the Khan’s encampment, Raimond kept digging himself deeper, sure that some reward was just a few shovelfuls down. Mongke asked him whose kingdom he lived in and who this mysterious bishop was, and Raimond revealed that his master was the Papal Legate on the seventh crusade, Odo of Chateauroux, and that his kingdom was that of the French. And then he said that only some inconvenient Muslims were preventing the French king from sending envoys and seeking peace and friendship. Would Raimond then be willing to guide an embassy to Louis and Odo? Why yes, yes he would.

Sergius seems to have avoided such a direct request, which is bizarre. He’d made similar promises and proposals on a few occasions, yet he had remained in Mongke’s camp. What was he doing there? He wasn’t making friends. In fact, he was getting into all kinds of trouble.

William of Rubruck's route 1253-55

William of Rubruck’s route 1253-55

During William’s months with Mongke’s traveling camp and in Karakorum, the Mongol capital, he spent quite a bit of time with Sergius, and serious issues with the Armenian began to trouble him. There was his reliance on the divination services of what might have been a Muslim geomancer. There was his claiming to take only one meal a week, “dough cooked with vinegar for him to drink,” when really he snacked regularly on “almonds, grapes, dried plums and … other fruits,” which he kept beneath the altar. And then there was his tendency to make reckless promises. That had come up when they first met, when Sergius urged William to follow his lead on Frankish submission, but that wasn’t the last of it. When the khan’s wife was deathly ill and Mongke was looking for help, Sergius stepped forward and promised to cure her, even saying that the khan could cut off his head if he failed. With William’s aid, he applied prayer vigils, holy water, and a peculiar rhubarb drink, and, fortunately for Sergius, the patient recovered and he got to keep his head.

And what did he do with his head? He took part in the religious life of the khan’s camp, attending to Mongke’s needs, making the rounds of the royal family, and receiving generous portions of drink along the way. He also behaved with remarkable belligerence towards the other participants in that life. In William’s writing, he’s seen hurling unprovoked insults at Muslims, being goaded into striking at people with a whip, and even claiming responsibility for the death of a senior Nestorian (a Christian of the Church of the East).

That last incident might be most revealing of Sergius’ character and intentions. The story was that this Nestorian had fallen sick, spitting blood sick, and his friends brought in someone William describes as a “Saracen soothsayer,” an interesting choice in itself. This “soothsayer” told them that “A lean man … who neither eats nor drinks nor sleeps in a bed is angry with him,” and everyone somehow immediately identified this as Sergius. They all knew that this sinister “lean man” was the monk, and Sergius didn’t even bother to deny it, quite the opposite. When the man eventually died, after Sergius had been to visit him and trampled on his bed, Sergius told William not to worry: “it was I who killed him with my prayers. He alone was educated and was opposed to us; the rest are ignorant. In future, all of them, and Mongke Khan too, will be at our feet.”

Mongke Khan

Mongke Khan

Sergius was not merely a difficult man prone to vanity, aggression, and rash promises. It’s possible that he was actively trying to position himself as the premier religious leader attached to the khan’s traveling court, and this wasn’t so far beyond his reach as you might think. During William’s stay, Mongke demonstrated an openness to different religious positions, just so long as they demonstrated their usefulness and application in this world. Sergius, for all his recklessness, aimed at staying by the khan’s side and achieving power by remaining spiritually useful.

Raimond, on the other hand, brought too many targets into his particular con. Mongke Khan took him up on his offer and sent an ambassador with him bearing an enormous bow that could scarcely be pulled back by two men working together. The bow was intended as a message for Louis. If what Raimond said was true (Mongke wasn’t quite sold on the whole thing), then the bow was to be given to the French king as a gesture of friendship; if not, the ambassador was to tell Louis that “with bows like this we shoot far and hit hard,” a delightfully intimidating gesture, given the bow’s unusual proportions.

Neither the ambassador nor Raimond reached their destination. They got as far as the Emperor of Nicaea, but the emperor was not taken in by Raimond’s story. When he couldn’t produce letters proving his ambassadorship, the emperor’s people took everything Raimond had and threw him in prison while the Mongol ambassador became sick and died. William heard what had become of them from the ambassador’s attendants. “I met them at [Erzurum],” he writes, “on the borders of Turkia, and they told me what had befallen Theodolus [otherwise known as Raimon]. Hoaxers like this scurry about all over the world, and when the [Mongols] succeed in catching them, they put them to death.”

They didn’t catch Sergius, though. When William left him, he was still where the Franciscan had found him, an illiterate cloth weaver successfully playing the holy man, and sometimes the physician, at the court of perhaps the most powerful man in the world.

Devon Field

Sources:

Friar William of Rubruck. The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine. The Story of the Mongols: Whom we Call the Tartars, translated by Erik Hildinger. Branden Books, 1996.

human circusDevon Field is a history podcaster with a Humanities M.A., exploring travel narratives and their place in larger events. Particularly, he’s interested in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods and their travellers, figures that passed between cultural worlds and revealed sometimes surprising connections. You can hear more about William of Rubruck and others like (and unlike) him on the Human Circus podcast.

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