Thursday, April 30, 2015

Who's That (Black) Girl?

Continuing our series on black folks in Tudor England, let's head a bit further north and a wee bit further back in time to the court of King James IV of Scotland. This poor bastard was easily the best of the Stewart kings of Scotland, and the last to die in battle when he invaded Northumberland and was killed by the forces of Henry VIII.

James IV matters to us here because of a particular incident that captured my imagination when I heard about it. It seems that in 1507, King James jousted for the honor of a lady, one of the black women of his court. We don't know her name, but we know that he spent more than 25 pounds of silver on a dress for her: gold-flowered damask decked out in taffeta. That's quite a dress, better than most ladies at court could afford. We know she had attendants and servants, too, because they all got nice dresses for the occasion. I guess it shows what was most important to court record-keepers, because we know how much her dress cost and what it was made of, but the lady's name is lost to history.

Who was this mysterious black lady? Why was she so important to King James that he'd bestow fine gifts upon her and joust in her honor? It was a big deal for a simple knight to joust for a lady's honor, so for the king himself to do it, we can infer this lady was extremely important to him.

Of course, I have my theories. Who's to say James didn't enjoy a bit of brown sugar from time to time?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

More Black Elizabethans

Now for some more about black (that is, African) Elizabethans. According to church parish registers of births, deaths, and marriages from 1597, we find that out of about 1 million names, some 2,000 are most likely names of Africans. For some of these, we only have a clue, such as the last names Negro, Swart, or Black. Not exactly proof. But most of these specifically identify the subjects as African (and some Asians).

There also seems to have been some cultural exchanges going on. Sir Walter Raleigh, the great explorer and favorite of the Queen (who'd lose his head under the next ruler of England) left a cabin boy and sailor in Guiana (South America) and took back to England three black men in exchange. We know the name of one, a boy, Charles, who asked to be baptized (one wonders whether the cabin boy and sailor left in Guiana had pissed Raleigh off somehow). Two of them ended up with Raleigh in the Tower of London many years later, and so were probably loyal servants.

Most blacks in Tudor England were domestic servants. In fact, it appears that for a time in the mid to late 1500s, it was a status symbol to have an exotic servant.

Black people who were especially skilled were also valued. Henry VIII's favorite ship, the Mary Rose, was sunk by the French in Portsmouth bay. Later, Henry hired a diving specialist - who happened to be a "Blackamoor" - to search the wreck for its cargo. Much after the Tudor period in the 1660s, we see the lighthouse keeper at Harwich was black. That was an important, highly sought-after job.

Next time, we'll learn about a mysterious black lady in the court of King James IV of Scotland - a lady who seems to have been very special to him indeed. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Queen Elizabeth, Racist

My next few posts will be very short posts about people of African ancestry in Tudor England. For example, Henry VIII had a man on the payroll - 100 pounds a year, which wasn't chicken-scratch - named "Peter Negro," said to be a Blackamoor. I wonder what his job was? His pay was too high to be a musician or cook or the other sorts of jobs Africans in England did (I like to imagine he was a spy). Francis Drake had a close African friend who shared in his adventures - the two were fiercely loyal to one another.

This is not to say the folk of Tudor England were especially enlightened. While I am a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, who was obviously at least mildly racist, I've never been able to stomach the idea that we should forgive racism in historical figures because, somehow, they didn't know any better. Thing is, they did. There have always been voices throughout history crying the gospel of the equality of all humanity, in Lovecraft's time (Rex Stout) in Elizabeth's (Drake, and surprisingly, a large number of Jesuits) and even in the American 1800s there were strong voices calling for equality.

Not so Queen Elizabeth I. Despite the reasonably astounding fact that there were more black people in the court of Queen Elizabeth I than there are in the court of Queen Elizabeth II, my favorite monarch had this to say about black people, much to my chagrin and disappointment.

A proclamation of the Lord Mayor of London, issued in July 1596:

"Her majesty, understanding that several Blackamoors have lately been brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already too many here; Her Majesty's pleasure, therefore, is for those kind of people to be expelled from the land."

Well, I never said my favorite monarch couldn't be a bitch when she felt like it.

Friday, April 24, 2015

30 More Lovecraft Adjectives

Following up my last post (see below), here are 30 more adjectives from the works of H.P. Lovecraft:

Noisome; amorphous; cryptical; necropolitan; putrescent; preternatural; ineluctable; repellent; perverse; fetid; abhorrent; monstrous; spectral; obscene; appalling; ghastly; unutterable; abnormal; unmentionable; noxious; Stygian; unhallowed; eldritch; impious; insidious; opprobrious; hoary; atavistical; subterraneous; apocalyptic.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

40 Lovecraft Adjectives

I've always enjoyed H.P. Lovecraft's use of adjectives. He was never at a loss for the perfect word to evoke some subtle gradation of horror. Here are some of my favorites, all contained within a single short story (The Lurking Fear):

abysmal, hideous, unnameable, Charonian, unspeakable, transcosmic, demonaic, charnel, cataclysmic, grotesque, hellish, unhallowed, insane, antediluvian, unclean, sepulchral, diabolic, baneful, cyclopean, accursed, loathsome, festering, noxious, unwholesome, malignant, weird, sinister, leprous, night-spawned, slavering, Cthonic, fulgurous, ensanguined, formless, ghoulish, verminous, nauseous, voiceless, hateful, queer.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Father of History

At some point in the mid-1990s, my mom gave me a copy of the histories of Herodotus, an account of the wars between Greece and Persia (part of which forms the basis for the popular movie and graphic novel 300). It's a dense book. I read parts of it. Every time I picked it up, some fascinating anecdote would emerge. Ultimately, I'd borrow a lot of these ideas for games I was running. Nevertheless, at some 1000 pages crammed with 8-point type, it took nearly 20 years for me to finally sit down and read it front to back. I was going to review it here, but I found a very well-written review by Grace Tjan on Goodreads, which I'll take the liberty of reproducing here, below. In the meantime, if you find yourself with a little down time, why not take a look at Herodotus for yourself? If you're into historical fiction, adventure fiction, military fiction, or even historical soap operas, you may like Herodotus - who, for the most part, relates historical fact.

Even though he doesn't follow our modern rules of history-writing (and neither do I, for that matter), he is careful to tell multiple versions of the same story and let the reader decide which one is true. He does seem to utterly believe in the intervention of gods in human affairs (something his successor, Thucydides, clearly does not), but otherwise is quite a sober relater of events, many of which are obtained from eyewitness accounts. They don't call him "The Father of History" for nothing.

Here's Grace Tjan's review:

What I learned from this book (in no particular order):

1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest reasons.

2. From all forms of government known to man, democracy is the best. Tyrants and oligarchs suck.

3. The Persian Empire is a mighty barbarian nation, but being cowardly, effeminate and slavish, it is eventually defeated by the quarrelsome but brave and civilized Greeks.

4. Among the Greeks, the Spartans are the bravest. Gerard Butler with a six-pack King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans heroically perished in the battle of Thermopylae. They also have the particularly icky custom of marrying their own nieces.

5. The Delphic oracles are 100% accurate, except when someone manages to corrupt the Pythoness. The Gods are, however, a jealous sort and would strike any mortal who has the presumption of calling himself happiest on earth. Therefore, one should call no man happy until he is dead.

6. Egypt is a country of wonders, but its citizens’ customs and manners are exactly the reverse of the common practice of mankind elsewhere. For example, the women there urinate standing up, while the men sitting down. The country also abounds in strange fauna, among them the hippopotamus --- a quadruped, cloven-footed animal, with the mane and tail of a horse, huge tusks and a voice like a horse’s neigh.

7. The Scythians are a warlike nation that practices human sacrifice. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man that he kills in battle and cuts off all of his enemies’ heads, which he must show to the king to get his share of the war booty. They also like to saw off their enemies’ skulls, which they make into fancy gold-plated drinking cups.

8. The manners of the Androphagi, being cannibals, are more savage than those of any other race. Darius the Persian smote them.

9. The Atarantians, alone of all known nations, are destitute of names. The title of Atarantians is borne by the whole race in common, but the men have no particular names of their own. They also like to curse the sun because he burns and wastes both their country and themselves.

10. In the Indian desert live ants that are larger than a fox. They like to throw up sand-heaps as they burrow, which are full of gold. This is why India is so rich in gold. In Arabia, there are sheep that have long tails, so long that the shepherds have to make little trucks for their tails. Really.


Herodotus is a consummate storyteller who had a fine eye for the fantastical, although to his credit, he always qualified his more improbable assertions by stating that they are based on hearsay or other sources that he could not wholly verify. Much of the pleasure of reading his book is found in the lush descriptions of long lost nations and their exotic customs. His 'Histories' does not concern itself solely with history in the modern sense, but it is also a book of travelogue, ethnography, zoology, geography and botany. He is an excellent raconteur, almost always entertaining, except when he drones about speculative geography. We can easily imagine him, a man of seemingly inexhaustible curiosity, interviewing Marathon veterans for firsthand battle accounts, or interrogating Egyptian temple priests about their country’s history and religion. History for him is not a dry recitation of facts and dates, but an intensely human story acted by a vast cast of monarchs, queens, warriors, tyrants, gods and ordinary citizens. Regicides and rebellions are caused by personal passions, such as in the stories of Caudales and Gyges, and Xerxes and Masistes. Dreams compel Xerxes to invade Greece. Divine intervention decides the course of epic battles.

A skein of tragedy runs through the historical drama that he narrates. The gods are so capricious and jealous that “one should not call a man happy until he is dead.” Xerxes, on beholding his massive force on the Hellespont, laments that “not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.” Yet while man lives his short existence he is capable of epic deeds, and Herodotus chronicled them all.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Early Christian Gay Marriage

This is absolutely fascinating to me. I had never heard of this. I love it for one simple reason - it's likely to irritate both sides. Those who twist a single Biblical reference referring to rules for priests into an overall condemnation of same-sex marriage will be irritated that some factions of the early church tolerated and sanctified same-sex relations (and will probably tell themselves this is a big hoax). On the other hand, many otherwise reasonable liberal types would prefer to see the Christian faith as a monolithic boogeyman of hate, and this puts the lie to that, too, regardless of the actions of the Lunatic Fringe on the Right these days. Don't normally get political on this blog, but this has historical significance. I'd love it if loving couples were allowed to marry, regardless of their gender. I'd love it if the Right didn't paint the Left with such a broad brush, and I'd love it if the Left didn't assume everyone on the Right was an asshole. We all have reasons for believing what we believe, but I'd be surprised if any of us spend most of our time and efforts hating others. I'm as guilty as anyone of the occasional knee-jerk reaction against something that seems unjust, but I do try not to assume maliciousness (though malice it may be) when ignorance or fear could also be the cause. Not that it matters much in the end what anyone's intentions are. All that really matters are actions.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Art of Lou Fine

Delving recently into old comic books, one artist in particular caught my eye - Lou Fine. I don't need to tell you what a great artist he was. Just look at these covers. He drew and inked for several books, but I think his covers for Hit Comics are some of his best. It's tough to achieve this level of clarity and detail without losing a sense of action. Fine was a master at bringing meticulous draftsmanship to the field of comic art. Atlas Comics named him No. 10 on the list of 100 greatest comic artists, but I think he might deserve an even better rank. Said the listing: "By God, Lou Fine could draw. One of comics' first illustrative stars, he influenced and astounded such later greats as Alex Toth, Jim Steranko, and Gil Kane. His covers alone during the 1940s stand as some of the best-designed and most exciting work ever produced for any comic book publisher."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Headless Victorians

Who knew faked headless photographs were such a fad among the Victorians? Read more.