‘Notes for Those Going on Leave’

Some documents are worth quoting in their entirety.  From Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 (and which he, in turn, found in the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence in Podolsk), a leaflet produced by German soldiers on the Ostfront for the gallows-amusement of their fellow soldiers:

“Notes for Those Going on Leave

You must remember that you are entering a National Socialist country whose living conditions are very different to those which you have become accustomed.  You must be tactful with the inhabitants, adapting to their customs and refrain from the habits which you have come to love so much.

Food: Do not rip up the parquet or other kinds of floor, because potatoes are kept in a different place.

Curfew: If you forget your key, try to open the door with the round-shaped object.  Only in cases of extreme urgency use a grenade.

Defence against Partisans: It is not necessary to ask civilians the password and open fire on receiving an unsatisfactory answer.

Defence against Animals: Dogs with mines attached to them are a special feature of the Soviet Union.  German dogs in the worst cases bite, but they do not explode.  Shooting every dog you see, although recommended in the Soviet Union, might create a bad impression.

Relations with the Civil Population: In Germany just because somebody is wearing women’s clothes does not necessarily mean that she is a partisan.  But in spite of this, they are dangerous for anyone on leave from the front.

General: When on leave back in the Fatherland take care not to talk about the paradise existence in the Soviet Union in case everybody wants to come here and spoil our idyllic comfort.”

The exploding dogs referenced above were a Soviet innovation.  The Red Army soldiers would train a dog to look for their food under vehicles, cars, and tanks.  They would then strap anti-tank mines to the dogs’ backs and send them over to the German lines.  The dogs would go crawling under German cars searching for treats, the bottom of the car would catch the mine, and the mine would explode.

The Germans learned pretty quickly to shoot all dogs on sight, but the idea that any creature that crawled toward their camp might be a bomb terrorized and demoralized the Germans.  Apparently, even the Nazis didn’t enjoy shooting dogs.

Bad Bummer on the Ostfront

“Red Army units also shot their German captives, especially Luftwaffe pilots who had baled out.  There were few opportunities for sending them to the rear, and they did not want them to be saved by the enemy advance.” – Antony Beevor, ‘Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Operation Barbarossa launched on June 22nd, 1941; the German army invaded the Soviet Union in a move which surprised no one except the leaders of the Soviet Union.  In the next three weeks, the German army advanced well into the Soviet Union and over 2 million Soviet soldiers were killed.

The Ostfront is a bleak chapter of human history, with atrocities to go around.  And while apologies should never be made for the murder of prisoners of war (at which, if course, the Nazis also excelled), there is something devastating about soldiers so certain of the enemy’s advance that they execute POWs lest they find themselves fighting them again.  Imagine the desperation they must have felt as the German army advanced further and further into their country, closer and closer towards their homes and families.

Have you ever been moderately or seriously injured?  Shot, stabbed, sliced, had a bone badly or visibly broken?  The moment you realize that the boundaries of your body have been breached is a bad one.  There is a sick, sinking feeling, before anything actually hurts, when you see that the world has intruded into you and you understand that you are not OK.

I wonder whether that is at all how it felt to watch the Germans advance into your country.  One’s relationship to one’s country is obviously different, more complicated and less…implicit, than one’s relationship with one’s own body, but they might be equally vulnerable to the sense that something hostile and alien and hard has come driving into a space which was your’s and safe and has hurt it.  Two million Russian soldiers killed in three weeks – which does not include civilian deaths – a rate of killing which must have felt like national hemorrhaging.

One of the challenges in thinking about the Ostfront is finding someone to really root for.  With one genocidal regime pitched against another, it’s hard to feel good about any outcome.  But while some evils are perpetrated by evil individuals, some are perpetrated by sad, misguided, or desperate ones.  While Soviet soldiers certainly committed evil acts, they were being borne down on upon by one of the most frightening forces humans ever unleashed upon one another.  They were angry and they were scared, and we can understand that without apologizing for it.

Quotation at the top is from Antony Beevor’s book Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943.

Hammer of the Witches

Men are ridiculous about their penises.

In 1486, two German priests, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, ‘Hammer of the Witches’.  ‘Hammer of the Witches’ is a useful guide to the identification, trial, and punishment of witches.  It is chock full of interesting tidbits.  For example, did you know that, if a woman fails to burst into tears during her witch trial, then she is definitely a witch?  Although, I will say, in half-hearted defense of the ludicrous and evil practice of witch trials, what sort of person wouldn’t be in tears at their own terrifying and arbitrary trial for witchcraft?

Another interesting fact to be gleaned from the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’: witches steal penises.  Yes, they would allegedly steal the penises from human men that they knew, and store them (the stolen penises) in boxes (or bird nests) and feed them (again, the penises) oats, and maybe return them, if the men capitulated to their demands.

I feel as though they really could have nipped this whole pernicious witch hunt business in the bud if they had only employed a little empirical skepticism here:

Witness: She’s a witch!

Judge: How do you know?

Witness: She stole my penis!

Judge: How did she steal it?

Witness: With witchcraft.

Judge: Wait, what?  What does that mean? What’s left?

Witness: …Uh, a nub.

Judge: May I see?

Witness: …No…

Judge: Why not?

Witness: …[Silence]…

Judge: Sir, do you still have a penis?

Witness: …No…

Judge: Case dismissed.

One cannot help but wonder how often penis-theft was actually alleged.  It is hard to imagine, if men in 1486 were anything like men now, that a large number of medieval men were delighted to have their communities thinking that they no longer had penises.  It is also hard to imagine that there was an epidemic of medieval penises actually falling off, unless I am dramatically underestimating the incidence and severity of medieval crotch rot (which is possible).

But whatever the prevalence of penis-shedding in the Middle Ages, one thing is certain: not one missing penis was stolen by witches.

Witch-hunting is obviously not recommended by the author, but anyone interested in further information should check out the source material itself, the Malleus Maleficarum.

Featured image is ‘Aquelarre’, [Witches Sabbath] by Francisco Goya (1798).

The Inca Prince in the Cusco Cathedral

The cathedral in Cusco in properly called the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin.  It is on the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, in Southern Peru.

Cusco Cathedral

The Cusco Cathedral is built on the foundation of an Inca palace, Viracocha.  Spanish Catholics began work on the cathedral in 1559, but didn’t complete it for nearly 100 years.

There is a legend that, when they were building the Cusco Cathedral, the Spanish bricked an Inca prince alive into one of the towers.  He lives still, trapped within the masonry, waiting for the tower to fall to ruin.  When it does, he will emerge, liberate his people, and reunite the Inca lands under his rule.

In 1950, Cusco experienced an earthquake.  Thousands of locals are said to have crowded into the Plaza de Armas to watch the tower fall and the prince’s return.  The tower sustained damage, but is still standing.

I find that my thoughts keep returning to that Inca prince, locked in with only his faith that the Spanish empire would not outlast the cathedral masonry.  With his faith that his people’s memory was more enduring than stone.  Peru is no longer under Spanish rule, but it little resembles the world he remembers.  I wonder whether he missed his chance.  I wonder whether he knows it, whether he was trapped, helpless, behind stonework that held him while the world moved on.  Did he watch?  Did he see the Spanish recede, and was he relieved until he realized that they left a language and a religion behind them?  Is he waiting for those artifacts to recede as well?  Is he still waiting at all?  I wonder what he’s waiting for.


St. Anthony’s Fire

Claviceps purpurea is a gnarly purple fungus that grows on grain, specifically on wet grain.  It looks like nothing so much as worms clinging to stalks of wheat.


If that grain is ground into bread and consumed, the bread causes ergot poisoning.

Ergot poisoning (or ergotism) has been known, if not understood, at least since the time of Lucretius, the first century B.C.  There are two different forms of ergotism: convulsivus and gangraenosis.

Both forms of ergotism present with diarrhea, vomiting, mental impairment, and hallucinations.  This is why sufferers of ergotism have historically been thought mad, or possessed.  Ergotismus convulsivus is additionally characterized by profound visual, sensory, and mental disturbances, and contractions in the muscles of the hands or limbs, and paraplegia.

Patients with gangraenosis ergotismus suffer from lack of blood flow to the limbs, which often break out into blisters.  The limbs become gangrenous, and either autoamputate or become septic.  Hence the convent record which describes “a great plague of swollen blisters [that] consumed the people with a loathsome rot so their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”

In 1090, when his son fell ill from ergotism, a French nobleman promised, before the tomb of St. Anthony, that if his son recovered, he would give his fortune to the church.  St. Anthony, Anthony the Great or Anthony of the Desert, was an Egyptian hermit who lived in the third century A.D.  He is often prayed to against skin diseases (perhaps not the most appetizing of saintly vocations).



‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’, Hieronymus Bosch, 1500-1525

When his son was well, that nobleman founded the Order of St. Anthony, monks who devoted themselves to caring for the victims of ergot poisoning.  Over time, because of their efforts, ergotism became known as St. Anthony’s Fire.

Isaac Newton, His Eye, and His Bodkin


Adventures in Physics!

bodkin (noun):

1. a) a dagger or stiletto

   b) a sharp, slender instrument for making holes in cloth

   c) an ornamental hairpin shaped like a stiletto

2. a blunt needle with a large eye for drawing tape or ribbon through a loop or hem

Bodkin from Museum of London

This is a bodkin.

(from The Museum of London)

Picture 4165

This is also a bodkin.

(from The Imperial War Museums)

The reason I mention bodkins is that I learned this week that Sir Isaac Newton, considered by many to have been an intelligent man, spent some time in the 1660s sticking one into his eye.  On purpose.

Newton was famously interested in optics and the nature of light.  However, he was also interested in the visual stimulus, and the physiological processes by which objective reality is perceived by us.

So, to address this question, Sir Isaac Newton thought it would be sensible to start poking himself in the eye with a large needle.  We know this because, like any good scientist, Isaac Newton left detailed experimental notebooks.  He even included helpful illustrations.

Bodkin in Eye

From the Cambridge University Library

And therein, perhaps, lies the difference between the dedicated scientist and the layperson.  It would take a great deal of persuasion to get a normal person to poke themselves in the eye with a needle – Isaac Newton did it because he hoped he might learn something about color.

And did he?  Well, sort of.  He learned that, when you poke yourself in the eye, you disrupt your vision.  When he stuck the bodkin between his eyeball and his eye socket, “as neare to backside of my eye as I could”, then he saw spots.  Those spots were clearest “when I continued to rub my eye [with the] point of bodkine”.

That’s science, baby!

I first heard about Isaac Newton poking himself in the eye for science in The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick, a book completely worth picking up if you have any interest in the history of science.

Sawney Bean

Sometimes Wikipedia is a real buzzkill.

When we were last in Edinburgh, I heard the legend of Sawney Bean for the first time.  According to the legend, some time during the reign of James I, there lived in East Lothian a man named Sawney Bean.  Born to honest people, Sawney Bean was an idle sot, and when he met a likewise evil woman, they ran away together and took up residence in a cave on the sea in Galloway.  There they set to breeding.

Eventually, they produced a large family (Wikipedia puts it at “eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters,” an impressive and creepy brood when you consider it was just the two of them).  And to feed this growing family, the committedly unemployed Mr. and Mrs. Bean would kidnap, murder, and eat local travellers.  

It’s not known exactly how many people met this fate – estimates range from several hundreds to over a thousand.  Whatever the number, it seems to have taken the local authorities a surprisingly long time to figure out what was going on, and to organize effective resistance.  Several innocents, innkeepers in particular, came under suspicion and were executed for the Bean Family’s crimes; yet the disappearances continued, and body parts kept washing up around the caves in Galloway.

One night, the Bean crew attacked a man and his wife on their way back from a fair on horseback.  The woman was dragged to the ground and ripped to shreds, but before they could kill the man, they were interrupted by a crowd of fair-goers, who chased off the Beans and reported their existence to the magistrate.  News then reached the King, who organized a search party over 400 strong.

When this party located the Beans’ cave, they found human limbs, from men, women, and children, hanging from hooks to dry.  Human bones were everywhere.  The Bean family was taken in its entirety into custody and transported to Leith.

It was decided that the Beans did not require due process, and so they were executed right away.  The men were castrated, their hands and feet were cut off, and they were left to bleed to death.  The women were forced to watch, and were then burned alive.

The legend of Sawney Bean is close to the heart of the Edinburgh tourist industry, and they make a very good show of it around town.  However, when I looked it up on Wikipedia, I was archly informed that “historians tend to believe that Sawney Bean never existed, or that his story has been greatly exaggerated”.  Well, fine.  That’s one less monster to believe in.