Sunday, February 28, 2010

Medieval Torture's Ten Biggest Myths

I came across an odd bit of information a couple of months ago. Even though I don't write historicals, I decided to save it. When looking through a stack of oddities in search of a subject for this week's blog, I found it.

Unlike the message we get from Hollywood, Medieval times weren't as barbaric as we've been led to believe. And with that thought in mind, here's a list of the ten biggest myths about justice in the Dark Ages.

10) Go Directly To Jail?
Most Medieval communities actually had a judge and jury type of system, although it was much quicker than today's long drawn out sessions. "Court" generally lasted less than half an hour. At the judge's discretion, he could ask a few simple questions and deliver a verdict without consulting the jury.

9) The Lawless Middle Age Villages?
Earlier Medieval communities had much more social responsibility than today. If one member claimed to be wronged, every resident had to join in the hunt and persecution of the criminal, otherwise they would all be held responsible.

8) Those Strict Church Types?
The pious Middle Ages were serious about religious offenses. Each town's church usually ran its own kind of court to investigate everything from bad attendance to heresy. However, the concept of sanctuary was also well known with the church as a place where criminals could avoid sentencing or punishment. And on some occasions even be assisted in leaving the country.

7) Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind?
Criminals who committed lesser offenses were often subject to a policy of three strikes and you're out—literally. Repeat offenders were often simply banished from a city and not allowed back rather than killing them or having them clutter up the prisons. Humane and cost effective.

6) Executions: Left, Right, and Center?
According to Hollywood, Medieval evil-doers were killed on whim and often in public squares for even the slightest of offenses. In reality, capital punishment was used only in the most serious cases which included murder, treason, and arson with the guilty usually hanged.

5) Royal Highnesses High Above the Law?
Medieval nobles did enjoy certain privileges when it came to bending laws or making new ones to serve their purposes. However, most European countries had legislation preventing their kings and queens from running wild, such as England's Magna Carta.

4) Public Beheadings as Weekly Spectacle?
Beheading was swift and painless—as long as the axe was sharp. It was considered a privileged way to die and reserved primarily for the nobility. Treason was the crime of choice with the beheadings usually taking place inside castle walls rather than in public.

3) The Burning Times?
A few witches, as proclaimed by their accusers, were burned at the stake during Medieval times. But it was during the following Reformation period (beginning approximately in 1550) that burning witches at the stake really took off. However, in England witches were rarely burned and were hanged instead.

2) Off With Your Ear?
Mutilation—severing of an ear or hand—was occasionally used as a punishment for serious crimes, especially in larger jurisdictions such as London. But more often, Medieval law enforcement used it as an empty threat rather than actually doing it.

1) Rack 'Em Up?
Immortalized in the film Braveheart, the most famous (or infamous?) torture device of all time was the rack. It probably wasn't used in England until the very end of the Medieval period. It was used extensively along with other devices beginning in the torturous days of the 1500s when Queen Elizabeth I, and other European monarchs, began purging religious opponents.

So, next time you're watching a high budget film set during the Dark Ages and filled with bloody and torturous actions, remember there's a good chance it didn't really happen that way.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Phenomenon Of Speed Dating

What Is It

Speed dating has been around for a little over ten years. It's a dating system whose purpose is to allow singles to meet as many other singles one-on-one as possible in a short specified amount of time. Its origins have been credited to a Rabbi who devised it as a way to help Jewish singles meet prospective mates. It has since shown up as a plot device in several movies and television shows.

The first speed dating event took place at Pete's Café in Beverly Hills in late 1998. By the year 2000, speed dating had become very popular. Supporters of the phenomenon claim it saves time since most people quickly decide if they are romantically compatible and first impressions are often permanent.

How It Works

Organizers of these events usually require advance registration with the total number of participants limited to a specific number. Small events have twenty to thirty participants while others are very large such as the recent one in New Jersey with three hundred and fifty participants. Needless to say, there is usually a registration fee which covers the cost of putting on the event and a profit for the organizers.

Each participant is assigned an identification of some sort, usually a number. They are not allowed to exchange personal information such as names, phone numbers, email addresses, etc., during the dating process of the event.

Men and women rotate so that they each has the opportunity to meet the other in a series of short dates that last a set amount of time, usually somewhere between three and eight minutes each depending on the rules set down by the organizer. This could be something as simple as small tables with the women sitting on one side and the men on the other side opposite. At the end of each time period, a signal is given and the participants move on to the next date which might be achieved by the men getting up and moving to the next table to begin his date with a different woman. This continues until each man has had a date with each woman.

At the end of the event, the participants each submit a list to the organizers showing which of their dates they are interested in seeing again. The organizers then compare all the lists and when a match occurs, they forward the personal information to each of them and they are on their own at that point.

Events can have a theme or specific requirements of the participants. Older men and younger women or older women and younger men with age ranges pre-determined. Gays. Lesbians. Ethnic groups. Religious affiliation. Maybe groups that share an interest in a certain hobby.

Proponents of speed dating claim it's time efficient and the structure of the event eliminates the need of trying to figure out how to introduce yourself or create a situation where you can start a conversation with someone. Participants can come alone without feeling awkward or out of place.

A 2005 study at the University of Pennsylvania found that most people made their decision to accept or reject within the first three seconds of meeting and issues such as religion, previous marriages, and smoking habits weren't as important as expected.

A 2006 study in Edinburgh, Scotland, found that conversation about travel resulted in more matches than conversation about films.

Various studies of speed dating events came to the general conclusion that women were more selective than men. The above mentioned University of Pennsylvania study reported that the average man was chosen by 34% of the women and the average woman was chosen by 49% of the men.

Now, with all this said about speed dating being a relatively new phenonemon…

Many years ago (many, many, many years ago) when I was a freshman in college and pledging a sorority, the same process now referred to as speed dating was the method used by one of the sororities for the members to meet and interview the prospective pledges. Each member had five minutes with each potential pledge then the member moved on to the next candidate for membership.

I have to admit that it all had a very assembly line feel, but was definitely a more efficient use of time than a room full of people standing around not knowing who to talk to or what to do.

Have you ever had any experience with speed dating?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mardi Gras And The Tradition Of Flashing

This year Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday, February 16. In the Catholic Church, it's Shrove Tuesday, also known as fat Tuesday. The date for Mardi Gras depends on the date of Easter—always occurring forty-six days before Easter.

In the most literal sense, the Mardi Gras celebration is the three days prior to Ash Wednesday which is the start of Lent. It's the last opportunity for partying and indulgence in food and drink. In practice, Mardi Gras…or Carnival, as it is called in many countries…is usually celebrated for a full week before the start of Lent.

Celebrations take place all over the world with the most famous modern day festivities being in New Orleans, Louisiana; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Nice, France; and Cologne, Germany.

Even though Mardi Gras is a Christian festival, it dates back to the pre-Christian spring fertility rites and embodies many of the traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the early Middle Ages, after converting pagan tribes to Christianity, the Catholic Church was still unable to abolish all the ancient traditions. To combat this, the Church ended up taking many ancient feasts and festivals originally celebrated in honor of pagan gods and adapted them to Christian beliefs. An example: today revelers on parade floats still dress as Bacchus, the Greek god of wine.

The first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States was near modern day New Orleans on March 3, 1699, but it was the mid 1800s before parade organizations, known as krewes, came into being. The official colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold, representing justice, faith, and power.

But what about that popular activity that has become a seemingly integral part of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, much to the chagrin of the festival purists? Women pulling up their shirts and flashing their bare breasts to procure some worthless plastic beads?

Exactly where did this tradition come from?

Well, first of all, it's not really a tradition. It's more along the lines of what has become a traditional activity in the same vein as getting stupid drunk and passing out now seems to fall into that same 'traditional' category. Over the years more and more media attention has been directed toward the drunken revelry that occurs on Bourbon Street which has helped in defining flashing as a traditional part of the Mardi Gras celebration.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point-of-view, flashing in exchange for beads is mostly limited to the New Orleans' French Quarter. And even in the French Quarter, it's an illegal activity. Women flashing their bare breasts run the risk of being arrested.

Maybe flashing is not a true tradition, but you can't deny that it has become a custom. After all, the history of wild Mardi Gras behavior comes from celebrating the last day before Lent—Lent being a time of atonement. And this naturally lends itself to activities of excess and craziness.

And even flashing.

But there is one crazy excess even more daring than the momentary baring of the female breasts known as flashing. And what, you may ask, could that be? And the answer is having clothes painted on your bare skin. There are artists who specialize in this. It may have started as something simple and basic like face painting, but has grown to include full body artistic renderings. At a casual glance, it appears that the person is clothed. But on closer inspection, you discover that's far from the truth. Some of these examples shown below are basic and others are quite elaborate.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Valentine's Day--The Good And The Bad

The Good:

Valentine's Day is that time of the year when we give cards, flowers, candy, and other tokens of affection to loved ones in the name of St. Valentine. But who is St. Valentine and why do we celebrate his holiday every year?

One legend says Valentine was a priest in the third century in Rome. Emperor Claudius II decided single men made better soldiers so he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. Claudius ordered him put to death.

Another story has Valentine killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were beaten and tortured.

And then there's the story that says Valentine was the one who sent the first 'Valentine Greeting' while he was in prison. He fell in love with a girl, possibly the jailor's daughter, who visited him while he was imprisoned. Before his death, he wrote her a letter and signed it 'From your Valentine,' an expression still used today.

St. Valentine's Day, as we know it today, is a combination of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. One theory says we celebrate Valentine's Day in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine's death or burial which probably occurred around 270A.D., while others believe that the Christian church may have decided to celebrate Valentine's feast day in the middle of February in an effort to 'Christianize' celebrations of the pagan Lupercalia festival.

According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine's Day the second largest card-sending holiday. An estimated 2.6 billion Christmas cards are sent each year. Approximately 85 percent of all valentines are purchased by women. Valentine's Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia in addition to the United States.

The Bad:

The St. Valentine's Day massacre—the most spectacular gangland slaying in mob history.

Al Capone ('known' to be the mastermind, but there was never enough evidence to charge him with the crime) had arranged for his chief rival, Chicago mobster George "Bugs" Moran, and most of Moran's North Side Gang, to be eliminated on February 14, 1929. The plan was simple and deviously clever, yet Capone's primary target escaped any injury. Capone distanced himself from the execution of the plan (and the execution of his rivals) by spending the time at his home in Florida.

A bootlegger loyal to Capone was to draw Moran and his gang to a warehouse with the promise of a shipment of smuggled whiskey, the delivery set for 10:30AM on Valentine's Day.

The morning of February 14 was cold and snowy. A group of Moran's men waited for Bugs at the red brick warehouse at 2122 North Clark Street. Moran was running late. When his car turned the corner onto Clark Street, he spotted a police wagon pulling up to the warehouse. Assuming it was a raid, he watched as five men, three of them dressed in police uniforms, entered the building. Moran and the two men with him, immediately left the area.

Inside the warehouse, Moran's men were confronted by the hit men disguised as police. Assuming it was a routine bust, they followed instructions when ordered to line up against the wall. The hit men opened fire with Thompson submachine guns, killing six of the seven men immediately. The seventh man, with twenty-two bullet wounds, survived the attack but died after arriving at the hospital.

The newspapers instantly picked up on the crime, dubbing it the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre." The story appeared on front pages around the country, making Capone a national celebrity. But to his dismay, this new found celebrity also brought a new level of attention from federal law enforcement.

No one was ever tried for the most spectacular slaying in mob history. The site of the warehouse, torn down in 1967, continues to draw tourists from around the world.