In 1827, in the small village of Polstead in Suffolk, England, a local farmer called William Corder killed his lover, Maria Marten, the daughter of the village mole catcher.

So what? A common place tale, of interest to nobody apart from the killer, the victim and their respective families and friends. Yet for some reason the story caught the imagination of the public and the press to such a degree that it immediately spawned ballads (one supposedly by the very murderer) and plays (still performed on stage). In fact, the first play was penned before the trial was even held!

Come all you thoughtless young men, a warning take by me,
And think upon my unhappy fate to be hanged upon a tree;
My name is William Corder, to you I do declare,
I courted Maria Marten, most beautiful and fair.

(The Murder of Maria Marten by W. Corder)

There are various macabre details to the story, some of which concerns a book I saw this weekend in the town museum of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk – occasioning this post. Do you know what anthropodermic bibliopegy is? If not, I dare you to read on!

Murder in the Red Barn

The skeleton (ahem) of the story is as follows:

Village girl Maria Marten became the lover of William Corder, a local farmer, and they had a child. Maria hoped to coax or, failing that, to coerce William to marry her (as the father of her child, if he refused to marry her, he would have been imprisoned); when the child died, however, she lost her leverage. William suggested that they elope and get married somewhere where they are less known; they met at their usual meeting place, the Red Barn, where William shot her.

If you will meet me at the Red barn, as sure as I have life,
I will take you to Ipswich town, and there to make you my wife;
I then went home and fetched my gun, my pickaxe and my spade,
I went into the Red-barn, and there I dug her grave.

After the murder he fled, got married and opened a boarding school for young ladies. He was captured a year later when Maria’s stepmother dreamed that Maria had been murdered in the Red Barn. Maria’s father went to the barn and found the dead body.

Her mother’s mind being so disturbed, she dreamt three nights o’er,
Her daughter she lay murdered, beneath the Red-barn floor;
She sent the father to the barn, when he the ground did thrust,
And there he found his daughter mingling with the dust.

Now to flesh it out:

We will never know how Maria died exactly. She had been clearly shot – Corder claimed the gun went off by accident during a quarrel – but she also had stab-like wounds and Corder’s green handkerchief was around her neck. Was she not only shot but stabbed and then strangled? And perhaps even buried alive, speculated the press with relish. Or were the stab-like wounds simply caused by her father’s spade when he dug up the body? Nobody knows.

Maria was not exactly an innocent girl led astray by profligate William. She already had two lovers in the past, and she had a child by each of them; one of whom died in infancy. Her first lover in fact was none other than one of William’s elder brothers. She was also hardly the village beauty; she had two front teeth missing and had an unpleasant looking growth on her neck.

Although nobody seemed to pick up on this back in 1828 at William Corder’s trial, there seems to be little doubt that the stepmother must have known what happened to Maria, perhaps was even present in the barn. What was her role exactly? If she was in the barn, who called her there – William or Maria? Was she complicit in the murder? She was only a year older than Maria herself – was she too in love with Corder? Did Maria have to die to ease her jealousy? If she was there at Maria’s request and was not complicit in the murder, why did Corder leave her alive? It’s interesting that she only “dreamed” about the details of the murder when it became known that Corder got married.


n, ¹a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions. (Oxford Dictionary of English)

All of the above makes the story of the murder an excellent source of melodrama. As I mentioned in the introduction, the story of Maria Marten’s murder became an instant hit with the 19th century audience. This was an age when melodramas were particularly popular, and before the trial even opened, Corder was already condemned by the press as a murderous monster – in line with the characteristics of classic melodrama. Maria in turn was presented as the innocent village beauty, led astray by the rich young squire. The difference in their social status – which wasn’t actually all that great – was duly emphasised in press reports. Further contributing to the melodrama were the dramatic dreams of the step-mother, the father finding the body and the young wife of Corder. Not even the judge himself was averse to a little melodramatic effect:

You sent this unfortunate woman to her account without giving her any time for preparation. She had no time to turn her eyes to the Throne of Grace for mercy and forgiveness. She had no time given her to repent of her many transgressions. She had no time to throw herself upon her knees and to implore for pardon at the Eternal Throne.

(Closing speech of Judge Baron Alexander at the trial)

A Gruesome Book in Bury Town Museum

William Corder was condemned to hanging, dissecting and anatomising for the murder of Maria Marten in 1828 in the court of Bury St Edmunds. The interest in the case was so extreme that when he was taken to be executed, a new door had to be cut into a side wall of the prison to allow the prisoner access to the gallows. A crowd of up to 20,000 people came to see Corder hanged; some 5,000 then went on to view the dissected body at the Shire Hall later that day.

This was not the end of the story of the body of William Corder, however. In the 1930s, his skeleton was still used to train local nurses – apparently they used to dance with him – and one of the surgeons involved in the dissection used Corder’s skin… to bind a book. Appropriately, the book was the account of the trial of William Corder.

So now you know what anthropodermic bibliopegy is: it’s the practice of binding books in human skin.

(Apparently it was particularly in vogue in the early 19th century.)

You don’t want to believe it? I wouldn’t either if I didn’t see the book with my own eyes in the town museum of Bury last weekend. I have to admit: I couldn’t really observe it very closely. I couldn’t make myself to take a photo of it either, or even stomach the idea of uploading somebody else’s photo here – if you want to see it, follow the link below. By the way, the museum in Bury also has his death mask and his scalp, with one ear attached… Disturbing doesn’t begin to cover it.

Links:Broadside Ballad Entitled 'The Murder of Maria Marten'The Macabre World of Books Bound in Human SkinMurder and Melodrama: The Red Barn Story on StageWhat Really Happened with the Notorious Murder at the Red Barn in Polstead?Moyse's Hall (Bury St Edmunds Town Museum)


Quote of the Week

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944)

France is not an abstract deity. France is not a history textbook. France is not some ideology. France is the flesh that sustains me, a network of connections that rules me, a collection of axes that are the foundation of my affections. That’s why I need those to whom I’m attached to outlast me. To be oriented, I need them to exist. Otherwise, how would I know where or what to return to?

(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Introduction to 33 Days)

Herodotus: A Quiz

It’s been a while since we last talked of Herodotus which is a bad thing. So I was just about to write a new post to add to my Best Stories of Herodotus… and then I got seduced by the idea of doing a quiz instead.

Herodotus, c.484-425 B.C.
How well do you know your Herodotus? Take the quiz to find out! 🙂

The Quiz

1. What is The Histories the history of?
The Greco-Persian Wars
The Peloponnesian War
Wrong! The history of the Peloponnesian War was written by the Athenian general Thucydides.
Greece and Egypt

2. Why did Herodotus write The Histories?
So that the acts of Greeks and Barbarians should not be forgotten
Correct! He said so in the very first paragraph.
To justify the war
To describe the land and history of Egypt
Wrong! Book II does describe the land and history of Egypt but that’s not the main focus of The Histories.
To praise the democracy of Athens

3. To which ruler did Solon say that no man can be called happy until after his death?
Who on earth was Solon?!
Solon was an Athenian law-giver who after writing his laws absented himself from Athens for ten years, lest he should be forced to repel them.

4. According to Herodotus, who first circumnavigated Africa?
The Greeks
The Persians
The Egyptians
The Phoenicians
Correct! You can find it in IV.42.

5. Who betrayed the Spartans at Thermopylae?
Wrong! Dioneces was a Spartan who is famous because when he was told that the enemy is so numerous that their arrows would blot out the sun, he replied, good, then we can fight in the shade.
Correct! Local man Ephialtes was the traitor who led the Persians round the Pass of Thermopylae on a secret path. May he never rest in peace!
Wrong! Hydarnes was the commander of the Persian elite force, the Immortals.
Wrong! Aristodemus was a Spartan who was left behind before the battle of Thermopylae owing to an illness. When he returned to Sparta, he was considered a coward for having survived. He died a heroic death in the battle of Plataea a year later.

6. Which nomadic nation did the Persians fail to subdue?
The Hungarians
Wrong! The Hungarians didn’t turn up in the neighbourhood till more than a 1000 years after the Persian Empire had fallen.
The Huns
Wrong! The Huns only arrived on the scene about a 1000 years later.
The Scythians
Correct! Herodotus writes about the Scythians and the Persians invading their land in Book IV.
The Tatars
Wrong! The Tatars were the latest comers of the four nomadic nations, not appearing till the 13th century A.D.

7. Who advised Xerxes NOT to fight the Battle of Salamis?
Artemisia, queen of Caria
Wrong! Themistocles was the leader of the Athenians.
The exiled Spartan king, Demaratus
Mardonius, the Persian general

8. How long did it take the Spartan army to march from Sparta to Athens (about 240 km) in 490 B.C.?
Not quite three days
Less than two days
Four days
A week

9. Which of the following stories is NOT from Herodotus?
In India there are giant gold digging ants
Wrong! You can read this story in III.102.
In Egypt women urinate standing up
Wrong! You can find this in II.35.
In Persia neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor the darkness of night stops the couriers
Wrong! The US postal service adapted this motto from Herodotus VIII.98.
The Athenian runner Philippides ran all the way from Marathon to Athens with the news of victory and having delivered the news, he died on the spot
Correct! This story does not originate with Herodotus. It was first told by Lucian of Samosata, centuries later.

Would You Like to Know More?

If you want to know more about Herodotus but haven’t got time to read all 700 or so pages of The Histories just now, you can find most of the answers to the quiz on this very blog in the series The Best Stories of Herodotus. (And what’s not here yet, will be written about in due course!)

The following posts in particular will tell you the stories behind the quiz questions:

About Herodotus the man and his book The Histories, including some of his most outrageous stories:

Short Biography of a Boring Author

The Best Stories of Herodotus (And Why You’re Going to Read Them)

Herodotus and the Persian Wars

About Solon and his famous advice:

Call No Man Happy

About the Battle of Thermopylae:

The Battle of Thermopylae (Part I): Who, Where, How

The Battle of Thermopylae (Part II): The Fight in the Pass

The Battle of Thermopylae (Part III): The Heroes and the Villain

About the advice to Xerxes not to fight at Salamis:

Salamis (According to Herodotus)

About the Scythians and some of the other nomads:

Face to Face with My Ancestors (The Scythians in the British Museum)

You might also like:
⇒ (If you're a blogger) How to write shortcode to create a quizThe Histories of Herodotus on Project Gutenberg

The Spartan with the Crippled Leg (El espartano con la pierna mutilada)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Plutarch (c. 46 AD – c. 120 AD)

Androcleidas the Spartan, who had a crippled leg, enrolled himself among the fighting-men. And when some persons were insistent that he be not accepted because he was crippled, he said, “But I do not have to run away, but to stay where I am when I fight the opposing foe.”

(Plutarch: Morals, Vol. III, Sayings of Spartans)

Andróclidas, el espartano, con una pierna mutilada se alistó entre los combatientes. Como algunos insistieran en impedírselo, puesto que estaba mutilado, les dijo: «Pero yo no tengo por qué huir, sino que debo permanecer firme para luchar contra los que se me opongan.»

(Plutarco: Obras morales y de costumbres, III. Máximas de espartanos)

Hungary in Ten Books

In a few hours time I’ll be taking a late night flight to Budapest; by the time you’re reading this I might have even arrived. This latest visit home prompted me to write a long overdue book list for you. 🙂

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest in winter fog. Photo by Noval Goya via Flickr.

One good way to get to know a people is by reading their literature.  Unfortunately, in the case of the Hungarians this is not easy as the language is obscure and difficult (and no, it’s bloody not related to Polish, or Russian, or German!¹) and not a lot of the country’s literature has been translated into English, let alone into other languages.

So what follows here is not any kind of representative list of Hungarian literature – it is, nevertheless, a list of ten good books which were all translated into English. If you ever decide to visit Hungary, you could do much worse than reading one of them on the flight there. 🙂

People of the Puszta by Gyula Illyés (1936)

We’ll start with the book that defines my background; the one Mr Anglo-Saxonist paid nearly £100 for when he first fell in love with me and still insists that it was worth the price. (You can get it much cheaper by the way, if you’re not in a hurry like he was at the time. 🙂 ) And the one he keeps telling me I should write a post on. If there is one book I’d like to pass on to my children – this is it.

Gyula Illyés came from the same area (less than 10 km distance) and social group as my family; he was roughly contemporary with my great-grandfather. People of the Pusztapuszta here means a village of serfs attached to a manor house or palace of the local landlord – is a curious but highly successful blend of sociography and auto-biography.

It was my grandmother who gave me the book to read, saying, ‘every word of it is true’. She lived the life that is described in this book, she spoke with the accent described in the book and she remembered the events described in the book. You can’t beat that kind of authenticity. If you’re at all interested in the recent history of Hungary and wish to understand Hungarians, this book offers an insight into the recent past by a highly respected author.

Gyula Illyés (short biography)

The Baron’s Sons by Mór Jókai (1869)

Don’t be mislead by the rather unimaginative English title – this is an exciting historic epic in the Romantic style of the 19th century, such as Dumas or Jules Verne would have written. The original title The Sons of the Stone-hearted Man seems more appropriate as it conveys a bit more of the excitement. It’s the story of the 1848-49 Hungarian War of Independence against the Habsburgs told through the lives of three sons – a diplomat, a dashing officer of the Hussars and the boy who stayed at home – of a man who was loyal to the Habsburgs to the death.

Jókai was the great Romantic novelist of Hungary, and as a young man he fought in the War of Independence.

Mór Jókai (short biography)

Embers by Sándor Márai (1942)

Originally titled The Candles Burn Down to Stump, this is the elegiac story of two old men, former friends, who meet again after some 40 years to have dinner together. Two lifetimes, a divisive love affair and a nostalgic look back on the Austro-Hungarian Empire of their youth.

Hungarian Graffiti by Tibor Fisher (book review)

Fateless by Imre Kertész (1975)

The first and only Hungarian Nobel-prize winner in literature. Fateless (in some translations Fatelessness) is the quasi-autobiographical story of a Jewish teenager from Budapest who is carried off to a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. He lives to tell the tale but at what price?

Imre Kertész Speaks to Himself (self-interview)

Relations by Zsigmond Móricz (1930)

An ordinary city clerk is suddenly elevated to the powerful post of chief prosecutor in a provincial town. Just as suddenly he finds himself to become a highly popular man and he discovers more relatives than he ever had been aware of… A story of one man in the face of endemic small town corruption, very typical of Hungary between the two world wars.

Zsigmond Móricz (short biography)

The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi (1899)

In the original, Stars of Eger. Nowadays considered a children’s book, compulsory in year 5 (for children aged 10-11), this epic novel tells the story of the first Ottoman siege of the town of Eger in the northeast of Hungary in 1552. A fine, dashing, romantic story with plenty of genuine historical characters who take you gallivanting from Buda to Constantinople to Eger (of course). If you ever go to  Eger, do visit the castle and its casemates which feature in the novel. 🙂

Women of Eger (a 19th painting depicting an episode from the siege)

Please, Sir! by Frigyes Karinthy (1916)

Wickedly funny stories of school life from around the turn of the 19th/20th century, dealing with anything and everything from attempts to explain away a bad school report to classroom pranks. Karinthy paints the atmosphere of Hungarian schools in very vivid colours – as anybody who lived through the terror of the moments when the teacher slowly turns the pages of his marks register looking for his next victim to be tested in front of the class can attest. Karinthy went to school almost a century ahead of me but apart from the fact that schools become coeducated, the Communist grammar school experience mirrored the Austro-Hungarian one; nothing changed at all through the century and Karinthy’s school memories are also mine.

Please, Sir! by Frigyes Karinthy (English text)

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (1937)

This is not my favourite Antal Szerb novel but it’s one of the most highly regarded by the critics – a complex psychological exploration of the self. The protagonist is a young middle class man on honeymoon in Italy. A chance encounter with an old friend brings back memories of his adolescence which he starts to share with his wife… as their travels progress, the new couple separates and the protagonist has more encounters with figures from his past, more things to discover about himself, until he comes a full circle and returns to uneventful respectability.

Just Divine by Nicholas Lezard (book review)

The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnár (1907)

A classic – and in Hungary very famous – children’s book about schoolboys in Budapest in the beginning of 20th century. An evocative and somewhat tragic story about two gangs of schoolboys who fight over the ‘grund’, an undeveloped building plot in Paul Street, as if they were fighting for their homeland.

Paul Street Boys Sculpture in – Paul Street (3 photos)

The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách (1861)

A philosophical drama about the meaning of life, told via the story of the creation and fall of man. After Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, Lucifer takes Adam on a journey through time attempting to prove that life has no useful purpose and all mankind’s endeavours will turn out ill. The play is a series of sketches in which Adam takes on the roles of various historical characters, such as an Egyptian pharaoh or Johannes Kepler, while Lucifer is usually his sidekick in some form, and Eve continues to be Adam’s beloved in various historical guises. I’m not going to tell you what the conclusion of the play is – you’ll have to read it or see it in the theatre. 🙂

Imre Madách (short biography)

¹ Sorry for the outburst... Too many people in the last 15 years insisted that of course I must understand one or the other of these languages by default. Well, I don't. They are all Indo-European languages and Hungarian isn't. I can no more understand any European languages without studying them first than you can understand Hungarian. Beats me why people just won't take my word for it?!

Artemisia, Hero(ine) of the Baddies

On this blog we don’t do a black and white view of the world, therefore even the Baddies can have heroes. And since we’re writing about Herodotus here, in this case the Baddies are Xerxes and his Greece-invading Persian lot, while their hero is, in point of fact, a heroine: Artemisia, the queen of Caria.

The Woman Who Outdid the Men in a Men’s World

We don’t really do feminism (or any other -isms for that matter) either here; nevertheless, it’s worth noting that Herodotus’s world was, by and large, a men’s world, so that was where Artemisia had to excel: in the war council and on the battlefield. Or rather, in her particular case, on the deck of a war galley, slippery with blood.

Artemisia at the Battle of Salamis by Wilhelm von Kaulbach [Public domain via Wikipedia]
The fame of Artemisia is based on her actions in the Battle of Salamis, as told by Herodotus in The Histories.

The Battle of Salamis, 480 B.C.

A naval battle during the Second Persian War, fought in the Straight of Salamis (between the island of Salamis and the Athenian mainland), resulting in a decisive Greek victory. The main antagonists were Xerxes (Persia) and Themistocles (Athens). The famous Athenian playwright Aeschylus took part in the battle, which he later retold in his play The Persians.

For further details I refer you to my earlier posts :) :

⇒ Salamis (According to Herodotus)Salamis (Retold in Poetry)Salamis (Retold in Poetry II)

In the Battle of Salamis, Artemisia made such an impression that at some point during the battle the dismayed Xerxes commented:

My men have become women, and my women men!

(Herodotus: The Histories, VIII.88.)

But Artemisia didn’t just impress her own boss with her battle heroics.

The Athenians, for example, offered ten thousand drachmas to the man who should take her alive…

…for orders to capture her had been given to the Athenian trierarchs, and a prize of 10,000 drachmas had been offered to whoever captured her alive, since they considered it a disgrace that a woman should wage war on Athens. (VIII.93)

…while the Spartans subsequently erected a statue to her in their market place in the so-called Persian Portico. This is how Pausanias describes the portico in Sparta in second century A.D.:

The most striking feature in the marketplace is the portico which they call Persian because it was made from spoils taken in the Persian wars. In course of time they have altered it until it is as large and as splendid as it is now. On the pillars are white-marble figures of Persians, including Mardonius, son of Gobryas. There is also a figure of Artemisia, daughter of Lygdamis and queen of Halicarnassus. It is said that this lady voluntarily joined the expedition of Xerxes against Greece and distinguished herself at the naval engagement off Salamis.

(Pausanias: The Description of Greece, Book III. Chapter 11)

But who was this woman who fought better than the men?

Who was this woman with ten thousand drachmas on her head?

Who was this woman who impressed the war-like Spartans so much that they erected a statue to commemorate her?!

Artemisia, Queen of Caria

Most of what we know about her is actually straight from Herodotus. Very little was added by later authors such as Plutarch. Maybe Herodotus knew so much about her because she was, after all, from Halicarnassus; the hometown of Herodotus himself. Which one of us hasn’t got a soft spot for the heroes of our homeland?

Herodotus first mentions Artemisia in VII.99, as he comes towards the end of the lengthy catalogue of the Persian army and navy units and commanders:

Although I am not mentioning the other subordinate commanders because I am not compelled to do so, I shall mention Artemisia. I find it absolutely amazing that she, a woman, should join the expedition against Hellas.

After her husband died, she held the tyranny, and then, though her son was a young man of military age and she was not forced to do so at all, she went to war, roused by her own determination and courage.

Now the name of this woman was Artemisia; she was the daughter of Lygdamos, by race part Halicarnassian on her father’s side, and part Cretan on her mother’s side. She led the men of Halicarnassus, Kos, Nisyros and Kalymna, and provided five ships for the expedition. Of the entire navy, the ships she furnished were the most highly esteemed after those of the Sidonians, and of all the counsel offered to the king by the allies, hers was the best. (VII.99)

Artemisia’s Advice

And since we mentioned that her advice was the best…

Clearly there was more to Artemisia than being a fearless warrior on a battlefield. She was also a clever and capable woman and one, moreover, who was not afraid to speak her mind. When Xerxes sought the advice of his assembled naval commanders in Phaleron before the Battle of Salamis, none dared speak against an attack on the Greek fleet – except Artemisia. Like a shrewd strategist she pointed out to Xerxes that it was not in his interest to fight this battle:

 …Xerxes himself came down to the ships, wishing to converse and to hear the opinions of the men on board. When he arrived, he sat before them, and those he had summoned, they tyrants of their nations and subordinate commanders of their ships, came to him and sat as the King granted honour to each: first, the king of Sidon and after him the king of Tyre, followed by the others. When they had seated themselves in order of precedence, Xerxes sent Mardonios to question them and to put the question to each one about whether or not he should wage a naval battle.

68. So Mardonios made his way round and questioned them, beginning with the Sidonian. They all expressed teh same opinion, urging him to initiate a battle at sea, except for Artemisia, who said:

“Speak to the King for me, Mardonios, and tell him what I say, since I have not proven to be the worst fighter in his naval battles off Euboea, nor have I performed the least significant of feats. Tell him, ‘My lord, it is right and just that I express my opinion, and what I think is best regarding your interests. Here is what I think you should do: spare your fleet; do not wage a battle at sea. For their men surpass yours in strength at sea to the same degree that men surpass women. And why is it necessary for you to risk another sea battle? Do you not already hold Athens, the very reason for which you set out on this campaign? And do you not have the rest of Hellas, too? No one is standing in your way; those who have stood against you have ended up as they deserved.

“Let me tell you what I think your foes will end up doing. If you do not rush into waging a sea battle, but instead wait and keep your ships near land, or even if you advance to the Peloponnese, then, my lord, you will easily achieve what you intended by coming here. The Hellenes are incapable of holding out against you for very long; you will scatter them, and each one will flee to his own city. For I hear that they have no food with them on this island, and if you lead your army to the Peloponnese, it is unlikely that those who came from there will remain where they are now and concern themselves with fighting at sea for the Athenians.

“But if you rush into a sea battle immediately, I fear that your fleet will be badly mauled, which would cause the ruin of your land army as well. And there is one more thing that you should think about, sire, and keep in mind: bad slaves tend to belong to good people, while good slaves belong to bad people. And you, the best of men, have the worst slaves, who are said to be included among your allies, namely, the Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, and Pamphylians: they are absolutely worthless.”

As Artemisia was speaking to Mardonios, all those who were well-disposed toward her thought her words most unfortunate, since they believed she would suffer some punishment fro m the King for telling him not to wage a battle at sea. On the other hand, those who were envious and jealous of her, because she was honoured as one of the most prominent of the allies, were delighted by her response to the question, thinking that she would perish for it.

When these opinions were reported to Xerxes, however, he was quite pleased with Artemisia’s answer. Even prior to this, he had considered her worthy of his serious attention, but now he held her in even higher regard. Nevertheless, his orders were to obey the majority; he strongly suspected that off Euboea they had behaved like cowards because he was not present, but now he was fully prepared to watch them fight at sea. (VIII.67-69)

Artemisia gave Xerxes a sensible piece of advice and one which was borne out by the subsequent events. It was lucky for Ancient Greece that Xerxes did not take it!

Artemisia in the Battle of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis

The Persians advanced into the Straight of Salamis and there engaged with the Greek ships. Artemisia was in the thick of the fighting, together with one of Xerxes’s brothers, Ariamenes…

We owe the following detail of what happened next to Plutarch:

…confronting him [Themistocles] was the admiral of Xerxes, Ariamenes, who being on a great ship, kept shooting arrows and javelins as though from a city wall,—brave man that he was, by far the strongest and most just of the King’s brothers. It was upon him that Ameinias the Deceleian and Socles the Paeanian bore down,—they being together on one ship,—and as the two ships struck each other bow on, crashed together, and hung fast by their bronze beaks, he tried to board their trireme; but they faced him, smote him with their spears, and hurled him into the sea. His body, as it drifted about with other wreckage, was recognized by Artemisia, who had it carried to Xerxes.

(Plutarch: Themistocles, Chapter 14)

Death of the Persian Admiral [brother of Xerxes] at Salamis by William Rainey. Via Wikipedia [public domain]
Saving his brother’s body from the sea would likely have earned Artemisia Xerxes’s gratitude and goodwill. Herodotus however does not mention the episode above; instead he tells another story of how Artemisia conducted herself in the fight. This would have presumably happened after Artemisia fished out the body of Ariamenes from the sea:

I cannot speak with certainty about the rest of them, how each specific group of barbarians and Hellenes performed in the fighting, but this is what happened to Artemisia, which resulted in her winning still higher esteem from the King.

The King’s fleet had reached a state of mass confusion, and it was during this crisis that Artemisia’s ship was pursued by one from Attica. She was unable to escape it because there were so many other friendly ships in front of her, and since her own ship was closest to those of the enemy, she made a decision which turned out to be very much to her advantage. While she was still being chased by the Attic ship, she rammed at full seepd a friendly ship manned by Kalyndians and the king of the Kalyndians himself, Damasithymos. Now I cannot say if there was some quarrel she had with him that had arisen while they were still near the Hellespont, or even whether, when she ran into the Kalyndian ship, the deed was premeditated or accidental. But when she rammed it, the good she accomplished for herself was twofold.

For when the trierarch of the Attic ship saw that she was ramming a ship of the barbarians, he assumed that Artemisia’s vessel was either a Greek ship or one that was deserting from the barbarians and now fighting for the Hellenes, so he turned away from her ship to attack others.

That was one result to her advantage: she escaped and was not destroyed. But another outcome was that, even though she was doing harm to her own side, she won the highest possible praise from Xerxes. For it is said that as the King was watching, he noticed the one ship ramming the other, and one of the men with him said, “My lord, do you see how well Artemisia is fighting, and how she has sunk an enemy ship?” Xerxes inquired if it was truly Artemisia who had accomplished this feat, and they confirmed that it was, clearly recognizing the ensign of her vessel, and believing that the one she had destroyed belonged to the enemy. So all that, as I have explained brought her good fortune. And in addition, no one from the Kalyndian ship survived to become her accuser. In response to what he had heard, Xerxes is reported to have said, “My men have become women, and my women, men!”

Of the Hellenes who fought in this naval battle at Salamis, praise for the greatest valour went to the Aeginetans, and after them to the Athenians; of individual men, to Polykritos of Aegina and the Athenians Eumenes of Anagyrous and Ameinias of Pallene. It was Ameinias who had pursued Artemisia; if he had realized that she was sailing on that ship, he would not have stopped before capturing her or being taken himself, for orders to capture her had been given to the Athenian trierarchs, and  a prize of 10,000 drachmas had been offered to whoever captured her alive…


An interesting story, especially as Herodotus clearly has a soft spot for Artemisia, and this story isn’t all to Artemisia’s credit. A bit ruthless, wouldn’t you say, sinking a ship of her own side, in an effort to make good her escape from the battle? Bad luck for the ship of the Kalyndian king, although had he been as forward in the fight as Artemisia had been, perhaps he’d not have ended being rammed by her galley…!

In any case, it was clearly a case of Fortuna audeces iuvat (fortune favours the brave): not only did Artemisia escape capture or death but she even gained further appreciation from Xerxes.

And so of course Xerxes turned to her for advice again!

Artemisia’s Second Advice

After the lost battle, Xerxes was frightened that the Greeks might sail to Hellespont and cut him off from Persia. He was anxious to be gone but his general  Mardonios was of a different opinion:

Xerxes… told Mardonios that he would first consult with others about the two courses before giving him an answer. And while he was deliberating with his specially chosen counsellors, he decided to summon Artemisia to join the consultation, because she had obviously been the only one before who had correctly perceived what should be done.

When Artemisia arrived, Xerxes sent away all the others, his counsellors as well as his bodyguards, and said to her, “Mardonios bids me to stay and make an attempt on the Peloponnese, claiming that the Persians – the land army, that is – are not to blame for the disaster, and that they want to display proof of that. In any case, he bids me to do that, or if not, he wants to pick out 300,000 troops from the army and completely enslave Hellas, and bids me to lead the rest of the army back to my homeland. Well, then, since you counselled me well by trying to prevent me from waging the naval battle that has taken place, please tell me now how I can prosper through your good advice.”

Thus he requested her advice, and this is what she told him:

“Sire, … in view of the present situation, it seems to me that you should go back home, and if Mardonios wants and promises to do what he has suggested, leave him behind here with the men of choice. For if he does subjugate the land as he claims he would like to do and thus succeeds in this plan, the success will be yours, my lord, since the conquest will be performed by your slaves On the other hand, if the outcome is the opposite of what Mardonios things will happen, it will be no great misfortune, since you will survive and so will your power in Asia as far as your own house is concerned. And if you and your house survive, the Hellenes will have to run many races for their lives. Besides, if something happens to Mardonios, it is of no great consequence. And even if the Hellenes win, they will not win anything substantial by destroying your slave, while you will march home after you have burned Athens, and thus will have achieved the goal of your expedition.”


Positively machiavellian, wouldn’t you say?

Xerxes was delighted with this advice, for she had succeeded in telling him exactly what he was thinking himself. But I suppose that even if al the men and women in the world had advised him to stay, he would not have done so, such was his state of utter terror. After praising Artemisia, he sent her off to take his sons to Ephesus, for some of his illegitimate sons had accompanied him. (VIII.103)

And that is the end of Herodotus’s story of Artemisia, the warrior queen and shrewd politician/strategist of Halicarnassus. In fact, it’s pretty much the end of all we know about her.

You might also like:Artemisia, entry in the Encyclopaedia IranicaArtemisia I of Caria, entry in the Ancient History EncyclopaediaThemistocles by PlutarchThe Description of Greece by PausaniasThe Histories by Herodotus

El Tajo y el Manzanares (The Tagus and the Manzanares)

La cita de la semana / Quote of the Week

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936)

Y en brazos estremecidos del Tajo va a pasar este arroyo de Goya [el Manzanares] por la hoz del río de la imperial Toledo, la del Greco, del río que sacaba fuera el pecho en tiempos de Don Rodrigo. Y se enlazan dos tragedias, pues también el Manzanares, el que oyó los fusilamientos del 2 de mayo de 1808, el que vio brotar en sus orillas los trágicos caprichos goyescos, cuando corría con fuego, sintió la tragedia de la vida. Y el Tajo lo lleva en sus brazos estremecidos a dejarlo al pie de Lisboa, en la mar de los conquistadores de Indias.

(Miguel de Unamuno: Orillas del Manzanares)

And in the trembling arms of the Tagus, this stream of Goya [the Manzanares] will pass through the sickle of the river of imperial Toledo, that of El Greco, from the river that stuck its chest out in the days of Don Rodrigo. And two tragedies are linked, because also the Manzanares, which heard the executions of May 2, 1808, which saw the tragic Goyesque caprices rise on its banks when it ran with fire, felt the tragedy of life. And the Tagus carries it in its trembling arms to leave it at the foot of Lisbon, in the sea of the conquerors of the Indies.

(Miguel de Unamuno: The Shores of the Manzanares)

Top Ten 2019

As I mentioned when compiling last year’s top ten, the list made me realise that what is wanted is actually a top ten that was published in 2019 – otherwise it is dominated by well established posts from earlier years. None of the post that I actually wrote in 2019 made it to the overall top ten.

So here comes the genuine 2019 Top Ten (based on number of views):

Top Ten 2019

  1. Call No Man Happy
  2. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam & La Rubaiyát de Omar Khayyam
  3. Woe Is Me, Alhama!
  4. A Brief (Literary) History of the Reconquista
  5. Asturias Is Spain…
  6. Twelve Books in Twelve Months (2018)
  7. Aristotle on Comedy and Tragedy (Aristóteles sobre la comedia y la tragedia)
  8. The View from My Window II (La vista desde mi ventana II)
  9. Vulcano, la forja de los dioses & Vulcano, the Forge of Gods
  10. The Seven Princes of Lara

Bottom Ten

The devil in me said that we should also look at the bottom ten… 🙂

  1. Pizarro & Atahualpa
  2. In the Desert
  3. Why You Shouldn’t Lose Your Shield (Porqué no deberías perder tu escudo)
  4. Integrity
  5. The Suez Canal
  6. Appreciating Russians
  7. Tacitus vs the Newspapers
  8. The Only Way to Die
  9. La compañía de Cristo (Christ’s Company)
  10. Octubre (October)

But when I did, I found, and perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, that most of these were published in the last quarter of the year, so perhaps bottom ten is not quite as informative as it could be… (Except that they all seem to be quotes of the week!)

Still – here’s to another year of blogging!
More Top Tens
⇒ I compiled a Top Ten (as published in each year) for the earlier years as well - just out of curiosity. If you're interested, you can find it here.
⇒ Overall Top Ten by Year

Top Ten

Well, it looks like I’ve lived to be able to publish another year’s top ten list. 🙂

The top ten most read posts from last year – but are they the best ones? Well, you’ll have to decide that for yourselves.

  1. The Moorish King Rides Up and Down
  2. Soft Lands Bread Soft Men: The Persian Choice
  3. A Bear of Very Little Brain (The World According to Pooh)
  4. Salamis (According to Herodotus)
  5. The Battle of Marathon (According to Herodotus)
  6. Sailing the Aegean with Odysseas Elytis
  7. Sappho: Midnight Poem (Fragment 48)
  8. Pablo Neruda Explains a Few Things
  9. Four Seasons in Japan – with Matsuo Basho
  10. The Harper’s Song: Enjoying Life after Death in Ancient Egypt

The Moorish king continues to ride up and down through Granada’s royal town – its popularity explained by the fact that it has now been put on the reading list of two universities (one American, one Australian, IIRC). Every September, the views soar. I’ve written more and better informed posts about Spanish historical ballads since; I’m still waiting for the university lecturers to notice them. 🙂

Apart from the very personal thoughts of the Bear with Very Little Brain, the top ten continues to be dominated by Herodotus (numbers 2, 4 and 5) and, increasingly, by poetry (1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Baffling, because I don’t think I write an awful lot of posts about poetry… but what I do write is evidently popular!

I notice that actually none of the top ten overall have been written this year, which  – while perhaps understandable – makes the top ten list a bit repetitive each year. So I think we will actually need a new kind of list. Like :

⇒ A Top Ten – Published in 2019

Coming soon!

You can see the Overall Top Ten from previous years here.

The Bible in Spain

In 1842, a nobody called George Borrow wrote a detailed, 550-pages-long account of his day job. Sounds boring? Well, it isn’t: Borrow’s day job was to sell Bibles in war-torn, Catholic Spain.

Peddling a Forbidden Book

If you’re at all familiar with Catholicism, you know that even today Catholics are discouraged from reading the Bible for themselves – lest they should interpret it the ‘wrong’ way. According to Catholic doctrine the Bible is too difficult for the common people who need guidance in understanding it; and who better to give that guidance than the Pope and the Church? And if this is the case today, you can readily imagine how Borrow’s evangelising efforts were viewed in Spain in the first half of the 19th century: the Englishman was, in point of fact, peddling a forbidden book up and down a country where the name of Martin Luther was only ever mentioned in the same breath as the devil. A country, moreover, which was torn by a brutal civil war at the time.

The First Carlist War

The causes of the First Carlist War – Borrow travelled Spain with his Bibles from 1835 to 1838 – are explained by Borrow himself very succinctly in a couple of paragraphs, about halfway through the book. In 1830, Ferdinand VII, having only daughters, set aside the Salic Law (brought into Spain by Philip V), making his elder daughter Isabella his heir presumptive. Unfortunately, his brother Charles took this rather badly (under the Salic Law he had been next in line for the throne) and three Carlist wars followed, devastating an already poor and miserable Spain for some fifty years. In addition to the issue of succession, the wars were further fuelled by the political issues of the time which pitted liberals against conservatives, Catalans and Basques against the central government, staunch Catholics against seculars… in short just about everybody against everybody else.

And into this war-torn country walked George Borrow, a lowly employee of the Bible Society of England, determined to publish and sell a Spanish language Bible to the masses of Spain.

George Borrow and the Bible in Spain

By far the most clever member of this government was Galiano, whose acquaintance I had formed shortly after my arrival.  He was a man of considerable literature, and particularly well versed in that of his own country.  He was, moreover, a fluent, elegant, and forcible speaker, and was to the moderado party within the cortes what Quesada was without, namely, their horses and chariots.  Why he was made minister of marine is difficult to say, as Spain did not possess any…

George Borrow portrait
George Borrow’s portrait, replica by Henry Wyndham Phillips, oil on canvas, (1843)

Self-righteous, intelligent and determined, with a real talent for languages, Borrow was your classic missionary. His run-ins with Spanish bureaucracy and the justice system (if the word ‘justice’ can at all be applied!) leave you wondering whether you should laugh or cry. Knowing he survived to tell the tale, in the end you laugh at the absurdity of it all.

With his load of Bibles (frequently confiscated), Borrow takes you gallivanting all over 19th-century Spain, from Seville to Santander, from small Castilian hamlets to the streets of the capital. En route, he fell in with bandits, Gypsies and rogue soldiers; held fascinating conversations with book-sellers, Spanish Prime Ministers and British Ambassadors (not to mention the Swiss treasure-seeker of Santiago de Compostela). He was aided or hindered – according to inclination and interest – by inn-keepers, small-town mayors and aristocrats. He was imprisoned, offered marriage and nearly executed as a spy…

The travels of George Borrow during the 1830s
The Travels of George Borrow

Red: First journey (Lisbon to Madrid, 1835-1836)
Blue: Second journey (Cádiz - Madrid - North of Spain, 1836-1837)
Green: Minor journeys in Castile (Madrid - Toledo - Villaseca - Segovia, 1838)
Yellow: Third journey (Cádiz - Madrid - Fuente la Higuera - Seville - Cádiz,1839)

It’s not his style that captivates you; his prose is lucid but quite unremarkable in itself. Yet his book is hard to put down: he holds you with his sharp-eyed observations of the people around him, his descriptions of the landscape through which he travels and, most of all, with the story he has to tell.

A book I can’t recommend enough.

⇒ What could be the first link but the book itself? The Bible in Spain by Project Gutenberg.
⇒ A funny excerpt about Borrow's dealing with Spanish bureaucracy: The Council of TrentThe 1801 map of Spain, showing its various kingdoms, upon which  I traced the route of Borrow's travels (with the help of Mr Anglo-Saxonist).
⇒ If you can't quite remember what the Salic Law was about: Salic Law of Succession by the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This is an updated version of the post originally published on 3 August 2016.

The Historian

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

…the historian, not even the history philosopher, no, just the academic, a drone as big as a man, working his life away in archives and monastery libraries which he leaves briefly once every so many years to announce, with modest jubilation, the discovery of another piece of the puzzle hitherto missing, a piece that expands the puzzle even further.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Nine Books to Get Your Kids Off the Sofa

It’s a dark and stormy night… no, actually, it’s just a dark and miserably wet January afternoon. It’s that time of the year when hardly anybody can be bothered to get off the sofa; the new year’s resolution crowd has already disappeared from the gym. The same is true for our children, who are far too addicted to their electronic gadgets anyway and would do well to spend more time outdoors.

So perhaps this a good time to offer them a good book in exchange for those gadgets; and why not make it a book that will encourage them out of doors? By the time they finish reading, spring will be just round the corner.

Continue reading “Nine Books to Get Your Kids Off the Sofa”

Spot the Towns: Answer (Adivina las ciudades: Solución)

The Roman province of Hispania in 125 A.D. [Public domain via Wikipedia]
As promised in The History of Spain in a Dozen Maps last week, here come the answers to the game of Spot the Towns:

Como he prometido en La historia de España en doce mapas la semana pasada,  aquí son las respuestas al juego de Adivina las ciudades:

Beginners / Nivel inicial:
  • Cordóba = Corduba
  • Toledo = Toletum
  • Valencia = Valentia
Intermediate / Intermedio:
  • Cádiz = Gades
  • Cartagena = Nova Carthago
  • Tarragona = Tarraco
Advanced / Avanzado:
  • Zaragoza = Caesaraugusta
  • Mérida = Augusta Emerita
  • León = Castra Legionis
And the bonus city / Y la ciudad extra:
  • Brigantium = La Coruña

Return from the War

Quote of the Week:

Robert Graves (1895-1985)

“England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war-madness that ran wild everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language. I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible.”

(Robert Graves: Goodbye to All That)

La historia de España en doce mapas

Read this in English

1. La prehistoria, 30 000 a.C.

En la edad prehistórica, la Península Ibérica fue, claramente, el lugar donde vivir – como se puede ver en este mapa:

Sitios prehistóricos en España [Gracias a Jesús del blog La Mar de Historias]
Bueno. Hace un año tenía una vacación estupenda en Ribadesella en Asturias – uno de esos lugares, donde sólo los españoles (y surfistas americanos) viajan para veranear y donde es, de hecho, es muy útil ser capaz de hablar español. Puedes encontrarlo en el mapa arriba, donde dice Tito Bustillo.

La Cueva Tito Bustillo, que está unos diez o quince minutos de distancia del centro de Ribadesella andando, es un patriomonio de la humanidad de la UNESCO (como la mejor conocida Altamira). Fue descubierto solo en los años 1960 por unos jovenes, quienes, evidentemente, tenían nada mejor que hacer, y le pusieron el nombre de unos de ellos, quien murió en un accidente de espeleología un poco más tarde. En la cueva descubrieron pinturas y herramientas de la Edad de Piedra; las pinturas más antiguos tienen unos 30 mil años. En un rincón hay unas pinturas de… eh… genitales femeninos, que fueron descubiertos, muy apropriadamente, por una miembro del grupo buscando un poco de privacidad para orinar. O, por le menos, eso dice el guía de turismo. 🙂

Continue reading “La historia de España en doce mapas”

The History of Spain in a Dozen Maps

Leer esto en castellano

1. Prehistory, 30 000 B.C.

In prehistoric times, the Iberian Peninsula was clearly the place to be – as attested by this map:

Prehistoric sites in Spain / Sitios prehistóricos en España [Courtesy of Jesús of the blog La Mar de Historias]
Now a year ago I had a great holiday in Ribadesella in Asturias – one of those places where only the Spanish (and American surfers) go on holiday to and it’s very useful to be actually able speak Spanish. You can find it on the map above where it says Tito Bustillo.

The Tito Bustillo Cave, some ten-fifteen minutes walk from the centre of Ribadesella, is a UNESCO World Heritage site (like the much better known Altamira). It was only discovered in the 1960s by a group of young people who evidently had nothing better to do and it’s named after one of them who died young in a caving accident. Cave paintings and stone age tools were found in the cave, the oldest paintings being about 30 thousand years old. In a hidden corner there are some paintings of… er… female genitalia which were, appropriately enough, discovered by a female member of the caving party who looked for some privacy to relieve herself. Or at least, so the tour guide says. 🙂

Continue reading “The History of Spain in a Dozen Maps”

Roads to Santiago

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Ten years ago I resolved to drive to Santiago, and so, eventually, I did – not once but several times — but because I had not written about it, I still hadn’t really been there. There was always something else that needed thinking or writing about, a landscape, a road, a monastery, a writer or a painter, and yet it seemed as if all those landscapes, all those stories of Moors and kings and pilgrims, all my own memories as well as the written memoirs of others pointed steadily in the same direction, to the place where Spain and the oceanic west come together, to the city which, in all its Galician aloofness, is the true capital of Spain.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Twelve Books in Twelve Months (2019)

About a year ago I looked back at 2018, admitted it had been a real struggle to keep the blog going and hoped for things to go better in 2019. Well, I can tell you this: they didn’t (if you didn’t work this out already for yourselves by the scarcity of the posts). What can I say? May 2020 be better than 2019 and may I write some good posts this year! 🙂

But while you’re waiting for those posts, let’s have a quick review at some of the books of 2019: books you might enjoy – or you’ll want to avoid! 🙂

By the way, if you ever want to know what I’m reading, you can always take a look at the Reading Log (which I do try to keep reasonably up-to-date).

Continue reading “Twelve Books in Twelve Months (2019)”

El lector de un solo libro (The Reader of Only One Book)

Empezamos el año nuevo con un consejo de uno de mis autores favoritos.

Si piensas en ello…

We start the new year with a piece of advice from one of my favourite Spanish authors.

When you think about it…

La cita de la semana / Quote of the Week:

Arturo Pérez-Reverte (1951-)

“…desconfíen siempre vuestras mercedes de quien es lector de un solo libro.”

“Never trust a man who reads only one book.”

(Arturo Pérez-Reverte: Limpieza de sangre / Purity of Blood)