The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts

Khalid Elhassan - March 17, 2020

History has no shortage of the weird, the bizarre, and the little known. Did you know, for example, that medieval France and Spain had a caste of Christian de fact Untouchables? Or that a desperate Britain in World War II turned to an anti-tank grenade that had the unfortunate drawback of getting glued stuck to the user’s hand after the pin was pulled? How about the Golden Girls star who had been a WWII US Marine? Following are forty things about these and other lesser-known facts from history.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Cagots had to wear a goose foot prominently pinned to their clothes, and shake rattles when entering a town to alert people to their presence. Cirkwi

40. Europe’s Medieval Untouchables

Untouchables are a hallmark of, and commonly associated with, the Hindu religion’s caste system. However, for over half a millennium from before the thirteenth century through the end of the eighteenth, the Cagots who lived in the Pyrenees Mountains region were, for all practical matters, medieval European Untouchables.

First mentions of the Cagots in the documentary record date to the thirteenth century. By then, they were already established as an inferior caste – the de facto Untouchables of northern Spain and southwestern France. Forbidden to practice most forms of work, the Cagots, as seen below, faced discrimination that combined aspects of medieval anti-Semitism with the worst practices of Apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
A French church with the main entrance, and a Cagot entrance to the right, since bricked up but whose outline is still visible. Pinterest

39. Medieval Apartheid, Even in Church

The Cagots were confined to their own ghettos, known as Cagoteries, that were sited on the least desirable land. They were stereotyped as criminals, cannibals, and lepers. When Cagots entered a town, they had to announce their presence by shaking rattles, just like lepers who were required to ring a bell. They were routinely blamed and killed for unsolved wrongdoings. Cagots were made to use separate church entrances and sit in their own segregated pews. At least 60 Pyrenean churches still boast “Cagot” entrances.

Communion was given them via long spoons, and they had their own holy water fountain. When in the early eighteenth century a Cagot dared to use the non-Cagot holy water, his hand was chopped off and nailed to the church door as punishment. The discrimination did not end at death: when they finally shuffled off the mortal coil, Cagots had to be buried in their own cemeteries.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
A holy water font for Cagots in Bearn Cathedral, southwestern France. Wikimedia

38. Bizarre Prohibitions

Cagots were barred from most trades and professions, other than as drawers of water and hewers of wood. The latter was quite literal: Cagots mastered woodworking, and often became expert carpenters. They actually built many of the churches in which they were discriminated against. Farming was expressly prohibited for Cagots, and when one of them dared farm a field on his property, he was punished by having his feet impaled with hot spikes.

In addition to having to alert non-Cagots to their presence by shaking rattles, Cagots were required to wear a goose’s foot conspicuously pinned to their clothes. They were not allowed to touch bridge parapets, and were prohibited from sharing food or bath water, or from walking barefoot around non-Cagots.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Image from Baztan, a 2012 movie about Cagots in the Basque country. Quora

37. Nobody Knows Why The Cagots Faced Such Discrimination

It is unclear why the Cagots faced such discrimination and mistreatment. While there is never a justification for discrimination, there is often an explanation for how it came about. Usually, a group in a position of power defines others as inferior based on differences in race, culture, or religion.

Historians have not uncovered any differences in race, culture, or religion, between the Cagots and their neighbors. The Cagots were Christian, and shared the same ethnic and cultural background as those discriminating against them. Indeed, none outside the Pyrenees region had anything against them, and a 1514 Papal Bull – which was ignored – even denounced anti-Cagot discrimination, and declared them to be Christians no different from other Christians.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Marie-Pierre Manet-Beauzac, perhaps the world’s last Cagot. The Independent

36. It Took the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to Grant Cagots Legal Equality

Things finally began easing for the Cagots in the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment ideals challenged the legal disabilities imposed upon them. However, it was not until the French Revolution of 1789 that the laws against the Cagots were formally abandoned. Even then, although freed from legal discrimination, Cagots were still discriminated against socially.

Nonetheless, the revolution allowed many Cagots to begin the process of assimilation. During that period of upheaval, many Cagots raided local archives, and either erased or burned records of their ancestry. In the years since, the unique Cagot culture, developed under the bizarre circumstances in which they were forced to live, has vanished, as few if any descendants have been willing to identify as Cagots. In the early twenty-first century, the British newspaper The Independent was able to find just a single person in the Pyrenees, a woman in her forties, openly admitting to Cagot ancestry.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Frane Selak began his unlucky run of lucky breaks by surviving a derailment that plunged a train into an ice-cold river. Watt the Fisk

35. The World’s Luckiest Unlucky Man

Frane Selak of Croatia has often been labeled the world’s luckiest unlucky man. Unlucky because he faced more than his fair share of horrific mishaps and accidents. Lucky because he survived, and some of those accidents were of a type that nobody had any business surviving.

His record of mishaps includes being in a train that derailed and plunged into a river. He was in a bus that skidded off a road and fell into a river. He was blown out of an airplane. His car erupted into flames while he was driving – twice. He was hit by a bus. His car hit a guardrail and plunged 300 feet off a cliff.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Frane Selak also survived a bus plunging into a river. ELT-Cation

34. A Long Track Record of Close Escapes

Frane Selak’s decades of ducking death began in 1962, when a train in which he was riding skidded off the rails, and plunged down a canyon into an icy river. 17 passengers drowned, but Selak got away with a broken arm and hypothermia from immersion in the cold water.

In 1963, on his first and only plane ride, he was blown out of a malfunctioning door, and landed on a haystack. The plane crashed, killing 19 people. Three years later, he was on a bus whose driver lost control, plunging it into a river. 4 passengers drowned, but Selak survived with just some cuts and bruises.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Frane Selak avoided a head on collision with a truck by driving off a cliff. Christian Post

33. Frane Selak Capped Off His Lucky Escapes by Winning the Lottery

If the 1960s were hairy for Frane Selak, the 1970s were no better. The decade began with his car erupting into flames while he was driving. He managed to jump out just before the fuel tank exploded. In 1973, a bad pump sprayed his new car’s engine with hot oil while he was driving. It caught fire, and shot flames into the passenger compartment. He escaped with no worse than singed hair.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Frane Selak after winning the lottery. Next Shark

The 1980s were uneventful, but then in 1995, he was hit by a bus. He escaped with only minor injuries. The following year, he barely avoided a head on collision with a truck on a mountain road – but only by swerving into and through a guardrail. His car fell 300 feet down a gorge, but luckily for him, he was not wearing a seatbelt: he was flung out the door, and in cartoon fashion, managed to hang on to a tree branch, while his car was totaled and incinerated below. Then in 2003, fate finally decided to do Selak a solid with no strings attached: he won €800,000 in the lottery – equivalent to U$1.1 million.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Modu Chanyu. Pinterest

32. The Nomad Chieftain Who Used His Defeated Enemies’ Skulls as Cups

Long before Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, there was Modu Chanyu (234 – 174 BC), a formidable Eurasian Steppe warrior and chieftain who was in the habit of turning his defeated enemies’ skulls into cups from which he drank blood. He unified the nomadic tribes of the eastern Steppe, and founded the Xiongnu Empire. Dominating the eastern Steppe from Central Asia to Manchuria, the Xiongnu menaced the Chinese to their south for centuries. They forged a complex relationship that alternated between trade and raid, marriage treaties and tribute and war.

In 200 BC, China’s Emperor Gaozu, founder of the Han Dynasty, tried to bring the Xiongnu to heel. Modu led the Chinese invaders on a merry chase through the Steppe, while harrying their supply lines and keeping them on constant edge with frequent skirmishes. When the Chinese were exhausted, Modu ambushed and trapped them in a disadvantageous locale, cut off from resupply and reinforcement.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Modu Chanyu’s Xiongnu Empire, circa 200 BC. Wikimedia

31. Extorting China

When Modu Chanyu trapped and surrounded China’s Emperor Gaozu, the latter bought his life with an appeasement treaty known as the Heqin. Modu and his Xiongnu Empire were recognized as China’s equals, and The Great Wall was accepted as the mutual border. China’s rulers sent the Xiongnu leaders Chinese princesses as brides and sought to buy them off with regular tribute payments, face-savingly referred to as “gifts”.

After Gaozu’s death, Modu sent a rude and mocking marriage proposal to his widow, the dowager empress. Incensed, the empress and court were all for declaring war, with generals urging the extermination of the Xiongnu. Eventually, calmer voices reminded everybody of Modu’s victory just a few years earlier, and that the Xiongnu army was more powerful than the Chinese. Reconsidering, the empress wrote back, humbly declining, and sent a gift of imperial carriages and horses.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Modu Chanyu and his horde besieging a Chinese city. Pinterest

30. Appeasing Steppe Nomads With Tribute Became Chinese Policy For Centuries

So badly had Modu Chanyu beaten the Han emperor, and so memorable was the defeat, that Chinese attempts at a military solution were abandoned. The Heqin appeasement system of buying off the nomads with princesses and tribute became the bedrock of Chinese diplomacy for centuries.

The appeasement continued even after the Xiongnu Empire collapsed and the Xiongnu disappeared from the annals of history. Chinese princesses and Chinese “gifts” continued to be sent regularly to Steppe chieftains for over a thousand years, with the last recorded instance of Heqin occurring in 883 AD.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Ancient Greek vase depicting pankratists. Wikimedia

29. The Olympic Champion Who Won Despite Being Dead

Pankration, meaning “all force” was an ancient Greek sport that is seen by many as the ancestor of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It combined wrestling and boxing, and just about everything was permitted, except for gouging, biting, or attacking the genitals. Ancient Greece’s most famous pankratist was Arrhichion of Phigalia (died 564 BC), who was crowned champion in the 572 BC, 568 BC, and 564 BC Olympics – winning the last one despite being dead.

Having already won back-to-back Olympic crowns, Arrhichion sought a three-peat in the 564 BC Olympics. He advanced through the early rounds and reached the title fight where, perhaps with age catching up with him and slowing him down, he got into trouble. His opponent outmaneuvered Arrhichion, got behind him, and with legs locked around his torso and heels digging into his groin, applied a chokehold.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Ancient Greek pankratists. Ancient Olympics

28. Crowning a Corpse Olympic Champion

Finding himself in a chokehold, Arrhichion feigned loss of consciousness, to trick his opponent into relaxing a little. When his opponent eased off, the wily title holder snapped back into action, and snapped his opponent’s ankle while shaking and throwing him off with a convulsive heave. The sudden excruciating pain induced his opponent into the Ancient Greek equivalent of tapping out, and he made the sign of submission to the referees.

However, in throwing off his opponent while the latter still had him in a chokehold, Arrhichion ended up with a broken neck. His opponent having already conceded, the dead Arrhichion was declared the title bout’s winner. It was perhaps the only time in Olympics history that a corpse was crowned champion. Arrhichion thus added a wrinkle to the athletic ideal of “victory or death” by gaining victory and death.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Pancho Villa, third from right, with X mark on photo beneath his feet. Flickr

27. Pancho Villa Killed His First Man at Age Sixteen

Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878 – 1923) led a long and adventurous life, in which he rose from destitute peon to bandit to warlord to folk hero. He began his outlaw career at age sixteen, when he reportedly killed his first man: a hacienda owner whom he accused of raping his sister. He then stole his victim’s horse and fled to the hills, which became his base for years to come as he turned to banditry.

Captured in 1902, Villa was spared the death penalty and inducted into the Mexican army instead. He deserted after killing an officer and stealing his horse and returned to banditry. In 1910, when the Mexican Revolution began, Villa was persuaded that he could fight for the people by directing his banditry against hacienda owners. He proved adept at the revolution’s style of warfare and was instrumental in defeating the government’s forces in northern Mexico.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
General Pancho Villa before a firing squad in 1912. Wikimedia

26. Pancho Villa Was Spared at the Last Moment From Execution by Firing Squad

Mexico’s rebel alliance split when the new government failed to enact promised land reforms. Villa, appointed a brigadier general, supported the new government against his former comrades, but struck a superior general during a quarrel and was sentenced to death. He was saved from the firing squad at the last moment by the arrival of a telegram from the president ordering his imprisonment instead.

Villa escaped and fled to the US, but returned to Mexico in 1913, after securing American support to fight against a new government that had seized power in a coup. He again achieved considerable success, and local military commanders appointed him governor of the state of Chihuahua. As governor, he confiscated grand haciendas and broke them up into smaller plots which he redistributed to the widows and families of fallen revolutionaries. It was during this period that Villa gained international fame, and was depicted in the press as a romantic bandit-warrior who took from the rich and gave to the poor.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Pancho Villa. Encyclopedia Britannica

25. A Dying Pancho Villa Was Stumped For Great Last Words – So He Asked His Followers to Make Up Some

When a third round of infighting erupted, Pancho Villa fared poorly. When America shifted its support to Villa’s foes, he felt betrayed, and eventually crossed the border to raid Columbus, New Mexico. America responded with a military expedition to hunt Villa down, but he eluded his pursuers. Eventually, Villa accepted a government amnesty and a 25,000-acre hacienda to settle down.

Then he threatened to again rock the boat, by announcing his intent to run for president in 1923. Soon thereafter, his car was ambushed and shot up, and he was mortally. A dying Villa understood drama, having lived a life in the limelight. As a romantic folk hero, he figured that his life story needed to end with some memorable last words. However, he could think of nothing to say – it is hard to focus on coming up with an original zinger while you’re bleeding to death. So he turned to his followers and said: “Don’t let it end like this! Tell them I said something!

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Sticky bomb being assembled, showing the outer casing and the inner glue-coated bomb. Wikimedia

24. A Defective Weapon Straight Out of Looney Tunes

One of WWII’s more infamous weapons was the Sticky Bomb, or Sticky Grenade, developed by the British in the aftermath of a humiliating defeat at the 1940 Battle of France. In that debacle, the British had been cornered at Dunkirk and forced into a hasty evacuation, in which most of the British Army’s anti-tank weapons were left behind.

That sudden shortage of conventional anti-tank arms led British developers to come up with a hastily improvised and easy-to-produce weapon, for use against enemy armor. The result was the Anti Tank Hand Grenade #74, AKA Sticky Bomb – a maraca-looking device with an outer metal shell covering a bomb coated with a powerful adhesive. It did not take long before the downside of using an explosive coated with strong glue that could stick to the user became apparent.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Sticky bomb schematic. Quora

23. The Sticky Bomb in Action

The Sticky Bomb’s user would pull a pin to remove the outer metal layer and expose the adhesive-coated bomb. He would then run-up to a tank, stick the bomb to it, activate a five-second fuse, then run away or dive to avoid the explosion. Alternatively, the user could throw the bomb at the tank and hope it stuck to its surface. The first problem, and it was a major one, was that the Sticky Bomb’s adhesive had trouble sticking to dusty, muddy, or wet surfaces – “a customary condition of tanks“, as Churchill’s chief military adviser pointed out.

A second problem, also major, was that failing to stick to what it should, the Sticky Bomb often stuck to what it should not: the user. In cartoon-like fashion, the adhesive had a tendency to leak and glue the bomb to its thrower’s hand or uniform.

Read More: History’s Failed Military Weapons.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Getting explosives glued to one’s hands is always bad news. Cultural Gutter

22. A Tragicomic Weapon

Sticky Bombs often produced situations that would have been funny, had they not ended so gruesomely. A user would pull the pin to arm the five-second fuse, then attempt to stick the bomb to a tank or throw it at one, only to discover to his horror that it was stuck to his hand. He might then spend his last few seconds on earth frantically shaking his hand like Wile E. Coyote with a stick of TNT glued to his paw.

As recounted by a British Home Guard member: “It was while practicing that a Home Guard bomber got his sticky bomb stuck to his trouser leg and couldn’t shift it. A quick-thinking mate whipped the trousers off and got rid of them and the bomb. After the following explosion, the trousers were in a bit of a mess — though I think they were a bit of a mess prior to the explosion.”

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Operation Olympic, the plan to invade southern Japan. Wikimedia

21. American Planners For an Invasion of Japan Expected Over a Million Casualties – and Tens of Millions Dead Japanese

Operation Downfall, the Allied invasion of Japan, was scheduled to commence with Operation Olympic in November of 1945, to secure the southern third of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main home islands. The seized territory would provide airbases for land-based aircraft, and serve as the staging area for an even bigger invasion. From Kyusho, Operation Coronet was to be launched in the spring of 1946, directed at Honshu, the largest and most populous of Japan’s home islands.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Operation Coronet, the plan to seize Tokyo. Wikimedia

The operation was to commence with amphibious landings on three Kyushu beaches. However, as was discovered after the war, the Japanese had accurately predicted US intentions and landing sites. Japanese geography was such that the only viable beaches for large amphibious landings were the ones selected by Allied planners for operations Olympic and Coronet. Planners anticipated a million or more Allied casualties, plus tens of millions of Japanese casualties.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Japanese schoolgirls training to fight allied soldiers with pointy sticks. Quora

20. The Horrific Costs of Invading Japan

The resources committed to invading Japan dwarfed those of D-Day in France. They included 42 aircraft carriers, 24 battleships, 400 destroyers and destroyer escorts, tactical air support from the Fifth, Seventh, and Thirteenth Air Forces, and 14 divisions for the initial landing. Casualties would have been horrific, depending on the degree of Japanese civilian resistance – and Japanese authorities were busy training even women and children to fight the invaders with spears and pointy sticks. Worst case scenarios envisioned over a million Allied and tens of millions of Japanese casualties.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Japanese schoolgirls training to fight Allied soldiers with sharpened sticks. Quora

Planners were unaware of the highly secretive Manhattan Project. When the US successfully tested an atomic bomb in July 1945, its game-changing potential was not fully understood. Viewed simply as “really big bombs”, planners had nebulous ideas of using atomic weapons during the November invasion in support of the amphibious landings. However, their use instead against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, shocked the Japanese government to its senses, ended the war, and eliminated the need to invade Japan.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Lord Byron, by Henry Pierce Bone. Christie’s

19. Britain’s Greatest Romantic Poet Romanced His Sister

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788 – 1824), was a leading figure in the Romantic Movement. A poet, satirist, politician and peer, his poems and personality captured Europe’s imagination. Among his best-known poetic works are the gloomy Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the satiric Don Juan, and the short love poem She Walks in Beauty.

Byron is widely regarded as one of Britain’s best poets, known and acclaimed for his brilliant use of the English language. However, he gained further fame, or infamy, and became even better known for his flamboyance, amorous lifestyle, and the notoriety of his sexual escapades with both men and women. His most infamous sexual escapade was a years-long incestuous relationship with his sister.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Augusta Leigh, Lord Byron’s sister and baby mama. Amazon

18. Byron Had a Love Child With His Sister, and Kept a Collection of His Lovers’ Pubes

Lord Byron’s most problematic affair was an incestuous one with his own sister, Augusta Leigh, whom Byron had seen little of during childhood. He made up for it by forming an extremely close relationship with her in adulthood. In 1814, the poet fathered a daughter upon his sister, making Byron the child’s uncle, as well as father.

A sentimentalist, Byron liked to keep mementos of his lovers. In those days, the norm for mementos was a lock of hair from one’s object of affection, perhaps tied with a ribbon. But being Byron, Britain’s most flamboyant poet, eccentric aristocrat, and all-around pervert, a simple lock of hair would not do. Instead, Byron liked to snip clumps of pubic hair from his lovers’ crotches, and kept them, cataloged and labeled, in envelopes.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Lady Caroline Lamb. Wikimedia

17. Byron’s Most Famous Affair Ended in an Epic Poetic Put Down

Byron’s most infamous affair was with his sister, but his most famous one was with the married Lady Caroline Lamb. She rejected him at first, describing him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know“. Lady Lamb changed her mind, however, and had a torrid affair with the poet that scandalized Britain. When Byron dumped her, a besotted Lady Lamb turned stalker, and pursued him relentlessly. She stopped at his house one time too many, and scribbled in a book on his desk “Remember me”. The exasperated Byron responded with a poem entitled Remember Thee! Remember Thee!

Remember thee! remember thee!
Till Lethe quench life’s burning stream
Remorse and shame shall cling to thee,
And haunt thee like a feverish dream!

Remember thee! Aye, doubt it not.
Thy husband too shall think of thee:
By neither shalt thou be forgot,
Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Lord Byron. Government Art Collection – Public Catalogue Foundation

16. Romantic Scandals Forced a Romantic Poet to Flee Britain and Seek Romantic Adventures Abroad

Mounting scandals eventually made Britain too hot for Bryon. So he hit the road, and roamed Europe for years at a stretch, including a seven-year stint in Italy. Restlessness eventually led him to join the Greeks in their war of independence from the Ottoman Turks.

However, he was disappointed with the Greeks of his day, because they differed greatly from the heroic Hellenes described by Homer. While moping about that discrepancy, he caught a fever and died in a Greek backwater at the age of 36.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Bea Arthur in a scene from The Golden Girls. The Mary Sue

15. Bea Arthur Was a WWII Marine

Actress, comedian, and singer Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (1922 – 2009) had a rich career in entertainment. Her ambitions began while attending a girls’ boarding school, where she was the tallest girl, and also the one voted “wittiest” by her classmates. She became an avid participant in drama programs and theatrical productions. Entertaining her friends with imitations of Mae West, she dreamt of a career in show business, but did not think her parents would support her dreams.

She eventually made it, and had an entertainment career that spanned seven decades. During those years, she became famous for her signature sitcom roles as Maude Findley in All in the Family and its spinoff Maude, and as Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls. Before that, however, Bea Arthur had been a WWII US Marine.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Bea Arthur’s US Marine enlistment photo. National WWII Museum

14. Marine Sergeant Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur downplayed her WWII contributions, denying having served and steering questioners away by pointing out that others had done far more. However, the documentary record shows that in 1943, aged 21, she had enlisted in the US Marine Corps under her birth name, Bernice Frankel. She worked as a typist and truck driver, and moved up the ranks from private to staff sergeant, before her honorable discharge in 1945.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Bea Arthur US Marine ID photo. Wikimedia

It was while serving in the Marines during the war that she met and married her husband, Robert Arthur, whose last name she took. The marriage was short-lived, but she kept the name and became Beatrice “Bea” Arthur. In hindsight, admirers of her no-nonsense character would probably nod their heads at the aptness of Maud or Dorothy Zbornak having been a Marine sergeant.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Wikimedia

13. The Earthquake That Devastated Lisbon on All Saints Day

In the eighteenth century, Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, was one of Europe’s wealthiest cities and busiest seaports. On the morning of November 1st, 1755, just as it began celebrating the religious festival of All Saints’ Day, Lisbon was almost completely demolished by a powerful magnitude 9.0 earthquake, whose shocks were felt as far away as Finland, North Africa, and the Caribbean.

Striking around 9:40 AM, the upheaval opened fissures nearly 20 feet deep in the city’s streets. Because of the religious festival, a significant percentage of the population were gathered in churches and cathedrals when the tremors began, and thousands were crushed to death as the houses of worship collapsed atop them. As the tremors subsided, another danger arose as fires erupted around the city, first individually, then joining together to transform Lisbon into a giant inferno. Then things got worse.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Life After 40

12. A Tsunami Wave Swept Away Earthquake Survivors Praying For Divine Help

Shaken and frightened survivors of the Lisbon earthquake sought to escape the fires and falling debris. So they rushed towards the harbor, where the large open squares of the royal palace promised safety from both conflagration and collapsing buildings. There, they were further alarmed when they encountered the incongruous sight of a harbor without water, with ships resting on the seabed.

Gathering in the drying silt of the harbor’s bottom, the survivors were led by priests in fervent prayers, beseeching God’s mercy and forgiveness of whatever sins had occasioned such divine wrath. Many were still praying and begging God’s mercy in the harbor when the sea returned with a vengeance: a tsunami, with a wall of water 40 feet high, swept in and drowned them.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Aftermath of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Encyclopedia Britannica

11. The Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami Raised Thorny Theological Questions

Total casualties of the Lisbon earthquake are estimated to have been as high as 60,000 deaths in the city alone. 100,000 or more deaths might have occurred in the Lisbon region, plus many more injured. The earthquake occurred as the Enlightenment was getting into full swing, and it inspired significant philosophical discourse and exchanges. The tragedy furthered the development of theodicy or the question of how a just and good God could allow what happened in Lisbon to take place.

The thorniest theodicy question was why God had sent an earthquake to crush His worshippers by the thousands in cathedrals and churches as they gathered in prayer to celebrate All Saints Day and glorify His name. The question was compounded and made thornier yet by His subsequent sending of a tsunami to drown the survivors who had been praying for His mercy in Lisbon’s harbor.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Ludwig II. Schloss Neushwanstein

10. The King Who Bankrupted Himself Building Fairytale Castles

Ludwig II of Bavaria, better known as “Mad King Ludwig” (1845 – 1886), reigned from 1864 until his death in 1886. A generous benefactor of the arts, he was an admirer and patron of the composer Richard Wagner. During his reign, Ludwig devoted himself to artistic and architectural projects, including opulent fairytale castles and palaces, whose construction he lavishly funded to the point of bankrupting himself.

After Bavaria joined the German Empire in 1871, Ludwig withdrew from governance. Concerning himself only intermittently with affairs of state, he went into morbid seclusion and devoted himself to his true passion: the arts. He worshipped the theater and the opera, especially the works of Richard Wagner, whose lifelong patron he became. He also developed a mania for extravagant building projects in the Bavarian mountains.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Neuschwanstein Castle. Wikimedia

9. Castle Construction Mania

Ludwig II kicked off his mania with the Linderhof Palace, patterned on the Trianon Palace and built between 1869 to 1878. Simultaneously, he began building his most famous project, Neuschwanstein, a fairy tale castle precariously situated on a crag and decorated with scenes from Wagner’s operas. Built from 1869 to 1886, it inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. As that one was being built, Ludwig started an even more ambitious project in 1878, the Herrenchiemsee Palace, a copy of Versailles. It was never completed, because the Mad King went bankrupt.

Between the abandonment of his official duties, profligate spending, and withdrawal into the life of a recluse among other odd behavior, Ludwig’s ministers finally had enough. In 1886, he was declared insane by a panel of doctors, and sent to a remote palace by a psychiatrist. Three days later, the deposed monarch drowned himself in a lake, and took his psychiatrist with him. Today, the Mad King’s architectural and artistic legacy includes many of Bavaria’s biggest tourist attractions.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Charlie Chaplin. ABC

8. The Lovable Tramp Was a Total Perv

English actor Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977) was and remains one of Hollywood’s most readily recognizable stars. The silent film era’s most famous figure, he is one of the silver screens all time greats. In addition to being a pioneer who revolutionized acting and comedy, Chaplin was also a sexual pervert who liked ’em young. So young as to cause scandal, derail his career, and get him deported from the US.

Chaplin also seems to have been Harvey Weinstein before there was a Harvey Weinstein. He is credited within pioneering the “casting couch”, whereby powerful Hollywood figures extracted sexual favors from actresses during auditions. Reportedly, Chaplin used caption cards during auditions to prompt aspiring actresses into increasingly suggestive acts and poses, until they stood before him naked or nearly so.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Pretty women and pies did it for Charlie Chaplin. Pinterest

7. Charlie Chaplin Got Off On Throwing Pies at Women

Charlie Chaplin’s kinks went beyond run-of-the-mill quid pro quo sexual harassment and entered the realm of the… unusual. For one thing, he had a thing for pies – and not just as comedic props and gags. After getting actresses to disrobe during auditions, Chaplin would begin by groping them in exaggerated ways. Then, having worked himself up by getting them to do a strip tease on demand, followed by a groping session, he would stand them naked against a wall and throw pies at them.

Chaplin also had a penchant for orgies, and liked to organize them with his friend and fellow comedic film star, Fatty Arbuckle. Those orgies came to a screeching halt in 1921, when Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping a woman to death, and tried for her murder. Although Arbuckle was acquitted, the Chaplin-Arbuckle orgy parties never resumed.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Chaplin, right, receiving an honorary Oscar in 1972 – his first time back in the US in two decades. Wikimedia

6. Charlie Chaplin’s Cradle Robbing Got Him Deported

Charlie Chaplin’s greatest scandals arose from his propensity for cradle robbing: he liked much younger women. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a pervert himself if ever there was one, had long disliked Chaplin’s political leanings, and used his sex scandals to launch a smear campaign against him. In 1944, he had Chaplin prosecuted for violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women across state lines for sexual purposes. Chaplin was acquitted, but his reputation was severely damaged.

In 1952, while Chaplin was in London for a film premiere, the US Department of Justice revoked the British actor’s re-entry visa. It stated that he would have to submit to an interview concerning his politics and morality before reentering the United States. Chaplain decided not to bother, cut his ties with the US, and settled in Switzerland.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Philip IV of Spain. Mad Monarchist

5. When Europe Was Swept By Poisoning Panics

Seventeenth-century Europeans were prone to paranoid episodes about poisoning. They seemed to have a standing fear that nefarious people planned to spread a plague throughout Christendom via sinister means, such as sorcery and witchcraft, or mysterious “poisonous gasses”.

Such fears led to a great panic that swept the city of Milan, Italy. It began in 1629, after the city’s governor received an alarming message from King Philip IV of Spain. It warned the governor to be on the lookout for four Frenchman who had escaped from a Spanish prison, and might be en route to Milan to spread the plague via “poisonous and pestilential ointments“.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Milan in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Wikimedia

4. “The Great Poisoning Scare”

For months after receiving a royal warning, tensions kept steadily mounting in Milan. The alarmed citizens kept a wary lookout for suspicious characters, and grew steadily more stressed out and frazzled as fears mounted of an imminent poisoning. The city thus sat on a powder keg for months, before finally erupting in what came to be known as “The Great Poisoning Scare of Milan“.

It started on the night of May 17th, when some citizens reported seeing mysterious people placing what appeared to be poison in a cathedral partition. Health officials went to the cathedral but found no signs of poisoning. The following morning, the Milanese woke to find that all doors on the main streets had been marked with a mysterious daub.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Execution of suspected poisoners and plague-spreaders in Milan. Getty Images

3. Mysterious Daubs Lead to City-Wide Panic

Milan’s health officials inspected the mysterious daubs that had appeared on city walls, but found nothing harmful in them. They concluded that the markings were a prank by some mischievous people with a sick sense of humor, out to get some laughs out of the citizens’ fears.

Official reassurances did not assure, however. Taking the mysterious daubs as a sign that the expected poison attack had finally arrived, Milan’s citizens went into a citywide bout of mass hysteria. They began accusing random people of acts of poisoning, ranging from passersby on the streets to various nobles to Cardinal Richelieu of France or general Wallenstein, commander of the armies of the Holy Roman Empire in the then-raging Thirty Years War.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Great Milan Poisoning Scare. Committee For Skeptical Inquiry

2. Hysteria Sweeps in Victims

Among the early victims of Milan’s poisoning hysteria was an elderly man who was spotted wiping a bench in church before sitting down. A mob of crazed women accused him of poisoning the seat, and seized and violently assailed him in church. They then dragged him to the magistrates while continuing to beat him on the way, and ended up killing him en route. Even more tragic was the case of a pharmacist who was accused of being in cahoots with the Devil when he was found with unknown potions.

After prolonged torture and stretching on the rack, he changed his protestations of innocence to a confession of guilt, repeating whatever his torturers wanted to hear in order to end the pain. Admitting to being in league with the Devil and foreigners to poison the city, the pharmacist named other accomplices who were innocent of any crime. They in turn were arrested and tortured, and to end their suffering, they named yet more innocents, repeating the process. All were tried, convicted based on the confession extracted under torture, and executed.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Milan in 1630, during a plague. Wikimedia

1. Hysteria Led People to Voluntarily Accuse Themselves

As Milan’s mass hysteria and mounting insanity tightened its grip on the fevered city, many Milanese stepped forward to accuse… themselves. Many went to the magistrates and voluntarily confessed to amazing deeds of the supernatural, describing meetings with the Devil, witches, sorcerers, and sundry practitioners of black magic, in which they plotted to poison the city.

As reported, “The number of persons who confessed that they were employed by the Devil to distribute poison is almost incredible“. Many were executed based on their voluntary false confessions. The hysteria did not subside until the city was struck by an even bigger catastrophe: an actual plague that swept through Italy and lasted into 1631.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Bartholomew, Robert E. – Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion

Bleacher Report – MMA History: How Pankration Champion Arrichion Won Olympic Crown After His Death

Chortle – You’d Never Get Away With It Today: Six Comedy Icons With a Seedy Reputation

Cracked – 5 Weird AF Facts History Class Left Out

Eisler, Benita – Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (1999)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Encyclopedia Britannica – Pancho Villa

Evans, Hilary, and Bartholomew, Roberts – Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior: Milan Poisoning Scare (2009)

Geosphere, Volume 13, Number 3 (2017) – What Happens to the Boats? The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and Portuguese Tsunami Literacy

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe II (1994)

Imperial War Museum – Grenade, Anti-Tank, No. 74 Mk I (‘Sticky Bomb’)

Independent, July 28th, 2008 – The Last Untouchable in Europe

MacCarthy, Fiona – Byron: Life and Legend (2002)

Maland, Charles J. – Chaplin and American Culture (1989)

National WWII Museum – Bea Arthur, US Marine

United States Army Center of Military History – Reports of General MacArthur, the Campaigns of MacArthur in the Pacific, Volume I, Chapter XIII: “Downfall”, the Plan For the Invasion of Japan

Arnold, Oren – The Mexican Centaur: An Intimate Biography of Pancho Villa (1979)

Whiting, Marvin C. – Imperial Chinese Military History (2002)

Wikipedia – Frane Selak

Wikipedia – Operation Downfall

Wikipedia – Sticky Bomb