WSJ Historically Speaking: For Feb. 29, Tales of the Calendar Wars

A carved Mayan calendar on textured background. Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. PHOTO: ISTOCK

A carved Mayan calendar on textured background. Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. PHOTO: ISTOCK

Every four years on Feb. 29, we are reminded of one of life’s most puzzling conundrums: Time is both arbitrary and immutable. The “leap” making its appearance this Monday shows that the Western calendar on which we place so much reliance is a conceit—a piece of fiction introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582.

Despite the provisional nature of calendars, two real phenomena govern almost all of them: the phases of the moon and the rotations of the sun. Our Mesolithic ancestors were the first people to harness the movements of the cosmos to provide a fixed notion of the past, the present and the future. The oldest known calendar in the world was discovered in a Scottish field in 2013, notched into the earth some 10,000 years ago. Our forebears had created it by shaping 12 specially dug pits around a 164-foot arc to mimic the phases of the moon and track the months. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Valentine to the Bad Boys of Literature

Among the ancient Greeks, the greatest ‘bad boy’ of them all was Zeus. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Among the ancient Greeks, the greatest ‘bad boy’ of them all was Zeus. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

In “Pride and Prejudice” Jane Austen highlighted a truth not universally acknowledged when she made Elizabeth Bennett fall for the dark and brooding Mr. Darcy rather than for a sweet-tempered suitor like her sister Jane’s Mr. Bingley.

Readers just love the bad boys. As Lady Caroline Lamb once said about her lover Lord Byron, it’s the men who are “mad, bad and dangerous to know” who set the heart racing.

Among the ancient Greeks, the greatest “bad boy” of them all was Zeus, who had his wicked way with innumerable nymphs and princesses, though his Olympian brothers were little better. For sheer priapic energy, however, the prize goes to Gilgamesh, god and hero of the Sumerian epic that bears his name. His lust, we’re told, left “no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble.” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Animals That Save Human Lives

Gen. John Pershing awards Sgt. Stubby with a gold medal in 1921. Stubby served in 17 battles and fought in four major allied offensives during WWI. PHOTO: SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION’S NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

Gen. John Pershing awards Sgt. Stubby with a gold medal in 1921. Stubby served in 17 battles and fought in four major allied offensives during WWI. PHOTO: SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION’S NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

One of the most popular monuments to animal bravery can be found in New York City’s Central Park. A little north of the Children’s Zoo, the statue of a Siberian husky named Balto stands at attention on a granite rock. In February 1925 Balto led the final team of sled dogs that battled through 674 miles of snow and ice to bring diphtheria serum to the stricken children of Nome, Alaska.

The statue is a reminder of the debt of gratitude that we owe not just to the brave dogs that helped to save a town’s children but to all of the animals that have served humankind or given their lives for us.

For most of history, humans blithely ignored that debt. There is, for example, the Homeric story of Odysseus coming home after 20 years to find that no one had bothered to care for his faithful dog, Argos. And in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we find the lovesick Helena crying to Demetrius, “Use me but as your spaniel—spurn me, strike me, / Neglect me, lose me,” all of which rather aptly sums up the Elizabethan attitude to Man’s Best Friend. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Dreams That Created Literary Masterpieces

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the British writer best known for 'Frankenstein,’ and second wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the British writer best known for ‘Frankenstein,’ and second wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Dreams have been the stuff of divine inspiration ever since Jacob, in the Book of Genesis, dreamed of a ladder that connected heaven and earth.

In the “Divine Comedy” (completed in 1320), Dante Alighieri wrote of the three dreams that beset him while traveling through Purgatory. In 1678, John Bunyan claimed that “The Pilgrim’s Progress” had come to him while sleeping: “I layed me down in the place to sleep: and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.”

The Romantics, because of their obsession with the sublime, were particularly sensitive to dreaming. The poet William Blake inhabited a twilight of visions and dreams. “O, what land,” he wrote, “is the land of Dreams?” It was a place so real and vivid to him that Blake claimed his method for relief etching—which he used to combine text and color images in “illuminated printing”—was the gift of his late younger brother, Robert, who explained it in a dream. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Resolved to Lose Weight in ’16? Join a Venerable Club

English Romantic poet George Gordon Noel Byron (from around 1810). To keep his weight down, he subsisted on a diet of flattened potatoes drenched in vinegar. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

English Romantic poet George Gordon Noel Byron (from around 1810). To keep his weight down, he subsisted on a diet of flattened potatoes drenched in vinegar. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Resolutions and Jan. 1 have a fatal attraction for one another—much like beer and pizza. The vow most often cited, “to go on a diet,” also happens to be the one most quickly abandoned. According to a 2013 British study, two out of five dieters don’t make it beyond the first week.

The problem isn’t that people are lazy or spoiled. It’s that the purpose of a diet has become divorced from its original intentions. The ancient Greeks were largely responsible for the concept. “Diatia” means “way of life” or “regimen.” How a person approached the business of eating was as important as what entered his stomach. Balance, self-control and proper order were thought to be three key aspects to living the good life. Only barbarians, such as the Persians, gorged on luxuries.

The two greatest doctors of the classical world, Hippocrates (around 460 to 375 B.C.) and Galen (A.D. 129 to about 216) had strong ideas about the kind of diatia everyone should follow. They argued that the mind and body were controlled by four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The goal was to keep them in equilibrium. A surplus of phlegm, for example, could make a patient lethargic, requiring more citrus in the diet. Too much black bile, on the other hand, made a person melancholic—which, Galen thought, required bloodletting or purging to remove the noxious humors from the body.

Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Comets Chill and Cheer Throughout History

Halley’s Comet in 1997. In 1304 the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone created a controversy when he painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet flying over the stable PHOTO: F. CARTER SMITH/SYGMA/CORBIS

Halley’s Comet in 1997. In 1304 the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone created a controversy when he painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet flying over the stable PHOTO: F. CARTER SMITH/SYGMA/CORBIS

“O star of wonder. Star of night. Star with royal beauty bright.” But what star, exactly, were the Magi, the three wise men, following as they traveled east in search of baby Jesus? The question has intrigued astronomers, theologians and philosophers for two millennia.

In 1304 the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337) started a minirevolution when he painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet flying over the stable. It is thought that the appearance of Halley’s comet in 1301 inspired Giotto to make the connection. It seems to have been the first time that anyone—in art at least—had dared to associate the Nativity with a comet. Rather than being a cause for rejoicing, comets had long been considered an omen of death, disaster and disease. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: How Autocrats Failed to Stop Vices and Revolution

Alcohol is dumped into a New York sewer during the prohibition era, circa 1920. PHOTO: FPG/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Alcohol is dumped into a New York sewer during the prohibition era, circa 1920. PHOTO: FPG/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

It’s been 82 years since the repeal of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933, signaled the end of America’s experiment with teetotalism. Though the ban looks like an exercise in futility now, in 1920 many temperance campaigners hailed it as the beginning of a new era. “Prohibition is won, now for tobacco!” went the cry.

Although the U.S. is indelibly associated with Prohibition, authorities the world over have long regarded the pleasures (or vices) of alcohol, tobacco and coffee with deep suspicion. Concerns about these habit-forming substances’ potential health hazards didn’t provoke the official hostility. Instead it often came from paranoia over what the masses might get up to if allowed to let off a little steam without supervision.

The Chinese emperors were among the first to regard the convivial nature of alcohol as a threat to political control. Their attempts to restrict its consumption, according to Chinese legend, began around 2070 B.C. with Yu the Great, founder of the Xia, China’s earliest dynasty. He declared an outright alcohol ban. Subsequent emperors balked at being quite so drastic, but they tried almost everything else, from forbidding three or more people to drink together “for no reason” to making it a capital crime for courtesans to be caught drinking. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: How America’s Writers Loved and Hated Thanksgiving

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Despite its young age—a mere 152 years—Thanksgiving has deep roots in the American psyche. It was already popular when President Lincoln first established the holiday on the fourth Thursday of every November. In 1842, two decades before Lincoln’s decree, Nathaniel Hawthorne declared Thanksgiving Day “a good old festival; and my wife and I have kept it with our hearts, and besides have made good cheer upon our turkey, and pudding, and pies, and custards.”

The bliss of home life combined with the culinary delights of turkey, pudding and pies also featured in the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe (“The Old New England Thanksgiving”) and Louisa May Alcott (“An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving”). Such paeans were in perfect accord with the original intentions behind the holiday. Sarah Hale, the journalist who led the campaign to have Thanksgiving accorded federal status, wrote in 1868: “The enjoyments are social, the feastings are domestic, therefore this annual festival is really the exponent of family happiness and household piety. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Secret Agents, From Babylonian Tablets to James Bond

Daniel Craig in the latest James Bond film, ‘Spectre’ PHOTO: COLUMBIA PICTURES

Daniel Craig in the latest James Bond film, ‘Spectre’ PHOTO: COLUMBIA PICTURES

James Bond may have won the hearts and wallets of audiences world-wide—“Spectre,” the latest movie in the series, opens Friday after shattering box-office records in the U.K.—but armchair experts have always grumbled that Ian Fleming’s world of spies is too exciting to have any relationship to reality or history.

The critics are wrong. Fleming, who died in 1964, packed his books and plots with real historical allusions, beginning with the secrecy classification “for your eyes only.” The origins of the term go back to the Mesopotamians.

The oldest known classified document is a report made by a spy disguised as a diplomatic envoy at the court of King Hammurabi, who died around 1750 B.C. in Babylon. The spy smuggled the object—marked “This is a secret tablet” on the front—to his handlers in the Kingdom of Mari. Shortly after being found in the 20th century, the tablet and its translation went missing, vaulting it to the top rank of wanted secret files. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The World-Changing Power of the Flu

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Getting a flu vaccine is a dreary annual chore, made worse by the fact that the serum often doesn’t work against the current strain of the virus. But good news seems to be on the horizon. Scientists now report that they have successfully adjusted a viral protein to teach immune systems to fight groups of viruses—an important step toward creating a universal vaccine.

The breakthrough is long overdue. The flu is an ancient disease—at least 2,000 years old—and one of the deadliest, with 10 pandemics in just the past three centuries.

Such is the flu’s power that it should be added to the list of history-altering diseases like typhoid, malaria and smallpox. The first wiped out almost a third of the Athenian population in 430 B.C., a year into the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans. Sixteen hundred years later, in 1167, a malaria-like epidemic forced the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I to abandon Rome and retreat with his army to Germany.

Continue reading…