|When told entertainingly and truthfully, stories from history’s textbook can be thrilling, enlightening, appalling, and depressing. History’s tales can also be distorted, swept under the proverbial rug, and abbreviated in the effort to gift wrap them for mass consumption. The little-known facts, however, often stand as the most interesting that our time line has to offer.
I delight in learning these historical tidbits, which many refer to as mindless trivia or cocktail-party conversation, and I am famous for making all those I know listen as I recount the newfound knowledge enthralling me (even though they usually don’t want to hear it). In the same vein, I present to you five supposed historical truths that I believe to be both interesting and enjoyable, so that you may go forth and inform your family, annoy your coworkers, and impress your friends.
1. Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father, Inventor, Revolutionary, Dysfunctional Parent
We all know the legend of Ben Franklin, a man who accomplished a great many impressive things, and whom history has revered as a veritable genius. Even brilliant humanitarians, though, sometimes make cruel and vengeful fathers.
Just as the American colonies stood divided between the urge to revolt against England and the need to continue allegiance to the mother country, so did Ben Franklin and his son, William. William was a royal governor of New Jersey and firmly believed that America owed her soul to England and should forever remain her obedient and thankful child. Needless to say, father Franklin was not pleased with his son’s stance in the fight for freedom.
Thoroughly disgusted and disappointed by William’s convictions, Ben Franklin finally had his son incarcerated in a small and filthy solitary cell for three years, where William became very ill, lost his teeth and hair, and was never allowed to see his wife before she died. While it’s certainly distressing to think that a father would impose such harsh conditions on his son, the ironical twist is that Ben was one of the foremost authorities on prison reform and worked diligently to rescue other prisoners who were suffering similar situations.
Our founding father wasn’t quite finished yet, though, for William also had a son. So, Ben took his grandson into his care, to teach him the “right” views and shield him from his father’s terribly misguided ways; in fact, forbidding contact with William all together.
In 1784, after nearly a decade of not hearing from his father, William wrote dear old dad a letter in an attempt to repair the damage, though still not apologizing for his political affiliations. Ben was unmoved. It seems he never forgave William for betraying him; and when Ben revised his autobiography, he actually removed nearly every mention of his disreputable son.
2. Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill... to Get Maimed and Tortured?
In the 12th century, Nuremburg, Germany stood as a prominent and successful European town. It was also the epicenter for diabolical tortures, which were performed in the dungeon of the Nuremburg castle. The modern English language still includes at least two references to this castle’s horrors, nine centuries after the screaming has stopped.
One of the punishments to be suffered by adulterous men and women consisted of harnessing them to a yoke and forcing them to carry heavy buckets of water up a very steep hill to the castle. Between the weight of the yoke and the weight of the water, not to mention the general fatigue, Jack would often stumble and fall down the hill, breaking his crown. Since the man and woman were both attached to the yoke, once Jack fell down, Jill naturally came tumbling right after.
Everyone hates getting the third degree over something, but not as much as we would have hated it in the 12th century. Good torture practices consisted of three steps in jolly old Nuremburg castle: First Degree, Second Degree, and Third Degree. For the First Degree, the suspected criminal, heretic, etc., was interrogated at length about the accusations that had been brought forth. At the Second Degree, the prisoner was shown the various instruments of torture and mutilation, so that his mind could ponder their horrific uses and the impending suffering. The Third Degree, of course, brought the actual sadistic tortures that would usually produce the desired confession.
3. The Search for the Holy Grail and International Banking
History has granted the Knights Templar a prestigious and mysterious stage on which to stand. In addition to embarking on the Crusades to defend and expand the Christian territories, however, the Knights also introduced a few services and tools that remain essential to modern society.
Although officially named The Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, the Order was, ironically, extremely prosperous. Money and land grants, donated by nobles for the sacred cause, created an obscene fortune for the overall group, though the knights themselves possessed no material wealth. Since the Knights were continually traveling across Europe and the Holy Land, they needed to be able to access their funds at various places and times, regardless of when and where the money was initially deposited. And so, in the early 1200s, branch banking was born, as was the check.
The Knights also brought back to Europe the many technological advances they had discovered in the Islamic nations. The magnetic compass, as well as overall knowledge in mapmaking and navigation, helped the lagging Europeans improve their societies and trade.
4. Do Not Call a Medieval Musician a Talented Artist!
In the modern world, we view singers and songwriters as creative and expressive artists, who are sharing their musical creations with the masses. In medieval times, however, this interpretation would have been considered an insult.
Regarded as a derivation of mathematics, medieval music was looked upon as a structured and methodical rendering, whose equation, if done correctly, could ultimately yield the harmonious sound of God. To imply that the musician was somehow expressing his own personal feelings and thoughts, expelling his sadness or exalting his joy, would seem a ludicrous notion and completely foreign concept to medieval citizenry.
5. Criminals Make Great Slaves in the Colonies.
In the 17th century, America was a vast new land, ripe for welcoming the undesirables of the mother country; or so England thought. The very first slaves to step on America’s shores were actually criminals and other villains that Great Britain sought to unload from its own prisons. The colonists were none too thrilled, but all their protests and complaints were ignored, leading to about 400 undesirables continuing to come ashore each year.
Once America had won its independence, however, England could no longer act as the impetuous bully. Needing to find a new home for its miscreants now that America had closed its shores, it turned its eyes to another new and vast land, known as Australia. England attempted to entice people to settle in Australia with the promise of generous gifts: a herd of cows, thousands of acres of land, and forty prisoners to be used as their own personal slaves.
The above historical tidbits can be found in the books listed below. I have also heard a couple of them stated elsewhere, but these references will give you the basis to learn more, should you be so inclined.
A Treasury of Great American Scandals by Michael Farquhar
The History of Torture by Daniel Mannix
The Knights Templars: God's Warriors, The Devil's Bankers by Frank Sanello
The Great Mortality by John Kelly