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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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A quarter of a billion years ago a shallow sea covered what is now Hubei, China (the parts of the world that are today Manchuria, South China, and Southeast Asia were large archipelagos in this shallow sea).  The warm water was perhaps a meter or so deep–a child could stand in it, and it was filled with proliferating shrimp, worms, and mollusks. The early Triassic was a strange time for life on Earth:  the world’s greatest mass-extinction (thus far) had just swept traditional Paleozoic players off the world stage, but the famous stars of the Mesozoic–the dinosaurs–had not yet taken over the land.  Peculiar creatures were fast evolving to fill empty ecological niches once filled by now extinct animals.

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You are probably wondering what sort of creatures lived in this vanished ocean–and you are in luck, because the answer is amazing!  Paleontologists in China discovered the remains of…a marine reptile (?) with a cartilaginous beak.  The creature had a rigid body and tail and 4 stubby little flippers for steering and swimming.  It also had bony plates on its back like a stegosaurus and tiny little pinpick eyes.  Scientists named the creature Eretmorhipis carrolldongi. The most analagous creature in today’s world is the platypus, and, indeed, Eretmorhipis looked like a crazy platypus (combined with a blind penguin and a stegosaurus).  The analogy however is rather misleading since, 250 million years ago the first monotremes were probably evolving in the same addled post-apocalyptic world (monotremes are amazing and bizarre, but, sadly, we don’t have a complete fossil record of them, so we have to base some of what we think about them on genetic paleontology which provides a rough timeline).

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Eretmorhipis carrolldongi was a hupehsuchian reptile.  It was a relative (or maybe a precursor) to the ichthyosaurs which soon took over the world’s oceans and evolved unique graceful mastery of the planet’s oceans before something went terribly wrong.  I want to write more about the icythyosaurs (their story illustrates something exceedingly important about life), but before I do that I wanted to share this stubby ridiculous platypus analog creature with you so you can think about the comic reptile rooting around its ancient ocean at night with its beak hunting shrimp and invertebrates with its sensitive beak in the turbid darkness.  The world is a mad grab bag and you never know what is going to be successful.   We probably out to talk about the end-Permian mass extinction too, but it is the stuff of ultimate nightmares, so I am going to slow walk that post for now… maybe when (if?) we are feeling stronger.

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Today we feature a masterpiece of Visigoth art.  This is a silver medallion from the Iberian Peninsula during the 5th-7th century A.D. which shows Bellerophon killing the Chimera with a lance.  The work is an anomaly:  it was made in early Medieval Christendom and has the style and workmanship of that time, yet its subject is entirely Greco-Roman in nature.   In ancient Greek myth, Bellerophon was a mythical Corinthian demigod who was the son of Poseidon.  With Athena’s help, he tamed Pegasus, a winged steed born of violence and ancient gods & monsters.  Bellerophon used this power of flight (and his own martial prowess) to kill the three headed chimera–part lion, part goat, and part snake–one of the most convoluted and confusing monsters of ancient mythology (and one of the children of Echidna, the great mother of monsters). Yet Bellerophon’s heroic deeds went to his head and he tried to fly up to the top of Mount Olympus and take a place among the Gods.  Because of his hubris, the gods cast him down.  They took Pegasus back, and the maimed Bellerophon was left as a crippled beggar.   Clearly the story appealed to somebody during the chaotic centuries after the Empire blew apart as different hordes fought their way back and forth across Spain, Gaul, and the Mediterranean. Pegasus has lost his wings in this version, but the long centuries of chaos and political and cultural upheaval have given it pathos. Look at the expression of fortitude and resignation on the warrior’s face!

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Do you know what the biggest new trend of 2019 is? It’s QUOKKAS! Finally the ‘teens feature a popular movement that Ferrebeekeeper can get behind.

Quokkas are cat-sized marsupial herbivores of the genus Setonix, a genus which has only a single species Setonix brachyurus.   Quokkas are most closely related to kangaroos, wallabies and pademelons: together these animals make up the family known as macropods.   Quokkas weigh from 2.5 to 5 kilograms (5.5 to 11 pounds) and live up to 10 years.  They have brown grizzled fur and live on a variety of vegetation native to their little corner of southwest Australia. Wikipedia somewhat judgmentally notes that they are promiscuous.  Females usually give birth to a sole joey which lives in their pouch for 6 months and remains dependent on the mother for several months beyond that.

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Quokka populations have declined precipitously since Europeans colonized Australia.  They are outcompeted and preyed on by invasive cats, foxes, and dogs, and they have suffered extensive habitat loss to farms and homebuilding (plus they have some native predators such as snakes). The great Jerusalem for the quokka is Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth.  Rottnest means “rat’s nest” in Dutch (which I feel like I could learn!).  Apparently the 17th century Dutch explorer, Willem Hesselsz de Vlamingh, spotted extensive colonies of quokkas on the island and mistook the creatures for giant rats.

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So why is this dwindling macropod suddenly so popular? Quokkas do not have a particular fear of humans (an exceedingly unwise outlook, in my humble opinion).  Additionally, because of the shape of their faces, they seem to have satisfied chilled-out smiles.  Indeed, they might actually have chilled-out smiles (they seem pretty benign and happy), but no quokkas returned my phone calls, so I can’t speak to their true emotional state.  Anyway, the combined lack of fear of humans and the endearing smiles make them perfect in “selfies” and adorable digital animal photos.  The internet is thus good to the quokkas whose popularity is soaring by the day. Perhaps they can parlay this digital fame into population growth and success in the real world (although I suspect the internet’s content-makers would caution the quokka that there is limited correlation between digital and real-world success).

Now that you have read the little essay, here are some adorable grinning quokka pictures.  I really hope these guys flourish because just look at them!

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For the last month-and-a-half, New York City has been besotted by a new sweetheart.  “Who is this gorgeous heart throb?”, you ask.  Is it some otherworldly super-model, a sexy head of state (of a different nation, obvs.), or a cultural hero with a new philosophy to recontextualize everything?  Ummm…maybe?  We don’t know as much about our new crush as we might since, um, he is a duck.

The mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) is a perching duck from East Asia (Japan, Korea, China, and maybe that creepy part of Russia above China).   Longtime Ferrebeekeeper readers will know that it has an important place in Chinese symbolism.   Due to the strange and disquieting mirror-verse symmetry we have with China, there is a very similar North American species of duck, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) which lives in the eastern half of North America from Canada down to Mexico.  The two sorts of ducks are the only species within the genus Aix.  The East Asian duck is perhaps a bit fancier.

This particular mandarin duck, who has been christened “Mandarin Patinkin” (in an awkward homage to a noted thespian) is thus not a native, but not from a wholly dissimilar ecosystem either.  He appeared in Central Park in early October. The duck has a brown band on his leg, so presumably he escaped from such rich Westchester bird lover’s aviary or from a farm specializing in non-native waterfowl.   He is a gifted flyer and when he is not preening before adoring throngs in Central Park, he flies off for some quiet time across the Hudson in New Jersey.

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I love birds! Just witness the drama of LG (who is doing quite well, by the way, although his goose spouse was injured by a wild animal).  Also, mandarin ducks are self-evidently lovely. Yet I am a bit perplexed by the extent to which the City has gone ape over this one renegade duck.  Here is a link to Gothamist articles following the bird in minute detail with paparazzi-like stalkerish obsession.  Holy Toledo Mud Hen! If you need celebrity dirt about this duck and his big city life, it is all there!

Yet, although this duck obsession is a bit odd, I feel that is a good thing.  Contemporary society is TOO addicted to celebrities. Most of these “stars” are meddling narcissists who spend all of their time building a by-the-numbers personal mythology and then sabotaging ancient reptilian religious pathways in the human brain in order to beguile the weak-minded to obsess over them (maybe this description will bring other New York “celebrities” to mind).  Perhaps some good old-fashioned bird watching will help us deconstruct some of this dangerous idolatry, but if not, at least we have spent our time paying attention to a cool duck instead of some goofy rapper or Kardashian or Andy Warhol wannabe.

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Also I will keep you posted if the duck has any torrid flings, money troubles, or runs over a bystander.

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If you have been closely following the affairs of the Andaman Islands, you will know that the North Sentinelese are back in the news of the world.  On November 17th, an American Christian missionary named John Allen Chau bribed corrupt fisherman to take him to the forbidden island in the Bay of Bengal.  As previously set forth in one of our most popular posts, the island is inhabited by the mysterious North Sentinelese, a stone age hunter-gatherer tribe of unknown language and customs which has spurned all contact with the rest of humankind.  The North Sentinelese are bellicose and territorial and they want nothing to do with our networked world of technology, trade, and toil.

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The natives, likewise, had no desire to hear John Allen Chau’s proselytizing, and they swiftly dispatched him with arrows and buried his body as quickly as possible (as is their known custom).   North Sentinel island is part of India, although the islanders do not seem to recognize (or even know about) their citizenship, and the Indian authorities have been trying to recover Chau’s body.  This strikes me as a grave error, since the islanders have demonstrated time and again that they do not desire visitors of any sort.  Jesus can worry about his missionary’s final arrangements, thus saving the Indian police from savage battle and saving the islanders from measles, flu, smallpox, or goodness-only-knows what outside disease or influence which they are woefully unprepared for.

Despite ample incontrovertible evidence that the North Sentinelese do not want to integrate into the modern world, there are always arguments about whether the Indian government is operating a “human zoo” (undoubtedly the Sentinelese have some choice descriptions of the interconnected pan-global hive organism that the rest of us are part of, insomuch as they can conceive of it). It strikes me that they have made their choices plain.  The worldwide fame/infamy which the North Sentinelese have gained in the last fortnight will quickly fade away, and we can go back to thinking of them as a peculiar alternate sect of humankind—when we think of them at all…

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There have been some stories bouncing around the world media lately which are highly germane to past Ferrebeekeeper posts (and to some bigger topics too).  We’ll get to them one at a time this week, but let’s start with the most exciting news:  today (11/26/18) NASA’s InSight lander touched down successfully on Mars at 2:47 PM Eastern Time.   The craft is the eighth human-made craft to successfully touch down on the red planet. It’s unwieldy name is a trademark agonizing NASA acronym which stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”  To put this in more comprehensible (yet less correct) terms, the lander is a geophysics probe which will examine the interior of the planet.  Of course InSight isn’t really geophysics since it is not studying Earth, but saying “astrophysics” misleads one from the lander’s core mission of assessing Mars’ internal composition and structure.

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The landing was a marvel of aerospace engineering since, in the span of about 6 and a half minutes, the craft was forced to slow from 17,300 kph (10,750 mph) to 8 kph (5 mph). Coincidentally, this was the first interplanetary mission to launch from California…from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where my paternal grandfather used to paint rockets back in the 1950s and 60s! Speaking of which, as always, I am taken aback by the extent to which our interplanetary probes resemble retro UFOs from 1950s science fiction.

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The craft landed on Elysium Planitia an enormous featureless plain famous for its dullness.  You may think “why didn’t they just send the poor thing to Kansas?” but since the craft is designed to examine the interior of Mars, its landing sight was not important (except to make sure the lander arrived in one piece).

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Now that the probe has finally reached its destination, it will begin to utilize a sophisticated array of instruments including a seismic wave reader, a subterranean infrared reader to monitor heat escaping Mars, and a sophisticated radio array to monitor the planet’s core (among other tools).

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It is easy to lose track of the many amazing Martian discoveries being made by robot explorers, but InSight strikes me as truly important since it offers to answer one of the most important question about Mars–how did it go from being a volcanically active world with oceans and an Earthlike atmosphere to being an inactive, desolate desert?  We’ll keep you posted as discoveries (insights?) come rolling in, but, for now, congratulations NASA!

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World War I effectively ended on 11 November, 1918 at 5:00 AM when Germany signed an armistice with the Allied powers.  We need a post to appropriately contextualize the end to one of history’s most disastrous chapters, but it is unclear where to start with such a huge and fraught historical subject as the Great War.

Let’s star on the ground, where a generation fought and died.

I am not going to write about the stupid global politics leading up to (and out of) the war.  Suffice to say the vainglorious aristocrats who ran Europe and the world ended up caught in a trap of their own making with no way out other than to bleed their countries dry while hoping for the best. You can read about the events leading up to the war on your own if you wish, but it is turgid stuff and, historians still disagree about the larger lessons (if any).

However a few great works of literature brought home the absolute horror of life in the trenches, and that is what we need to address. The war created a fundamental and inescapable trap for those who served.  It was a trap honed to razor sharpness by the circumstances–but it is familiar to anyone who must deal with bureaucracies or just with other people… and therein lies the horror.

So imagine being conscripted to be an infantryman to fight in France or Belgium.  After scant training your nation hands you a high-powered rifle, and then plops you into a muddy ditch filled with corpses, explosives, and corned beef  until one day you’re told to go “over the top” and charge into an impregnable fortified machine gun nest and certain death or contusion. Really think about the dread of such an order and imagine what you would do.

I am pretty sure you would rush into your death…not because you are a towering model of bravery (though maybe you are), but because what other choice would you have?  To refuse and be summarily shot by an officer? To shiftlessly loll around the back until your fellow soldiers noticed and decided you were worthless and arranged an accident? To go stark raving mad on the spot? Those things seem worse than being blasted to pieces by shrapnel and rifle bullets.  Likewise they seemed worse to millions of soldiers who knew pretty quickly what the true nature of the war was, but who had no way out other than to carry on in impossible circumstances.

World War I represents the full horror of human society.  Acting together, the rest of humankind can make you DO ANYTHING.  There is no resisting them.

Modern humans are like ants: we wither and die without our extended networks.  These networks are our glory–they provide us resources and information we could never obtain on our own–but, if they somehow go wrong, they are a prison sterner than any Alcatrez or Devil’s Island.  Imagine the worst moments of 8th grade.  Now imagine it with Howitzers the size of fortresses and poison gas and the worst boss you have ever had (except with power of instant execution over you).

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We would like to pretend otherwise but human society is often harmful and vicious. World War I perfectly demonstrates that problem. Everyone said “Huzzah! our brave boys will win the day with true bravery…but true bravery is no match for industrial machines and implacable logistics (and pig-headed politicians).  World War I was a perfect inflection point of the stupidities and horrors of preindustrial feudal society with the stupidities and horrors of modernity and machine-like hierarchies.

And then, after all of that, we didn’t learn our lesson.  It was only the first round of the two part drama of the World Wars.

Well…so far anyway

It isn’t as though nationalism and monstrous greed have vanished among  politicians and business leaders. Enormous machines and hierarchies become more enormous and hierarchical.  Politicans (and the rest of us) however have not grown noticeably.  Even if there were visionaries and geniuses who could prevent any more such disasters, the rest of us people would never let them.

So thank goodness the Great War has been gone for a hundred years, but we all need to remember it and to remember to work tirelessly at dealing better with each other…if we even can.

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We have had a lot of excitement the last couple of weeks, what with Halloween and the midterm election.  Let’s relax a little bit with [checks notes] the horrifying story of a dare gone wrong which lead to the tragic death of a young man? What?? Who chooses this content? Gah!

Well, anyway, this story comes from Australia where, in 2010, teenager Sam Ballard was hanging out with his mates (which is what Australians call friends) and drinking some wine when a small garden slug crawled across his friend’s patio.  In a manner instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with teenage boys, the young men jokingly dared one another to eat the tiny mollusk, and, to show them up, Sam gulped down the tiny creature.  This proved to be an irreversible, fatal error.  Soon Sam’s legs began to hurt and then he fell into a coma for more than a year.  Sam regained consciousness but he was paralyzed and subject to a host of dreadful ailments which ultimately killed him a few days ago.

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There may be a moral to this sad horror story (particularly in the States where, in 2016, 46.4% of the electorate made a seemingly trivial– albeit disgusting–choice which is paralyzing and killing our nation), however there is certainly a scientific explanation.  Slugs can carry rat lungworm disease which is caused by a parasitic nematode called Angiostronjilus cantonensis (crustaceans and frogs can carry the worm as well).  In the happy normal course of existence, the slugs, crabs, and frogs (and thus the nematodes) are eaten by rats which develop lungworm infection in, you know, their lungs.  They excrete droppings infected with lungworms which in turn are eaten by slugs and small invertebrates which are then eaten by rats and frogs. This nematode was originally indigenous to Southeast Asia and nearby Pacific Islands, however as the climate changes and humans move around (taking rats and nematodes with us, apparently) the microscopic worms have spread to Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

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I enjoy nature and have a deep appreciation of ecosystems and all of their diverse inhabitants, yet somehow the preceding paragraph makes me want to burn away rats, frogs, slugs, and nematodes with cleansing fire and live like Howard Hughes.  Speaking of fire, if you must eat rats, frogs, garden slugs, small invertebrates, or nematodes,  you should thoroughly cook them first.  I guess that is a really useful and ancient pro tip for success in life.

There is a bigger reason I am telling this upsetting story though.  Strange microscopic bits of one ecosystem have a way of getting into other ecosystems and causing complete havoc. Rat lungworms don’t even really have anything to do with humans, but when mistakenly consumed by us, they do not end up in our lungs but instead in our brains (btw, this is bad news for the nematodes too, which are unable to complete their natural revolting nightmare life-cycle).

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Paleontologists have long speculated that this sort of mix-up is a factor in many mass die-offs and other large scale extinction events.  Fossil evidence for such things however is exiguous, so they have to look for analogous situations in the modern world (like the case of poor Sam Ballard) or go digging in the genomes of modern living organisms.  These genomes often do carry information about a long strange history of fighting off weird viruses, pathogens, and microscopic invaders, but it is not easy to figure out the specifics within the Rube Goldberg-style world of immune cell epigenetics. Zookeepers and stockpeople (and their veterinary pathologists), however, know all about these sorts of dark misconnections from horrible sad incidents which happen all the time in farms and zoos.  I suppose I am bringing this up because I suspect that climate change, near instant international travel, and modern supply chains, will continue to amplify the problem (I have touched base concerning this in my essays about parasitoid wasps, but these may be a touch abstract, so I am telling Sam Ballard’s story).

We could spend more time and money understanding biology properly to get ahead of these trends (which will be greatly magnified in any synthetic ecosystems which we build on Earth or beyond), or we could continue with our current choice of giving all of our resources to corrupt billionaires to hoard.  While we ponder that choice, let us extend our deepest condolences to the Ballards for their terrible loss.  I am also going to clean my kitchen with bleach and maybe take a shower.

 

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Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s special Halloween series about cities!  Obviously, no such effort would be complete without venturing once again into the realms of the Gothic, that ill-defined but very real concept which encompasses literature, history, culture, and architecture in exceedingly different (and yet weirdly unified) ways across a span of 1700 years.  My first inclination here was to present some famous Gothic fantasy cities—Minis Tirith, Gotham, Lankhmar, Oldtown, and Ankh-Morpork (sob) but the daunting nature of this project quickly became obvious.  Maybe we will revisit these places later (I feel like I have lived in each of them), but right now let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most successful actual extant Gothic city, which is also a place I don’t know nearly as well as those fantasy burgs: the great metropolis of Barcelona!

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I have legions of friends who return from Barcelona singing its praises as the world’s greatest party city, and I remember lots of partial factoids from the 1992 Summer Olympics (which were completely amazing: Thanks Barcelona!).  Sadly, I don’t know much about the actual city which is too bad–of all of the places on Earth, Barcelona has true claim to being the most Gothic city, not just because of its Gothic quarter (the somber medieval buildings were added to and spruced up at the end of the 19th century) , its ancient Gothic cathedral (the Barcelona Cathedral, seen at the top of the post and immediately above), its new Gothic cathedral (The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família designed by Gaudi, which is immediately below), or its many other Gothic architectural wonders, but instead  because of its history.

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Barcelona has two foundation myths, both of which are amazing.  According to legend it was either founded by the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal’s dad) or by Hercules himself as he roamed the Mediterranean world during his famous labors.  Wow!  The truth is only slightly less amazing.  The Romans first built Barcelona into a major city, but they built on top of a settlement which was already ancient.  Archaeologists have found artifacts/remains which can be dated back to 5000 years ago.

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 Ancient Roman Burial Ground in Barcelona

As the Roman Empire blew apart (because of climate change, cultural stagnation, and disastrous misrule by corrupt dolts), strange groups of barbaric invaders from the hinterlands marauded through what had once been the most prosperous provinces of the West. Among these tribes were Huns, Franks, Sueves, Vandals, Alans, and Burgundians (goodness help us), but perhaps the most infamous of these groups were the Visigoths, who sacked Rome itself in 410 AD.  The Visigoths warred with Rome and its allies for generations while they sought a permanent kingdom (hoping perhaps to become like the Franks, who grabbed up the most beautiful parts of France).  For a time it seemed the Visigoths had found a permanent home in what is now southern France, but the tides of War turned against them and they moved southwards.

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Thus, in the beginning of the 6th century AD, Barcelona was the capital of the Visigoth Kingdom.  In 511 AD, the king of the Visigoths was a nine-year-old child named Amalaric.  Amalaric was an Arian Christian, which is to say he was a follower of the nontrinitarian Christological doctrine of Arius, not that he marched around in studded jackets throwing dumb white power fist salutes (although, frankly, he probably did that too).  He was married to Chrotilda, the daughter of Clovis I and she was a devout Catholic devoted to the trinity. The two fought ferociously about religion and Amalaric would beat Chrotilda savagely to demonstrate the superiority of his Christological doctrines.  At one pointshe even sent a towel stained with her blood to her brother Childebert I to show him the benighted state of her marriage.

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Hmm…We have fallen down a bit of a Medieval history rabbit hole here in describing why Barcelona is a Gothic city.  To succinctly recap, it was the capital of the Visigoths and it has whole districts of Gothic buildings which are either Medieval, or made in faux Medieval styles.  And what about Amalaric?  In the early 530s, he fought the Ostragoth army and was defeated.  He fled back to Barcelona but was betrayed and murdered by his own men (perhaps at the command of Theudis, governor of Barcelona.  Some say you can still hear Amalaric’s ghost, angrily promulgating Arian doctrines among the midnight bubble disco parties of present-day Barcelona, but to me that sounds like something some disreputable blogger made up to get hits.

 

   

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