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I have been trying not to write about flags too much…ever since an impassioned plea for blogging feedback revealed surprising anti-flag sentiments among our general readership.  Yet, Brazil’s flag features outer space AND a golden rhombus.  How could I not write about such a thing?

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The basis of the modern Brazilian flag is the flag of the Brazilian empire.  That flag had all sorts of classical medieval trappings of empire: a laurel wreath, a world-girding cross, a green shield, and big fat green & gold crown, however the backdrop—a bright yellow rhombus on a Kelly green field–was meant to be seen from a distance, and so it had a robust minimalist appearance.

When the First Brazilian Republic supplanted the empire in 1889, the flag changed by getting rid of all the regal trappings and replacing them with vault of the heavens.  The particular stars represent the night sky over Rio De Janeiro on the night of November 15, 1889, when the First Brazilian Republic was born.  The motto “Ordem e Progresso” means “order and progress” (that’s exactly what I would have guessed…hey, do I secretly know Portuguese?).

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There were however other options on the table and some of them are pretty fascinating.  Look at the weird dark mirror of the American flag which was proposed…or that strange black and white monstrosity which looks like it was printed at Kinkos to be handed out by street people.

On the whole though, the Brazilian flag is quite splendid!  Its bold color scheme stands out among all of the hundreds of flags of the world and perfectly represents the glowing dynamism of the Amazon and of the young nation!  Hooray for Brazil!

Brazil-People

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Emperor Dom Pedro I at age 35, 1834

One of the founding fathers of Brazil’s democracy was, somewhat ironically, a king and a colonial emperor.   Born in 1798, Dom Pedro I was the fourth son of King Dom João VI of Portugal and Queen Carlota Joaquina.  When Portugal was invaded by the French in 1807, the royal family fled to the wealthy and vast Portuguese colony of Brazil.   Young Pedro thus grew up on the vast estates of South America.  The prince particularly enjoyed physical and artistic pursuits such as hunting, building, music, furniture making, and horseback riding (although he tended to neglect his academic pursuits and studies in statecraft).  When he reached adolescence he pursued other physical pursuits as well, and his romantic dalliances were a lifelong problem for his government and his wife, Maria Leopoldina, an Austrian Princess.

In 1821, revolution in Portugal compelled Dom João VI to return to Lisbon.  The king left his son Pedro as regent…he also left some valuable advice: if revolution were to come also to Brazil (a certainty in those days of colonial independence), Pedro should join it, rebel against his father and co-opt the movement for himself.  This is exactly what Pedro did in 1822.  On the 1st of December, 1822, Pedro became Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil.   By 1824 the huge South American nation had made a clean break from Portugal and was well and truly independent.

Independence_of_Brazil_1888Declaration of Brazil’s independence by Prince Pedro on 7 September 1822

Alas, Pedro’s constitutional empire was ridden with secessionists. Brazil swiftly began to rip apart into separate nations.  First he was forced to quash the Confederation of the Equator, a secession bid in Brazil’s northeast.  Then he had to fight the Cisplatine War, an Argentine land grab which ultimately lead to an independent Uruguay being carved out of Brazil’s southernmost province.

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Pedro I was the heir apparent to the Portuguese throne (which he rebelled against back up in paragraph 2).  When his father died in 1826, he briefly became king of Portugal before abdicating that throne in favor of his daughter, Dona Maria II.  Unfortunately his scheming younger brother, the traditionalist Dom Miguel, stole the throne from his niece (Dom Pedro had toyed with the idea of marrying them in order to prevent exactly such an outcome). Weary of secession attempts, and recognizing that he was needed back in Portugal, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his 5 year old son Pedro II.  He joined forces with the Portuguese liberals and defeated his brother in an Iberian civil war, but just as this “War of Restoration” was finished he keeled over from tuberculosis.

Among all of those revolutions, counter-revolutions, abdications, and trans-Atlantic crossings, it is easy to lose sight of how remarkable Pedro I was.  In an age of bondage, he despised slavery.  Unable to convince the slaveholding landowners of the Brazilian national assembly to enact a gradual process for ending slavery, he decided to lead by example and freed all of his slaves.  He then granted lands from his estate at Santa Cruz to these manumitted bondsmen.

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He possessed an understanding of people’s shared humanity. This is rare enough among everyone but especially unusual among those who are born to immense privilege.  When adoring Brazilians once unyoked the horses of his carriage and began pulling it themselves, he promptly stopped them and proclaimed “It grieves me to see my fellow humans giving a man tributes appropriate for the divinity, I know that my blood is the same color as that of the Negroes.”

After Dom Pedro’s day, Brazil has sometimes flirted with absolutism (always to its detriment), however the delightfully heterogeneous and chaotic modern democracy owes its real character to this king who was always willing to set aside his own power, prestige, and privilege in order to advance the betterment of all.

Brazil-People

*Also, apparently, his grooming was immaculate.  It is a footnote, but everything I have read mentions it.

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Zhu Di (1360 – 1424) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor (who, coincidentally, had a great many offspring).  When Zhu Di ascended to the throne he styled his reign as the “Yongle” reign (which means “perpetual happiness”).  The Yongle Emperor was everything an absolutist Chinese emperor was supposed to be.  His armies smote the enemies of China.  He moved the capital city to Beijing (where it remains to this day) and built the Forbidden City.  He instituted the rigorous examination system which came to dominate Chinese civil service.  Under his rule, infrastructure leaped forward to a level previously unknown in China (or anywhere else, for that matter).  The peasantry was happy and successful.  Culture, arts, industry, trade and knowledge flourished.  It was a glorious golden age for China.

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The Forbidden City as Depicted in a Ming Dynasty Painting

The Yongle Emperor was one of China’s greatest emperors—he is on a short list with Tang Taizong, Wu of Han, and Song Taizu.  During his time, China was the richest, most prosperous, and most advanced society on earth. He will be recalled forever as one of history’s truly greatest leaders…but…

Whenever the Yongle Emperor is mentioned, so too, his problematic accession must be mentioned. For Zhu Di was not the Hongwu Emperor’s first choice of heir…or even the second for that matter.  Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as the Jianwen Emperor in 1398 (in accordance with ancient rules of strict primogeniture).  The Jianwen Emperor feared that all of his many uncles would prove troublesome to his reign, so he began a campaign of demoting and executing them (Jianwen means “profoundly martial”).  In accordance with the universal rules of irony, this pogrom caused Zhu Di, then the Prince of Yan, to rise against his nephew.  In the civil war between the Prince of Yan and the “Profoundly Martial” emperor, the former thoroughly thrashed the latter.  In 1402, Zhu Di presented the world with the unrecognizably charred bodies of the Jianwen emperor, the emperor’s consort, and their son.  In that same year he proclaimed himself the Yongle Emperor (and launched his own far more ruthless pogrom against extended family and against orthodox Confucians who had stood against him).

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Detail of the hilt of a Yongle era Chinese sword

So the reign of the Yongle Emperor began against an uninspiring backdrop of civil war, charred relatives, and general devastation.  Worst of all, (from Yongle’s perspective), those charred bodies were suspiciously unrecognizable. Rumors spread that the Jianwen Emperor had taken a page from his grandfather’s playbook and escaped the palace dressed as a begging monk.  Maybe he is still out there somewhere living anonymously like Elvis and Hitler.

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This story of palace intrigue and feudal strife, lead to a bizarre postscript which is also one of the grace notes of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese society has traditionally looked inward, but the Yongle Emperor was convinced (so it was whispered) that the Jianwen Emperor was still running around somewhere.  To distract the nation from this possibility (and perhaps to find the usurped emperor living abroad and rub him out), the Yongle Emperor commissioned a fleet like no other—a vast treasure fleet to explore the known world.  The largest vessels of this fleet were said to be immense ocean-going junks 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide).  They were crewed by thousands of people and outfitted with fabulous canons. With hundreds of supporting vessels, these treasure ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa (under the command of the fabulous eunuch admiral Zheng He).  The treasure fleets left behind the traditional medieval maritime sphere of local commerce, small scale warfare, neighborhood tribute. They were on course for the true globalism which marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but alas, Yongle died as he personally led an expedition against the Mongols.  China’s eyes again turned towards its own vast internal universe. Maritime voyages and global exploration quickly became a thing of the past.

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In 1344, disaster struck the populous agricultural lands between the Huai and Yangtze Rivers in China. Crops not withered by drought were devoured by locust swarms.  Plague stalked the starving masses.  Among the many victims of the catastrophe were the Zhu family, destitute peasant farmers who had already given away the majority of their children to adoption or concubinage. Father, mother, and eldest son died of plague, leaving their teenage son Zhu Yuanzhang penniless, starving, and surrounded by the decaying bodies of his family.  He begged the landlord for a small burial plot but was angrily rebuffed; only with help from a kindly neighbor was he able to dress his dead kin in rags and inter them in a shallow grave.  It was a miserable start to what was arguably the most meteoric social climb in history.

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With a long chin and pocked face, Zhu Yuanzhang was regarded as exceptionally ugly.  As a newborn he was unable to eat and nearly died. His father had promised Zhu to the Buddhist monastery at Huangjue should the baby somehow survive.  When his family perished, sixteen year old Zhu remembered this promise (and possible source of livelihood) and set out to take up a monk’s life.  Yet drought meant that there were not enough rations for new novices: the monks gave Zhu a bamboo hat and an earthenware bowl and sent him off to wander China as a beggar.

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It was a time of tumult. A century earlier the Mongols had conquered all of China and installed themselves as a supreme caste atop the ancient culture, however, by the mid 14th century, Mongol hegemony was coming undone due to factional political quarrels. As the last Mongol emperor fretted in his palace in Dadu (Beijing), rebels and bandits sprang up everywhere.  Through this broken land, Zhu wandered as a mendicant. He slept in outbuildings and ate scraps or lived rough and hungry in the wilderness. However during these ragged years he also began to make friends among the “Red Turbans,” a diverse network of rebels who identified themselves with red banners and headwear.

These Red Turbans had started out as a network of secret societies based on religious concepts imported along the Silk Road from Western Asia. They were incorporated into a larger messianic anti-Mongol movement by Monk Peng, a firebrand rebel who won many ordinary farmers and workmen to his cause before being captured and killed.  Ostensibly the Red Turbans sought to reestablish the Song dynasty (which had ruled before the Mongols) and they hung their hopes on the putative last heir to the Song, Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance”.  In reality, the movement’s identity and aims were a front for several different factions vying for power not just with the Mongols and grasping warlords, but with each other.

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Red Turban warrior fighting a Mongol.

Zhu made friends with some northern Red Turban sympathizers before he returned to the monastery to become literate, but the government (perhaps not unreasonably) feared that the monks were consorting with rebels and burned the temple.  At the age of 24, Zhu Yuanzhang left monastic life and joined the Red Turbans with the not-very-exalted rank of corporal, yet the rebel army offered unparalleled opportunity for advancement.

One of the leaders of the Red Turbans was a grandee named Guo Zixing. Guo’s father had been a fortune-teller (i.e. a con-artist) who had married the blind and not-very-marriageable daughter of a landlord and then shrewdly used the resultant dowry to build a fortune. Guo recognized similar potential in Zhu—the ugly ex-monk was not only relentless and brave in battle, but also had a knack for judging men and convincing them to follow him.  Guo acted as Zhu’s patron and helped the young man take command of larger and larger groups of rebels.  While Guo’s actual sons died of war and ill fortune,  Zhu wisely married Guo’s adopted daughter and became the second in command of their faction. When Guo himself perished, Zhu, the former peasant, became general.  Zhu’s ever expanding army twice assaulted Nanjing, cultural and economic center of southern China, and the second time they successfully took the city.

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Once Zhu captured Nanjing, victory followed victory thanks to his political wiles and administrative prowess. He forbade his men from taking plunder and sternly enforced standards of good conduct. This adherence to Confucian principles made him more popular than other upstart warlords, whom he and his generals defeated one by one. Zhu’s greatest problem during this period of ascendency was how to leave behind the Red Turban movement without losing his own followers.  Although it had provided him with a ladder to national power, his affiliation with the red Turbans was preventing China’s elite literati and aristocrats from supporting him.

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Additionally, Zhu’s most powerful military competitor was Chen Youliang, leader of the multitudinous Red Turban faction in the west.  Their conflict came to a climax in 1363 with a thrilling battle on Lake Poyang, China’s largest lake.  Zhu Yuangzhang’s smaller fleet utilized fireships, gunpowder explosives, trebuchets, and boarding tactics against Chen Youliang’s fort-like tower ships. The battle was the largest navy battle in history and lasted for over a month but ended with Chen’s death and a resounding victory for Zhu, who thereafter ceased to participate directly in fighting. The only figure left who could pit the Red Turbans against Zhu Yuangzhang was Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance,” pretender to the Song throne who drowned in highly suspicious circumstances when he was under Zhu’s care in 1366 (which allowed Zhu to officially denounce the violence and mayhem of the Red Turbans).

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By 1367, through force of arms, Zhu Yuangzhang had defeated all other likely contenders for the throne. The last Yuan emperor fled north and Badu fell in 1368.  Zhu Yuanzhang, son of the lowest peasants, assumed the mandate of heaven and proclaimed himself the Hongwu Emperor—first emperor of the Ming dynasty, the longest lasting and most stable dynasty in Chinese history.  The Ming dynasty was one of the high-water marks of Chinese society. Not only was the dynasty known for military conquest, agricultural innovation, and artistic greatness, but in the early 15th century it was at the forefront of science and exploration. Vast Ming fleets comprised of 400-foot long sailing junks explored as far as India, and Africa. Had Zhu Yuangzhang’s empire kept its initial impetus, who can say what would have happened?  As it is, the spirit of his reforms long outlived the Ming dynasty and remains an integral part of Chinese statecraft.

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The Mausoleum of Zhu Yuanzhang in Contemporary Nanking

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“Jiajing on his State Barge” (Artists Unknown, ca. 1538, ink and watercolor on silk)

The Ming Dynasty was a hereditary dynastic empire which ruled China for 276 years between 1368 AD and 1644 AD.  This regime was lumbered with an exceedingly conservative and cautious weltanschauung, which caused Ming leaders to walk back some of the empire’s greatest accomplishments (like astonishing journeys of discovery and prodigious economic growth—both of which were nipped in the bud).  Arguably this unbending Confucianism ultimately led to the downfall of the Ming as well (although the dynasty was undoubtedly undone by wide a host of factors).  However this same core traditionalism also made the Ming dynasty one of the longest and most stable empires in world history. The Ming dynasty achieved a number of cultural and social high watermarks which were not exceeded anywhere for a very long time.

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I was hired by a national magazine to write a little biography of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, whose meteoric rise from penniless beggar to the most powerful man on Earth is scarcely comprehensible.   Indeed… Zhu’s history apparently really wasn’t comprehensible to the editors of the magazine, who never published my piece (although they certainly delighted in making me rewrite it and then editing it into incoherence). Naturally, I blame this failure almost entirely on the ignorance, cupidity, and general moral failings of these self-same editors.  However, in their defense, Chinese history is a baffling maelstrom of horrifying wars, subtle political machinations, and names which are transliterated differently into English in different sources (not to mention the lives of countless millions and millions and millions of people).  It is difficult to make any sense of any of it without knowing Chinese, an ancient exquisitely beautiful language of perfectly baffling tonal sounds and thousands of impossible-to-memorize logograms.

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Chinese porcelain vase, Zhengde mark but from the Wanli (1573-1619)

All of which is to say, this biography is now mine and I am going to publish it here this week as the centerpiece of Ferrebeekeeper’s “Ming Dynasty Week” a celebration of the art, literature, and history of one of my absolute favorite eras.  This will include a special look at the famous ceramics which are synonymous with the period as well an examination of some of the less-well-known but equally dazzling highlights of this amazing time.  Get ready to learn about all sorts of Ming things.  This week is going to be great!

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A Shamrock is a bright green spring clover–the species is unclear….but probably common clover (Trifolium dubium) or white clover (Trifolium repens), just like your garden variety pony eats. The shamrock has been an instantly recognizable symbol of Ireland for a long time…or maybe not. Anecdotally Saint Patrick utilized the humble plant in order to explain the nature of the trinity to his nascent flock in the fifth century AD (in which case they were the only people to ever understand the incomprehensible mystical unity-yet-separation of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost).

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More realistically, however, the association between the Irish and the plant is less clear. English sources from the 16th century mention Irish “shamrocks”– but largely in the context of destitute Irish eating field plants (once again the species in unclear, but it seems like it might have been wood sorrel or watercress). Edmund Spenser, who lived among the Irish (and hated them), wrote approvingly of seeing Irish people starving to death after a failed rebellion left them with no crops, “…they spake like ghosts, crying out of theire graves; they did eat of the carrions …. and if they found a plott of water cresses or shamrockes theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time, yett not able long to contynewe therewithall.” Of course, since Spenser reportedly starved to death himself he might have later found occasion to eat these harsh words (literally and figuratively).

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All of this leaves (!) us no closer to understanding how the shamrock became so indelibly affiliated with the Irish. Increasingly it seems like it may be a connection which was made in the early modern era. However, pre-Christian Irish were known to hold the number 3 in greatest esteem. Certain Celtic deities had three aspects and the number 3 was obviously sacred. This is strongly reflected in pre-historic Celtic art. Some of these mystical gyres and whirls do indeed look oddly like shamrocks…so you will have to judge the merit of the little green plant on your own. In the mean time I am going to head down to the great Irish restaurant, McDonalds, and see if I can find a shamrock shake. Usage maketh the myth and by that token there is nothing more Irish than a three-leafed clover.

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It should additionally be noted that in the modern world, “shamrock” has become the name of a bright Kelly green color.  You may even see it today reflected in spring foliage, or jaunty banners, or on a furtive leprechaun or two (although, leprechauns traditionally wore red until they became standardized and bowdlerized in the early twentieth century).  Have you ever wondered whether everything you know if blarney made up by marketers less than a lifetime ago?

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Wha…? That is clearly a four-leaf clover!  Curse you infernal tricksters!

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Venera 3 Probe

This thing, which looks like a sad cross between an ur-robot and a space probe, is Venera 3, a uh cross between an ur-robot and a space probe (Occam’s razor sometimes works for identifying weird historical objects). Although the probe did fail…in a way… it was hardly a sad object but rather a glorious milestone for humankind. Here is the story.
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The Soviet Union launched Venera 3 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in November of 1965 (as “Days of Our Lives” first went on the air, crisis threatened British Rhodesia, and Björk was born). The probe was designed to fly to Venus and deploy a probe into the (then unknown) atmosphere of that world and ultimately land/crash (?) upon the surface. Venera 3 traveled on its interplanetary journey by means of a Tyazheliy Sputnik (65-092B) craft. It took the vehicle 5 months to hurtle through space to our nearest planetary neighbor. I said that the probe was a sort of ur-robot, but that is actually being pretty generous. The planetary lander contained a radio communication system, some scientific instruments and power sources, and a bitchin’ medallion with the U.S.S.R. coat of arms.

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Venera 3 has the distinction of being the first manmade object to reach a different planet. That sort of thing is familiar now (though less than it should be), but I invite you to really think about how utterly astonishing it is. Unfortunately Venera 3’s landing was more or less indistinguishable from crashing: the communications systems failed before any planetary data could be returned (probably upon first contact with Venus’ nightmare caustic atmosphere and scalding temperatures). We only know that Venera 3 is now a heap of melted metal and slag on the surface of Venus because it fell into the planet’s gravity well. Where else could it be?

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Regular readers know my fascination with our sister planet. I found the story of Venera 3 on the online Venus scorecard…it appeared after a great many more pathetic stories (Venera 1 and Venera 2 for example are still out there slowly orbiting the Sun—and the Soviet program only named missions after they had attained a degree of success). Ferrebeekeeper is going to be back looking at this scorecard. There are other stories worth telling in there with all the dismal explosions, telemetry failures, miscues, and melted probes. The successes—even painful successes like Venera 3 also reveal the story of Venus (insomuch as we know its story—for the world is still an immense mystery). There need to be a lot more home runs at the bottom of that scorecard.

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Today we tell about the glorious and heroic heritage of the duke of Rouen!  No, wait…I read that wrong…this actually says the DUCK of Rouen. Well…an international success story is an international success story no matter the protagonist.

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Rouen ducks featured in Mrs.Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861.

French farmers are famous for their ancient breeds of livestock which have roots stretching back into the Middle Ages (and maybe beyond…all the way back to ancient Rome).   French breeds of cattle and horses—like the Charolaise, the Limousine, and the Percheron are universally known.  Similarly, there is an ancient tradition of poultry farming in France (to such an extent that the English word poultry originally comes from France).

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Rouen Hen

The Rouen duck is probably the most well-known French breed of duck. It is named after Rouen, the northern French town, however it seems like the birds are not necessarily from there, but have a pan-French heritage.  In France, the breed is known as Rouen Foncé (the dark Rouen) for its dark heavy colors.

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Sadly the Rouen duck does not come off well on the internet.  They just look like mallard ducks.  However, in the real world, the difference is extremely evident.  They are twice the size with a pronounced “boat-like” body.  These ducks weigh 4–5.5 kilograms (9–12 pounds).  They are not renowned for their egg-laying but rather for their mass–which suggests that they were bred expressly to contribute very directly to the renowned arts of French cuisine.

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francium

Francium is a naturally occurring element–a highly radioactive alkali metal with one valence electron. At any given moment there is 20-30 grams of Francium (about an ounce) present on Earth. This tiny sample is found in the form of individual atoms located within uranium and thorium ores around the Earth’s crust.   The half-life of the longest-lived isotope of francium is only 22 minutes. The weird transient metal continuously vanishes (decaying into astatine, radium, or radon)–only to be continuously replaced when actinium-227 decays into francium-223.

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Marguerite Catherine Perey (19 October 1909 – 13 May 1975), French physicist

How did we ever even find out about this stuff if it only exists as 20 grams of individual atoms scattered around the entire world like evanescent Easter eggs? I’m glad you asked! It was discovered by a French woman in 1939. Marguerite Catherine Perey (1909 – 1975) was born in 1909 in Villemomble, France (just outside Paris)–where Marie Curie’s Radium Institute also happened to be located. Perey aspired to be a medical doctor, but her family fell into financial difficulty so, at the age of 19, she took a job at a local spot–working directly for Marie Curie. Curie died of exotic cancer in 1934, but Perey kept up her mentor’s work purifying and studying actinium and looking for a theorized “eka-caesium” (a heretofore unknown alkali metal with an atomic number of 87). Through her methodic and painstaking work and observations, Perey discovered it just as World War II. broke out. Francium was the last element discovered in nature. The rest have been synthesized in labs.

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Marguerite Perey (second from left) at the Curie laboratory in 1930

After discovering an entirely new atom, Perey finally received a grant to pursue her university studies, and she received her PhD from the Sorbonne in 1946. In 1960 she became an officer of the Legion of Honor. She founded the laboratory which ultimately grew into became the Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry in the Center for Nuclear Research and she was the first woman to be elected to the French Académie des Sciences.

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True to her original dream of helping people as a doctor, Perey hoped that francium would help diagnose cancer and make the disease more treatable, but sadly, francium itself was carcinogenic (which is something to remember, if you find an atom of it sitting in some uranium ore). In her late life, Perey developed bone cancer which eventually killed her–a dark fruit of her pioneering research.

I mention francium this week, not because of its name (coincidentally, it is named after the great nation of France), but because of the life of the scientist who discovered it. Marguerite Catherine Perey had to struggle against prejudice and steroetypes, but she was able to overcome them and move to the foremost ranks of scientists and leaders of France. Her research helped that country become a nuclear leader (which it still is) and helped humankind better understand the nature of chemistry and physics.

A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

It’s Halloween week already: the time when the spirit realm comes closest to the mortal world (well, according to ancient lore, anyway).   This is always a “theme week”, which Ferrebeekeeper devotes to a single topic which is sinister, magical, disquieting, and macabre.  In past year’s we have taken on dark subjects like the children of Echidna, the Flowers of the Underworld, the undead, and the realm of nightmares, but this year we are going back to the roots of civilization to examine an ancient horror.  Sadly, this ghastly topic is not a dark myth or an accursed dream, but an all-too real invention of human savagery.

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Flaying is a method of torture and execution, which was used in ancient times (and not-so-ancient times) to kill a person in the most terrible and painful way.  Of course hunters and animal farmers are familiar with flaying as stripping the skin off of a dead animal so that the hide can be cured as a pelt or a leather, and so that the animal’s meat can then be butchered for consumption (although this is more commonly known as “skinning” in English).  This is done with a knife or similar sharpened implement and farmers/hunters/chefs generally try to keep the hide as intact as possible. At some point in the depths of prehistory, some evil person first realized the same method could be used to cut the skin off of a living person.   Skinning more than a portion of a person is fatal.  Wikipedia blandly cites Ernst G. Jung, a famed dermatologist, writing:  “Dermatologist Ernst G. Jung notes that the typical causes of death due to flaying are shock, critical loss of blood or other body fluids, hypothermia, or infections, and that the actual death is estimated to occur from a few hours up to a few days after the flaying.”  How did Jung know that?  We want to know and yet clearly we also do not want to know. I found a lot of arguments online about whether modern medicine could rescue a flayed person.  I will summarize the upshot of lots of nightmarish dumbassery as “maybe… in perfect circumstances, but probably not.”

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At this point, if you are like me you are probably saying “GLAAARGH! What the hell? Why would anybody ever do such a thing? And why write about it? Why should I even think about such monstrous savagery? I am going to go look at pictures of cute little songbirds.”  That is a good point and those questions/sentiments are very pertinent, but you should not go to the cute animal site yet.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Flaying keeps cropping back up in human history, art, and myth.  It reveals something about us in a dark tale which stretches across millennia.  Mostly, of course, it reveals that we are very tragic and cruel animals, but that is a truth well worth remembering (assuming you can somehow not see it within the daily news).  Flaying also reveals some of our stagecraft for manipulating and controlling each other–which I will get into tomorrow with the story of the Neo-Assyrians.  Additionally there is a mysterious and otherworldly hint of true transformation within this topic—a suggestion of the butterfly, the cocoon, and true transcendence from the body—although admittedly this miracle which did not quite come off properly. We will get to this as we look at flaying in art and religion.

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

If you can stay with me, this week ends with a fun surprise on Halloween (which I have been working on for a long time and saving for you)…but there is some pretty dark territory to get through before then.  Gird up your loins (no seriously, you may want to tie something protective around your flesh), tomorrow we are going back to the age of chariots and horror to spend some time with the neo-Assyrians.  Aaaagh!

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l’Écorché “The Flayed Man” ( Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1767, cast)

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