This Upcoming Week in World History: March 28 – April 3

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They say history is written by the victors. For centuries, before the age of the internet, governments and historians wrote their history. Today, as information flows from one side of the world to another in an instant, we now have access to world history, and learning from the past helps us to understand the present and plan for the future.

Vikings Sack Paris under Ragnar Lothbrok -March 28, 845 

Viking long boats arriving in Pars – Image Source: WIKI Commons

If you have been watching the History Channel’s series Vikings, you know most of the story already. Paris was an island city in those days (Ile de Cite), and it had yet to achieve the size it would have during the Bourbons and the Revolution, let alone the sprawl of today.

Walled island cities are tough nuts to crack if you don’t have explosive artillery shells, but it was managed by Ragnar Lothbrok (sometimes spelled Lodbrok – usually pronounced with the same “th” sound as in the English word “the.” It means “hairy breeches.”).

One legend has it that Lothbrok sailed up the Seine with 120 ships and about 5,000 men (40 or so per longship was about average), and besieged the city. A plague broke out among the men. When praying to the Norse gods did not heal them, they fasted on the advice of one of the Frankish Christian prisoners they held – the story states that where Odin failed Jesus did not, and the illness passed. They captured Paris in part by stealth and in part by being Viking warriors who believed dying in battle guaranteed an afterlife in Valhalla, Odin’s lodge. The only thing that stopped them burning the city to the ground was the offer by the Frankish king Charles the Bald of 7,000 pounds of silver to depart,

In 857, Ragnar’s son Bjorn Ironside was back and sacked the city again. In 885, the Franks stopped a fleet of 700 longships.

The Vikings have a reputation for being violent raiders and marauders, which is partially accurate, even if sometimes contested. By the same token, Norsemen settled many places and founded cities. These include Dublin, Kiev and Smolensk, a great many cities in Scotland, all of Iceland, bits of Greenland and for a time, Vinland in North America (L’Anse aux Meadow, Nova Scotia, Canada). Which makes them emigrants in their own way. The Vikings strength came from their longboats, even in the year 845 as is the case today, navel power means global power.

Food Rationing in the US – March 29, 1943

americans share the meat

When the US went to war in 1941 against the Axis powers in World War II, its economy shifted from a market-based operation to a command economy almost over night. This meant that the price as determined by supply and demand as a mechanism for allocating goods and services went out the window. For instance, no matter how much money you had, you couldn’t buy a new 1942 American car – the country didn’t make any.

There were different kinds of rationing. “Uniform coupon rationing (sugar is an example) provided equal shares of a single commodity to all consumers; Point rationing provided equivalent shares of commodities by coupons issued for points which could be spent on any combination of items in the group (processed foods, meats, fats, cheese); Differential coupon rationing provided shares of a single product according to varying needs (gasoline, fuel oil); and Certificate rationing allowed individuals products only after an application demonstrated need (tires, cars, stoves, typewriters).

On this day in 1943, meat, butter and cheese rationing went into effect and were rationed using Red Stamps that the government issued in every American’s ration book (91% of Americans had a ration book in just a couple of weeks of the system being instituted, and Blue Stamps covered other items). Each American was allowed 16 points worth of Red Stamp items each week, and you could use your stamps for items only until their expiration date – usually about 3 weeks. The stamps came in books similar to postage stamp books.

“Instructions on how to use the stamps were extremely complicated. All red and blue ration stamps were worth 10 points. Red and blue tokens were worth 1 point each. Red and blue tokens were used to make change for red and blue stamps only when a purchase was made.” And remember, you still had to hand over dollars in addition. But no stamps, no goods even with the dollars.

So, buying a pound of hamburger meat cost you whatever the butcher charged plus 7 points. A pound of butter was a 16 point purchase, and a pound of American cheese (processed cheese food in most places) was 8 points plus money.

The government even offered guidelines to help share the meat. And adult (anyone over 12) was advised to consume no more than 2.5 pounds of meat per week, 1.5 for kids between 6 and 12, and three-quarters of a pound for those under 6.

On this is certain. The obesity epidemic was still a long way off.

Jews Expelled from Spain – March 31, 1492

Alahabra decree
Alahbra Decree Pases – Image Source: The JC

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” That little couplet is taught to every elementary school child (or was when I was a kid) to help them get the date right on Columbus and his “discovery” of America. I prefer to think that Columbus validated Leif Erikson’s discovery that there were millions of people in the Americas already.

Anyway, we Americans tend to think that Columbus and his voyage is the big event of 1492. It’s not even close, a footnote at best. The big news in 1492 was the Fall of Grenada on January 2. The Kingdom of Grenada was the last Islamic stronghold in Spain, and King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I of accepted the surrender of King Boabdil.

The Moors (as the Muslims were called) had been relatively tolerant of Jews and Christians in their realms. Only Muslims could openly practice their religion, but Jews and Christians could do as they liked in private. They had to pay a special tax (jizya) to the state, but otherwise, they were treated similarly to Muslims in daily life. The term that applied to them, “dhimmi,” literally means a protected person. Paying a religious tax is not equal rights by any means, but it was undoubtedly a better option that what was to come.

Convert or Leave

The Christian rulers who led the Reconquista (reconquest) of Spain were  not so open minded. The Jews under their jurisdiction had a choice of exile or conversion. In 1502, the Muslims under the Spanish crown were forced to convert or leave. After about a century of persecution, the Muslims were told in 1609 to get out altogether.

The Eiffel Tower Opens to The Public -March 31, 1889

Eiffel Tower Completed
The various phases of completion of the Eiifel Tower – Image Source:

The Eiffel Tower has become the symbol of Paris. It is hard to imagine the City of Lights without it, but it was only completed 127 years ago. It was built in just over two years as the main exhibit at the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair, really) that celebrated the centennial of the French Revolution, and it was the world’s tallest building until the Chrysler Building went up in New York. It was supposed to be taken down after 20 years because a lot of people didn’t like it. However, it stayed, originally because it was so useful as a radio transmitter (it was used to jam German radio transmissions during World War I).

If you have ever been to Blackpool, England, you will recall seeing a tower there that resembles the Eiffel Tower more than a little. There’s a reason for that; the Mayor of Blackpool, Sir John Bickerstaffe, was really impressed with what the French had built, and he decided Blackpool needed one, too. Despite the similarity, I have never confused the two cities.

“Gustave Eiffel, the engineer and architect behind the tower, was also involved in a disastrous attempt by the French to build a canal in Panama, and his reputation was badly damaged by the failure of the venture.” However, once he had finished the tower, he was in much better odor. In fact, he was allowed to keep an apartment within the tower for entertaining. Tourists can visit it along with their 15 euro elevator ride to the top.

For those who can’t afford a trip to Paris to see it, there are replicas in Las Vegas and Shenzhen, China. Or you can check out Eiffel’s work in New York –- he built the interior scaffolding for the Statue of Liberty.

Gauguin leaves Marseilles for Tahiti -April 1, 1891

Paul Gauguin didn’t start life as a bohemian bent of painting his way around the world. He was actually a fairly successful stock broker. He was a collector first, and the Impressionists of the 1870s were his focus. This eventually brought him into contact with Camille Pissarro, under whom he studied painting, and Edgar Degas, who arranged for him to show his early painting efforts in the fourth impressionist exhibition in 1879 (as well as the annual impressionist exhibitions held through 1882). One stock market crash later, and he was convinced to paint full time. This may be the only case of a stockbroker having his art to fall back on when things got tough.

In 1886, Gauguin went to Pont-Aven in Brittany, a rugged land of fervently religious people far from the urban sophistication of Paris. There he forged a new style. He was at the center of a group of avant-garde artists who dedicated themselves to synthétisme, ordering and simplifying sensory data to its fundamentals. Gauguin’s greatest innovation was his use of color, which he employed not for its ability to mimic nature but for its emotive qualities.”

What appealed to Gauguin, and would appeal to a great many others over the decades since, is the primitive life, life with the polish of modernity stripped away. Rural Brittany was clearly better than Paris in this regard, and before long, he traveled to Panama and Martinique in search of the unspoiled and exotic.

And so, he took off for Tahiti, convinced he would find humans in their natural state. Sadly for him, he found a colonial situation full of exploitation, missionary maladministration and above all, not the primitive paradise he sought. So, he created that utopia in his paintings. To this day, he is best known for works that idealize a Polynesia that didn’t exist at the time, except in his imagination.

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