A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

Note: Comments are moderated. If you include a link, your comment will not be published. As you will note, I do not accept ads on my website and that includes in comments.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Slut and Not: A Tale of Two Margarets

The King and Queen of Tunis, by Václav Hollar aka Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677),
a Bohemian etcher, of unknown date.  Image courtesy of University of Toronto 
"Cariacatures and deformities after Leonardo".

Much of history is written with the absence of facts.  Especially history of times long ago where there is little or no extant written records nor reliable images, just paintings and sculpture which are always suspect.  But this has never stopped writers.  Despite all efforts to leave behind any biases (an impossible task even with the best intentions and most prodigious efforts) most historical writings smack of heroics, abominations, or cautionary tales.  This is no less true about two European women.

Margaret, Countess of Tyrol (1318 - 1369) was the last Countess of Tyrol from the Gorizia Meinhardiner dynasty.  She was the daughter of Henry of Gorizia-Tyrol, Duke of Carinthia and Count of Tyrol, and his second wife Adelaide, daughter of Duke Henry I of Brunswick-Lüneberg.  Henry had no male heirs, and sought for Margaret to inherit his Carinthian and Tyrolean estates.  He made an agreement with the Wittlesbach Emperor Louis IV in 1330 that this would happen.

Image courtesy of fembio.org.

That same year 12-year-old Margaret was married to 8-year-old John Henry of Luxembourg, the son of King John of Bohemia.  King John had deposed Henry from the throne of Bohemia in 1310.  He was also the brother of the future emperor Charles IV.  When Henry died in 1335, Emperor Louis IV gave the Carpinthian estate to one of Margaret's cousins - Duke Albert II of Austria. Because of her affiliation with the House of Luxembourg, she retained the Tyrolean estate.

Margaret's husband, John Henry, was arrogant and immature, and not well-liked by the Tyroleans.  In 1341 when John Henry returned from a hunting trip, Margaret barred him from the Castle Tyrol and had him removed from the estate. She was then married to Louis V of Wittelsbach, the eldest son of Emperor Louis IV, without getting divorced.  The Wittelsbach were rivals of the Luxembourgs.

Margaret of Tyrol, 18th century engraving, artist unknown.
Image courtesy of www.aeiou.at.

Her new husband, Louis V, along with his father declared her first marriage null and void.  Several scholars defended this declaration, including William of Ockham (he of the razor), on the grounds that John Henry never consummated the marriage, but this infuriated the papacy, as well as the House of Luxembourg and the Habsburgs.  Pope Clement IV, the fourth Avignon pope (i.e., French) excommunicated them both in 1342, and the scandal spread across Europe.  A political marriage between their son and a daughter of Duke Albert II von Habsburg led to the new Pope Innocent VI  absolving them from the excommunication.  But the church as a whole was still not happy with the whole turn of events, and Margaret was the one who suffered.  She was referred to as "Maultasch", a German euphemism for a whore or an ugly woman (I guess they were one in the same), which literally means "bag mouth".

The players are confusing, but the bottom line is Margaret's inheritance, which her father clearly wanted her to have and was rightfully hers even though she was born the wrong gender, was put into political play.  Men of power used her but she retained the bad reputation.  Never, never, never piss off the Church.

She eventually lost everything when first her husband and then her son died. She died in exile but not her reputation.  She has gained much notoriety, and is even thought to be the subject of a bizarre painting done approximately 150 years later:

The Ugly Duchess aka A Grotesque Old Woman, a satirical portrait
by the Flemish artist Quentin Matsys, circa 1513.  Her dressings are
outdated; the tiny red flower - a symbol of engagement at that time -
is dinky and probably won't blossom.  It has a striking resemblance to
the caricature below by Da Vinci, with whom Matsys was known to
exchange drawings.  The woman is often claimed to be Margaret of
Tyrol.  It is also thought to be the inspiration for Sir John Tenniel's
illustrations of the Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Grotesque Head by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1480-1510.  Red chalk
on paper.  Image courtesy Windsor Castle, Royal Library.

The Duchess from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  Illustration by
Sir John Tenniel, 1869.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

There is much discussion on whether these truly are depictions of Margaret of Tyrol.  Erasmus wrote In Praise of Folly in 1509 (published in 1511, and dedicated to Sir Thomas More) which was a satirical attack on the traditions of European society (especially women), and the Catholic Church.  This, too, has been applied to Margaret of Tyrol.  However there are few extant images of her, and she does not appear particularly ugly:

A 16th century oil on canvas of Margaret of Tyrol
with the Tyrolean, Bavarian, and Carinthian coat of
arms.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A seal of Margaret of Tyrol.
Image courtesy of fembio.org.
Another of her seals, courtesy of tirol-geschichte.tsn.at.

In 2008 it was determined that Matsys and da Vinci's works featured a sitter suffering from a rare form of Paget's disease, also known as osteitis deformans, where the bones become enlarged and deformed.  Therefore these are likely depictions of a real person with the disease.  Who attributed the works to Margaret of Tyrol is anyone's guess, but it goes to show how myth entwines itself into history, particularly when it comes to women.  Contemporary descriptions of her praise her beauty.  Yet, even now writers blast her with the usual accusations of an overwhelming sex drive, political intrigues of her own making, power-grabbing, and general evilness.  Case in point is this recent blog, which exemplifies the monster she was made into.

Now, let's look at another Margaret, some 200 years later.  Margaret of Parma was an illegitimate daughter of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and his chamberlain's servant.  Charles acknowledged her and she was raised by his sister and aunt, who were very well educated, had a great library (which included the famous illuminated Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry), and entertained some of the great humanists of the time, including Erasmus.  Margaret was engaged to the Pope's nephew, Alexander de Medici but he was assassinated a year later.  She then married Ottavio Farnese, the grandson of Pope Paul III.

Margaret of Palma by Anthonis Mor, circa 1555.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Her brother was Philip II, King of Spain, Portugal, Naples, and Sicily.  He appointed her governor of the Netherlands, but with nominal authority. Everything she did had to be approved by Philip, even though letters at the time took months to be delivered.  She is credited with stopping the Inquisition in the Netherlands, which is not a credible fact as her power was only titular.  She eventually resigned and went to Italy, but returned to the Netherlands where she co-governed with her son.  When that didn't work out she retired to Italy, where she lived until she died.

Now here is a woman who legally had no right to an inheritance as she was not only a woman but illegitimate, which had a stigma attached to it then.  But she had great papal ties.  So she, too, was a pawn in men's political games, but faired better even though we will never know what she could have done if she had been really allowed to use her fine education and wield some power.

Another work of Margaret of Parma by Anthonis Mor,
circa 1555, also courtesy of Wikipedia.

Two women serving their usefulness as marriage objects for political ties - one hated by the church, the other the darling of the Church.  No wonder the U.S. founding fathers were adamant about the separation of church and state!  History is unfair and selective.  The job of a historian is to tease out meaning from the facts or lack of them, and not pass on biased information or add to fabrications and innuendo.  Perhaps one of the hardest jobs ever.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Midwife on Midwifery

Centerpiece of a book by Thomas Chamberlayne,
1656, Compleat Midwifes Practice, with image of Boursier.
Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Wash. D.C.

Perhaps you have read the book Diverse Observations on Sterility; Loss of the Ovum after Fecundation, Fecundity and Childbirth; Diseases of Women and of Newborn Infants?  If you were literate and lived in the 17th century, you may have.  This was the first book on childbirth and midwifery written by a woman. Few texts like this existed at the time; it had practical information on obstetrics.  It was used until the 18th century, and was translated into Latin, German, Dutch, and English.

The author, Louise Bourgeois Boursier, expanded her book in 1617, and added a section titled "Advice to my Daughter".  The 1626 edition was expanded with more treatments, such as using doses of iron to treat anemia.  Her 1634 Collection of Secrets, included knowledge which was afterward widely assimilated among midwives and physicians, such as repositioning the fetus in certain situations (such as when the fetus is lying transversely) so it will be delivered feet first, called podalic version.  This is still a medical option, however modern medicine prefers delivery by Caesarean section.

She was born to a wealthy family in a rural area outside of Paris circa 1563. Although there has been little written of her, historians have garnered what is known from her writings, even though she never wrote a formal memoir.  She did write a summary of her career in defense of a malpractice charge.  She was taught to read, but only knew French and not Latin as French nobles did.  In 1584 she married an army surgeon and barber, Martin Boursier, who had studied with Ambroise Paré, a well-known surgeon.  They had three children.

In a civil war that occurred when Henry of Navarre became King Henry IV, Louise had to quickly leave her home with her children and only the belongings they could carry.  Her husband was away, and they found safety within the walls of Paris.  When he returned they had very little money, and she took to needlework and managed to eke out a living.  A midwife that attended Louise in birth commented that if she had been literate she'd have had a much more lucrative career as a midwife.  This got Louise thinking, and she started reading about childbirth.  She started out assisting the wife of a local porter and began attending the births of working-class women in Paris.

1875 sketch by unknown artist.
Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Midwifery was generally passed down from midwife to midwife orally at this time. Louise took a more studied approach.  She prepared to pass certification as a midwife from the city of Paris, which would enable her to attend aristocratic women and hence be paid well for her services.  She was examined by a panel composed of a doctor, two surgeons, and two certified midwives.  On November 12, 1598, she passed the exam and was admitted to a guild of midwives.

King Henry IV married Marie de Médicis, and Louise was retained as midwife, having been recommended by some of the ladies of the court.  Between 1601-1610 she attended the births of their six children.  She received 900 livres for each birth; the going rate for midwives was 50 livres.  After their last child she was given a lump sum of 6,000 livres, and the official title of royal midwife, which made her much in demand among the aristocratic families.  It is thought she attended three-four births a week until she retired.  In 1609 she began to write down her accumulated knowledge of childbirth.

She was so influential in the field that she began to train midwives, including her own daughter.  Although she initially extolled the work of doctors and stressed the cooperation between physicians and midwives, as time went on her opinions changed, and she began to write more negatively about doctors and observed that they often treated with an eye on what they could get away with charging.  (Sound familiar?)  When a noblewoman died of what we know today as peritonitis, an autopsy was ordered.  Although Louise was not mentioned, and the death was blamed on a piece of placenta that was left inside the uterus, she responded by publishing a pamphlet denouncing the doctors involved in the autopsy.  They responded with their own pamphlet, and her influence was ended.  She died in 1636.

Several of her offspring became involved in medicine and midwifery.  One of her descendants was Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray, born in Paris in 1712. She was a royal midwife in the court of Louis XV of France.  She invented the first life-size obstetrical mannequin, used in practicing mock births.  This was a life-size female torso.  The invention is often attributed to an Englishman, William Smellie, but her model was approved in 1738 by the French Academy of Surgeons, giving her prior claim.  She published a textbook on midwifery in 1759 - The Art of Obstetrics.  She was commissioned by the King to travel all over rural France and teach midwifery to poor women - she is estimated to have trained 4,000 women.

Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray.
Image courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.

Louise Bourgeois Boursier described herself as the first practicing woman to write about midwifery.  She helped raise the art from folklore to actual science.  She asserted the value of midwives' knowledge against that of male surgeons, who controlled the field of childbirth.  She was a prodigious writer, whose methods were based on common sense.  She was an anomaly for her time and is a woman to be celebrated.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I Heard Him on the Radio

"Wherever ya are, and whatever ya doin', I wancha ta lay 
ya hands on da raydeeooo, lay back wid me, 
and squeeze ma knobs.  We gonna feeel it ta-night!"

Wolfman Jack, image courtesy of Britannica.com.

I don't know what got me started thinking about him.  Perhaps it's because my husband did a post for his blog on Little Red Riding Hood books, and started singing the song by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs all morning.  Which made me start humming it.  Anyway, I've always thought that Domingo Samudio (Sam the Sham with the gravelly voice) sounded like my favorite all-time dj - Wolfman Jack.

In my younger days, we listened to the radio or lps.  8-track tapes came out, but they were big and cumbersome.  Cassettes became much more popular, but in Southern California there were a lot of radio stations to listen to when it came to rock and roll.  The personalities of the djs were distinctive.  I remember fondly The Emperor Hudson, Charlie Tuna, The Real Don Steele, Robert W. Morgan, Dave Hull the Hullaballooer, and yes, Casey Kasem.  But my favorite dj was the Wolfman, hands down.  Sadly he left us in 1995, but his story is an interesting one...

Born Robert Weston Smith in Brooklyn in 1938, he was a fan of Alan Freed when he grew up.  At the time Freed was going by the name "Moon Dog", and was using a recorded howl.  After several jobs and several identities, Smith hit on his winning persona - Wolfman Jack - an homage to Howlin' Wolf in part.  Smith was said to be fond of horror films, werewolves especially, and chose the name "Jack" as it was a hipster term at the time - think "hit the road, Jack".

Image courtesy rockabillyhall.com

Prior to his rebirth as the Wolfman, he was a dj in Newport News, Virginia and Shreveport, Louisiana.  But his big break came when he was hired by XERF-AM at Ciudad Acuña in Mexico.  This station had the most powerful signal in North America - 250,000 watts.  It was picked up all across the U.S., and at night sometimes by Europe and Russia.  This is where the Wolfman made his mark.

He left Mexico after eight months and moved to Minneapolis but returned to border radio.  He came back to Mexico to manage XERB in Rosarita Beach, another "border blaster station" with 50,000 watts.  Eventually he moved to Los Angeles and opened an office there in 1966.  He recorded his shows in L.A.  He'd make three tapes - one of music, one of commercials, and one with phone calls from listeners.  These were sent to XERB with directions on mixing them. Eventually he was doing shows for three border stations, XERF, XERB, and XEG (which was in Monterey, Mexico).  He created different programming for each, and between the three stations he was heard from Central America to Canada.

The three towers at XERB in Rosarita Beach, Baja California.

He was also making money hand over fist, but it ended with some controversy.  A lot of the money he made came from selling airtime to Pentecostal preachers. Addressing complaints from the stations' owners, who wanted the income for themselves, the Mexican government passed a law stating that there could be no more religious programming on Mexican airwaves.  Little revenue came in, so the law was repealed, but without the Wolfman, who had left, the money just didn't roll in.

Image courtesy KBC Radio.

Wolfman Jack moved to KDAY in Los Angeles, but sought to earn more money. He edited his old XERB tapes and sold them to radio stations, the beginning of radio syndication.  At his peak Wolfman Jack was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in 53 countries.  He went to other stations, played a part in the film American Graffiti, and for eight years hosted The Midnight Special on NBC, as well as made various guest appearances on television shows.  In 1989 Dick Clark produced a syndicated cartoon called Wolf Rock Power Hour.

The man left us too soon.  On July 1, 1995, after finishing a weekly program from Planet Hollywood in Washington, D.C., he said he couldn't wait to get home and see and hug his wife.  He walked up his driveway, went into his house to hug her, fell over from a heart attack, and died.  He lives forever, though, for me.

Unless otherwise noted, images from kipsamericangraffiti.blogspot.com

Two books that may be of interest on this subject are:
Border Radio by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford
Have Mercy!  Confessions of the Original Rock 'N' Roll Animal 
by Wolfman Jack and Byron Laursen

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

From Paper Cranes to Mad Cow Disease

Green bottle by Martin Demaine.
Martin Demaine is an artist and mathematician who is currently an artist in residence at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).  After graduating from high school in Massachusetts, he went to England to study glassblowing. Eventually he opened up shop in New Brunswick where his was the first one-man glass studio in Canada.  An excellent craftsman, his work ended up in various major museums.

Martin Demaine at work.

In 1981, he was involved in a very different creation:  his son Erik was born. When Erik was six years old, Martin and Erik formed a puzzle company and distributed their puzzles throughout Canada.  Erik was home-schooled and earned his B.S. at the age of 14. By the time Erik was 20, he had his PhD and was a professor at MIT - said to be the youngest professor MIT ever hired.  In 2003, Erik was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award, as a computational geometer.

Erik Demaine.  Photo by William Plowman.

His PhD dissertation was seminal in the field of computational origami, and was award-winning in itself.  Together, father and son are jointly engaged in works that involve both mathematics and art, still focusing on the computational complexity of games and puzzles, among other things.

Computational Origami by Martin and Erik Dumaine,
in the permanent collection of MoMA.

In a post I did earlier on origami, I briefly touched on computational origami and mentioned Robert Lang, an earlier pioneer in the field.  This is a type of computer program for modeling the ways that different materials, especially paper, can be manipulated.  Besides amazing origami pieces, such as insects complete with antennae, there is a more practical use (and potentially a lifesaving one).

Origami insects by Japanese artist Taketori, courtesy of his website.

Computational origami basically applies to engineering problems where large surfaces need to be fitted into small or flat spaces without cutting them, just by folding.  For some of us it would facilitate the refolding of a road map.  More importantly, it would facilitate folding airbags - the ideal folds would allow the airbag to function correctly yet take up little space.  Even more importantly, this concept can be applied to computer processors, fitting an enormous amount of data onto the smallest possible area.

But perhaps the most important of all potentialities is studying folds in protein, which Erik Demaine is working on.  Computational origami could ascertain if proteins have "bad folds" and could help crack the secrets of protein structure and sequences.  This could lead to cures for Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, many cancers, and even mad cow disease.

Basic protein folds, image courtesy of www.cellbiol.net.

However, to compute these complexities requires a computer operating at something like a quadrillion operations per second (1 petaflop, or 1,000 teraflops). IBM has been working on some supercomputers in its Blue Gene project.  Blue Gene is a computer architecture project that explores the production of supercomputers designed to be able to operate in speeds of the petaflops range. Thus far they have reached a peak speed of 596 Teraflops.

A Blue Gene/P supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Once the right supercomputer is built, it may still take decades to learn protein folds and their applications to health issues.  But the possibilities are amazing. Today Erik Demaine is a part of the MIT Computational and Systems Biology Initiative (CSBi) which "links biologists, computer scientists and engineers in a multi-disciplinary approach to the systematic analysis of complex biological phenomena".  Martin Demaine is also a visiting scientist and works on computational glassblowing.  From art comes science...

Unless otherwise stated, images from the websites of Martin and Erik Demaine.  
Please check these excellent websites out for more information and clarification:

Monday, April 25, 2011

Political Posters

A poster of Joan of Arc turned into a tshirt for the Tea Party, the Hezbollah-like
faction of the Republican Party who resents government involvement in
economics but seeks it to impose their social and lifestyle choices.  Even their
names have a similar self-righteousness - Hezbollah means "Party of God" in Arabic.

Despite other media - the press, radio, and television - political posters remain an efficient way of communication.  Because of their graphic nature, these posters seem to break through the barriers of language and can be understood by an international audience...

Confrontation & Reflexion by Bangqian Zheng of China.
This poster won first place in the Third Biennial of the
Socio-Political Post in Óswiecim.  On cover of Ós Óswiecim.

The arts - music, theater, literature, poetry, posters - have always had a central role in any movement for social change.  Posters, however, seem to be almost intuitive in their comprehension.  Using bold images and often cutting edge graphic design, posters are at once both an advertisement and historical document of social issues.

Eat by Tomi Ungerger, offset, 1967.
Image courtesy of www.politicalgraphics.org.
No Nukes in the Pacific by Pam Debenham/Tin Sheds Art Workshop
silkscreen, 1984, courtesy of politicalgraphics.

Some say that all art is political.  While that may be true, not all art is openly and intentionally so.  Posters range from raw and disturbing to polished and refined. Although produced in numbers, few survive.  A wide variety of methods are used to print them - offset, silkscreen, stencil, woodcut, lithograph and even photocopy.

Built to Spill by Justin La Fontaine, freelance graphic designer.

By T. Forman/Fireworks Graphics/Inkworks Press, 1989.
Image courtesy of politicalgraphics.

By Martin Lindsay/Allied Printing, 2005.
Image courtesy of politicalgraphics.

Posters communicate immediately and directly.  One can be literate or illiterate and still comprehend their meaning.  Posters have the ability to inflame, outrage, produce compassion, humor, and cause reflection. They cause emotional reactions. They also empower movements by instantly transmitting the hopes, dreams, and purposes of a cause.  From time to time I will be sharing the posters I come across...