The French Wars of Religion and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

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Painting of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois. The body of the Admiral Coligny’s body hangs from a window at the right rear. Catherine de’ Medici is shown at the left rear emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre began on August 24, 1562 in Paris, France. Over a five-day period, Catholic mobs slaughtered some 3,000 French Huguenots (Protestants) who had come to Paris for the marriage of the king’s sister to Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). Although Catherine de Medici, the mother of the French King, has long been blamed for inciting the massacre, it is unlikely that she did so.

The massacre was one of the earliest events in the French Wars of Religion, a series of armed conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that took place throughout France during the second half of the 16th century.

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Chocolate – the food of the Gods

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Chocolate comes from the cacao tree or, as it’s botanically known, Theobroma cacao. The word theobroma comes from Greek θεος (theos), “god,” + βρῶμα (broma), “food.” So chocolate is literally the food of the gods.

Theobroma cacao is native to the American tropical rain forest. It is a delicate tree that can survive only in a narrow band extending 20 degrees either side of the Equator.

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Cacao trees are small and delicate, usually no more than 20-40 feet high. They need taller trees (such as hardwoods) to shelter them from the elements. Continue reading

An eye for an eye: the Code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi (standing), receiving his royal insignia from the god Shamash (relief on the upper portion of the stele of Hammurabi's Code, the Louvre Museum, Paris).

Hammurabi (standing), receiving his royal insignia from the god Shamash. (relief on the stele of Hammurabi’s Code, in the Louvre Museum, Paris).

Hammurabi was the sixth king of the First (Amorite) Dynasty of Babylon. He reigned for 43 years — from 1792–1750 BCE – over most of ancient Mesopotamia. He is best known for the Code of Hammurabi — 282 laws covering everything from medical malpractice to a minimum wage.

Contrary to popular belief, the Code of Hammurabi is not the oldest known written code of laws. That honor belongs to the Code of Ur-Nammu, written in the Sumerian language in Mesopotamia during the 21st century BCE.

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The Ig Nobel Prizes for science: first you laugh, THEN you think

It’s that time of year, when actual Nobel Laureates award other scientists prizes for research that seems unnecessary, questionable, or downright absurd.

Does the world really need artificial replacement testicles for dogs? In three difference sizes and degrees of firmness, no less?  Should there really be a U.S. patent for the combover?

The Ig Nobel Prizes – the brainchild of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research – are handed out every September in a ceremony co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.

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The absolutely, positively true adventures of Voltaire, Part 3 of 3: whatever happened to Voltaire’s brain?

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“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”

– Voltaire, from a letter to Étienne Noël Damilaville

In 1733, the 39-year old Voltaire began a relationship with the Madame du Châtelet, a married mother of three. The pair would spend the next 15 years studying the natural sciences and becoming the leading French proponents of the work of English mathematician Isaac Newton.

But on a visit to Paris in 1744, Voltaire embarked on a new affair. His new lover was his sister’s daughter, Marie Louise Mignot (a/k/a Madame Denis). For obvious reasons, Voltaire and Madame Denis never married, though they lived together as husband and wife and stayed together until Voltaire’s death over 40 years later.

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The absolutely, positively true adventures of Voltaire, Part 2 of 3

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The frontispiece to Voltaire’s book on the philosophy of Isaac Newton, featuring Émilie du Châtelet reflecting Newton’s heavenly insights to Voltaire.


“How I love the English boldness! How I love those who say what they think!”

When we left Voltaire in 1726, he had chosen voluntary exile to England over an indefinite sentence in the Bastille.

Voltaire arrived in England with almost no money and even less English. Yet in less than five months, he could not only converse in English, he could write it fluently. More impressively, he had developed friendships with some of the leading English literary figures of the day: Alexander Pope, John Gay (writer of The Beggars Opera) and Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver’s Travels had just been published.

But the men with the biggest influences on Voltaire’s thinking were philosopher John Locke, scientist Isaac Newton, and William Shakespeare, whose plays Voltaire found both vulgar and compelling. Writing to a friend in Paris, Voltaire exclaimed:

 “If you had seen a whole play of Shakespeare’s, as I have, you would think that our love scenes were pretty feeble.”

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The Absolutely, Positively True Adventures of Voltaire, Part I

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“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” — Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet — aka Voltaire — was one of the leading figures of the French enlightenment. He advocated tolerance, equality, and separation of church and state, in a time when these were still radical ideas. In his best-known work — the satirical novel, Candide, ou l’Optimisme ( “Candide, or optimism”) – Voltaire challenged the assertion by German philosopher and mathematician, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz  that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

What is less known about Voltaire is that in his youth he was considered a royal pain in the ass. As a result, he was beaten on numerous occasions. He was exiled from France several times, and imprisoned for almost a year in the Bastille.

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The Dogon: African tribe or space aliens from Sirius B?

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It turns out the Scientologists aren’t the only ones who claim we come from space. The Dogon – an indigenous tribe of Mali – claim that the germ of all things originated in a super-dense “egg of the world”—what we now know as the star “Sirius B.” Sirius B is the twin to Sirius, the so-called “Dogstar,” the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major.

But the real kicker is that the Dogon made their claim in the 1940s. And a diagram for the Sirius system is shown in Dogon artifacts over 400 years-old. Sirius B wasn’t even discovered by astronomers until 1970. So how did the Dogon know it was there?

To answer that question, we need to take a look at Dogon creation myths. But first a warning – these may not be appropriate for all readers.

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General Butt Naked: the man who ate children

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Joshua Milton Blahyi is a Christian preacher in Liberia.  But he was once better known as General Butt Naked, one of the most brutal warlords in Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Every night for 14 years Blahyi talked with the devil. Every night the devil told him to do things… bad things… including sacrificing and eating children.

Blahyi’s creation as General Butt Naked started before he was even born. He was conceived on the orders of Krahn tribe elders and born on September 30, 1971.  From the time he was a child, Blahyi was told his destiny was to be a priest and a warrior.  When he was seven, his father handed him to the tribal elders, who schooled him in the rituals of the priesthood. His initiation as a priest was as senseless as it was brutal.

Against the beating of a drum, a man in a carved black mask led Blahyi to an altar. The elders brought him a little girl.  Her clothes were removed and her body smeared with clay.  The elders ordered Blahyi to kill her. Over the next three days, Blahyi ritualistically ate the little girl’s heart and other parts of her body.  He was officially declared a priest.  He was 11 years-old.

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Jeanne de Clisson — the Lioness of Brittany

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Noblewoman… mother… prostitute… widow… pirate.   In the 14th century, Jeanne de Clisson – the “Lioness of Brittany” — was all these, and more.

Actually, no one really seems sure about the prostitute part.  What is true beyond doubt is that the Lioness of Brittany was as vicious as any male pirate.  The reasons for her rage, however, are perhaps a bit more compelling.

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