Saint Denis: the patron saint of headaches feels your pain

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Statute of St. Denis, Notre-Dame, Paris.

Being beheaded can really mess up your day. But according to Christian tradition, after Saint Denis was decapitated, he simply picked up his head and kept walking and preaching. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Denis (pronounced “duh-KNEE” in French) is the patron saint of headaches.

St. Gregory of Tours tells us that Denis was born in Italy in the 3d century A.D. In 250, he was sent as a missionary to Gaul (modern-day France), where he became the first Bishop of Paris.

Paris, however, was still largely a pagan city. And the Parisians didn’t take kindly to Denis converting so many to Christianity. They took Denis and two of his companions to the highest hill in Paris — Montmarte — and decapitated them.

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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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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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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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The assassination of Louis of Orléans – how John the Fearless got away with murder

 

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John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy

John II of Burgundy – John the Fearless as he is better known today — was famous in his day as a military hero.  But he was infamous for arranging the assassination of the king’s brother, Louis of Orléans — and convincing the king it was justified.

The king was Charles VI of France, who ruled from 1380 to 1422.  Charles suffered from what was most likely schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder.  During his recurrent episodes of madness, he had severe hallucinations and delusions.  At one point, he even believed he was made out of glass.  He forbade anyone to touch him, lest he break, and had his tailors sew rods into his clothing for additional protection.

A young Charles VI of France

A young Charles VI

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Cagliostro and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace

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Giuseppe Balsamo a/k/a Alessandro di Cagliostro

Alchemist, forger, quack, pimp – in the 18th century, the self-styled Count Alessandro di Cagliostro was all of these and more.  He might have been forgotten were it not for his alleged involvement in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace in 1785.  The event – involving the theft of an expensive diamond necklace by means of Marie Antoinette’s forged signature —  cast suspicion on the unpopular queen and may have contributed to the French Revolution.  Although Cagliostro was found innocent of any involvement in the crime, he nevertheless was held in the Bastille for nine months and eventually asked to leave France.

Cagliostro was most likely born Giuseppe Balsamo in Palermo, Sicily.  Although his family was poor, Balsamo had a tutor and eventually became a novice in the Catholic Order of St. John of God.  Before he was expelled, he learned chemistry as well as religious rites.

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