Nov 212017
 

Today is probably the birthday (1694) of François-Marie Arouet, known to posterity by his nom de plume: Voltaire. He was known in his day, and still is, for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state. For these, and other “sins,” he was imprisoned in France and then exiled for some time. In addition, life was frequently made uncomfortable for him in his native Paris. But he stuck to his guns, suffering the usual fate of those who criticize (or in his case ridicule) the powers that be. He was a versatile and prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets.

Voltaire was born in Paris, the youngest of the five children of François Arouet (19 August 1649 – 1 January 1722), a lawyer who was a minor treasury official, and his wife, Marie Marguerite Daumard (c. 1660 – 13 July 1701), whose family was on the lowest rank of the French nobility. Some speculation surrounds Voltaire’s date of birth, because he claimed he was born on 20 February 1694 as the illegitimate son of a nobleman, Guérin de Rochebrune or Roquebrune. Two of his older brothers—Armand-François and Robert—died in infancy and his surviving brother, Armand, and sister Marguerite-Catherine were 9 and 7 years older, respectively. Voltaire was baptized on 22 November 1694, with François de Castagnère, abbé de Châteauneuf, and Marie Daumard, the wife of his mother’s cousin, standing as godparents. He was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704–1711), where he was taught Latin, theology, and rhetoric. Later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish, and English.

By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a notary, spent much of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, he sent Voltaire to study law, this time in Caen. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. Voltaire’s wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. In 1713, his father obtained a job for him as a secretary to the new French ambassador in the Netherlands, the marquis de Châteauneuf, the brother of Voltaire’s godfather. At The Hague, Voltaire fell in love with a French Protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer (known as ‘Pimpette’). Their scandalous affair was discovered by de Châteauneuf and Voltaire was forced to return to France by the end of the year.

Most of Voltaire’s early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for critiques of the government. These activities were to result in two imprisonments and a temporary exile to England. One satirical verse, in which Voltaire accused the Régent of incest with his own daughter, led to an 11-month imprisonment in the Bastille (16 May 1717 to 15 April 1718 in a windowless cell with ten-foot thick walls). The Comédie-Française had agreed in January 1717 to stage his debut play, Œdipe, and it opened in mid-November 1718, seven months after his release. Its immediate critical and financial success established his reputation. Both the Régent and King George I of Great Britain presented Voltaire with medals as a mark of their appreciation.

He mainly argued for religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He campaigned to eradicate priestly and aristo-monarchical authority, and supported a constitutional monarchy, along the lines of the British monarchy, that protected people’s rights against absolutism.

He adopted the name “Voltaire” in 1718, following his incarceration at the Bastille. Its origin is unclear. It is an anagram of AROVET LI, the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of le jeune (“the young”). According to a family tradition among the descendants of his sister, he was known as le petit volontaire (“determined little thing”) as a child, and he resurrected a variant of the name in his adult life. The name also reverses the syllables of Airvault, his family’s home town in the Poitou region.

In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau in March 1719, Voltaire concludes by asking that, if Rousseau wishes to send him a return letter, he do so by addressing it to Monsieur de Voltaire. A postscript explains: “J’ai été si malheureux sous le nom d’Arouet que j’en ai pris un autre surtout pour n’être plus confondu avec le poète Roi”, (I was so unhappy under the name of Arouet that I have taken another, primarily so as to cease to be confused with the poet Roi.) This probably refers to Adenes le Roi, and the ‘oi’ diphthong was then pronounced like modern ‘ouai’, so the similarity to ‘Arouet’ is clear, and thus, it could well have been part of his rationale. Who knows?

Voltaire came under a lot of criticism in his lifetime for his open mindedness about numerous subjects, especially religion. The accusation that he was anti-Semitic is unfair, I believe. He disliked most religions, especially the faiths of Abraham (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), quite equally. He did approve of Hinduism, however, because it had a distinct openness to a variety of avenues into the spiritual.

Voltaire’s view of historiography was not absolutely original, but it was deeply influential. In his article on “History” in Diderot’s Encyclopédie he wrote, “One demands of modern historians more details, better ascertained facts, precise dates, more attention to customs, laws, mores, commerce, finance, agriculture, population.” Voltaire’s histories imposed the values of the Enlightenment on the past it is true, but at the same time he helped free historiography from antiquarianism, Eurocentrism, religious intolerance, and a concentration on great men, diplomacy, and warfare.

His Essay on Customs traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Influenced by Bossuet’s Discourse on the Universal History (1682), he was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Middle Eastern civilization, but was rather weak on the Middle Ages on the whole. Although he repeatedly warned against political bias on the part of the historian, he did not miss many opportunities to expose the intolerance and frauds of the church over the ages. Voltaire advised scholars that anything contradicting the normal course of nature was not to be believed.

I could go on, but you can read Voltaire for yourself. Here’s a few quotes I enjoy.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.

Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.

‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.

God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.

In February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in over 25 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The 5-day journey was too much for the 83-year-old, and he believed he was about to die on 28 February, writing “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” However, he recovered, and in March saw a performance of Irene, where he was treated by the audience as a returning hero after years of (mostly self-imposed) exile from the capital. He soon became ill again and died on 30 May 1778. The accounts of his deathbed have been numerous and varying, and it has not been possible to establish the details of what precisely occurred. His enemies related that he repented and accepted the last rites given by a Catholic priest, or that he died under great torment, while his adherents told how he was defiant to his last breath. According to one story of his last words, his response to a priest at his deathbed urging him to renounce Satan was “Now is not the time for making new enemies.” However, this appears to have originated from a joke first published in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1856, and was only attributed to Voltaire in the 1970s.

Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, which he had refused to retract before his death, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris, but friends and relations managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne, where his companion’s, Marie Louise Mignot’s, brother was abbé. His heart and brain were embalmed separately

One final quote:

Ice-cream is exquisite – what a pity it isn’t illegal.

Ice cream was popularized in the 18th century by French and Italian chefs and caught on in England. You had to keep ice in an ice house, collected in winter and stored until summer, but with it you could use a forerunner of the modern ice-cream churn, the sabotiere, probably invented in Naples in the 17th century. Frozen ices, akin to sorbets, were more common than ice cream, but I am sure Voltaire meant ice cream using cream and eggs.

Italian chef Domenico Negri who worked in London in the 1760s popularized continental ice cream. His apprentice Frederick Nutt published The Complete Confectioner in 1789, giving 32 recipes for ice cream and 24 for water ices.

This one is interesting. By “syrup” he means a simple syrup of half sugar and half water, boiled and cooled.

Parmesan Ice Cream

Take six eggs, half a pint of syrup and a pint of cream put them into stewpan and boil them until it begins to thicken; then rasp three ounces of parmesan cheese, mix and pass them through a sieve, and freeze it.

This one might be more what Voltaire was thinking of however:

Royal Ice Cream

Take the yolks of ten eggs and two whole eggs; beat them up well with your spoon; then take the rind of one lemon, two gills of syrup, one pint of cream, a little spice, and a little orange flower water; mix them all well and put them over the fire, stirring them all the time with your spoon; when you find it grows thick take it off, and pass it through a sieve; put it into a freezing pot, freeze it, and take a little citron , and lemon and orange peel with a few pistachio nuts blanched; cut them all and mince them with your ice before you put them in your moulds.

Dec 222016
 

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On this date in 1135 Stephen of Blois (c. 1092/6 – 25 October 1154), known in Norman French as Étienne de Blois (then Étienne d’Angleterre) – grandson of William the Conqueror – became king of England. For me for many years, because of the shamefully biased way I was taught history, Stephen existed only in lists of monarchs, and I barely remembered that England even had a king named Stephen. Yet his reign was very turbulent, and extremely important for what came later. He was the last of the kings styled “Norman” (the dynasty founded by William I). After Stephen came the Angevins (Henry II, Richard I, and John) whose rule (and territories) marked a major shift in English history. Stephen’s reign was dominated by what historians usually call “the Anarchy,” a perhaps polite term for civil war. I can’t understand why historians want to speak of the 17th century war between Parliament and the Monarchy in England as THE Civil War. There were many civil wars in England, notably the Wars of the Roses, and the war between Stephen and the Empress Matilda, his cousin. All left an indelible mark on the country.

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One point that is not stressed nearly enough by English historians, is that one cannot strictly call England an independent nation at this time, although patriots like to think it was. To do so is to succumb to a species of what is usually called “Whig history” – that is, past events are always seen in terms of where we are now. So . . . England is an independent nation now, therefore it is fitting to talk about it as an independent nation from the time of William the Conqueror. This is fallacious nonsense. William did, indeed, unite the lands of previous Anglo-Saxon (and Danish) leaders into one polity, but it was not distinct from his holdings in Normandy: it was a province. Subsequent rulers felt that way also because they held lands on the continent as well as England, and spent more time abroad than in England (Richard I being a prime example). Until John, English was not their native language, and they certainly did not think of themselves as English.  It is well past time to get over the idea that the piece of real estate that is now England has been waiting in the wings to become a nation-state from time immemorial. Stephen and his kin saw England as part of a fluid conglomeration of provinces to be fought over in a neverending game of chess.  I don’t have space to explore Stephen’s reign in detail. Here’s some highlights.

Stephen was born in the County of Blois in France. His father, Count Stephen-Henry, died while Stephen was still young, and he was brought up by his mother, Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. Stephen became part of the court of his uncle, Henry I of England, rose in prominence and was granted extensive lands. He married Matilda of Boulogne, inheriting additional estates in Kent and Boulogne that made the couple one of the wealthiest in England.

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Stephen narrowly escaped drowning with Henry I’s son, William Adelin, in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120. The White Ship was a newly refitted vessel captained by Thomas FitzStephen, whose father Stephen FitzAirard had been captain of the ship Mora for William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066. Thomas offered his ship to Henry I to use to return to England from Barfleur in Normandy. Henry had already made other arrangements, but allowed many in his retinue to take the White Ship, including William Adelin; his illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln; his illegitimate daughter Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche (not to be confused with the Empress Matilda); and many other nobles. Stephen begged off at the last minute and that spared his life. Because of reckless, possibly drunken, navigation, the ship, in attempting to beat Henry’s ship to England, struck a rock and sank with almost complete loss of life of those on board.

William Adelin’s death left the succession of the English throne open to challenge. When Henry I died in 1135, Stephen quickly crossed the English Channel and with the help of his brother Henry of Blois, a powerful ecclesiastic, took the throne, arguing that the preservation of order across the kingdom took priority over his earlier oaths to support the claim of Henry I’s daughter, the Empress Matilda. He was probably right in principle (despite less honorable motives) given that the English, by and large, were not ready to have a queen as monarch even though her claims to the throne were stronger than Stephen’s.

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The early years of Stephen’s reign were largely successful, despite a series of attacks on his possessions in England and Normandy by David I of Scotland, Welsh rebels, and the Empress Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou. In 1138 the Empress’s half-brother Robert of Gloucester rebelled against Stephen, threatening civil war. Together with his close advisor, Waleran de Beaumont, Stephen took firm steps to defend his rule, including arresting a powerful family of bishops. When the Empress and Robert invaded in 1139, however, Stephen was unable to crush the revolt rapidly, and it took hold in the south-west of England. Stephen was captured at the battle of Lincoln in 1141 and was abandoned by many of his followers and lost control of Normandy. Stephen was freed only after his wife and William of Ypres, one of his military commanders, captured Robert at the Rout of Winchester, but the war dragged on for many years with neither side able to win an advantage.

Stephen became increasingly concerned with ensuring that his son Eustace would inherit his throne. He tried to convince the Church to agree to crown Eustace to reinforce his claim but Pope Eugene III refused, and Stephen found himself in a sequence of increasingly bitter arguments with his senior clergy. In 1153 the Empress’s son, Henry FitzEmpress, invaded England and built an alliance of powerful regional barons to support his claim for the throne. The two armies met at Wallingford, but neither side’s barons were keen to fight another pitched battle. Stephen began to contemplate a negotiated peace, a process hastened by the sudden death of Eustace. Later in the year Stephen and Henry agreed to the Treaty of Winchester, in which Stephen recognized Henry as his heir in exchange for peace, passing over William, Stephen’s second son.

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Stephen’s decision to recognize Henry as his heir was, at the time, not necessarily a final solution to the civil war. Stephen might potentially have lived for many more years, whilst Henry’s position on the continent was far from secure. Although Stephen’s son William was young and unprepared to challenge Henry for the throne in 1153, the situation could well have shifted in subsequent years—there were widespread rumors during 1154 that William planned to assassinate Henry, for example.

Certainly many problems remained to be resolved, including re-establishing royal authority over the provinces and resolving the complex issue of which barons should control the contested lands and estates after the long civil war. Stephen burst into activity in early 1154, travelling around the kingdom extensively. He began issuing royal writs for the south-west of England once again and travelled to York where he held a major court in an attempt to impress upon the northern barons that royal authority was being reasserted. After a busy summer in 1154, however, Stephen traveled to Dover to meet the Count of Flanders; some historians believe that the King was already ill and preparing to settle his family affairs. Stephen fell ill with a stomach disorder and died on 25 October at the local priory, being buried at Faversham Abbey with his wife Matilda and son Eustace.

Today’s date is also famous because of the acts of another king – Alfred the Great, who was not really king of England, as such, but did style himself king of the English (or Anglo-Saxons). On this date in 877 Alfred the Great passed a law that no servant should work for the 12 days following the winter solstice. This was in the days before Christmas was a widespread holiday.

Alfred is the only king of the English (or England) to be called “the Great.” His lot (Ethelred, Aelfric, etc.) all tend to be forgotten in the school history books except for simple children’s stories like Alfred (or should I say Ælfrǣd) and the burnt cakes. REAL English history apparently starts in 1066. Any fule kno that. (The latter is a test to see how old you really are). Another pathetic example of Whig history.

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The story of Alfred and the cakes is, of course, apocryphal – a Victorian invention that has the merit of being a story we can all relate to. Oh, the pots I have burnt! Supposedly he was in hiding and plotting his next attack on the Danes when he was taken in by a peasant woman who asked him to watch her cakes cooking whilst she attended to other things. The poor man got lost in his battle plans and so let the cakes burn, which earned him a tongue lashing from the woman who was unaware that he was her king. I’m not sure whose side I’m on. The smell of smoke emanating from the kitchen whilst I am lost in my writing is painfully familiar. Fortunately I live alone . . . and those who know me well know that cooking and smoke are not strange bedfellows in my house. In any case, here’s a recipe for cakes that may be like Alfred’s, and are certainly seasonal. They are similar to scones.

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King Alfred’s Cakes

Ingredients:

1 cup flour
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp ground nutmeg
3 tbsp butter, cut into small pieces
½ cup raisins, dried apricots, prunes or other dried fruit, cut into pieces
1 large egg
⅛ cup heavy whipping cream
⅛ cup orange juice

Instructions

Preheat your oven to 425°F.

Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. (I use a food processor for speed). Stir in the fruit.

In a small bowl, mix the egg, cream, and orange juice.

Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until all is moist. Turn on to a floured surface and knead gently. Then break the dough into small cakes and shape them with your hands to form rounds.

Place the cakes on a greased baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes or until golden. DO NOT LET THEM BURN !!!

Serve warm with butter.