Tag Archives: Europe

On the Downsides to Inbreeding

18 Nov

Is there an upside? Maybe you have to do less wooing? Still…there are lots of downsides to inbreeding. And if you need proof (do you really need proof?), I present Exhibit A against marrying your cousin (or any other member of YOUR OWN FAMILY):

Charles II of Spain. It isn’t pretty…

Even the court painters couldn’t do anything to make him look better. Historians are pretty sure he suffered from¬† number of serious medical conditions they hadn’t named yet (all- shockingly- generally caused by inbreeding). Among other problems, Charles jaw was so big that he couldn’t chew. And his tongue was entirely to big for his mouth, so he had difficulty talking and drooled all the time. Attractive. Unsurprisingly, he never managed to have any children, despite being married twice (there’s something to be said for natural selection and survival of the fittest).

The real problem with Charles started over a century before his birth in 1665. Charles II of Spain was part of the illustrious (and disgustingly royal) Hapsburg family/dynasty. In order to keep the family dominion (which occasionally included places like modern Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands, etc.) in the family, they did a lot of inbreeding. In fact, historians have managed to track down the exact point when they stopped outbreeding in 1555, more than a hundred years before Charles was born. If that sounds weird to you, you’re right- it is weird.

Charles grandmother (Empress Maria Anna) was also his aunt, and his grandmother (Margarita of Austria) was also his great-grandmother. In case you want an illustration of how tangled his family tree is, I’ll show you:

Please note how every one of his relatives does double duty in the family tree. And how everyone¬† is a descendant of Philip of Castile and Joanna of Aragon (who, incidentally, is also known to history and “Juana the Mad”. I’m sensing some really good genes here.

I was sitting here thinking to myself: “How on earth did anyone else working hard running their own nations in Europe possible take Charles and Spain seriously?!” I mean, if I was sitting around being the king of France, next door to Spain, I would definitely be disparaging of Charles, and possibly try to take advantage of him (oh, you know the French kings are mean anyways). But then I remembered… Charles is related to the king of France. Pretty closely, too. (Is there anyone he’s related to that isn’t creepily close?)

Apparently, Charles II spread the idea that his mental and physical disabilities were the result of being hexed, and at one point, he went through the exercise of getting exorcised. Sorry Charles, I can’t image it helped much- I really don’t think witches are at the root of your problems… Somebody needed to have broken out from the familial dating pool a while ago to help you. (But look at that face? How could anyone have resisted anybody with a family likeness to him?)

Unfortunately for him, Charles II was sickly his whole life and died in 1700 at just 35 years old with no heir. Unfortunately for the country he was in charge of, this led to a dynastic crisis and the War of Spanish Succession, where a lot of his Hapsburg relatives fought over which Spanish territories they wanted. The moral of the story here kids is that inbreeding causes war…and uncontrollable drooling. To hit that home, I’ll leave you with another of Charles II of Spain’s portraits.

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That’s Really Going to Ruin Someone’s Whole Day

11 Oct

When I think of 18th century royal courts, lots of things immediately spring to mind: grand palaces done up as ornately as humanly possible, huge poofy dresses (panniers and bustles!), and staid, slightly inbred folks with awesome titles, like the Duke and Duchess of Whatnot and the Baron and Baroness Blah d’Blah. I’m sure Peterhof Palace, in St. Petersburg, Russia, once had all those things, but it also had something else up its proverbial sleeves.

Construction of Peterhof palace was begun in the early 18th century by Peter the Great (hugely surprising, considering the name and all). Good old Peter, who I’m pretty sure had a personality disorder (seriously, look him up, Pete could be one nasty dude), had some palace envy for the grand fountains he had heard about in France (he’d never been to France, but heard they were snazzy, so of course he wanted some for himself). Thus, Peterhof palace has over a thousand fountains, ranging from the very impressive Samson. fountain (meant to symbolize Russia’s victory over its rival, Sweden) to the devious trick fountains.

Two views of the Samson fountain. Upper: facing Peterhof palace (Grand Cascade). Lower: facing the Bay of Finland.
By the mid- to late- 18th century, the fountains and parks had expanded to its 1000+ fountain peak, and were impressing the courtly Russian masses (few). If you were a courtly lady/gentleman of the 18th century, stuffed into the overwarm entertaining halls for balls or dinners of state or kissing the Tsar’s feet or whatever, wouldn’t you want a nice refreshing walk in the gardens? Well, Personality-Disorder Peter is one step ahead f you. He thought it would be hilarious to have trick fountains installed throughout the park to drench unsuspecting courtiers (ah, those people of lower rank). One trick fountain looks like a circular bench, with an umbrella covering it for shade. As soon as someone sits on the bench, the “umbrella” starts dumbing out sheets of water, trapping people under it. Another one looks like a tree with benches and cobbles around it, but as soon as you step on one of the trigger stones, the tree starts shooting water crazily. If you try to escape by sitting on one of the benches, that might trigger a new fountain of water to come up from behind the bench, further drenching you.
Now, If I spent four hours being dressed and prepared every morning (early afternoon- courtiers weren’t morning people), I would be pretty ticked off that some hydraulic engineer with a peevish sense of humor thought it would be funny to drench me and all my court finery. That stuff is mostly silk! Think of all the rubles wasted just so the Tsar can have a laugh at his courtiers expense (Are you starting to see what I was saying about the personality disorder? He also was afraid of high ceilings and liked to have people killed on a whim)! Court dress is nothing to sneeze at. Take this ensemble, on Empress Elizabeth Petrovna:
Elizabeth Petrovna, by Ivan Yakovlevich Vishnyakov, 1743.
The powdered wigs, the arsenic-laden cosmetics, the crinoline and layers of silk! All of it drenched and ruined by these sneaky trick fountains at Peterhof. You’d be out of courtly commission for at least the rest of the day (and you better hope you don’t catch a cold- this is the 18th century we’re talking about).

Hirsutism: It is What It Sounds Like

21 Sep

If you’ve watched a History Channel special on bearded ladies or werewolves (it’s okay if you haven’t, not everyone watches as much TV as I do), you’ve probably heard of hirsutism. If you think that the word sounds suspiciously like “hair suit”, you’d be exactly right! Hirsutism is a genetic issue that affects a relatively tiny proportion of the population. It affects more women than men, but let’s face it- they’re hairy anyways, so we’re less likely to notice.

Aside form 19th century circus acts, people with hirsutism tend to keep their condition on the down low. Probably because being so covered in hair garners a lot of attention. There is, however, one family that got quite a lot of attention in 16th century Europe, Petrus and Tognina Gonzales. Petrus, who was born in the Canary Islands, was taken as a child and presented to the French King Henry II. The prevailing medical opinion of the time was that he was either a werewolf or part dog.

The king took Petrus in and had him educated (more to see if it was possible than anything else). By the time he was an adult, Petrus was very successful in court circles and quite the asset to Henry. He got married in 1573 to a Parisian woman and they ended up having four children (all of the kids got dad’s hirsutism). As a family, they traveled around Europe together, visiting different royal courts and important people. Around this time, a painting was done of Tognina, Petrus’ cute (but hairy) young daughter.

Unfortunately, not much more is known about the family, or what happened to them throughout history. Maybe if you meet a particularly hairy European person with the last name of Gonzales, you can ask if they have a great-great-grandfather named Petrus.