Charles Dickens and the Little Ice Age

Charles Dickens spent most of his life in the “Little Ice Age” where his earliest Christmases were snowy, which influenced later pop culture.

The Little Ice Age was a several hundred year period of unusually cold weather around parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Depending on how you want to define it, the period ran from either the 1300s or 1500s to around 1850. There are various suggested causes for this cold weather, but the result was cooler summers and especially cold winters.

In England the winters could get so cold that the River Thames would freeze over. Over the centuries there were 24 times when the river was solid enough to host the River Thames frost fair, a winter celebration on the frozen river complete with vendors, dancing, sports, and more. The last such festival was in 1814, during which they walked an elephant across the frozen river.

Bob Cratchit carrying Tiny Tim in a snowy London from A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens

Born in 1812 in the south of England, Dickens’s family moved to London in 1815. As part of the Little Ice Age, the first 8 Christmases of Dickens’s life were snowy white Christmases. At a developmental stage in his life these white Christmases had a significant influence on Dickens’s idea of what Christmas should be. Dickens included a white Christmas in several stories, the first of which was 1836’s The Pickwick Papers and later, and most famously, in 1843’s A Christmas Carol.

The enormous popularity of A Christmas Carol, and the popularity of Dickens in general, greatly influenced our western cultural idea of what Christmas should be. It helped revive the celebration of Christmas in Britain, which had been on the decline during the Industrial Revolution. Snowy white landscapes, crackling fires, hot meals, mulled wine, mistletoe, wrapped packages, carols & merriment, it all became part of the ideal Christmas.

The 1942 movie Holiday Inn gave us the hit song White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby. The 1954 movie White Christmas (seen above) also featured Bing Crosby singing White Christmas.

Our idea of a snowy white Christmas is directly linked to the staying power of Charles Dickens and that, for a young Dickens, Christmas was always white. After the Little Ice Age ended southern England has not see many white Christmases. Today there is around a 9% probability of a white Christmas in London, but the idea of a snowy Christmas persists. The 1942 movie Holiday Inn, which gave us the hit song White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby, only furthered the Dickens idea of a snowy Christmas.

The Headless Horseman

A legend of a headless horseman and the need to cross a body of water for safety isn’t unique to Washington Irving.

Washington Irving’s 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow centers around an encounter with the headless horseman, a Hessian soldier of the Revolutionary War who rises from the grave at night in search of his head (which was shot off by a cannon). After attending a harvest festival at the Van Tassel house our protagonist, Ichabod Crane, is pursued in the night by the headless horseman. Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the Pocantico River as the headless horseman’s power ends at the boundary of the river. As Crane and his horse Gunpowder cross the bridge the horseman gives one last attack by throwing his own head at Crane (or so the story goes).

Headless Riders

Irving’s story is an American classic but it’s also part of a larger tradition of supernatural headless horsemen. The British Isles and Northern Europe have a variety of spectral headless riders but one of the most famous are the dullahans of Ireland. The dullahans are a kind of sinister magical creature. They’re dressed in black, riding ride black horses (who are also headless in some versions), and when they stop riding it’s to announce the name of someone who is about to die. Their decapitated head, which they carry in their hand, is said to have magical sight and speaks the name of the person to die. In their other hand they crack a whip made of a human spinal cord.

In some parts of Ireland a dullahan doesn’t ride a solitary horse but instead is the headless coachman of the Cóiste Bodhar, the death coach. The death coach rides to pick up someone who is about to die and carry them to the afterlife.

A dullahan as imagined by Ryan Van Dongen

Take Me To The River

In The Legend of Sleep Hollow Ichabod Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the bridge and reach the other side of the river. This supernatural nighttime chase, and trying to reach the other side of the river, is similar to Robert Burns’s 1790 poem Tam o’ Shanter. In the poem, the titular Tam o’ Shanter has ended an evening of drinking at the pub and sets out into the night on his horse Meg. As he is riding along he sees an old abandoned church with light coming from inside, so he stops to take a closer look. Inside is a satanic witches’ sabbath complete with the Devil playing bagpipes.

Upon seeing a witch in a nightshirt that is just a bit too small, an intoxicated Shanter comments aloud, which is heard by the supernatural creatures. The lights go out and what follows is a daring chase where Shanter has to reach the other side of the River Doon. Like the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, the witches won’t cross the river and so Shanter’s only chance of survival is in making it to the other side. As he gallops across the Bridge of Doon a witch pulls off Meg’s tail.

A detail from Tam o’ Shanter and the Witches, with Tam looking in from the window

Added info: Beyond being an inspiration for Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tam o’Shanter is also the naming inspiration for the Scottish hat of the same name. The Bridge of Doon, aka the Brig o’ Doon, is the inspiration for the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon and its fictional town that appears once a century.

Tam o'Shanter inspired the name of the Scottish hat as well as the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon. In this image is the Tam o'Shanter hat and the Brigadoon record cover.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

The witches’ ingredients for the cauldron in Macbeth are mostly coded names for medicinal plants.

Macbeth’s Act 4 opening scene is probably one of the most well known scenes in Shakespeare. The Three Witches (aka the Weird Sisters) are in a dark cave with a boiling cauldron at the center. The witches gather and begin an incantation of dark magic, adding ingredients as they go. “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Each witch then lists a series of ingredients that, at face-value, sound disgusting and macabre. But the ingredients are not what they seem.

Witches, like early alchemists, kept their knowledge a closely guarded secret. After putting all of that effort into R&D you didn’t want the competition getting a hold of your findings. But witches had other reasons for secrecy. Unlike the fictional witches in Macbeth, most “witches” were in reality female medical workers using herbs & botanicals to create medicines. In Medieval Europe medicine was a male-dominated profession and women caught practicing medicine were sometimes branded as witches. As such they had to keep their activity, and their recipes, secret. By using alternate names for their ingredients, the contents of one’s “spell book” were kept secret. Also, using alternate names worked as a safe-guard to keep their proprietary medical knowledge out of the hands of the general public who might mistakenly try to prepare these treatments themselves.

Some believe that almost all of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew are actually coded plant names, even the problematically named “liver of blaspheming Jew”. How much of this Shakespeare knew is unclear. All the ingredients together would make an unrealistic ridiculous concoction, so they were probably chosen for theatrical shock value. He may have found a list of real “witches” ingredients and used them without knowing they were coded names. Still, if you want improved blood circulation some eye of newt (aka mustard seed) might help.

A list with pictures of the 23 ingredients in the witches' brew in Macbeth
A list of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew, and their real world counterparts.
Learn more about these and other alternate ingredients.

The Missing Children of Hamelin

It is very likely the Pied Piper is based on real events

The basic story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is that in 1284 the Medieval German town of Hamelin had a rat problem. A stranger came to town who could get rid of the rats and he did so by playing music on his magic pipe luring the rats to the Weser river where they drowned. When the piper came to collect his payment the town decided they weren’t going to pay him the agreed amount and so he exacted his revenge by using his pipe to lure 130 children of Hamelin away from the town where they were never heard from again. As fairy tales go it’s pretty … grim.

In the early 19th century this version of the story was recorded by the Grimm Brothers of Germany who documented a variety of Germanic fairy tales that were part of the oral storytelling tradition. Unlike most of their fairy tales however, the curious thing about the Pied Piper is that it seems to be only partially fictional.

Not a normal fairy tale

For being a fairy tale, one of the first curious things about the Pied Piper of Hamelin is that it takes place in a real town, not a fictional location. Also, unlike the standard “a long time ago” or some other vague time frame, this story very specifically took place in 1284. Before the Grimm version, the earliest documented version of this story is in the stained glass windows of the church of Hamelin around 1300. The church was destroyed in 1660 but details of the church, its windows, and the story of the missing children were by then documented in several places. The Hamelin records of 1384 say that, for reasons not specified, 130 children of Hamelin left in 1284 and never returned.

What happened to the children of Hamelin?

At face value the idea that a piper used music to lure rats & children out of town is unlikely. That said there were instances of dancing mania in the Middle Ages, where groups of people would just start dancing as in some sort of mass psychogenic illness. Perhaps a musician initiated some mania that led the children away.

While the stained glass windows documented the loss of Hamelin children they never mentioned a piper. The earliest documentation of a piper is the Lueneburg Manuscript of 1440-50. So for over a hundred years the story may have had no piper, just missing children.

Another theory involves the rats and that the children may have died from bubonic plague or some other infection spread by rats. Here the piper goes from being a musician or magician, to becoming a rat catcher. This theory is unlikely though because, to start, why would a disease only kill the children the town and not the adults as well? More importantly, the rats didn’t become a part of the story until 1559. So for almost 300 years the story had already been told without rats.

Still another theory is that the children left on the failed Children’s Crusade of 1212 where children of Germany & France were said to have set out for the Holy Land to try and peacefully convert the Muslims to Christianity. The piper in this case would have been someone whose job was to recruit children to join the crusade. Then the children never returned because they were sold into slavery. But because of the differences in years, and that the Children’s Crusade is riddled with fictional details and inaccuracies, it seems unlikely like that this is the explanation for the missing children of Hamelin.

Perhaps the most likely explanation is found in German colonization efforts. By the 13th century there was a push to have Germanic people move eastward to colonize more land from Poland down through Transylvania. The term “children” could have been meant more as “people of the town” rather than actual little kids. In this sense these were adults who moved away from Hamelin to settle new lands. The piper in this case could have been some loudly dressed smooth talking recruitment agent who came to town to sell people on the idea of emigration. This colonization theory is supported by a documented trail of late 13th century Hamelin family names appearing in Eastern European areas. Similarly, German place names start to become the names of towns in these areas around the same time.

So rather than a magical story of children being lured away from town by a mysterious piper, the reality may be that some citizens of Hamelin decided to leave and move eastward. As a way to remember these expatriate friends & families the town commemorated the loss in stained glass and in a story (a story that got confused and changed over the years). If only they had commemorated why they left.

Added info: “Pied” means “multicolored”, so he was a piper wearing somewhat eccentric/eye-catching multicolored clothes.

Saddam Hussein’s Romance Novel

Zabibah and the King is a romance novel written by Saddam Hussein

When former president/dictator of Iraq Saddam Hussein wasn’t busy ruling/committing genocide, he found time for the arts. Between 2000-2003 he published four historical novels, all fiction, all written either by Saddam or written by ghostwriters under his direction. Three of the novels take place in the distant past of Iraq while 2002’s Men and the City takes place in the near past telling a fictionalized history of Saddam’s relatives fighting the Turks.

Zabibah and the King

It is 2000’s Zabibah and the King that is of particular interest. Zabibah and the King is a romance novel written by Saddam Hussein. On its surface the book is about King Arab of medieval Iraq, a beautiful commoner woman named Zabibah, and Zabibah’s abusive husband. The book is written as if an elderly woman is telling the story to a group of children, but there are large sections where Saddam is clearly airing his personal grievances that seem out of place if an elderly woman is telling them to children. As for the plot, when the King and Zabibah meet they mostly just talk about political theory, religion, and the best way to rule a country.

Eventually the abusive husband gets jealous that his wife is spending so much time with the King. He exacts his revenge by raping Zabidah and eventually teams up with the ruler of an enemy kingdom to wage war on King Arab. In the end Zabibah and her husband die in battle against one another, King Arab dies later, and when he dies he leaves the kingdom in the hands of a democratic council (which had been Zabibah’s idea) and the country prospers. Oh and also there is a whole section about bestiality between a bear and a herdsman which, again, is supposedly being told by an old woman to children.

Thinly veiled is the fact that Zabibah and the King is an allegory. The King represents Saddam himself, Zabibah is the people of Iraq, Zabibah’s rapist husband is the United States, and the enemy kingdom who help to wage war is Israel. Also the bear involved in the bestiality might represent Russian forces in some way. The book is Saddam laying-out his worldview, it’s about the United States’ 1991 invasion of Iraq during the Gulf War, and ultimately it’s a soapbox for Saddam to complain about things.

The book is not good but “remarkably” it was a bestseller in Iraq. Also Saddam used a 1998 painting titled The Awakening by Jonathon Bowser for the book cover, but never got permission from the artist.

Added info: Be sure to check out Saddam’s Goodreads author profile for more of his work and a very generous biography of him.

Dante’s Hell

Dante’s fictional ideas of Hell are largely responsible for what most people think of as Hell.

Completed in 1320, the Divine Comedy is a long narrative poem by Italian Dante Alighieri. It is divided up into three sections:

  • Inferno / Hell
  • Purgatorio / Purgatory
  • Paradiso / Paradise

Making himself the protagonist, the Divine Comedy tells the story of Dante’s journey to the underworld (Hell) and his eventual ascent to paradise (Heaven). It’s the first installment of this story, Inferno, that most people are familiar with. Inferno follows Dante down through nine very organized levels of Hell where each level down is for more terrible sinners. In the lowest level of Hell we find the devil along with the very worst sinners (those guilty of treachery).

What is Hell?

The Bible is fairly silent in regards to describing Hell. The specific word “Hell” is nowhere in the Bible. As far as a place in the afterlife full of punishment & suffering, the Old Testament doesn’t have one. The Old Testament has Sheol but everyone goes there – the good and the bad. It isn’t until the New Testament that a place of damnation is established with a few sketchy details. When someone dies, if they were righteous their name is in the book of life and they get eternal reward in Heaven. Those who don’t make the cut settle for the theological consolation prize of a one-way trip to suffering city. While not given a name, we’re told that this place has an unceasing fiery lake, there is the gnashing of teeth, and eternal suffering. There aren’t many more details than that. Enter, Dante’s Inferno.

Botticelli painting of the Inferno

Pop culture Hell

Dante’s Inferno creatively fills in the blanks left by the scant Hellish details of the Bible. For starters, Dante puts Hell underground (which is never specified in the Bible). The idea that there are different kinds of punishments for different kinds of sins is also invented by Dante. Similarly, the idea that there are different levels of Hell, each more awful than the previous, is also his literary creation.

In the Inferno’s ninth and lowest level of Hell Dante finds Satan, but the Bible never says Satan is in Hell. Similar to the idea of Hell, Satan isn’t created/introduced until the New Testament. Satan’s origin story is convoluted with lots of retconning, but one way or another Satan is cast out of Heaven and sent down to Earth where he must live until the second coming of Jesus. Only on Judgement Day will he be cast down into what we now call Hell as a final punishment. Until then Satan is presumably wandering the Earth, causing trouble, but is certainly not ruling Hell as we tend to think of him. Further, Dante depicts Satan has a giant monstrous beast with 3 faces and large bat like wings. It makes for a scarier story, but none of it is in the Bible. Of course if Satan could have at one point been a beautiful fallen angel, but also have potentially been a serpent, maybe he could also turn into a monster. The Bible is silent on the potential shape-shifting super powers of Satan.

Gustave Doré etching of Satan in the Inferno

Ultimately, when we think of Satan ruling over the administration of various punishments in a stalactite & stalagmite cavernous underground Hell we are thinking of the influence of Dante’s Inferno. None of this is in the Bible. After hundreds of years and untold number of other works of fiction, what we think of as of Hell is more influenced by popular culture than the Bible. Add to this that most people have never read the Bible, and it’s easy to see how Dante has done more for Hell than scripture.

Added bonus: Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in the Florentine Tuscan dialect of Italian instead of Latin (which would have been the literary language of the time). Because it was written in the language of the people, the Divine Comedy was more accessible to more people which only increased its popularity. This helped popularize the Florentine Tuscan dialect of Italian which eventually became the standard Italian language that we know today.