Friday, June 26, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #112: Same-Sex Marriage in History

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, thus effectively bringing marriage equality to every state in the Union. This made me fantasize about what it would be like to buy a newspaper (for proof), climb into my time machine, and travel back to 1997, where I would interrupt my mother in the middle of her I-don’t-care-if-you-like-women-but-no-one-needs-to-know-about-it speech, and tell her to kiss my ass. But we don’t have time machines yet, and I’m going to hazard a guess that we don’t have them in the future either because I don’t remember Elderly Me showing up waving a photo of the first gay president and First Husband. So in recognition of this wonderful, wonderful day, on which a ray of rainbow-colored hope has emerged to suggest that, as Allie Brosh would say, “Maybe everything isn’t hopeless bullshit,” I’ve decided to dedicate this Friday’s facts to the history of gay marriage.

Image by Benson Cua from Wikimedia Commons

The history of same-sex marriage is one that is along as the history of civilization itself. Same-sex marriages existed in both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In Egypt, at least one same-sex couple was buried in a pharaonic tomb, suggesting that the couple enjoyed legal status. In Mesopotamia, which I might point out has been dubbed the cradle of civilization, same-sex marriages were well-documented and were just one of various so-called “non-traditional” forms of marriage practiced. Among some of the other forms was polyandry, the practice of marrying multiple husbands, which sounds like it could simultaneously be both the best and worst thing ever.

As most people know, same-sex unions were common in ancient Greece, where the most common form of the institution involved an older man and a younger boy. Scholars insist that these unions were mostly, ahem, educational in nature, with the older man acting as a teacher and the younger boy as a pupil. Such a relationship certainly didn’t end when the participants both married women, as they were expected to do.

Romans also practiced same-sex unions, and more than a dozen Roman emperors either played for both teams or were outright gay. No less than two Roman emperors are rather famously known for marrying men, including Nero and Elagabalus. At least one of Nero’s cronies, on being asked if he approved of the emperor’s choice of a teenaged eunuch as a spouse, declared, “You do well, Caesar, to seek the company of such wives. Would that your father had had the same ambition and had lived with a similar consort!” Because you know, then Nero wouldn’t have been born. Sick burn.

On the other side of the world, folks in ancient China were gay-marrying it up, too. History brings us the story of Pan Zhang and Wang Zhongxian, two Chinese men who fell in love at first sight and lived together as domestic partners for the rest of their lives thereafter. They were said to be as “affectionate as husband and wife, sharing the same coverlet and pillow with unbounded intimacy for one another.” Legend has it that the two men died simultaneously, and were buried at the peak of Mount Luofu by their grief-stricken neighbors. A tree sprang up from the grave, and its twigs grew wrapped around one another as if embracing.

According to controversial historian John Boswell, a form of same-sex marriage known as “brother-making” existed in premodern Europe, as detailed in his extremely dense tome Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Boswell claims that the brother-making ceremony served as a form of religious same-sex marriage in the medieval Catholic Church. 

Saints Sergius and Bacchus were alleged participants.

While church officials and theologians alike dispute this claim, there is some evidence to suggest that a similar practice did exist in late medieval France. Affr√®rement, or “enbrotherment,” allowed two or more unrelated men to establish a household in which all members shared property jointly, as in a marriage, and became one another’s legal heirs. These contracts were entered into via public oath before a notary and witnesses, and while they may not always have been used to formalize a same-sex relationship, the parties involved “frequently testified that they entered into the contract because of their affection for one another.”

In 19th-century and early 20th-century America, a similar practice emerged among women who chose to live together as committed partners instead of taking husbands. These unions were known as Boston marriages. Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake entered into one of the better known Boston marriages. The couple was recognized by their families and community, and to some extent even by the law, as a married couple. They share a tombstone in Weybridge, Vermont. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #111: The History of Eyeglasses

A dear friend who is also blind as hell recently asked me what people did before they invented eyeglasses.

“Well, glasses were invented in like 1300 so they probably just wore glasses,” I said, pulling what I now know was a completely accurate tidbit of information right out of my ass.

“No, I mean, before that,” he replied.

“Oh, I don’t know, squinted a lot I guess,” is what I would have said if I were half as clever as I let on. According to poster Kathleen Grace, “They didn’t do much, they just tried to cope as well as they could.” While ordinary people may well have been reduced to squinting, holding things really close to their face, and feeling around for stuff on tables, but lucky for them, there weren’t a lot of things in their daily lives that required sharp vision. Books were uncommon and widespread illiteracy meant that most people didn’t need to write, either. Neither was there any driving. But now that I think of it, I wonder if all those alleged “blind people” that Jesus healed in the Bible weren’t just really, really myopic.

Seneca the Younger noted that “Letters, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe or glass filled with water.” The Roman Emperor Nero used an emerald as a corrective lens to watch the gladiatorial contests. Lenses made of rock crystal, such as the Nimrud lens, have been in use for at least 3,000 years, but it is unclear whether these ancient lenses were used for magnification or simply as burning lenses √† la Lord of the Flies.

Both uses are legit:
Photo of the Nimrud lens in the British Museum by user Geni from Wikipedia Commons.

The first mention of a convex lens used to produce a magnified image appears in 1021 in Alhazen’s Book of Optics. By the 11th or 12th century, Vikings were crafting rock crystal lenses capable of producing imaging quality on a par with 1950s technology. “Reading stones” made of glass became common in the scriptoriums of European monasteries between the 11th and 13th centuries, as they helped nearsighted monks work on illuminated manuscripts.

By the early 1200s, the imaging properties of lenses were well-known. In China, sunglasses made of smoky quartz had already been invented, and in the Arctic, the Inuit were already using snow goggles. Eyeglasses were invented in Italy sometime between 1286 and 1306, according to a 1306 sermon by Dominican friar Giordano de Pisa, who mentioned that “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses.” It should be noted that Marco Polo claims to have seen glasses in China as early as 1275, though it is unclear whether those glasses were for vision correction or just to look cool. By 1301, guilds in the glass making city of Venice had established regulations governing the lawful sale of eyeglasses.

Earpieces would not be invented until much later. Early pairs of glasses had to be held in place with the hand, as depicted in this Renaissance-era painting, Seated Apostle Reading While Feeling Annoyed as Hell:

"I wish Jesus would heal me of my blindness already so I could hold this anachronistic book with both hands."

Pince-nez style glasses stayed in place on their own by pinching the nose, hence the name (which is French for “pinch nose” for you non-Francophones readers). Modern-style glasses with clearly superior temple earpieces had been invented by at least the 17th century, as they were depicted in this circa-1600 El Greco painting of Fernando Nino de Guevara:

However, the modern style of glasses did not catch on immediately due to what many considered their sheer ugliness. Four-eyed freaks like George Washington, Napoleon, and Lafayette preferred ornate French-style binocles-ciseaux (“scissor glasses”) like these, which date from 1805:

Lorgnettes, or spectacles with a long handle, became popular in the 19th century, especially among fashionable ladies, although these were considered more like jewelry than corrective eyewear. Today, Wikipedia notes that “glasses remain very common, as their technology has improved.”

No shit.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #110: What Makes a Person a Cat Person or a Dog Person?

I don’t want to write this blog post, because: a) I’m tired, OMFG, what was I thinking when I decided FRIDAY would be a good day to write a regular blog post? Past Me was about as sharp as a marble sometimes; and b) I’m now pissed off after spending the past 45 minutes doing research, which in this case amounts to reading generalization after generalization about how dog people are friendly, extraverted, and conscientious, while cat people are cold, aloof, and introverted, and dog people should never, ever marry cat people because we are so deeply, horribly, and fundamentally flawed.  

I don't want your smelly dog in my house anyway. *pout*

According to research performed at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI, dog and cat owners do tend to have differences in personality. In a survey of 600 college students, the researchers found that dog lovers are “more energetic,” extraverted, and more likely to follow the rules. Cat lovers, on the other hand, are non-conformists who tend to introversion, sensitivity, and open-mindedness. Cat lovers are, somewhat perplexingly, both more neurotic and more open to new experiences – adventures, art, new ideas, etc. Cat lovers are also smarter, BECAUSE OF COURSE WE ARE.

Carroll University researcher Denise Guastello believes that extraverted people may decide they prefer dogs because they believe that dogs’ supposed personality traits make them an ideal pet for an active, extraverted person, while introverted or shy people may choose cats for themselves for a similar reason. The study also suggests that dog and cat people want different things out of their pets – dog people say they want “companionship” from their dogs, while cat people claim to want “affection” from their cats. That’s all well and good, but if you want companionship, cats are the reason why bathroom doors have locks.

I took this picture while I was writing this.

One sociologist has a different theory about cat people and dog people – and it’s one I like, because I’m a feminist killjoy. Lisa Wade PhD, writing for the blog Sociological Images at The Society Pages, asserts that the cat person/dog person debate is really a discussion about one’s perceived masculinity – or lack thereof. She writes,

After all, don’t we stereotype women as cat people and men as dog people? And don’t we think men with cats are a little femmy, or, at minimum, sweeter than most…even, maybe, gay? And don’t we imagine that chicks with dogs are a little less girly than most, a little more rough and tumble? The cat person/dog person dichotomy is gendered.

Dr. Wade goes on to point out that, while dogs are considered a “manly” pet, this is only true if the dogs in question fulfill an arbitrary size requirement. A large dog is a “real” man’s perfect companion; it is loyal, dependent, obedient, and perhaps crucially, doesn’t talk back. A small dog, on the other hand, emasculates its male owner more and more with each high-pitched yap. I would take this a step further and venture to suggest that the breed is important as well; I recently got into an argument with some man somewhere (I can’t remember who or where) about whether or not a standard poodle makes an appropriate “man pet.” Apparently it doesn’t, because despite the fact that standard poodles are huge and also a hunting breed, the word “poodle” alone is enough to make a red-blooded man’s balls just shrivel up and drop right off. Even so, Dr. Wade points out that cat owners are considered “less cool” than dog owners and “no one ever fears ending up a ‘crazy dog lady,’” although that might have at least as much to do with the lowered risk of toxoplasmosis as with the gendering of pet preferences. In any case, one thing is clear: men who love cats (and small dogs) need feminism, too.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #109: Why Do We Laugh?

In another Friday Facts column long, long ago, I answered the question “Why Do We Cry?” – or failed to answer it, as the case may be, because as it turns out NO ONE KNOWS (dun dun DUN). Now, literally like two years later, it finally occurred to me to address the opposite emotional response. Why do we laugh?

According to Robert R. Provine, a University of Maryland Baltimore County professor of psychology and neuroscience and author of the book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, laughter’s primary function is to strengthen social relationships. Provine and his students studied “laughter in the wild” by eavesdropping on conversations taking place in public. A full 80 to 90 percent of the 1,200 laughs Provine and his students recorded occurred in response to thoroughly unfunny remarks like “I see your point” or “It was nice meeting you, too.” A mere 10 to 20 percent of the laughs were in response to intentional jokes.

Provine believes that laughter is the oldest form of human communication, predating the first spoken languages by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Though animals don’t seem to have a sense of humor, they laugh, too. The evolutionary origins of human laughter can perhaps be seen in the laughter of apes, which takes the form of a distinctive facial expression and a rapid, open-mouthed panting. Apes laugh during play and have been known to laugh at many of the same things that human babies laugh at. Other animals, particularly rats, will laugh in response to being tickled.

Of course, there’s more than one type of laughter – laughter researchers have identified two types, which originate in two different parts of the brain. Spontaneous laughter, such as that connected to humor or being tickled, is uncontrollable and comes from an evolutionarily older part of the brain; it is most likely the original form of human laughter. Non-spontaneous laughter, such as forced or nervous laughter, originates in a different, more recent, part of the brain. Both types of laughter may be used to solidify social bonds.

It is possible to die from laughter. Excessive laughter has been known to cause heart attacks, embolisms, and strokes. Some famous people alleged to have died from laughter include:

  • Zeuxis, a Greek painter who died laughing in the 5th century BC, after an old woman commissioned a portion of the goddess Aphrodite and insisted on modeling for it herself. Way to be an asshole, Zeuxis.
  • Chrysippus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who laughed himself to death in the 3rd century BC having watched a donkey hilariously eat too many figs and drink too much wine. Sounds like that donkey wasn’t the only one who had too much wine that night.
  • King Martin of Aragon, who “died from a combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughter” in 1410. Back in the day, just about anything could kill you.
  • Thomas Urquhart, a Scottish aristocrat who died laughing in 1660 when he heard that Charles II was king. I mean, that doesn’t sound too funny.

Never fear; people are still dropping dead from laughter, because it turns out it’s not the best medicine after all. Englishman Alex Mitchell died on 24 March 1975 while watching an episode of “Kung Fu Kapers” in which a traditionally-clad Scotsman battled a man wielding a black pudding. He was later found to have had a heart condition. In 1989, Danish audiologist Ole Bentzen died laughing while watching “A Fish Called Wanda,” and in 2003, Thai ice cream man (that’s an ice cream man who was Thai, not a man who sold Thai ice cream) Damnoen Saen-um died in his sleep after two full minutes of sleep-laughter. He was 52.

Tickling has been used as a form of torture in the past – in the Han Dynasty, where it was considered a dignified form of torture fit for members of the nobility. In ancient Rome, torturers allegedly dipped a person's feet in salt and allowed a goat to lick it off. Once all the salt was gone, the feet would be re-salted, until eventually, the person’s feet would become blistered and raw and eventually the flesh itself would begin to come off.

That doesn't sound too funny either.
Image by Jon Stammers from Flickr.

Heinz Heger, a gay German imprisoned by the Nazis for his homosexuality, wrote in his book The Men with the Pink Triangle of an incident in which SS soldiers tortured a fellow prisoner viciously by tickling him. In research for his book Sibling Abuse, Vernon Wiehle discovered that tickling is a common form of abuse between siblings that is capable of engendering such extreme reactions as loss of consciousness and vomiting. While it is unknown whether or not anyone has been tickle-tortured to death, WebMD admits that the physical exertion and stress of being tickled could be sufficient to cause a brain hemorrhage or heart attack, if continued long enough.