Monthly Archives: September 2015

The aggregate deterrent

Something odd here.

Example 1:

On 15th July 1948, amid great trumpetings, at the hottest moment of the first Berlin crisis, President Truman ordered sixty B-29 atomic bombers to bases in Britain. An alternative version of that is: Ernie Bevin and Clem Attlee sidled up to the Americans, and said, “Wouldn’t it be a neat idea?” Somehow an agreement came about.

Except, under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, Truman didn’t have that power. The bombs remained in the United States, under civilian control. Not all the aircraft despatched were nuke-capable. At worst, what arrived in Britain were “pumpkins”, the concrete-filled dummies used to practise loading and unloading.

Somehow, nobody noticed the difference.

Example 2:

After 1968 Britain threw large chunks of the defence budget at a submarine-based deterrent. Four Resolution-class nuclear-powered submarines would each mount sixteen Polaris missiles. The war-heads were derived from the WE177 device, and were designed and built in the United Kingdom. Mass wavings of the Union flag, if you’d be so kind.

Allegedly, and we know how these things proceed in Britain, deliveries ran late.

Resolution and its mates went to sea with less than their designed weaponry. To keep the balance of the boat, more concrete warheads were loaded.

Similar stories were muttered when Chevaline came along in 1982.

And we are to believe the Soviets (and their derivations) weren’t up to similar dissimulations?

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Filed under Britain, politics, Truman

Walk-on parts in (Irish!) history

We’re kicking off (I hope) a thread on politics.ie.

With luck we can compile a gallery of those who get squeezed out of “history”, undeservedly. But still have this shadowy afterlife. Ireland is full of them. Anecdotally.

I suggested as starters:

  • “the real Ally Daly” (see Portrait of the Artist);
  • Atty Hayes of the aged goat;
  • Beaney and Barney;
  • Bessy Bell and Mary Gray (were they not hills each side of the road at Newtownstewart? But why?);
  • the Bird Flanagan …

All of those have now been adopted — with the exception of Atty Hayes’s goat.

All welcome to get involved. If you can’t be arsed to register, post here and we’ll try to get it up for you (as the best proctologist might say).

Did you know, for example, that Charlotte Despard (Sir John French’s unlikely sister, who now has a pub named after herself at the bottom end of Archway, North London) and Maud Gonne MacBride were known to Dubliners as “Maud Gone Mad and Mrs Desperate”?

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Filed under History, Ireland, politics.ie

By Bonnivard!

There was a time when we well-eddikated chaps found this stuff brought up with the pay-and-rations. Obviously, something here passed me by, or the brain-cells are popping bulbs faster than I thought.

There was I, as one does, idly leafing through Byron, and stopped off at Chillon.

Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty, thou art;–
For there thy habitation is the heart,–
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
And when thy sons to fetters are consigned,
To fetters, and the damp vault’s dayless gloom,
Their country conquers with their martyrdom,
And Freedom’s fame finds wings on every wind.
Chillon! thy prison is a holy place,
And thy sad floor an altar, for ’twas trod,
Until his very steps have left a trace,
Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,
By Bonnivard! May none those marks efface!
For they appeal from tyranny to God.

Georgie-Porgie Gordon could crank out that stuff by the quire. I cannot enumerate the times I’ve skimmed that sonnet over the years, without a pause for thought. Similarly, at some stage I must have taken time out with The Prisoner of Chillon, which ought to have clarified my moment of mystification.

Essentially (and I can’t claim it all floods back to me), the castle had outlived its primary function as a point at which travellers heading for the Great Saint Bernard could be … err … fleeced. Small tricks like that kept the Counts of Savoy flush in Emmental and brandy. After a spell as a summer home for the Savoys, it became — as many of these joints did — a gaol.

Shoving inconvenient clerics, of the other faith (and there always was another faith), into chokey became an international sport. After all, some storage was required while Sire decided whether we needed a burning.

A Prior engagement

Which brings us to François Bonivard (or, as Byron has him, “Bonnivard”). He was a hereditary (i.e. he inherited from his uncle) prior of St Victor, just outside the walls of Geneva. Our Frankie was a merry monk, who preferred the pleasures of the flesh to the calls of mother church. Then fate came visiting him.

These being the years of the Wars of Religion, anyone and everyone had to take sides. Bonivard leaned to the reformers. Anyone going that way might easily offend a feudal lord of the other persuasion. The local Big Cheese was Charles III, Duke of Savoy, who readily hoovered up all the readies of those of the other persuasion. All that was left of the Bonivard patrimony was that one priory.

So François threw his lot (and there wasn’t much left) with the rebels. Which in turn meant he had to do a sudden bunk when the Savoyards came looking for him. He was betrayed by those he thought “mates”, one of whom (Abbot Brisset) snaffled his personal priory, and he spent a couple of years in Savoy’s Grolée clink at Lyon.

The table turns: Brisset ate something that terminally disagreed with him, Bonivard “escaped” from his prison, and made it back to claim his priory. All’s well that ends well?

As if. Bonivard went off for a weekend (dirty or not, but he had the beginnings of a reputation) at scenic Moudon, and found himself again in the clutches of the Savoyards, this time consigned to the Castle of Chillon — so we get there eventually — and was incarcerated there for the next six years.

Quality? Nah! Feel the width!

His release came when the burgeoning power of the city-state of Bern took over the Vaud. His priory was a rubble heap, and he was definitely out-of-funds. But Bonivard was instantly a national hero and a fire-brand: Geneva awarded him a pension, and a salaried place on the management committee.

He had also lost any pretentions to monkish celibacy, but a recognition of how to finance a rather rackety lifestyle — marrying a succession of well-off widows, until he arrived (#4) at a defrocked — in any sense — nun (she ended badly, drowned for immorality in the Rhône, with her inamorato beheaded).

Doubtless with a resigned sigh, Bonivard now devoted his declining years — until his death in 1570, aded 77 — to compiling the Chronicles of Geneva, and some other works, none of which need to detain us on any grounds of literary merit.

You need a good spin-doctor, my friend …

… allow me to introduce the sixth Baron Byron.

I seriously doubt Bonivard would have any significance had it not been for the romanticising he got at the hands of Byron.

Like any starry-eyed undergraduate, I fell for his mad, bad and dangerous-to-know attractions. When I woke the morning-after, I realised the language was superb, but any political or social thought was pretty jejune.

Which is all pretty well summed up by that slogan, worthy of any MadMen:

Freedom’s fame finds wings on every wind.

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Filed under Byron, culture, travel

“This is the most unfriendly country I’ve ever been in. Why is everybody so touchy?”

As the sands in the upper glass run low, and I recognise the imminence of mortality, I run through all the sins of omission in my life.

Originally, it was Ovid, addressing Eos/Aurora/Dawn. He asked her to imagine she was with her paramour, Cephalus. She should rein back her horses, that the poet may spend longer with his beloved:

at si, quem mavis, Cephalum conplexa teneres,
clamares: “lente currite, noctis equi!”

Then, in one of the most astonishing eros-et-thanatos twists of Elizabethan literature, Marlow grabbed hold of it and put it into the mouth of Faustus, contemplating the imminent arrival of Mephistopheles, to collect the debt of his soul:

faustus1624Ah, Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente, curite noctis equi.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.

Faustus must have been on the A-level syllabus, the summer I started grammar school. Fakenham Grammar had an old marl-pit out in the farther reaches of the playing-fields. This had, imaginatively, been transformed into an open-air theatre-arena. And the sixth-form did Faustus.  I don’t ever expect much from student drama, so I’ve rarely been disappointed. Something happened that summer afternoon we were crocodiled out for a performance: and I hope it was more than the squibs and smoke contributed by the science teachers as special effects.

I know those lines slid effortlessly into my semi-conscious. Which was just as well, because I was later able to recover them for my TCD Finals.

Jump cut

poster227x227What with this pot on my left wrist, aches and pains, and general lethargy, for Sunday afternoon I’d turned up a copy of The Man from Laramie. With all due respect, sixty years on, iTunes are gold-bricking it to expect a tenner to view this one. That, in itself, has to be a testimony to how well the film has aged.

This was the last of four horse-operas Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann made together — allegedly it’s Mann’s attempt at King Lear. You may see the connection: I’m not convinced myself.

What I see is a Cold War Western, a natural stand-along for the Stewart/Mann outing, Strategic Air Command, earlier that same year.

The first thought is: why? Why did the Western become the staple commodity of Hollywood in the post-war period? In 1947-50, a third of the output was made up of Westerns. The tension is always between the cult of expansion (power) and the survival of the individual — the iconic hero is always the idealised man-alone. Nor can we ignore the economic systems being presented in Westerns, almost always in terms of cattle, and at a time when the United States was monopolising the world’s food supplies.

Then there’s the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. What could be more “American”, more unCommunist, than a Western theme? With Hollywood already traumatised by the break-up of the big studios by Anti-Trust, the audiences being seduced by television, thank heaven for big skies on bigger and better screens, and lots of Technicolor.

There has to be that element of “conquest”. After 1945 the United States bestode most of the world as a super-power: it had its only rival — the Soviets surrounded. There is a simplistic comparison there with the final “closing” of the Wild West. Frederick Jackson Turner marked that:

In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.” This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.

Melvin Lasky, the CIA’s all-purpose culture-vulture, features prominently at the start of Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? Lasky went to the East German Writers’ Conference and excelled himself:9781862073272

Appalled by the timidity of his superiors, he compared Berlin to ‘what a frontier-town must have been like in the States in the middle of the 19th century — Indians on the horizon,and you’ve got to have that rifle handy or not your scalp is gone. But in those days a frontier-town was full of Indian fighters … here very few people have any guts, and if they do they usually don’t know in which direction to point their rifle’. [page 28]

The Man from Laramie is set at a moment when the West is almost wholly settled. At Coronado (definitely not the glossy SoCal resort but a place that repeats, like cucumber, in fantasy Westerns), the Apaches are a constant threat — more on the sound-track than actively so, except for the necessary end at which “Vic Hansbro” (the Arthur Kennedy character) necessarily wishes on himself. So we are some moment before Skeleton Canyon (1886).

Specifically, The Man from Laramie comes just after the very acme of Westerns:

  • 1952: High Noon (anti-HUAC?)
  • 1953: Shane (the Man alone)
  • 1955: The Man from Laramie
  • 1956: The Searchers
  • 1957: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
  • 1958: The Big Country (water-rights=nuclear standoff?)

I’m looking, though, for an added ingredient in The Man from Laramie. I see it in the McGuffin, the mystery — who sold the Apaches the rifles? We think we finger the arch-villain, the psychopath “Dave Waggoman” early on … except. And in this respect, The Man from Laramie is anticipatory. The early Cold War spies — Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs — had been ideologically driven. Their successors would be mercenaries, just as Vic Hansbro.

Meanwhile, those horses are damn quick.

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Filed under films, History, Literature

A brush with greatness and a national treasure

Last week I emailed the Great Lallands Peat Worrier, in faint hope of a clear view of David Cameron’s Syrian wet-job:

Be nice to have your view on Reyaad Khan’s termination. Would it chime with Carl Gardner and @Joshua Rozenberg?

I now receive a gracious response:

Many thanks for the email and apologies for my tardiness in responding to it. On the international law — the basic principles seem tolerably well-established — proportionality, necessity, and self-defence. Where it all gets sleekit — as usual — is how these principles relate to the particular instance of Reyaad Khan and the – undisclosed – facts concerning his threat to the United Kingdom and perhaps Iraq. 

As these will never be publicly disclosed, we enter a legally gyroscopic situation where the appropriate nostrums and legitimating concepts are repeated, but we’re left in the dark about whether they properly apply to the deceased. Invidious, really.

Succinct and as definitive as these things ever get.

By the by, the Peat Worrier’s observations on the dramatisation of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark are well worth the trip. At which point, I pause and note my 1982 paperback (a year after the original hard-back appeared) is well-worn and seriously foxed — Gray sits on the fiction shelf between Graves and Greene. If books could talk … there’d be no peace around here.

Scottish fiction has some very obvious land-marks. Anthony Burgess opined:

It was about time, Scotland produced a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom. This is it.

Burgess had Gray as:

the first major Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott.

There might, though, be an egg or two too many in that particular pudding.

The trouble is every single Scottish novel, and its author (including Gray himself) , since Lanark, has been measured and thereby lessened against that marker. I’m less than convinced. Joyce claimed that Dublin, destroyed, could be rebuilt from his descriptions. Lawrence Durrell engendered an Alexandria in his Quartet (now there’s a text which has been a victim of fashion). Gray creates Duncan Thaw and Lanark, who inhabit cities called Glasgow and Unthank. He produces a miasma, clouded further by all those clever-clever sidebars and annotations. It;s all fair game, but a game on the reader.

So I was much taken by Peat Worrier’s observation:

I am always bemused when women say Lanark is their favourite book, and disturbed when men reach the same conclusion. 

Then adding swiftly:

Lanark is a book of blistering misogyny. Lanark is a book in which women are cyphers. It is a teenaged book, emotionally. A book shot through with those all too familiar sinister twins of men’s desire for and hatred of women.

I am aware that all novels are exploitative. When I made the end of Lanark, after some hard graft, over three decades ago, I knew I had been exploited.

The good news is the sales of Lanark continue; and must be one good reason why the publishers, Canongate, flourish.

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Filed under Alasdair Gray, David Cameron, Literature, Scotland

Mechanised warfare, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15-22nd September 1916.

I put this up at politics.ie earlier today. I ought to be saving this for next year, but mortality may prevent … Anyway, there are many others on p.ie scrumping in the same shell-smashed orchard.

12thEastSurreys

So, 99 years ago this morning, as the Battle of the Somme (literally) ground on and now in its third phase, the XV Corps of the British Fourth Army had the objective of taking the village of Flers, nine miles north-east of Albert, four miles south of Bapaume. Orders for the day:

  • first: the Switch Line;
  • second: the Flers Trench, the German trench just short of Flers village;
  • third: Bulls Road, at the end of the village;
  • beyond the village were the German positions, Flea Trench, Box and Cox;
  • finally, and the fourth ultimate objective, were the Gird Lines, which opened the way to Guedecourt village.

The XV Corps were the 14th, 21st, 41st, 55th and New Zealand Divisions: the 14th (Light), the 41st and the New Zealanders were to lead the assault. The 14th (specifically the 6th battalion of the KOYLI) had to take out the Germans in a pocket east of Delville Wood, and were scheduled to advance an hour before the main assault: they would have the support of a single tank.

Overnight, 49 of the new “tanks” had been camped at Green Dump Valley. For personal histories see here.

This solo tank led out from Pilsen Lane, crossed Hop Alley, and was then knocked out (see map above). This would seem to have “straightened the line” and removed the German pocket.

More generally in this operation, by 7 a.m. the advance had captured the Switch Line. The 9th Rifle Brigade with the 42nd suffered badly when they were caught in a machine-gun enfilade before Bulls Road.

Most of the tanks were meant to attack towards Bulls Road. Of the 49 available (the entirety of the British and therefore the world tank force), 32 had reached their intended starting points. Of these nine continued with the infantry, nine were slow to start but were to some extent useful in the cleaning-up, nine broke down, and the remaining five had to be ditched in the midst of the battlefield. Then nine that did operate as intended did succeed in the taking of Flers. Three then reached Guedecourt where they were hit and (in WW2 terms) “brewed up”.

This was also the first operation by the New Zealanders, after Gallipoli: they and the 41st took Flers. There are 120 New Zealander graves in the CWGC cemetery at Bulls Road, Flers.

In the 41st Division was a temporary officer with the 21st Kings Royal Rifle Corps: Captain Anthony Eden. He was retained at the reserve in an assembly trench behind Delville Wood. His CO was Lord Feversham, who was killed with his pet deerhound in the attack on Gird Ridge. Major Gerald Foljambe (later 3rd Earl of Liverpool) took command, and appointed Eden as his Adjutant. Old Etonians stick together, you know.

[Main source: Gerald Gliddon: The Battle of the Somme, a Topographical History]

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Only a question-mark protects the guilty?

The essential difference between the outer fringes of cat-litter sensationalism (e.g. The National Enquirer) and the likes of the Daily Mail is the query [?] replacing the screamer [!]:

Compound

MAil

Uncanny, huh?

51x93lkZ6-L._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_That ornament to The Independent, John Rentoul, has dined out on that appended punctuation for years for years. He reduces it to an acronym, QTWTAIN, and — at the last count — had collected a thousand. At which, he wisely gave up and left it to others. On occasions even its onlie true begetter seems to regret the passing of this constant in the media.

I think this must be the last, or at least one of the last, of the QTWTAIN:

iPad

QTWTAINs are easy to spot, and easy to mock. In most cases, were the notion presented as  direct positive statement, rather than a mind-worm, it would be derided as infantile, gross fallacy, or trite nonsense. Only the question-mark gives it any kind of validity. For the briefest moment of time, before logic and sanity cut in, we may be beguiled — rather as if struck by a truly clever pun or punch-line.

And then there’s the occasional thing like this:

Tweet

To which  the only slightly-stunned response has to be “Err …? What? Why? How?”

When we hunt that link we find something very different. The heading becomes:

How to finance an Emperor’s Election

The piece kicks off:

The outsider candidate in the Imperial election of 1519, which was meant to choose a Holy Roman Emperor, was Henry VIII of England. He had no particular dynastic claim to the title, and, though he had one of his representatives spread the word that he had some command of the “German tongue,” he did not have much of a connection to the people he would rule. He mostly got in the race because, then as now, both of the main candidates, despite their inherited positions and elaborate claims, seemed vulnerable, if not implausible. And people, including the Pope—this was when Henry was young, before the divorces and beheadings—kept telling him that what the field needed was an energetic, competent monarch like him. Who could resist?

The last sentence there itself has some of the smack of a QTWTAIN.

Even this far in, and that’s the first of just six compact paragraphs, were it not for the accompanying image, we would be wholly mystified where we are being taken. The image, though, is:

FuggerThe caption below it is:

Jacob Fugger, pictured here in a 1518 portrait by Albrecht Dürer, was the moneyman behind the 1519 election of a new Holy Roman Emperor.

The painting is in the Bavarian State collection at the Staatsgalarie in Augsburg. It is more usually entitled: Jakob Fugger der Reiche. “The Rich”: forsooth. Now the pfennig drops: this is a brief nod, hardly a review, of a recently-published book by Greg Steinmetz, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger.

I first encountered Fugger via the Fuggerei in the heart of old Augsburg. This is an expansive cottage-estate development, claimed as the first social housing scheme in the world, founded in 1521. What we see is the post-World War II rebuild:

On the day after the bombing [24 February 1944], three prominent Fugger descendants signed a pledge to rebuild the Fuggerei out of their own funds. They worried that if they didn’t, their name would be forgotten. These Fuggers, seventeen generations after Jacob Fugger, were nowhere near as rich as their ancestors, but they still enjoyed income on land Jacob acquired centuries earlier. In rebuilding the complex, they got materials from the American occupying forces and followed the original plans except with better plumbing. They increased the number of units from 106 to 140. [Steinmetz, Epilogue]

Like everything else to do with Fugger (compare David Dale’s New Lanark, Titus Salt’s Saltaire, George Cadbury’s Bourneville, William Lever’s Port Sunlight) the Fuggerie was not entirely altruistic: it located the workforce conveniently close to the manufactory. The Fuggerei was, actually, cottage industries.

What made Fugger rich was:

  • lowliness is young ambition’s ladder: a comfortable family origin in the cloth trade (just when cloth was no longer the one industry in town), but being at that historical moment when “new men”, with a lick of education and numeracy, were breaking through the strict medieval class hierarchy;
  • the location of Augsburg, as a centre of European affairs:

In Renaissance Germany, few cities matched the energy and excitement of Augsburg. Markets overflowed with everything from ostrich eggs to the skulls of saints. Ladies brought falcons to church. Hungarian cowboys drove cattle through the streets. If the emperor came to town, knights jousted in the squares. If a murderer was caught in the morning, a hanging followed in the afternoon for all to see. Augsburg had a high tolerance for sin. Beer flowed in the bathhouses as freely as in the taverns. The city not only allowed prostitution but maintained the brothel.J,

Jacob Fugger was born here in 1459. Augsburg was a textile town and Fugger’s family had grown rich buying cloth made by local weavers and selling it at fairs in Frankfurt, Cologne and over the Alps, in Venice. Fugger was youngest of seven boys. His father died when he was ten and his mother took over the business. She had enough sons to work the fairs, bribe highway robbers, and inspect cloth in the bleaching fields, so she decided to take him away from the jousts and bathhouses and put him on a different course. She decided he should be a priest.  [Steinmetz, Chapter 1]

  • information systems: he built a network of “branches”, which provided economic intelligence, and he connected himself to them and controlled the flow of information by inventing a postal system;
  • accountancy — Fugger served an apprenticeship in Venice, that free-booting Italian Business School at the European end of the Spice Road:

he was among the first businessmen north of the Alps to use double-entry bookkeeping and the first anywhere to consolidate the results of multiple operations in a single financial statement [Steinmetz, Introduction]

  • bribery, and its deployment for political control at the highest levels (which is the essential point of that New Yorker piece);
  • his control of several industries crucial to proto-capitalism, and a ruthless approach to making money:

Fugger made his fortune in mining and banking, but he also sold textiles, spices, jewels and holy relics such as bones of martyrs and splinters of the cross. For a time, he held a monopoly on guaiacum, a Brazilian tree bark believed to cure syphilis. He minted papal coins and funded the first regiment of Swiss papal guards.  [Steinmetz, Introduction]

  • above all, exploiting the moment when Northern Europe was going soft on usury:

Venetians lived by the motto of “First Venetians, then Christians.” They preferred making money to pleasing God. They ignored the ban and invented bank deposits. Venetian investors could leave their money with a bank, return a year later and get more back than they put in. Deposits gave banks a new way to grow and gave their customers an easy way to put their money to work. Everyone was happy except the church. The rest of Italy recognized the brilliance of savings accounts and offered their own. Germans respected canon law more than the Italians and observed the usury ban more faithfully but they, too, eventually came around. [Steinmetz, Chapter 4]

Fugger adopted the “Augsburg Contract”, which promised his investors a 5% p.a. return. This was risking his all on the turn of a Papal card — but it was already a marked card:

Fugger was taking a risk. The Augsburg Contract may or may not have been legal under church law. But it was in wide use and Fugger needed it to raise money. If Eck lost the debate and the judges declared the contract usurious, Fugger’s depositors would refuse to give him money. This would be lethal. It was one thing to operate in a gray area. It was another to engage in a practice specifically ruled heretical. Fugger must have felt extremely confident because he sought nothing short of a Scopes trial, a winner-take-all smackdown pitting dogma against modernity, but with money instead of monkeys at the center. He had at least one precedent on his side. After theologians squared off over the subject of annuities—the interest-earning pension schemes that cities sold to raise money—the pope had sanctioned them. Maybe Pope Leo, who had replaced the “Warrior Pope” Julius II earlier that year, would do the same with the Augsburg Contract. There was also the fact that Leo was a member of the Medici banking family. Legalization would serve his personal interests. Even better was that Leo himself was a borrower of Fugger’s. It goes without saying that Leo would be favorably inclined towards someone who gave him money. [Steinmetz, Chapter 6]

No doubt about it, Steinmetz is highly readable. My QTWTAIN: does that New Yorker piece, by Amy Davidson, do the book justice?

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Filed under History, Independent, John Rentoul, New Yorker, reading