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Friday, December 31, 2010

Y2K All Over Again

A calendar that commemorates year 1 of the
Republic of China (the Minguo calendar)
featuring Sun Yat-sen as provisional leader.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Remember the stress and panic eleven years ago when the West faced the millennium change?  Because of our practice of abbreviating four digits to two, we had no idea what our computers would do with the rollover from "99" to "00".  Worldwide, organizations began corrective actions to ensure that on December 31 of the final year of the last century we could "party like it's 1999".

Well, this time it's Asia's turn to worry.  In 1912 when the Chinese emperor was deposed by the Nationalists, they began a new calendar, and year 1 of the Minguo calendar started it off.  Next year (tomorrow; 2011) will be Minguo 100, and officials don't know what their computers will do with a three-digit year.  (This wasn't a problem when the years changed to two digits since it was far from the "computer age".)  This Minguo calendar is still used by Taiwan today.

Known as the Y1C problem, it is likely to be only a problem for the government, as the private sector uses the Gregorian calendar.  Some government computers already use a three-digit systems for dates, placing a zero in front of numbers below 100.

This isn't just Taiwan's problem, it's North Korea's problem as well.  The Democratic People's Republic in 1996 declared that 1912 was the first year of the Juche calendar, to commemorate the birth of Kim-Il Sung.  Their linux system displays only two digits, but although little is known about their operations it is generally thought there are not a significant number of computers.

Let's hope their problems, if any, be mild.  To all the world I wish a healthy and prosperous new year!

Image by New Evolution Designs.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


The Clog Almanac, so named by Dr. Robert Plot, keeper of the
Ashmolean Museum and chemistry professor at Oxford,  in 1686.
It was a square stick or box about 8" long that could be hung up or carried as
part of a walking stick.  It was a perpetual almanac showing Sundays and
other fixed holidays.  One would have to calculate which day the year began.
Image courtesy of Wilson's Almanac.

Almanacs are annual publications that include practical information, based on cultural need-to-knows, such as weather forecasts, tide tables, astronomical data, and best planting times.  Some cultures produce almanacs that provide auspicious and inauspicious days for various rites and celebrations, and dates for religious festivals.  Astrological, once akin to astronomical, dates are also often included.

Illustrations of Taurus and Gemini by Mirzazade Salim Efendi.
Circa 1740, Istanbul University Library

The first use of the word was in 1267 by Roger Bacon.  The source of the word is unknown, although many think it is from an Arabic word.  However there is no corresponding word in Arabic, causing some scholars to think it is pseudo-Arabic, constructed to give it the prestige that Arabic works had in medieval times.   The word possibly comes from the Patristic Greek almenichiata from the Coptic  meaning "supernatural rulers of the celestial bodies."

Page from an Ottoman almanac from the reign of Bayezid II.
1711, Topkapi Palace Museum Library. 

Babylonian astronomy may have been the origin of the concept.  Tables of planetary periods were constructed to predict planetary and lunar phenomena.  In Hellenistic times a parapegma was used, an inscribed stone with pegs inserted into holes to show the day of the month.  Ptolemy, the 2nd century Alexandrian astronomer, wrote a treatise featuring a type of parapegma with astronomical information, predictable weather changes, and other similar events based on the solar year.  Islamic scholars composed a similar work called a Zij.

Babylonian almanac from the British Museum.

An almanac from China may be derived from the oldest one.  The Wong lik, or yellow calendar, is rumored to have been founded by Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor.  Regarded as the founder of Chinese civilization, the half-real/half-legendary ruler is said to have ruled from 2696-2598 BCE.  A later version of his almanac was edited by the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 CE) and called the Tung Shu.  The Tung Shing (name change from Tung Shu) is still published in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.  This “fortune telling almanac” mostly contains suitable actions for each day, and auspicious timings for activities.  It also provides for conversions between the lunar year and the common year.

Cover of the 2010 Tung Shing

The Almanach cracoviense ad annum 1474, or Cracovian Almanac for the Year 1474, is a single sheet wall calendar from Poland.  This incunabulum was made in Kraków by Kasper Straube, a Bavarian printer who worked in Kraków.  Printing with moveable type had only existed for about twenty years at the time of this publication.

Sole surviving copy of the Almanach cracoviense
ad annum 1474,
Jagiellonian University

A tonalamatl is a Nahuatl word meaning “pages of days”, and was a divinatory almanac from central Mexico in the early 1500s, around the time of the Spanish conquest.  It was based on the tonalpohualli, a sacred year of 20 divisions of 13 days each, making a 260-day year.  Each page of a tonalamatl was one division, called a trecena, and featured a depiction of the reigning deity for that trecena.  The various signs and glyphs were used to predict the future and cast horoscopes.  There are surviving examples in the Codices Borbonicus and Borgia.  (Click here for a look at all the pages of the Codex Borbonicus.)

Page 13 of the Codex Borbonicus showing the 13th trecena, which was
under the auspices of the goddess Tlazolteotl.  She is portrayed wearing
a flayed skin giving birth to Cinteotl.

A panjika, or panchangam depending on what part of India one is referring to, is a Hindu astrological almanac.  Used by Indians of all religions (it contains information on Muslim, Christian, and other religious festivals), it is one of the most popular books published in India and used to find auspicious times.  The earliest Indian almanacs date back to about 1000 BCE, but were not very accurate.  It wasn’t until the 4th and 5th centuries CE that better calculations were derived.  Finally, in 1952, a major revision was done by the Indian Government, published in 1957.  Several of the panchangams contain information for more than one year – the Vishvavijaya Panchanga covers 100 years.

Fabric Hindu calendar/almanac corresponding to 1871-1872.
The left column shows the ten avatars of Vishnu, the center right column
shows the twelve signs of the Hindu zodiac.  Rajasthan, India
Hindu almanac from Kannada was published by Majestic Press, Udupi.
It is mostly used by Shivalli brahmins.

In the western world, almanacs have a rich and varied history.  Copies of 12th century almanacs are in the British Museum and Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  In the 17th century English almanacs were second to the Bible in sales, and by mid-century 400,000 were produced annually.  Perhaps the most famous almanac in the U.S. was Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (1733-1758). 

One of the many American almanacs published over the centuries.

Modern western almanacs have expanded their contents, offering statistical data that covers the whole world and summaries of historical events.  There are also specialized almanacs available that cover varied topics such as sports, geography, religion, medicine, business, and agriculture to name some.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a reference work that not only features the standard information but also includes anecdotes and trend predictions.  It has been published continually since 1792, which makes it the oldest continual publication in the U.S.  Its founder, Robert B. Thomas, studied solar activity, astronomy cycles and weather patterns, then devised his own secret forecasting formula that is still used today (along with modern forecasting technology).  Few people have seen it and it is kept in the publication’s offices.  Thomas also began to drill holes in the almanacs to facilitate hanging them in outhouses, providing both reading material and toilet paper.  The hole was discontinued in the 90s to save the $40,000 it cost per year, but due to customer response the company decided to continue drilling the holes.

The market for almanacs seems to be steady throughout the centuries.  Although the newer ones don't have nearly the panache and decorum of the old ones, the information is certainly more germane to the times.  Obtaining almanacs from all over the world would be interesting, assuming one could read them all, and provide an interesting take on what is comparatively important to the world's denizens.

Unless otherwise noted, all images from Wikipedia
For more information and specifically for collecting almanacs check out the Private Library.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Joan of Arc, Icon of Righteousness

Image of Joan of Arc, circa 1450-1500 CE.
Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris.
An unknown artist's work; the only portrait of her
that she is known to have sat for has not survived.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A cultural icon and significant figure in western culture, Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d’Arc, is one of the patron saints of France, along with St. Denis, St. Martin of Tours, St. Louis IX, and St. Teresa of Lisieux.  She is also known as Saint Joan or the Maid of Orléans.  She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. 

Born a peasant in eastern France, she led the French army to victory in several important battles during the Hundred Years’ War, begun in 1337 as a dispute over succession to the French throne.  France at the time was in dismal straits, nowhere near its strength and position of the prior century.  The Black Death had hit France hard, its economy suffered from trade loss, and England controlled large parts of the country. 

Statue of Jeanne D'Arc in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris
King Charles VI was ruling at the time of her birth and he was ineffective, often suffering bouts of insanity.  His brother and his cousin, the Dukes of Orléans and of Burgundy respectively, quarreled over the guardianship of the royal children and the regency of France.  The Duke of Burgundy ordered the assassination of the Duke of Orléans.  In the midst of all the in-fighting Henry V of England invaded France and eventually the English controlled much of northern France, including Paris.  The future King of France, Charles VII, took the title of "Dauphin" or heir to the throne, at age fourteen.

France during the Hundred Years' War, 1435.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Enter the peasant girl.  Illiterate and poor, Joan of Arc had visions of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, who she believed were sent from God.  They told her that she had a divine mission to save her country from the English.  She began this by cutting her hair, dressing as a man, and donning arms.

She convinced the captain of the Dauphin’s forces and then the Dauphin himself of her divine calling.  She was made captain and given troops after passing an examination by theologians.  In May 1429, Jeanne d’Arc led her troops to an astounding victory at the battle of Orléans.  She continued to lead her troops causing formidable fear among the English.  Her use of frontal assaults and artillery changed French tactics permanently.  The Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII in a coronation in 1429, at Reims Cathedral, with Joan of Arc at his side.

At the coronation of Charles VII at the Cathedral of Reims.
Oil on canvas by Jean August Dominique Ingres, 1854.
Musée du Louvre, Paris
(Note the attempt to feminize her with the skirt and long hair.)

The next year she was captured and sold to the English, who in turn gave her to the ecclesiastical court at Rouen to be tried for witchcraft and heresy.  Her insistence on dressing as a man, which the court deemed was a crime against God, seemed to have sealed her fate in the pro-English court.  After being interrogated for fourteen months, she was convicted and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431.  Charles VII made no attempt to rescue the nineteen-year-old woman.

Death at the Stake - right-hand part of a triptych
Oil by Hermann Stilke, 1843
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

A second trial was held in 1456, at the end of the war.  Authorized by Pope Callixtus III, it is also known as the "nullification" trial.  This appellate process was attended by clergy all across Europe.  Testimony was heard from 115 witnesses.  She was pronounced innocent of the charges against her.  There is an unusual wealth of information from primary sources on her trials, including letters, three of which have her signature ("Jehanne") on dictated letters.  This is quite an anomaly in the field of history.

Signature of "Jehanne" (Joan of Arc), courtesy of Wikipedia 

From Napoleon on French politicians have invoked her, regardless of their political bent.  She was not a feminist; she fought because of her religious convictions.  She is a beloved political figure because of her humble origins, support of the monarchy, and her nationalism.  As a non-controversial heroine, she was the perfect icon to define France's identity.

Other countries have adopted her image.  Most recently she has been called on to represent the Tea Party in their astroturfing - political, advertising and public relation campaigns that are formally planned by an organized group but made to look as though they are grassroots endeavors.

Many famous writers and composers have created works about her, including Shakespeare, Voltaire, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and even Mark Twain.  She continues to be the subject of film, theater, music, television, and even video games - the modern sign of arrival as a major entity.

After almost six centuries of carrying various banners, she remains the tireless advocate of bravery and the feminine call to action.  Called on by both religious and secular causes, she wages on in battle, proving that illiterate peasant girls can kick butt.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Salieri, Richard III, and artistic license...

True First Edition
Not long ago I wrote a post for Booktryst on the author of one of my favorite books, Josephine Tey.  Her book, Daughter of Time, is all about dispelling the myths about Richard III, the English king accused of kidnapping and murdering his nephews - the two princes held in the Tower of London, sons of Henry II and Elizabeth Woodville. Tey made such a convincing argument for Richard III's innocence, that he has been vindicated to pretty much all who are aware of the facts she presented in the book.

Richard III's vilification began with a history of him by Thomas More, a Tudor toady who was only eight years old when Richard III died.  The story was furthered by William Shakespeare, who was known to put his art before historical fact, and thus a heinous villain was born.

The same occurred more recently with a play from 1979 and film from 1984 called Amadeus by Peter Shaffer.  Repeating a century-old rumor, it featured the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, both important musicians of the 18th century.  Mozart profoundly influenced western music, composing over 600 works, many of them considered the acme of their forms.  He is the most popular and well-known of classical composers.

Playbill, 1981

Antonio Salieri, a Venetian-born composer, conductor, and teacher, was an established musician holding posts with the Hapsburg monarchy.  Director of the Italian opera by a Habsburg Court appointment for almost twenty years, he also wrote works for opera houses in Paris, Rome, and Venice.  During his lifetime his works were widely performed throughout Europe.  His students included Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, and Franz Schubert.

Theatrical Release poster

It is unclear if there was anything sour between Mozart and Salieri, although I have read that there are letters that the young Mozart wrote to his father complaining of Salieri (in fact all Italians in the biz) and apparently blaming him/them for his inability to establish himself successfully in Vienna.  However, it would be interesting to know if Mozart wrote letters complaining about any others; he could have been dumping on Dad or justifying himself to him.  There was a rivalry between the German and Italian factions of the music world that resulted in some rancor between the two groups.  Since good paid positions were rare and highly sought, competition was fierce, just like in any other time and in any other discipline.

Portrait of Mozart by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Actually, Salieri was a protege of two Germans - Gassmann and Gluck.  Even though he was born in Legnago in the Republic of Venice, he spent almost sixty years in Vienna, and was considered by many at the time to be a German composer.

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibroad Mahler, 1825
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Salieri also promoted some of Mozart's work - he revived Figaro in 1788, and took three of Mozart's masses to the coronation festivities for Leopold II in 1790.  They even wrote a cantata for voice and piano together, but unfortunately this work has been lost.  Mozart's son, Franz Xavier Wolfgang Mozart, was a student of Salieri at one time.

The rivalry rumor began after Salieri's death in 1825.  Alexander Pushkin wrote a "little tragedy" entitled Mozart and Salieri, published in 1831.  This was a dramatic study of the sin of envy - Salieri's envy of Mozart.  This story was later adapted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov into an opera of the same name in 1898.

The rumor was further perpetuated by the Shaffer play and film.  In his version Salieri is so in awe of Mozart and so resentful that he renounces God for giving such gifts to a boorish and puerile man such as Mozart as depicted in Amadeus.

However, talented as Mozart was, there was no cause for Salieri to be envious of him.  Salieri was well-respected throughout Europe, and held important, well-paying positions, things that Mozart did not attain.  While Salieri enjoyed recognition during his lifetime, was a much sought-after teacher, and influenced contemporary Viennese music, Mozart's fame and acclaim came well after his death.

The play and movie also took liberties with Mozart's death.  The city of Vienna has kept weather records for centuries, and  those records show that on the day of his death - December 5, 1791 - the weather was calm and mild, not the horrible snowstorm shown in Amadeus.  Mozart's cause of death is now accepted to have been from rheumatic inflammatory fever.  Salieri did attend his funeral, according to an 1856 report.  Mozart was buried in a common grave which was the Viennese custom at the time   (Apparently the Great Plague necessitated some changes in burial customs due to the huge number of deaths and infectious bodies.)

The good thing that Amadeus, the latest of the attempts to vilify Salieri, did was to revive his music and his fame.  The Salieri Opera Festival, sponsored by the Fondazione Culturale Antonio Salieri, is an annual event in his native town of Legnago each autumn.  It is dedicated to not only honoring and rediscovering his work but also his contemporaries and their work.  In 1999 Il Teatro Salieri was inaugurated, a theater in Legnago re-named in his honor.

It took about 150 years for Salieri to come into his own again and his reputation restored, much less time than for Richard III, but it gives us pause to consider that all that is written is not true, not even if most people think so, and have thought so for a long time.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Sluts and Lesbians - Images of Ancient Women (for adults only)

A few days ago I wrote a blog on Elena Lucrezia Carnaro Piscopia, the first women to earn her doctorate.  When looking for images of her I came across this one:

Now if you know anything about her or read my blog, you know that she wanted to be a Benedictine nun, and took a vow of chastity when she was eleven years old that she kept her entire life.  So the above illustration of her scantily dressed with one breast completely exposed isn’t quite seemly. 

This got me thinking about images of other ancient women that I’ve come across.  That most of the artists have been men is not surprising.  While it may be okay for some women to be intelligent and educated, powerful and capable, it seems they should also be hotties – beautiful, voluptuous, and ready for action (with said men, of course), however I’m thinking their readiness should not involve overt action on their part, but a willingness to wholly surrender to obvious masculine charms. 

What is disturbing is when women artists also create these hottie notable women.  Is that wishful thinking for their own appearances?  My drawn or painted famous women would be haughty rather than hottie, I think, and that probably wouldn’t be accurate either.  Of course, authenticity in looks isn’t possible when depicting someone from ancient times, but I wish that fact wasn't license to get silly, regardless of prevailing artistic styles.

The iconic Cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor, 1963

When I was a young girl I passionately wanted to be an Egyptologist.  My goals were to find the bodies of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great, both of which I was sure were my genetic ancestors as my grandmother was Macedonian.  (I can't honestly say I've completely given up in that belief.)  By age ten I had read everything I was capable of reading on them, and had drawn maps where Cleopatra could’ve been buried, the places that had been excavated, and my own personal notes where I intended to look.  That never came to pass, but I still keep up with the scholarship on her.  For anyone who has ever read up on her, it seems certain that she was not a conventional beauty, but very charismatic and the dictionary definition of attractive.  But historical sources for information on her begin with Plutarch, who was born seventy-six years after she was dead, hardly an eyewitness account. 

Coin of Cleopatra VII, circa 51-30 BCE.

However, there isn’t much said by the classical writers on her beauty.  The only reliable portraits of her are on her coins, and they are not all that becoming.  But this was a woman who slept with and bore the children of two of the most powerful men of her time, and the Roman accounts we are left with can only explain that by her licentiousness and wantonness.  In other words, to Roman eyes, she had to be a total, mesmerizing slut or why would two of their greatest leaders involve themselves with her?  But she probably wasn’t so promiscuous or wayward.  She probably spent her time learning (she was very educated), ruling, and keeping alive - a recurring focus in her life.  So I had to LOL when I read this on a blog:

“The Roman (Julius Caesar) was though, not the only man in Cleopatra’s life and bed. Legends say that her appetite for sex was voracious – she slept with as many as 100 Roman noblemen in one night.  Cleopatra had sex with thousands of men. And isn’t that in the fairness of the scheme of things of the universe – after all, wouldn’t it be unfair if the sexiest woman ever to have slept in a man’s bed had done so with any number fewer than that?”

My vulva, the horn,
The boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.
As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?
As for me, the young woman,
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will station the ox there?
Who will plow my vulva?


Sappho fares no better.  The ancient Greek poet was born some time in the early 7th century BCE on the island of Lesbos.  Little of her work is extant, and less is known of her life.  Her poetry shows love and passion for both genders, but her name lends itself to the word sapphic and her island home to the word lesbian, both used to describe female homosexuality.  In 7th century BCE, the erotica expressed in her work was not unusual or uncommon, and other poets of the time expressed themselves similarly.  She was also married and had a daughter.  Or so we think...  

Sappho and friends (including mermaids), circa late 19th/early 20th century
Édouard-Henri Avril, aka Paul Avril, a French painter and illustrator 
best known for his erotic art.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

In 2008, three citizens of Lesbos went to court in a futile attempt to outlaw the use of the word "lesbian" to refer to anything but a resident of the island of Lesbos. The image below is of a very petulant and serious, bare-breasted Sappho.  I have only attempted to write poems fully clothed, which may be why they aren't very good.

Image from Sappho's profile on  Facebook.

Olympias was a Molossian princess (a tribe from Epirus) who married King Philip II of Macedon.  Legend has it that the night before she consummated her marriage, she dreamt of a thunderbolt that pierced her womb, igniting a fire that spread and was suddenly extinguished.  No surprise their son grew up to be Alexander the Great.

Image of Olympias from calendar by Alexia Sinclair.

Olympias was said to be very beautiful albeit treacherous, as became a Macedonian, then later a Ptolemaic queen.  She had first met Philip when they were initiated into a mystery cult, and has always been associated with magic, sex, and snakes.  The story goes that Alexander went to a famous oracle when in Egypt, concerned with the rumor that his mother had mated with a snake. The oracle is said to have allayed his fears and confirmed that Zeus, indeed, was his father.

Zeus seduces Olympias.  Fresco by Giulio Romano 1526-1534,
Palazzo del Te, Mantua, Italy.
Going back to Egypt, specifically Alexandria, a female mathematician named Hypatia lived and taught math, philosophy, and astronomy  there in the 4th century CE.    She was murdered by a Christian mob, often interpreted as a conflict between religion and science, but most likely for political reasons.  It appears she invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer, and the hydroscope with a man who was her student, then her colleague.

Hypatia by Charles William Mitchell, 1885
Above she is depicted assumably lecturing, hand held in the air to make a point, as she chastely covers her pubic area and right breast with her long reddish hair, having stripped herself of her gown and thrown it on the ground.  Such a passion for math is commendable, and I'll bet her classes were SRO with lots of pupils waiting to crash her courses.  In reality, she was said to have donned the clothes of a scholar rather than women's dress.  

Click on this site for clearest image.

The illustration above by Khan Amore shows the "plurality of divine proportions to be found in the most beautiful, harmoniously-proportioned human bodies."  Never has the concept of "the golden ratio" been so memorably depicted.  The Hypatia illustrated above this image would most likely agree.

I'll end with Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe who lead an uprising against the Romans.  Her husband, Prasutagus, left his kingdom to his daughters and the Roman Emperor when he died. Instead the kingdom was annexed and Boudicca and their daughters were flogged and raped. Boudicca led the Iceni and several other tribes in revolt.

Image of Boudicca from calendar by Alexis Sinclair (see Olympias above).
The image above is de rigueur dress for leading an army, I guess.  Never having military ambitions of my own, I'm far from an authority on military dress.  I guess showing your breasts would distract the enemy and allow your minions to obliterate them, if they can stop from gaping themselves.  Britain has a cold climate though, and I think more clothing would be necessary, and all that hair would definitely get in the way.

Boudicca was eventually captured, the revolts ended, and she was either killed or died of illness. The two Roman writers, Cassius Dio and Tacitus, offer different endings.  Her story was made legend during the Renaissance, and Boudicca became a cultural symbol in the United Kingdom. The image below shows her resting on her laurels, so to speak.

There are not enough facts about women from ancient history, and it seems the ones we do know about are so mythologized and sensualized.  I am currently reading Stacy Schiff’s new book Cleopatra: A Life and I will leave you with my new favorite quote from the book:  “And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.”


Friday, December 24, 2010

Season's Greetings

I don't celebrate religious holidays, but I respect them and the people who do.

What I do celebrate is the concept of peace on earth.  To everyone, regardless of who they are, and to everything - animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Tonight and tomorrow, as my husband and I walk around the land we are custodians of, filling bird feeders, scattering seeds, filling water bowls, and laying out treats for the bunnies, squirrels, and whoever else comes along, we will be sending them the greetings of the season.  I will hug my favorite trees, and sit on a boulder and take it all in.

Whatever you are doing, I wish you peace and happiness.  And the best greetings of the season.

Image courtesy of CCI Cards

Thursday, December 23, 2010

WAY before her time!

So what does it take for a woman to earn something men have earned, even if she can run circles around said men?  Money?  Connections?  Opportunity?  Those seem to be the keywords.  For instance…..

The University of Padua, Università degli Studi di Padova, founded in 1222, has a long and illustrious history.  It has a stellar list of past professors and alumni – Copernicus, Galileo, Reginald (Cardinal) Pole, Nicolas of Cusa, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Giacomo Casanova among many others.  It was one of the earliest universities in the world, and became one of the most prominent ones in early modern Europe.  It has the oldest original botanical garden, and the oldest surviving permanent anatomical theater in Europe.
University of Padua's Palazzo del Bo.
1654 woodcut image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Men were awarded Doctor of Theology and Doctor of Philosophy degrees there since its inception.  In 1678, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman in the world to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree.  She had wanted a Doctor of Theology degree, but no, it was decided that women couldn’t do that.  The Roman Catholic Church did not deem that was proper.  They banned females from becoming priests, and granting a woman a Doctor of Theology degree was too close for comfort.  (Catholic universities did not allow women to obtain degrees in theology until the 20th century, and in the United States some schools would not allow women to pursue a PhD until the latter part of the 20th century.)

Image of Piscopia courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

However, there were apparently enough members of the University that were upset by this that they met and decided to allow her the PhD degree.  This was remarkable because even though it was known that she was attending classes there, the general assumption was never that she would get a degree.  Most likely thoughts changed after a philosophy debate held in 1677 in which she participated, arguing in Greek and Latin with three highly respected scholars in front of the entire university, many citizens of Venice, and other scholars from all over the continent.

Mural of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.
The Italian Room, University of Pittsburgh.

Lady Elena was born in 1646 into the noble Venetian House of Cornaro.  Famous for the commissions of palaces, chapels, villas, theaters, paintings, church art, and much more over the years, the Cornaro family traced its ancestry back to noble Roman roots, including general Scipio Africanus and several consuls of Rome.  The family also boasted of having four Venetian Doges, a queen of Cyprus, three popes, and nine cardinals.  They were involved in the expansion of the city-state of Venice into the eastern Mediterranean areas.  It was in an erudite atmosphere of learning, study, and awareness of the family history that she grew up.  It is telling that we know of her, but not of her two elder brothers, or elder and younger sisters, who assumedly had the same advantages, but perhaps not the same abilities.

She began her studies early, beginning at age seven with the study of Latin and Greek.  After mastering these languages she went on to study Hebrew, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Chaldaic (biblical Aramaic).  Her fluency in these languages made her “Oraculum Septilingue”, a title meaning she was a master, or oracle, of seven languages besides her native Italian.  She also excelled in philosophy and theology, which she started learning at a young age as well.  Various teachers taught her grammar, dialectics, astronomy, mathematics, and science. 

The Great Window in the Memorial Library
Building at Vassar College, showing the
doctoral examination of Piscopia.
She was also taught what were considered the more feminine arts of singing, reading and writing music, and how to play the harpsichord, clavichord, harp, and violin.  At age seventeen, she was considered to be an expert musician, and had earned a reputation as a composer.  By the time she was 19, she was considered the most educated woman in Italy, attracting some of the many learned people in Europe to the family palaces in Venice and Padua to meet and talk with her.  She learned to debate and excelled at it, which would serve her well in the future.

Detail of Vassar window.  Installed in 1906, it was the gift of Mary Clark
Thompson in memory of her husband, Frederick Ferris Thompson.
She took a vow of chastity when she was eleven, and seemingly kept it all her life.  She wanted to become a Benedictine nun, but her father refused to let her, pushing toward further studies, and clearing the path for her to attend the University of Padua.  There she flourished, and continued to attract visitors and wage debates, which became famous events throughout academic Europe. 

Detail of the Vassar window showing Piscopia.
Lady Elena’s doctoral examination was held on June 25, 1678, in the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin in Padua, rather than at the University Hall due to the size of her audience, and was attended by the University administrators, professors of all disciplines, students, Venetian Senators, and invited guests from the universities of Rome, Naples, Bologna, and Perugia.  She spoke for an hour in Latin from selected passages of Aristotle, and answered all questions eloquently.  This event became legendary, and she was awarded her PhD, a laurel wreath was placed on her head (the Poet’s Laurel Crown), a ring placed on her finger (the Doctor’s ring), and an ermine cape (the Teacher’s Mozetta) placed on her shoulders.  This was an extraordinary event for the 32-year-old woman and the University.  It was many centuries before the University awarded a PhD to a woman again.

Detail of Vassar window showing scholars
attendant at her examination.
She was appointed that same year as a mathematics professor at the University of Padua, another big first, and lectured there until her death.  She also lectured on theology and music.  After her graduation, she did become a Benedictine Oblate, and spent the last years of her life tending to the sick and poor.  She died in 1684 of tuberculosis and was buried in the Church of Santa Giustina in Padua.  Her funeral was attended by the faculty in gowns and capes, and her casket carried by four of the professors.  She was buried in the habit of an Oblate, with her mozetta over it, wearing a wreath of lilies and laurels signifying her purity and learning.  In 1895 the Abbess of the Benedictine nuns in Rome had her tomb opened, her remains placed in a new casket, and a tablet inscribed in her memory.

Detail of Vassar Window.  The images in the
tracery (only four of eight shown in this photo)
represent Grammar, Dialectics, Music, Philosophy,
Astronomy, Medicine, Geometry, and Theology.
A statue was placed in the University, and in 1685 the University struck a medal in her honor, something they had never done before. Her writings were published in 1688, which included both academic and devotional works (not much has survived, however).  Upon receiving her doctorate, she was the recipient of praises, poems, and letters of congratulation from scholars all over Europe.  Her name was inscribed on the Roll of Honor of many academic institutions in Europe.

Statue of Piscopia in the Palazzo del Bo, University of Padua.
An extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia became not only a remarkable woman scholar, but a remarkable scholar of either gender, creating a gold standard not easily equaled, much less surpassed.  By anyone.  Period.