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Slip sliding away: a very different chapter in Dutch history

You can download or listen to the podcast version (5 minutes) here.

****

Paul Simon once sang that the nearer your destination, the more you keep slip sliding away. While it’s a song about your journey through life and the places you visit, it’s also a sentiment that anyone in a northern, icy, country can understand. As a Canadian, I can confidently say we understand ice. It’s something that defines us in a way that’s hard to explain. The waters of the North are covered in ice much of the year. The ground in many areas is frozen with permafrost. The highways in the winter are either covered in treacherous black ice, or in some areas ice itself acts as the winter road. In the cities we learn to walk stiff legged like a penguin to avoid sliding on the ice. And we’ve even made ice our ally, playing hockey or figure skating to turn ice from foe to friend.

Though we Canadians may know ice, we’re not the only ones. The Dutch have a reputation as speed skaters par excellence, having won bronze, silver and gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In English literature, the familiarity of the Dutch with skating has survived as the tale of Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates. Though the Dutch may not know the snowfalls that can leave you trapped in your house for days, or the blizzards that can leave you unable to see more than a couple of feet in front of you, they do understand ice and maybe in a way the rest of us never will.

Historically, for the Dutch skating has not been a sport or a playtime activity, but a practical way of getting around. Much of the Netherlands is located below sea level and large chunks of the country have even been reclaimed from the seas. This is a country with a lot of experience dealing with water. Not surprisingly, it’s also a land crisscrossed by canals because they’re necessary for drainage, and stopping the sea from taking back the land stolen away from it.

Zip vs. slip

Come winter, and especially the cold winters that the Netherlands frequently experienced in the 1500 and 1600s, these canals freeze. With that many canals, that’s a lot of ice. And since there are relatively few bridges spanning the rivers and canals, knowing how to skate gave you a really fast way to get around. You could get anywhere you wanted, and could get away from anywhere you didn’t want to be.

Starting in the 1560s, the Dutch began to battle their colonial overlords, the Spanish.  With on-again, off-again battles raging over the years, the troubles came to a head near Amsterdam in 1572. The small Dutch fleet, highly maneuverable against the much larger Spanish vessels, was frozen into the ice in the port of Amsterdam. Though the Dutch fleet was immobile, the cold weather had brought the Spanish similar problems and they were unable to attack the Dutch city with their fleet.

Forced to disembark, the Spanish started to cross the ice to the city on foot, and this was their fatal mistake. Walking gingerly in the penguin walk that natives of northern climates know well, the Spanish made slow progress towards the city.

Yet as the Spanish struggled, coming at them with unbelievable speed were the Dutch soldiers. They would swiftly skate just within musket range, fire, and then skate away to reload. The speedy attack and retreat gave the Dutch incredible striking power and left nothing for the Spanish to fire at in return.

The Spanish commander, the infamous Duke of Alva, was grudging in his respect for the Dutch. He ordered a swift retreat back to the Spanish boats (or as swift a retreat as the ice would allow), having suffered hundreds of deaths at the hands of the Dutch.

The Duke did manage to kill a few Dutch soldiers and capture their skates. Acknowledging the innovative tactics of his enemies, he sent skates back to Spain and ordered that 7,000 pairs be made. From then on, soldiers posted to the Dutch frontier were all given skating lessons. It gave the Spanish increased mobility, but learning to skate and to skate well is not the work of a few lessons but of years of practice. The Dutch, as it were, could still skate circles around their foe.

The ice-ing on the cake?

While ice played a factor in the Dutch eventually winning their independence from the Spanish after 80 years of war, there were other factors, too. They formed alliances with other powers, and the women learned to shoot and guard the city walls while the men attacked the Spanish. But throughout that long war, strategic flooding of the lowlands, and its wintertime counterpart of skating played a role that the Spanish never could overcome.

Though there were a lot of reasons that the Dutch beat the Spanish, it certainly helped that the Spanish learned a bit of what Paul Simon would later sing about: The nearer your destination, the more you keep slip sliding away.

This article is taken from an episode of James Dykstra’s History.icu podcast, where history is never boring. Check out more episodes there or on Spotify, Google podcasts, or wherever you find your podcasts.

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Jenny Geddes: the Reformer who let fly…

You can download or listen to the podcast version (5 minutes) here. **** Our story is about what should have been a small thing. It wasn’t such an unusual thing. You hear about it from time to time. Someone got upset and threw their stool. Someone got excited, got a little rowdy, and that was the end of it, right? Not quite. The stool thrower was a certain Jenny Geddes, She wasn’t a notable woman, merely running a fruit stall just outside the Tron Kirk, the main church in Edinburgh. Her stall was the 1600s equivalent of a hot dog stand. She wasn’t the sort of person that you would expect to appear in the history books. She was average. Not unusual. Much like you or me. But maybe that goes to show you that if the cause is important enough, the small can rise to do big things. In 1635, Charles I, king of England and Scotland, had declared himself to be the head of the Scottish church. Not all the Scots were terribly happy about this. In the spirit of the Reformation, the Scottish church had gone a good ways toward removing Catholic influences and developing its own, distinctive, Protestant style of worshipping. There was quite a bit of fear that Charles would change all that. Charles wanted the Scottish church to be more like the English one, uniting religion in his kingdom. Catholic subterfuge? Charles and the unpopular English Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, appointed a committee of, admittedly, Scottish bishops to develop a prayer book for use in the Scottish church. The Scots saw this prayer book as a way to make the Scottish church Catholic again by subterfuge. A lot of the more conservative Scots, the more Puritan leaning members of the church, were not impressed. So when it came time to debut the new Book of Common Prayer in an actual worship service, tensions were running high. Sunday, July 23, 1637 saw Deacon John Hanna nervously ascend the pulpit at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Sitting in the back of the cathedral was Jenny Geddes. Interestingly, the women were required to sit at the back, and bring their own stools to sit on which undoubtedly has a fascinating story behind it. For our purposes, it’s enough to realize that any stool light enough to be brought from home is also light enough to be thrown across the room. At some point Geddes had had enough. She rose and colorfully accused Hanna of being a Catholic priest in disguise. She yelled “Devil cause you severe pain and flatulent distension of your abdomen, false thief: dare you say the Mass in my ear?” and then flung her stool across the room and at Hanna’s head. Cursing flatulence on someone and flinging your stool seems to have been the trigger for chaos. A riot started in the church – possibly involving more flying stools – with the service ending up more like a barroom brawl than a place of worship.  One worshipper who dutifully used the appropriate responses from the new Prayer Book was soundly thumped with Bibles. The riot spread out onto the street, even the city council chambers were besieged, and in time the authorities were called in to break up the chaos. The ruling authorities in Edinburgh appealed to the capital in London to withdraw the new Book of Common Prayer, but the government of Charles I refused. The Scots responded by signing a National Covenant in February 1638, to make the Scottish church more Presbyterian and less Anglican, and later that same year tossed out the Scottish bishops who had written the new Prayer Book. King Charles treated this as rebellion, and in 1639 launched the First Bishops War, the first in a series of wars with the Scots known as the Wars of the Covenant. These wars would tax his treasury, and, ultimately, lead to the confrontations with Parliament which would eventually cost him his head. Conclusion All this came about because one woman threw a stool. The funny part is that historians aren’t even sure if Jenny Geddes was a real person, or just a wonderful element to throw into a pretty crazy story about religious and political reform. Whatever the case, the riot was real, and it goes a long way towards showing that at the right moment, real, average, even boring, people can make a spectacular difference. Sometimes it’s not where you take your stand that matters, but where you take your seat. This article is taken from an episode of James Dykstra’s History.icu podcast, where history is never boring. You can check out other episodes at History.icu or on Spotify, Google podcasts, or wherever you find your podcasts. For some further digging… Wikipedia on "Jenny Geddes" Undiscovered Scotland on "Jenny Geddes" Reformation History on "Jenny Geddes" Scot Clans on "Jenny Geddes" InAmidst.com on "Lo and Behold"...


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