Saturday, March 24, 2007

Blue blood

It is interesting to see how nobility titles in Western Europe have changed their meaning along History. Some of them dating back as long as the Roman Empire, during the Middle Ages acquired their meaning related to land ownership. Currently, titles are merely honorific.


The title of duke is traditionally the one of highest rank. he word comes from Latin "dux", meaning "military commander", and was employed by both Romans and Germans to refer their warrior leaders. In the Roman army, a dux was a general in charge of two or more legions, who normally managed the government of a province (both civil and military). In the Roman Empire, the powers of the dux were limited to strictly military, depending on the governor (normally a "comes") to make use of them. In Byzantium, "dux" became viceroys at the head of every administrative and military service.

During the Middle Ages, dukes became the closest nobility title to the king, and their function was essentially military, with a territorial aspect though, as they ruled in a set of countships. Of course, there exist variations in the meaning of dukes in every kingdom. Frankish dukes were the nobles of highest rank, from where province governors came out, although they also appear leading military expeditions away from their duchies. Later, Charlemagne restructured administratively the kingdom, multiplying the number of counts and reducing that of dukes, limiting it to the nobles closest to him. In Spain and Italy, Visigoth and Lombard dukes, respectively, were the greatest land owners and, together with bishops, they elected the king among them. Although the were nominally loyal to the king, the concept of monarchy was new for them and dukes acted independently from royal authority, specially in central and south Italy, where the duke of Spoleto and the duke of Benevento were sovereigns de facto. Also in Germany, duchies were independent kingdoms inside the Holy Empire, and in Italy, "doges" were the heads of state in some of the Republics in the peninsula (Genoa, Venice). In modern times, variants from this title ("Conde-duque" in Spain, Archduke in Austria) to refer the head of state.


Etimologically from the Latin "comes", which means companion or delegate of the emperor during the Roman Empire. Its origin is in the people surrounding Augustus ("amici Augusti"), normally selected from senators, who when travelling became "comites Augusti", being their role just that of personal advisors. They disappeared with Alexander Severus and created again under Constantine, when they designated the most loyal to the emperor, being a hierarchy over regular officials. They had a political and administrative role, with military functions specially when defending borders.

During the Germanic kings, counts were designated by a dux or the king. The title of count was indistintively given to every official around him, one of which, the count palatine ("comes palatii"), was in charge of rendering justice inside the palace. Some arms companions of Frankish merovingian princes received the title for city administration. At these times they start to have fiscal, military and judiciary functions. Military power only never depended on a moving army, but settled on a territory (countship). In the countship, he rivalised mainly with the bishop (in his corresponding diocese) for the use of power. Under Charlemagne, counts were given a specific mission (military or administrative) with temporal character, and never hereditary. It is only after the 9th century that counts start to form a land owner class, usurpating royal rights over their countship land. The title was also often given by the monarch as gratitude for a special service, without necessary being accompanied of a feudal territory. In England, there exists the equivalent "Earl", term originated in Scandinavia.


The original title comes from German "markgraf" (literally "count of the mark"). During the High Middle Ages, and specially in the Carolingian Empire, it was a count who administered a border territory (mark). In order to allow him a quick reaction to potential attacks, special military powers were given to him to raise up the army without the express permission of the king. This authority has later conferred it a higher rank than the count, but lower than the duke, as the latter has a military and judiciary power over several countships. After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, the marquis title fell into disuse, except certain counts who proclaimed themselves marquis to acquire greater importance (that is the case of the count of Barcelona, who justified this action for being situated in the border with hispanic Muslim kingdoms). In modern times it resurected as an honorific title.


Etimologically coming from a mixture between the Frankish word "baro" ("warrior") and the Angle "beorn" ("noble"). Since the Middle Ages, it refered those who had obtained privileges directly from the king because of a military service, situated just over the title of knight. Acording to the country, the meaning was different: In France, for being baron, it was required to possess at least two castles. In Spain barons were the rich and magnates who participated in political sessions. In the Holy Empire, every family in the low nobility were granted the title of baron (distinguished with the prefix "von"). The English king Henry II made a distintion between greater and lesser barons. Since the 16th century, baronship looses its relation with land ownership, becoming a nominal title.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Shadow plays

Shadow play is perhaps the most ancient scenic art in History. It is based in the projection of articulated puppets in front of an illuminated background, causing sensation of movement. During thousands of years, it has entertained and taught both humble and aristocratic classes, specially in Asia, where it was originated.

China: Poems and romances

According to the legend, Chinese shadow play dates back to the Han dynasty (3rd BC-3rd AD centuries), when an emperor lost his favorite concubine. A taoist monk used a shadow to evoke a feminine shape, which the Emperor believed was his reborn lover. What is certain, is that in the time of the Tang dinasty (7th-10th centuries), it was a popular entertainment very spread in the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Hebei, which later passed to Beijing. During the Ming period (XIV-XVII centuries) it was not exclusive of the lower classes anymore, and passed to the aristocracy and imperial family.

In China, puppets were small and made of paper or leather. A puppeter handled them with three sticks (one for the head, one for each arm), and made the voice of every character, while a small orchestra accompanied dramatic scenes (specially many "gongs"). There were four defined types of characters: men (sheng), women (dan), painted faces (jing) and clowns (chou), each of them with a specific symbolism and function.

Although this genre gave way to many regional styles, thematic was essentially the same: Buddhist teachings in the beginning, romances and epic lyrics later (the one referring to Liu Bang and Xian Yu was very popular, see previous post).

India: Mediator between men and gods

It is not known with certainty whether the shadow theatre appeared in India, Thailand and Indonesia originating from China or had an independent evolution. There are major differences, such as the puppet size (it was normally human in India, its size showing the character social rank though), and its lower articulating ability. Used matierals were coloured and translucent, leading to a much colour and surreal aspect.

This oniric effect has perhaps influenced its final significance. In the Indian region, shadow theatre was the main medium to express the supernatural, very used for the spreading of mythical Hinduist literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Performances even became rites with the powers of bringing rain and healing the sick and possessed.

In India, the puppeteer job was something hereditary, and almost sacred. Entire wandering families were in charge of building puppets and performing, being considered as some kind of priests. Nowadays, Indian shadow play is in decadence, except for the Wayang Kulit in Java, which enjoys an official protected status.

Turkey: Political satire

Maybe brought to Persia and Middle East by Gengis Khan's conquests, Turkish shadow theatre has Chinese influences. However, due to its colourful aspect, it is widely accepted that it comes from Ancient Egypt and Java, with influences from Greek phylosophy.

Featured characters evolve to the point of having a very defined symbolism, and the same appear in every performance. Most important are Karagoz and Hacivat (the first, showing his common sense, the latter his education), the courtesan Sitt al Husyn (who represents Love), and the doctor Mustapha (who symbolises power and corruption). The meaning was essentially satirical and didactical.

First described by Ibn Danyal in Cairo, during the 16th Century is spread in the Ottoman Empire. There it acquired great popularity, specially in Turkish cafes during the month of Ramadan and in Muslim feasts. However, it seldom had a religious significance, but instead it reflected social problems of the time, always from a humorous perspective. It was, say, the daily newspaper at that time.