Work has got me by the neck and is constricting me like a hungry boa, so I’ve got nothing new today, or likely for several days. BUT, rather than pull one of my famous hiati, I’m going to offer up some reruns. In particular, selections from my That Was the Millennium That Was series, written in 1999. Back then I had maybe a couple hundred visitors a day and now I have, uh, more. So these will be new to many of you. And they’re also fairly interesting. And, they’re also not on the current iteration of the site. And, I have a whole lot of ‘em. Add it all up, and they’re fine candidates for repeating. These will run through the end of the week and possibly for a few days after that, so if you have seen these before, come back around next Monday and (God Willing) things will be back to normal.
For everyone else, some background: I wrote these at the tail end of 1999, when everyone was recapping the various “best” of the Millennia. I decided to cover some of the more obscure categories (Best Cheese of the Millennium, for example, or Best Hideously Inbred Royal Family of the Millennium) mostly because no one else had, and I did them right up to the crack of 2000 (yes, I’m aware that technically 2001 is the beginning of the millennium. Let’s not go there). I did them for my own amusement at the time, but later on I sold a bunch of them to the Uncle John’s people for one of their bathroom readers, thus beginning my association with that illustrious publisher (and eventually leading to the Book of the Dumb series). More proof it’s useful to have a Web site, and a high threshold for boredom.
So imagine it’s 1999 again, we’re on the cusp of a new millennium (more or less), and I’m wrapping up some of the best things of the last 1,000 years.
Got it? Then here’s the first one for you. It’s behind the cut.
That Was The Millennium That Was
THE BEST HIDEOUSLY INBRED ROYAL FAMILY OF THE MILLENNIUM
That’d be the Hapsburgs. And here you thought inbreeding (or, as I like to call it, “fornicousin”) was just a low-rent sort of activity. In fact, it’s the sport of kings: All your royal families of Europe have participated in a program of inbreeding so clearly inadvised that it would disgust Jerry Springer’s booker. They paid for it, of course (how many royal families are left any more) but not before polluting their bloodlines to an intolerable degree. Any little girl who dreamily wishes to marry a handsome prince on a white steed is advised to marry the horse instead. The horse probably has better DNA.
You’d think that the royal families of Europe would have figured out that a recursive family tree was not the way to go; at the very least, when you’d go to a royal function and everyone was married to a relative, you’d clue in that something was amiss. But royalty are different from you and me, and not just because all their children were still drooling well into the teenage years. Royalty wasn’t just about kings and queens, it was about families and dynasties — single families ruling multiple countries, or in the case of the Hapsburgs, most of the whole of the continent. You can’t let just anyone marry into that sort of thing. There had to be standards, genetically haphazard as they might be.
The Hapsburgs, based in Austria, carried this admonition to the extreme, even for the royal families of Europe. Take the case of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (you may remember him as the nominal cause of World War I, when the poor fellow was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. What, you don’t? Ah, the glories of our educational system). Long before his assassination, Franz fell in love with Sophia von Chotkowa und Wognin, who was a Duchess of Hohenburg. For you and me, linking up with a Duchess of Hohenburg would probably be a step up in the grand scheme of things, certainly something to brag about at the family reunion at the municipal park (“You married Cindy? How nice. I married nobility. Look, here come our dukelings now.”)
Franz’s family, on the other hand, was horrified. Franz was an heir to the Austrian-Hungarian empire! He couldn’t marry any shameless duchess who just happened to bat her hereditary lands at him! It was a scandal! Franz eventually married Sophie, but he was made to renounce all claims of rank for their offspring (i.e., no little emperors for Franz and Sophie). As a final insult, Sophie, the hussy duchy, was not allowed to ride in the same car as her husband during affairs of state. In retrospect, this may not have been such a bad idea; Sophie was in the same car as Franz in Sarajevo (presumably not a state function) and she got assassinated right along with him. But at the time, it probably just came across as mean.
No, in the grand scheme of things, the Hapsburgs figured it was better off to marry a Hapsburg when you could (and one of those degenerate Bourbons if you couldn’t). On a territorial level, this worked like a charm; at the height of the Hapsburg influence, the family ruled the Holy Roman Empire and the Iberian Peninsula, and had good and serious claims on a large portion of what is now France. The family had initially achieved much of this, interestingly enough, by marrying people who were not them; after a particularly profitable spate of marriages arranged by the family in the late 15th century, it was said of the Hapsburgs, Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube (“Let others wage wars: you, fortunate Austria, marry”). Once lands were assimilated, of course, it was first cousins all the way.
In the short run, the interbreeding caused some noticeable but essentially minor physical distinctions: the famed “Hapsburg lip,” in which a full lower lip jutted out in front of a somewhat less lavish upper lip. This is distinction was on par with other royal families, who had (and have) their own physical distinctions; the Bourbons, for one, had a distinctive nose (it was huge), while today, the English House of Windsor is known for its Dumbo-like ears. Proof that there were worse things than to have big lips.
Here’s the thing, however. It’s one thing to marry, say, your cousin. Not the smartest thing you can do, but so long as you move to another state and don’t talk much about your family, you can get away with it. But if you marry a cousin, who was him or herself the product of cousins, who were themselves products of cousins, and so on and so forth — and you’re all in the same family — well, you don’t have to be Gregor Mendel to see what’s coming. Alas for the Hapsburgs, what was coming was Charles II, king of Spain from 1665 through 1700.
With Charles, the question was not what was wrong with him, but what wasn’t wrong. To begin, thanks to all that cousin cuddling, the Hapsburg lip stopped being a distinctive facial characteristic and became a jaw deformity so profound that Chuck couldn’t chew his own food. This would depress a person of normal intelligence, but since Charles was also mentally retarded, he might not have minded. Anyway, it wasn’t the most depressing deformity Charles had; let’s just say that generations of inbreeding kept Charles from breeding new generations. It was bad enough to have a sick freak ruling Spain; it was even worse that there were no more sick freaks coming.
For lack of a better idea, Charles willed his possessions to a relative. Unfortunately, it was a relative who was also a Bourbon. Enter the War of Spanish Succession, at the end of which Spain would lose most of its European holdings (such as the Netherlands), and the Hapsburgs would begin their long decline, which would end with the First World War and a final dismemberment of the family’s territorial holdings.
Clearly, this might never have happened had the Hapsburgs slipped in a commoner now and then, just to set a genetic Roto-Rooter to their chromosomes. Wouldn’t that have been an irony — a few more serfs in the gene pool, and there might yet be a Holy Roman Emperor. The Hapsburgs probably wouldn’t think that was funny. But a sense of humor was not what they bred for, anyway.