Episode 60 - No One's Tougher Than the Biscuit Eaters (Sidekicks Week)
Updated: Apr 17
Sam's notes: The Emancipated (topless) duel between duel between Princess Pauline Matternich and Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg
I’m going to be honest, I found it a bit difficult this time, as I thought I would. And so I’ve cheated for the sake of a fun story. I’ve done an incredible and hilarious duel, in which the seconds were absolutely useless. But the umpire was the real hero, if there is such a thing. I’ll be honest, the sidekicks only get the most fleeting of mentions and do nothing of any use.
Also, by way of double cheating, it probably never happened. It’s entirely possible that the whole thing was made up by an Italian newspaper. At least that’s what one of the women involved in the duel claims.
And you’ll note, Tom, that I said one of the women involved in the duel. And that’s because today I’m talking about what’s known as the emancipated duel between Princess Pauline Matternich and Countess Anastasia Kielmannsegg in 1892 – the first time two women, with women seconds and a woman as umpire, fought.
Now, this was not the first duel between two women. So-called petticoat duels had been going on for decades if not longer under the traditional rules of a pistol shot first, then switch to swords. There’s one particularly famous example from 1792, a century earlier, in which a Mrs Elphinstone was challenged to a duel in Hyde Park by Lady Almeria Braddock, after making a poorly timed comment about her age over tea.
As you can see, lady duels were fought over petty, silly little things. Unlike manly man duels which were fought over such important topics as garden fences, disagreeing too vociferously with the findings of a scientific paper on chaffinches, or who got the last round in. You know, stuff that’s really worth dying for.
Anyway, in this instance Mrs Elphinstone’s pistol shot blew lady Braddocks hat off her head, at which point the two picked up their swords and set to. The duel only ended when Lady Braddock wounded her opponent in the arm, drawing first blood and winning her the duel, after which Mrs Elphinstone had to write a letter of apology.
In 1886, two women went to war in a disagreement over whether France or the USA had better qualified doctors.
So women duelling wasn’t uncommon, but an all-women rumble in the jungle was. And so we come to our duel, Tom. Which wasn’t just fought between two noblewomen, it was fought topless. And it was fought over a flower arrangement.
Now these two ladies, Princess Pauline Metternich and Countess Anastasia Kiielmansegg, absolutely hated each other. They were arch rivals in Vienna’s ridiculously opulent social scene, with each claiming to be the high socialite of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Pauline was the daughter of one of Austria’s most senior diplomats, and was also, just as a fun side fact, married to her uncle. Hapsburg-licious.
Anna, on the other hand, was a Russian, married to the German govenor of Lower Austria. So basically an outsider and a pretender.
This made her doubly determined to get accepted on the Vienna social scene, so she joined the boards and councils of every society club and event in town, where she pretty quickly got clashing with Princess Pauline.
The hated between the two came to a head in Summer 1892,when it came to the organising of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition. Pauline was the president, whilst Anastasia was the acting president of the Ladies committee. And both thought it was their god given right and duty, Tom, to have the honour of sorting out the flower arrangements. Yes, Tom, they got into a right Viennese Whirl about the whole thing. So what happened next?
It got so heated that they decided the only way to sort the whole thing out and decide who was the ultimate queen of the Austrian social scene by a duel to first blood. Whilst most aristocrats at this time, men or women, would have chosen a champion or sidekick to fight for them, but not these two. It was personal. And the battleground? Somewhere far enough away that they wouldn’t be watched and likely shunned for their behaviour by their fellow ladies: Vaduz in Lichtenstein on August 23rd 1892.
Their seconds, in to cheer for their side and catch any breaking of the rules, were Princess Schwarzenburg for Pauline and Countess Kinsky for Anastasia, with Polish Noblewoman Baroness Lubinska to oversee and, more importantly, act as a field medic. Incredibly unusually, Lubinska was a trained surgeon as well as a noblewoman, and travelled all the way from Poland for the event. So in a roundabout and stretched way, she was both of their sidekicks.
And she had some ideas, Tom. Namely, that the women should fight topless. Why? Well, being a surgeon, she was very aware of the realities of sepsis, and was worried about fibres of clothing getting into any wounds and causing the ladies’ legs to fall off a few weeks after the duel.
So with a sharp word to the coachmen and attendants to walk a long way away and turn their backs, the fighters stripped off and picked up their swords – no shotting this time as far as we know.
Now, by all accounts neither lady really knew what they were doing or really wanted to fight. And so it took several minutes and until the third round for anyone to make a serious effort, when with a sudden dash forward and presumably an almighty clattering of noble tits, Countess Anastasia managed to slash Princess Pauline’s nose slightly – just a scratch, but theoretically enough. Now, at this point, their sidekicks should have called a halt to the fight as first blood had been drawn. Unfortunately, both immediately fainted, given that in corsets it’s hard enough for anyone to stay concious even without the excitement of a duel, and no one called a halt, so Pauline proceeded to stab Anastasia in the arm before the surgeon waded in to break them up. At the sound of screams from the two fighters, the coachmen all turned and ran in to help, at which point baroness Lubinska had to beat them off with her umbrella and tell the dirty perverts to turn their backs and keep their distance.
Unfortunately, because no one had been keeping score, both women declared victory for themselves – Anna for drawing first blood, Pauline for delivering the first proper wound.
In the end, once the seconds had recovered with a liberal dose of smelling salts, they decided to call it a draw and make the fighters hug and make up, which apparently they did – both being pretty shocked by what had happened and the realities of sword fighting. Which I suspect was fucking terrifying.
Now, despite only using nobility for the duel in the hope that word of it would never get out, it pretty quickly made world news, being published in an Italian newspaper and then spreading around the world. And unfortunately, no reliable source has ever been found to suggest it really happened: Princess Pauline always claimed the Italian reporters had made it up to pass the time, and neither woman wrote about it in their memoirs. But of course they wouldn’t, would they.
I’ve chosen a reasonably well known topic today. I quite like fluctuating from the obscure and vulgar to areas of history that listeners might have heard a little bit about, enough to make them hungry for more!
It’s a great topic because I’m going to talk about 4 individuals connected in a web of sidekickery, so more sidekickery than a conga at a millipede’s wedding. Let me introduce…
Emperor Justinian, General Belisarius, Empress Theodora and historian Procopius.
Let’s start with the big daddy; Emperor Justinian.
· Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565AD.
· He’s famous for building the Hagia Sofa in Istanbul (previously Constantinople, previously Byzantium). An architecturally pioneering building.
o Incidentally, he didn’t build it all by himself, he was slightly better at delegating tasks that that.
· He’s also famous for rewriting Roman Law; often called the Code of Justinian. This is a foundation stone of modern law.
o Incidentally, he didn’t write it all by himself, he was slightly better at delegating tasks that that.
· He’s also also famous for the reconquest of many area of the western Roman Empire from the Ostrogoths and Vandals (Germanic tribes that had destroyed the Western Roman Empire around a century earlier).
o Incidentally, he didn’t fight these wars all by himself, he was slightly better at delegating tasks that that!
§ He had General Belisarius to do it for him. More on him to follow.
· He’s quite the Polymath/Jackius of all trades.
· Interestingly, Justinian was from a peasant family. His uncle Justin I had started his military career as a basic soldier and worked his way up to Emperor.
· Justinian was helped during his reign by Empress Theodora (the first side-kick relationship I’m going to discuss)
o Empress Theodora was from an ordinary family. Procopius (we’ll come on to him) said that she was a prostitute who also performed sex-shows on stage.
o A rather long but abbreviated quote that tells us all we need to know about Theodora:
o “ Theodora was still too young to have intercourse with a man after the manner of women, but she satisfied the unnatural passions of certain wretches, even the vilest slaves, who followed their masters to the theatre and amused their leisure by this infamy. She remained for some time also in a brothel, where she practised this hateful form of vice.”
o “As soon, however, as she reached the age of puberty, as she was handsome, her mother sent her into the theatrical troupe, and she straightway became a simple harlot, as old-fashioned people called it; for she was neither a musician nor a dancer, but merely prostituted herself to everyone whom she met, giving up every part of her body to debauchery. She associated chiefly with the theatrical "pantomimes," and took part in their performances…”
o “She excelled in raising a laugh by being slapped on her puffed-out cheeks, and used to uncover herself so far as to show the spectators everything before and behind which decency forbids to be shown to men. She stimulated her lovers by lascivious jests, and continually invented new postures of coition, by which means she completely won the hearts of all libertines; for she did not wait to be solicited by anyone whom she met, but herself, with joke and gestures, invited everyone whom she fell in with, especially beardless boys.”
o “for she often went to a supper at which each one paid his share, with ten or more young men, in the full vigour of their age and practised in debauchery, and would pass the whole night with all of them. When they were all exhausted, she would go to their servants, thirty in number, it may be, and fornicate with each one of them; and yet not even so did she quench her lust. Once she went to the house of some great man, and while the guests were drinking pulled up her clothes on the edge of the couch and did not blush to exhibit her wantonness without reserve. Though she received the male in three orifices she nevertheless complained of Nature for not having made the passage of her breasts wider, that she might contrive a new form of coition in that part of her person also.”
o “Often, even on the stage, she stripped before the eyes of all the people, and stood naked in their midst, wearing only a girdle about her private parts and groin… In this attitude she would throw herself down on the floor, and lie on her back. Slaves, whose duty it was, would then pour grains of barley upon her girdle, which trained geese would then pick up with their beaks one by one and eat. She did not blush or rise up, but appeared to glory in this performance; for she was not only without shame, but especially fond of encouraging others to be shameless, and often would strip naked in the midst of the actors, and swing herself backwards and forwards, explaining to those who had already enjoyed her and those who had not, the peculiar excellences of that exercise.”
· Regardless of these tendencies, Theodora was a fantastic aide to Justinian. For example, during the Nika Riots in which two factions of the chariot racing fans went nuts, it was Theodora who stopped Justinian and his inner circle from fleeing Byzantium with a Rocky style motivation speech (It’s not about how hard you can punch, but how hard you can be punched, and still keep moving forward).
Now let’s move onto Belisarius, Justinian’s kick ass general and the second side-kick I’m going to mention.
· Belisarius has worked his way up through the ranks of the Byzantine army based on his merit (and probably good politics too).
· He created a personal bodyguard unit for the Emperor and introduced heavy cavalry to the Byzantine Empire. This heavy cavalry was known as Buccellati; which apparently translates, and be ready for this because it will make you shit your pants Sam, the biscuit-eaters.
o Oh crumbs, the Buccellati are coming
o Men, draw your short breads!
o On my command, a volley of custard creams
o We are outnumbered, retreat to the ginger-bread house!
· Belisarius was an exceptionally successful commander and is widely seen as one of the greatest commanders of all time. He reconquered most of the old Western Roman Empire by defeating the Vandals (in North Africa) and the Ostrogoths (on the Italian Peninsular). In total, he almost doubled the size of Justinian’s empire.
· His military successes helped secure Justinian’s position on the thrown after a difficult start to his reign with the Nika Riots.
· There is a legend, probably not true, that Justinian had Belisarius’s eyes scooped out after suspecting him of plotting against him. Belisarius was then left to beg on the street.
Now our final side-kick story. Belistarius had a personal historian following him around called Procopius
· Procopius wrote 2 books that are of interest to us hear. The first was the History of the Wars.
o This is very much a panegyric, i.e. it was written to praise and celebrate the brilliance of Belistarius, Justinian and Theodora.
o And this it did! The three of them are portrayed very positively.
· But that’s all a tad boring isn’t it? Procopius also wrote the Secret History. This book stands in stark contrast to the History of the Wars even though it covers basically the same period of history and discusses the same individuals.
o Procopius basically let’s rip in this book. The extensive quote from earlier regarding Theodora was from this document.
o Amongst other things, Procopius likens Justinian to a devil, not just casually, he describes how his head disappeared on one occasion!
§ Oh how embarrassing!
o We will never know why Procopius wrote this second history but there are two plausible explanations:
§ He was disillusioned with Justinian, Belisarius and Theodora and couldn’t help himself let rip when he was no longer in their favour. In which case, it’s the literally equivalent to stuffing frozen prawns down the back of the radiator on your last day at work. Or shitting off the roof of Walmart as I’m sure I once saw on a video.
§ Alternatively, it was Procopius’s insurance policy in the event of a change of regime. By this I mean if Justinian were overthrown, we all know what might happen to his inner circle, Procopius could reveal the book and say “I never liked them in the first place; here’s proof”.
§ If the latter is the case, it’s a brilliant example of how important it is to thoroughly analyse our assessments of historical figures when we only have a limited range of primary sources to work with. What is the purpose of these historical documents? Are we reading an Aenied? Or a Secret History? Is the author celebrating a leader or trying to discredit them? Remember, the winners write history Sam!
And just to readdress the balance after that unpleasantly credible historical reflection, here’s a song:
Theodora, we adore her!
She’s the one that will brighten up your day
With a gang bang and a goose
Trousers down and shout hooray!