Cnut the Great ruled England, Denmark and Norway for a brief period during the 11th century. He was a pious man, and once wished to show his ever-flattering courtiers the limits of earthly power. He had his throne placed on the beach and ordered the tide to stop and the waves not to wet his robes. When, inevitably, the waves reached him, he stood up and declared, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.” And thus he showed the weakness of kings and men against the natural world.
William Aetheling, son of Henry I, was sent to the French king to do homage to Normandy, which the English kings ruled as dukes, legally under the French kings, but often, in fact, free from and even above them. The homage was a success, and Aetheling prepared to return to England aboard the White Ship, his father’s newest and finest vessel, accompanied by a large number of his noble friends.
They celebrated so greatly that soon even the crew was drunk, and the ship launched at night. The ship struck a rock, and began to sink. The crew was able to launch a single skiff and pushed the prince inside, who made his way towards shore and safety, but the cries of his half-sister, shrieking not to be abandoned, compelled him to return, where he drowned. Only one person survived, a butcher who held onto the mast until morning. The prince and many noble sons and daughters were lost, and Henry I lost his only legitimate heir.
Oftentimes, the origin of a word can tell us something about the people who created it. For instance, the Latin word for nothing, “nihil,” comes from the saying “not even a straw,” perhaps reflecting the Romans earthy natures.
The English word “daughter,” if traced back to its ancient Germanic origins, originally meant “milk maid.” It doesn’t say much for those early speakers that that was the meaning of a daughter to them, but it can tell us about the importance of dairy to their daily lives.
A common belief about ghosts is that they represent forces of vengeance. Indeed, at times it was believed that the living could, before their death, plot their ghostly revenge. In England in the early 1600s, a woman named Frances Barker went before a magistrate and said that she had been abuse by John Banson, the father of her illegitimate child, who had verbally abused her and forced her to change towns often, in order that her pregnancy not be discovered. One of his threats to her had been that, if she did not listen to him, he could commit suicide, and his ghost would tear her into pieces.
Isaac Newton seemed utterly unconcerned for any negative effects of any experiments he might try. He once stared directly at the sun for as long as he could stand it, just to see what would happen. He had to spend some days in darkened rooms afterwards in order to recover. Another time, he inserted a long knitting needle between his eyeball and the bone, and, using it, pressed down upon his eyeball, distorting its shape, in order to see what the effect upon his vision would be. Shockingly, he escaped permanent damage both times.