St Elmo's fire

2 June

It is the feast of St Elmo, the 2nd century martyr said to have been put to death by having his guts wound round a windlass and then pulled out like spaghetti on a fork. He is the patron saint of sailors, and has given his name to St Elmo’s fire – the spectral blue flames seen on ship’s masts during electrical storms (above).

Thomas Hardy, the greatest poet-novelist in the English language, was born today in 1840. His tragic work was filled with a hatred of human suffering and an angry disappointment with God for not existing.

‘To visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, but it is scorned by average human nature.’ Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Pope Paul III issued the landmark decree Sublimus Deus (‘The sublime God’) today in 1537, condemning the slavery of indigenous Americans and the idea that they were sub-humans incapable of receiving the gospel. He said it was an invention of the Devil that such peoples were ‘dumb brutes created for our service’.

‘Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved.’ Sublimus Deus

Pope Leo XI, nicknamed Papa Lampo (‘the lightning Pope’) was born today in 1535. He caught a cold during a church service and died just 27 days after becoming Pope, hence the nickname. His papacy was even shorter than John Paul I’s, which lasted 33 days and ended in 1978.

On this day in 1891, Pope Hadrian III was canonized. He had spent his one-year papacy (a millennium before his canonization) in a homicidal vendetta against friends of the previous Pope, in one instance whipping a naked widow through the streets of Rome.

Image: NOAA Photo Library

Time-travel news is written by Steve Tomkins and Simon Jenkins

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