Tag Archives: Catherine The Great

What Is The Origin Of (259)?…

Beyond the pale

If your behaviour is described as being beyond the pale, it is unacceptable and beyond the accepted norms of decency. The pale in question is a noun, not the adjective to denote a whitish colour, and means a stake or pointed piece of wood. It comes via the Middle French word, pal, from the Latin palus. But why compare behaviour to a stake?

The answer becomes clearer when you realise that pale in English had another meaning, an area enclosed by a fence or a load of pales and, by extension, aa distinct area subject to a particular jurisdiction. Until its imperialistic expansion from the 17th century onwards England had very little in the way of overseas territories, particularly after the Hundred Years’ War, the territory of Calais, which it hung on to from 1337 until 1453, and Ireland.

The Irish had always been a thorn in the English side and only four counties, those of Louth, Meath, Dublin, and Kildare, remained loyal(ish) to the king. The king’s turf was marked by a wooden turf, later turned into a more impressive ten-foot-deep ditch surrounded by eight-feet banks and thorny bushes. Those who lived inside the perimeter of the ditch were under the protection of the English and abided by their laws and customs. Those outside the ditch were outside the boundaries of what was considered then to be civilised society.

Perhaps the most infamous pale was the Pale of Settlement established by Catherine the Great which lasted between 1791 and 1917 and denoted areas of Russia and Russian-occupied Poland within which Jews were required to live. Sometimes Jews were allowed to live beyond the pale.

It was not until the 17th century that the term began to be used figuratively to mean a sphere of influence or activity. The time lag between the English pales and its usage makes it difficult to be certain that there was a direct connection or whether it was just an etymologist’s retro-fit. It is in this figurative sense that Shakespeare used it in The Winter’s Tale from around 1610 in describing the onset of spring; “for the red blood raigns in the winter’s pale”. Sir Walter Scott extended the Bard’s concept of the term pale to denote a boundary of behaviour and brought back the sense of a physical boundary by imagining someone leaping over it. In The Search after Happiness, a poem from 1817, he wrote; “Italian license loves to leap the pale”.      

Beyond the pale seems to have first appeared in a lyric poem entitled The History of Polindor and Flostella by John Harington, published in 1657. Ortheris has retired to the country for some peace and quiet but soon falls in love and “both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-Walk”. The expression was slow to take off and there are only a few citations, one of the earlier one being as late as November 6, 1809 in a poem in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle, rather sensationally entitled Stanzas, on hearing a wretch exclaim there is no God; The opening stanza concludes with the following lines, “yet specious pleas the wretched being frames,/ beyond the pale where common sense is found”.

When the phrase was used, it more usually came with a form of explanation or limitation of the pale. A classic example is to be found in the rather splendid A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats of Both Sexes, compiled by Captain Alexander Smith and published in 1719. In describing Acteon, the good Captain wrote, “while he suffered his eye to rove at pleasure and beyond the pale of expedience”.  

Modern usage has reverted to Harington’s formulation. Some users seem oblivious to its origin spelling pale as pail as in a bucket. Now that really is beyond the pale.

Book Corner – April 2016 (1)


The Romanovs 1613 – 1918 – Simon Sebag Montefiore

One of the endless debates about history is whether it should be a litany of dates, battles and the deeds of the ruling class or whether it should take a more thematic approach and try to determine what life was like for the hoi polloi who had to survive as events unfolded. Sebag Montefiore, in this engaging romp through the reigns of the 21 tsars and tsarinas who ruled Russia, is firmly in the former camp.

He also doffs his cap to  whose Twelve Caesars set the standard for tittle-tattle about the great and not so good. Sebag Montefiore does not hold back in his expose of the foibles, dalliances and infatuations of this strange and ruthless family. They ruled with an iron fist and were brutal in their attempt to protect their autocratic position. Tellingly, he suggests that Russia is addicted to autocratic rule and what followed the revolution up to this day is tsarism in a different guise.

I must confess I have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to polysyllabic Russian surnames and so much of the narrative which is a litany of plots and coups blended with periodic murders and mayhem and stirred with battles, wars, treatise and occupation of territories – the size of the empire grew at a rate of over 50 square miles a year – can be bewildering at time. Fortunately, Sebag Montefiore incorporates a dramatis personae at the start of each chapter – great for those reading the book in hard copy but a bit of a bugger for those wrestling with an electronic version.

Along the way we meet bride shows at which the prospective bride for the tsar or tsar-in-waiting was selected, an early version of a celebrity gameshow or, perhaps given the lubricious characters that were the tsars, I’m sane, get me out of here. Too many of the Romanovs had a predilection for dwarf dancing and had gargantuan sexual appetites.

But there were some bright spots. Michael I, the first Romanov, restored order after the Time of Troubles following Ivan the Terrible’s death, Peter the Great turned Russia towards the west and established it as a credible European superpower, Catherine the Great expanded the empire to incorporate the Ukraine, dissolved Poland and turned the future Romanov dynasty into an essentially German family and Alexander I took Paris following Napoleon’s retreat, irking Stalin who only got to Berlin. And then Alexander II abolished serfdom but paid for it with his life at the hands of an assassin’s bomb in 1881, having survived five previous assassination attempts.

The pace of the book visibly slackens when we get to Nicholas II and the October revolution of 1905, the emergence of the influential Rasputin and the Russian revolution of 1917/18, the author’s previous specialist subjects.The account of the murder of Nicholas and his family is harrowing as the narrative of the botched executions unfolds. I did not know (or perhaps had forgotten) that following Nicholas’ abdication, his uncle, Michael Alexandrovich, became tsar, albeit for a day.

Sebag Montefiore’s style is a mix of archaisms, neologisms and ugly modernity. I was delighted to be reacquainted with coelobite, although I had never considered it to be a natural antonym of sybarite. The resurrection of the obsolete adjective lethiferous was a joy but his determination to parse rendezvous as a verb was irksome.

A rattling good read and very much a reversion to the Govian and Suetonian view of history.

Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Fourteen


The Russian bubonic plague epidemic – 1770 to 1772

This bubonic epidemic accounted for between one sixth and a third (between 52 and 100 thousand lives) in Moscow alone. At the epidemic’s height in September 1771 an estimated 1,000 Muscovites died a day, despite the fact that an estimated three-quarters of the population had fled the city. War and stunning incompetence on the part of those in authority contributed to the disease’s spread. Contracted through exposure to prisoners of war and booty the plague first developed in Russian soldiers in January 1770 serving in Moldova, where the disease was indigenous. The commanding general, von Stoffeln, refused to recognise that there was a plague and even when the outbreak became common knowledge he forbade the evacuation of infected troops. Van Stoffeln himself died of the plague in May 1770 and of the 1,500 of his troops who contracted the disease between May and August 1770, only 300 survived.

The next problem was that though there were quarantine checkpoints in place, the exigencies of the war meant that the movement of troops and supplies took precedence, peacetime measures were overturned. The consequence was that the plague spread through Poland and Ukraine, reaching Russia by August 1770. But Catherine the Great refused to admit that the plague had arrived. By December the first case had reached Moscow. The response of the national government was to send military guards to the hospital to enforce a quarantine but by March 1771 the plague had taken hold and more forceful measures were adopted.

Quarantines were enforced, contaminated properties were destroyed without any compensation or control and public baths were closed. These measures not only caused fear and anger amongst the citizenry but prompted many, fearful that their homes would be destroyed, to hide the bodies of plague victims, compounding the problem. Specially formed gangs of prisoners established to collect and bury bodies were insufficient for the task. The local economy collapsed. Whilst the nobility and the better-off fled the city, the majority of the citizens faced acute food shortages and worsening living conditions.

By September 17th 1771 they had had enough and a crowd of 1,000 gathered at the Spasskaya gates demanding the release of captured rebels and the elimination of quarantine restrictions. Whilst order was restored with the arrest and subsequent trial of 300 of the rioters, a positive response was forthcoming from the authorities. A commission headed by Orlov improved the efficiency and quality of the quarantine process by varying the duration depending the degree of exposure and relative health of the individuals concerned and paying them for the duration of their quarantine.

By November 1771 Catherine was able to announce that the plague was over although deaths continued until early into the next year. But there were significant consequences. The Russian authorities were forced to reduce taxes and conscription quotas, thus weakening the war effort which, in turn, accelerated the move towards the partitioning of Poland. Locally, the authorities banned burials in the traditional cemeteries within the boundaries of Moscow and a ring of new graveyards were built around the outside of the city, some of which are still in use today.

Book Corner



Catherine The Great – Robert K Massie

This is a masterful biography of Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a minor German aristocrat, who at the age of 14 was betrothed in an arranged marriage by her ambitious mother to the heir to the Russian throne, Peter. Prior to her marriage, she converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox church, being persuaded there was very little difference between the two, and tool on the name Catherine. Her marriage was unhappy, Peter being more content with playing with his toy soldiers than performing his conjugal duties. Eventually Peter assumed the throne when his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth died, but his pro-Prussian sympathies meant that he was deeply unpopular. A palace coup, led by the Orlovs, removed Peter – he was eventually assassinated – and Catherine was crowned Empress. Her rule (1762 to 1796) is generally regarded as one of the golden ages of Russian history. Catherine was a great advocate of the Enlightenment – she corresponded extensively with the likes of Diderot and Voltaire – and became the most pre-eminent collector of art, establishing the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Russia successfully expanded its territories during her reign, taking the Crimea and what is now the Ukraine from the Ottoman empire and, with Prussia and Austria, partitioning and absorbing much of Poland-Lithuania. Catherine was interested in public health and spearheaded the campaign for inoculation against smallpox by being inoculated herself.

Catherine had a succession of “favourites” but the most influential in her life were Grigory Orlov (who was one of five brothers who had leading roles in the coup) and Potemkin.

The book is a rip-roaring read, particularly in describing her early life and the events leading up to the coup and her accession to the throne. The second half takes a more thematic approach to her reign and loses a bit of impetus as a result.

Nonetheless, a hugely impressive and informative book and one I would thoroughly recommend.