Welcome to Confused Heap of Facts!

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I recently started this blog and an Instagram profile to share some history stories that I’ve come across since moving to Madrid.

One of the hardest things was deciding what to call it. I spent ages trying to think of a word, pun or quote that would cover what I wanted to do.

The problem was, what I wanted to do was quite random. There wasn’t really a set theme, time period or place, just some interesting bits of history that I discovered.

So when I came across this quote by Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), I decided it was perfect. Stanhope was a British statesman, diplomat, and writer, who travelled extensively and had a keen interest in history.

It sums up the often confusing, random and accidental things that have happened in the past and why it’s hard to get your head around history sometimes! 

So, check out my Instagram and please comment below with your favourite random fact about history!

History Lives in Carabanchel

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‘Evocati Apri Sciponi’ and their great headgear.

This Saturday, I took a short train ride, but a long trip back in time to find out more about the first inhabitants of the lively and diverse neighbourhood of Carabanchel. 

Most of the dwellings in this southern barrio date from after the mid 20th century, but coming out of the Eugenia de Montijo Metro station (named after local resident the last Empress of France, more on her next week), I was faced with a scene from two thousand years ago.

The ‘Terra Carpentana’ group show off their gladiator kit.

A small camp of canvas tents had been erected in the park, with men and women chatting to visitors and explaining the dress, customs and equipment of Iberian history dating from the Third Century BCE to the Eleventh Century CE. 

‘Bjornland Hird’ demonstrate life of Scandinavian and Iberian peoples from the 9th to the 11th Centuries CE.

I watched three excellent presentations by dedicated enthusiasts who have obviously spent a lot of time and effort (and money, the kit is expensive believe me) to bring the past to life. The group ‘Terra Carpentana’ talked about women in Iron Age Spain. Basically they were in charge of organising feasts and religious activities, looking after relatives, and generally keeping the family, household and community together. Nothing much has changed then!

Next in the arena were ‘Hispania Romania’ with a demonstration on the realistic fighting techniques of Roman legionaries. None of this moving slowing in a clunky turtle formation thanks, that’s for sieges and the movies, these guys were pretty agile and highly skilled.

‘Hispania Romania’ show us how it’s done.

Going back a bit further, ‘Evocati Apri Sciponi’ showed us the different soldiers of the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) when the Iberian peninsula saw some fierce fighting between Carthage and Rome. Spears and the deadly slingshot were common weapons here, alongside their oval shields beautifully painted with wild boars. 

This was all part of ‘Carabanchel- Historia Viva’ an event to promote this area’s long historical significance. It’s not widely known that some of the oldest remains of human occupation have been excavated under this very park. A large villa and evidence of a possible settlement may rewrite Madrid’s entire Roman history, long overshadowed by the town of Alcala de Henares (known as Compultum) to the north. A local history group had displays and information about the many finds, most of which are in the San Isidro / The Origins of Madrid Museum, including a huge mosaic floor representing the Four Seasons.

Carabanchel can also boast the oldest standing building in the Community of Madrid. Just five minutes from the park is the spectacular 13th century Romanesque/Mudéjar church La Ermita de Nuestra Senora de la Antiqua, a building linked to the city’s own patron saint San Isidro. 

Roman building remains have also been found under the church.

The community groups at the festival are not just concerned with celebrating the past though, they are ensuring that any future developments take into account the area’s rich history. Next to the park is the site of the infamous Carabanchel Prison, now reduced to rubble. This neighbourhood put up some fierce resistance during the Civil War, so it’s probably no coincidence that this new prison, built by 1944 by forced labour to hold opponents of the Franco dictatorship, was situated right here.

Local history groups are keen that the prison’s history is not forgotten.

Demolished in 2008, there are plans to build on the site, and I have no doubt that residents will continue to fight to ensure that the voices of all Carabanchel’s inhabitants, from the Iron Age to the present day, continue to be heard.

Pig Out! – The porcine traditions of La Alberca.

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You’d better get saving your pennies if you want to buy the finest quality ham

Every August I visit the town of La Alberca for a language immersion programme and to escape the heat of Madrid. Nestled in the Sierra de Francia region of Salamanca, the area is named after the influx of French workers who arrived in the early 1200s. This economic migration was encouraged by Raymond of Burgundy, a French nobleman married to Queen Urraca I of León. It’s famous for its French-style medieval timber buildings, decorative doorways (check out my post from August 2021) and that most Spanish of gastronomic treats: Iberico ham. 

But this isn’t any old jamon, this is the finest quality you can get; higher in fat, with a marbled texture and a sweeter taste, hence the fact it’s twice the price of Serrano ham. The local pigs are black in colour, with slender legs and less hair compared to their pink cousins. This ancient breed, represented in prehistoric Spanish cave art, is fed on an acorn-rich diet. Varieties of holm and cork oak trees cover this mountainous landscape, originally planted in the Middle Ages to provide firewood and building materials for the local farmers. The pigs have certainly developed a taste for the acorns from these trees, they can eat up to 10kg of the nuts each day while putting on up to a kilo of fat.

The black hooves are an indication of high quality

La Alberca certainly celebrates this famous food. Alongside pig themed souvenirs, the streets are lined with butchers advertising chorizo, salchichón and morcilla sausages, and the local specialty: the Belotta (acorn) and Pata Negra (black hoof) varieties of pork. In darkened rooms, the salt cured legs, dried for over 2 years in the mountain air, hang like giant bats and fill the air with a sweet meaty scent. At over 1000 metres above sea level, the town of La Alberca and its mountainous surroundings can boast fresh air and a cool breeze all year around.

I can still smell it now…

The importance of pigs to the local economy and culture is celebrated on the 13th of June, when a black pig is released after being blessed and a bell placed around its neck. The animal, always nicknamed San Anton, roams freely around the town, being fed and given overnight shelter by locals. This life of luxury ends on the 17th of January (San Anton’s Day) when the animal is dispatched and raffled off for charity. In the past, the pig was fattened by the neighbours, and then presented to the most disadvantaged family in the village.

The carved granite sculpture sits outside the church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

I’ve never actually ever seen this famous pig, it’s probably avoiding the herds of tourists that can descend on the town in the summer. I’ve also never partaken in the other local ritual, whereby couples wanting to have a baby touch the testicles of the granite pig sculpture located outside the church at midnight. There is no way I’m taking that risk, so I’ll stick to enjoying the real thing. 

Touch, if you dare…..

Seeing San Isidro 

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Entrance to the San Isidro Church on Calle de Toledo.

WARNING: THE PICTURES IN THIS POST SHOW HUMAN REMAINS

The smell of incense and the sounds of Mass float out of the side door of San Isidro Collegiate Church on Calle do Toledo, as a long queue shuffles past. People of all ages and backgrounds came last week to see just one thing: the remains of Madrid’s male patron saint San Isidro Labrador. 

The queue went around the side of the church along Calle de la Colegiata.

This lowly farm worker, who was born between 1070 and 1082, (biographical details of his life vary according to the writer, as they always do) has over 400 miracles attached to him, many related to producing water, a vital asset in Madrid’s dry climate. His ‘incorruptible’ body has been the alleged source of much healing over the centuries, with Kings Felipe III and Carlos II just two of the royals who attributed their recovery from illness to his post-mortem intervention. 

2022 is the 400th Anniversary of his canonization as a saint by Pope Gregory XV, and one of the few occasions where the public can see his body for themselves (the last was in 1985) hence the hundreds of madrileños patiently waiting in the evening sun. 

After entering the church, the queue continues to the left of the altar and into a small chapel, usually partially hidden behind closed metal gates. Painted statues of Isidro and his wife Maria (more on her in another article) look down patiently on the visitors. The line is encouraged to move through quickly, with a very tall bearded Policía Nacional officer gently but firmly saying “vamos saliendo, por favor” to those who stand around a little too long. Church volunteers hand out prayer cards and shush anyone thought to be chatting unnecessarily.

I stand at the back, observing the visitors. Some sit on the pews in quiet prayer, some take a quick glance and hurry out and the kids mostly look bemused at the whole situation. 

The remains themselves lie within a wooden coffin, decorated with worn and faded red velvet and tarnished ornate silver mounts and handles of typical late Rococo style. They presumably date from the 1760s when Isidro’s remains were brought to this church. Two straps of conservation tape keep the side of the box together and it is lined with white satin and what looks like acid-free tissue paper (my curator’s eye never misses these details!). The man himself lies open-mouthed with his head tilted to one side. Only one tooth remains, the rest have been removed as relics and his mid-section is modestly covered with the coat of arms of his home city. Flowers and bouquets surround the coffin and add colour to the somber spectacle.

After a brief trip to Almudena Cathedral (home of Madrid’s female patron, a statue of the Virgin of Almudena), San Isidro has now been hidden from our eyes once more. Although it’s likely to be a long time before the citizens of Madrid can see him again, Pope Francis has declared the next 12 months to be the Holy Year of San Isidro, so the events and activities should offer plenty of opportunities to pay tribute to this humble patron.

To see more objects and stories related to San Isidro and Maria, I’d recommend a visit to the Museum of San Isidro: The Origins of Madrid near La Latina.

Also check out my previous blog post: Toledo Bridge and San Isidro

Toledo Bridge and San Isidro

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Stroll down the hill from Puerta de Toledo and you can find the impressive and very decorative Toledo Bridge. This 180 metre long, nine arched structure, replaced two late 17th century wooden bridges, both destroyed by floods. It’s hard to imagine now, but the Manzanares river used to flood quite regularly until the canalisation works of the 20th century restricted the natural water flow. 

Built between 1718 and 1732, the bridge linked the main southern road out of Madrid with the city of Toledo, and provided a grand entrance into Carabanchel Alto where aristocrats had their summer mansions. The Spanish architect who designed it, Pedro De Ribera, also made the elaborate front entrance for the Hospital of San Fernando, now the Museum of the History of Madrid, and the Conde Duque barracks, now a cultural centre and library.

The bridge’s main decorative features are two limestone statues made in 1723 by the sculptor Juan Alonso Villabrille y Ron. They show the patron saint of Madrid, San Isidro, and his wife María. It’s appropriate that this statue is located on a bridge over the river as some of the miracles he is said to have performed are linked with water. 

Isidro de Merlo y Quintana was born in Madrid between 1070 and 1082 CE and spent his life as a farm labourer in the service of wealthy Madrilenian landowners, particularly Juan de Vargas who owned a lot of land along the river. Isidro was a devout Christian and shared what he had, even his meals, with the poor. 

He married Maria Torribia and they had one son called Illan. One day, their son fell into a deep well and at the prayers of his parents, the water of the well is said to have risen miraculously to the level of the ground, bringing the child with it, happily smiling and splashing away. This, the most famous of his miracles, is the one depicted in the statue on the bridge but is by no means the only one. While over 400 miracles have been attributed to him, only five actually happened when he was alive! These include praying while angels did his ploughing for him, multiplying the wheat supply and making a fountain of fresh water burst from the dry earth. 

He died around 1130 CE and was buried in a humble grave, but on April 2, 1212, after torrential rains had exposed bodies from several cemeteries in Madrid, his body was discovered in an apparent state of incorruptibility. Here is when the miracles really start to happen! In the same year his body was exposed,  Isidro is said to have appeared to Alfonso VIII of Castile as a shepherd, and guided his troops in a surprise attack against the Almohad army in the  Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, with this victory marking a turning point in the Christian ‘reconquest’ of Spain. 

Over the centuries the Spanish royal family would seek to be healed by his relics, including King Philip III of Spain who was cured of a deadly disease after touching the bones and as thanks replaced the old wooden reliquary with a costly silver one.  Hundreds of similar miracles later, Isidro was finally made a saint in 1622 and his remains are now in the San Isidro church on Calle de Toledo in the centre of Madrid. 

Tomorrow, the 15th of May, is his feast day, when Madrid has a huge party all across the city, but mainly focused on the San Isidro park on the south side of the Manzanares and visible from the Toldedo bridge. 
So do as the Madrileños do, grab your manila shawl, put a red carnation in your hair, enjoy a few rosquillas (tasty doughnuts with assorted toppings) and raise a glass to San Isidro!

It doesn’t even have to be water…..

The author in San Isidro mode, 2019