5 People in History Who Were Terrible at Their Jobs
Modern people see history through competency-colored glasses. It's the masterful art and architecture that gets treasured and passed down throughout the centuries, and this gives us present-day folk the impression that history, for all its faults in the bloodletting and witch-hunting departments, was at least packed with creative geniuses composing sonnets and constructing awesome cathedrals. Our own era, by comparison, is rich with bad Mario fan art and features your dad's failed patio extension that fell down when a butterfly landed on it.
In truth, though, history had just as many screw-ups and lazy people as we do now. And some of the stuff these failures produced makes Mario fan art look downright sublime. For example ...
Awful Taxidermy Has Been With Us Forever
The Internet has caused a terrible taxidermy explosion. Luckily not a literal explosion, because that would be pretty much the only thing that's scarier than terrible taxidermy in the first place, but online craft stores have introduced us to a world of people creatively molding dead rats and squirrels into clever poses without ever asking whether this is maybe against the laws of Earth and Heaven. For example, we know God has abandoned the world because this is currently available on Etsy:
Those of you who haven't finished your Christmas shopping yet can thank me in the comments.
Taxidermy by its nature will always be creepy. But at least in the past, before all this Etsy bullshit happened, it was somewhat dignified, right?
The Historical Awfulness
Nope. The glorious past presents us with this 18th-century taxidermy of a lion, now on display at Mariefred in Sweden:
King Frederick I of Sweden had been given the lion as a gift some time around 1731. He loved it so much, he wanted to stuffed after it died, so he hired a taxidermist, who had only the creature's pelt and bones to work with. People have tried to excuse the guy's leonine failure by pointing out that back then you couldn't just drive to a zoo to check what a living lion looks like. But come on -- lions have been appearing on flags and coats of arms since long before the 18th century: just try to imitate one of those, dude. Hell, he could have just found himself a nice fluffy cat and scaled up. Either would have produced something better than a stoned pedophile dog.
And the anonymous, lion-ruining taxidermist wasn't the only awful animal-stuffer in history. The 19th century had Walter Potter, who created weird tableaus of dead animals reenacting human scenes. Potter wasn't any good at stuff like "realism" or "getting the size of the animal right before trying to put a skin over it," but he sure could create creepy scenes of dead kittens getting married, and this made him so popular with Victorians that he was able to open his own museum.
And you thought the LOLCats thing was bad.
Ancient Architecture Didn't Always Stand Forever
America's housing-boom McMansions are already falling apart. And that's not surprising, because most houses today are constructed for quick profit, not in the hope of creating anything of lasting worth and value. It's a depressing sign of our shortsighted, get-rich-quick, capitalistic society.
Today, these kittens would be marrying each other only for the money.
It wasn't like this back in the day. After all, in Europe and elsewhere you can find buildings still standing after hundreds or thousands of years. In the past, people built shit that lasted. I'm trademarking that last sentence to use in an ad campaign for my nostalgic country-diner chain, so please don't steal it.
The Historical Awfulness
Except there was that one guy back in the 1st century who constructed an amphitheater so bad it makes those crumbling, weed-strewn McMansion tracts look like the Taj Mahal.
In the year 27, a guy named Atilius decided to construct a large amphitheater in the town of Fidenae, not far from Rome, in order to exhibit some good old-fashioned gladiatoring. Access to gladiator shows had been restricted during a recent emperor's reign, so locals flocked to the amphitheater like teenage girls to an all-nude One Direction concert. Which was unfortunate, because the amphitheater then collapsed, killing up to 20,000 people.
"I ALMOST SAW HIS PENIIIISSS!"
The disaster wasn't just bad luck: according to the historian Tacitus, the structure collapsed because Atilius failed to "lay a solid foundation and to frame the wooden superstructure with beams of sufficient strength." He'd deliberately rushed the amphitheater-construction job and built it dangerously big so he could make more money on entrance fees, and possibly so he could point suggestively to the building and drop hints about his crotch size. Atilius ended up banished, which doesn't really seem like that much of a punishment, because living in that town and having to avoid eye contact with all those piles of rotting corpses would be pretty awkward anyway.
OK, but you'd expect gladiator-related stuff to be pretty sketchy already, what with all the killing of innocents and weird Australian accents and such. What about the stuff that was taken really seriously, like religious buildings? Well, about that ...
Medieval Churches Are Riddled With Design Flaws
The modern world is good for a lot of things, but "beautiful religious buildings" is not one of them. Gone are the days of awesome Gothic cathedrals; today's churches often look more like DMV offices built in the 1970s while the architect was going through a bad divorce:
"Sorry, I have to stop here for a while. My soul is just so overwhelmed with the beauty of creation."
Things used to be different. Thanks to the deep devotion and skill of architects and builders, medieval churches have a beauty and symmetry that even the most ardent atheist would be compelled to tip his hat to.
The Historical Awfulness
Well, sometimes. Other times that deep devotion and skill looked more like this:
If these guys got their church-measurements wrong and couldn't fit in an arch where they thought they could, they just awkwardly squished it in there anyway and hoped no one noticed. See, the people designing these churches usually didn't work off scales or drawings, like the heathen architects of today: they mostly just dove in and built, and if that meant that an arch ended up looking like it had melted and fallen over, well, just be happy you're not in a Roman amphitheater.
Medieval Scribes Left Mean Comments on Each Other's Work
As you probably know, nobody in Europe got around to inventing the mechanical printing press until 1450, which was bad for things like "civilization" and "knowledge" and "passing down technology so we don't have to re-invent concrete." But it was good for producing art. Without a handy printer to distribute copies of your "Guide to How Much I Wish We Still Had Concrete," you had to rely on people sitting down and copying it beautifully by hand.
Printed books are nice, but how many come with awesome dragon drawings?
For a long time, this manuscript copying was done in monasteries, and the task was often given to the youngest monks, who had strong eyesight that allowed them to copy pages of text for hours in dim light. Many were barely teenagers, and yet they chose to devote themselves to God and to the propagation of knowledge. That's a big contrast to today. Hell, you can barely get college students to write an essay without plagiarizing half of it from an old textbook they found on the floor of the dorm restroom and that doesn't even cover the same subject, and all they have to do to write is hit buttons on a keyboard.
The Historical Awfulness
The margins of medieval manuscripts are scrawled with notes that anonymous scribes have left us, and these notes tell us that young people have stayed the same throughout history. In the notes, scribes complain about bad ink and poor tools, whine that "writing is excessive drudgery," and write about how much they wished they were drinking instead. At least young people today usually keep their complaints about college work to anonymous Tumblrs or whatever; these guys didn't even care that all of history would be able to see it.
I hope they at least checked the parchment's privacy settings.
Bitching about their companions was also big. One monk left us with an angry message about a shitty Bible translation he had to copy, while another scribe's writing starts with the words: "Cithruadh Magfindgaill wrote the above without chalk, without pumice, and with bad implements." Fucking Cithruadh, man, always messing shit up. I mean, have you ever met a nice person called Cithruadh? Me neither.
And speaking of religious vigor ...
Artists Regularly Blamed God for Their Mistakes
When I was growing up, we had a Persian carpet in our living room. I once asked my father about why the pattern changed in one corner of the rug, and he told me that the people who had woven the carpet had inserted the "mistake" deliberately. It would be wrong to make a perfect rug, he explained, "because only god is perfect." He then made the same excuse for that weird gray color the rug had after not having been vacuumed in a few years.
"You want me to clean up that place where the cat threw up on it? What is this,
the eternal realm of paradise?"
The same story is often repeated about all kinds of Islamic artwork, as well as about traditional Amish art: artists were said to leave "humility squares," or deliberately mismatched patches on their quilts, to remind themselves that perfection belongs only to the divine. Presumably the only perfect quilt was the quilt Adam had on his bed in the Garden of Eden, and it would just be wrong to try to imitate that quilt. That quilt was probably sewed with unicorn hair and it turned you invisible when you wanted it to.
The Historical Awfulness
Deliberate imperfections are a charming story, but those mistakes you see on Persian rugs and old quilts? They're probably just mistakes. One woman who actually researched the story about Amish humility squares found that Amish people reacted in horror when she brought it up: to them, adding deliberate mistakes seemed like an act of extreme egotism, implying that the only reason you weren't like God was because you chose not to be. The idea of deliberate imperfections in Islamic art is disputed as well, especially since it's easy to find oodles of Islamic art without any evidence of deliberate imperfections at all.
"It looks nice and all, but have you considered getting a cat to throw up on it?"
Nope, a far more likely explanation is that the artists who made these quilts and rugs and tiles were like us: they made mistakes, not because they were feeling super religious but because they were tired or distracted by a squirrel or just really sick of making quilts that day.
So why did these rumors about folk-art mistakes start? Think about it: you're a craftsman showing off his tile work to the rich guy who commissioned it, and he points out that you put in a tile upside down in one spot, and the gorgeous calligraphy near the ceiling now reads GROD IS GREAT. What better way to deal with it than to insist that you were just being really, really pious? The rich guy doesn't want to seem like he's out of touch with your down-to-Earth spirituality, so he accepts that explanation. Soon, he's boasting to his friends that the mistake on that wall is all due to one man's mighty devotion to Grod.
C. Coville's new book, One-Star Reviews, is available RIGHT NOW. She also has a Twitter here.
For more from C. Coville, check out 4 Ways to Spot an Internet Bullshit Artist. And then check out Recruitment Posters for the Worst Jobs Ever.
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