Big Bang Theory, 1566: The Nerd with the Golden Nose

tycho braheMaybe Cousin Manderup was “in his spot”. Maybe it was Fermat’s Next-to-Last Theorem proving that 2 + 2 = 5 ? Fact is that a squabble among freshman nerds at the theology professor’s house ended in an ugly injury that made one of the geeks almost as famous for his rhinoplasty as for his scientific discoveries…

—by J. Christoph Amberger

The 10th of December 1566 fell on a Saturday, a day as good as any to celebrate a wedding at the prof’s house in Rostock.

The 36-year-old Lucas Bacmeister was a man of some standing. He had been made Professor of Theology at the University of Rostock a few years before and was the Lutheran Superintendent of the city. He had an attractive, half-Spanish wife and two rug rats (who were later to become famed theologists and doctors on their own merits). Just why exactly he had invited two outlander freshmen from the astronomy department to the dance we will never know.

Chances are that Bacmeister regretted his generosity that very evening.

Dang foreigners

Because at the dance, a young Danish nerd by the name of Tyge Ottesen Brahe got into a heated argument with his third-degree cousin, Manderup Parsberg. Brahe, not quite twenty years old that night, had only been in Rostock for three months. Four days before his 20th birthday, you’d think he might’ve hit the Glühwein too hard or at least been upset that Cousin Mandy was moving in on one of the pretty teenage girls he had his own eye on.

But no. True to form, the quarrel was about a math problem.

(Some moderns say it was Fermat’s Next-to-Last Theorem—which would’ve been quite some feat, considering Fermat wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of his grandfather that night…)

Whatever it was, it must have been something. All we know for sure is that the two Danes, lacking old man Tuborg’s handy ammunition to settle minor spats, got into it again on the 27th of December.

This time, it went so badly that they decided to duke it out once and for all: Two days later, on the night of Dec. 29, they met in the dark, each armed with a rapier.

The scribes are silent what exactly went on during the encounter. Much like generations of Germanic students after them, however, one of them emerged from the fight with an ugly facial wound: Tycho Brahe received a cut across his face that took off part of his nose. More specifically, the blade hit in a way it removed part of the bridge of his nose, leaving the tip and nostrils in place.

Gesundheit!

Now, generations of non-HEMA historians have mentioned the dark as a main factor of this outcome. We don’t quite buy it, because if you have two days to line up seconds for a duel proper, you do consider the time of day you’re about to meet. And in northern Germany, at the close of the year, you don’t really pick an outdoor location for a duel at rapiers, especially when it’s supposed to take place at night.

Because it’s cold. And it’s dark.

Even an astronomy nerd would have some sense to provide for a lantern or two, or a barn or secluded inn.

Given that a pair of Northern duelist born and bred to the unpleasant conditions of the North German winter wouldn’t have chosen to meet in the dark and cold, the result of the duel provides some exciting opportunity to interpret:

The nature of this injury just invites the speculative curiosity of easily entertained xiphomachophiliacs.  Because during a fight with swords, a frontal or even semi-frontal alignment of the fencers, combined with the length of the weapons, makes the opponent’s nose an improbable target for cuts.

Nose to the grindstone: Tycho Brahe and his famous rhinoplasty

Nose to the grindstone: Tycho Brahe and his famous rhinoplasty

Judging from Brahe’s famous rhinoplasty—he wore a metal plate glued over the hole—the blade hit the bridge of the nose at an angle. The cut must have come obliquely from above, cutting down through both bone and cartilage and then, with an outward twist, carving out a chip of soft tissue. (Had it been a drawn upward cut, chances are the blade would have lodged in the bone without exiting, taken out the tip of the nose, or at least not carried off a chunk of flesh.) The outbound deviation of the blade’s path may indicate a rather long blade with a thin, flat foible flexible enough to slightly twist around its lateral axis.

Did Tycho Brahe and his cousin fight based on the Spanish method?

Did Tycho Brahe and his cousin fight based on the Spanish method?

The nature of the injury indicates that Brahe may have positioned himself toward his cousin aligned sideways, with his feet parallel at a right angle to his extended sword arm. A natural tendency in this position is to allow the head to turn back toward its natural, frontal orientation—thereby exposing the nose that would have been unreachable in the full frontal alignment of the classic and modern fencing positions. Could this indicate that the Brahe cousins fought based on the Spanish method?

Of course, deriving fencing methods from the usually haphazard nature of injuries is mere conjecture. For all we know the wound could have been caused in a wild and unscientific corps-a-corps. All we can say for sure is that Tycho’s trademark nose became as famous as his astrology and his bladder. The only major let-down for the fencing historian is that chronology doesn’t allow us to connect Tycho and his later patron, King Christian IV of Denmark with another fencing icon and contemporary: Salvator Fabris, Tycho’s senior by a mere two years, was Christian’s fencing master from 1601-1606. Tycho, however, died on 24 October 1601—in Prague.

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