How the World’s Only Feudal Lord Outclassed the Nazis to Save Her People

Housewife, Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Housewife, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Germany invaded the Isle of Sark—the last foothold of feudalism in the western world—Dame Sibyl Hathaway protected her people with the unlikeliest of weapons: Feudal etiquette, old-world manners, and a dollop of classic snobbery.

Dame Sibyl Hathaway had 275 Nazi prisoners on her hands and knew exactly what she wanted to do with them.

It was May 1945. Five years earlier, Germany had invaded Hathaway’s home in the British Channel Islands, a tiny isle of 400 called Sark. Despite having no modern defense network or fancy gun emplacements—it didn’t even have electricity—Sark had proven itself to be uniquely prepared for its unwelcome visitors. The island had an advantage that the rest of Europe had discarded centuries earlier: feudalism.

The Isle of Sark was the western world’s last fief. For 400 years, it had faithfully followed 16th century Norman law, and 61-year-old Dame Sibyl (as her subjects called her) served as their feudal overlord. She once defended the institution of feudalism by saying, “What is good enough for William the Conqueror is good enough for us."

Now, just one week after Hitler had killed himself, Dame Sibyl walked down a steep, dusty path toward Sark’s main harbor to meet the British “liberation.” Around her, the island’s meadows appeared to bloom in celebration.

The Dame greeted a group of British soldiers and led them to the Nazi’s island headquarters to discuss the terms of surrender. As Lieutenant Colonel K. Allen questioned the German Kommandant, Dame Sibyl translated everything into German. When Allen finished his interrogation, he turned to the Dame.

“I can’t leave any troops here because so far only a token force has been landed in Guernsey,” Allen explained, referring to the island seven miles west of Sark. He was hesitant to continue. “Would you mind being left for a few days, or would you prefer to go to Guernsey with me?”

Dame Sybil fought the urge to roll her eyes. She had been fending off the Nazis without any help from England since the war started. Why would she need help now? “As I have been left for nearly five years,” she said, “I can stand a few more days.”

With that, the liberation team departed and Dame Sybil regained control over not just her island, but a new legion of German vassals.

You could argue that she had been controlling them the whole time.

 

Dame Sibyl once wrote that Sark is “an oasis of quiet and rest, unique in the present-day world.”

Perched 350 feet above the English Channel, the island is a precipitous tableland blanketed by rolling pastures and a kaleidoscope of wildflowers. Narrow dirt lanes, walled in by tall hedgerows, sit shaded under the tunneled canopies of trees. On a clear day, you can peer across the island, past teams of grazing sheep and Guernsey cattle, and look onto a watery horizon that melts into the sky.

The place is a time capsule. Cars are banned. Residents get around by bicycle, and the local ambulance and fire trucks are pulled by tractors. With little noise pollution, the island’s soundscape is a symphony of coastal winds, crashing waves, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages, and the rustle of waving fields bursting with whimsically named flowers: foxgloves, toadflax, dog violets, and oxeye daisies. Since there are no streetlights on Sark, the Milky Way gleams on moonless nights.

Little Sark
iStock/Allard1

Along Sark’s coast, farmland cedes to golden slopes of gorse, which flirt with balding cliffs that tumble hundreds of feet into churning turquoise seas. Along the shoals, clouds of gulls scream, purple jellyfish bob, and the occasional puffin waddles. The island is tiny—only three miles long and 1.5 miles wide—but has so many nooks and crannies that it boasts 42 miles of coastline. When the strong tidal stream recedes, a wonderland of anemone-filled coves and caves is revealed.

Victor Hugo, who visited Sark when he took exile in the Channel Islands in 1872, wrote that, “The island is a meadow and I work like an ox there. I do not graze there, however, though I gorge myself on flowers and dew … this beauty is absurd.” Four years later, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne agreed, calling it, “On the whole the loveliest and wonderfullest thing I ever saw.”

People have lived on this tranquil island as far back as 2000 BCE. Legend has it that, in the 6th century, Saint Magloire brought religion to Sark while riding the back of a sea monster. In the 13th century, the island became the property of the English Crown but remained mostly deserted (with the exception of a few "pirates, thieves, brigands, murderers, and assassins," François Rabelais wrote in the 1530s). In 1565, Helier de Carteret cleaned up the place after he earned Queen Elizabeth I’s permission to establish a fief there, bringing 40 families—most of them from the nearby island of Jersey. Each family received a parcel of land, called a tenement, and to this day Sark's plots bear old names in Norman French: La Varouque, La Sablonnerie, La Moinerie.

Culturally and politically, Sark has changed very little since then. It, along with the three other major British Channel Islands—Guernsey, Jersey, and Alderney—are possessions of the British Crown, yet each island remains politically independent of the United Kingdom. (On Sark, there is no income tax, no welfare, and no help from the National Health Service.) During Dame Sibyl’s lifetime, homes were lit with oil lamps and water had to be pumped from a well or catchment. Anybody who wanted a warm bath had to light a fire by their tub. And most residents spoke a unique patois called Serquais, a remnant of the Norman French brought there by the island’s original settlers.

When Germany invaded in 1940, many of the descendants of those original 40 settlers still lived on Sark. Heirs to more than four centuries of feudal rule, they had no intention of abandoning their island or their way of life. This was especially true of Dame Sibyl, who had been groomed to become the island’s leader since she was a little girl.

As it turned out, the strict feudal etiquette she had spent her life practicing would become a potent weapon, a tool for bending the occupiers to her will.

 

On the morning of June 9, 1940, Dame Sibyl Hathaway looked across her island and saw the horizon obscured by billows of black smoke.

Twenty-five miles east, on the coast of France, oil storage tanks spewed flames. Weeks earlier, the Wehrmacht had penetrated the Maginot line, the bulwark of trenches and fortifications separating France from Germany. Now, as the occupation of France looked inevitable, the people of Normandy were sabotaging their own oil reserves.

For Dame Sibyl, it was a private smoke signal. If Normandy fell, Sark would follow. (She knew the Germans would be hungry to occupy the Channel Islands; it was a chance to sow propaganda about controlling “British” territory.) As rumors swirled about evacuations, Dame Sibyl took the ferry to Guernsey to see how the second biggest Channel Island was preparing.

The air was thick with panic. There were lines everywhere: Lines at stores as people frantically bought suitcases, lines at the bank as people attempted to withdraw money, lines at the dock as people pushed onto boats bound for England. Possessed by the chaos, islanders buried heirlooms in their gardens. Hundreds of expectant evacuees swarmed the veterinary clinic in an attempt to put their beloved pets to sleep.

The Channel Islands, the Dame soon learned, would be demilitarized—they weren’t even going to put up a fight. In just one week, approximately 17,000 people would evacuate Guernsey alone. The commotion appalled Dame Sibyl so deeply that, on the trip back to Sark, she “made up my mind how best I could protect my own people.”

According to old Norman Law, Sark’s tenants were sworn to protect the island from foreign invaders—in fact, custom required each landowner to own a musket—but that old precept felt laughably anachronistic in the face of a Nazi invasion. (In 1887, a journalist had described Sark’s so-called militia as little more than “seven dozen pairs of boots.”)

Sark
Lucas Reilly

But Dame Sibyl worried that Sark could crumble if too many people evacuated the island. The gist of feudalism, after all, is that it's self-sufficient: If everybody on Sark stuck together, the Dame reasoned, life could go on.

Shortly after returning from Guernsey, she called a meeting and told the inhabitants that she had decided to stay—and asked the islanders to remain as well.

“I am not promising you that it will be easy,” she told them. “We may be hungry but we will always have our cattle and crops, our gardens, a few pigs, our sheep and rabbits.”

The Dame understood that not everybody might sign on and promised to arrange for anybody's departure, if they so wished.

Of those born on Sark, not one person left.

 

Just one week after the Channel Islands were officially demilitarized, three German military planes barreled over Sark, hurtled toward Guernsey, and bombed that island's capital of St. Peter Port. Thirty-eight civilians died. Dame Sibyl watched as the planes arced over the Channel and aimed for her home. Bullets pelted Sark's harbors, but nobody was hurt.

The following day, the telephone line connecting Sark and Guernsey fell silent. Three days after that, on July 3, 1940, a lifeboat arrived at Sark’s main harbor. The Germans had arrived—and the Dame made her first move in a subtle game of political one-upmanship.

Sark’s coastline is foreboding. In the Middle Ages, pirates and privateers would circle the island's bluffs looking for a place to dock, only to declare it unreachable. Today, visitors can be carried up a steep lane by a tractor-pulled wagon affectionately named the “Toast Rack.” In Dame Sibyl’s day, horses lugged the passengers up. But not on the day the Nazis arrived. Dame Sibyl resolved that she would not go to meet the Germans; they would come to her—and they would walk.

As the Nazi officers hiked, Dame Sibyl waited in her royal residence, a stone mansion known as La Seigneurie, and talked strategy with her husband, Bob. “Let’s take a leaf out of Mussolini's book,” she told him. They placed two chairs behind a desk at the far end of the drawing room, which would force the officers to walk the whole length of the room. It was a small power move, but they needed every trick they could muster. The Dame advised her maid to announce the Germans as if they were any other villager.


Chris Jackson, Getty Images

Dame Sibyl later wrote in her autobiography, The Dame of Sark, that she was “determined that this island, at least, should show a front of firmness and dignity and give the impression that we were taking everything in our stride in the firm conviction that we would make the best of a bad time which we were convinced would not endure long.”

When the Germans arrived, the officers wiped their boots on the doormat outside. Dame Sibyl glanced at her husband with relief. Just from the sound of their feet, she could tell that the men about to enter her house were aristocrats—the way they wiped their boots was a sign of respect.

As luck would have it, the Channel Islands attracted a disproportionate number of Germany’s uniformed aristocrats. The islands were a relatively safe spot for Germany’s most privileged soldiers, who were naturally attracted to staying in a bygone place where inheritance still equaled influence. “That the German nobles would have felt a particular affinity with a place where pre-modern feudal rule was still partially intact is an inescapable conclusion,” Paul Sanders wrote in The British Channel Islands Under German Occupation.

This arrangement, however, would play into Dame Sibyl’s hands.

The maid announced the men’s arrival. Two officers, draped in dark green, introduced themselves and told Dame Sibyl that they had come to establish some rules. There would be a curfew at 11 p.m.; no groups larger than five were allowed in the streets; all pubs were to be closed; all arms were to be confiscated; and no boats were allowed to leave the harbor.

Hearing this, Dame Sibyl nodded: Bitte hinsetzen, she said, asking them to sit. She continued speaking in German: "I will see that these orders are obeyed."

There was a moment of stunned silence. The German officers, dumbfounded by the Dame’s command of their language, were immediately flustered.

“You do not appear to be in the least afraid,” one officer said.

Without hesitation, Dame Sibyl replied tartly, “Is there any reason why I should be afraid of German officers?”

This, after all, was her island.

 

For the past 400 years, the Isle of Sark had been ruled by a "Lord of the Manor" called a Seigneur or Dame, who pledges allegiance to, and rents the island from, the King or Queen of England. The Seigneur or Dame holds the island in perpetual fief, and rents out 40 parcels, or tenements, to 40 different residents called tenants, who can rent pieces of each parcel to lower-ranked islanders. For centuries, these 40 landowners made up the island’s parliament, called Chief Pleas, with the Seigneur or Dame presiding as a quasi-dictator.

"It may seem undemocratic that most members hold their seats by right of property," Deputy John La Trobe Bateman told National Geographic in 1971, "but we are perhaps the world's best-represented community. With our population of 575, we have one legislator for every 11 people."


Hulton Archive, Getty Images

As the island's leader, Dame Sibyl’s job came with privileges that would have made Hitler drool. According to the original Letters Patent, she controlled:

"All of its rights, members, liberties and appurtenances, and all and singular castles, fortresses, houses, buildings, structures ruined with their fragments, lands, meadows, pastures, commons, wastes, woods, waters watercourses, ponds, fees, rents reversions, services ... vicarages, chapels or churches, and also all manner of tithes, oblations, fruits, inventions, mines, quarries, ports, shores, rocks, wrecks of the sea, shipwrecks, farms, fee farms, knight’s fees, wards, marriages ... fugitives or pirates, or felons de se, out-laws, of persons put exigent, and the forfeited or confiscated goods of persons condemned or convinced any other way whatsoever; also all forfeitures, paunages, free warrens, courts leet, views of frankpledge, assize and assay of bread, wine and beer; all fairs, markets, customs, rights of tolls, jurisdictions, liberties, immunities, exemptions, franchises, privileges, commodities, profits, emoluments, and all of the Queen’s heredits..."

And so on.

And none of that counted the specific privileges afforded to Dame Sibyl by ancient Norman common law. When a property was sold, she was entitled to one-thirteenth of the purchase price, called a la troisieme. For every chimney, she was entitled to a tax paid in chickens. For every harvest, she was owed a tenth sheaf of corn, apples, flax, hemp, or beans. She claimed ownership of every bit of flotsam and jetsam that washed ashore. Only she could keep pigeons or an unspayed dog. (Dame Sibyl’s was named Maxine.) She also had to pay the Queen for the privilege of running the island. But since the figure was never adjusted for inflation after being set in the 16th century, the cost to rule Sark was just £1.79.

The islanders were also subjected to a buffet of centuries-old common laws. There was, of course, the rule on muskets. Divorce was illegal. Government officials were required to juggle multiple jobs (with the constable running double-duty as the island's chief beetle inspector). Tenants were required to spend two unpaid days a year repairing the island's roads. Most amusingly, if an islander ever felt that he or she was wronged by a neighbor, they could drop to their knees and recite the Clameur de Haro, an ancient injunction that involves yelling, “Haro! Haro! Haro! À l'aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort!” followed by the Lord’s Prayer in French. Legally, the offender had to report to the constable.

To say the least, Sark’s residents have never been keen about outsiders barging in and trying to change their way of life. One time during Dame Sibyl’s reign, the island hired a new doctor who brought a car, insisting it was vital for medical emergencies. Islanders and the Chief Pleas treated the offense with the kind of hellfire one might expect of a murder trial. They determined that the car could stay—but only if it were drawn by a horse.

“That’s just the way Sark has always been,” Margaret Langlois, a resident for the past 27 years, explains. “The attitude here is: If you don’t like it, you know where the boat is.”

 

The Dame’s complete control over the happenings in Sark wasn’t her only power over the Germans. Her name was in the Almanach de Gotha, a German directory that listed all of Europe’s most important royals and nobility—a who’s who of the continent’s aristocrats.

“She was aristocratic and came to understand that the Germans in command were also aristocratic,” Sark’s current Seigneur, Christopher Beaumont, tells Mental Floss. “They connected on that level. And it would allow conversations to go on that probably couldn’t have happened had their statuses been different.”

From her opening interaction, Dame Sibyl immediately realized that any fantasies about armed insurrection would be useless. Rather, her greatest weapon would be decorum. For the rest of the war, she put on an air of exceedingly stuffy social graces. She would never approach a German, but expect him to approach her. Before allowing a Nazi to take a seat in her home, she reportedly demanded that he bow and kiss her hand.

As she’d later write in The Dame of Sark, “The stiff German formality worked in my favor because it showed the Germans that I expected to be treated in my home with the rigid etiquette to which they were accustomed in their own country.” These social conventions successfully eroded her new visitors’ confidence and gave her the upper hand when they began mulling policies that threatened her people’s lives.

At first, Dame Sibyl found small ways to get under the occupiers' skin. In her sitting room, she deliberately placed anti-fascist books at eye-level. Sometimes she’d innocently ask the soldiers why they were taking so long to conquer Russia. She regularly fired shots at the Nazi sense of ethnic superiority with backhanded compliments. (When she learned that the Germans had bought all the tweed in Guernsey and were planning to ship it to Britain for tailoring, she told them: “No one can deny that English and Scotch tweeds are the best in the world ... or that London tailors are vastly superior to those in any other country.”)

Dame Sibyl knew that, in aristocratic circles, the artifice of polite conversation meant everything—and her words could work like a psychological water torture experiment. Each little statement was harmless alone, but over the course of weeks and months, these constant drops of rhetorical acid helped her assert dominance and compelled many German officers to drop their guard. As she'd write, “In the course of polite conversation I was often able to acquire useful information which would not otherwise have been available."

Sark's residents followed the Dame's lead. When the Germans tried to implement a bureaucracy that threatened the island's feudal self-sufficiency—demanding that fishermen only go out to sea from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., accompanied by an armed guard—they responded with their own subtle shows of disrespect. Sometimes fishermen "forgot" to appear at the docks during the approved fishing times, leaving their German chaperones waiting alone at the harbor. Other times, fishermen deliberately steered into giant swells, soaking the landlubbing Nazis and making them seasick. Even the children played tricks, stringing invisible wires across the road to trip Germans riding bicycles.

Sark
Lucas Reilly

But war, of course, is more than a game of pranks. All of Sark’s radios would eventually be confiscated, leaving most residents clueless as to what was happening off the island. Dame Sibyl, for instance, had a hazy idea that the Luftwaffe were bombing London, but she didn’t know about the bombings in Bristol, Birmingham, or Belfast.

She also didn’t know that her eldest son, Buster, was long dead—killed during the blitz of Liverpool.

 

By summer 1941, as more enemy troops moved onto the Channel Islands, the Germans started hoarding a disproportionate amount of the island’s produce. Sark's islanders began to suffer. The Sarkese began making “tobacco” from dried clover and fruit leaves; “tea” with dried peapods steeped in hot water; “coffee” with grated barley, dried sugar beet, and parsnips. Every meal included lobster. “When lobster is the main dish day after day, month in month out, let me assure you that you become heartily sick of the sight of it,” Dame Sibyl wrote.

The Dame fought these restrictions with a healthy dose of do-you-know-who-I-am? To get what she wanted, she schmoozed with the aristocratic officers: Colonel Graf von Schmettow, Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Islands, who was friends with Germany’s exiled Kaiser; Freiherr von Aufsess, the Chief of Civil Administration, who was indirectly connected to the Dame through a marriage of cousins; Prince Oettingen, the Kommandant of Civil Administration, who shared mutual friends with the Dame back in Germany. Whenever troops on Sark gave Dame Sibyl gruff, she simply went over their heads to these “friends.”

“If the lower classes made any attempt to bully me or my people I knew full well that neither they nor I would show any sign of cringing,” she wrote. She was able to end a handful of disputes by simply asking: Who is your superior?

“Because the social conventions were so strong, she was treated with much more deference than we would get treated with now,” Seigneur Beaumont says.

Weaponizing etiquette truly had its charms. When von Schmettow’s son died on the Russian front, Dame Sibyl sent him a sympathy card, a gesture Von Schmettow never forgot. So later, when Sark risked being slapped with steeper rations, von Schmettow fought the cuts on the Dame’s behalf. And when Sark’s German doctor was murdered by a fellow German soldier, the Dame’s relationship with Prince Oettingen ensured that the island received a replacement immediately. “She essentially used social protocol to broker deals,” Beaumont says.

Some policies, however, were beyond Dame Sibyl’s control. "Natural factors limit the number of people who can live on Sark," Beaumont says. "If we've got close to 1000 people here, we could start running out of water." In October 1941, 300 German soldiers were sent to the island, putting a significant strain on the island's resources.

Things got worse as the war heated up. The following year, British commandos raided Sark, killing two German officers and taking one prisoner. The Germans retaliated, placing barbed wire around Sark’s perimeter and laying more than 13,000 landmines, which made it impossible for the islanders to launch their fishing boats, collect the gorse they needed for fuel, or gather seaweed they used for fertilizing fields. Soon, rabbits discovered that the minefields were a great place to breed—and the island's crops were decimated by the ensuing bunny boom.

Then Germany decided to deport all of Sark’s British citizens.

According to some accounts, Dame Sibyl convinced the Germans that most of Sark’s people were, in fact, not British, but Channel Islanders. This little game of semantics appears to have worked: Of the 400 islanders, the list of deportees was reduced to just 11 people.

In February 1943, a more indiscriminate round of deportations was ordered by the Nazi brass in Berlin. Two additional roundups targeted 50 people, including Dame Sibyl’s husband Bob, an American citizen, who was sent to Laufen prison camp in France. (Bob maintained his resistance in prison: He smoked a pipe during the daily parade; stood at ease when he was called to attention; and snuck secret doses of liquor.)

It's difficult to quantify how well Dame Sibyl's networking had helped in reducing the number of deportations. We do know, however, that Prince Oettingen, who considered the Dame a friend, was so outspoken in his opposition to the deportations that he was eventually removed from his post.

Now alone, Dame Sibyl doubled down on her attempts to make the occupiers feel like incompetent fools. One of the most amusing stories occurred during the spring of 1943. At the time, Sark’s Guernsey cattle were still producing half a pint of milk per head, which the island’s farmers secretly skimmed before handing over to the Germans. When the Germans complained to Dame Sibyl that they couldn't make butter with the milk, she showed up to their headquarters dressed in traditional butter-churning overalls and proceeded to give such a confusing and patronizing lecture on the art of butter-making that they were too embarrassed to ever complain again.

For the rest of the war, the Germans were left scratching their heads in bewilderment as they tried making butter from skim milk.

 

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Dame Sibyl groggily woke to the rumble of bombers flying overhead and the thundering of heavy guns off the French coast. Later that morning, as she drank a cup of what could euphemistically be called coffee, the island’s German doctor visited and, in hushed tones, told her that the Allies had invaded Normandy.

All the ships and planes had bypassed the Channel Islands.

D-Day
Keystone, Getty Images

As Allied troops pressed into France, island life turned bleak. Winston Churchill refused to send any food to the Channel Islands, insisting that Germany was responsible for providing sustenance to lands it occupied. But the Germans didn’t provide for the people of Sark—the people of Sark provided for the Germans. Feudalism, the Dame learned, didn't work smoothly when hundreds of moochers were hoarding all the provisions.

Indeed, by winter, even the Germans were feeling pinched. Chickens, pigs, cats, and dogs started disappearing. The Germans demanded that all of Sark’s stored grain, plus 90 percent of all potatoes, be funneled into their coffers.

For the Dame, this crossed a line. Instead of complying, she helped launch a clandestine operation to steal back what was, according to feudal law, rightfully hers. One evening, as the Germans were preoccupied with their dinner, the Dame and a crew of conspirators stole a half-ton of wheat from the village hall, which they hid in her barn. Meanwhile, they secretly hoarded potatoes under a trap door in her drawing room. The loot was secretly distributed in to residents in rations.

The months crawled until Hitler finally died. On May 8, 1945, the commanding Germans demanded that Dame Sibyl hand over Sark’s cattle and 200 tons of timber for fuel. Instead, she flew the British and American flags from her tower and joined the islanders as they lit a bonfire in celebration.

By this point, there were 275 German soldiers stationed on Sark, but after the arrival—and departure—of the British liberation team, Dame Sibyl had become their commander. As she began giving orders, a British officer observed that she acted, "more forceful than any army officer and more than equal to any German Kommandant."

First, the Dame demanded they establish a telephone line connecting her house to Guernsey. Then she ordered the Germans to return all the confiscated wireless radios and to remove all 13,500 landmines. She insisted that each prisoner repeat her commands and relished hearing the soldiers say: “Zu Befehl, Gnädige Frau”—"At your command, madam."

Over the coming months, German POWs completed a series of construction projects, building a protected concrete path over a narrow isthmus connecting the southern half of the island; repairing and redecorating the homes they had occupied; and resurfacing the island’s roads. They also removed rusty roll-bombs dangling from wires over Sark’s harbors.

One day, Dame Sibyl received a call from Sark’s ex-Kommandant informing her that one of those bombs had exploded. Two German prisoners were killed.

In that moment, the courtly facade of manners the Dame had maintained so firmly for five years finally crumbled. She said what was exactly on her mind.

“Ach, So?”

 

For much of the war, Sark’s people resented Dame Sibyl for asking them to stay. That changed when they learned about the neighboring island of Alderney.

Similar to Sark in size and culture, Alderney was completely evacuated days after the bombing of Guernsey—and the Nazis went on to destroy it. They dismantled Alderney’s homes for firewood. They constructed ugly concrete fortifications, bunkers, air raid shelters, and gun emplacements and built two work camps and two concentration camps. They killed the last Alderney cow, rendering the unique breed—which only lived on the island—extinct. The occupation had a similar effect on the island’s unique dialect, Auregnais: The displacement of Alderney’s people killed the language.

After the war, Alderney was rebuilt from scratch, and most returning residents abandoned any relics of old Norman politics. Today, Alderney has recovered—but it is relatively dense with cars and homes. (Despite being the same size as Sark, it’s home to five times as many people.) The island is still beautiful, but the old-world culture and atmosphere that made it unique has disappeared.

Had Sark’s people left, the island may have suffered a similar fate.

That’s not to say Sark hasn't changed. Today, the chimney tax is gone. (Dame Sibyl got annoyed when islanders began paying with their wimpiest chickens.) Few, if any, of the old grain-based tithes are collected, and the island’s agricultural industry has dwindled to favor tourism. The stringent rules on divorce have been modernized and the island’s language, Serquais, is down to its last five speakers. Most drastically, in 2008, Sark’s feudal politics was abolished in favor of democracy, a decision that stripped the landowning class—and all future seigneurs and dames—of their power.

The feudal system of land tenure, however, remains intact. There is still no freehold on Sark, which ensures that the 40 tenements retain their quaint, rural charm. The seigneur, who occupies a more ceremonial role, remains the island’s chief tenant, with perpetual fief owed to the Queen. (The method of payment, however, has been modernized; today, Seigneur Christopher Beaumont—Dame Sibyl’s great grandson—pays Queen Elizabeth II £1.79 through an online bank transfer.) And some of the old Norman laws are still enforced: The Seigneur still owns all of the island’s pigeons.

Whatever charm Sark has retained, much of it is owed to Dame Sibyl. Every deported islander would survive the war, and nearly all of them would return to Sark, where the Dame's steadfast leadership brought the island back to its old routines. The return of normalcy could be seen most clearly through the prism of local politics, where, once again, the quaintest moves to modernize were treated with unbridled hysteria.

Take when an aging Dame Sibyl, battling arthritis and a bum hip, decided to bring an electric mobility scooter onto Sark. It might as well have been Watergate.

But Dame Sybil won that battle, too. What had been true during the German occupation remained true later. As she put it: “I usually got my way.”

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

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