In the middle of the 16th Century, there lived a young man who dreamed of becoming the city of Antwerp’s greatest cobbler. And, at the height of his success, he would indeed come to cobble many a willing customer.
His story, long considered too bizarre and sexually charged to be true, has been granted new life through historic inquiry. Now readers may finally come to grips with this lost chapter in the legacy of old Europe, as slippery as it is infamous.
IN THE TIME OF Charles V, by the grace of God, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, and of all Spains, and of Italy, etc., etc., there lived a cobbler in the Duchy of Brabant, a humble but wealthy province (of which our Charles was also — that’s right — sovereigns). Having learned his trade from Master Barnebas, who had once been renowned throughout the region, the cobbler in question set up shop in the grand old town of Antwerp. The young man left behind his little village upstream of the River Scheldt to embrace the wider world and, though he did not know it at the time, this decision would be a boon to his business beyond imagining.
The passing of old Master Barnebas proved no great source of grief for the man we shall style (for dignity’s sake) simply the Cobbler. Everyone knew of Barnebas’ illness because he would inform every, single passerby that the swelling of his ankles caused him great discomfort. In fact, for fear of his taking the Lord’s name in vain and thus potentially corrupting innocent minds, mothers took to stuffing their children’s ears with celery stalks, candle wax, and all manner of household items and foodstuffs. For the sake of the malleable brains of the village youths, it is well that the Lord took Barnebas when He did.
Regarding the matter of his master’s transcendence to Heaven, our Cobbler’s feelings were shaped primarily by his inheritance of a tidy sum of money. The deceased had been a childless widower and, for better or worse, thought of his apprentice like a son, albeit a wayward one.
With funds in purse and spring in step, the newly minted Journeyman of the Cobbler’s Guild of Brabant rented a plot near the major wharf, hoping to drum up the custom of sailors and doxies both. Money is money: such became the Cobbler’s motto.
He met his eighteenth birthday with glee, as he had no siblings to speak of and his extended family had long since been raised to their own Eternal Rewards. Most had been taken by a sudden eruption of plague whose persistence in northern Christendom rivaled in harmfulness only the calamity of the Jews’ continued existence.
Being a man of means in the prime of his life, the Cobbler felt inclined to treat himself by marking the occasion of his birthday with the most special sort of celebration. It must be stated in his defense that his decision to spend a sizable portion of his inheritance from old Master Barnebas on the company of a charming if somewhat agèd woman, who went by the name of “Hilda,” was made spontaneously and with heated haste. On the other hand, his decision to drink the remaining gilders of that inheritance away, toasting his own good health, had been planned for months, even before the old master had kicked the bucket.
At any rate, Hilda, who by all appearances dyed her hair with mud and seaweed (the salt covering up other odors, possibly), and who walked with a slight hunch, favoring her left side, bared the majority of her pale bosom, which caught the gleam of a nearby lamppost in a manner most pleasing to the Cobbler. Before he could so much as hiccup, he became irritated that so lovely a pair of snowy, soft mounds should be eclipsed by that ugly, dusty, and ill-fitting corset. The sudden and powerful urge to remove said offending corset, and her ruffled, blackened lace skirts and leggings along with it, consumed him. The required sum had already materialized in his perspiring palm even as Hilda extended her own hand in proposition.
Let us restate that the Cobbler was a very young man, adding that he had always lacked in guidance. His father had spent any leisure hours, which were few, drowning himself in spirits. Thrown from Jungfrau peak in the Alps southeast of Bern, in the Old Swiss Confederacy, the Cobbler’s mother had passed when he was but three years old. We have already alluded to the fact that the rest of his tribe had died spewing black, slimy pus from mouth, eye, and armpit. Thus, as one might assume of a boy who boasts no sense of belonging whatsoever, he was devoid of religion, instead choosing to spend the Sabbaths of his youth not in but behind the church, ever testing the limits of his youthful flesh. Having thus far failed to discover satisfaction within the tender hands of God, he imagined there might be found some by his own. Regardless of his motives, however, he remained incapable of self-satiation.
The frustration subsided over the course of years, as he delved deeper into the study and practice of the noble art of cobbling, but it could not be defeated. It merely retreated from plain sight, awaiting the inevitable moment of its final triumph over his soul.
Now, it seemed that fateful hour had arrived with a vengeance; Hilda lay down on a bed of refuse in some dockside alleyway just off the main street and hiked up her skirts.
In works of literature far more august than this humble entry in the ever-expanding compendium of human oeuvre, prostitution has been styled “the oldest profession.” And, for a split second, the Cobbler entertained the notion that Hilda had been a card-carrying practitioner since the beginning. Luckily, he was far too drunk to dwell on that. The night sky was also devoid of stars and strong moonlight, which helped.
Having been until that very moment a chaste man (though not by choice), with abandon and utterly without skill, he proceeded about the job.
Hilda, he discerned with dread, did not seem impressed. Ego wounded, he began to tire as the exercise prolonged itself, the minutes flitting by like so many herring in need of pickling. Realizing he could not rely on brute strength and swiftness to prevail in this endeavor, he pressed onward and inward more methodically, taking to the task as he would have done any of his daily chores. His penis he thereafter employed as he would have done his hammer in the setting of a particularly pesky heel stiffener: driving home blows with precision and tact. He became encouraged when the recipient expressed her approval.
No doubt surprised at her customer’s sudden uptick in both agility and dexterity, Hilda writhed beneath the Cobbler. And then in front of him. Thereafter, she revealed a few of her own tricks, these having been perfected over many, many (and more) years of diligent study and practice. Twisting, weaving, squeezing, and clenching, her skirts akimbo, the technique of Hilda rivaled that of even the famed courtesans of the most decadent of oriental pleasure houses. Indeed, that greatest of harems, the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans, would be put to shame by the forthright, assertive, and tenacious grinding of Hilda’s fulcrum of ecstasy.
Such potent and refined magic proved too strong to resist for the Cobbler’s own wand, which discharged its energies in and around the garbage heap upon which the pair had shared their tryst.
After slumping over his conquest, he smiled at the warmth of Hilda’s long-nailed fingers stroking the hairy skin around his navel. This blissful simplicity, however, proved fleeting.
Far from liberating him, the moment of release transformed him into a ravenous beast, a lion cub who’d first tasted the freshly gutted carcass of an antelope. He paid Hilda enough for the rest of the night and they made their merry way to the Cobbler’s shop.
Around two o’clock in the morning, a city watchman, wide-eyed and bushy-mustached, knocked on the door, claiming there had been a disturbance reported. “Screaming,” the man said, yawning as he did.
When the Cobbler couldn’t help but let his boyish, stupid grin show, the watchman’s expression changed from one of annoyance to perplexity. The Cobbler nudged the door open just a bit wider.
Hilda gave a dainty, little wave.
The watchman blushed, turning away. “Have neither of you a solitary shred of decency?”
The Cobbler shrugged. “But, we were married this evening,” he lied.
Once again, the watchman’s expression proved totally mercurial, reorganizing itself quickly to shoot the Cobbler a concerned pursing of the lips before displaying a conspiratorial grin. He said, “You are Christians, then?”
“Oh, yes,” said the Cobbler with a smirk. “I love God. As does she.” He jerked a thumb back at Hilda. “She hasn’t stopped calling out to him all night.”
“Well, then.” The watchman scratched that patch of flesh between his lower lip and chin. “I see no trouble, here. Only, for the sakes of your neighbors, do try to keep it down.”
The Cobbler giggled. “Try we certainly will.”
He closed the door, spun on his heels, and leapt atop Hilda once more.
At first light, she stumbled from the shop bowlegged as the sailors she more habitually serviced. The Cobbler, meanwhile, set about the business of the day. And so he did the next day, and the next.
Some weeks passed, during which he struggled to pay the rent as well as recoup the financial losses sustained over the course of his one wild night of revelry. Overall, though, his contentment proved lasting enough to see him through those leaner days.
…and of Castile, Aragon, León, Navarra, Grenada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Sevilla, Cordova, Murcia, Jaén, Algarves, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, King of Two Sicilies, of Sardinia, Corsica, King of Jerusalem, King of the Western and Eastern Indies, Lord of the Islands and Main Ocean Sea, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Lorraine, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Limburg, Luxembourg, Gelderland, Neopatria, Württemberg, Landgrave of Alsace, Prince of Swabia, Asturia and Catalonia, Count of Flanders, Habsburg, Tyrol, Gorizia, Barcelona, Artois, Burgundy Palatine, Hainaut, Holland, Seeland, Ferrette, Kyburg, Namur, Roussillon, Cerdagne, Zutphen, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, Burgau, Oristano and Gociano, Lord of Frisia, the Wendish March, Pordenone, Biscay, Molin, Salins, Tripoli and Mechelen.
 The tale of The Mother of the Cobbler of Antwerp is fascinating in its own right, but must be set aside for another time.
 Which no doubt intensified in its pinkness and chafed something awful.
 That is not to say, of course, that this infamous pleasure house lacked in decadence. In fact, it was profoundly, even inimitably, decadent. Within the hashish-clouded bowels of Topkapı Palace, that Ottoman seat of power dominating revered and ancient Constantinople, a quiet legend surrounded a certain manuscript allegedly owned by Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566). If the stories are to be believed, the Great Sultan was in possession of the darkest of secret tomes, passed down to him from his father, who had been gifted the book by his father before him, and so on. The document’s origin could reputedly be traced all the way back to an early ancestor’s brief but colorful encounter, in the Third Century A.D., with Vatsyayana Mallanaga, author of the sultry and taboo Kama Sutra. Whether or not the claim could ever be substantiated by fact, according to the accounts of little-known Tuscan explorer Giovanni da Pitigliano, the Kama Sutra was not the only book written by Mallanaga. Da Pitigliano writes in his autobiography, I Miei Giorni, that Suleiman Shah had inherited the believed-to-be-mythical Kama Sutra II.
It is worth noting that Da Pitigliano considered himself an “explorer” but only ever got as far as Cairo, which, as we all know, is hardly El Dorado in terms of its persisting mystery to Christians. Indeed, while all of Christendom traveled west, across the Atlantic and to the New World, he contented himself with walking east, “exploring” any and all pleasures the Old World still had on offer.