December 31, 1999 12:00 PM

SEI SHONAGON

A lady-in-waiting to Japan’s Empress Teishi, Sei Sh?nagon, 33, kept her fellow aristocrats entertained with bitingly humorous accounts of life. Says H. Mack Horton, Berkeley associate professor of East Asian studies, of Sh?nagon, whose collected essays and observations were published as The Pillow Book: “She was extroverted, witty and judgmental—very much like Dorothy Parker.” And not without her critics. Murasaki Shikibu, whose The Tale of Genji, published several years later, is often considered Japan’s greatest novel, had this to say about her bestselling rival in her published diary: “frivolous.”

ELMER THE FLYING MONK

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a young Benedictine monk named Elmer who soared off the 100-ft. tower of England’s Malmesbury Abbey with homemade wings strapped to his arms and legs. “They were probably intended to flap like those of a bird,” says Lynn White, president of Britain’s Society of the History of Technology. And indeed, Elmer flew 600 feet before a hard landing (opposite the village pub) broke both his legs. Though “lame ever after,” according to a fellow monk, he did get his own stained-glass window at the abbey.

LEIF ERICSON

Gotta love that Leif. At 29, the handsome, strapping son of Viking Eric the Red was just beginning to make a name for himself, setting sail from Greenland (founded by his dad) for Norway “as a rite of passage to become a big hero,” according to Icelandic medievalist Ornölfor Thorsson. Wow, did that ever work. Shortly afterward, he headed west to look for natural resources and ended up staking his claim in Newfoundland and in the history books. Admired at home (where he returned and died in 1021), he became a legend in North America, where “people really identify with him,” says Canadian archeologist Birgitta Wallace, who has studied the ruins of Ericson’s base camp. “They see him as an adventurer for whom the horizons really opened up.”

VLADIMIR I OF RUSSIA

Egad, that Vlad! After overthrowing his half brother to take the Russian throne, the 43-year-old monarch was “at the top of his career” in Kiev Rus, says Per-Arne Bodin, professor of Slavic languages at the University of Stockholm. So effective was Vlad, the illegitimate son of a slave and Prince Sviato-slav, at unifying western Russia that his subjects happily overlooked his drinking, five wives and 800 concubines. “He just couldn’t get enough of women,” says professor Jonas Granberg of Sweden’s University of Göteborg. That is, until 988, when Vlad set his eye on the legendary beauty Anna, sister of Byzantine Emperor Basil II. To permit their marriage, Basil demanded that the pagan Vlad convert to Christianity. After that, until his death in 1015, the once-ragin’ Russian lived a life so exemplary—and monogamous—that in the 1300s the Russian Orthodox Church awarded him sainthood.

POPE SYLVESTER II

The first French Pope, the peasant-born Gerbert of Aurillac was thought by many to be stupor mundi—a wonder of the world. Equal parts philosopher, scientist and crafty statesman, the 58-year-old Benedictine monk (who died in 1003) is said to have mastered astronomy, rhetoric and ancient Greek before inventing the pendulum clock, designing his own planetarium and revolutionizing the business world by promoting use of the abacus. “He was the Bill Gates of his day,” says Robert Lacey, coauthor (with Danny Danziger) of The Year 1000. “He changed people’s way of thinking and calculating.”

OTTO III

An idealistic 19-year-old, the Holy Roman Emperor aimed to unite Western Europe into an enlightened Christian empire and began in 999 by trying to bring Norway and present-day Hungary into the fold. But he could be ditsy too. A fan of fasting and meditation, he opened Charlemagne’s tomb to commune with the remains, and legend has it he trimmed the body’s overgrown fingernails. “Otto was fascinated by the mystic tradition,” says Paolo Delogu, professor of medieval history at Rome’s La Sapienza University. Deposed by Italian nobles in 1001, he reportedly was fatally poisoned—by his mistress—while planning a comeback for the next year.

A THE LEECH

Eeewwww! This slimy, all-purpose bloodsucker was the medical miracle of its day, applied by practitioners to a patient’s skin on the theory that its tiny “teeth” and suckers extracted the forces causing imbalance in the body. Far from being grossed out, patients “would probably have been quite impressed,” says medical historian Debby Banham of Cambridge University. “They’d think, ‘If the treatment’s this bad, it must be good.’ ”

KING QUETZALCOATL

First he took the name of an ancient deity (meaning “feathered serpent”). Then, around 986, the Toltec chieftain left Mexico City for the Yucatàn peninsula and conquered the Mayans, who “worshipped him as a god,” says Yale anthropology professor Michael Coe. But in 999, Q inexplicably sailed away, vowing someday to return. So enduring was his legend that in 1519, when Hernando Cortés arrived to conquer Mexico for Spain, the Aztec leader Montezuma hesitated to resist, believing that it was Quetzalcóatl’s homecoming.

AVICENNA

By age 20 this Uzbekistan-born child prodigy was practicing medicine and publishing books on philosophy and science. “He was conscious of being a genius and not afraid to assert himself,” says Yahya Michot of Oxford University’s Center for Islamic Studies. Avicenna was equally well-versed in math and Aristotle—whom he emulated—and his “fame would precede him wherever he’d go,” says Michot. After his 1037 death, his teachings were spread by devout students into Europe, where his Canon of Medicine was in use as late as the 18th century.

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