St. Maurice and the Eagle

This post comes almost two years too late, but this falsehood has shown a remarkable tenacity:

Background: the “Unite the Right” rally, held in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017 really unnerved a lot of people. Whatever the facts about what happened, the narrative has been firmly established that Donald Trump’s election emboldened members of the far (or “alt-“) right to “come out,” and to start demonstrating in favor of racism, nativism, and xenophobia – and to kill a counter-protester by running her down with a car. Donald Trump then claimed “moral equivalence” between the two sides, thereby illustrating his fundamental awfulness.* Some of the participants in the rally made reference to things medieval, on the principle that the Middle Ages represent white Europe unsullied by mass non-white immigration. Such references seemingly implicated the discipline of Medieval Studies, and they provoked a huge reaction: the Medieval Academy, along with almost thirty other groups, unequivocally condemned “the appropriation of any item or idea or material in the service of white supremacy,” and continued:

As scholars of the medieval world we are disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States. By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past. Medieval Europe was diverse religiously, culturally, and ethnically, and medieval Europe was not the entire medieval world. Scholars disagree about the motivations of the Crusades—or, indeed, whether the idea of “crusade” is a medieval one or came later—but it is clear that racial purity was not primary among them.

This impulse has animated some people ever since. They are not willing to ignore such things as being beyond their concern or control (people refer to the Middle Ages all the time for various reasons, and there’s nothing professional medievalists can do about it, because they don’t actually “own” that time period) or as just a small part of the overall imagery presented at the rally (Charlotte Allen counted “exactly two” medieval costumes, and as Tom MacMaster notes, the protestors made far more use of nineteenth and twentieth century imagery than they did medieval). Instead, it has become extremely important for some people to present the Middle Ages in such a way that “rescues” them from white nationalists. Now, I’m no white nationalist, but as I said before, I don’t care for truth-bending either, no matter how noble the cause.** It’s a bit of a stretch, for instance, to designate the Vikings as “multicultural and multiracial.” (No, you can’t cherry-pick the one former Arab slave who took a Danish wife and settled in Normandy. You need a proper population sample! Numbers are of the essence here. That Vikings ended up losing their identity wherever they settled is the opposite of multicultural.) And as Andrew Holt said about the Crusades:

I can understand Professor Gabriele not wanting to give ammunition to those on the political right with whom he disagrees, particularly when they make crass calls for medieval solutions to modern problems, but misrepresenting what scholars of the crusades think is not the way to do it, and will backfire in the end.

This brings us to the black eagle of St. Maurice, referenced in the tweet above. The story goes that St. Maurice was a third-century commander of the Theban Legion, a Roman unit recruited in Upper Egypt and composed entirely of Christians. Emperor Maximian ordered them to march into Gaul, where they were to be employed in putting down a rebellion. Ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods for the success of the mission, the Thebans refused, and were twice decimated as a punishment – with the survivors then massacred. This took place at Agaunum, now Saint-Maurice, in Switzerland. As the name change reveals, St. Maurice became the stand-in for all the other martyred Thebans, some 6600 of them, and a monastery was established there in his honor. St. Maurice subsequently became a popular medieval saint, a patron of Savoy, Lombardy, Burgundy, and Sardinia, a patron of soldiers (particularly the Pontifical Swiss Guard), and of weavers and dyers, and the namesake of many religious foundations, including twenty-two English churches. Most important, for our purposes, is his patronage of the Holy Roman Empire, which seems to date from the reign of Henry the Fowler (919-936). Henry granted the Swiss canton of Aargau to the Abbey of St. Maurice in return for Maurice’s lance, sword, and spurs, which became part of the regalia used at Imperial coronations. Henry also built Magdeburg Cathedral, dedicated to St. Maurice. Emperor Otto the Great translated the saint’s relics there in 961, and had himself entombed there upon his own death in 973.

Of course, it must be said that, in common with many early martyrs, there is no historical evidence that St. Maurice or the Theban Legion ever existed. The earliest sources attesting to them date from 150 years after their alleged executions, although it is entirely possible that some Christians really were put to death in the area, from which an elaborate story was later spun. According to an article in Greenwich Time, St. Maurice wasn’t depicted as black until the thirteenth century. Why this particular attribute? It’s logical that someone whose origins were so far up the Nile should acquire a sub-Saharan phenotype, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the etymological similarity of “Maurice” to “Moor” had something to do with it. Why this shift should have happened in the thirteenth century I do not know, although it does point to medieval European knowledge of non-white Christians, perhaps inspired by contact with Ethiopians during the Crusades (Ethiopians maintained a presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), or as the result of an Ethiopian embassy to the pope in the late fourteenth century. Just as the Three Kings, from the twelfth century, could be depicted as European, African, and Asian, one for each of the three known continents, so also does a black St. Maurice point to the universality of Christianity. In this sense, the medievalists are right: medieval Europeans clearly were not “racist,” but only because they were deeply Christian, and truly believed that every person on Earth was a potential member of the faith. (An artistically black St. Maurice says nothing about the presence of phenotypically sub-Saharan Africans in Europe.)

Lucas Cranach the Elder & Workshop, Saint Maurice, ca. 1522-25.

But the tweet above was about another emblem: a black eagle borne by one young man on a shield at Charlottesville, and by St. Maurice on a banner in a painting dating to the sixteenth century, judging by the style of the armor. Why does St. Maurice carry such a banner? The image tweeted seems to be a preliminary sketch or an elaboration of a painting of St. Maurice by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). It originally formed part of an altarpiece, commissioned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, for a church in the Saxon city of Halle. Saxony, of course, was within the Holy Roman Empire, and the banner that St. Maurice holds is actually the banner of the arms of the Holy Roman Empire – a black eagle displayed on a gold field.

“Shield and Coat of Arms of the Holy Roman Emperor, drawn in the style the late medieval period. Also used as shield of arms (generic) by the King of the Romans.” Wikipedia.

One finds other Imperial representations of St. Maurice bearing this shield.

Apparently from the Church of St. Antony, Bitterfield-Wolfen, c. 1499.

Design for Reliquary bust of St. Maurice. Heiltumsbuch, fol. 228v., 1525-1527. Aschaffenburg Hofbibliothek.

In other words, the eagle is associated with the Holy Roman Empire, and St. Maurice is one of the patrons of the Empire; thus does he bear the shield of the Empire. It’s not actually “his,” or it’s only his at second hand. We see this with other saints – sometimes St. George, a patron of England, is shown bearing the three lions of the kings of England, and sometimes St. Michael, a patron of France, is shown bearing the fleur de lys of the kings of France. It might be somewhat egotistical for a votary to assign his own attribute to his patron saint (rather than for a votary to bear his patron saint’s attribute as an act of devotion), but it did happen from time to time.

St. Maurice, therefore, is by no means the “original” bearer of this standard. The reason eagles are associated with the Holy Roman Empire is because the Romans themselves employed eagles as identifying devices, particularly of their legions, and when heraldry developed in the twelfth century it was only natural that the Holy Roman Emperors should have chosen an eagle as an identifying device. Eagles were also used by other successor empires to ancient Rome, including the Byzantines (specifically, the Palaiologos dynasty that ruled it from the eleventh century), the Tsars of Russia, and Napoleon as the Emperor of the French. You could say that Maurice, as the commander of a legion, has a natural right to an eagle as his own attribute, but it would make far more sense for this to be in the form of a Roman aquila (a three dimensional sculpture of an eagle atop a pole), and you would need to find actual artistic evidence of him doing so prior to the twelfth century and the elaboration of heraldry. In other words, the succession seems to be Eagle -> Empire -> St. Maurice, not Eagle -> St. Maurice –> Empire.

As for the other eagle, that appears to be a commercial product of an outfit called West Wolf Renaissance:


From the website:

VIKING BLACK EAGLE SHIELD WITH FORGED IRON BOSS

This is a beautiful handmade and hand-painted wooden Viking shield featuring a Black Eagle design inspired by Viking and Norse shields of old. This shield features a solid oak body which measures about 30 inches across and is 1/2 inches thick…. Because this shield is made of real wood, please note that the wood-grain background shown in the pictures may vary slightly from the shield you receive (this is simply due to the nature of the wood). The front of the shield has also been applied with several coats of topcoat/varnish to protect it through the centuries. So whether for the wall or the battlefield, this shield is well balanced and ready to serve.

Note that the design is “inspired by” Norse shields – it is not necessarily a reproduction of an actual shield. It looks to me like it was taken from Wikipedia’s rendition of the Raven Banner:

Other shields offered for sale by West Wolf Renaissance feature medieval, classical, Mayan, and even cinematic designs (e.g. the emblem of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, or the houses from Game of Thrones). The company also offers reproduction/fantasy jewelry, clothing, and weapons. Who buys this stuff I do not know, but presumably there are LARPers or “fandoms” out there who enjoy playing medieval dress-up, without scrupulous attention to historic detail.*** It might be possible, therefore, that the company helped itself to the shield of the Holy Roman Empire and reimagined it in a Viking style, but my hunch is that the two shields actually have nothing to do with each other. To show an eagle “displayed” (i.e. spread out) is a logical way to show it, black is a common enough color to show it in, and the background hue is coincidental – the HRE shield is formally gold, whereas the Viking shield is just natural wood. (Actually, if the shield is based on a real Norse model, then it would have priority over the shield of the HRE, since the Vikings were active before the development of true heraldry, and we could accuse the HRE and St. Maurice of bearing a stolen Viking shield! Furthermore, it might not even be an eagle: note that it’s in the style of the Raven Banner, and one of the words in the URL is “raven.” It would certainly make sense for the bird to be a raven, given that it’s an attribute of the Norse god Odin.)

Any symbol can have a variety of referents. As the lion is the king of the beasts, so also is the eagle the king of the birds, and like all emblems has been used at various times and various places, by various people, to reference various things. (Actually, in a Christian context, an eagle is most likely to be associated with St. John the Evangelist.) Even a black eagle “displayed” on a lighter-colored background is not the exclusive property of any one group, and you simply cannot take two superficially similar things and juxtapose them in the service of “proving” anything. James Frazer’s oeuvre was largely based on such attempts at analysis, and it’s a big reason why he’s out of fashion now. No, you actually need to establish a chain of transmission, and you would think that art and cultural historians would understand that.† I mean, St. Maurice can also be shown wearing a red cross – does this mean that the “true, original” bearer of this device is St. Maurice, not St. George, St. Ambrose, or the Diocese of Trier?

Medieval Milanetc.

But what do you expect from Twitter? The place is a sewer, the “crystal meth” of social media, and it seems to encourage people in their worst habits of mind. Not only is there the 140-character limit, which prevents the elaboration of complex ideas, there is also a great premium on winning social status through “sick burns” or at least by acquiring lots of followers. Thus our tweeter’s assertion that “Nazis aren’t happy” about her juxtaposition. Who are these people, and are they really all “Nazis”? Or is this all just an imaginary setup to prove to her claque how brave a fighter she is?

Alas, memes can be powerful things, and this one has firmly lodged itself in the medievalist consciousness. Even the executive director of the Medieval Academy went in for it (from All Things Considered, September 2017):

LISA FAGIN DAVIS: There was one young man who was carrying a shield with a black spread eagle that was clearly co-opted from either the Holy Roman Empire or – there’s actually a saint. And it’s kind of ironic. He’s an African saint who carries that standard. And I suspect the gentleman carrying the shield didn’t realize that.

ULABY: That was St. Maurice, revered during the medieval period. He came from Egypt.

It was relayed on History.com in December 2017:

One man carried a round shield decorated with a black eagle. It was a curious choice, considering the eagle image is strongly associated with a Saint Maurice, a Roman general of African descent who became a saint in the early Middle Ages

The white supremacist in Charlottesville carrying that image was probably unaware that it’s strongly associated with a black Catholic saint, and this disconnect illustrates a larger trend. Hate groups that adopt medieval iconography as symbols of white supremacy usually have misconceptions about that historical era. One of the most common? That Europe in the Middle Ages was unvaryingly white.

Earlier this year I heard a speaker who repeated the idea that the Viking eagle of Charlottesville was really the eagle of a black saint, and just recently another friend just recently posted this to Facebook, from one of her students’ exams:

Historians have the difficult job of interpreting sources in the context they were intended. With white supremacy, gender equality, and current social classes, it is nearly impossible to see the past through an unbiased scope uninfluenced by these current issues. In Charlottesville many protesters used a medieval symbol as a symbol of racial hatred, when truthfully the symbol was worn by a black saint.

So it looks like this will be with us for some time to come…

Once again, I state that I am not in favor of white supremacy – although I confess that, apart from the car crash, I didn’t find the Unite the Right rally to be any more shocking than what Antifa routinely gets up to at its demonstrations. But in general I am in favor of proper historical analysis, developed with as much detail as necessary, and not superficial Twitter-zingers, even in the service of things we dearly want to believe.

In brief:

• The arms of the Holy Roman Empire date from the twelfth century and are a reference to the Roman eagle.

• St. Maurice, as a patron of the HRE, bears the arms of the HRE in some depictions, but it’s not a symbol of St. Maurice as such.

• St. Maurice, as an Egyptian, only began to be portrayed as black starting in the thirteenth century.

• The West Wolf Renaissance shield is either a reproduction of a Viking design, or an imagined one (they did not answer my email enquiry).

• If it is a reproduction, it predates the shield of the HRE, and is probably better seen as Odin’s raven; either way, its connection to the shield of the HRE is almost certainly coincidental.

• Truth exists, and it’s more important than feelings.

• Academics should get off Twitter.

* Joe Biden recently launched his presidential campaign in Charlottesville, pledging to stand against whatever forces manifested themselves at the Unite the Right rally. John Derbyshire had something to say about it:

[Joe Biden’s] video didn’t lean on the Charlottesville events so much as on the narrative of them constructed and broadcast by Cultural Marxist media outlets, then re-broadcast and re-re-broadcast in a determined and successful effort to smother any account of what really took place….

The Cultural Marxist narrative of Charlottesville is triumphant in major media and probably among the public at large. That narrative has only collapsed among the tiny sliver of the population who have read all 207 pages of the Heaphy Report…. Certainly Joe Biden had no qualms about retailing the dominant narrative in all its brazen mendacity.

[Clip:  And that’s when we heard the words of the President of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were, quote, “some very fine people on both sides.”

Very fine people on both sides? With those words, the President of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.]

I don’t myself buy the “moral equivalence” argument. One side in the Charlottesville fracas had the sole intention to hold a legally-permitted rally in defense of a historic statue; the other side had the intention to disrupt that rally violently. Local politicians and law-enforcement encouraged and assisted the latter faction. Moral equivalence? I don’t see it.

What did the President actually have in mind when he spoke the words Joe Biden’s quoting? Here’s what Trump said:

[Clip:  And you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally — but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

Now, in the other group also you had some fine people; but you also had trouble-makers. And you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats … You had a lot of bad people in the other group.]

Plainly what was in the President’s mind there was the idea that there were some Nazi nutcases mixed in with the defenders of that statue; and there were some anarchist nutcases mixed in with the clergymen and cat ladies who initiated the violence. The fact remains that the first group, Nazis and all, had lawful permits to be where they were and do what they were doing, and the second group didn’t, but the authorities let that second group attack the first anyway.

See Ann Coulter’s column also.

** But… quod est veritas? This is an interminable debate, which might go back to the conflict between realists and nominalists in medieval universities, or to Livy and Pollio, if Robert Graves is to be believed. Postmodern historians are fond of saying that there’s no such thing as truth, only competing narratives, and that all history writing is essentially fiction. No, there is no such thing as an omniscient and unbiased historian – we all come to the table with our perspectives and areas of strength (and weakness). But there is a big difference between people who acknowledge this and still hold up the idea that events actually happened in the past, and we can get at them through studying sources that have come down to us from those events, and people who believe that since truth is so elusive, we might as well not even try, and we can say anything we want about the past, because why not?

I cannot abide this position. Any respect that historians get is utterly dependent on people trusting us to deal honestly with the past. They know we are liberal, but they still think that we know some facts that others don’t. However, when we say whatever we want because it is in accord with our politics, that is a problem.

*** I am of two minds about this. In general, just as I favor a search for Truth in historical scholarship, I am also in favor of getting the details right in any sort of historic recreation. But I am also fully aware that such concerns can border on pedantry and wet-blanketness. If the goal is to have fun, then why not go for an overall effect, rather than get bogged down in all the details?

† No, I am not prepared to accept any arguments based on “serendipity” or “synchronicity” or any other such mumbo-jumbo.

Circassians

May 21 is Circassian Memorial Day, when the worldwide Circassian community remembers the Russian-led Circassian Genocide of the 1860s, part of Russia’s attempt to expand into the Caucasus. Circassians (also known as the Adyghe) are largely Sunni Muslim, but their language is Northwest Caucasian, i.e. not Indo-European. Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, was once the Circassian capital.

Wikipedia.

I have discovered that the Circassians fly a distinctive flag, which dates from the nineteenth century and was adopted as the flag of the Russian Republic of Adygea 1992. Apparently it was designed by David Urquhart, a Scottish diplomat serving in the Ottoman Empire. The stars reference the twelve Adyghe princedoms.

Paleoichthyology

It’s a real word, referring to the study of fish in the past, as detailed in a recent Atlantic article:

The Medieval Practices that Reshaped Europe’s Fish

In Europe, aquatic animals have been traded at least since the days of the Roman Empire. But it was during the early Middle Ages, with the arrival of widespread Christianity, that the animals became a popular source of protein. That’s partially due to the roughly 130 days a yearwhen the faithful were exhorted not to eat meat, because fish didn’t count in that category.

At the same time, expanding agrarian populations were cutting down forests to create fields and diverting rivers to fill defensive moats around castles and towns, Hoffmann writes in one paper. From the ninth century a.d. to the 11th, the number of grain mills built along rivers in England exploded from about 200 to 5,624. Species that came into fresh water to spawn, such as salmon and sturgeon, began declining. New regulations, such as King Philip’s, were put into place to manage fish populations. A Scottish statute from 1214 required all dams to include an opening for fish and barrier nets to be lifted every Saturday, for instance. Soon highly sophisticated aquaculture ponds stocked with carp also provided regular access to fish for the landed elite.

This decline in freshwater populations coincided with a sudden, commercial-scale boom in sea fishing, which began around a.d. 1000 and is known as the “fish event horizon.” In one study, archaeologists collected cod bones in London from 95 Roman, medieval, and postmedieval sites. The number of bones jumped circa the year 1000, and isotopic sampling showed that in the following centuries, fish came from farther and farther away, indicating long-distance trade. In the southern English town of Southampton, the remains of marine species (such as cod) began to outnumber freshwater species (such as eel) by 1030.

That “fish event horizon” could have been caused by a number of forces. It came at a time of population growth, urbanism, new ship technology, and increased trade, says the archaeologist James Barrett, from the University of Cambridge. But, he adds, “I’ve argued consistently that this must also be about human impacts on freshwater and migratory fishes. The degree of vulnerability of fishes depends on how bounded the ecosystem they occupy is.”

In other words, because their habitat was smaller, freshwater fish were more likely to respond to human pressures sooner. When the reliable stocks of freshwater fish began dwindling, hungry Europeans turned to the much larger oceans. And while those populations had larger ranges, humans still had an impact.

Claudius Meets Pollio and Livy

Currently rereading Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934), in the wake of teaching HIS 302 this past semester. I was taken with this section from Chapter 9, in which a young Claudius meets the historians Livy and Pollio and discusses competing theories of history writing.

***

Livy said: “The trouble with Pollio is that when he writes history he feels obliged to suppress all his finer, more poetical feelings, and make his characters behave with conscientious dullness, and when he puts a speech into their mouths he denies them the least oratorical ability.”

Pollio said: “Yes, Poetry is Poetry, and Oratory is Oratory, and History is History, and you can’t mix them.”

“Can’t I? Indeed I can,” said Livy. “Do you mean to say that I mustn’t write a history with an epic theme because that’s a prerogative of poetry or put worthy eve-of-battle speeches in the mouths of my generals because to compose such speeches is the prerogative of oratory?”

“That is precisely what I do mean. History is a true record of what happened, how people lived and died, what they did and said ; an epic theme merely distorts the record. As for your general’s speeches they are admirable as oratory but damnably unhistorical: not only is there no particle of evidence for any one of them, but they are inappropriate. I have heard more eve-of-battle speeches than most men and though the generals that made them, Caesar and Antony especially, were remarkably fine platform orators, they were all too good soldiers to try any platform business on the troops. They spoke to them in a conversational way, they did not orate. What sort of speech did Caesar make before the Battle of Pharsalia? Did he beg us to remember our wives and children and the sacred temples of Rome and the glories of our past campaigns? By God, he didn’t!…”

Livy said: ‘Pollio, my dear fellow, we were not discussing Caesar’s morals, but the proper way to write history.”

Pollio said: “Yes, that’s right. Our intelligent young friend [Claudius] was criticizing your method, under the respectful disguise of praising your readability. Boy, have you any further charges to bring against the noble Livy?”

I said: “Please, sir, don’t make me blush. I admire Livy’s work greatly.”

“The truth, boy! Have you ever caught him out in any historical inaccuracies? You seem to be a fellow who reads a good deal.”

“I would rather not venture…”

“Out with it. There must be something.”

So I said: “There is one thing that puzzles me, I confess. That is the story of Lars Porsena. According to Livy, Porsena failed to capture Rome, being first prevented by the heroic behaviour of Horatius at the bridge and then dismayed by the astounding daring of Scaevola; Livy relates that Scaevola, captured after an attempt at assassinating Porsena, thrust his hand into the flame on the altar and swore that three hundred Romans like himself had bound themselves by an oath to take Porsena’s life. And so Lars Porsena made peace. But I have seen the labyrinth tomb of Lars Porsena at Clusium and there is a frieze on it of Romans emerging from the City gate and being led under a yoke. There’s an Etruscan priest with a pair of shears cutting off the beards of the Fathers. And even Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was very favourably disposed towards us, states that the Senate voted Porsena an ivory throne, a sceptre, a golden crown and a triumphal robe; which can only mean that they paid him sovereign honours. So perhaps Lars Porsena did capture Rome, in spite of Horatius and Scaevola. And Aruns the priest at Capua (he’s supposed to be the last man who can read Etruscan inscriptions) told me last summer that according to Etruscan records the man who expelled the Tarquins from Rome was not Brutus but Porsena, and that Brutus and Collatinus, the first two Consuls at Rome, were merely the City Stewards appointed to collect his taxes.”

Livy grew quite angry. “I am surprised at you, Claudius. Have you no reverence for Roman tradition that you should believe the lies told by our ancient enemies to diminish our greatness.”

“I only asked,” I said humbly, “what really happened then.”

“Come on, Livy,” said Pollio. “Answer the young student. What really happened?”

Livy said: “Another time. Let’s keep to the matter in hand now, which is a general discussion of the proper way to write history. Claudius, my friend, you have ambitions that way. Which of us two old worthies will you choose as a model?”

I looked from one face to the other. At last I said, “I think I would choose Pollio. As I’m sure that I can never hope to attain Livy’s inspired literary elegance, I shall do my best to imitate Pollio’s accuracy and diligence.”

“A joke is a joke, Pollio, and I can take it in good part. But there’s also a serious matter in
question and that is, the proper writing of history. It may be that I have made mistakes. What historian is free from them? I have not, at least, told deliberate falsehoods: you’ll not accuse
me of that. Any legendary episode from early historical writings which bears on my theme of the ancient greatness of Rome I gladly incorporate in the story: though it may not be true in
factual detail, it is true in spirit. If I come across two versions of the same episode I choose the one nearest my theme, and you won’t find me grubbing around Etruscan cemeteries in
search of any third account which may flatly contradict both — what good would that do?”

“It would serve the cause of the truth,” said Pollio gently. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

“And if by serving the cause of truth we admit our revered ancestors to have been cowards, liars and traitors? What then?”

I’ll leave this boy to answer the question. He’s just starting in life. Come on, boy, answer it!”

I said at random: “Livy begins his history by lamenting modern wickedness and promising to trace the gradual decline of ancient virtue as conquests made Rome wealthy. He says that he
will most enjoy writing the early chapters because he will be able, in doing so, to close his eyes to the wickedness of modern times. But in closing his eyes to modern wickedness hasn’t he sometimes closed his eyes to ancient wickedness as well?”

“Well?” asked Livy, narrowing his eyes.

“Well,” I fumbled. “Perhaps there isn’t so much difference really between their wickedness and ours. It may be just a matter of scope and opportunity.

“I hadn’t considered the matter before, that there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. The first is Livy’s way and the other is yours: and perhaps they are not irreconcilable.”

***

This is always the issue, isn’t it? Of course, I stand with Claudius and Pollio here – call me a naive positivist, but I still believe there is such a thing as the truth, and we can get close to it if we really try. If you want to write a novel (say, like I, Claudius) then you should clearly label it as such. The trouble is that truth-seeking history really takes effort, as Livy notes, and if taken to extremes leads to tedious books like The Lion, the Lily, and the Leopard. There is nothing wrong with making a historical argument, or retelling a historical narrative, in a clear, compelling way. Just make sure that you don’t go too far in making things up, especially in the service of your fatuous politics (a shockingly common occurrence, I regret to admit).

Erased Females

A couple of recent news stories suggest that certain individual women in history had their achievements stolen by men.

1. Elizabeth Winkler in The Atlantic:

Doubts about whether William Shakespeare (who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died in 1616) really wrote the works attributed to him are almost as old as the writing itself. Alternative contenders—Francis Bacon; Christopher Marlowe; and Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, prominent among them—continue to have champions, whose fervor can sometimes border on fanaticism. In response, orthodox Shakespeare scholars have settled into dogmatism of their own. Even to dabble in authorship questions is considered a sign of bad faith, a blinkered failure to countenance genius in a glover’s son. The time had come, I felt, to tug at the blinkers of both camps and reconsider the authorship debate: Had anyone ever proposed that the creator of those extraordinary women might be a woman? Each of the male possibilities requires an elaborate theory to explain his use of another’s name. None of the candidates has succeeded in dethroning the man from Stratford. Yet a simple reason would explain a playwright’s need for a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female….

The prevailing view… has been that no women in Renaissance England wrote for the theater, because that was against the rules. Religious verse and translation were deemed suitable female literary pursuits; “closet dramas,” meant only for private reading, were acceptable. The stage was off-limits. Yet scholars have lately established that women were involved in the business of acting companies as patrons, shareholders, suppliers of costumes, and gatherers of entrance fees. What’s more, 80 percent of the plays printed in the 1580s were written anonymously, and that number didn’t fall below 50 percent until the early 1600s. At least one eminent Shakespeare scholar, Phyllis Rackin, of the University of Pennsylvania, challenges the blanket assumption that the commercial drama pouring forth in the period bore no trace of a female hand. So did Virginia Woolf, even as she sighed over the obstacles that would have confronted a female Shakespeare: “Undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned.”

Emilia Bassano [was] born in London in 1569 to a family of Venetian immigrants—musicians and instrument-makers who were likely Jewish—she was one of the first women in England to publish a volume of poetry (suitably religious yet startlingly feminist, arguing for women’s “Libertie” and against male oppression). Her existence was unearthed in 1973 by the Oxford historian A. L. Rowse, who speculated that she was Shakespeare’s mistress, the “dark lady” described in the sonnets. In Emilia, the playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm goes a step further: Her Shakespeare is a plagiarist who uses Bassano’s words for Emilia’s famous defense of women in Othello.

Could Bassano have contributed even more widely and directly? The idea felt like a feminist fantasy about the past—but then, stories about women’s lost and obscured achievements so often have a dreamlike quality, unveiling a history different from the one we’ve learned. Was I getting carried away, reinventing Shakespeare in the image of our age? Or was I seeing past gendered assumptions to the woman who—like Shakespeare’s heroines—had fashioned herself a clever disguise? Perhaps the time was finally ripe for us to see her.

More at the link.

2. From the Herald Sun (Melbourne):

Was King Tut a fraud? New evidence points to a female pharaoh who ruled before him

Why do so many of Pharoah Tutankhamun’s famous golden statues have breasts? Turns out, it’s not him. It’s his sisters. They ruled Egypt before him — and achieved everything the boy king is credited with. But they were written out of history — until now.

That’s one new theory that is beginning to emerge from fresh forensic analysis of the rich relics found bundled in the famous tomb found by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

Modern Egyptologists are revisiting the clues, reshaping the fragmentary puzzle of what exactly happened during one of history’s most tumultuous times….

[After Akhenaten’s death,] Princess Neferneferuaten took the throne, the professor says, with the teenage Meritaten adopting the ritual role of chief royal consort.

“It looks like after one year, Meritaten had herself crowned as pharaoh, as well,” she says.

It wasn’t without precedent. Or controversy.

Egypt had had female pharaohs before — Hatshepsut and Sobekneferu.

And Akhenaten had already done something radical: Among his revolutionary acts was to make his favourite queen, Nefertiti, a full equal in rank and status. Essentially, a co-pharaoh.

Their looted statues — one wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, the other of Lower Egypt — were later bundled among Tutankhamun’s possessions.

The bejewelled plate of the goddess Nut also found among Tut’s treasures indicates it was these child queens that had set about restoring the old religions and moving the capital back to Thebes. Not Tutankhamun, as is widely reported.

But the priests who cemented King Tut’s rule hated Akhenaten with a vengeance for having stripped away their gods, their wealth and their power. And they wold have been scandalised by any following co-female rule, Professor Angenot says.

More at the link. I am not endorsing either of these, but I’m not discounting them entirely; sometimes women really have been written out of history because men wanted it that way. However, it is always tempting to go too far in the opposite direction for similarly political reasons. Whom to believe? (Although I confess to being a Stratfordian myself; I found James Shapiro’s Contested Will to be convincing.)

Prince Arthur

Arthur Tudor, that is, whose death (in 1502) left Katherine of Aragon a widow after five months of marriage. Would the English send her back to Spain with her dowry, and be deprived of an alliance with a country that had just discovered the New World? Would Katherine lose the opportunity to be queen some day? By no means! The English arranged for Katherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry, who succeeded to the throne in 1509 as King Henry VIII.* But Katherine’s daughter Mary displeased Henry – Henry Tudor had won the crown in 1485 through right of conquest, and Henry VIII really wanted a son to carry on the dynasty. Katherine, however, produced a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, which Henry began to believe was punishment for violating Leviticus 18:16: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” (Indeed, the English had to get special permission from the papacy for the marriage to happen, and they based their argument partly on Deuteronomy 25:5: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her” – you can see how Biblicism had already become standard in formulating Christian policy.) Henry’s petition for a divorce from Katherine was denied, in part because the papacy had had to grant an exemption for the marriage in the first place, and in part because Rome was then occupied by Charles V, Katherine’s nephew, and was in no position to grant Henry any favors. 

Thus was founded the Church of England, with Henry as its head, and the power to grant his own divorce.**

To return to Prince Arthur, I noticed an article in Town and Country magazine just now (likely inspired by the success of a new television series, The Spanish Princess, about Katherine). Excerpt:

The Cause of Prince Arthur Tudor’s Death Remains a Medical Mystery

The Prince of Wales’s unexpected passing changed the course of European history, but we still don’t know exactly how he died.

Also known as the sweating sickness and simply the sweats, the so-called “English Sweat” which claimed Arthur, Price of Wales’s life has remained a medical mystery for centuries.

Reaching epidemic proportions on no less than five occasions during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, sweating sickness was highly lethal. Physician John Caius, whose book about the illness remains the most famous account from the time period, noted that death could occur within 3 hours of the onset of symptoms, and that those who survived the first 24 hours would usually make a full recovery (though surviving did not, evidently, prevent the patients from contracting the disease again.)

Sweating sickness was confined almost exclusively to England during its outbreaks, ravaging the wealthy more often than the poor. And yet, for all of its virulence, the sweats seemed to disappear almost as suddenly as they appeared in the first place, with no known outbreaks after 1578.

While the disease’s disappearance no doubt saved thousands of lives, it has also stymied modern medical investigators hoping to understand what claimed the life of Arthur and so many of his subjects.

Part of the trouble stems from sweating sickness’s symptoms—fever, chills, aches, delirium, and, of course, intense sweating—which are common to a number of diseases including influenza, scarlet fever, and typhus, yet never seem to fit exactly in strength, duration, or combination with any known medical issue. The most common modern theory suggests that the outbreaks may have been a form of hantavirus, similar to a hantavirus pulmonary syndrome that struck the American southwest in the 1990s. Exactly why the virus, if that was indeed the cause, would disappear so suddenly is not known, but some scholars suggest that it could be a result of the virus evolving in a way that made it less deadly or less easily spread to humans.

More at the link, including an image of the now-lost east window of St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, which was commissioned for Arthur and Katherine’s engagement. You can see the couple in the lower right and left of the window; you can also see St. George on the left, another piece of evidence about his national importance in the late Middle Ages.

* Somehow this episode reminds me of a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “But I don’t want to think I’ve lost a son, so much as gained a daughter! For, since the tragic death of her father… I want his only daughter to look upon me as her own dad, in a very real, and legally binding sense.”

** You can always tease an Anglican about the sordid origins of his Church. However, he will respond with the claim that Anglicanism represents the via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, a tolerant Big Tent of a religion that eschewed fanaticism (although Queen Elizabeth, whose Settlement inaugurated the rhetoric of the via media, did condemn numerous Catholics for religious reasons).

Oh the Humanities

From BBC Capital:

Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life

At university, when I told people I was studying for a history degree, the response was almost always the same: “You want to be a teacher?”. No, a journalist. “Oh. But you’re not majoring in communications?”

In the days when a university education was the purview of a privileged few, perhaps there wasn’t the assumption that a degree had to be a springboard directly into a career. Those days are long gone.

Today, a degree is all but a necessity for the job market, one that more than halves your chances of being unemployed. Still, that alone is no guarantee of a job – and yet we’re paying more and more for one. In the US, room, board and tuition at a private university costs an average of $48,510 a year; in the UK, tuition fees alone are £9,250 ($12,000) per year for home students; in Singapore, four years at a private university can cost up to SGD$69,336 (US$51,000).

Learning for the sake of learning is a beautiful thing. But given those costs, it’s no wonder that most of us need our degrees to pay off in a more concrete way. Broadly, they already do: in the US, for example, a bachelor’s degree holder earns $461 more each week than someone who never attended a university.

But most of us want to maximise that investment – and that can lead to a plug-and-play type of approach to higher education. Want to be a journalist? Study journalism, we’re told. A lawyer? Pursue pre-law. Not totally sure? Go into Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) – that way, you can become an engineer or IT specialist. And no matter what you do, forget the liberal arts – non-vocational degrees that include natural and social sciences, mathematics and the humanities, such as history, philosophy and languages.

This has been echoed by statements and policies around the world. In the US, politicians from Senator Marco Rubio to former President Barack Obama have made the humanities a punch line. (Obama later apologised). In China, the government has unveiled plans to turn 42 universities into “world class” institutions of science and technology. In the UK, government focus on Stem has led to a nearly 20% drop in students taking A-levels in English and a 15% decline in the arts.

But there’s a problem with this approach. And it’s not just that we’re losing out on crucial ways to understand and improve both the world and ourselves – including enhancing personal wellbeing, sparking innovation and helping create tolerance, among other values.

It’s also that our assumptions about the market value of certain degrees – and the “worthlessness” of others – might be off. At best, that could be making some students unnecessarily stressed. At worst? Pushing people onto paths that set them up for less fulfilling lives. It also perpetuates the stereotype of liberal arts graduates, in particular, as an elite caste – something that can discourage underprivileged students, and anyone else who needs an immediate return on their university investment, from pursuing potentially rewarding disciplines.

I couldn’t agree more, and said as much in a piece that will be appearing later this summer (stay tuned).

Joanna Southcott

This advertisement appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1968 (hat tip: Ron Good). Who is Joanna Southcott, and what might be in her box? The indispensable Wikipedia tells us that:

Joanna Southcott (or Southcote) (April 1750 – 27 December 1814) was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born in the English hamlet of Taleford, baptised at Ottery St Mary, and raised in the village of Gittisham, all in Devon, England.

Originally of the Church of England, in about 1792 she joined the Wesleyans in Exeter. Becoming persuaded that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme, and then announced herself as the Woman of the Apocalypse spoken of in a prophetic passage of the Revelation (12:1–6).

Coming to London at the request of William Sharp, the engraver, Southcott began selling paper “seals of the Lord” at prices varying from twelve shillings to a guinea. The seals were supposed to ensure the holders’ places among the 144,000 people who would be elected to eternal life.

At the age of 64, Southcott affirmed that she was pregnant and would be delivered of the new Messiah, the Shiloh of Genesis (49:10). The date of 19 October 1814 was that fixed for the birth, but Shiloh failed to appear, and it was given out that she was in a trance.

Southcott died not long after. The official date of death was given as 27 December 1814, but it is likely that she died the previous day, as her followers retained her body for some time in the belief that she would be raised from the dead. They agreed to its burial only after it began to decay.

Her followers are said to have numbered over 100,000 at the time of her death. As for her box:

Southcott left a sealed wooden box of prophecies, usually known as Joanna Southcott’s Box, with the instruction that it be opened only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all 24 bishops of the Church of England (there were only 24 at the time), who were to spend a fixed period of time beforehand studying Southcott’s prophecies. Attempts were made to persuade the episcopate to open it during the Crimean War and again during the First World War. In 1927, the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed that he had come into possession of the box and arranged to have it opened in the presence of one reluctant prelate, the suffragan Bishop of Grantham. It was found to contain only a few oddments and unimportant papers, among them a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol. Price’s claims to have had the true box have been disputed by historians and by followers of Southcott.

Southcottians claimed that the box opened in 1927 was not the authentic one and continued to press for the true box to be opened. An advertising campaign on billboards and in British national newspapers such as the Sunday Express was run in the 1960s and 1970s by one prominent group of Southcottians, the Panacea Society in Bedford (formed 1920), to try to persuade the twenty-four bishops to have the box opened. According to the Society, the true box is in their possession at a secret location for safekeeping, with its whereabouts to be disclosed only when a bishops’ meeting has been arranged. Southcott prophesied that the Day of Judgement would come in the year 2004, and her followers stated that if the contents of the box had not been studied beforehand, the world would have had to meet it unprepared.

The Panacea Society was founded by a “clergyman’s widow, Mabel Barltrop, who declared herself the ‘daughter of God’, took the name Octavia and believed herself to be the Shiloh of Southcott’s prophecies. She and twelve apostles founded the Society, originally called the Community of the Holy Ghost.” It really was a community – some seventy members lived at its building on Albany Street in Bedford in the 1930s. According to BBC Travel, it was:

Dominated by single women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, [who] sent squares of linen that they claimed would heal any affliction to more than 120,000 believers worldwide….

These women were unable or unwilling to keep up with a period of intense social change, according to museum manager Gemma Papineau. “They had the mentality of scared people trying to protect themselves,” she said. “They built high walls around their campus, locked themselves inside it and made sure that everyone living with them believed exactly the same as them.”

The Panaceans were mostly conservative, right-wing, Christian ‘spinsters’, raised in the Victorian era and excluded from positions of authority within the church and in their lives. Part of the reason they fell in love with Joanna Southcott’s story, perhaps, was because of the power it granted to an ageing, childless, single woman. They went so far as to configure the Christian Trinity as a square, with Octavia as the Daughter of God. Just as Eve had first brought sin into the world, they believed, it was up to a woman to erase it – and provide mankind’s ultimate redemption.

Alas, the number of members dwindled over the years and the last one died in 2012. With that, the society’s assets were transferred to the Panacea Charitable Trust, which exists to promote research into millenarian movements and to help relieve poverty in the Bedford area. It also operates the Panacea Museum, which is devoted to the society.

What about the box? If you’re really interested, a replica box is on display at the museum, and a book by Frances Brown can tell you more:

If the name of Joanna Southcott strikes a chord today, it is usually in connection with her famous Box of Sealed Prophecies. But, if asked what that Box is, some will assure you that it contains the secrets of the second coming, while others say that it holds nothing more significant than a woman’s lacy night cap and a pistol. As to where the Box is now, some repeat that it was opened in 1927 in Westminster Hall and that it is now housed in the Harry Price Library in London. Others have suggested that its contents are in the British Library, while the Box itself languishes in a cellar of the British Museum. Still others maintain that the Box no longer exists – if, indeed, it ever did.

The truth is far simpler yet in some ways more mysterious. The Box does exist. The author has seen and examined it. There has been an unbroken chain of custodians from Joanna’s day to this, and the present guardians of the Box take their responsibilities every bit as seriously as their predecessors. Moreover, all the evidence suggests that Joanna Southcott’s Box has not been opened for at least a hundred and fifty years and that it contains prophecies which have been kept with their seals intact ever since her death.

This book, by establishing the provenance of the Box, dispels the falsehoods that have blurred its history. Joanna Southcott’s Box of Sealed Prophecies is locked, nailed and corded, its contents still awaiting examination.

Both Joanna Southcott and the Panacea Society sound very interesting and well worth further research. (Were they really a bunch of conservative spinsters, afraid of social change? The unconventionality of their faith would suggest otherwise.) Southcott herself reminds me of Hildegard of Bingen, Brigitte of Sweden, or Julian of Norwich – medieval women who received inspired messages, but of whom the Church had a great deal of suspicion. A website dedicated to reprinting Southcott’s writings may be found at joannasouthcott.com; judge for yourself if she was heretical. 

University Assessment Committee Erotica

A laff from McSweeny’s:

“Do you remember the safe word?” she asked as she tightened the last of the leather straps binding him to the bench.

“Yes,” he said, shivering with anticipation. “Do it. I want you to hurt me.”

“Oh, I will,” she smirked. She reached into her tote bag and removed a spreadsheet, holding it tantalizingly out of his reach. “Do you see this data?” she demanded. “It’s a mess.”

“Ohh. How bad is it?” he gasped.

“So bad. Very, very bad. See this column? Several departments were not in compliance with the strategic plan. And this? These outcomes aren’t remotely quantifiable.”

He groaned with delight.

“But the worst of all,” she purred, striding closer on her sensible Clarks, “is the feedback we received from the Humanities. Some of the older faculty… tenured, full professors… refused to perform an assessment at all.”

“But!” he gulped. “But they put everyone’s accreditation at risk!”

She shook her head. “They don’t seem to care. In fact, do you know what they said?”

“No, mistress!” he panted.

“They said…” She leaned forward and whispered in his ear. “They said, ‘Isn’t that what grades are for?’”

“Ooooooooooaaaaaaagh,” he exploded in a climax of ecstatic pain. “Stop! No more! Trivium! Trivium!”

More at the link.

The Academic Sandbox

The always-entertaining Charlotte Allen weighs in on the recent kerfuffles in medieval studies, in First Things. A choce excerpt:

Until recently, academic medieval studies seemed to be immune from the mix of identity politics, impenetrable postmodernist jargon, and social-­justice witch-hunting that has taken over most of the humanities and social sciences. It’s not that most professors of medieval history and literature aren’t political liberals. It’s that medieval studies used to be so technically and linguistically demanding (deciphering Latin manuscripts, for example) that scholars didn’t need to worry about being called out for not being sufficiently alert to critical race theory and other progressive obsessions. As one medievalist professor, who requested anonymity, told me in an email: “People who do Near Eastern languages, Classics, Slavic languages, Asian languages, Byzantine history and, until recently, Medieval history have been protected from the worst of the SJW ­idiocy, because SJW idiots aren’t smart enough to get a foothold in those fields.”

All of this is changing fast. Perhaps because of pressure from university administrators to shorten degree programs to churn out doctorates, perhaps because secondary and even post-secondary education these days fails to train would-be medievalists in the rudimentary skills they need (what public high school teaches Latin?), standards have fallen, especially with respect to languages, but also with respect to technical skills such as paleography, which ­graduate students even at elite universities often must learn on their own, if at all. The standards have fallen fastest in university English departments, where graduate programs function in part as catchment areas for warm bodies to teach mandatory freshman composition for rock-bottom pay. It was no accident that the majority of the medievalist academics who gathered at George Washington in October 2017 to censure Rachel Fulton Brown hailed from postmodernism-soaked English departments.

The field of medieval history, in contrast to ­medieval literature, has been somewhat resistant to this trend, partly because historians still generally believe that they can shed light on what actually happened in the past, not just on the socially constructed narratives that literary theorists might find. Nonetheless, postmodernist politicization has made inroads even into history departments. Progressive academics have picked apart the field of medieval studies itself as a social construct: a narrative invention by self-glorifying scholars of European descent.

“How serious is this whole thing?” a colleague asks. In honesty I have to reply that, given the numbers of people involved, it’s not all that serious. Medievalists might not be “monkish” but, from what I can gather, most of them don’t even know about the Brown-Kim feud, and cannot muster the interest to care when they are apprised of it. It seems to be one of those things that becomes all-consuming if you’re a social media junkie. People with actual lives and real research agendas tend to have different priorities.

Alas, you might not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. So-called “woke” medievalists, the “SJWs” of the discipline, while numbering perhaps 100 at most, are influential beyond their numbers, for the reasons that Joseph Epstein noticed. Some of them have infiltrated the higher reaches of the Medieval Academy, where they bend it to their will by instituting a risible Professional Behavior Policy, sending around an email asking the membership to “thoughtfully consider” a statement by the Medievalists of Color essentially accusing the entire field of being racist, or giving free lifetime membership to Dorothy Kim on account of the alleged harassment she received from fans of Milo Yiannopoulous. And if no one pushes back against this sort of thing, it will eventually become the new normal, and given the online behavior of its proponents they will end up ruthlessly excluding anyone holding contrary views from the Medieval Academy. This is not an exaggeration – they truly believe they are in an apocalyptic struggle against the forces of evil, and anything done to further their cause is morally justified. This is not even a conflict between the “left” and the “right,” it is between emotionally secure adults who have an expansive attitude toward other opinions, knowing that they themselves might not have all the answers, and people who believe, e.g., that refusing to ban Rachel Brown from attending a session at the Kalamazoo conference “allowed a false conception of academic freedom to undermine true academic freedom” (cf. Joseph Stalin on “true freedom“), or who say things like this: