Two Links

I wanted to share these before I left:

1. The British Parliament has advertised for a new Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. My friend Hannes Kleineke sketches the history of this office:

To most people taking an interest in the work and procedures of the British Parliament, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (or ‘Black Rod’ as he is known in popular parlance) is an immediately recognisable figure from the part he plays in the ceremonial surrounding the annual State Opening. The ceremonial is, however, only a small part of the duties of the modern ‘Black Rod’, who has overall administrative charge of much of the palace of Westminster.

This was no forgone conclusion: the office of Black Rod was originally that of usher to the King of England’s principal order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, and for several centuries had no direct connection with Parliament. The Parliament Chamber, that is, in modern understanding, the House of Lords, was instead in the care of a different officer, the usher (or porter) of the Parliament Chamber. While the usher controlled access, and was thus able to command fees from intending suitors, his office also had a less glamorous side. The usher’s responsibilities included the preparation of the Parliament chamber and the maintenance of its furnishings, down to the provision of mundane items such as ‘canvas, corde, hamer, nailes, cordes, crochetes, worstede and other thinges’, as the account of John Frampton and William Welles, ushers in 1470, shows. The ushers had to think ahead, particularly when Parliament met away from Westminster: the items provided by Richard Baron and Simon Edward for the meeting of Parliament at Leicester in April 1450 included ‘a chair for the King to sit in’.

More at the link.

2. Moira Lavelle interviews the great Mary Lefkowitz (hat tip: Alex Lesk). My favorite bit:

Q: Some would say you are best known for your book Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History, arguing against the idea that all classical civilization started in Egypt. This is a bit of a departure from your other scholarship. How did this change the course of your academic career

A: In a way it isn’t a departure from my other scholarship. I’ve always been interested in how people get things wrong, so it wasn’t totally a detour. Though it was a detour to learn a lot about Egypt and Afrocentrism, which is a concept white people can zoom along and never know about.

In the ’90s Afrocentrism had this moment. There were linguistic efforts to show that Egyptian was the same as other African languages which it’s not. But Martin Bernal’s work had a moment of chic among people who didn’t know much about archaeology and Ancient  Egyptian history— there was this idea that ‘isn’t it wonderful, now classics can be so relevant, we can be connected to African civilization’. Not that I have any objection of classics being connected to anything. If we ever discover a large body of Egyptian philosophy very similar to Artistotle and Plato, that would be just fine with me. I just don’t think we will. The Egyptian philosophy of that time was very metaphysical, very hard to understand for us.

The other thing that threw me about Bernal’s work was he would always throw in false etymologies of words or places. He argued the word Parthenon came from Egyptian, Pr thn meaning ‘house of crystal’.  But the Parthenon has no crystal in it. It doesn’t make any sense on any etymological level. What etymologists have come up with is a very good list of loan words from Egyptian into Greek from even the 8th century, but these are just occasional loan words. Bernal didn’t know all that, and he just made up etymologies. And so few classicists even knew about linguistics that they believed the stuff.

The reason I got into the whole thing was I was asked to do a review by the New Republic and there was the concept of Afrocentrism, and I had known nothing about it. I remember writing this review and thinking maybe this was the most important thing I’d ever done. There was a whole mythology there that wasn’t recognized as mythology. It’s very interesting in it’s own right as way of gaining a kind of foundation myth. Just like in the early stages of the women’s liberation movement the Goddess Cult idea was very popular. But to say there was a matriarchy in classical religion to begin with is just false.

More at the link.

Lachlan Macquarie

From the antipodean ABC, courtesy my friend Lachlan Mead, an article assessing the George Washington of Australia:

Fact check: Was Lachlan Macquarie a mass murderer who ordered the genocide of Indigenous people?

The claim

Lachlan Macquarie, governor of NSW from 1810 to 1821, is often remembered by history as a man of the enlightenment who brought civilisation to the colony.

Indeed, the plaque attached to his monument in Sydney’s Hyde Park reads: “He was a perfect gentleman, a Christian and supreme legislator of the human heart.”

But late last month Bronwyn Carlson, head of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, challenged this during an ABC RN Breakfast interview.

Asked if she would be satisfied with a different or additional plaque, Professor Carlson said: “Would people be satisfied to say this: ‘Here stands a mass murderer who ordered the genocide of Indigenous people’?”

Is this characterisation of Macquarie accurate? Did Macquarie commit mass murder? Did he order genocide? RMIT ABC Fact Check delves into a fraught and controversial part of our history.

The verdict

The issue is not cut and dried.

In April 1816, Macquarie ordered soldiers under his command to kill or capture any Aboriginal people they encountered during a military operation aimed at creating a sense of “terror”.

At least 14 men, women and children were brutally killed, some shot, others driven over a cliff.

Although Macquarie’s orders included an instruction to punish the guilty with as little injury to the innocent as possible, archival evidence shows he knew innocent people could be killed.

In addition, Macquarie explicitly instructed his soldiers to offer those Aboriginal groups encountered an opportunity to surrender, and to open fire only after meeting “resistance”.

These instructions appear to have been ignored. Historical records suggest the soldiers offered no opportunity to surrender, opening fire on a group of people ambushed at night and who were fleeing in terror.

Macquarie appears to have glossed over this failure in the weeks following the massacre, telling his superior back in England that his men acted “perfectly in Conformity to the instructions I had furnished them”, and claiming the soldiers had indeed encountered resistance before opening fire.

Macquarie was ultimately responsible for his men. By today’s standards, his actions — and lack of action in not bringing soldiers who disobeyed his instructions to account — would, as a minimum, likely be regarded as a war crime involving a disproportionate response that led to a significant loss of life.

And, depending on the definition, the incident might also be described as “mass murder”, perhaps akin to recent military massacres in which innocent civilians attempting to flee were killed.

The issue of whether or not the actions amount to genocide is a complex one. A legal definition of genocide did not exist until after World War II. It is questionable whether this can be applied retrospectively to Macquarie’s actions, which took place some 130 years before the UN General Assembly made genocide a crime under international law.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Macquarie set about deliberately to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, as per the UN definition, however misguided and destructive some of his Indigenous policies might have been. It is, therefore, problematic to suggest that Macquarie, as an individual, was guilty of ordering genocide.

However, it can be argued that the impact of the wider conflict between Aboriginal people and Europeans (whether soldiers or vigilante settlers), combined with a range of other factors — the loss of land and food sources, the spread of disease, the removal of children, and alcohol abuse, for example — contributed to the large-scale loss of life and culture that resembled genocide.

Experts contacted by Fact Check acknowledged the nuance in the arguments, but differed in their interpretations of Macquarie’s actions and his culpability or otherwise.

Read the whole thing.

“Filial Correction”

From the National Catholic Register (via Instapundit), notice of a letter sent to Pope Francis last month, offering a “Filial Correction Concerning the Propagation of Heresies,” from 62 Catholic notables. The article claims that the last such correction was given to Pope John XXII in 1333. Correctio Filialis comes in three main parts:

In the first part, the signatories explain why, as believing and practising Catholics, they have the right and duty to issue such a correction to the supreme pontiff. Church law itself requires that competent persons not remain silent when the pastors of the Church are misleading the flock. This involves no conflict with the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility, since the Church teaches that a pope must meet strict criteria before his utterances can be considered infallible. Pope Francis has not met these criteria. He has not declared these heretical positions to be definitive teachings of the Church, or stated that Catholics must believe them with the assent of faith. The Church teaches no pope can claim that God has revealed some new truth to him, which it would be obligatory for Catholics to believe.

The second part of the letter is the essential one, since it contains the ‘Correction’ properly speaking. It lists the passages of Amoris laetitia in which heretical positions are insinuated or encouraged, and then it lists words, deeds, and omissions of Pope Francis which make it clear beyond reasonable doubt that he wishes Catholics to interpret these passages in a way that is, in fact, heretical. In particular, the pope has directly or indirectly countenanced the beliefs that obedience to God’s Law can be impossible or undesirable, and that the Church should sometimes accept adultery as compatible with being a practising Catholic.

The final part, called ‘Elucidation’, discusses two causes of this unique crisis. One cause is ‘Modernism’. Theologically speaking, Modernism is the belief that God has not delivered definite truths to the Church, which she must continue to teach in exactly the same sense until the end of time. Modernists hold that God communicates to mankind only experiences, which human beings can reflect on, so as to make various statements about God, life and religion; but such statements are only provisional, never fixed dogmas. Modernism was condemned by Pope St Pius X at the start of the 20th century, but it revived in the middle of the century. The great and continuing confusion caused in the Catholic Church by Modernism obliges the signatories to describe the true meaning of ‘faith’, ‘heresy’, ‘revelation’, and ‘magisterium’.

I would really hate to hear what they think of postmodernism! I love how the article describes Martin Luther as a “heresiarch.”

By the way, to help celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the composition of the 95 theses next month, PBS premiered “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World” last week. I believe you can still see it on the PBS website. It was sponsored by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, so you won’t hear him described in such terms.

Luther’s Handwriting

An exciting discovery at Emory, just in time for the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses:

A three line inscription on the title page of a 1520 pamphlet from the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection was recently identified by the German Church Historian Ulrich Bubenheimer as being in the hand of Martin Luther himself!

The author of the pamphlet–a fictitious dialogue critical of Pope Leo X’s bull that threatened Martin Luther with excommunication–was previously unknown. However, Luther’s gift inscription to Wolfgang Wolprecht, Prior of the Augustinian monastery in Nuremberg, allows us to conclude that it was composed by Johannes Petzensteiner (1487-1554), a fellow Augustinian who had come to Wittenberg from Nuremberg to serve as lector.

The inscription reads idest p.[atris] lectoris / Betzensteynn / priori Volfgango Volprechto N[urenbergensi] (= This is Pater Lector Betzensteynn, for Prior Wolfgang Wolprecht of Nuremberg) and follows the printed line Excusum, impensis & opera Iohannis Coticulae. The Latin coticula means whetstone (German Wetzstein), which becomes Betzstein or Petztstein in some German dialects and thus came to serve as a pseudonym for Johannes Petzenstein, who was later one of Luther’s two travel companions (with Nikolaus Amsdorff) on his return to Wittenberg from the Diet of Worms.

We are delighted with this new discovery and with Prof. Bubenheimer’s verification. As Kessler Scholars Advisory Committee member Tim Wengert noted, “Over the course of his career, Prof. Bubenheimer has proved himself to be the premier expert in identifying Luther’s handwriting, having spent his entire career uncovering hitherto unknown inscriptions by Luther. In this particular case, his reconstruction is spot on and helps to show the way other fellow Augustinians supported Luther in the early stages of the Reformation.”

Images at the link.

“College Misery”

I discovered this evening a blog entitled College Misery, which ran from 2010 to 2016. I was unaware of it at the time. I am not endorsing everything on it, but I did admire a story told by one of the bloggers, Henchminion, in a post from 2011:

Back in 2005 I did an evil, evil thing. Discovering the proliferation of websites where student plagiarists could copy essays, I wrote a Trojan horse paper about the Magna Carta and seeded it on a few plagiarism sites. The essay is basically wrong from beginning to end. Amongst other silliness, it claims that King John’s titles included Duke of Hazzard, and observes that “peasants were reduced to eating burage and socage.” It also invents a fictitious war against Flanders Fland (a region on the coast of Luxembourg) and cites such scholarly tomes as Bollock and Maidenhead’s classic Interminable History of the English Law.

Every once in awhile, I google a few phrases from the paper to see how it’s gettting along in the wild. Over the years, the two seed essays I planted have spawned a dozen or so Google hits at various disreputable sites. Sometimes they even want you to pay to see the whole text. However, for years I had no idea if any student had actually handed the thing in.

Until tonight.

Oh my, oh my. The wording has been changed somewhat and some of the jokes were excised, but that’s my essay there. Ranulf de Glanville has been changed from the Sheriff of Nottingham to “a mercenary of John,” which totally wrecks the reference to Alan Rickman in the bibliography. (The student is probably too young to have seen that movie.) But since he’s not Canadian, the bit about the notwithstanding clause sailed right past him.

He quotes the words “Discipulus tuus hunc tractatum non scripsit” in caps lock, but the professor for the course was an Americanist, so maybe he didn’t get it? Did the paper pass? The student seems to have managed to graduate. Apparently he even minored in Latin!

The Latin reads “Your student did not write this essay.” Burgage and socage are forms of land tenure. Pollock and Maitland wrote The History of English Law (it comprises only two volumes; it is not “interminable”). I especially appreciated her reference, in the full body of the text, to the “climactic battle in the forest of Runnymede, near the village of Bloor West.” Runnymede (“swampy meadow”) was indeed where the barons forced Magna Carta on King John; it is also the name of a Toronto neighborhood and subway station on the Bloor-Danforth line, thus the reference to Bloor West, which took me back. Her reference to the idea that Magna Carta “can only be rewritten if the changes are agreed to by the House of Commons, the monarch, and seven out of the ten shires representing fifty percent plus one of the population” is in fact an amendment formula proposed for the Canadian Constitution in 1987 (the Meech Lake Accord).

I don’t think that seeding this essay was an “evil, evil thing.” I think that it is laudatory. If you purchase an essay and submit it as your own work, you deserve everything you get. Just as circulating counterfeit currency destabilizes a country’s economy, so also do Trojan Horse essays undermine the economy of paper mills, which can only be a good thing. In fact, I think I might try composing one of these some time.

The Symbolic Middle Ages

According to Dorothy Kim, assistant professor of English at Vassar:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students… What are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side.

You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not. You also do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgements and calls on what side you are really on. I suggest overt signaling of how you are not a white supremacist and how your medieval studies is one that does not uphold white supremacy. Neutrality is not optional.

OK, I’ll choose a side, and that side is a firm stand against this sort of twaddle. I really hate moral bullying – “If it’s important to me, then it needs to be important to you! You’re not allowed not to care – if you deny the problem, you’re part of the problem!”

But maybe the only “problem” is your own warped perception of reality?

Apparently the “alt-right,” whatever that is, takes inspiration from the Middle Ages (and from the Classics too). They like the idea of Crusaders cracking Muslim skulls, and they also like to contemplate a Europe before the advent of mass non-European and non-Christian immigration. But how many people are we actually talking about here? And how big of a problem is this, really? People can idealize any era of history that they want, for whatever reason they want. We always feel sad when other people don’t share our enthusiasm for our subject – well, here are people who love the Middle Ages! How about harnessing that enthusiasm and nudging it towards the academic consensus – on the off chance that one of these types should actually appear in our classrooms? It’s really no different from how one treats students who idealize ancient Egypt, Native Americans, the Caliphate, matriarchal prehistory, or pseudo-history of the Da Vinci Code variety. You accept the students where they are, and gently explain that their vision of the past might not be entirely accurate – and you make sure to explain that whatever happened in the past doesn’t necessarily make for good policy today.

I really don’t believe that “the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.” I think that most ordinary Americans are fully capable of distinguishing between professors of medieval studies and young men dressing up as Knights Templar. It would not occur to them to think that we are endorsing the Charlottesville rally, any more than we are endorsing Knight Transportation or King Arthur Flour (or, for that matter, that the classics department is endorsing the Atlanta Gladiators or the American Legion). To suggest that they can’t is condescending and rude, and more than a little self-dramatizing. In fact, I would say that Prof. Kim’s post is an example of Joseph Epstein‘s observation that much in current academic life is “either boring or crazy,” and for whom publishing an article about it was like “opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, ‘Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.'” Most people roll their eyes at the sheer craziness of much academic dispute, and shed no tears when politicians cut our funding.

So let me turn Prof. Kim’s invitation on its head: what have you done, medievalist, to combat this craziness? What have you done to prove to Middle America that your discipline and profession deserve to be taken seriously?

Jews in Antiquity

I find it interesting that in all of the Histories of Herodotus, there is no overt mention of Jews or Judaism. Herodotus describes the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BC), an event of great significance in Jewish history, but there is no notice that the Jews were ever in captivity there, or that Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem. In all of Herodotus’s anthropological investigation of the various peoples of the world in the fifth century BC, there is no notice of the Jews at all (unless they are the “Palestinian Syrians” who supplied some ships for Xerxes’s invasion of Greece in 7:89). Come to think of it, there is no mention of the Jews in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (second century AD), even though Alexander (d. 323 BC) had besieged the Phoenician city of Tyre, and then headed down to Egypt to found Alexandria (and to receive word that he was divine at the oasis of Siwa).

This is strange considering how influential the Jews were later to become. Judaea was the trouble spot for the Romans. I suppose that the Jews had largely settled around Jerusalem (elevation: 750 m), while the road to Egypt passed along the coast – i.e. it was easy for people ignore the Jews in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

Thoughts on Book 9 of the Histories of Herodotus

Sharp-eyed readers will note that I never got around to writing something about the final book of the Histories, which we read in an HON 301 course this past spring (the other posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). The end of the semester is always busy, you must understand. You’ll find some scribblings below, but I’d also like to say that I just finished off my summary of the work, which is now on its own page – see the link above. The Histories is very long, very detailed, and not always straightforward in its narrative, so last summer, in preparation for my CIC seminar at the Center for Hellenic Studies, I started summarizing each chapter as I read it, which forced me to pay attention to the contents, and which produced a document I could review if I needed to. Events got ahead of me, however, and so I couldn’t get it done until now. In Herodotean fashion, I dedicate the fruit of my labors to the service of humanity.

As for Book Nine, the main event, of course, is the battle of Plataea (479 BC), the last major episode in the Persian Wars. Following the Persian defeat at the naval battle of Salamis the previous year (detailed in Book Eight), the Persian King Xerxes hightails it back to Asia, leaving his general Mardonius in charge of the war. After wintering in Thessaly, Mardonius moves south into Attica to try to bribe the Athenians into becoming allies, but the Athenians have once again retreated to the island of Salamis for safety. In the meantime, the Spartans are building a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth to guard the Peloponnese; the Athenians are worried that the Spartans will abandon them, and suggest to the Spartans that they just might take up the Persian offer. Fortunately, the Greek alliance holds, and the Spartans, the Athenians, and other non-Medized Greeks march out to face the Persians and their allies in Boeotia, and the Battle of Plataea ensues. It is not pretty, but the Greeks are ultimately victorious, and that is the end of the Persian attempt to conquer Greece. In an edifying parallel development (which Herodotus claims happens on the same day as Plataea), the Greeks fight another battle across the Aegean Sea at Mycale, defeating the Persians there and freeing Ionia once again. 

Herodotus does not shy away from depicting how fractious the Greek alliance is. Athens and Sparta and perennially suspicious of each other, and the squabbling between the Athenians and Tegeans (at 26-27) about which of them would get the place of honor on the wing at Plataea is a marvel to behold. Herodotus gives overall credit to the Spartans for the victory, but he also illustrates that this battle is no Thermopylae – the Spartans voluntarily give up fighting directly against the Persians (the Athenians, they acknowledge, have more experience in this activity), and when they find that the cavalry attacks are too much for them, they are only too willing to retreat to “the Island,” a defensible hill between two streams (although one Spartan captain, Amompharetus, refuses to go, and a mighty quarrel ensues between him and the Spartan general Pausanias about this). Emboldened by this apparent Spartan cowardice, Xerxes orders an attack, and at this point the Spartans rise to the occasion: “In spirit and strength, the Persians were the equals of the Greeks, but they had no armor, and they were unskilled besides and no match for their enemies in cunning. They made their charges singly or in tens… and so they were destroyed” (62).

But I think that the Greek fractiousness serves a literary purpose. Herodotus is not necessarily trying to show how a plucky underdog or a lovable band of misfits can ultimately be victorious over a superior foe, although I’m sure there is some of that. Rather, he is contrasting the Greek penchant for debate with the Persian custom of obedience. When the Athenians and Tegeans argue about placement on the wing, they each present numerous reasons why they themselves should get it. The Athenians are more convincing, and the rest of the Greeks shout their approval of the Athenian position. This is how the Greeks conduct themselves – they debate their issues in public. Compare this to the Persian “debate” prior to their attack at Plataea – in a war council, Artabazus suggests that the Persians retreat to Thebes, and from there attempt to bribe the various Greeks into Medizing. Mardonius, however, fearful that the longer they wait, the stronger their opponents will get, is in favor of attacking right away, contrary to the results of the sacrifices by the prophet Hegistratus. “Against this argument of his, no one took a stand, and so his plan won out. For he and not Artabazus had the supreme power of command from Xerxes.” When Mardonius asks his commanders if any of them knows of any oracles about Persian defeat in Greece, the commanders “kept silent, some because they did not know the prophecies, some because, though they knew them, they did not think that opening their mouths was a safe thing to do” (42). Thus does their leader pull rank, and they are all obliged to follow him to destruction.

Of course, public debate is not always the best way to determine policy, especially in times of war. But the overall message, I think, is the same one that the US tried promulgating during World War II and the Cold War: totalitarian societies always look terrifying from the outside, projecting as they do this image of unity and efficiency. But it’s all an illusion, and based on fear of being sent to a concentration camp or Gulag. The US was a “nation of joiners,” in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. – that is, American “civil society” was made up of a lot of voluntary groups that people joined because they wanted to, or because there was some tangible benefit to them (e.g. professional organizations, churches, service clubs, choirs, bowling leagues, etc.). It might look like a mess from the outside, that all of society is not moving forward in lock step to some goal, but it gives people a stake in their own country, and when moved to, they will all get together and defeat their enemies. And it is certainly edifying that many of the Medized Greeks abandon their loyalty to Persia the minute they think it is safe to do so.

The utility of public debate is not the only piece of pro-Hellenic propaganda in Book Nine. In numerous places, the Persians (and their allies like the Thebans) believe that all they need to do is to use their wealth to bribe the Greeks into taking their side (e.g. in 4, 41, 87, or 120). They don’t seem to realize that, to most Greeks, there are more important things than money. This lesson is underlined when, after the battle of Plataea, Pausanias orders Mardonius’s servants to prepare a meal in the Persian manner, and his own servants to prepare a meal in the Spartan manner. The contrast cannot be more stark – the Persian meal is a model of decadent luxury, while the Spartan meal is very simple indeed – prompting Pausanias to declare that the Persian king is foolish: given that he is used to such extravagance, what good can he possibly derive from conquering the poor Greeks? (The final chapter of the book [122] further emphasizes that “from soft countries come soft men. It is not possible that from the same land stems a growth of wondrous fruit and men who are good soldiers.”) Finally, there is the elaborate story (at 108-113) about how Xerxes falls in love with the (unnamed) wife of his brother Masistes, and so he contrives to marry his own son with Masistes’s daughter Artaynte, hoping that this tie will bring him closer to his sister-in-law. Instead, he falls for Artaynte, and conducts an affair with her, his own niece. This affair is discovered by Xerxes’s wife Amestris, who places the blame for it on Masistes’s wife; Amestris thus has Masistes’s wife mutilated. As a result of this outrage, Masistes leaves for Bactria in order to raise a revolt there, but Xerxes’s troops overtake him and kill him before he gets there. Now, Herodotus certainly deals with Greek misbehavior and malfeasance throughout The Histories, but to close out his work with such a story of incest and intrigue at the Persian court is surely a deliberate attempt to impress upon the reader who the bad guys are.

One final observation. In Book Nine, there are numerous instances of “prophets,” like Hegistratus, making sacrifices – but these sacrifices are not just to propitiate some god, but to determine his or her will. I suppose this is a form of haruscipy – the examination of the entrails of an animal to see what the future holds – perhaps a replacement for augury, the practice of discerning the will of the gods by the flight patterns of birds (as Calchas does in Book One of the Iliad). So if you don’t have time to consult the Oracle at Delphi (or that of some other well-known shrine like Dodona), you can have a personal seer providing answers to immediate questions. I must say that the Greek faith in such customs is something that has always puzzled me about them, or at least serves as the strongest counter-example to the notion that they are “rational.” Of course, the Oracle isn’t stupid, and often gives ambiguous answers so that whatever happens, it’s always right. But why no one ever saw through this (at least, Herodotus gives no evidence of any skepticism either on his own part or the part of any of his subjects) is a mystery to me. I suppose we have to wait until the fourth century and the further development of Greek philosophy under Plato, Aristotle, and others, before we encounter doubt about Fate.

Franklin’s Family

One of the interesting things we learned this summer in Philadelphia is that Benjamin Franklin lived in a common-law relationship with his wife Deborah Read, from 1730 until her death in 1774. Was this on account of Franklin’s principled unorthodoxy, the same spirit that impelled him to reject organized religion and to appear at the court of the French king wearing a rustic fur hat? Not really – it was simply that Read could not prove that her first husband was actually dead, and could thus not remarry without committing bigamy. Franklin and Read spent much time apart, however – allegedly she hated sea travel, and so did not accompany Franklin on his many trips to Europe. Another theory “suggests that a debate over the failed treatment of their son’s smallpox was the culprit.” See an extensive article in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine for more details.

Franklin already had an illegitimate child by another relationship before he set up house with Read; this was William Franklin (d. 1813). William grew up to be the last colonial governor of New Jersey and interestingly, remained a steadfast loyalist during the Revolutionary War. He ended his days in London unreconciled to his father.