News from Ireland

• Our guide in Belfast claimed that the different communities were beginning to appreciate each other’s customs. But what this can mean in practice is that the one community might adopt the other community’s customs, in reverse. If Unionists will go marching around in nationalist neighborhoods, then nationalists will go marching around in Unionist neighborhoods. If Unionists have huge bonfires on which they immolate nationalist symbols, well then nationalists will do the same with Unionist symbols. A twitter post from Leave.EU showed a recent nationalist bonfire in Derry that consumed several Union Jacks, Ulster banners, poppy wreaths, a British Army flag, various Protestant paramilitary flags, a Trump flag (!), and, to the consternation of the Times of Israel, an Israeli flag.

• I don’t know which community was the first to paint its kerbstones in the relevant colors (red, white, and blue for Unionists; green, white, and orange for nationalists), but apparently doing so counts as a hate crime now (or at least, you can report it as such, and the PSNI is obliged to investigate).

• Féile an Phobail, or the West Belfast Festival, was founded in the late 1980s in order to convince people that the Republicans who lived there had other interests besides terrorism. Alas, you can’t have something in West Belfast without someone ruining it; the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar opened the festival this year and was roundly criticized for doing so, after the appearance of IRA flags in the crowd. He had been warned that this was likely to happen, but went ahead and participated anyway.

Open Letter for Rachel Brown

The National Association of Scholars has organized an open letter in support of Rachel Fulton Brown of the University of Chicago. If you would like to sign, click the link. Paul Halsall said it well:

I disagree with many of Prof. Brown’s political views (which are a mix of conservative, libertarian, and some classical liberalism) but after on and off electronic conversations with her since the 1990s I am convinced that she is neither a fascist nor a white supremacist. The series of attacks on her by Dorothy Kim (formerly of Vassar, now of Brandeis) are fallacious. I find the support given to Kim by some other academics very ill-founded.

The National Association of Scholars, a fairly conservative but still respectable (?) group has now organised an online petition in support of Rachel Brown. I’m not really in favour of this sort of petition, but in light of a continued barrage of attacks by Kim and a petition signed against Brown, I think some gesture of support is necessary.

I therefore urge other historians to sign this petition, especially those among us on the political left who believe that we can continue scholarly and social discussion without resorting to the the “us” and “them” binaries that seem so appealing on social media.

I support Prof. Brown without agreeing with her. I suggest you do the same.

News from Canada

• A statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald has been removed from the front of the Victoria (BC) City Hall, on account of him being a “key architect of the Indian residential school system.”

• Canada might be getting a new statutory holiday “to mark Canada’s ‘tragic and painful’ residential school legacy.”

• One alumnus of the residential school system was Tom Longboat (1887-1949), a Mohawk from Brantford, Ontario, and the premier long-distance runner of his day. The National Post‘s Joe O’Connor remembers Edgar Laplante, a con artist who traveled around the United States pretending to be Longboat while Longboat was actually fighting in France, and then, when the jig was up, “Chief White Elk.” (Reminds me of Grey Owl, a.k.a. Englishman Archibald Belaney.)

William Blake

From Colby Cosh in the National Post:

How two amateurs recovered the long-lost resting place of William Blake

If you look at any recent biography of the poet and engraver William Blake (1757-1827), you will learn that his mortal remains lie in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields, London, but that their exact location is unknown. Bunhill Fields, in the borough of Islington, is a remarkable piece of London history. “Bunhill” was originally “bone hill,” and that is just what it is — a very ancient burial-place, already built up slightly with the volume of human remains by the time of recorded history. A property owner made the site available for nondenominational interments and pauper burials in the 17th century; since most cemeteries observed religious exclusions, this made it a popular place of repose for the “nonconformist” dead of London.

Read the whole thing.

Jon McNaughton

I first became aware of the artist Jon McNaughton in 2011, when on a summer road trip we ate lunch in a Christian-patriotic themed diner in Towanda, Pennsylvania. On the wall was a reproduction of McNaughton’s painting One Nation Under God. Please click the link to view the image as I do not want to violate copyright by reprinting it here. At the center of the action is a figure of Jesus… holding a copy of the Constitution of the United States! Behind him, our ancestors look down on us in judgment. To Jesus’ right, and facing him, are good, honest citizens – and to Jesus’ left, facing away from him, are such folks as a lawyer counting a pile of bills, a “liberal news reporter,” and a college professor clutching a copy of The Origin of Species to his breast, all under the inspiration of Satan. More details, and explanations, may be found at the One Nation Under God interactive page.

As I wrote at the time: all that is missing is a crying Statue of Liberty from The Onion.

I see that McNaughton’s work The Forgotten Man (2010) has earned itself a Wikipedia entry. I guess I can reprint this one:

As you can see, McNaughton is not just patriotic, but partisan. All presidents prior to Barack Obama are gathered on a lawn in front of the White House. The cooler ones are beseeching Obama to remember the “forgotten man,” who sits slumped over on a park bench in despair. The less cool ones (in particular, those who added substantially to the national debt) are applauding Obama – who himself is trampling the Constitution underfoot! (And see One Nation Under Socialism, in which he’s actually burning it.) Apparently this painting was inspired by the passage of the Affordable Care Act – unconstitutionally and at great expense, according to our artist – although you’d think the young man might be happy for some health care, at least.

The Forgotten Man also has an interactive page. It was roundly mocked by Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert around the time it was created, the reason for its appearance on Wikipedia.

As you can probably imagine, McNaughton is a big fan of Donald Trump, and his latest painting depicts Trump, his wife, daughter, and various cabinet officials, dressed in hunting camouflage, riding a boat through a swamp, and repelling alligators, all arranged like the figures in Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. This one was noticed by the Never Trump Weekly Standard, which called it “angry kitsch” and “pure id art.” I think it’s an interesting image but Trump does not seem to be draining the swamp, as he promised. And how much longer before this painting is out of date, rendered obsolete by a resignation or firing? (This is the trouble with all topical art, especially art that is essentially a political cartoon.)

It would be easy enough to condemn the lack of subtlety and sophistication of McNaughton’s oeuvre, and to take issue with his political bias, but I celebrate the originality of his vision and courage in sticking to it, even if I disagree – somewhat like the art of Jack T. Chick (third item). I do find his efforts at conflating church and state to be most interesting (not just Jesus and the Constitution, but Moses and the Supreme Court, and congressmen jeering Jesus out of the House of Representatives – even though the motto “In God We Trust” is clearly engraved on the entablature). Are Mormons especially susceptible to the idea that America is a new Israel, with a sacred covenant with God?

A New St. George

From a Ukrainian family friend: a monument in Kiev, in memory of the first casualties of the Russian invasion in 2015. Note how the dragon has two heads, each wearing an imperial crown, like the eagle on the Russian coat of arms. St. George, according to our friend, is dressed as a real Ukrainian.

More on the Matter

Mark Bauerlein weighs in:

One reason, perhaps, why identity politics seems to be having difficulties in Medieval Studies that it hasn’t had in other fields has to do with the nature of the field. My area, American Literature, easily absorbed multiculturalism decades ago. But Medieval Europe is so mono-religious and mono-racial that efforts to “de-Eurocentrize” and de-Christianize the study of it have been frustrated. The field also puts a heavy burden of linguistic and historical knowledge on its practitioners. (You can’t do Middle English if all you know is American English.) Those elements exasperate the multiculturalist impulse, making Medieval Studies a challenge to all those younger academics who’ve been trained to undo white privilege.

More at the link.

The Carlos Museum

Last summer we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and on my Middle Eastern trip I got to see some great museums in Istanbul, Ankara, Boğazkale, Konya, Ephesus, Bergama, Cairo, and Luxor. Compared to all of these, Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum isn’t particularly impressive, but I’ve always appreciated it. It has a great representative sample of objects from the Ancient Near East, the Americas, and Africa, all in a neat building on the Emory Quad. The bookstore is pretty good too. A visit this Sunday netted me a bunch of photographs.

The main hall as you walk in.

“Head of a goddess, perhaps Demeter.” Hellenistic, second century BC.

Contemporary Roman portrait of Emperor Tiberius.

“Relief with a woman,” Roman, first century BC.

Mercury. Roman, first-second centuries AD.

Minoan double axe, fourteenth century BC.

Mycenaean Psi Figurine, thirteenth century BC.

Greek ceramics, geometric period (900-700 BC).

Greek ceramics, Orientalizing Period (700-500 BC).

Black figure vase of Odysseus escaping from Polyphemus.

Red figure vase of Orpheus among the Thracians.

“Volute-krater depicting the story of Melanippe,” 330-320 BC.

Athenian owls in ceramic and silver.

An athlete grooms himself with a stirgil.

An actual stirgil.

Egyptian coffin.

An Old Kingdom mummy, before the standard position had developed.

Egyptian shabti figurines.

A set of Egyptian amulets placed within the bandages of a mummy.

Canopic jars.

Shakyamuni Buddha, Tibet, fourteenth century AD.

Cosmic form of eighteen-armed Vishnu, India, eleventh century AD.

St. George on an Ethiopian processional cross.

The Virgin Mary and St. George in an Ethiopian manuscript.

Native American ceramics.

Vessel with double-headed snake-caiman, Panama, ninth-eleventh century AD.

In the basement on the way out: a reproduction of the Hammurabi stele.

A reproduction of the dying lioness relief from the Assyrian royal palace of Nineveh, now in the British Museum.

A reproduction of the Obelisk of Shalmaneser III.

The rear entrance.

Let’s Call it Swimming

From History Today:

How Europe Learnt to Swim

For 1,500 years, Western Europe ‘forgot’ how to swim, retreating from the water in terror. The return to swimming is a lesser-known triumph of the Enlightenment.

Humans first learned to swim in prehistory – though how far back remains a matter of debate between the paleoanthropological establishment and the followers of Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), who championed the aquatic ape hypothesis, an aquatic phase during hominid evolution between 7 and 4.3 million years ago. Even though we may never have had an aquatic ancestor, compelling evidence exists for the swimming abilities of the representatives of the genus Homo since H. erectus, who appeared some 1.8 million years ago. In the historical period, the myths of the ancient civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean testify to a positive relationship with water and swimming, mediated until late antiquity by a pantheon of aquatic gods, nymphs and tritons.

By the medieval period, the majority of Western Europeans who were not involved in harvesting aquatic resources had forgotten how to swim. Swimming itself was not forgotten – but the ability to do so hugely decreased. Bodies of water became sinister ‘otherworlds’ populated by mermaids and sea monsters. How do we explain the loss of so important a skill? Humans have never given up running, jumping or climbing, so why did so many abandon an activity that was useful to obtain food and natural resources, vital to avoid drowning and pleasurable to cool down on a hot summer’s day?

The retreat from swimming began during late antiquity, as evidenced in the writings of the fifth-century Roman military writer, Vegetius, who bemoaned the fact that, unlike the hardy legionaries of the Republic, ‘whose only bath was the River Tiber’, the recruits of his day had become too used to the luxuries of the baths and had to be taught how to swim. Roman baths were furnished with large, shallow basins (piscinae), but these were designed for soaking and sitting and not swimming. Nevertheless, is it conceivable that the majority of the population of the Western Empire could forget how to swim? It is, if one considers the size of the urban bathhouse infrastructure and the concentration of the population living in inland cities in the late-imperial period. In 33 BC, Rome had 170 bathhouses; by late-fourth-century, that number had grown to 856.

Much more at the link, although as a friend pointed out, the Roman Empire may have been based on cities, but the vast majority of people did not live in them.

The author of this piece, Eric Chaline, wrote Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming (Reaktion, 2017). My friend Nicholas Orme wrote a history of British swimming that I see is still in print. The post title is a lyrical reference.

Horse Racing

Mike Huggins talks about his newly-published book Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century at Proofed, a blog of Boydell and Brewer:

I had not realized how important the annual racing week was in the leisure calendar of so many county and large market towns during the eighteenth century, helping foster consumerism and the urban renaissance. For many women of the middling classes for example, the racing was almost incidental, but was looked forward to for weeks before with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. It offered many social opportunities; socializing with the titled and the county set, attending assemblies, balls, the ordinaries or the theatre, appearing in the grandstand, and dressing up, demonstrating status and conspicuous consumption.

Racing was equally significant politically. The early Jockey Club was much more than a racing club. Its members were mostly Protestant, Whig and committed to the defeat of Stuart Catholicism, and were usually MPs or otherwise leading figures in the political elite, like the Duke of Bolton. Racing played across divisions of Whig and Tory, court and country or Hanover and Jacobite in complex ways. Hanoverian sons demonstrated their independence against their father by spending money racing. Race meetings were sites of assembly for political discourse where prospective and current parliamentarians lobbied for support, exploited the dynamics of patronage, or used attenders as focus groups.

More at the link.