The online review journal Sehepunkte has published two more of my reviews. These are of Matthew Ward, The Livery Collar in Late Medieval England and Wales: Politics, Identity, and Affinity (Boydell, 2016) and Malcolm Vale, Henry V: The Conscience of a King (Yale, 2016).
The iron maiden, the one-handed flail, the droit de seigneur, and now the chastity belt – all examples of the “weird Middle Ages” that never actually happened. From the ever interesting Atlas Obscura:
WHAT WAS THE CHASTITY BELT? You can picture it; you’ve seen it in many movies and heard references to it across countless cultural forms. There’s even a Seattle band called Chastity Belt. In his 1969 book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), David R. Reuben describes it as an “armored bikini” with a “screen in front to allow urination and an inch of iron between the vagina and temptation.”
“The whole business was fastened with a large padlock,” he writes. With this device, medieval men going off to medieval wars could be assured that their medieval wives would not have sex with anyone else while they were far, far away, for years at a time. Yes, it sounds simultaneously ridiculous, barbarous, and extremely unhygienic, but … medieval men, you know? It was a different time.
This, at least, is the story that’s been told for hundreds of years. It’s simple, shocking, and, on some level, fun, in that it portrays past people as exceedingly backwards and us, by extension, as enlightened and just better. It’s also, mostly likely, very wrong.
“As a medievalist, one day I thought: I cannot stand this anymore,” says Albrecht Classen, a professor in the University of Arizona’s German Studies department. So he set out to reveal the true history of chastity belts. “It’s a concise enough research topic that I could cover everything that was ever written about it,” he says, “and in one swoop destroy this myth.”
Here is the truth: Chastity belts, made of metal and used to ensure female fidelity, never really existed.
When one considers the evidence for medieval chastity belts, as Classen did in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that there’s not much of it. First of all, there aren’t actually all that many pictures or accounts of the use of chastity belts, and even fewer physical specimens. And the few book-length works on the topic rely heavily on each other, and all cite the same few examples.
“You have a bunch of literary representation, but very few historical references to a man trying to put a chastity belt on his wife,” says Classen. And any literary reference to a chastity belt is likely either allegorical or satirical.
References to chastity belts in European texts go back centuries, well into the first millennium A.D. But until the 1100s, those references are all couched in theology, as metaphors for the idea of fidelity and purity. For example: One Latin source admonishes the “honest virgin” to “hold the helmet of salvation on your front, the word of truth in the mouth … true love of God and your neighbor in the chest, the girdle of chastity in the body … .” Possibly virgins who took this advice went around wearing metal helmets and keeping some physical manifestation of the word “truth” in their cheeks, like a wad of tobacco, in additional to strapping on metal underwear. Or, possibly, none of this was meant to be taken literally.
More, including pictures, at the link.
From The Nation (courtesy Tim Furnish), a review article of three recent books about the founder of Protestant Christianity:
Theology is morality is politics is law—and whether or not it’s immediately obvious, the world is steeped in theology. In contemporary America, and especially in the more secular precincts of Western Europe, it seems unlikely that one could look at a property deed or a government budget and find, just beneath its explicit reasoning, traces of old theological disputes and their resolutions. But they’re there, and examining them offers a view of what might have been, had history—in particular, the Protestant Reformation, ignited 500 years ago this October by a German monk named Martin Luther—unfolded differently.
Luther cuts a perplexing historical figure. In various depictions, he is by turns fiery or meek, bombastic or shy, licentious or pious, revolutionary or reactionary, cunning or naively bewildered by what his high-minded remonstrance unleashed on the world. In Erik Erikson’s famous study of the early Luther, we find a young monk in the throes of an identity crisis that would eventually hurl Europe into a similar one; in Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand, we find Luther beset by tumultuous bouts of desolation as well as stunning moments of insight and clarity. Luther’s theology would place an emphasis on spiritual simplicity, but his interior life was anything but uncomplicated.
In Lyndal Roper’s new biography, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, he’s a charismatic, irascible German chauvinist with a temper as quick as his wit, who is caught somewhat flat-footed by the trajectory of the revolution he launched. Roper notes that major fractures would begin to appear among Luther’s followers less than a year after he defended himself at the Diet of Worms in 1521; three years later, the Peasants’ War broke out, a popular uprising fueled by the anti-authoritarian thrust of Luther’s ideas, and one that wouldn’t be rivaled in size in Europe until the French Revolution. Luther, Roper observes, initially castigated both the rebellious peasants and their feudal lords, but he eventually endorsed the cause of the princes, declaring the rebels “mad dogs” up to “pure devil’s work.” “With this stance,” Roper writes, “the social conservatism of Luther’s Reformation became apparent.”
This paradox—that the Reformation could birth a peasant revolt while its instigator rallied behind the princes—is a picture of Protestantism’s confusing political legacy in miniature. Protestantism arguably brought about many of the preconditions for the Enlightenment and liberalism, and at the very least introduced Europe to a headier skepticism of authority than had prevailed before. (Indeed, Roper credits the Reformation with sparking the secularization of the West.) On the other hand, the release of significant portions of life—namely politics and economics—-from the purview of religious authority may have expanded certain freedoms, but it didn’t result in a betterment of conditions for the most disadvantaged, even as it helped transform the Christian message into something far more internal and private than that of the earlier Church.
Reconciling the confusing, often paradoxical origins of Protestantism in Luther and his successors seems like a good project for a half-millennium retrospective. But if there is one conclusion to be drawn from Roper’s book—as well as from two other recent works, Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World and John C. Rao’s anthology Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society—it’s that Luther himself was more catalyst than creator. Five centuries on, some Protestant sects still bear the marks of his thought and personality, but others seem barely touched by them at all. Every religion is fissile and given to change, but the antinomian streak in Protestantism makes it especially so, and the monumental role it imagined for the individual conscience helps to explain, at least by Ryrie’s lights, the origins of modern thought.
Read the whole thing.
Courtesy Ron Good, an article from the New Yorker sure to gin up controversy:
WE COULD HAVE BEEN CANADA
Was the American Revolution such a good idea?
And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada….
Justin du Rivage’s “Revolution Against Empire” (Yale) re-situates the Revolution not as a colonial rebellion against the mother country but as one episode in a much larger political quarrel that swept the British Empire in the second half of the eighteenth century. Basically, du Rivage thinks that the American Revolution wasn’t American. The quarrels that took place in New York and Philadelphia went on with equal ferocity, and on much the same terms, in India and England, and though they got settled by force of arms and minds differently in each place, it was the same struggle everywhere. “Radicalism flourished in Boston, Bristol, and Bengal, while fears of disorder and licentiousness provoked rural elites in both the Hudson Valley and the English shires,” du Rivage writes. “As radical Whigs gained strength in North America, the political culture of the British Empire became increasingly Janus-faced.”
Read the whole thing.
UPDATE: The author asks:
Why is it that, until now, the Civil War cast such a long, bitter shadow, while the Revolution was mostly reimagined as a tale of glory? One reason, too easily overlooked, is that, while many of those who made the Civil War were killed during it, including the Union Commander-in-Chief, none of the makers of the Revolution died fighting in it. The Founding Fathers had rolled the dice and put their heads on the line, but theirs was the experience of eluding the bullet, and, as Churchill said, there is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without result. Of how many revolutions can it be said that nearly all its makers died in their beds? In the American Revolution, the people who suffered most were not the people who benefitted most, and the lucky ones wrote most of the story. Like everything in history, amnesia has its own causality.
I would go further and suggest that the postwar settlements had a lot to do with it. Former Loyalists were expelled from the new American republic; a lot of them moved to Canada, leaving behind a more ideologically uniform country. The Civil War saw the attempted secession of eleven American states. This attempt failed, but there were simply too many former Confederates to expel them all – reintegrating them into the Union became a priority, at the price of allowing them to wax nostalgic about their Lost Cause for all time.
From my friend Tim Emmett, pastor of the Waleska UMC, an interesting gallery on BBC Travel of photographs of angel roofs, which were a regular feature of late medieval English church architecture. The first caption reads:
Think of medieval England’s finest gems, and castles probably come to mind first. But the country has another type of treasure that few people know about: angel roofs. Built between 1395 and the English Reformation of the mid-1500s, these roofs are decorated with intricately carved wooden angels. Only 170 survive today. Because so little of the art from England’s medieval churches survived the Reformation, that still makes these cherubim “the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture”, writes photographer and expert Michael Rimmer in his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages.
Click the link to see a collection of Rimmer’s photographs. I had no idea these were a thing, nor that the Reformation had such a problem with them (after all, angels were biblical – unlike saints!).
Just discovered this interesting tidbit from the March 2016 Atlantic:
Off With Their Beards!
A very short book excerpt:
The revolution that ended the reign of beards occurred on September 30, 331 b.c., as Alexander the Great prepared for a decisive showdown with the Persian emperor for control of Asia. On that day, he ordered his men to shave. Yet from time immemorial in Greek culture, a smooth chin on a grown man had been taken as a sign of effeminacy or degeneracy. What can explain this unprecedented command? When the commander Parmenio asked the reason, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander replied, “Don’t you know that in battles there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?” But there is ample cause to doubt Plutarch’s explanation. Stories of beard-pulling in battles were myth rather than history. Plutarch and later historians misunderstood the order because they neglected the most relevant fact, namely that Alexander had dared to do what no self-respecting Greek leader had ever done before: shave his face, likening himself to the demigod Heracles, rendered in painting and sculpture in the immortal splendor of youthful, beardless nudity. Alexander wished above all, as he told his generals before the battle, that each man would see himself as a crucial part of the mission. They would certainly see this more clearly if each of them looked more like their heroic commander.
Adapted from Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, by Christopher Oldstone-Moore, published by the University of Chicago Press in January.
Very pleased to note that Karen Owen, director of Reinhardt’s Master of Public Administration program, has published a book, Women Officeholders and the Role Models Who Pioneered the Way (Lexington Books, 2016). Buy it at Amazon or at Lexington Books.
From the website:
Recent electoral seasons in American politics demonstrate women’s keen interest, involvement, and influence as candidates and officeholders. Women possess political ambition, albeit in varying degrees, and as such, women seek opportunities to be politically engaged and affect America’s representative institutions. This book analyzes why American women run for political office, and explores how political role models, identified as publicly elected officials and/or those who have served in the political arena, have greatly motivated women to run for higher political office, including seats in the U.S. Congress and state governorships.
Evidence from personal interviews with ten congresswomen and fifty-five female state legislators reveals the ambitious nature of female politicians, the encouragement of political factors in their decisions to advance in politics, and their perceived responsibility to be role models to other women. Moreover, in studying thirty-five years of elections data, I find substantial support for how female political role models influence female state legislators’ candidacies and electoral outcomes to higher office. This work highlights the importance of women as symbolic representatives; female politicians are instrumental in emboldening a new generation of women to engage in politics. Role models in politics indeed have a purpose and an influential nature.
From Dissent, a review of an interesting book:
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016, 704 pp.
Svetlana Alexievich’s father became a communist after Yuri Gagarin flew into space. “We’re the first! We can do anything!” he told her. She too became a believer. “Disillusionment came later,” the 2015 Nobel laureate for literature writes in Secondhand Time, the final installment of her five-volume exploration of the Soviet soul.
Like nearly every child growing up in the USSR, I also dreamed of meeting a real, live cosmonaut. Yet my wish came true only a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union. Last September, Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first woman in space, addressed the inaugural gala for the London Science Museum’s exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. As Tereshkova came off stage, I seized the moment. Tripping over my words, I told her that for a child growing up in faraway England while his country was falling apart back home, her achievement was one of the few things that kept me proud of my once great motherland. Tereshkova glared at me. “It must have been tough, growing up in England,” she said and walked away, past her charred re-entry capsule encased in glass a few feet away.
What did I expect? A Soviet person has no time for those who have not suffered. War, displacement, hunger, and forced labor underpin Alexievich’s work like the pulsating ostinato in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. “We know how to suffer and talk of suffering,” she wrote in her first book in the series, War’s Unwomanly Face, a collection of testimonies from women about their experiences of what is still known throughout the former Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War. “Suffering justifies our hard and bitter life. For us, pain is an art.”…
Ever since its adoption by Russian president Vladimir Putin as an ersatz official ideology, Soviet nostalgia has been dismissed by Western commentators as a hankering for strongman leadership and great power status. Certainly, that is how it has been cannily deployed by the Kremlin: through the revival of militarized Victory Day parades, irredentism in Ukraine, and revived alliances with former client states such as Syria.
However, as Alexievich shows in Secondhand Time, for many of its former citizens—often derided as sovoks, a cruel pun on the word for dustpan—what the Soviet Union represented most was not geopolitical but moral superiority. This may seem a strange way to describe a state that imprisoned and executed millions of its own citizens. But as one woman reminds Alexievich, “socialism isn’t just labour camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others.”
The spiritual aspects of socialism are rarely discussed in Western accounts of the Soviet Union. As the Russian-born anthropologist Alexei Yurchak showed in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, the USSR had a distinct moral order broadly shared even by those who disagreed with the regime or its politics. A cornerstone of Soviet ethics was the belief that, as one man tells Alexievich, “it’s shameful to love money, you have to love a dream.” Other values included altruism, self-sacrifice, a concern for the weak, the elevation of group over individual concerns, and the rejection of wealth and materialism. The country’s sudden dissolution proved to be more traumatic to many of Alexievich’s characters than the suffering they had endured at the hands of the USSR.
More at the link.
From the Economist, via Tim Furnish, a review of Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values.
IN THE early years of the Enlightenment, a few brave philosophers challenged the Christian order—an apparently hopeless task. But their efforts paid off, and tomes have since been written, by authors from Diderot to Richard Dawkins, about the triumph of secular man. What, after all, has Christianity ever done for us?
Rather a lot, argues Nick Spencer in an excellent new book, “The Evolution of the West”. Mr Spencer, who is research director at Theos, a religious think-tank in London, picks up from Larry Siedentop’s epic work from 2014, “Inventing the Individual”—a reassertion of how much the Western world owes to Christianity. It is not a popular thesis but, like a prophet crying in the post-modern wilderness, Mr Spencer provokes reflection that goes far beyond the shallow ding-dongs of the modern culture wars. He wants to make sure Westerners know where they came from as a way to illuminate where they are going.
Starting with the ancient world, he takes the reader on an extravagant journey to meet, among many others, Augustine of Hippo and John Locke as well as Thomas Piketty. The author believes that the fact that Christianity became the religion of the European establishment has blinded people to what a revolutionary doctrine it was (and is). And he clearly believes it can still play a role. The Christianisation of Europe, he says, was not a bunch of reactionary clerics trying to shut down a noble, free, secular ancient world, but a new idea of “a voluntary basis for human association in which people joined together through will and love rather than blood or shared material objectives”. Christianity declared that humans “have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group”.
Out of this, with a reinjection at the Reformation, came the origins of the modern world: a belief in equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system and the assertion of natural rights leading to individual liberty, as well as the notion that a society built on the assumption of moral equality should have a representative form of government.
More at the link.