Very interesting article in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Richard Rex of Cambridge University, examining the history and historiography of the English Reformation. For me, it brought back happy memories of learning from the late great Stanford Lehmberg at the University of Minnesota. Read the whole thing.
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.
From Smithsonian.com, courtesy of Reinhardt alumna Wanda Pirtle Cronauer:
Seventeenth-Century Shopping List Discovered Under Floorboards of Historic English Home
Penned in 1633, the “beautifully written” list hints at household life 400 years ago
Among other necessary items, the list includes “greenfish,” a “fireshovel” and two dozen pewter spoons. (Image courtesy of the National Trust)
By Brigit Katz
JANUARY 31, 2017
Pewter spoons, a frying pan and “greenfish”—these must-have items were scribbled on a shopping list 400 years ago. The scrap of paper was recently discovered under the floorboards of Knole, a historic country home in Kent, England.
As Oliver Porritt reports for Kent Live, Jim Parker, a volunteer working with the archaeology team at Knole, discovered the 1633 note during a multi-million dollar project to restore the house. The team also found two other 17th century letters nearby. One, like the shopping list, was located under the attic floorboards; another was stuffed into a ceiling void.
More, including a complete transcription, at the link. It is wonderful when such slices of social history appear after so many years. (I would happily save more of my ephemera as a service to humanity, although I don’t really have the space for it…)
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!).
From the Atlantic:
Before ‘Fake News’ Came False Prophecy
From medieval Britain to the present, fantastic stories speaking to readers’ darkest fears have proven capable of altering reality.
The revelation that fake news deceived voters in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election generated real outrage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The top fake news stories garnered more clicks than the top real news stories on Facebook in the final three months of the campaign season. Fake news and other campaign fantasies led Oxford Dictionaries to select ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year for 2016.
But stories that gain popularity by presenting readers’ fantasies and nightmares as current events are hardly new. In medieval Britain, national and local political action was guided by prophecy. Prophecies were invoked by rebel leaders, appropriated by ruling elites, and, ultimately, censored by a government fearful of their disruptive potential. Prophecy’s effectiveness in shaping medieval politics offers a rejoinder to those who suggest that fake news and other political falsehoods can be ignored, or laughed off. Prophecy, like fake news, worked as persuasive writing because it told people what they wanted to believe or spoke to their darkest fears.
British politics provided ample opportunity to test the power of imagined worlds. When Owain Glyndŵr, Edmund Mortimer, and Henry Percy plotted against Henry IV at the turn of the 15th century, they used the popular “Prophecy of the Six Kings” to justify their actions. A later historical account has the three rebels committing to treason on the condition “that they are the people about whom the prophet speaks.” The fantasy that Glyndŵr, Mortimer, and Percy were prophesied saviors—a fantasy they themselves may have believed—had the very real effect of attracting popular support for their insurrection.
More at the link. Lesley Coote’s book Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England (Boydell, 2000) will tell you more. Of course, in our current age, going after “fake news” has the very real potential to descend into “going after news that I don’t happen to agree with,” so such a movement would need to be exercised with care. And blaming “fake news” for Mrs. Clinton’s loss borders on blaming “false consciousness,” which is always psychologically satisfying to some people but isn’t very useful if you have to operate in free elections in a constitutional republic. People want to be convinced, not condescended to.
• From TheProvince.com: Evidence that Greeks settled in China in the 200s BC and may have helped to construct the Terra Cotta Army.
• From Curbed.com: “Definitive proof that no one did costume parties like the Bauhaus”
• From the Telegraph: “The Norman Conquest was a disaster for England. We should celebrate Naseby, not Hastings”
From the Guardian:
Dr Christopher de Hamel, a historian at Cambridge University, stumbled across the book during a conversation with a colleague. De Hamel, author of the just-released Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, had said that books belonging to saints were generally not used as relics, and his fellow historian replied that he knew of an exception.
He showed de Hamel an entry from the Sacrists’ Roll of Canterbury Cathedral, dating to 1321, which gave a detailed description of a Psalter, or book of psalms, in a jewelled binding, that was then preserved as a relic at the shrine of Becket in the cathedral. Becket, archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170, was murdered by four knights inside the cathedral, who took on the task after supposedly hearing Henry II remark: “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”
De Hamel said that he read the Psalter’s description, and realised he had seen it before: an Anglo-Saxon Psalter in Cambridge’s Parker Library bears the same description on its flyleaf. It is undoubtedly the same manuscript from Becket’s shrine, he believes.
A 16th-century note says the book once belonged to Becket, but “everyone has always said it was ridiculous,” said de Hamel. “Becket is a big name and there’s a list of his books. This isn’t one of them.” But a link had not previously been made between the 14th-century inventory and the Parker manuscript.
In a piece in Saturday’s Guardian Review, De Hamel lays out how the Psalter was clearly made in Canterbury, and dates from the very early 11th century. It was probably, he said, made for the private use of an archbishop, likely Alphege, who was archbishop from 1005 to 1016, when he was killed by the Danes in Greenwich. Alphege was later canonised, and was Becket’s personal patron saint.
“People hadn’t matched it up, and suddenly there it was,” said de Hamel. “The inscription says this is the Psalter of the archbishop of Canterbury. It clearly is a private Psalter … I assume Becket had come across the book and taken it into his own possession.”
More at the link.
Philippa Langley, discoverer of the remains of King Richard III five years ago, has made an announcement. From the Telegraph (emphasis added):
Britain’s kings appear to be making a habit of this.
First it was Richard III, whose bones were found under a car park in Leicester. Now it appears that Henry I may have met a similarly undignified fate.
Archaeologists have discovered what could be King Henry’s remains languishing beneath a Ministry of Justice car park on the site of Reading prison.
The bones were detected among a series of graves discovered by archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), during an exploration of the site containing the ruins of Reading Abbey.
They came across the graves, along with a number of other potentially significant archaeological finds, while scanning tarmacked land close to the Abbey’s High Altar.
The announcement on Monday of the latest discovery came five years to the day that archaeologists from Leicester University revealed they had found the bones of Richard III, beneath the Greyfriars carpark in the city. These were later confirmed by DNA testing to be those of the Plantagenet king.
The graves beneath the car park at the former Reading Gaol where discovered as the result of an ambitious project to establish the full historic significance of the Abbey.
Reading Abbey was founded by Henry I in 1121 and was always known to have been the final resting place of the King and his Queen Adeliza.
However, there has long been speculation about the precise location of his remains, as a result of grave robbers raiding the area for the silver coffin the king was reportedly buried in.
It had previously been thought Henry, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, had been buried in front of the High Altar and a full excavation will be required to confirm whether the newly discovered graves contain his remains.
A spokeswoman for Reading Borough Council, which is leading the project along with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth and the Ministry of Justice, said:
“The graves are located behind the High Altar in an apse at the east end of the Abbey. They are located east of the area where King Henry I’s grave is believed to be. No direct connection between these features and King Henry can be made using these results alone.”
So they’ve discovered some skeletons, but there’s no proof yet whose they are. They haven’t even dug them up to examine them! I’m sorry, but after Ms. Langley’s breathless announcement about the Princes in the Tower last year I am starting to think she’s a bit of a self-promoter.
Not so jovial after all: how historians misunderstood William the Conqueror
The history books refer to William the Conqueror as jovial and generous, among other surprising qualities recorded in an 11th-century Latin text written after the king’s funeral.
In fact, historians have got him wrong. A new translation of the rambling chronicle reveals that such praiseworthy adjectives were directed at someone else completely – a recently deceased abbot rather than the late king.
The discovery was made by a British historian, Marc Morris, while researching his forthcoming book on William of Normandy, whose conquest of England in 1066 altered the course of the nation’s history.
He told the Observer: “It’s very difficult assessing people’s personalities at a distance of a millennium, but academics for the past 50 or 60 years have written that … he was quite jovial, cheerful, eloquent, good-natured – not the brute you might suppose.”
Morris decided to go back to the original text, which was written by a Burgundian monk called Hugh of Flavigny after William’s burial in St Stephen’s Church at Caen in Normandy. “Every biography of William on my shelf mentions Hugh’s description of William the Conqueror in the context of the king’s funeral in 1087.”
The chronicle has been in print since the 19th century, in a multi-volume collection titled the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, but only in the original Latin – “flowery Latin at that, not the normal administrative Latin that most medieval historians – like me – can cope with,” Morris said. “I looked at this passage and thought it doesn’t look right to me.”
He asked a Latin expert, Professor David D’Avray of University College London, to translate it. The new version revealed that the adjectives do indeed appear in the text, but in relation to a little-known abbot. The praise was not about William but “this admirable man”, Abbot Richard of Verdun.
Morris said: “So this house of cards came crashing down. There’s no good evidence for a genial, jolly, jovial William the Conqueror. It’s clear from looking at academic biographies written in the past 50 years that it has always been mistranslated.”
I was actually unaware that William had a jovial reputation. I always thought that his pre-“Conqueror” nickname, the title of this post, was descriptive of him in both senses of the word, i.e. not only was he illegitimate, he also indulged in the “harrying of the North,” and this sort of thing:
During William’s siege of Alençon, a disputed town on the border of Normandy, in the late 1040s or early 1050s, residents are said to have hung animal hides on their walls. They mocked him for being the grandson of a tanner, referring to the occupation of his mother’s father. To avenge her honor, he had their hands and feet cut off.