Gerald of Wales

Enjoyed a good discussion on Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland in HIS 323 this past week. Geraldus Cambrensis (c. 1146-c. 1223) was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, studied at Gloucester and Paris, was ordained a priest, acted as an agent of the archbishop of Canterbury in Wales, and then became a royal chaplain to King Henry II. In 1185, Gerald was chosen to accompany Henry’s son John, who had been named Lord of Ireland, on his first expedition there. The Topographia Hibernica was the result. His descriptions of natural phenomena, and especially his credulity about marvels and freaks of nature, remind me of Herodotus, but this book has a specific agenda – essentially, to justify Henry’s claim to Ireland. He specifically mentions the claim in 92, referencing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain:

As the British history relates, the king of the Britons, Gurguintius, son of the noble Belinus and grandson of the famous Brennius, when returning from Denmark, which his father had formerly conquered, and which, when it had rebelled, he himself had again brought into subjection, found at the Orkney Islands a fleet which had brought Basclenses there from Spain, Their leaders approached the king, and told him whence they had come and the reason for their coming, namely to settle in a country of the West. They were urgent in their request that he should give them some land to inhabit. Eventually the king, on the advice of his counsellors, gave them that island that is now called Ireland, and which was then either entirely uninhabited or had been settled by him. He also gave them pilots for their expedition from among his own fleet.

From this is is clear that Ireland can with some right be claimed by the kings of Britain, even though the claim be from olden times.

Secondly, the city of Bayonne is on the boundary of Gascony, and belongs to it. It is also the capital of Basclonia, whence the Hibernienses came. And now Gascony and all Aquitaine rejoices in the same rule as Britain.

The kings of Britain have also a newly established double claim. On the one hand the spontaneous surrender and protestation of fealty of the Irish chiefs – for everyone is allowed to renounce his right; and on the other, the favour and confirmation of the claim by the Pope.

For when Jupiter started thundering in the confines of the western ocean, the petty Western kings were frightened by the thunder and averted the stroke of the thunderbolt by sheltering from it in a peace.

Do you find this convincing? The double claim from olden times seems a bit of a stretch. It is true that many Irish kings submitted to Henry, and Pope Alexander III confirmed Henry’s position as Lord of Ireland. (As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, it would have been great if Henry II had properly followed up on this grant and exercised good lordship over Ireland – for starters, not outsourced it to the feckless John.)

The rest of the work follows the usual imperialist script of praise for the land coupled with the disparagement of the people who live there. For instance, “The land is fruitful and rich in its fertile soil and plentiful harvests. Crops abound in the field, flocks in the mountains, and wild animals in the woods” (2). The country “is well supplied with beautiful lakes, full of fish and very large” (4). And not only are there no venomous snakes in Ireland, there are no poisons at all! The land is so pure that poisonous reptiles brought to Ireland die instantly, and Irish boot thongs can be employed elsewhere as antidotes to poison (21-22, 24). The climate is the most temperate of all countries, and there is little need for doctors, given how healthy the air is (26). 

But the people! Some of them are good. There are a few saints, who perform miracles (61-62, 64-65, 68). The clergy are in many points praiseworthy (and should have more power than monks) (104, 106). They are excellent musicians (94), and can throw projectiles accurately (93). But one woman of Limerick had a beard and a mane down her back (53), and a man of Wicklow looked like a man, but had the extremities of an ox, i.e. hooves for hands and feet, and two holes directly on his face where his nose should be. He was likely the product of bestiality between a man and a cow, because in Glendalough another man-cow was born of a similar union (54). In Connacht, a woman entrusted with keeping one of the king’s prize goats ended up fornicating with it (56). Indeed, bestiality and incest are particular vices of the Irish. Furthermore:

• they are not carefully nursed after birth
• their clothes are made in a barbarous fashion
• they do not use saddles or spurs when riding horses
• they go naked and unarmed into battle
• they are a wild, inhospitable people, still mostly pastoralists
• they have no idea about city living
• they don’t realize the potential of their fields for crops
• they don’t mine any of the metals or minerals that abound in Ireland
• they don’t weave flax or wool, and in general do no work at all (93)
• they are ignorant of the rudiments of the faith (98)
• they don’t keep their word, and will physically attack you when they can (99, 101)
• great numbers of them are blind by birth, lame, maimed in body, or suffering some natural defect. This is what you can expect from a people “adulterous, incestuous, unlawfully conceived and born, outside the law, and shamefully abusing nature herself in spiteful and horrible practices” (109).

The only solution, therefore, is to colonize the place, to take advantage of its natural riches and to improve the habits of its benighted inhabitants.

Some of the students in HIS 323 noted the similarity in between this book and the rhetoric surrounding Manifest Destiny in nineteenth-century America, especially the notion that the natives don’t keep their word. I would say that the book not entirely useless as a source – the Irish pastoral lifestyle probably did strike the English as rough and backward, and I would not be surprised if the taboo against bestiality was weaker in Ireland than in England, i.e. it might not have been just something that Gerald made up. The Irish style of horseback riding is confirmed by the Statutes of Kilkenny, and the fact that Gerald is willing to give credit to the Irish for whatever good qualities they have makes his criticism of them somewhat believable.

However, you can tell he’s definitely accentuating the negative. Moreover, the legitimacy of English rule is an entirely separate question. Even if the Irish were as bad as Gerald says, the English could have done much better as rulers of the place than they actually did.

(Quotations from Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John J. O’Meara [Penguin, 1982])

Medieval Porn

From El Pais:

Deciphering the sex scenes in Spain’s medieval churches

Experts meet to discuss the meaning of highly explicit sculptures made 1,000 years ago

Why is that man showing off his enormous phallus, which seems to be pointing straight at us? What about that other bearded fellow who is apparently masturbating? And what is the meaning of that woman who is exhibiting her vulva? And is that couple really in the middle of intercourse?

These figures have all been there for nearly 1,000 years, sculpted into churches in northern Spain. They are in plain view on the façades, on the corbels that hold up the cornices, on the capitals crowning the columns, and even on the baptismal fonts.

But why did the stonemasons of the Middle Ages craft this cheeky iconography? What was the Roman Catholic Church trying to convey? A group of experts gathered inside the monastery of Santa María la Real in Aguilar de Campoo (Palencia) tried to answer that question last weekend at a seminar called “Art and sexuality in the Romanesque centuries.”

Unfortunately, there seem to be no clear answers….

You’ll have to click the link to see any images.

The Temple Church

After our Irish trip, I spent some time in London with my family. I had visited London many times before, and even lived there on a couple of occasions. But for all the time I’ve spent in that great city, I had never visited the Temple Church until now. It is in the (square-mile, capital-C) City of London, between Fleet Street and the River Thames. It dates from the late twelfth century and it was once the London church of the Knights Templar until that order was dissolved by Pope Clement V in 1312. 

Outside the church, a monument to its original owners: a sculpture of two knights riding a single horse, taken from the Templar seal.

What really marks this church as Templar, however, is its shape. The order derived its name from the Temple of Solomon, the site of which has been occupied since the seventh century by the Dome of the Rock, and in reference to this “Temple,” most Templar churches were round.

I do not know how the round church functioned liturgically, however, and as can be seen from this scanned postcard, a longer, rectangular chancel was added to the original building some time later (note the difference in arches – romanesque to the left, gothic to the right).

The round part does hold the grave of a famous occupant: William Marshal, a powerful political figure of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, who acted as regent for England for the first three years (1216-19) of the reign of the young King Henry III. Throughout his career he admired and supported the Templars and took membership vows on his deathbed, thus his burial here and not (say) in Westminster Abbey. 

Here is an interior view of the chancel looking toward the east (which had to be reconstructed after serious damage sustained during the Blitz).

A close-up of the altar, with its decidedly post-medieval reredos, featuring classical detailing and the Protestant emblems of the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

The altar frontal features two coats of arms, one comprising a cross of St. George with a golden Agnus Dei at the fess point, and the other a white pegasus on a blue field. These are the arms of the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple respectively, which are two of the four Inns of Court, professional associations for barristers in England (the other two are Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn).

Composite coat of arms of the Inns of Court: 1. Lincoln’s Inn 2. Middle Temple 3. Inner Temple 4. Gray’s Inn. Wikipedia.

Following the dissolution of the Templars in 1312, King Edward II granted the site to the other major crusading order, the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, i.e. the “Hospitallers.” They in turn leased it to two colleges of lawyers, which evolved into the Inner Temple and Middle Temple, named after the grounds they occupied (did the Hospitallers themselves occupy the “Outer Temple”?). King Henry VIII, in turn, dissolved the English chapter of the Hospitallers in 1540, and in 1608 King James I granted the church to the lawyers on a permanent basis, on the condition that they maintain it. This they have done ever since.

This is a device used by the church, showing both the Agnus Dei and the Pegasus, separated by a musical staff (in medieval notation), in honor of the musical tradition at the Temple Church.

Of course, following the appearance of the Temple Church in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, it has become rather popular with a certain type of tourist, and the church sells a pamphlet addressing the issues raised by the book. But I was far more interested in their display about Magna Carta.

Medievalism

An interesting discovery by Tim Furnish in a local Starbucks:

The website of Young Templar Ministries gives no indication where it is physically headquartered save for the Atlanta “770” area code in the founder’s phone number, and that they’ll be having a rally at 6835 Victory Lane in Woodstock, Ga. They don’t claim to be associated with any Christian denomination, but their beliefs section (“The Holy Bible is the inspired Word of God… Jesus was the final and complete sacrifice for the sins of humanity. Salvation is Given, not earned. It is freely given through Grace because of faith in Jesus Christ,” etc.) suggests fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

This seems a little odd. Why should a medieval crusading order serve as inspiration for a twenty-first century American youth movement? Christian warfare (the website references “Young Soldiers” and “God’s Army”), even of the metaphorical kind, is not exactly hip these days. The Templars, especially, are supposed to be inspirational to the alt-right and thus even more dodgy. And let’s not forget how they ended, and consequently how inspirational they were to esoteric and/or dissident groups.

Or is that the point – that anyone persecuted by the medieval church can’t be all bad? Or (more ominously) is Christian warfare really coming back into fashion?

Windsor Castle

From the Independent:

Fascinating images show original Windsor Castle after it was built to defend against medieval Home Counties

Research sheds new light on origins of England’s most famous royal palace outside London

Historians have reconstructed what Britain’s largest medieval fortress – Windsor Castle – originally looked like when it was built to keep the Home Counties under control some nine and a half centuries ago.

Using a series of archaeological discoveries made over recent decades, researchers have been able to calculate that the original 11th century fortress, built by William the Conqueror, was around a fifth of the size of the current castle.

They have also discovered that, although it has always been a Royal fortress, the land on which it stands had to be rented from a private landlord for the first 475 years of the castle’s existence.

More at the link.

Guédelon Castle

Wikipedia.

Something interesting (hat tip: David Winter):

Guédelon Castle is a de novo castle construction project located in TreignyFrance. The object of the project is to build a castle using only the techniques and materials used in the Middle Ages. When completed in the 2020s, it should be an authentic recreation of a 13th-century medieval castle.

In order to fully investigate the technology required in the past, the project is using only period construction techniques, tools, and costumes. Materials, including wood and stone, are all obtained locally. Jacques Moulin, chief architect for the project, designed the castle according to the architectural model developed during the 12th and 13th centuries by Philip II of France.

Construction started in 1997 under Michel Guyot, owner of Château de Saint-Fargeau, a castle in Saint-Fargeau 13 kilometres away. The site was chosen according to the availability of construction materials: an abandoned stone quarry, in a large forest, with a pond close by. The site is in a rural woodland area and the nearest town is Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, about 5 km to the northeast.

The Black Death

From the BBC:

Rats were not to blame for the spread of plague during the Black Death, according to a study.

The rodents and their fleas were thought to have spread a series of outbreaks in 14th-19th Century Europe.

But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the first, the Black Death, can be “largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice”.

The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, uses records of its pattern and scale.

The Black Death claimed an estimated 25 million lives, more than a third of Europe’s population, between 1347 and 1351.

More at the link.

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.

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?

Cities

post at a blog called A Fine Theorem contains an interesting nugget:

The Romans famously conquered Gaul – today’s France – under Caesar, and Britain in stages up through Hadrian. Roman cities popped up across these regions, until the 5th century invasions wiped out Roman control. In Britain, for all practical purposes the entire economic network faded away: cities hollowed out, trade came to a stop, and imports from outside Britain and Roman coin are near nonexistent in the archaeological record for the next century and a half. In France, the network was not so cleanly broken, with Christian bishoprics rising in many of the old Roman towns.

Here is the amazing fact: today, 16 of France’s 20 largest cities are located on or near a Roman town, while only 2 of Britain’s 20 largest are. This difference existed even back in the Middle Ages. So who cares? Well, Britain’s cities in the Middle Ages are two and a half times more likely to have coastal access than France’s cities, so that in 1700, when sea trade was hugely important, 56% of urban French lived in towns with sea access while 87% of urban Brits did. This is even though, in both countries, cities with sea access grew faster and huge sums of money were put into building artificial canals. Even at a very local level, the France/Britain distinction holds: when Roman cities were within 25km of the ocean or a navigable river, they tended not to move in France, while in Britain they tended to reappear nearer to the water. The fundamental factor for the shift in both places was that developments in shipbuilding in the early middle ages made the sea much more suitable for trade and military transport than the famous Roman Roads which previously played that role.

This prompted an interesting comparison from Steve Sailer:

Maybe this is analogous to the recent shift from landline telephone networks to wireless telephone networks. Landline networks, like Roman roads, required a lot of social organizational capital to build and maintain, as Americans had in the AT&T era, but many other countries did not. Lots of cultures, such as the 20th Century Italians, had a hard time maintaining a landline system.

In contrast, cell phone networks don’t require a society to be good at cooperating, so even anarchic Somalia can have decent cell phone service. You just have to have a few people who knew what they are doing.

Similarly, medieval shipping networks required concentrations of technically advanced shipwrights here and there, but didn’t require a giant Roman-like state to keep the roads repaired. The ocean repairs itself.

It is striking how land-oriented Roman culture was despite emerging on the Italian peninsula where no place is very far from the sea, the land is mountainous, and the sea is relatively calm and warm. In contrast, England has fairly mild terrain and the Atlantic ocean is more tumultuous than the Mediterranean sea.

Maybe the explanation is that British rivers were better for transport than Italian rivers south of the Po due to more rain and less severe slopes, so it was easier to get started with inland shipping and then continue out into the ocean as your technique improved. But Italian rivers tended to be short and steep and go dry now and then, so they weren’t as good launching pads for eventual saltwater navigation.

Maybe, but Venice and Genoa did dominate maritime trade on the Mediterranean in the high and late Middle Ages…

For my part I am interested in how little influence the Roman Empire ultimately had on Britannia, certainly when compared to Gaul. I assume this is one reason why French is a Romance language while English is a Germanic one.