Epidemics

I ought to be drawing illuminating parallels between these troubled times and the fourteenth-century Black Death, Defoe’s Plague Year (London, 1665), or the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20. But I am not an epidemiologist and have nothing of interest to say about these things – or any other of the great pestilences that have afflicted humanity in the past, except to say that I certainly hope that the COVID-19 plague of 2020 doesn’t turn into a rerun of what happened under Marcus Aurelius or Justinian. I do find it notable how this one has triggered such a public-health reaction – much greater than the more recent outbreaks of SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, West Nile, or just the seasonal flu, which as everyone has been saying has killed more people than the current pandemic. I suppose it is better to be safe than sorry, and I sure hope that the economy bounces back from whatever disruption this quarantining will cause. 

The Auto-Icon

One of the stranger items on display at University College London is the stuffed remains of its spiritual founder, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who believed that education should be free of church influence (unlike Oxford and Cambridge, which at the time were restricted to members of the Church of England). Bentham called this his “auto-icon” (i.e. “self-image”). The auto-icon:

was inscribed in the late philosopher’s will, which requested that a number of fixtures be put in place to preserve his remains, that they be dressed in the clothes he wore in life, and that they occasionally be brought into meetings involving his still-living friends, so that what’s left of Bentham might enjoy their company.

You might be inclined to that this was an elaborate joke on Bentham’s part, but he doesn’t strike me as the joking type. The auto-icon, according to the linked article in Atlas Obscura, has found a new and much more public home at UCL: in a glass case in the student center. (Previously it was in a closet that was only opened on request.) 

Bentham might have been an atheist, but it is interesting how the preservation of human remains is a custom that extends beyond religion. 

A Miraculous (and Local!) Bible

Courtesy Paul Halsall, I learned an interesting new word today: “myroblyte,” which is Greek and derives from myron (“sweet oil”) and bluzo (“to gush forth”). So something “myroblytic” exudes oil, and it is a miraculous property sometimes observed in icons or relics. Unbeknownst to me, in Dalton, Georgia these past few years a ministry calling itself His Name is Flowing Oil has claimed to be in the possession of a miraculously myroblitic Bible. In the week after Trump’s inauguration, a Bible belonging to one Jerry Pearce started to produce oil, starting with a small smudge in Psalm 39 and eventually saturating the entire book. Pearce put it in a plastic bag, and then in a glass container, in order to prevent the ever-flowing oil from soaking everything around it. Word spread quickly, and people flocked to Dalton in order to join a worship service, held in Dalton’s Wink Theater, during which the Bible would be brought out and laid on people’s heads. People claimed that they received cures or felt God’s presence in a special way; they could also leave with samples of the oil, and eventually the ministry gave away some 350,000 vials of it, totaling 400 gallons. Church leaders took the Bible on tour throughout the United States and even to Canada, although it only produced oil when it was in Dalton. 

Does that last fact make you suspicious? It should! The day after the Chattanooga Times Free Press published an article about the miraculous Bible last November, the paper received a telephone call to say that Pearce was a regular customer at the Tractor Supply store in Dalton, where he was seen buying large amounts of mineral oil. Tests carried out at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga confirmed that the allegedly miraculous oil was indeed indistinguishable from the Ideal brand of mineral oil sold at Tractor Supply. The Times Free Press published their findings last month; in the wake of the article, the ministry announced that the Bible had stopped producing oil and that they were ceasing operations, although they continued to defend their work. Ministry leader Johnny Taylor claimed that the Bible was “just a sign and a wonder… but it’s your faith and it’s how you apply it and use it where the miracles come in. We tell people the Bible is not the move, it’s just the sign and the wonder, but if you go find out where the Bible is, there’s a move going on there.” So (they claimed) they were only using it to advertise the “move,” although that doesn’t quite explain the cures attributed to the oil, or the vials of oil that the ministry gave away to its worshipers. (Note though that they weren’t selling them.)

What I find interesting about this episode is how it is an example of how tradition abides. You can say that oil is biblical, but the miraculous secretion of it strikes me as very Catholic indeed, and not something that Protestants would go in for – like receiving the stigmata or using holy water for exorcisms. But tactile ritual, especially involving the miraculous, is psychologically very satisfying, and no matter how often we disparage it as “superstitious,” it always seems to find a way back. Reinhardt’s Wayne Glowka told me about the Catholic custom of burying a statue of St. Joseph in your yard if you want to sell your house, something that two of his Baptist neighbors in Milledgeville did. Note too the evangelical support for Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which was essentially an over-the-top RC meditation on the Stations of the Cross, i.e not something that Protestants usually do.

Although I suppose that the specifically Protestant ingredient here is the Bible – there are no myroblytic relics or icons in this story. 

UPDATE: See also “The Bible that Oozed Oil” by Ruth Graham at Slate

Shall These Bones Live?

From The Telegraph (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

Bones hidden in church revealed to be remains of one of England’s earliest saints

The discovery has been hailed as a ‘stunning result of national importance’

Bones hidden away by monks during the Reformation have been confirmed as belonging to one of England’s earliest saints who founded the country’s first nunnery. 

The seventh-century remains of St Eanswythe, a Kentish Royal Saint who was the daughter and granddaughter of Anglo-Saxon kings, have finally been identified by historians.

The relics survived the upheavals of the Dissolution of the Monasteries – in which King Henry VIII aimed to destroy the monastic system – after being squirrelled away in a lead box behind a church wall in Kent.

Her remains were discovered in 1885. However, it is only now – more than 1,300 years after her death and after carbon dating her teeth and bones – that historians believe they have finally identified England’s first abbess and one of the country’s earliest saints.

The remarkable discovery was made by Kent archaeologists and historians, working with Queen’s University in Belfast, who confirmed that human remains kept at the Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe Folkestone are almost certainly those of the saint.

The discovery has been hailed as “a stunning result of national importance” and has drawn comparisons with the exhumation of King Richard III after DNA confirmed that bones found beneath a Leicester car park in 2012 were those of the former king of England.

Read the whole thing, and the Finding Eanswythe website.

Agincourt and the Middle Finger

From Facebook:

I admit that I bring this story up when I talk about the Hundred Years’ War – only to debunk it. The version that I tell explains the specific British custom of elevating two fingers as a rude gesture.

Singer Robbie Williams insults the viewer. Wikipedia.

The idea being that you need two fingers to draw a bow, which makes more sense, and thus links up a national custom with a triumphant moment in national history! But frankly, I suspect that the French would have done a lot worse to any captured English archers than chopping off their fingers. People who killed their social betters from a distance weren’t very well liked, and would likely have paid with their lives – as did all the French prisoners, archers or otherwise, whom Henry V had executed at Agincourt, in what some historians consider a war crime. 

I’m even more suspicious of the alleged transformation of “p” to “f”. First of all, the word “pluck” begins with the blend “pl,” which would logically become “fl” – if the voiceless bilabial plosive “p” has actually transformed into the labiodentalfricative “f,” which is by no means certain. (There is an Indo-European connection between the p-sound and f-sound – see the distinction between the Latin pater and the Germanic Vater/father – but that split occurred a long time ago.) The f-word itself is Germanic with early-medieval roots; the earliest attested use in English in an unambiguous sexual context is in a document from 1310. 

And where does the distinction between one and two fingers come from? If the one-fingered salute comes from Agincourt, as the graphic suggests, then at what point did it get transformed into two fingers in England? If the two-fingered salute comes from Agincourt, then at what point was it reduced to one finger in North America? You would think that anything English predating 1607, such as the language, Protestantism, or the Common Law, would have been a part of America’s patrimony….

It seems to me that the single upturned middle finger clearly represents an erect penis and is the gestural equivalent of saying “f*ck you!” As such, it is probably ancient – Wikipedia certainly thinks so, although apparently it became popular in the United States in the late nineteenth century under the influence of Italian immigration, replacing other rude gestures like thumbing the nose or the fig sign. I suppose that the two-fingered salute could still come from medieval archery, even if it didn’t come specifically from the Battle of Agincourt, although the example that Wikipedia links to (the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter) is ambiguous. Maybe it means “five” and was a symbol of support for Henry V? 🙂 The fact that Winston Churchill sometimes made his V-for-victory gesture “rudely” suggests that it is of much more recent vintage. What it is supposed to represent I have no idea.

One final observation: any time some appeal begins with “here’s something that intelligent people will find edifying” you should be suspicious. It’s up there with “here’s something that they don’t want you to know.”

The Afghan Deal

Adjunct professor of history Tim Furnish writes in The Stream:

If this [agreement to withdraw troops from Afghanistan] holds, the U.S. military will have been at war in a country 7,000 miles away for just shy of 20 years (October 2001 to May 2021). That’s equal to the time previous generations fought in the Revolutionary, Civil, Korean, and both World Wars combined. And some 6,400 Americans (2,400 military, 4,000 contractors) have died there. True, the Taliban no longer control the majority of the country, as they did before the U.S. invasion. But still over one-third of that nation of 38 million has significant Taliban presence

The U.S. has clearly failed to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. And this despite spending about $1 trillion there to build roads, schools and mosques.  (The latter violating our Constitution.) The money even included idiocy like $8 million to get Sesame Street on Afghan TV….

Contra Bolton, Nunes and much of the Washington establishment, the Taliban are not extremist, and they are very much legitimate, in south Asian Islam. They are in fact mainstream Afghan representatives of the hugely influential Deobandi movement. This began in the mid-19th century among Indian Muslims under British rule. Deobandis believe in strict adherence to Islamic precedence, revere the hadiths (alleged sayings of Muhammad), and dislike Sufis. Although similar to Saudi Wahhabis, Deobandis are intrinsically south Asian Sunni and number several hundred million people in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. So the Taliban’s Islamic fundamentalism goes back long before the U.S. or even Soviet invasion (1979-89). Cookie Monster didn’t stand a chance against Muhammad.

Read the whole thing.

Phi Alpha Theta 2020

Allen Fromherz, Josh Belden, Orbelin Pineda-Espino, Fredrick Harp, Tyler Leon, Tripp Wickard, Jamie Rhinehart, and Jonathan Good. Photo: Anne Good.

Congratulations to our newest members of Phi Alpha Theta at Reinhardt, who were inducted this afternoon in a ceremony in the Community Room of Hill Freeman Library. These are:

Josh Belden
Fredrick Harp
Tyler Leon
Orbelin Pineda-Espino
Jamie Rhinehart
Tripp Wickard

Our guest speaker was the entertaining Allen Fromherz of Georgia State University, who spoke on the social aspects of history and how studying history changes the historian himself.

Antonia Gransden, 1928-2020

From the Guardian (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Antonia Gransden, who has died aged 91, was among the foremost medievalists of her generation. Her substantial and sustained scholarship spanned seven decades and continues to guide today’s students and researchers.

She will be best remembered for her two-volume, 1,000-page survey Historical Writing in England (1974, 1982), which covers the period from circa 550 to the early 16th century, from Gildas the Wise to Thomas More. Before that work anyone going in search of the roots of medieval historiography faced churning through the 250 volumes of the Stationery Office Rolls Series, or else had to find and translate the original parchment.

I was lucky to acquire both volumes of Historical Writing in England – it is certainly a very useful work. 

The Black Death

From Smithsonian Magazine (hat tip: Dan Franke):

Mass Grave Shows the Black Death’s ‘Catastrophic’ Impact in Rural England

At least 48 individuals were buried in a single grave in Lincolnshire, suggesting the community struggled to deal with an onslaught of plague victims

In the summer of 1348, the Black Death arrived in southwest England. The deadly disease rapidly swept through the country, ultimately killing between one-third and one-half of its population. Now, a team of researchers writing in the journal Antiquity has revealed new details about a mass grave of probable Black Death victims buried in the English countryside. The discovery offers rare insight into the plague’s “catastrophic” impact on rural communities.

The grave, located on the grounds of the historic Thornton Abbey in North Lincolnshire, was first excavated in 2013. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of at least 48 individuals, including 27 children. Differences in levels between the rows of bodies suggest the grave was “filled over the course of several days or weeks,” according to the study’s authors. Radiocarbon dating of two skeletons indicated the victims died sometime between 1295 and 1400, while ceramics and two silver pennies found in the grave helped experts narrow the date range down to the mid-14th century.

Though the researchers acknowledge that any number of factors could have driven the mass fatality in Lincolnshire, they suspect the Black Death is the “most probable cause.” Documentary evidence indicates the bubonic plague had hit Lincolnshire by the spring of 1349. What’s more, centuries-old DNA extracted from the teeth of 16 individuals buried at the site revealed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the disease.

The skeletons’ ages—which ranged from 1 year old to over 45—lend further credence to the theory that something devastating was at play. Hugh Willmott, a senior lecturer in European historical archaeology at the University of Sheffield and leader of the excavation, tells Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger that medieval cemeteries are typically dominated by very young and relatively old individuals, who are particularly susceptible to disease and injury.

“But what we’ve got is not that profile at all,” says Willmott. “We can tell from the proportion of individuals that everyone is being affected, and everyone is dying.”

Read the whole thing