The Practice of History

A friend writes:

In practice it seems to have become a norm to say “historians agree,” when when that is not true, or sometimes just on the basis of some recent article or paperback, and which is popular with a certain crowd.

There is almost a tendency to present history as an activity in which some set “findings” have been made that have a fixed meaning.

Such a reality is not true even in many experimental social sciences which at least use statistical significance as a guide to reliability. It is even less the case with history where the nature of the profession precludes such statements. The very historians who do the most detailed archival, philological, and novel work are so often overwhelmed with that that they do not have a very good grasp of other areas of history, and even less the findings of social, psychological, and natural sciences. Whereas those who, because they come across well on camera, who speak most generally often simply do not have enough scholarly depth.

And for people on the left who really really feel that some piece of historiography has totally transformed historical understanding so that they know something that hoi polloi don’t, always keep in mind the sad case of Michael A. Bellesiles [link added].

My favorite example of this phenomenon is provided by Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White (1995). Ignatiev used “white” metaphorically to mean “part of the dominant group.” But since then it has become conventional wisdom that “the Irish weren’t even considered white in the nineteenth century!” One must use metaphors carefully. 

Western Civ.

From History News Network (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

“Western Civ” Was Not a Late Invention

The claim that “Western civilization” as a concept and a course of study was invented during World War I is mistaken. That claim has been in heavy circulation among academic historians for nearly four decades, and has often been used as a culture war weapon against those who uphold traditionalist views of the West’s cultural continuity. First offered in 1982 by University of New Brunswick historian Gilbert Allardyce, this model specimen of historical deconstruction was widely cited amidst national controversy in 1987-88 by scholars who favored replacing Stanford’s Western Culture requirement with a multicultural alternative. Allardyce later helped found what he dubbed the “world history movement,” and his take-down of Western Civ is invoked by historians generally, and partisans of world history in particular, to this day.

Allardyce’s deconstruction of Western Civ was further developed by historian Lawrence Levine in his 1996 brief for multiculturalism, The Opening of the American Mind. As Levine put it, “The Western Civ curriculum, portrayed by conservative critics of the university in our time as apolitical and of extremely long duration, was in fact neither. It was a 20th century phenomenon which had its origins in a wartime government initiative, and its heyday lasted scarcely fifty years.”

Yet the Allardyce-Levine thesis is false, and dramatically so. Under only slightly different names, Western Civ has been taught since colonial times, appealing across the political spectrum until the late 1960s. While it takes a bit of digging to rebut Allardyce and Levine, any historian even moderately skeptical of their thesis could have exposed its gaping holes long ago. That nothing of the sort has happened suggests that contemporary historians’ hostility to America’s “dominant narrative” has hamstrung the discipline’s ability to self-correct. I lay out a refutation of the Allardyce-Levine thesis and explore the weaknesses of history’s post-1960s disciplinary orthodoxies in The Lost History of Western Civilization, a book-length report for the National Association of Scholars, a portion of which is summarized here.

More at the link

Backmasking

Another stroll down memory lane courtesy Atlas Obscura (although the article appeared some time ago now):

The Fight to Save America From Satan’s Subliminal Rock Messages

On April 27, 1982, members of the California Assembly’s Consumer Protection and Toxics Committee gathered in Sacramento to hear Robert Plant endorse Satan. This was not a straightforward testimonial. For one thing, the Led Zeppelin frontman wasn’t actually in attendance. Also, his pro-devil paeans could only be heard when you played “Stairway to Heaven” backwards.

After circulating pamphlets with the “backward masked” declarations spelled out, that’s precisely what Assemblyman Phillip Wyman and panel witness William H. Yarroll II did. The relevant portion of the eight-minute classic was first played forward for committee members and then reversed. Here’s what Wyman claimed could be heard: “I sing because I live with Satan. The Lord turns me off. There’s no escaping it. Here’s to my sweet Satan.” Yarroll, who identified himself as a “neuroscientist,” noted that a teenager need only listen to “Stairway to Heaven” three times before these backward messages were “stored as truth.”

It wasn’t just Plant reverse-singing Satan’s praises, either. According to Yarroll, bands ranging from Styx to the Beatles also had secret backmasked messages hidden in their music—messages that, in the words of legislative proposal A.B. 3741, had the power to “manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.”

As the bill’s sponsor, Wyman wanted mandatory warning labels on all rock albums containing these morally dubious backward messages. “Suppose young people have heard ‘Stairway to Heaven’ two or three hundred times and there has been implanted in their subconscious mind pro satanic messages or incantations?” he told Terry Drinkwater the following day on a CBS Evening News segment. Indeed, this was the truly insidious part of backmasking. Even though you had to play records in reverse to decipher the occultic messages, they could still subliminally imprint themselves upon young teen minds when played in the standard direction.

During the same news segment, Yarroll described how the brain unscrambles a backward masked message: “We have it stored in the unconscious as a truth image,” he said, “and as the creative unconscious side of the brain does, it goes through scanning the unconscious brain to go about and bring those truth images to the surface and make them reality for us.”

After calling the issue “exciting and interesting,” committee chairman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) delayed an official vote until the music industry and band members could weigh in on the matter. That day never came. But the national panic surrounding subliminal satanic messages in rock music was about to reach fever pitch.

In the early ’70s, backmasking—or the practice of recording vocals and instruments backwards and then reinserting them into the forward mix of a song—was something a music savvy (and possibly stoned) Beatles fan might bring up. A decade later, it had become a cause célèbre for conservative religious leaders, school teachers, parents, and even politicians. Whether it was the reversed voice of Freddie Mercury declaring “it’s fun to smoke marijuana” on “Another One Bites the Dust” or Styx imploring Satan to “move through our voices” on “Snowblind,” there seemed to be mounting evidence that rock music was literally becoming a mouthpiece for the devil.

Believers held record-smashing parties, appeared on popular TV talk shows, wrote books, formed watchdog groups, and, perhaps most importantly, called their government representatives to warn them.

By 1982, state and federal legislation was being introduced at a steady clip to combat rock and roll’s hidden satanic agenda. Two weeks after the California Assembly hearing in Sacramento, California congressman Robert Dornan introduced H.R. 6363 to the House. Also known as the “Phonograph Record Backward Masking Labeling Act,” the bill aimed to do the same thing as Wyman’s A.B. 3741, only on a national level. 

While it would ultimately be shuffled off to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism to die, other bills—including one in Arkansas a year later—were passed unanimously by both house and senate members (then-Governor Bill Clinton ultimately vetoed that one).

For its own part, the music industry responded with a bemused skepticism. Styx’s James Young called the whole idea of satanic backmasking a hoax perpetrated by religious zealots, and refused to attend any meeting or hearing where the topic was discussed. Then there was Bob Garcia of A&M Records, who declared, “it must be the devil putting these messages on the records because no one here knows how to do it.” A spokesman for Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records, issued just one statement in response to the “Stairway to Heaven” satanic allegations: “Our turntables only rotate in one direction.”

Taken as a whole, these reactions only stoked the righteous (and possibly entrepreneurial) fires of religious leaders like pastor Gary Greenwald, who started holding backmasking seminars all over the country. Soon, books like Backward Masking UnmaskedDancing With Demonsand The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth About Rock, were exposing “the sinister nature of rock and roll music,” while watchdog organizations like Parents Against Subliminal Seduction (P.A.S.S.) tried to block rock concerts at various venues.

The problem, as you may have already guessed, was that the whole thing was a bunch of diabolical tihsllub.

Canada and the United States have different traditions regarding the separation of church and state. The divide between French and English Canada was, historically, religious as well as linguistic, with French Canadians clinging tenaciously to their Catholicism, and most English Canadians fervently Protestant (for instance, at one point one needed to be a member of the Orange Order to get anywhere in Toronto politics). Canada West (the future province of Ontario) did disestablish the Anglican Church in the 1840s, but still recognized religion in a way that is forbidden in the United States. Thus, in the negotiations leading up to Confederation in 1867, Canada West agreed to fund Roman Catholic education, as a concession to Quebec. So to this day Ontario actually runs two parallel school systems, the public school system and the “separate” (RC) school system. I suppose the idea was that the public schools would in fact be “Protestant” schools in contrast to the separate schools, and I recall a certain amount of religious content from my days as a public school student in Port Hope, Ontario, including:

• the Lord’s Prayer (and occasionally Bible readings and hymns) as part of the day’s opening exercises

• Christmas and Easter pageants, with religious content (carols, prayers, nativity scenes, etc.)

• a representative of the Gideons coming in and handing out bibles to us, with the principal giving a short speech beforehand, not about how “you don’t need to believe this if you don’t want to,” but about how it was a special occasion, since we were now old enough to be entrusted with holy scripture

In middle school, we had a half-hour of religious instruction per week from one of the ministers of one of the churches in town. You could be excused from this if your parents felt strongly enough about it, and the ministers weren’t allowed to proselytize as such – instead, their remit was to teach about the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” But the Pentecostal minister that our class got put the fear of God in us in other ways. It was from him that I learned about the supercomputer in Brussels nicknamed The Beast, with everyone’s name in it, that will track all buying and selling, with the aid of invisible tattoos on the right hand or forehead – just like the prophesied Beast of Revelation 13! (This urban legend, I have discovered, actually has a discernible origin in a novel by author Joe Musser.) The year was 1983, so of course he also solemnly warned us about backmasking, that is, backwards messages in the music that we listened to, but which your brain had the ability to pick up and understand beneath conscious notice. These messages instructed you to kill yourself, take drugs, etc., and the scary thing is that the bands weren’t putting these messages on themselves, but “some force” was doing it! That force had to be Satan, because before his fall Satan was a master of music in heaven, and that “inversion” (hanging crosses upside-down, saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards) was a feature of current satanic ritual. Pastor’s message, though, did not have much of an effect on my musical listening habits, if only because a lot of what he played for us didn’t seem to say much at all. Was it really “worship Satan,” or just “zhoop zhip stanna”?

I was pleased to read this section of the article, about the origins of the notion of “subliminal persuasion.” I remember this one too:

A drive-in movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey just happened to provide a perfect junk science laboratory. Over the course of six weeks in 1957, unsuspecting filmgoers were the subjects of a grand marketing experiment. Using a special high-speed projector, researcher and social psychologist James Vicary inserted the words “drink Coke” and “eat popcorn” into movies that summer. Invisible to the human eye, each message lasted for 1/3,000th of a second and was repeated in five-second intervals during films on alternating nights.

By the end of the six weeks, Vicary claimed 45,699 people had been subjected to his subliminal inducements. He also claimed that popcorn and Coke sales went up 57.5 and 18.1 percent, respectively. At a press conference held later that same year, Vicary described the results of this now infamous study to help boost interest in his new “Subliminal Projection Company,” an attempt to commercialize what he called a major breakthrough in subliminal advertising. The public and press went bonkers, and not in a good way.

The first sentence of an influential op-ed responding to the press conference by journalist Norman Cousins read: “Welcome to 1984.” He, like many others, wondered what such a technology could mean not just for advertisers who wanted to sell us stuff, but also for governments seeking to steer public sentiment.

For its own part, the FCC almost immediately threatened to suspend the broadcast license of any company that dared use Vicary’s machine. In the years following the experiment, the CIA started looking into the “operational potential of subliminal perception” (they found it “exceedingly limited”), and authors like Wilson Bryan Key began cranking out books such as Subliminal Seduction, which claimed that sexual images (and the actual word “sex”) were being hidden in hundreds of ads.  

But when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tried to replicate Vicary’s claims by subliminally flashing the message “Call now” during a popular Sunday night program, there was no increase in phone calls. The station later told viewers they had inserted a message and asked them to guess what it might have been. Almost half of the roughly 500 viewers claimed to have been made hungry or thirsty during the show, which aired during dinner time.

Vicary’s study was clearly on the public’s mind, which was problematic because it was completely made up. From the beginning, Vicary refused to release key details about his study. Not only was there never any independent evidence to support his claims about the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, years later, Vicary admitted he had done only enough research to file a patent for his machine, and actually had collected barely any data. Even worse, his machine didn’t seem to work half the time once people did try to test it.

Of course, none of that mattered by the late ’70s and early ’80s. Subliminal messaging was being used in self-help tapes, in department store Muzak to ward off shoplifters, and, if you believed Key, to sell the American public lots and lots of booze and cigarettes.

It’s amazing what social science research gets out into the public consciousness and causes concern, although I suppose that “you’re being manipulated and you don’t even know it!” might be especially alarming to people. But I’m not surprised, after all these years, to read that the experiment wasn’t replicable – this is the fate of a lot of psychological research, unfortunately. And as far as “hidden persuasion” goes, why not focus on what actually is out there in plain sight? Advertisers use all sorts of non-subliminal techniques to get you to behave in certain ways. Learning about those, so as to realize what’s going on, is always useful – much more than trying to discern any secret hidden messages. Backmasking seems even less plausible – does the mind really have the ability to turn words around subconsciously, and then to obey what you’ve “heard”? Again, why not focus on the actual lyrics and image that rock bands project? Some 1980s heavy metal bands flirted openly with Satanic imagery, and I didn’t like that, but even at the time it seemed to be mostly an act, calculated to offend the squares. 

The Myth of Medieval Paganism

From First Things, confirmation of one of my opinions (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

When we encounter “pagan-­seeming” images or practices in ­medieval Christianity, we should consider the probability that they were simply expressions of popular Christianity before positing the existence of secret pagan cults in ­medieval Western Europe. Once we accept that most culturally alien practices in popular Christianity were products of imperfectly catechized Christian cultures rather than pockets of pagan resistance, we can begin to ask the interesting questions about why popular Christianity developed in the ways it did. Rejecting the myth of the pagan Middle Ages opens up the vista of medieval popular Christianity in all its inventiveness and eccentricity. After the first couple of centuries of evangelization, there were no superficially Christianized pagans—but there remained some very strange expressions of Christianity.

That’s the conclusion, but I enjoin you to read the whole thing

Romans

From Facebook, some “portentous” reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire:

Whoa… that’s just like us!!! Although I question whether the Romans engaged in much “outsourcing,” or ran up much debt (this was a problem with the Roman economy – it couldn’t create debt!). And where’s “The Triumph of Christianity,” Gibbon’s main reason for the fall of the Empire (or at least of “The Closing of the Western Mind,” in Charles Freeman’s formulation)?

Speaking of the religion, here is an interesting theory by one Mark Fulton:

Christianity No More Than Roman Government Propaganda

I think that the Roman government was the driving force behind Paul’s pagan propaganda (which became the Christian theology.) The fact that belief in the divinity of Jesus arose in many diverse areas of the empire a number of decades after Jesus’ death suggests to me that it came from a central source, and it wasn’t Jesus’ Jewish friends in Jerusalem.

There was good reason to mar the power of messianic Judaism, and particularly militaristic Nazarenism (the Nazarenes were Jesus’ Jewish followers); the Romans were trying to stop a war. They had to counter Jewish extremists who promoted the subversive idea that a Jewish king should govern the world on behalf of God and in place of Caesar. If the Romans couldn’t pacify these Jews, it would set a dangerous precedent for other races to revolt. They needed to keep control over the trade routes to Asia and Egypt. The government must have been frustrated at having to repeatedly use force to suppress Jewish extremists, as it was disruptive, expensive, and taxing on the army. Roman vitriol bubbled over when soldiers razed the Temple in 70 CE when there was no military need to do so. Judaism’s nerve center had to be destroyed.

I also suspect that Jewish and gentile intellectuals working for the Roman government wrote the Gospels (this is discussed in depth in my book.) They knew ideas could be as effective as force. I think they tried to weaken Judaism by infiltrating and diluting it with gentiles. A tale that the long hoped for Jewish messiah was Jesus, and he’d already been and gone, and he wasn’t a political activist, but rather a spiritual intermediary between God and man, would have suited their agenda perfectly.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies” and “pay your taxes,” as promoted by Jesus in the gospels, meant you obeyed your Roman superiors and didn’t cause trouble. To push these ideas to plebs was a lot easier than using the military. If these ideas caught on, there’d be no more messiahs and no more revolts.

This explains why the true identities of all four gospel authors are unknown.

It’s ironic that the gospels, said to be so truthful, became one of the most successful literary enterprises ever undertaken, yet were so fabricated.

I think Paul attempted to infiltrate the Nazarenes to undermine them and their messianic message. His “conversion” (to being the founding member of his own Christ fan club) was his cover, and his novel beliefs were his modus operandi. I suspect (but can’t prove) he would have passed information about the Nazarenes on to Roman authorities.

Read the whole thing, although note that I’m not endorsing it – it simply sounds too conspiratorial to be plausible. Is there any evidence that the Romans engaged in such sophisticated counter-intelligence operations in other contexts? But Joseph Atwill, mentioned in the penultimate paragraph of the article, certainly agrees with Fulton. From a recent piece in The Express:

Christianity is a baseless religion that was designed by the Roman empire to justify slavery and pacify the citizens, according to controversial Biblical scholar Joseph Atwill.

In a blog [post] on his website [link – JG] Mr Atwill wrote: “Christianity may be considered a religion, but it was actually developed and used as a system of mind control to produce slaves that believed God decreed their slavery.”

The scholar argues that at the time, Jewish sects in Palestine were awaiting a ‘warrior Messiah’, which became an increasing problem after the Roman Empire failed to deal with the problem with traditional means.

As a result, the rulers resorted to psychological warfare which would appear to give the citizens what they wanted, while at the same time making sure they followed their rules.

Mr Atwill added: “They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system.

“That’s when the ‘peaceful’ Messiah story was invented.

“Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to ‘give onto Caesar’ and pay their taxes to Rome.

“Although Christianity can be a comfort to some, it can also be very damaging and repressive, an insidious form of mind control that has led to blind acceptance of serfdom, poverty, and war throughout history.”

Atwill notes the “uncanny parallels” between the life of Jesus and the military campaign of Titus Flavius, and suggests that the former was a “typological representation” of the latter. Atwill’s 2005 book Caesar’s Messiah will tell you more; suffice it to say that this idea has not found much purchase among academic Biblical scholars. Wikipedia:

The mythicist Biblical scholar Robert M. Price said that Atwill “gives himself license to indulge in the most outrageous display of parallelomania ever seen.” Price acknowledges that the New Testament has “persistent pro-Roman tendencies”, but says this was done “for apologetical reasons, to avoid persecution.” The mythicist Richard Carrier similarly stated that all of Atwill’s alleged parallels can be explained as either coincidences, mistranslations, or references to Old Testament sources or tropes. However, Carrier also agreed that the New Testament has pro-Roman aspects. According to Carrier, “Christianity was probably constructed to ‘divert Jewish hostility and aggressiveness into a pacifist religion, supportive of–and subservient to–Roman rule,’ but not by Romans, but exasperated Jews like Paul.”

St. Maurice and the Eagle

This post comes almost two years too late, but this falsehood has shown a remarkable tenacity:

Background: the “Unite the Right” rally, held in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017 really unnerved a lot of people. The idea is that Donald Trump’s election emboldened members of the far (or “alt-“) right to “come out,” and to start demonstrating in favor of racism, nativism, and xenophobia – and to kill a counter-protester by running her down with a car. Donald Trump then claimed “moral equivalence” between the two sides, thereby illustrating his fundamental awfulness. Some of the participants in the rally made reference to things medieval, on the principle that the Middle Ages represent white Europe unsullied by mass non-white immigration. Such references seemingly implicated the discipline of Medieval Studies, and they provoked a huge reaction: the Medieval Academy, along with almost thirty other groups, unequivocally condemned “the appropriation of any item or idea or material in the service of white supremacy,” and continued:

As scholars of the medieval world we are disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States. By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past. Medieval Europe was diverse religiously, culturally, and ethnically, and medieval Europe was not the entire medieval world. Scholars disagree about the motivations of the Crusades—or, indeed, whether the idea of “crusade” is a medieval one or came later—but it is clear that racial purity was not primary among them.

This impulse has animated some people ever since. They are not willing to ignore such things as being beyond their concern or control (people refer to the Middle Ages all the time for various reasons, and there’s nothing professional medievalists can do about it, because they don’t actually “own” that time period) or as just a small part of the overall imagery presented at the rally (Charlotte Allen counted “exactly two” medieval costumes, and as Tom MacMaster notes, the protestors made far more use of nineteenth and twentieth century imagery than they did medieval). Instead, it has become extremely important for some people to present the Middle Ages in such a way that “rescues” them from white nationalists. Now, I’m no white nationalist, but as I said before, I don’t care for truth-bending either, no matter how noble the cause.* It’s a bit of a stretch, for instance, to designate the Vikings as “multicultural and multiracial.” (No, you can’t cherry-pick the one former Arab slave who took a Danish wife and settled in Normandy. You need a proper population sample! Numbers are of the essence here. That Vikings ended up losing their identity wherever they settled is the opposite of multicultural.) And as Andrew Holt said about the Crusades:

I can understand Professor Gabriele not wanting to give ammunition to those on the political right with whom he disagrees, particularly when they make crass calls for medieval solutions to modern problems, but misrepresenting what scholars of the crusades think is not the way to do it, and will backfire in the end.

This brings us to the black eagle of St. Maurice, referenced in the tweet above. The story goes that St. Maurice was a third-century commander of the Theban Legion, a Roman unit recruited in Upper Egypt and composed entirely of Christians. Emperor Maximian ordered them to march into Gaul, where they were to be employed in putting down a rebellion. Ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods for the success of the mission, the Thebans refused, and were twice decimated as a punishment – with the survivors then massacred. This took place at Agaunum, now Saint-Maurice, in Switzerland. As the name change reveals, St. Maurice became the stand-in for all the other martyred Thebans, some 6600 of them, and a monastery was established there in his honor. St. Maurice subsequently became a popular medieval saint, a patron of Savoy, Lombardy, Burgundy, and Sardinia, a patron of soldiers (particularly the Pontifical Swiss Guard), and of weavers and dyers, and the namesake of many religious foundations, including twenty-two English churches. Most important, for our purposes, is his patronage of the Holy Roman Empire, which seems to date from the reign of Henry the Fowler (919-936). Henry granted the Swiss canton of Aargau to the Abbey of St. Maurice in return for Maurice’s lance, sword, and spurs, which became part of the regalia used at Imperial coronations. Henry also built Magdeburg Cathedral, dedicated to St. Maurice. Emperor Otto the Great translated the saint’s relics there in 961, and had himself entombed there upon his own death in 973.

Of course, it must be said that, in common with many early martyrs, there is no historical evidence that St. Maurice or the Theban Legion ever existed. The earliest sources attesting to them date from 150 years after their alleged executions, although it is entirely possible that some Christians really were put to death in the area, from which an elaborate story was later spun. According to an article in Greenwich Time, St. Maurice wasn’t depicted as black until the thirteenth century. Why this particular attribute? It’s logical that someone whose origins were so far up the Nile should acquire a sub-Saharan phenotype, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the etymological similarity of “Maurice” to “Moor” had something to do with it. Why this shift should have happened in the thirteenth century I do not know, although it does point to medieval European knowledge of non-white Christians, perhaps inspired by contact with Ethiopians during the Crusades (Ethiopians maintained a presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), or as the result of an Ethiopian embassy to the pope in the late fourteenth century. Just as the Three Kings, from the twelfth century, could be depicted as European, African, and Asian, one for each of the three known continents, so also does a black St. Maurice point to the universality of Christianity. In this sense, the medievalists are right: medieval Europeans clearly were not “racist,” but only because they were deeply Christian, and truly believed that every person on Earth was a potential member of the faith. (An artistically black St. Maurice says nothing about the presence of phenotypically sub-Saharan Africans in Europe.)

Lucas Cranach the Elder & Workshop, Saint Maurice, ca. 1522-25.

But the tweet above was about another emblem: a black eagle borne by one young man on a shield at Charlottesville, and by St. Maurice on a banner in a painting dating to the sixteenth century, judging by the style of the armor. Why does St. Maurice carry such a banner? The image tweeted seems to be a preliminary sketch or an elaboration of a painting of St. Maurice by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). It originally formed part of an altarpiece, commissioned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, for a church in the Saxon city of Halle. Saxony, of course, was within the Holy Roman Empire, and the banner that St. Maurice holds is actually the banner of the arms of the Holy Roman Empire – a black eagle displayed on a gold field.

“Shield and Coat of Arms of the Holy Roman Emperor, drawn in the style the late medieval period. Also used as shield of arms (generic) by the King of the Romans.” Wikipedia.

One finds other Imperial representations of St. Maurice bearing this shield.

Apparently from the Church of St. Antony, Bitterfield-Wolfen, c. 1499.

Design for Reliquary bust of St. Maurice. Heiltumsbuch, fol. 228v., 1525-1527. Aschaffenburg Hofbibliothek.

In other words, the eagle is associated with the Holy Roman Empire, and St. Maurice is one of the patrons of the Empire; thus does he bear the shield of the Empire. It’s not actually “his,” or it’s only his at second hand. We see this with other saints – sometimes St. George, a patron of England, is shown bearing the three lions of the kings of England, and sometimes St. Michael, a patron of France, is shown bearing the fleur de lys of the kings of France. It might be somewhat egotistical for a votary to assign his own attribute to his patron saint (rather than for a votary to bear his patron saint’s attribute as an act of devotion), but it did happen from time to time.

St. Maurice, therefore, is by no means the “original” bearer of this standard. The reason eagles are associated with the Holy Roman Empire is because the Romans themselves employed eagles as identifying devices, particularly of their legions, and when heraldry developed in the twelfth century it was only natural that the Holy Roman Emperors should have chosen an eagle as an identifying device. Eagles were also used by other successor empires to ancient Rome, including the Byzantines (specifically, the Palaiologos dynasty that ruled it from the eleventh century), the Tsars of Russia, and Napoleon as the Emperor of the French. You could say that Maurice, as the commander of a legion, has a natural right to an eagle as his own attribute, but it would make far more sense for this to be in the form of a Roman aquila (a three dimensional sculpture of an eagle atop a pole), and you would need to find actual artistic evidence of him doing so prior to the twelfth century and the elaboration of heraldry. In other words, the succession seems to be Eagle -> Empire -> St. Maurice, not Eagle -> St. Maurice –> Empire.

As for the other eagle, that appears to be a commercial product of an outfit called West Wolf Renaissance:


From the website:

VIKING BLACK EAGLE SHIELD WITH FORGED IRON BOSS

This is a beautiful handmade and hand-painted wooden Viking shield featuring a Black Eagle design inspired by Viking and Norse shields of old. This shield features a solid oak body which measures about 30 inches across and is 1/2 inches thick…. Because this shield is made of real wood, please note that the wood-grain background shown in the pictures may vary slightly from the shield you receive (this is simply due to the nature of the wood). The front of the shield has also been applied with several coats of topcoat/varnish to protect it through the centuries. So whether for the wall or the battlefield, this shield is well balanced and ready to serve.

Note that the design is “inspired by” Norse shields – it is not necessarily a reproduction of an actual shield. It looks to me like it was taken from Wikipedia’s rendition of the Raven Banner:

Other shields offered for sale by West Wolf Renaissance feature medieval, classical, Mayan, and even cinematic designs (e.g. the emblem of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, or the houses from Game of Thrones). The company also offers reproduction/fantasy jewelry, clothing, and weapons. Who buys this stuff I do not know, but presumably there are LARPers or “fandoms” out there who enjoy playing medieval dress-up, without scrupulous attention to historic detail.** It might be possible, therefore, that the company helped itself to the shield of the Holy Roman Empire and reimagined it in a Viking style, but my hunch is that the two shields actually have nothing to do with each other. To show an eagle “displayed” (i.e. spread out) is a logical way to show it, black is a common enough color to show it in, and the background hue is coincidental – the HRE shield is formally gold, whereas the Viking shield is just natural wood. (Actually, if the shield is based on a real Norse model, then it would have priority over the shield of the HRE, since the Vikings were active before the development of true heraldry, and we could accuse the HRE and St. Maurice of bearing a stolen Viking shield! Furthermore, it might not even be an eagle: note that it’s in the style of the Raven Banner, and one of the words in the URL is “raven.” It would certainly make sense for the bird to be a raven, given that it’s an attribute of the Norse god Odin.)

Any symbol can have a variety of referents. As the lion is the king of the beasts, so also is the eagle the king of the birds, and like all emblems has been used at various times and various places, by various people, to reference various things. (Actually, in a Christian context, an eagle is most likely to be associated with St. John the Evangelist.) Even a black eagle “displayed” on a lighter-colored background is not the exclusive property of any one group, and you simply cannot take two superficially similar things and juxtapose them in the service of “proving” anything. This is one reason why Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is so ridiculous. No, you actually need to establish a chain of transmission, and you would think that art and cultural historians would understand that.† I mean, St. Maurice can also be shown wearing a red cross – does this mean that the “true, original” bearer of this device is St. Maurice, not St. George, St. Ambrose, or the Diocese of Trier?

Medieval Milanetc.

But what do you expect from Twitter? The place is a sewer, the “crystal meth” of social media, and it seems to encourage people in their worst habits of mind. Not only is there the 140-character limit, which prevents the elaboration of complex ideas, there is also a great premium on winning social status through scoring “sick burns” or at least by acquiring lots of followers. Thus our tweeter’s assertion that “Nazis aren’t happy” about her juxtaposition. Who are these people, and are they really all “Nazis”? Or is this all just an imaginary setup to prove to her claque how brave a fighter she is?

Alas, memes can be powerful things, and this one has firmly lodged itself in the medievalist consciousness. Even the executive director of the Medieval Academy went in for it (from All Things Considered, September 2017):

LISA FAGIN DAVIS: There was one young man who was carrying a shield with a black spread eagle that was clearly co-opted from either the Holy Roman Empire or – there’s actually a saint. And it’s kind of ironic. He’s an African saint who carries that standard. And I suspect the gentleman carrying the shield didn’t realize that.

ULABY: That was St. Maurice, revered during the medieval period. He came from Egypt.

It was relayed on History.com in December 2017:

One man carried a round shield decorated with a black eagle. It was a curious choice, considering the eagle image is strongly associated with a Saint Maurice, a Roman general of African descent who became a saint in the early Middle Ages

The white supremacist in Charlottesville carrying that image was probably unaware that it’s strongly associated with a black Catholic saint, and this disconnect illustrates a larger trend. Hate groups that adopt medieval iconography as symbols of white supremacy usually have misconceptions about that historical era. One of the most common? That Europe in the Middle Ages was unvaryingly white.

Earlier this year I heard a speaker who repeated the idea that the Viking eagle of Charlottesville was really the eagle of a black saint, and just recently another friend posted this to Facebook, from one of her students’ exams:

Historians have the difficult job of interpreting sources in the context they were intended. With white supremacy, gender equality, and current social classes, it is nearly impossible to see the past through an unbiased scope uninfluenced by these current issues. In Charlottesville many protesters used a medieval symbol as a symbol of racial hatred, when truthfully the symbol was worn by a black saint.

So it looks like this notion will be with us for some time to come…

Once again, I state that I am not in favor of white supremacy – although I confess that, apart from the car crash, I didn’t find the Unite the Right rally to be any more shocking than what Antifa routinely gets up to at its demonstrations. But in general I am in favor of proper historical analysis, developed with as much detail as necessary, and not superficial Twitter-zingers, even in the service of things we dearly want to believe.

In brief:

• The arms of the Holy Roman Empire date from the twelfth century and are a reference to the Roman eagle.

• St. Maurice, as a patron of the HRE, bears the arms of the HRE in some depictions, but it’s not a symbol of St. Maurice as such.

• St. Maurice, as an Egyptian, only began to be portrayed as black starting in the thirteenth century.

• The West Wolf Renaissance shield is either a reproduction of a Viking design, or an imagined one (they did not answer my email enquiry).

• If it is a reproduction, it predates the shield of the HRE, and is probably better seen as Odin’s raven; either way, its connection to the shield of the HRE is almost certainly coincidental.

• Truth exists, and it’s more important than feelings.

• Academics should get off Twitter.

* But… quod est veritas? This is an interminable debate, which might go back to the conflict between realists and nominalists in medieval universities, or to Livy and Pollio, if Robert Graves is to be believed. Postmodern historians are fond of saying that there’s no such thing as truth, only competing narratives, and that all history writing is essentially fiction. No, there is no such thing as an omniscient and unbiased historian – we all come to the table with our perspectives and areas of strength (and weakness). But there is a big difference between people who acknowledge this and still hold up the idea that events actually happened in the past, and we can get at them through studying sources that have come down to us from those events, and people who believe that since truth is so elusive, we might as well not even try, and we can say anything we want about the past, because why not?

I cannot abide this position. Any respect that historians get is utterly dependent on people trusting us to deal honestly with the past. They know we are liberal, but they still think that we know some facts that others don’t. However, when we say whatever we want because it is in accord with our politics, that is a problem.

** I am of two minds about this. In general, just as I favor a search for Truth in historical scholarship, I am also in favor of getting the details right in any sort of historic recreation. But I am also fully aware that such concerns can border on pedantry and wet-blanketness. If the goal is to have fun, then why not go for an overall effect, rather than get bogged down in all the details?

† No, I am not prepared to accept any arguments based on “serendipity” or “synchronicity” or any other such mumbo-jumbo.

The Academic Sandbox

The always-entertaining Charlotte Allen weighs in on the recent kerfuffles in medieval studies, in First Things. A choce excerpt:

Until recently, academic medieval studies seemed to be immune from the mix of identity politics, impenetrable postmodernist jargon, and social-­justice witch-hunting that has taken over most of the humanities and social sciences. It’s not that most professors of medieval history and literature aren’t political liberals. It’s that medieval studies used to be so technically and linguistically demanding (deciphering Latin manuscripts, for example) that scholars didn’t need to worry about being called out for not being sufficiently alert to critical race theory and other progressive obsessions. As one medievalist professor, who requested anonymity, told me in an email: “People who do Near Eastern languages, Classics, Slavic languages, Asian languages, Byzantine history and, until recently, Medieval history have been protected from the worst of the SJW ­idiocy, because SJW idiots aren’t smart enough to get a foothold in those fields.”

All of this is changing fast. Perhaps because of pressure from university administrators to shorten degree programs to churn out doctorates, perhaps because secondary and even post-secondary education these days fails to train would-be medievalists in the rudimentary skills they need (what public high school teaches Latin?), standards have fallen, especially with respect to languages, but also with respect to technical skills such as paleography, which ­graduate students even at elite universities often must learn on their own, if at all. The standards have fallen fastest in university English departments, where graduate programs function in part as catchment areas for warm bodies to teach mandatory freshman composition for rock-bottom pay. It was no accident that the majority of the medievalist academics who gathered at George Washington in October 2017 to censure Rachel Fulton Brown hailed from postmodernism-soaked English departments.

The field of medieval history, in contrast to ­medieval literature, has been somewhat resistant to this trend, partly because historians still generally believe that they can shed light on what actually happened in the past, not just on the socially constructed narratives that literary theorists might find. Nonetheless, postmodernist politicization has made inroads even into history departments. Progressive academics have picked apart the field of medieval studies itself as a social construct: a narrative invention by self-glorifying scholars of European descent.

“How serious is this whole thing?” a colleague asks. In honesty I have to reply that, given the numbers of people involved, it’s not all that serious. Medievalists might not be “monkish” but, from what I can gather, most of them don’t even know about the Brown-Kim feud, and cannot muster the interest to care when they are apprised of it. It seems to be one of those things that becomes all-consuming if you’re a social media junkie. People with actual lives and real research agendas tend to have different priorities.

Alas, you might not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. So-called “woke” medievalists, the “SJWs” of the discipline, while numbering perhaps 100 at most, are influential beyond their numbers, for the reasons that Joseph Epstein noticed. Some of them have infiltrated the higher reaches of the Medieval Academy, where they bend it to their will by instituting a risible Professional Behavior Policy, sending around an email asking the membership to “thoughtfully consider” a statement by the Medievalists of Color essentially accusing the entire field of being racist, or giving free lifetime membership to Dorothy Kim on account of the alleged harassment she received from fans of Milo Yiannopoulous. And if no one pushes back against this sort of thing, it will eventually become the new normal, and given the online behavior of its proponents they will end up ruthlessly excluding anyone holding contrary views from the Medieval Academy. This is not an exaggeration – they truly believe they are in an apocalyptic struggle against the forces of evil, and anything done to further their cause is morally justified. This is not even a conflict between the “left” and the “right,” it is between emotionally secure adults who have an expansive attitude toward other opinions, knowing that they themselves might not have all the answers, and people who believe, e.g., that refusing to ban Rachel Brown from attending a session at the Kalamazoo conference “allowed a false conception of academic freedom to undermine true academic freedom” (cf. Joseph Stalin on “true freedom“), or who say things like this:

Medieval Studies in the New York Times!

And on the front page no less. The article, which arrives on the eve of the annual Kalamazoo conference, has been getting a lot of attention from my medievalist colleagues on Facebook and Twitter. A lot of people have taken issue with Richard Utz’s assertion that “People don’t become medievalists because they want to be political… Most are monkish creatures who just want to live in their cells and write their manuscripts.” Thus do we now have (of course!) the Twitter hashtag #notamonk, and the repeated assertion that nothing is apolitical, that if you ignore the problem, then you’re part of the problem. They are also upset about opinions they disagree with getting such a prominent “platform.”

But I don’t want to live in a world where everything is political – and definitely not one where a political position is a compulsory badge of membership in an institution. And as a general principle of journalism, I believe that all sides deserve a fair hearing. It used to be that adults understood this intuitively.

As for “platforms,” it’s curious to note how putative outsiders are so finely attuned to questions of status (that is, they complain about the “prestige economy,” but they don’t actually object to its existence, just that their current slice isn’t as big as they’d like). The New York Times can publish whatever it wants, and demanding creative control over the product on account of its “prestige” is somewhat like making a public issue about Harvard’s admissions policies. No one has a right to attend Harvard, and no one has a right to constant validation from daddy either.

So I’m happy to note that Milo Yiannopoulos’s 16000-word  essay “Middle Rages: Why the Battle for Medieval Studies Matters for America” has been published as an ebook. It’s available at Arkhaven Comics and Amazon (for now!). I like that it features an introduction by Mark Bauerlein. Excerpt:

To any objective observer of higher education over the last thirty or so years it is now clear that the multiculturalist project announced in pleasing, benign term of “diversity” and “opening up the canon” and “recovering lost voices” was no such thing. Multiculturalists spoke warmly of honoring the Other and welcoming historically-disadvantaged groups, but now that the diversiphiles have changed the curriculum for good and altered hiring practices – for instance, by adding to job interviews litmus-test questions such as, “How will you enhance diversity at our school after we hire you?” – they aren’t happy and they aren’t satisfied.

Read the whole thing.

Ayasofya Camii

Thomas D. Williams on Breitbart:

Erdogan Floats Reverting Hagia Sophia to a Mosque

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan floated the idea of turning Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque in an interview Sunday.

“It is not an abnormal proposal. It is not something impossible, it could be done easily. We could even name it as the Hagia Sophia Mosque instead of a museum so that everybody can visit it without charge,” Mr. Erdoğan replied to the question whether the museum could be opened free of charge for Turkish citizens.

“Its status of museum could be stripped off. Actually that status was given by a step taken with the mentality of the [Republican People’s Party] CHP. We can take that step taken by the CHP mentality back,” he added.

Built as a Christian church in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia served as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church after the Great Schism of 1054 and became a mosque in 1453 after the Muslim conquest of Constantinople — modern-day Istanbul. The building was later converted into a museum in 1935 as part of the secularization project of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985.

Erdoğan began allowing the recitation of verses from the Qur’an in the Hagia Sophia in 2015, at which time, the government of Greece protested, saying that Islamic prayers in the basilica were “not compatible with modern, democratic, and secular societies.”

“Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO world heritage site. The attempt to convert it into a mosque—through reading of the Koran, holding of prayers, and a number of other actions—is an affront to the international community, which needs to be duly mobilized and to react,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said.

Earlier this month, several hundred Muslim demonstrators protested the New Zealand mosque shootings outside Hagia Sophia, calling for the edifice to be reconverted into a mosque. The demand came in response to a taunt by the Christchurch gunman in his “manifesto,” in which he reportedly said “Hagia Sophia will be free of minarets.”

Speaking of minarets, I noticed last year that Hagia Sophia’s minarets don’t really match.

Wikipedia.

OK, the two on the left do, but the two on the right are differently shaped, and the one in the foreground is even a different color. Apparently it wasn’t always a four-minaret mosque, and the number was increased over the years, in different styles.

Symbolism

Two recent news items.

Wikipedia.

1. From Huffpost Canada:

Canada’s Coat Of Arms Needs Redesign To Include Indigenous Peoples: Petition

Randolph Shrofel, a retired educator from Manitoba, says it’s “just one more piece of the puzzle.”

TORONTO — Randolph Shrofel isn’t exactly sure where he was when he first took a good look at the front of his passport, only be struck by what was missing.

The retired high school guidance counsellor from Sandy Hook, Man. travels a lot these days with his wife Ruth, a former elementary school principal. Like many Canadians, Shrofel suspects, he never paid much mind to the golden coat of arms on the front of those ubiquitous leather booklets.

The emblem is one of nine official symbols adopted by the government of Canada to spark national pride. It can be found everywhere from official government documents and buildings to the prime minister’s plane and the rank badges of some Canadian Forces members.

“Over a period of time, I noticed there is no Indigenous content in the coat of arms at all,” he told HuffPost Canada. “And that started to make me think.”

In early December, Shrofel launched an electronic petition calling on the federal government to revise the coat of arms to “include representation of the Indigenous peoples of Canada (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) as co-founders of Canada.”

The e-petition is being sponsored by Manitoba Liberal MP Robert Falcon-Ouellette, who hails from the Red Pheasant Cree First Nation and was a leading voice pushing for Indigenous languages to be translated in the House of Commons.

Ouellette suggested going the route of a grassroots petition, Shrofel says, where 500 valid signatures over a period of 120 days will trigger an official government response.

I agree with this, although I did not include this critique in my short history of Canada’s coat of arms. The shield should be reduced to the maple leaves alone, but I’m in favor of retaining the banners of the Union Jack and the arms of France on each side, since they represent past sovereignty. But that means that we really should acknowledge Native sovereignty too. What to do? Would one pan-Indian symbol suffice? (Does such a thing even exist?) Or do we need to acknowledge every tribe in Canada? (This would get pretty aesthetically unwieldy.)

I would not be against changing the supporters to being native fauna – say, a moose and a polar bear, and I would not be against these creatures wearing collars and pendant badges referring to Indians and Inuit, in as inclusive a manner as possible. I would not be in favor of a stampede whereby every discrete group in Canada demands the right to specific acknowledgement in the coat of arms.

2. From the Washington Post:

A new Mississippi flag has a surprising champion: A segregationist’s grandchild

 Things are slow to change in this Old South bastion. The brass bird cage of an elevator in the Mississippi State Capitol that Laurin Stennis used to ride as a 6-year-old coming to see her daddy was still operated by hand when she stepped into it one day in early January, a 46-year-old coming to shake things up. Or at least nudge things along.

“Ground floor, please, sir,” she said to the operator.

But some things have changed. The lawmaker who greeted Stennis in the grand marbled lobby below was an African American woman, something unheard of when Stennis’s father, John H. Stennis, was a member of the nearly all-white, all-male state legislature and her grandfather, John C. Stennis, was a legendary champion of segregation in the U.S. Senate.

“I’ve already filed your bill,” state Rep. Kathy Sykes said after hugs. “I’m just waiting on the number.”

It was the start of a new legislative session, and Sykes, a Democrat from Jackson, had once again introduced legislation to replace the Mississippi state flag — the last in the country that still incorporates the Confederate battle flag — with a design widely known as the “Stennis Flag.” It features a big blue star on a white field, encircled by 19 smaller stars and flanked by red bands.

It’s graphically pleasing and increasingly popular. If the Stennis Flag eventually replaces the old banner — its supporters aren’t expecting much to happen this year, with state elections looming — the banner might help alter the view the world has of Mississippi, a state with a brutal history of Klan murders and racial oppression. It could alter the reputation of one of the state’s most famous political names, as well.

A great design, both aesthetically and symbolically (the big star represents Mississippi, the nineteen smaller ones represent previously admitted states to the Union). I confess that I still prefer the Magnolia flag, though.

UPDATE: I am in favor of getting rid of the current Mississippi flag, but I feel compelled to state that I object to such sentences as this, which come so easily to journalists at the Washington Post:

the banner might help alter the view the world has of Mississippi, a state with a brutal history of Klan murders and racial oppression.

I can think of a few “views” that Group A might have of Group B, which to the mainstream media cannot possibly be the fault of Group B, but can only be the result of stereotypes held by Group A and are thus streng verboten. I’d also like to point out that, for example, Illinois, the Land of Lincoln himself, also has a brutal history of Klan murders and racial oppression.