St. Thomas Becket

Arms of St. Thomas Becket in Camelford Church, Cornwall. Waymarking.com.

An interesting proclamation from the White House today, on the occasion of the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.

Today is the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket on December 29, 1170. Thomas Becket was a statesman, a scholar, a chancellor, a priest, an archbishop, and a lion of religious liberty.

Before the Magna Carta was drafted, before the right to free exercise of religion was enshrined as America’s first freedom in our glorious Constitution, Thomas gave his life so that, as he said, “the Church will attain liberty and peace.”

The son of a London sheriff and once described as “a low‑born clerk” by the King who had him killed, Thomas Becket rose to become the leader of the church in England. When the crown attempted to encroach upon the affairs of the house of God through the Constitutions of Clarendon, Thomas refused to sign the offending document. When the furious King Henry II threatened to hold him in contempt of royal authority and questioned why this “poor and humble” priest would dare defy him, Archbishop Becket responded “God is the supreme ruler, above Kings” and “we ought to obey God rather than men.”

Because Thomas would not assent to rendering the church subservient to the state, he was forced to forfeit all his property and flee his own country. Years later, after the intervention of the Pope, Becket was allowed to return — and continued to resist the King’s oppressive interferences into the life of the church. Finally, the King had enough of Thomas Becket’s stalwart defense of religious faith and reportedly exclaimed in consternation: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

The King’s knights responded and rode to Canterbury Cathedral to deliver Thomas Becket an ultimatum: give in to the King’s demands or die. Thomas’s reply echoes around the world and across the ages. His last words on this earth were these: “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” Dressed in holy robes, Thomas was cut down where he stood inside the walls of his own church.

Thomas Becket’s martyrdom changed the course of history. It eventually brought about numerous constitutional limitations on the power of the state over the Church across the West. In England, Becket’s murder led to the Magna Carta’s declaration 45 years later that: “[T]he English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.”

More at the link. I’m all for religious freedom but the Church’s position in medieval Investiture Controversy (of which the Becket episode was a small part) is not quite what I would choose as a positive example of it…

The Dark Ages

From Discover (hat tip: Tom MacMaster):

Just How Dark Were the Dark Ages?

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe wasn’t quite the horrible and backwards place earlier historians would have you believe. Modern scholars now look at the Dark Ages in a whole new light.

Whether it’s the idea of barbarian hordes run amok across a continent ruled by the Romans for centuries, or the notion that science and the arts went through a 300-year freeze, the concept of the Dark Ages has always titillated the imagination.

In truth, a big part of what makes the era dark to modern eyes is the relative lack of surviving information. But what we don’t know has always been at least as interesting as what we do know. Did King Arthur really exist, let alone send his knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail? Was there ever a legendary hero named Beowulf, and how long had his story existed before the oldest known surviving manuscript appeared in roughly the 10th century?

Of course, the Dark Ages also refers to a less-than-heroic time in history supposedly marked by a dearth of culture and arts, a bad economy, worse living conditions and the relative absence of new technology and scientific advances. While the period continues to fascinate history buffs, scholars and fantasy fans looking for some tangible link to their favorite mytho-historical heroes, the term “Dark Ages” has largely fallen out of use among serious researchers, due to some of the implications and assumptions made by those who first propagated its use.

“No academic uses it today — because it’s actually one of the most fascinating and vibrant periods about which we are discovering new knowledge every year,” says Julia Smith, a professor of medieval history at the University of Oxford’s All Souls College. 

Let’s take a closer look at those aspects of the period that scholars typically refer to now as the Early Middle Ages to separate, the dark from the light.

Click the link to read more. 

The Gjellestad Longship

News from Norway (hat tip: David Winter):

Norway excavates a Viking longship fit for a king

Pyramids, castles, palaces: symbols of power and status have taken many forms down the ages, and for the Vikings what really counted was the longship.

This month Norwegian archaeologists hope to complete their excavation of a rare, buried longship at Gjellestad, an ancient site south-east of Oslo. It is the first such excavation in Norway for about a century.

Most of the ocean-going ship has rotted away over the centuries, but archaeologist Dr Knut Paasche believes the layout of the iron nails will still enable a replica to be built eventually.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) revealed it to be about 19m (62ft) long and 5m (16ft) wide – putting it on a par with the well-preserved Oseberg and Gokstad Viking ships on display in Oslo.

Those ships were found on the western side of the wide Oslo Fjord.

In the 9th Century the Vikings started using sails, but they still needed strong rowers too for their epic voyages.

In their longships they travelled all around the British Isles, raiding coastal communities, then settling and leaving a legacy of fine craftsmanship, as well as Norse words and names.

The Norse Vikings ventured to Iceland and some then settled in Greenland and Vinland in North America – what later became Newfoundland.

The Gjellestad warrior longship dates from the pre-Christian Viking period 750-850 AD, Mr Paasche of the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (Niku) told the BBC.

“We don’t yet know if this was a rowing or sailing ship. Others, like the Gokstad and Tune ships, combined rowing and sailing,” he said.

Study of the keel will be crucial and, he said, “the keel looks very different from the others, which is really exciting”.

More at the link

Ernst Kantorowicz

From the Chronicle of Higher Education (hat tip: Paul Halsall), a remembrance of a mildly famous mid-century episode:

The Right-Wing Medievalist Who Refused the Loyalty Oath: On Ernst Kantorowicz, academic freedom, and “the secret university.”

In 1950, Ernst Kantorowicz, a distinguished professor of medieval history, was fired from the University of California at Berkeley for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty, which had been mandated, in a fit of Cold War panic, by the University of California’s Board of Regents. Kantorowicz principally objected to the Board of Regents’ requirement that all professors with U.S. citizenship declare in writing that they upheld the Constitution and were not members of any organization advocating the government’s overthrow.

Kantorowicz was by no means alone in his refusal to sign. Across the UC system, another 36 tenured professors lost their jobs alongside him. As it turned out, California’s Supreme Court overturned the sackings. By then it didn’t matter much for Kantorowicz. He had already found a job at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Looking back, this incident may seem trivial enough: just another display of Cold War paranoia, just another demonstration of supine conciliation on the part of university authorities.

But we shouldn’t let Kantorowicz’s firing fall out of institutional memory. If anything, his act has become more rather than less significant, because, paradoxically, the reasons he gave for his refusal were so peculiar, so out of touch. They were remote from ordinary ways of thinking about the professoriate’s role and status then. They are even more remote now. This very remoteness can suggest new ways for professors to relate to the university system today, as it becomes unmoored from centuries-old traditions and legitimations and as the empire of obsolescence expands.

In refusing to sign the loyalty oath, Kantorowicz did not appeal primarily to the notion of “academic freedom” as articulated by John Dewey and others earlier in the century. Nor did he refuse to sign because he was any kind of leftist. To the contrary, he was (as he put it in the pamphlet he wrote about the affair) a “conservative” who, as a volunteer fighter against the Munich 1919 uprising, had actually killed Communists.

His reasons appealed to a different conceptual or institutional tradition than any acknowledged either in modern politics or by modern academic administration. He believed that a professor is “entrusted with” an office in a particular “body corporate,” or corpus mysticum, i.e., a university. That status was defined in medieval Europe when universities were established as a universitas magistrorum et scholarium — as bodies made up of students and professors and nobody else.

As a corporation, the university had a particular legal status. It could not be identified with the sum of its members; it was rather a disembodied entity, permanent and immortal. What enabled the scholar to participate in the university was professorial office, which endowed its bearer with “dignity.” Dignity, thus conceived, is not a personal comportment but a quality essential to office. Or rather: In a permanent, mystical institution, dignity fuses office to the private personality, as Kantorowicz put it in his most famous book, The King’s Two Bodies (1957).

As a corpus mysticum, the university is a corporation in a different sense than the modern business enterprise. Because students and professors were the embodied corpus mysticum, regents or janitors, for instance, do not themselves belong to the university proper. They are attached outsiders. Janitors, for instance, merely keep the campus clean. Regents ensure that formal university procedures as mandated by the state are observed. But as members of the university’s body corporate, professors were not employees at all.

In other words, for Kantorowicz, a professorship was a public trust. No one had control over professors. No one measured their performance. The dignity of the professorial office called upon its bearers to act according to their “conscience,” which was held to be inseparable from the professor’s “genuine duties as member of the academic body corporate.” Furthermore, dignity required them to enact their conscience with “passion” and “love.” It involved a willingness to sacrifice their embodied self for the sake of the office: a concept of sacrifice whose historical origins included God’s sacrifice of Christ’s humanity.

Yeah, I’d say that sounds out of touch! For more on this episode read the whole thing, and the chapter on “The Nazi Twins” in Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (1989). 

Robin Hood

Sean McGlynn reviews Lesley Coote’s Storyworlds of Robin Hood: The Origins of a Medieval Outlaw (2020) in the Spectator:

Not such a hero: the tarnished legend of Robin Hood

Far from being a selfless righter of wrongs, the outlaw was a brutal killer, according to the original ballads

Britain’s two most famous legendary figures, King Arthur and Robin Hood, remain enduringly and endearingly elusive, and thus ever-fascinating: Arthur slumbering in the mists of nebulous Avalon, Robin as a hardy perennial somewhere deep in Sherwood Forest. Historians, folklorists, Eng Lit academics and cranks — the list is not mutually exclusive — enter these realms at their peril. When I did so a few years back, a headline in the Sun alarmingly proclaimed: ‘ROBIN HOOD FROM TUNBRIDGE WELLS, SAYS HISTORIAN.’ To put it mildly, that was a rather reductive and misleading summary of my research; but it certainly raised my awareness of being ambushed while ambling along the edenic Greenwood pathways. In her engrossing book on Robin Hood, Lesley Coote also considers a geography beyond Sherwood Forest for the legend: ‘It may have differed according to the area in which the stories were being told.’ It almost certainly did, as I have long argued.

Coote rightly recognises that the folklore originates from at least eight centuries ago. Thus, even this primary source is probably more fictitious than historical. And that befits Robin perfectly, a character who, as Coote explains, undergoes constant cultural reinvention: ‘In relatively recent times, Robin Hood has been depicted as a superhero, a rebel, a war-weary outsider with “issues”, and a hoodie-wearing “lad”.’ Indeed so: in the 2018 film, he is a steampunk environmentalist for the woke generation.

Coote convincingly shows how Robin was adapted to the culture of the late Middle Ages as a variation of the fabliaux, pastourelles and tales that were popular across Europe and which were widely known in England, in which ‘the character of the outlaw and that of the minstrel are blended together in the greenwood storyworld of Robin Hood, and together they become the hero’. The constants remain in our cultural referencing of the hero: the Merry Men, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest and Robin as the selfless righter of wrongs.

Read the whole thing

Dangerous Ideas

My friend Andrew Reeves writes on Arc Digital:

What If An Idea Was So Dangerous It Could Lead To Your Eternal Damnation?

A discourse lesson from the High Middle Ages

We are used to thinking of a “dangerous idea” as the sort of thing an intellectual community might want to suppress, or a government might want to censor, or a publication might want to deplatform (or actively platform, for that matter), all so that society remains safe from the idea’s purportedly harmful effects.

But what if the harm were spiritual? And the danger it posed infinite?

What if an idea was so dangerous that it would lead to the eternal damnation of your soul?

What would you do with this idea? Would you box it up, stamp it out, crush any mention of it? Or would you debate it?

This was a very real question in Europe of the High Middle Ages, which roughly spanned from 1050 to 1350. Europe was not even understood as Europe, then, but rather as Christendom, the collections of peoples and nations that acknowledge the lordship of Jesus Christ through the Catholic Church. To reject the Church’s teachings and practices, either through unbelief or heresy — i.e., willful deviation of the Church’s teachings and practices — was to court damnation. The various guardians of the institutional Church therefore sought to quash even the suggestion of heretical ideas. Indeed, in the popular imagination, the Middle Ages is illuminated with men and women set ablaze for even so much as thinking a heretical thought.

Read the whole thing

Wine Windows

From the New York Post, news of an interesting revival:

Medieval ‘wine windows’ are reopening, reviving Italian plague tradition

By Hannah Sparks

It’s a quaint tradition — with a very dark history.

Centuries ago, the bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, swept through Europe, killing one-third of the continent’s population at the time. Originating in Asia, the disease made its way to Italy during the late Middle Ages, and spread north from there.

These days, we know just as well as medieval Italians that a stiff drink can go a long way to ease troubles during the global coronavirus pandemic.

Thus, the “wine windows,” or buchette del vino, of Tuscany. They are just as they sound: pint-size hatches, carved into the concrete walls of urban wineries and shops, where beverage merchants would serve sips at a safe social distance.

First introduced in the 1600s, their true purpose went untapped for centuries after the plague — that is, until a new one came along this year.

“Everyone is confined to home for two months and then the government permits a gradual reopening,” the Wine Window Association website reads. “During this time, some enterprising Florentine Wine Window owners have turned back the clock and are using their Wine Windows to dispense glasses of wine, cups of coffee, drinks, sandwiches and ice cream — all germ-free, contactless!”

More (including photos) at the link.

Por-Bazhyn

Here is something interesting to see if you’re ever in Tuva. From the Siberian Times:

Mysterious mountain palace, one of the wonders of Siberia, was built in 777 AD

By Anna Liesowska

Breathtaking island complex close to Mongolian border rumoured to have been built for tragic Chinese princess.

New scientific findings have pin-pointed the date of the construction of stunning Por-Bajin in Lake Tere-Khol some 2,300 metres above sea level.

It was designed only for summer living between the magnificent Sayan and Altai ranges but in fact was never occupied.

Its purpose and inspiration have long perplexed experts, and it has amazed almost everyone who has ever ventured here to the very centre point of Eurasia.

As President Vladimir Putin said: ‘I have been to many places, I have seen many things. But I have never seen anything of the kind.’

Now, though, Por-Bajin has given up one key secret.

Research by the University of Groningen using a special carbon-14 dating technique has now established it was built in 777 AD, two decades later than the previous best guesses.

‘In the complex, the scientists found a beam with a spike from the year 775. As they were able to ascertain that the tree was felled two years later, the complex must have been constructed in 777,’ says a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings likely undermine the romantic theory that this was a royal summer home, as espoused by local academic Demir Tulush, of Tuva Institute of Humanities and Social and Economic Research.

He had suggested the version that it could be have been a ‘summer palace built for a Kha Khan’s wife’, possibly the spouse or intended partner of Byogyu-kagan, son of Boyan-Chor.

‘It is known that Chinese princesses could become the wives of Uighur and Turk Kha Khans,’ he explained.

‘Probably, one such princess was destined to live in this palace, but something happened to her on the way here, and she never came to the site. It was totally abandoned in 30 or 40 years.’

More at the link, including lots of images. I reprint the one at Wikipedia:

“Aerial view of site of Por-Bazhyn taken from a microlight plane before start of excavation season 2007.”