Friday, 17 November 2017

Ada Palmer

So today, a new experience: reading a scholarly article which is so interesting and so well-written that you end by asking yourself, 'who is this person? Has she written anything else? She should write a novel!' And then by googling her and discovering that she has indeed written a prizewinning novel. That's one for my Christmas list.

More on the novel when I've read it. The article itself is enough for now. It is one of those articles which takes a narrow seam of evidence, carefully spends thirty pages drilling into it and inserting charges, and then at the end detonates them spectacularly - although, because she is not so austere a writer as some, she does give us enough of a hook at the start that we have some sense of what's coming.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that Renaissance humanists celebrated ancient pagan philosophers for their perceived ability to come close - very close - to the truths of Christianity despite not having received the Christian revelation. This was partly a means of reproaching Christians' weakness of faith and morals - look, these pagans have done better than you! - and partly a means of circumventing the morasses of scholastic theology by demonstrating that clean, classical philosophy could fulfil many of the same tasks more elegantly.

But if philosophy in the abstract could get you to the truth almost as well as (even, in some incautious panegyrics, better than) revealed faith and Scripture ... then perhaps it made sense to seek wisdom through reason alone? In which case, perhaps the Christ-event is no longer the crux of history, and, as some English radicals would say, what happened to a man outside Jerusalem centuries ago is not supremely important?

This move away from revelation to reason is a well-known early modern trajectory, of course, but Palmer's article crystallises a couple of aspects of it for me. First, crucially, its unwitting nature. She is very clear that these humanist celebrations of philosophy were mostly pious, earnestly Christian topics undertaken in faith that reason must lead to or at least point to the truth which these men already embraced, since, after all, truth is one. The theme of her article is not that humanism was irreligious, but rather that its very search for piety was a time-delayed solvent of religion. This is a big theme. The more I read about early modern unbelief, the more it is the search for truer and purer faith that seems to me to drive it.

Second, that one of the mainstays of this subject - the opposition between 'rationalism' and 'mysticism' in radical movements of the 17th century - does not work. Her humanists are like Dirck Coornhert, whose 1586 Ethics was deliberately written without any scriptural citations, in order to show that his truth could be reached even without scriptural support, and so not-quite-unwittingly showed that Scripture was dispensable. But her humanists are also celebrating Pythagorean mysticism, as (bizarrely) the ideal ancient synthesis of Greek and Jewish thought. They are very like the radicals who claimed to find Christ within. When Gerrard Winstanley (whom Palmer does not cite) called God 'Reason', how different was he from the mystics?

She concludes:
Humanists ... celebrated, and relived through empathy, the experience of ancient thinkers, whom they imagined wandering in the dark night of genuine ignorance, groping toward distant knowledge without streetlights ahead. By extolling this experience, maturing humanism exhorted students to imitate how people without revealed answers had sought them out by reason’s light alone. Humanists were sure that practitioners of their new method would end up where they believed the ancients had ended up: at the light, the good, God, truth, the source and center of all things. ... Yet, as the sixteenth century became the seventeenth, it became clearer that Epictetus did not agree with Saint Paul, that Stoic divinity was fully immanent, that Pythagoreans were serious about reincarnation, and in general that the philosophical religion of antiquity was larger and stranger than what Petrarch had expected. ... Humanists had celebrated the ancient acolytes of Philosophia because they believed Philosophia had led her sages—and could lead others—to the Christian truths that were so bafflingly difficult to reach using the tools of scripture and the corruption-ridden church. Yet, in the hands of much later generations, the enthusiasm for Philosophia that humanist teachings had rekindled outlived Philosophia’s loyalty to Lady Theology. Herein lay the secularizing potential of the pious Renaissance.
Kapow. It's a terrific article. I'm looking forward to the book.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

JEH 68/4: Pray the friendly skies

JEH covers all aspects of the history of Christianity, and that unashamedly includes the legal, administrative and financial minutiae of church life. These topics have a reputation for being dull. Perhaps sometimes they are. But it is always worth reading the article before jumping to the conclusion.

‘How Formal Anglican Pew-Renting Worked in Practice, 1800-1950’ is, you have to admit, not a title to send punters rushing to the newsstands. But John C. Bennett’s article is not only fascinating, it is much more fun than it has a right to be as well. The overall message is that pew-renting was rare and frowned upon before the 1810s; boomed thereafter, but rarely raised the sums of money it promised to; and faded away fairly quickly in the early twentieth century, both because the mismatch between supply of and demand for space in churches made the bottom fall out of the market (sorry about that), and because it had always been stirring up bad feeling anyway.

The bad feeling was in part intensely practical, and turned on a question akin to that which dominates the modern airline business: just how tight can you pack people in and get away with it? Twenty inches was the standard space allotted to parishioners in many churches; Glaswegian churches apparently had a local standard of seventeen to eighteen inches; one Brighton church went for sixteen. Bennett quotes a bean-counter from Tunbridge Wells (you couldn’t make it up) worrying that the 20-inch allocation left nine inches of surplus (and unrentable) space at the end of each pew, but if they dropped it down to 18½ inches they could squeeze in one more customer. (Sorry: worshipper.) Children’s sittings were as small as thirteen inches, ‘which,’ as Bennett drily comments, ‘can hardly have promoted proper church behaviour.’ For the business class experience, you’d be advised to head for one Bristol church where adult sittings were up to fifty-six inches: almost enough space to lie down.

But also as with airlines, a lot of the resentment came down to money. He cites a poem published in a collection of Yorkshire dialect verse in 1898:

A’a! it’s grand to ha plenty o’ brass!
Then th’ parsons’ll know where yo live;
If yo’re poor, its mooast likely they’ll pass,
An call where fowk’s summat to give.
Yo may have a trifle o’ sense,
An yo may be booath upright an trew,
But that’s nowt, if yo can’t stand th’ expense
Ov a whole or a pairt ov a pew.

All that’s missing from this article is some smartphone footage of thuggish sidesmen beating up a parishioner and dragging him out of the pew.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Psychedelic rhino

So Anne Southwell, the poet, in her commonplace book at the Folger Shakepeare Library, has amongst other things a page and a half of notes from Edward Topsell’s bestiary The historie of foure-footed beastes (1607). What is fun about this is how she distills Topsell’s 750-page book into a few lines. Here, for example, is how she summarises his 2200-word description of the rhinoceros:

Of the Rhinoceros.

The Rhinoceros is of a monstrous shape and of a Beautifill couller for he is yellowe speccled with purple his feet are like an Elaphants so is the shape of his bodie, his eares like a swine his Bodie is all ouer as if he weare in compleat armour, his head is like a horsses and out of his nose there comes a horne which is longe, strong and sharpe with which he fights, his naturall envye is against an Elaphant he is taken only by virgins, and vpon a virgins lapp he will fale asleepe, and so is taken.*

Yellow speckled with purple! Wouldn’t it be worth seeing that? What a shame that Topsell’s version of the famous picture is in black and white: but with the eye of faith you can see the speckles.

Perhaps that’s how she got there from his less exciting statement that ‘his back is distinguished with certaine purple spots vpon a yellow ground’. Topsell also relates – with a little more caution than she does – the story about the virgins, but does not mention that a rhino will fall asleep on a virgin’s lap: a recipe, one might imagine, for squished virgin.

*Folger MS V.b.198 fo. 68r.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Servus servorum Dei

The estimable Michelle Beer, whose forthcoming book on the courts of Queens Catherine of Aragon (in England) and Margaret Tudor (in Scotland) I’m overseeing for the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series, draws my attention to a telling little detail from 1535.

By then Catherine of Aragon, her marriage to Henry VIII now unilaterally annulled by an English court, was fighting a rearguard action for every scrap of the royal status she refused to relinquish; and Henry VIII was working hard to thwart her at every turn. This much I knew. I did not know about the skirmish in this battle that took place around Maundy Thursday 1535, that date being a traditional occasion for a public display of queenly charity and almsgiving. Catherine made it known that she wanted to hold her Maundy in the traditional way.

Incidentally, this appears to have included washing poor women’s feet herself. It’s well established that English and Scottish kings washed male paupers’ feet on Maundy Thursday: by a lovely piece of detective work, Beer has shown it’s very likely that their wives did so too. We’ve no direct testimony of the fact, but she shows that both Catherine and Margaret’s households were ordering towels exactly like those their husbands were ordering in advance of the ceremony. Didn’t I say this was going to be a good book?

Anyway, the king gave a clear and direct reply to Catherine’s demand, conveyed to Cromwell in a now-damaged letter. He insisted that she celebrate her Maundy as a royal widow (that is, the widow of Henry VIII’s older brother Prince Arthur), not as queen, and that she do it in private in her chamber. If she did it as the queen she still claimed to be, she was to be told that not only she herself, but ‘all such poore people, as shulde receyve her maundy’ would incur the danger of high treason.*

So Henry VIII was proposing to treat paupers as traitors for accepting alms. Always classy.

*BL Cotton MS Otho C/X (LP 8:435).

Friday, 16 June 2017

JEH 68/3: Lighten our darkness

I studied the early Frankish kingdom for a term as an undergraduate: enough to be able to bluff my way through a 90-second conversation on the difference between Merovingians and Carolingians, which for casual conversational purposes is usually enough. But one of my abiding impressions of the period was of its bracing obscurity. The depth of our ignorance, and the fragility of the evidence base for the knowledge we do have, about basic matters of political chronology is, to an early modernist, profound. Everyone ought to spend some time studying a subject where ‘facts’ as basic as who ruled in what order are open to dispute and can be upended by new discoveries.

So although it is well outside my patch, I can’t resist picking out the article on sixth-century Francia from the July number of JEH. Gregory Halfond’s ‘Ecclesiastical Politics in the Regnum Chramni: Contextualising Baudonivia's Vita Radegundis, ch. 15’ has an alarming title for those, like me, who may not immediately know what it is referring to, but it is a wonderful demonstration of what’s possible in this period.

Halfond begins with a passing reference in a seventh-century Life of the sixth-century saint Radegund. A nobleman named Leo fell prey to a malady of the eyes en route to an ecclesiastical council convoked by two named bishops. He stopped at Radegund’s convent, where his own daughter was also a nun. While there, he prostrated himself before one of Radegund’s vestments, prayed to the Virgin, and was eventually healed; he continued to the council and there gave thanks.

An unremarkable enough medieval story, you might think. But Halfond shows what can be done with this sort of thing. First, he is able to use passing architectural detail in the account to nail the date of the event to the period 552-561. This matters, because there was no known ecclesiastical council during that period. The council has previously been thought to be one which took place between 561 and 567, but it can’t be, because that one was specifically convened in order to elect the successor to one of the bishops who convened this one. He is compelled to the conclusion that this is a stray account of ‘an otherwise-unattested synod, with no details about its agenda, acts, or even precise date or location’ (478).

And that’s only where the fun begins. He is then able to make a very compelling case that this mystery council must have assembled in Acquitaine during the (as it turned out) shortlived kingdom established by Chramn, the rebellious son of the Frankish king Chlothar: a rebellion which we know took place and was afterwards described as violent and disruptive, but that’s about it. Halfond is able plausibly (though not conclusively) to identify Leo as one of Chramn’s key supporters; to date the council to the period 555-558; and to suggest that its agenda was sacralising Chramn’s rule and securing his support for existing episcopal prerogatives.

It’s a virtuoso piece of dogged historical deduction. And as he concludes, ‘it is perhaps rather fortunate,’ at least for us, ‘that Leo’s eyesight happened to fail him as he rode past the convent of Holy Cross’.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

We all fall down

I’ve just finished examining an outstanding Australian MPhil thesis which, amongst other things, put me in mind of James Cameron’s Aliens.

Bring out your dead!
Olivia Formby of the University of Queensland has written a terrific thesis, building on Keith Wrightson’s microhistory of a Newcastle scrivener in the 1630s, on the emotional history of plague epidemics in 1630s England. She studies two outbreaks in particular, in Louth in 1631 and Hull in 1637: both took around 800 lives, which in Louth’s case amounted to 44% of the population of the town.

44%! Try to imagine that for a moment. ... Now what do you come up with? As she points out, there are a series of highly excitable images of utter social collapse, despair and descent into barbarism to be culled from contemporary plague literature, and a lot of historians have swallowed this ‘dystopic vision’ wholesale. Whether because we simply believed it, or because the quotes make good copy for our textbooks. But as she points out – and proves with a careful reading of wills and parochial documents, but really, the point is self-evidently true once she has made it – that’s not really what happened. English towns didn’t collapse into a Hobbesian world of desperation as the death toll mounted; they kept calm and carried on. They didn’t even tend to suffer panics of scapegoating or paranoia about deliberate plague-spreaders or witchcraft. Instead they made wills, conducted funerals, regulated trade, listened to sermons and prayed for it all to end.

It seems to me that what Formby has done is diagnose a weakness, not simply of our accounts of plague in early modern England, but in our collective imagination. This is why I started thinking about movies, the principal medium for modern dystopias. We love 'em. But they tend either to be absolute: near-extermination, total collapse, zombie takeover, world utterly transformed – or averted: after a desperate brush with near-calamity the world goes back to how it’s always been.

Well, fair enough, our imaginations like absolutes, but this is lazy. Lazy and cowardly. It is the attitude of the marine in Aliens (I did promise) who, when the shuttle is destroyed and the band on the surface are left without an apparent means of escape, whimpers ‘Game over! Game over!’ – because in the world of video games, we are used to the idea of total disaster, crash and burn, pull out and start again, no consequences. But reality ain’t like that.

Most disasters are not absolute. They are real, devastating, and consequential, but they do not wipe the slate clean. Human beings are resilient and are also creatures of habit. You can panic, but you can’t keep panicking, and once you’ve finished, you tend to carry on, because what else is there? The real catastrophes of the West in the past century (world wars, the Spanish flu) have been of this kind: even as the principal imagined one (nuclear war) is of the absolute variety.

We need to learn to be better at imagining serious but non-terminal disasters, the kind which are actually going to hit us. (For a recent cinematic example, the excellent and chilling Contagion.) That way, when we confront such things, we will be less tempted simply to say ‘Game over!’ and to attempt to reboot reality, and will instead try to work out how to deal with real, permanent but not unlimited damage. Plus, doing the work of imagination beforehand may also give us a more prudent attitude to the risks we recklessly run.

And look, I did that whole thing without saying a word about climate change!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Really surprisingly cheerful

Perhaps you don’t need reasons to be cheerful. After all, everyone lost, so everyone also won.

But while you amuse yourself with trying to work out how we can possibly now get a functioning government, and who in any of the parties could be a credible prime minister, let’s not lose sight of three big, permanent, positive things that happened last night, in descending order of certainty.

1. UKIP. It is over. We’ve never had a serious far-right party in this country: and we still don’t. Nuttall in Boston succeeded in getting over a tenth of the vote of his Tory opponent. The Tories are faithfully fulfilling their main historic purpose: squeezing the nasty people out. Would someone please sit the Daily Mail down quietly and tell them?

2. Peak Nat. This is over too. I wish that Ruth Davidson’s surge hadn’t taken out my old friend Eilidh Whiteford, but the law of gravity has caught up with the SNP. No indyref2. For those of us who like being British, this is good news: we get to keep our country.

3. There is now neither a parliamentary majority nor a democratic mandate for a hard Brexit. How those facts translate into stopping one is another matter, but they will I imagine have a stubborn significance.

Plus a fourth thing. It’s nice that turnout, especially among the young, was up, and that will have all sorts of salutory effects, but I am more taken by the fading of regionalisation. A few years ago we were talking of the north and south of England as if they were different countries, and of Scotland as if it were a different continent. The 2010 election – in which England and Wales sloshed all over the place, and Scotland saw not a single seat change hands – implied political cultures that were really drifting apart. Now we have stronger Tory surges in their traditionally weak areas – the north of England and especially Scotland – and stronger Labour surges in their traditionally weak areas in the South. No uniform swings, of course, that would be tedious: but it is just possible that we may still actually be a single country.