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.
Hurray!

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.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Religio medici

So, at our History of Christianity seminar this week we had a fascinating paper from Mark Hutchinson on how Protestant theology influenced political concepts of liberty across England and Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which was too subtle and sharp for me to summarise here. But he also brought this with him, which was too good to miss:


There has been lots of good tat produced around the Luther quincentenary (the Playmobil figure seems ubiquitous) but this is the best I've seen. In case it's not clear on the image, the 'medicine' is a series of little scrolls with apposite Luther quotes on them. The accompanying leaflet keeps the metaphor going: I particularly liked the note that the active ingredients were 90% Lutheran and 10% Reformed.

But it did leave me wondering what sort of medicine different theologies were. The title Lutherol suggests a painkiller, and I'm not sure that's right. A painkiller would work better for Catholicism, I think. Lutheranism seems to me more like a kind of decongestant, like one of those sprays that takes instant effect. Calvinism, by contrast, is more of a purgative. Certain other Protestant groups are perhaps more psychoactive. Anglicanism is undoubtedly a depressant. Or, sometimes, a placebo. Other suggestions on a postcard please.



Monday, 10 April 2017

Incarnation at the Met

In the midst of my somewhat dazing trip to the US last week to promote the new book, I was able to take a couple of hours to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art - which, having not been to New York since I was a child, I don't believe I've ever been to before. I'm something of a philistine when it comes to the visual arts, but this was moving even to me, especially the Renaissance and early modern Netherlandish materials (I hurried through all that quasi-classicist eighteenth-century French stuff as quickly as I could). But here is one item that particularly struck me:


That is an anonymous Lutheran family painting from Hamburg, probably dated to the 1570s.

But here's the thing. The family are intensely, immediately real. OK, the older son's horse-shaped teenage face looks a little odd, but within the range; and the younger son is a bit blank-faced. But the daughter and, most especially, both parents, could simply step out of that, and if you ever saw them again, you'd recognise them, wouldn't you?

... And then there is Jesus, who looks like no human being who has ever lived.

I do appreciate that painting Jesus is difficult for anyone, and especially so for a Protestant, even a Lutheran. But the 'solution' here, of presenting him as an alien creature in such a way as almost to deny the doctrine of the Incarnation, is, um, problematic. It leaves me wondering: is this purely an artistic problem? Or does it speak to some deeper difficulty in this culture about imagining that Jesus is as real, and as human, as the people we bump into every day? Just asking.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The basket of inedibles

Only a medieval theologian. I have read and heard the various versions of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (or four thousand) innumerable times, but this point had literally never occurred to me. I learn today* that Nicholas of Lyra’s difficult question about this story was not, how were the hungry fed? (obvs, it was a miracle) – but, where did the baskets come from? Did the people borrow them from a local farm? Did someone happen to have a dozen industrial-sized baskets with them just in case? Were there, in fact, no baskets, but simply enough waste to have filled a dozen baskets if anyone had had any?

It mattered to Nicholas because the credibility of the entire narrative seemed to turn on such details. (As such, he was content not to answer the question, simply to raise some plausible explanations.) And when you put it that way, it makes sense to worry about it. You can imagine, for example, that kind of question being produced triumphantly in court during a dramatic cross-examination. (There would be a certain Al Capone-ish drama in discrediting a miracle narrative with reference, not to the loaves and fishes, but to the humble old baskets.)

Why, though, does the question strike us (all right: me) as so distinctively medieval, and indeed as faintly ridiculous? Is it the ability to swallow the elephant while carefully calculating the parameters of the gnat? Is it that we’re more accustomed to the notion that narratives need to be taken in their own terms rather than as courtroom testimony? Or is it because, on some deep level, Nicholas of Lyra believed that this event really happened in the cold light of day; and, on some deep level, whatever we may profess, we don’t?

*From Lesley Smith’s essay ‘Uncertainty in the Study of the Bible’ in Uncertain Knowledge. Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages, ed. by Dallas G. Denery II et al. (Turnhout: Brepols 2014), 135-159.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Don't judge a book ...

Like buses, suddenly a clutch of new books come along at once. After the last one, my big history of Protestantism is out next month in the UK and the US, and also in a Dutch translation. I've never prepared different national editions of a book before. It's been a strange experience.

I wrote it in British English, naturally, but the Americans were the lead publishers in editorial terms, and so the text was Americanised by them and then had to be re-Anglicised. It was an unexpectedly far-reaching process. Spellings I had expected, but there's more. Dates get flipped: I knew about 24/8/72 versus 8/24/72, naturally, but I had never properly noticed that that extends to 24 August 1572 (British) versus August 24, 1572 (American). There is First World War vs. World War I (and I was told that most Americans aren't familiar with the label 'the Great War' at all, which makes perfect sense from an American point of view). And my American editor also helpfully pointed out that where the British edition refers to people emigrating from Europe to the United States, the American one ought (of course!) to refer to them immigrating.

As well as language, there were deeper cultural issues. In secular old Britain, this is being marketed as a history book; in America, more more as a religious one. That's been reflected in several different ways. The American edition, to my regret, hasn't included any pictures (though there is a map), while the British one has 32 plates, which I am rather pleased with. But the pictures aren't a procession of glowering portraits of theologians, being chosen to illustrate aspects of Protestant life: the Americans feared that they might alienate pious readers. The clearest sign of this difference is the slightly different subtitles: America gets Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World whereas Britain has Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World.

The covers are a different story again. The Americans were first out of the trap, and an early draft looked like this:


What's interesting is that the Americans who saw that all just thought: plain, striking, aniconic, good! Whereas every British person I know who looked at that thought immediately of images like this:


Which isn't really the marketing strategy we had in mind. Why that set of patterns and colours triggered this association on one side of the Atlantic and not the other, I'd love to know.

So we toned it down and made it even simpler:


Whereas the Dutch publisher solved the problem in a different way:


Removing the cross from the capital P, and smacking an ecumenical fish in the middle of the page, serves to dispel any hint of Nazi chic.

The British publishers, meanwhile, produced something completely different - less Presbyterian severity, more hints of medievalism. I'm not really sure what it's supposed to symbolise, but it's pretty.


Complete, of course, with a prominent endorsement from Diarmaid MacCulloch: one of the many people without whom this wouldn't have happened. Thank you all. And feel free to buy copies of all three editions so you can compare.