Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Is this America?

CBC's Radio program "The Sunday Edition" interviewed Rebecca Solnit and Andrew Solomon on the "Trump phenomenon" and violence in American politics. They were appalled, of course. Solomon said among other things
The gap has got wider and wider and wider ... The Trump phenomenon is so bewildering to the people who do not subscribe to it and feels so urgent to the people who do subscribe to it that I have the sense of a country and people who have no understanding of one other. Many friends of mine have said to me that "I thought I was an American but I don't know if I am if this is going on in our country." And I think that there is a real feeling that the sides are so far apart and that in particular the Republican side is so uninterested in compromise of any kind on any topic no matter how much such compromise might serve the public good I think ...the level of anger and frustration and alienation on both sides has escalated to a point that I have not seen in my lifetime.
I don't know how old Solomon is, but I wonder if he remembers the civil rights movement and the murders and the riots of the 1960s. He certainly does not remember the imposition of Jim Crow to put the African-American population of the South back in their place, but I am sure he has heard of it.

What this all reminds me of is the 1840s and 1850s, where besides the intense battle over the possible extension of slavery to the West, there was a strong anti-immigrant, anti-foreign religion, anti-intellectual movement best seen in the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothings. Of course, there were differences: back then the undesireable immigrants were Irish and German, and the bad anti-American religion was Catholicism. But what really reminds me of today was the possibly apochryphal origin of the name Know-Nothings: "I know nothing...except Americanism." Yes, this is America. Image: The Know-Nothings repel the invading papal hordes.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Donald Trump as eccentric knight errant

Kevin Baker in the New York Times:
...he risks becoming completely untethered — nothing more than the slithering id of a nervous age. He comes off too often as the candidate of “Game of Thrones” America, a bombastic, misogynistic knight errant in an endlessly wandering, unfocused narrative; traversing a fantasy landscape composed of a thousand borrowed mythologies, warning endlessly of a dire apocalypse that never quite materializes.
I've read Arthurian romances like that...

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Most Eminent Orators and Statesmen of Ancient and Modern Times by David A. Harsha

Today someone in Facebook's management made the prediction that in a few years text would be irrelevant to the operations of the company because everybody would be using videos. This strikes me as a pretty unlikely scenario, seeing that newspapers still exist at least in a niche market or two. But it had me thinking about the changes in public taste and the use of media as I looked up the offered "forgotten book of the day."

Today's book dates from the 1850s and it is entitled "The Most Eminent Orators and Statesmen of Ancient and Modern Times. "

And what I found interesting about this book is that it is not exactly a collection of famous speeches, stretching from the ancient Greeks up to modern times, but a collection of lives of orators as celebrities. The forgotten book series has some curious material but I was really struck by the fact that so many of the famous orators in the collection are completely unknown today, except perhaps to certain types of historians and literary scholars. Who remembers Charles James Fox anyway?

(And if you do remember Fox do you remember Henry Grattan?)

Answer: Fox was a Whig leader in the House of Commons at the same time as William Pitt, in other words during the American and French revolutions. Old Fox (though he was actually young Fox back then) certainly belongs in his place as a man famous for the eminence of his oratory. If I recall correctly he never became Prime Minister, and his career is most famous for his defence of Reform and Revolution against the repressive English government of Lord North, which provoked the American Revolution.

My point is Fox's oratory was considered a significant public art forms. A speech by Charles James Fox was probably, at least among prominent and important people, the equivalent of a major Beyoncé video. The equivalent of Charles James Fox still gets a fair amount of attention today in British politics and beyond, but he sure certainly doesn't come across as an artist.

Image: Your clue is "Ireland."

Monday, June 13, 2016

Vast medieval cities of Cambodia

Just after World War II, when there are plenty of airplanes sitting around doing nothing in particular, archaeologists started using aerial photography to map and explore wide swaths of the ancient and medieval landscapes.
Well, both photography and air travel have improved a lot since World War II, and aerial surveys are used all the time for many purposes. Archaeologists are still part of this process. As a result things we never even suspected are being discovered all the time.
Do you know that Angkor Wat is hardly unique to medieval Cambodia? Well, nobody else did either. But now we see there are traces of cities as big as modern cities. And that is saying something because cities of the last two generations are huge on historic standards.
There are some really interesting maps, plans, and pictures of this work in the Guardian.
Image: A twelfth-century deed of arms in Cambodia. How would William Marshal do against these guys? Hint: armor.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Forbes gets it right about Catal Huyuk ( Çatalhöyük)

Twenty-five years ago, when I was first teaching ancient history, I spent a whole lecture of the Anatolian site of Catal Huyuk as an example of an early city. The settlement was called a village in most accounts, but it looked like a city to me. I was following a very persuasive and accessible discussion by Jane Jacobs, who may not have been an anthropologist but knew a thing or two about the development of cities.

Today I ran across an article in Forbes which covered the peculiar burial customs of the people of CH. What caught my eye, though, was the clear statement that Catal Huyuk is "One of the world’s earliest cities [7500 BC, population 10,000]." Hurray! Jane justified! I can't link to the images somehow; look at some good ones by following the link above.

Friday, June 10, 2016

On CBC Radio this morning was news of a partial cure for MS developed by Canadian researchers. Partial cure means this does not benefit lots of people with MS (there are a number of different types of MS). But in an experimental group of 20+ most of the patients got significantly better. One woman who was unable to walk danced at her wedding and took up downhill skiing.

Here's how they did it. They collected stem cells from a patient, destroyed the immune system with chemotherapy, then used the stem cells TO RECONSTRUCT A HEALTHY IMMUNE SYSTEM. This is an amazing achievement, Nobel Prize territory I bet, and right up there with the most important scientific breakthrough ever to come out of Canada: the use of insulin to treat diabetes.

This can't but help in the creation of new therapies.

Reconstruct a healthy immune system. Sounds miraculous.

Here's a CBC article: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/ms-treatment-impressive-results-ottawa-lancet-1.3609031

The key words for me are "high risk" and "neurological recovery."

My review of Anne Curry's Agincourt (from the Medieval Review)

Curry, Anne Agincourt. Great Battles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 256. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-19-968101-3.

Reviewed by Steven Muhlberger

Nipissing University (retired)


Anne Curry is a distinguished and prolific scholar of the Hundred Years War. Since 2000 she has written at least three books and ten articles, almost all of them focusing on the battle of Agincourt. Agincourt, her most recent book-length offering, is part of an Oxford University Press series on "Great Battles." The cover blurb briefly sums up its goal: telling the story of "one of the most iconic battles English history, how it was fought, how it has been remembered, and what it means for us today." This is a reasonably accurate summation of the emphasis of this treatment. There is much more about the historical reception of the battle than there is about the conflict itself.

There are eight chapters, including the introduction and the conclusion. Chapter 2 guides the reader through the events of the battle and the English campaign that preceded and followed it. It is here that Curry offers her own reconstruction of the battle. Chapters 3 through 8 take the reader through various interpretations of the battle, English and French, from the earliest reports to the present. At the same time that Curry discusses the histories, chronicles and archival sources and summarizes the information and interpretations they provide, she shows how these interpretations have originated and how changing priorities have shaped both popular and scholarly understanding of Agincourt and late medieval warfare in general. For instance, historians and chroniclers have long been interested how many warriors fought on either side. Rather than being a subject of military science, studies of the numbers participating more often been scrutinized to gauge the courage or lack of it is those who fought.

Similarly, Agincourt has long been used to make claims about the military virtue of the English or British, or the national characteristics and special talents of regional groups. Some of these claims are unfamiliar: Curry cites a small exhibition mounted by the Public Record Office in 1915 which emphasized key role of Lancashire archers at Agincourt More prominent today is a popular tradition in Wales that connects Welsh bowmen to this famous victory. Curry points out however that this special role of the Welsh is a relatively new story, and seems to be a product of the twentieth century. Both the briefly-praised Lancashire archers and the more prominent Welsh bowmen sprang into prominence during the First World War, and reflect the needs of that time; some of the Welsh still have use for the story.

The well-known legend of the English archers' crucial and devastating role in stopping the advance of the French men at arms during the battle began well before the twentieth century. Curry shows that the image of Agincourt as an archery battle is derived from a variety of sources, some of them late and quite curious. The very early historian of Agincourt, Tito Livio Frulovisi, gives much more prominence to the use of dismounted men at arms by Henry V than he gave to the archers. The nineteenth century saw a great revival of archery as a genteel sport. It is only natural that the connection should be commonly made between the heroic archers of the Hundred Years War (and especially Agincourt) and men and women interested in archery as a heritage sport. The first known British reenactment of the battle, at an Army Pageant of 1910, featured archery and identified Henry's archers as Welshmen. (Whether arrows were actually shot is unclear, but the program emphasized the key role of archery.)

Such events as the Army Pageant had by the twentieth century a great deal of literary, dramatic and graphic material to draw upon in creating reconstructions. Curry devotes two full chapters and parts of others to famous and obscure artistic depictions of the battle. Of course, Shakespeare's Henry V takes pride of place here, due to its long influence on the historical imagination. There is no doubt that Henry V is England's most famous warrior king, with perhaps the sole exception of Richard I. The victory at Agincourt has absorbed whatever fame that Crécy and Poitiers might have been due. Shakespeare's picture of Agincourt has also been transformed by the ability of cinema to provide visually striking visions of the medieval battle that are easily accessible to the mass audience. Curry documents the lasting influence of the Lawrence Olivier film version of Henry V, but one wonders if its influence is even now being displaced by Kenneth Branagh's grittier 1989 production.

Chapter 7, "Rival Experts Do Battle over Agincourt," (the title coming from a striking if inaccurate newspaper headline) directs reader's attention to the use of archival sources by modern historians to give a fuller and more detailed picture of Agincourt. This chapter serves to convey the state of the question or questions about the battle and the armies that fought it. Curry is well qualified to discuss this scholarly activity, since she has contributed so substantially to recent debates.

Because Agincourt is Agincourt, the best known medieval battle in the English language tradition after Hastings, there is a lively interchange between popular and scholarly understandings and evaluations. Old questions and old images continue to pop up in the media and even affect the assumptions that scholars work from. It is noteworthy that scholars continue to debate how many warriors fought on either side of the battle. Curry's readers will go away with a keen appreciation of how important historical questions never seem to be finally laid to rest.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Back to the 1970s again

Last summer I went to Art in the Park in Windsor and discovered that this event preserves the attitudes and flavor of the 1970s to an almost scary extent. One of the key moments was when I spotted a man wearing a Dark Side of the Moon T-Shirt. Well this year I Went to Art in the Park and the first person I saw coming out of the park was that same guy or somebody else wearing a Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt. And one musician was playing the Crosby Stills and Nash song "Long Time Gone." Not quite a 1970s song but close enough. Thing is, this is the second time I've heard it sung live this month.

Not a horned helmet among them

A couple or three weeks ago I had a look at the Last Kingdom, a TV series depicting the period of Alfred the Great and his wars with the Danes. I was referred by friends to a critique of the authenticity of this film put on YouTube by a man named Lindy Beige. Mr. Beige is repeatedly offended by the fact that ninth century warriors wore soft leather armo and all sorts of inexplicable fur and leather accessories. And even the kings are dirty. One of them wears the same clothes for 10 years!

Fair enough – but I have to say that I found the series inexplicably good. When was the last time you saw a commercial video depiction of the Vikings that has nobody wearing horned helmets? In my case I think I can say "never!"

It's also surprising to me that the treatment of Alfred the Great, a man who was very eccentric in terms of his own time, is reasonably believable.

Mr. Beige says sense somewhere in his critique that he has no trouble with the plot or the acting of the last kingdom. Indeed? And you want more?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Living on different planets

Some odd stuff has been taking place recently within my field of view.

Some people might think by reading the official documents of government in North America that cannabis is illegal. Yet at the same time there are dispensaries in many places where you can on a good day acquire some of the stuff. People come on the radio and talk about the cannabis business on the basis of being financial consultants to the cannabis industry. And did I say that not every day is a good day for acquiring cannabis? On the good days you can walk into a store and buy it if you can cite medical necessity. On a bad day the cops will break down the door of your favourite dispensary and arrest people because they are selling food spiked with cannabis without proper zoning approval. Police raids to uphold zoning regulations! That must be a new one. These cops don't seem to be aware that the federal government is going to legalize cannabis in short order. Or maybe they do and that's the whole point of their actions.

Then there are the federal Conservatives who met this past weekend and took their opposition to same-sex marriage out of their official statement of policy. There was a lot of fuss made about whether this is a good idea and whether people who believed in the traditional definition of marriage would leave the party. As one scoffer shouted out at the convention, with "where would they go?" Said scoffer had a point since marriage equality has been the law of the land for over a decade now.

The traditional marriage supporters seem to think that people care about what their documents said. Thousands of gay couples have married in the past decade. The conservative policy statements, the forthright anti-gay marriage one and the present one which leaves the issue unaddressed, neither of them say what should be done about those existing marriages. So we get to guess: was this all posturing for the rubes, or did the champions of traditional marriage really think that they lived on a planet where saying marriage equality was no good might make it go away? Well even the rubes aren't buying it. Someone quoted a 75-year-old grandmother in Cape Breton as saying "we don't care about that stuff." Reflect that this lady is about the right age to have taken part in the Summer of Love, if she was adventurous.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Reviews of Royal Jousts and the Combat of the Thirty (De Re Militari)

Muhlberger, Royal Jousts at the End of the Fourteenth Century & The Combat of the Thirty (Sposato) De Re Militari

MAY 23, 2016

Royal Jousts at the End of the Fourteenth Century, Deeds of Arms series 1

The Combat of the Thirty, Deeds of Arms series 2

ed. and trans. by Steven Muhlberger

(Freelance Academy Press, 2012) i- viii, 88 pp., $24.95; ii- viii, 83 pp., $24.95

Over the past fifteen years Steven Muhlberger has established himself as one of the leading authorities on medieval chivalry. His scholarly oeuvre has not only made an important contribution to the larger field, but in many ways has blazed a new trail through his focus on case-studies of particular events, individuals, and texts. [1] The two works reviewed herein, Royal Jousts at the End of the Fourteenth Century and The Combat of the Thirty, fit this mold and are part of a series on formal deeds of arms (faits d’armes) published by Freelance Academy Press, one that has already received the approbation of scholars. [2] These two volumes, and the series as a whole, will be especially attractive to scholar-teachers who can use them to great effect in the classroom, while also offering a useful introduction for graduate students and researchers who wish to study for the first time formal deeds of arms and their important role in the chivalric culture of late medieval Europe.

In the first volume in the series, Royal Jousts, Muhlberger examines four historical jousts held in 1389-1390. Three of the jousts were organized by the French and one by the English: the Joust at St. Denis (May 1389), the Joust accompanying Queen Isabella of Bavaria’s entry into Paris (August 1389), the Joust at St. Inglevert (March-April 1390), and the Joust at Smithfield near London (October 1390). These jousts were meant to celebrate both armes (arms, i.e., prowess, bravery, valor, etc.) and amour (love). In addition, they served the propagandistic purposes of two young kings, Charles VI of France and Richard II of England, who sought to both secure a lasting peace between their kingdoms after decades of war and to encourage and reward the chivalric energy and violence of their knights and men-at-arms. These two seemingly contradictory impulses could be reconciled in such formal combats.

The first part of Royal Jousts consists of an introduction and succinct historical study of the jousts. Muhlberger aptly sets the stage for each and duly notes their larger implications. Indeed, Muhlberger usefully points out that formal deeds of arms, including jousts, “were taken extremely seriously [by contemporaries:] they were war, diplomacy, or domestic politics in a different form”, suggesting that they were far more than simply a means to satisfy the romantic fancy of a small segment of late medieval society. (12) Muhlberger also includes a critical, albeit concise, discussion of the relatively limited available sources, emphasizing caution in their use: “we should not[…] mistake interest and enthusiasm for diligent, accurate reportage”. (3) The limitations of these sources are all the more important because the accounts of these jousts, especially the joust at St. Inglevert, have generally been utilized by scholars to “stand[…] in for every unrecorded jousting match of the later Middle Ages”. (6) Muhlberger’s English translations of the various texts that discuss each of the four jousts and an appendix, which attempts to score the 137 courses run by the French champions at St. Inglevert, complete the volume.

In the second volume, The Combat of the Thirty, Muhlberger examines a different kind of formal deeds of arms, a pre-arranged battle between two groups of strenuous warriors. In this particular battle, generally known as the Combat of the Thirty, two groups of thirty men fought in an open field in Brittany on March 27, 1351. Each group represented one of the garrisons of two nearby castles (Josselin and Ploermel) and the battle was apparently occasioned by the promise of the captain of one of the sides that “we will go to an open field and there we will fight as long as we can endure it”. (1) The Combat of the Thirty was in many ways a decidedly local (i.e., Breton) affair, while at the same time serving as a microcosm of the larger conflict between the French and English during the Hundred Years War, although it was not officially sanctioned by the leadership on either side. Indeed, the Combat of the Thirty divided opinion among contemporaries, while at the same time acquiring a lasting (and contested) legacy that has continued to the present.

The Combat of the Thirty is organized in a fashion similar to Royal Jousts. The first part consists of a brief, but illuminating historical introduction to the Combat of the Thirty and its place in both the history of the Hundred Years War and of Brittany as a region. Muhlberger also attempts to answer several sensible questions: “Why did sixty men risk themselves in a fight to the finish on that spring day in Brittany six and a half centuries ago? Why did it attract attention and praise in its time? Why does it interest us still?”. (2) His answers shed light on some of the nuances of chivalric culture in the mid-fourteenth century and the important role formal deeds of arms played in it. The introduction also includes a useful discussion of the extant and often conflicting sources that treat the Combat of the Thirty. The second part of the volume contains Muhlberger’s translations of these texts. Finally, the volume also contains two appendices. In the first, Muhlberger reconstructs, as much as is possible, a list of the combatants on both sides, as well as their heraldic devices. Historians of the Hundred Years War will no doubt recognize several of the participants, especially Robert Knolles, Hugh Calveley (Calverley), Jean de Beaumanoir, and Yves (Yvain) Charruel. The second appendix, composed by Douglas Strong, offers a short analysis of the armor of the English and Breton combatants.

In summary, Royal Jousts and The Combat of the Thirty will offer researchers, scholar-teachers, and students alike a stimulating and enlightening introduction to two different kinds of formal deeds of arms: jousts and a pre-arranged battle between two groups of chosen combatants. Muhlberger’s historical introductions and analysis in both volumes are succinct and informative. Likewise, the translations in both works are approachable and accurate. These translations will prove especially useful in the classroom, not least because they will allow students to compare different accounts of the same events. They will also serve as an entry point for those interested in investigating these formal deeds of arms in greater detail, even if specialists and non-specialists alike will lament the lack of footnotes and more expansive analysis. These very minor points, however, take nothing away from the overall quality of the volumes. Finally, this reviewer would be remiss to not give credit to both the author and the publisher for producing two books that are beautifully illustrated and, more importantly, eminently affordable.

Peter W. Sposato

Indiana University Kokomo



[1] Prominent among Muhlberger’s other publications on chivalry are: Jousts and Tournaments: Charny and the Rules for Chivalric Sport in Fourteenth-Century France (Chivalry Bookshelf, 2002); Deeds of Arms: Formal Combats in the Late Fourteenth Century (Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005); and Charny’s Men-at-Arms: Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournaments, and War (Freelance Academy Press, 2014).

[2] The series includes: Noel Fallows, The Twelve of England, Deeds of Arms 3 (Freelance Academy Press, 2013) and Steven Muhlberger, Will a Frenchman Fight, Deeds of Arms 4 (Freelance Academy Press, 2015). For the positive reception of The Twelve of England, see the review by Dr. Samuel Claussen on the De Re Militari website- http://deremilitari.org/2016/04/noel-fallows-the-twelve-of-england-claussen/.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

GK Chesterton and Alan Jacobs discuss fiction and literature

I am reading Alan Jacobs' The Narnian: the life and imagination of CS Lewis. On page 123 Jacobs has a very interesting comment on GK Chesterton.
One of Chesterton's most famous essays is an early one (1901) called "in defence of penny dreadfuls" – "penny dreadfuls" being what we might call "pulp fiction," but for adolescents. Apparently many cultural pedagogues of the time were exercised by the popularity of such "vulgar" stories and wished them to be replaced by genuine literature. GKC is half – puzzled and half – offended by this alarm. He has no wish to defend the dreadfuls as literature but he does want to defend them as "the actual centre of 1 million flaming imaginations." To Chesterton, "the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac." In fact, he continues, "literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity." That is while we can live without Balzac, brilliant though he may be, the penny dreadfuls are actually vital to human well-being.

Ripper Street and steampunk

I talked recently about the Canadian show Murdoch's Mysteries as an entertaining exploration of late Victorian Toronto, which is not exactly steam punk but close enough.

I am now watching Ripper Street, which like the Canadian series is about the late 19th century and is not exactly steampunk but shares Murdoch mysteries fascination with new technology and science.

The fascination of a variety of creative people with the modernity of the late 19th century and the early 20th is fascinating to me!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The brutal men at arms of the Good Duke

Faithful readers and good friends know that I've been working for a while on a translation of the Chronicle of the Good Duke, a French biography of the Duke of Bourbon dating from about 1429. The events covered by the Chronicle are actually older than that. One of the most interesting things about this document is that it was written by a young person consulting with a prominent man at arms of the Duke of Bourbon's retinue, whose memory stretched back half a century and more. The man at arms was Jean de Châteaumorand, who understandably had a high opinion of his former master and his compatriots who fought the wars against the English back in the golden days of chivalry. In Châteaumorand's telling they were a pretty neat bunch and there were lots of good stories about their worthy deeds in the French wars and elsewhere. I currently have a collaborator on this project, Phil Paine, whose Middle French is much better than mine. He sent me up page of corrections recently that contained a very interesting story that shows the men at arms of the Good Duke in a less flattering light.
The Duke of Bourbon and the Poitevins left there, and they went before a place called le Faon, which was not encircled by trenches,where it would have water. And so the place was strongly assaulted, but it was not taken on that day, except only the lower courtyard, where many good men were wounded. For there was there a Franciscan who was wondrous at firing the arbelest, with which he killed four gentlemen, and he was said to be the finest arbelister in Poitou, and well provisioned [with amunition]. And on the next day, the Poitevins and Bourbonnois assailed the keep in a fierce and strong assault, and those within defended themselves, and the Franciscan let fire [again], but it was such an energetic effort that the fortress was taken, and many men killed within, save for the Franciscan-arbelester, who had removed his habit and fled to his monastery. And then the whole army asked “where is the Franciscan?”, and it was alleged that he was in the church, on his knees before the altar. And so Sir Jean de Roye hastened there, because the Franciscan had killed, by his shooting, one of his squires. And he took the Franciscan, along with his habit, and went to hang him from a tree, doing so circumspectly, so that the Duke did not know about it. And the Duke of Bourbon left le Faon.
Here we see a course of action approved by the entire army but which other people might see as disgraceful. The killing of the Franciscan might harm the Duke of Bourbon's reputation so Châteaumorand is careful to say that the Duke knew nothing about the hanging of the clerical Archer. Why might others disapproved? The telling of the tale makes it clear that the Franciscan was taken out of church and hanged. It looks to be that privileges of the clergy both in the case of the Archer and the church he was found in had been violated. Other observers could see this as an atrocity or a war crime. But John the Châteaumorand, Jean de Roye and the rest of the Army were angry and felt truly justified in hunting down and hanging the Archer. Very likely they saw the Archer as stepping outside of his role as a clergyman and taking on illegitimately the role of the combatant. He was trying to have things both ways, combatant and privileged noncombatant. The may be something more to it. It's well-known that men at arms did not see archers as their equals, even if they took part in combat as part of organized armies. It could be that Châteaumorand and his friends saw the archer as a low class sharpshooter who had no right to be so effective and kill their friends.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation, by Robert Bartlett

This sounds like a fantastic book. But then he's written them before.  

Bartlett, Robert. Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation

   Reviewed by Diane Fruchtman

        DePauw University


Robert Bartlett's Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? is delightful. Its acuity, readability, and impressive aggregation of fascinating details make it a compelling, useful, and thoroughly enjoyable read at any level of expertise. While the book is not without fault, its strengths as an avenue into the complex and multifaceted world of saints and worshippers in the Middle Ages far outweigh its shortcomings. Bartlett has a knack for selecting beautifully illustrative and compelling quotations from a wide range of primary sources to illuminate his points, allowing him to present, in glorious array, the diversity of the cult of saints. The book is a wonderful blend of judicious synthesis and confident command of detail, and its almost conversational progression of topics helps maintain and cultivate the reader's curiosity.

Bartlett offers his readers a chronological introduction to the cult of saints before branching out to a thematic exploration. Part one, "Developments," includes chapters on "Origins (100-500)," "The Early Middle Ages (500-1000)," "The High and Later Middle Ages (1000-1500)," and "The Protestant Reformation." While Bartlett occasionally uses primary sources uncritically (for instance, treating the whole of The Martyrdom of Polycarp as a contemporary account [2]), and while some of his chronological choices are curious (for instance, waiting until the second chapter to introduce Christian ambivalence about the power of the saints' bodily relics), in general these chapters provide an excellent diachronic overview of Western Christian saint veneration, one that lays a solid and necessary framework for the thematic chapters to come. The narrative Bartlett offers is familiar and succinct, yet filled with enough astute observations to make even a seasoned scholar pause and ponder. The chapter on the Reformation is rather too brief: Bartlett touches upon Luther, Zwingli, the Tudors, and Calvin just long enough to register these Reformers' varied rejections of the cult of saints, though not long enough to explore the underpinnings and manifestations of those rejections. Furthermore, the Catholic Reformation, to which the cult of the saints was essential and whose impact on saint veneration was substantial, is wholly absent from Bartlett's narrative. Nonetheless, this historical sketch is an excellent and compelling invitation into the medieval world of saints and worshippers; not only does it provide an accessible historical trajectory for the reader's reference, it piques the reader's interest and prompts questions for further study, many of which are addressed in later chapters.

The second (and far more substantial) section of the book (Part II: "Dynamics") is where Bartlett's brilliance most shines through, as he examines the cult of saints from many different angles, turning the jewel, so to speak, so that we can fully appreciate each facet. These ten chapters, covering topics as varied as liturgical calendars, literary effusions, pilgrim garb, and satirical skepticism, are so wide ranging and engaging that they warrant individual attention here.

"A saint was not a person of a particular type but a person who was treated in a particular way. That 'way' can be summed up by the word 'cult' and its three key elements were public recognition of the name and the day of the saint; special treatment of the saint's bodily remains; and celebrations of the saint in writing" (95). With these parameters, Bartlett (chapter 5: "The Nature of Cult") offers a conceptual foundation for how we can identify saints and their cults. Though sainthood remains in the eye of the beholder, historians and scholars can identify a cult by establishing that worshippers maintained a special relationship to the saint's name, body, and textual traditions. This chapter also assesses the purpose of cult--briefly stated, it is patronage, on a level slightly more accessible than dealing directly with God. The saints intercede on behalf of their petitioners, can be invoked by them, and are bound by the patron's rules of reciprocity, such that saints could be "shamed" or "humiliated" should their intervention seem in need of prodding.

Chapter 6, "Saints' Days," addresses the timing of saints' veneration and celebration. Bartlett describes the development of various liturgies for the saints (showing, in compelling detail, how murky and unsystematic this process often was); the hierarchy of feast days; how the celebration of saints' days varied by locality and thus served to carve out and reinforce local identities; and finally, how those holy days were publicized and celebrated in the lay calendar. This short chapter shows in microcosm the strengths of the book as a whole--attention to detail, illustrative examples, and an overarching dialogic tone that first illuminates what scholars "know" and then problematizes that body of knowledge by addressing questions the reader may not have considered, ultimately providing a cautious and nuanced overview of the topic. Similarly compelling is chapter 11, "Dedications and Naming." Once again, Bartlett sheds light on lesser-noted aspects of the cult of saints: the politics, logic, importance, consequences, and power of naming children after saints; the history of popes taking on saintly names as they ascend to office; the regional patterns of naming conventions, etc.

Chapters 7 and 8 tackle "Types of Saints" and "Relics and Shrines," respectively. Chapter 7 begins with the difficulties inherent in the historiographic project of counting saints--not least of which is the question of whom one should count. After describing the benefits and limitations of several models (delimiting by time, geography, canonization attempts, successful canonizations, etc.) and offering some insight into the data we think we have, Bartlett proceeds to discuss all of the various categories of saints he can muster, including Mary, angels, apostles and evangelists, martyrs, confessors (including doctors of the church, bishops, abbots, and hermits), virgins, Old Testament saints, lay saints, and royal saints (with a subsection on female royals). Then, acknowledging that any identity-based schema will fall short, Bartlett explores saints categorized by their roles as patrons of specific churches, cities, "nations," and individuals. The short sections allow the reader to peruse closely the examples that Bartlett offers, making the chapter, despite its length and encyclopedic potential, immensely readable--it is concise without being inane, wide ranging without ever becoming list-like. The "Relics and Shrines" chapter is, likewise, well structured and clear. It spans the various forms of relics (including body parts and contact relics), the logistics of shrines (their location and management), the collection of relics (in reliquaries and as objects of trade and theft), the movement of relics (in translation, procession, exchange, and theft), how relics appear in legal and military scenarios, and disputes about relics (both about their possession and about their validity).

One of the most satisfying chapters in this book, chapter 9 ("Miracles"), combines survey and analysis, incorporating medieval theories of the miraculous as well as scholarly debates about how to approach, quantify, and analyze the miracles we see in medieval sources. The chapter moves from theorizing and problematizing the miraculous to highlighting and exploring various categories of miracles, first by type (healing, provision, visions, prophecy) and then by context (war, against demons, among animals, in response to scoffers).

Less satisfying is chapter 10, on pilgrimage. While the chapter as a whole is replete with excellently chosen and illustrative quotes, an array of scholarly perspectives, and useful information, Bartlett's frame is perplexingly unhelpful. The chapter begins with a discussion of "Origins and Definitions," which opens with the following: "Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity did not originally have the idea of pilgrimage, that is, journeying to a holy place, a specially sanctioned spot with intrinsic spiritual significance like Jerusalem or Mecca" (410). Not only does this ill-judged preamble assume a clear historical separation between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (such that we can accurately assess "original" practices, as if each tradition emerged neatly as a discrete and distinct entity), it employs a definition of pilgrimage that limits the phenomenon to the purely physical. At the end of the chapter, Bartlett mentions--almost as an aside--the idea that a human's whole life is a pilgrimage to God, but this idea is both early and ubiquitous in Christian thought, from New Testament injunctions that a Christian should live "as a stranger and a pilgrim" in the world (Heb 11:13; 1 Pet 2:11) to Augustine's repeated characterizations of life as pilgrimage. On the one hand, by circumscribing pilgrimage as physical, Bartlett has facilitated his description of what medieval pilgrimage to the shrines of the saints looked like, what it entailed, and how it was thought of; on the other hand, he has foreclosed exploration of the spirituality that lies at the heart of the Christian experience of pilgrimage and alienation more broadly. Nonetheless, the chapter does compass some excellent topics of focus, including the debates over the localization of sanctity in a tradition whose divinity is transcendent, the various accouterments of shrines and their visitors, and the nuts-and-bolts logistics of medieval pilgrimage.

Chapters 12 and 13, on "Images of the Saints" and "The Literature of Sanctity," once again represent Bartlett at his best. These vast topics are treated with attention to detail, superbly selected examples, and fair representations of current scholarship and historical debates alike, all suspended in a clear and helpful organizational framework. In chapter 12, Bartlett explores the rise of images in the cult of saints as "focused on devotion rather than just being mimetic or memorial" (472), and he gives a clear and sensitive overview of iconoclasm (both East and West) before discussing the manifestations of the iconophile victory in various media and contexts. Likewise, in chapter 13, Bartlett's treatment of the literature of sanctity explores the whys and wherefores of writing about saints (including a brief discussion of hagiography as both a genre and a source for historians of religious life) before addressing various manifestations in legendaries, miracle books, sermons, canonizations, and vernacular hagiography.

Confidence in the cult of saints, generally speaking, was a consistent feature of Christian life in the medieval Latin West. But in every generation there were objectors, Christians who felt that the cult of the saints was ridiculous, idolatrous, polytheistic, pointless, or simply distracting. This "Doubt and Dissent" forms the subject of chapter 14. Beginning with Vigilantius, Bartlett moves from early medieval dissenters to the "Western Heretics" (the Cathars, Waldensians, and Lollards), finally proceeding to address the more diffuse skepticism that pervaded medieval cultures: the "bubbling broth of mockery, disrespect, doubt, disbelief, disdain, and derision" that stood in contrast to the "serious and principled" objections of the "heretics" (596). Recorded in hagiographies (where these doubters were invariably overcome) and in satire (where true sanctity is inviolate and sham sanctity a comedy of errors), this "skepticism and scoffing" usually served to reinforce the cult of the saints, rather than to undermine it. Bartlett ends the chapter with a section on "policing the saints"--how the Church controlled the proliferation of veneration and in effect instituted its own internal and ultimately cult-preserving systematic doubt and dissent. This chapter is essential to the book, providing a much-needed counterbalance to the attitudes seen in other chapters. And its placement at the end, concentrating all naysayers in one final content chapter, serves well to highlight positions that, if dispersed among other topics, might have been overwhelmed. It leaves the reader with a strong sense that there is much more to be known and to be questioned than she has already encountered. On the other hand, the separation of "doubt and dissent" into its own chapter replicates the impression that these positions were marginal and worthy of exclusion from the general discussion of saint veneration, an impression only underscored by Bartlett's unqualified use of terms like "heretic" and "orthodox."

The only thoroughly disappointing chapter is the final one, "Reflections," which is preoccupied with the conceptual origins and transcultural touchstones of the cult of saints. Bartlett explores whether saint veneration was an extension of pagan devotion to the gods, an offshoot of nature-worship, a negotiation of ancient mortuary practice, a consequence of Abrahamic views about inhumation, and/or a cousin to ancestor veneration. In each case, Bartlett presents the possibilities alongside scholarship that has assessed them, and in each case unsurprisingly finds the cult of saints unique in some way, not entirely attributable to one or another theory of origination. The question is: why do these possibilities, so long and so clearly discredited and so reductive of the topic itself, need to be aired? They are certainly less illuminating than a phenomenological or theological analysis of saint veneration would be. Singularly problematic is the final section, "Comparisons and Conclusions." The evenhanded diplomacy, helpful documentation, and reader-focused progression of topics evidenced elsewhere in the book are all lacking here, and Bartlett's comparisons are facile and unhelpful. He makes unsubstantiated comparisons between martyrdom in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, resorting, for example, to the historically incorrect commonplace that Christian martyrdom is "marked off" from "Muslim martyrdom by its almost exclusively passive character" (634); furthermore (and once again with no supporting citations), he asserts that "in their radical asceticism Christian saints are closer to the holy men of Hinduism and Buddhism than to those of Judaism or Islam" (634). Comparisons between and across traditions must not be grounded in superficial external similarities but in contextual study that respects the intricacies of each tradition in the appropriate historical moment. Without sufficient care, comparisons are at best academically useless and at worst politically irresponsible. It was disappointing to see such carelessness here, at the end of such a strong book.

Also disappointing is the absence of an answer to the title's query: Why can the dead do such great things? Intermittently throughout the text we catch possible glimpses of medieval reasoning regarding the theology, anthropology, and soteriology behind belief in the efficacy of saintly intercession, but the question is never an object of focus or direct discussion, despite the fact that, for medieval thinkers, it often was. Of course, it would be impossible to address all of the cultural and theological logics that made the cult of the saints intelligible to practitioners, but given Bartlett's elsewhere evident talent for presenting disputed ideas in a productive and illuminating way, the omission of this central topic, a key feature of medieval spirituality and the medieval logic of sainthood, is jarring. Bartlett's is not a history of theology, but a history of practice, overwhelmingly¬--the two must be considered in tandem to be fully understood.

Aside from these (perhaps parochial) disappointments, the book is both a fantastic resource and an enjoyable read. Despite its concatenation of sources and exempla, the book never feels list-like or tedious, and the author's skill in selecting topics, quotations, and references makes the reader more than usually inclined to use this as a jumping-off point for further exploration--a
quality that makes this work particularly well suited to casual readers seeking an exciting overview of the medieval cult of saints, upper-level undergraduates in classroom settings and exploring independent research projects, and academics interested in pursuing conversations across areas of specialty. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine a scholar who would not glean something new from reading this work

Friday, May 06, 2016

On the Road in the Hundred Years War -- stories of 14th century warfare from Froissart

From Steve Muhlberger and Stonebunny Press
A New book in a new series:
On the Road in the Hundred Years War -- stories of 14th century warfare from the chivalric historian Jean Froissart.
Would you like to hear what the knights of the Hundred Years War had to say about their personal experiences of the conflict? Jean Froissart, the era's greatest fan of chivalry, devoted his life to interviewing the knights who participated in the war and to create his vast, vivid Chronicle. On the Road in the Hundred Years War shows us Froissart in his natural environment, crossing war-torn France, and talking with the warriors who knew the history of the country they passed through and the men who had fought there. On the Road (volume 1 of the new series Tales from Froissart) brings to life the military camps, the princely courts and the inns where those who followed the wars gathered and talked of their way of life. This volume is available in Kindle format and in paperback. The print version is very reasonably priced and the Kindle version is much, much cheaper. Both are illustrated (print interior is black and white, other illustrations are in color). Available in print: https://www.amazon.ca/Road-Hundred-Years-War/dp/0994755651 or http://www.amazon.com/Road-Hundred-Years-Tales-Froissart/dp/0994755651? ie=UTF8&qid=1462548915&ref_=tmm_pap_swatch_0&sr=8-1 Available in Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Road-Hundred-Years-Tales-Froissart- ebook/dp/B01F5LNDIE?ie=UTF8&keywords=froissart%20on%20the%20road%20steve %20muhlberger&qid=1462548456&ref_=sr_1_fkmr0_1&sr=8-1-fkmr0 or https://www.amazon.ca/Road-Hundred-Years-Tales-Froissart-ebook/dp/B01F5LNDIE