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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Proto-Colonialism in Crusader Letters

Collected in this volume1 are 82 letters dating from the years 1097 to 1306. They all pertain to the European experience in the Levant during the Crusades. Included are somewhat personal letters between individuals2, more official letters between ecclesiastics and monarchs3, encyclicals written by one person or a group of people and sent to another group4, and even a couple of famous forgeries.5 All letters are presented in English translation, some translations being older and pre-existing, the remainder executed for this book by Barber and Bate.

Almost any brand of medieval history buff or scholar can find something of interest here. These letters contain detailed depictions of battles and military strategies. They offer insight into reformist impulses of the 13th-century Catholic Church and proselytization. As travel literature, the letters contribute to the body of growing documentary evidence available in translation of pre-colonial travel by Europeans, their strategies for negotiating difference in pluralist societies, their ethnographic interests, and nascent colonial and nationalist tendencies. The letter writers almost uniformly provide rich incidental details regarding daily medieval European and Levantine life, as well as periodic insights into contemporary political and religious tensions among the period’s powerful.

Medieval primary sources, even in translation, are often thought of as impersonal and highly formalized, riddled with biblical quotations and stodgy epistolary conventions. While I can’t strictly argue against this summation of the form, I take issue with the literate-worldview bias it betrays.

The Middle Ages encompass a liminal period of literacy in the Western world where reading and especially writing belonged almost exclusively to a small minority of socially and economically elite individuals. And even that minority of individuals would have lived heavily oral lives, relying on their memories to an extent most of us moderns would find astounding.

For a person in this type of milieu to undertake creation of a written document was necessarily for that person to engage in a formal and self-conscious representation of themselves and their thought. Today, the written word has largely outstripped the spoken word in terms of how people rely on it and perceive it as the originary form of language. For us, the written word can represent immediacy, intimacy and authority as much, and frequently more, than the spoken word does. For medieval people, even literate medieval people, the spoken word came inevitably first and the written word was always a special, but slightly untrustworthy, ossification of the living spoken word. Moreover, there was nothing immediate about it.

Simply imagine the physical challenges and demands of writing in a heavily stylized script, in an era with no electric lighting, using a quill and ink on vellum (that you may or may not have had to prepare yourself), in a language that you were not born to; even in the Middle Ages, when Latin was spoken as a lingua franca, it was nobody’s first language. There was nothing casual or immediate about medieval writing.
The conventions of authorial voice, audience address, content to include or exclude, were all largely determined by the arduousness of the task and by the special, simultaneously dubious and rarefied, epistemological place occupied by writing.

Keeping the reasons for their stilted forms in mind as one reads a medieval primary source can make the going a little more enjoyable. And letters, as opposed to any sort of scholarly or theological work, are even more accessible than many medieval pieces of writing.

In this particular collection, in many letters one begins to see the transformation of those ponderous formalities into something more intimate. Possibly I’m imagining this, but I don’t think so. The distance of these letter writers from their homelands, both temporally and spatially; the newness of this project for Europeans (overseas settlement and the attendant conflicts); the terror and trauma of war6, famine and natural disasters7; these things all appear to have influenced the tone of the letters, rendering them more emotionally intelligible to a modern reader than a lot of medieval sources.

In many of the letters one begins to sense a subjectivity closer to the author himself, as opposed to the chronicle-like, somewhat aloof and omniscient voice so many medieval authors instinctively adopted.

Another less delightful, but equally important characteristic of these crusade-era documents is the constant underlying tension between the violence and triumphalism of the crusader project on the one hand, and the pacific and inclusive imperatives of Christianity on the other; both of which the medieval Catholic Church took very seriously, at least in theory. Particularly in letters by clerics this tension is evident and deeply related to that other great pet medieval anxiety: the relationship (or dynamic or hierarchy, if you will) between the spiritual and the physical.

All crusaders were considered pilgrims with primarily spiritual goals: to rack up divine credit by visiting pilgrimage sites and holy places and, of course, by helping to “win back” the lands where God had chosen to become incarnate and was sacrificed for the good of humankind.8

The concrete reality on the ground, however, was profoundly physical and violent. It involved lots of fighting and killing, often in terrifying ways, of men, women and children on both “sides” of the conflict.9 People starved and were displaced. Some crusaders came as pilgrims and - given that the Silk Road ran directly into the Levant - ended up as wealthy traders, much more interested in the commerce of goods than of the soul. We must not forget that this crusader venture, while discussed in a religious tone, was primarily economic for a great number of participants, including kings, bishops, dukes, knights and Italian merchants.

As in colonial “frontiers” in later centuries, the European invasion of the Levant appears to have made life more difficult and precarious for everyone, including the invaders. Subsequently, these letters contain a fair amount of prevaricating and a lot of justification about what was going down. If the Crusaders won a battle or conquered a city, God had rewarded their piety and punished their enemies. If they lost, God had punished them for lack of faith, for impiety or avariciousness.10

As a collection these letters are as disturbing as they are readable. Perhaps the chief theme that resounds for me most today, is the sticky, interwoven, seemingly contradictory way religious and secular interests assert themselves and the fact that medieval authors did not separate the two interests as distinct or contradictory.

Our own age is one of apparently increasing religious feeling, particularly in reaction to the pretensions of secularism and the presumption that it is a rational “next step” on some sort of imaginary ladder of mental progression. Perhaps the medieval outlook on worldly and spiritual interests, its seamless blending of the two, and its unwillingness to see them as separate quantities, might prove instructive for us; especially since the cultural and religious conflicts at the heart of the Crusades show no signs of abating in our modern “secular” age.

1. All references are from Letters from the East: Crusaders, Pilgrims and Settlers in the 12th-13th Centuries, transls. Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2010).
2. E.g., Stephen, Count of Blois, to his wife, Adela (June, 1097), pp. 15-17.
3. E.g., Conrad III, King of Germany, to Wibald, Abbot of Stavelot and Corvey (end of February, 1148), pp. 45-46.
4. E.g., Daibert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to all the prelates, princes and Catholics in the German lands (April, 1100), pp. 37-38.
5. E.g., Prester John to Manuel Comnenus, Byzantine Emperor (c. 1165), pp. 62-68.
6. E.g., Warmund of Picquigny, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Gerard Prior of the Holy Sepulchre, to Diego Gelmírez, Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela (c.1120): “Every day we are invaded, every day slaughtered or captured. We are decapitated and our bodies thrown to the birds and the beasts. We are sold like sheep. What more can we say?” (43); Amalric of Nesle, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to Louis VII, King of France (between 1161 and 64): “We find ourselves surrounded by a perverse, evil nation of tyrannical infidels who attack us almost daily.” (51); Geoffrey, Fulcher, Preceptor of the Temple, to Louis VII, King of France (September, 1164): “[T]here is virtually nothing good happening to us…” (58).
7. E.g., Gerbert of Boyx to Amadeus, Archbishop of Besançon (c.1213): “[A]n earthquake of previously unheard of intensity had occurred the day before the Vigil of John the Baptist in the land of Isauria [Southern Anatolia]. It was so big that many towns and castles collapsed, while two cities and an abbey situated in front of the city of Philadelphia disappeared into the ground with all their inhabitants…” (98); Geoffrey of Donjon, Master of the Hospital, to William of Villiers, Prior of the Hospital in England (1201): “Already countless numbers of them [“Bablyonians”, by which Geoffrey means Egyptians and Syrians] have been driven by the harsh necessity of famine to occupy our land like swarms of locusts in order to sustain their bodies. Some labour on Church land, some feed on woodland grasses like animals, while others have been found dead in the woods, being eaten by worms and birds.” (95-96)
8. E.g., Amalric of Nesle, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to the prelates, princes and churches of the West (1165 or 1166): “Come to the sacrosanct places, consecrated by the bodily presence of our Saviour. If you wish to benefit from the redemption that was earned there by the most precious blood of Jesus Christ, hurry to liberate them...[W]e link the hardships of the route with penitence, obedience and remission of all their [pilgrims’] sins as well as eternal life.” (69).
9. I put “sides” in quotes because there were more than two interests at stake in the Levant during this time period. While, practically speaking, medieval Europeans seemed to grasp this, rhetorically speaking they were notoriously good at adhering to over-simplistic binaries of “us and them”.
10. For attribution of outcomes to divine judgment see, e.g., Eraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to all the secular leaders of the West (September, 1187): “Alas, alas, Lord God, because of our sins You have done this to us, and in Your anger Your eye has shown no pity, since You have allowed the loss of the sacrosanct life-giving Cross to the Saracens, as well as the deaths of the king of Jerusalem, three bishops and all those fighting with them.” (79); The Genoese consuls to Pope Urban III (late September, 1187): “From…the account of a grief-stricken fellow citizen who has returned from the regions over the sea, we have learned of the recent judgement of God in those lands, as if provoked by our sins.” (82). For descriptions of said greed and dissolution see, e.g., Richard, Earl of Cornwall and Count of Poitou, to Baldwin of Reviers, Earl of Devon, the abbot of Beaulieu, and Robert, clerk (July, 1241): “For a long time now in the Holy Land discord has replaced peace, schism unity, hate love…For the abundance of wealth creates such an appetite for conflict that they ignore the punishment of the Father who presides over the see of Peter, intent as they are on increasing their reputation in the world.” (137); James of Vitry, Bishop of Acre, to the Parisian masters and to Ligarde of St. Trond and the convent of Aywières (1216 or 1217): “I found the city of Acre like a monstrous dragon with nine heads engaged in mutual conflict.” (101).

Friday, April 4, 2014

Out-Creating Destruction, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Entropy

Here is the last painting I finished, which I am calling "Sinus Olei Britannici" (transl: Gulf of British Petroleum). 
It and this post pertain to an idea that has been much on my mind of late: artistic creation as an attempt to out-create destruction. Perhaps because I was listening to War and Peace as I painted, I started thinking big meta-thoughts about what I originally conceived of as a painting with no outside signifieds. (If that's a thing.) At inception, it wasn't intended to point to anything beyond itself. It was an excuse to paint sea critters. And yet I ended up believing, to the extent a painting is about something, this one just might be about creation itself, and the wacky persistence of life in the face of certain death.

The first image I concocted and drew was the two-headed sea monster. I populated his underwater world with a variety of completely factual aquatic critters. Soon, I was envisioning some time, far in the future, when certain life forms have changed dramatically from what we now know...possibly with the aid of some man-made catastrophe. 

Then, unsurprisingly, I thought about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and the British Petroleum oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. If you look closely you can pick out the BP sunburst logo on an oversized cork at the bottom right of the painting. High technology.
I then decided that this bizarre future undersea-scape would be most complete with a set of sailors gazing into the depths...and so naturally I imagined a technologically retrograde, post-apocalyptic future and threw in a Viking ship.
I included a 19th-century, Vernesque underwater diver in the margin for good measure.
The implication of my historical mixing sounds pretty mundane: we are the far future's deep past. But the temporal prison that life on our planet occupies makes this mundanity feel profound as it is lived. To imagine the detritus of our existence lurking, completely unseen, in the nooks and crannies of some future civilization's world gives me goosebumps, the good kind. I like picturing that scenario better than one where the future civilization examines our detritus and tries to "know" something about us. And that gets me thinking about the detritus itself and its relationship to us. 

Every day, for - so far as we can tell - as long as homo sapiens have existed, we have been committed makers of things. 

Now, life in general is the superlative maker. Life makes itself. Hooray! Among life that we know, there are a variety of critters who make other things; famously termite-poking sticks, but also arenas and structures to do with mating rituals, and then of course nests, beds, dens and homes of various kinds.  But, quite obviously, no other critter makes as many things, as often as people critters do.

I loathe the human-exceptionalism-wagontrain of entitlement upon which many philosophies have placed humankind, so I am not arguing that this makes us especially grand. With the unintended buffoonery innate to our species, much of our creation ends up assisting destruction. Precisely such disasters as Fukushima and Deep Horizon illustrate the dark flip side of our impulse to create, a dark side where we create at all costs, at any cost; and, germane to nuclear and oil extracting technologies, where we create via destruction of other life, of our planet and of ourselves.

But that is the dark side. On the more buoyant, ingenuous side we have quotidian creation, from sexual reproduction to gardening to weird little paintings of two-headed sea creatures.

I ask myself why I paint. I earn very little money from it. It occupies a lot of time. Sometimes it makes my hand hurt. Yet I intend to paint until I cannot. And, amazingly, this impulse is utterly normal, completely comprehensible to the vast majority of folks. Creation using one's own hands to attempt to physically realize something that exists only in the mind, is its own reward. It supplies a soul-contentment, a sense of accomplishment, a moment of wonder that you made something. But like all wonderful things, these feelings are fleeting, mostly leaving you with the impulse to do it all over again. And again. And again.

The most tragicomic aspect of this impulse to create - aside from its pregnant, inextractable possibility of ending up destructive - is this Sisyphean nature. The act of creation expresses a striving that never quite achieves satisfaction. It sates primarily while it occurs but not long after. There is something in the act itself, and only incidentally in the product, that satisfies the creator's weird compulsion to make things. "Make" is more operative than "things" in that construction.
I call it "weird" because I cannot explain the human desire and habit of making things, even when I find it in myself. But actually it is rather primordial and obvious; linked with the rhythms of life and death, not just of we fragile biological organisms, but of the whole grand shebang.

Considering the rhythms of the universe itself, its life and death as it were, and how this bears on human creativity, I begin to think about entropy.

Bear with me.

The second law of thermodynamics, to the extent it talks about more than the attainable efficiencies of heat engines, pertains to entropy as a function of state describing the state of equilibrium of a thermodynamic system.


My humanities background encourages me here to offer some illustrative metaphors, definitions and paraphrases that will probably make the eyes of the science-minded roll. But I think they're used to that, living as they do in a nation full of people who know more about Kim Kardashian's ass than about the laws of thermodynamics.

The word "thermodynamics" derives from Greek words meaning heat and power. It refers to a branch of physical science that studies the relationships between heat, energy and work. The four laws of thermodynamics contain some of the most basic postulates concerning the behavior of matter and energy in given systems and under given circumstances. They are fundamental to many areas of science and also have been applied rather metaphorically in less scientifically-delineated situations, which I readily admit is my mode of engaging good ol' Law #2 and entropy. [Panel from Ryan North's hilarious Dinosaur Comics at right.]

Heat engines and their maximum efficiency do not specifically turn my crank. Entropy is another matter. Although, to be clear, entropy is not matter. Entropy is a quantity; that is, a characteristic that can be measured or counted, that there can be more or less of, that can be quantified. And its definition in thermodynamics differs from, but is related to, its definition in statistical mechanics. Insofar as I understand these differences, I believe they have to do with the ability to describe entropy at a micro- versus a macroscopic level. I do not think this difference bears overly on my thoroughly unscientific purposes so I intend to ignore it.

So! Entropy describes systems and is a function of state, which means it describes a system at a specific moment (i.e., in a specific state) without regard to what occurrences, developments or causalities preceded that moment. In this way, it reminds me of Ferdinand de Saussure's structural linguistics. Language as a system can be studied historically over time (diachronically) or at a given moment without concern for historical antecedents or differences (synchronically). Entropy is a synchronic quantity.

There is an equation that can determine entropy. In its simplest form it looks like this: ΔS = Q/T where Q is heat and T is something I do not understand. This use of entropy has something to do with a work-heat-energy-blah-blah differential-something-something called the Carnot Cycle, which again, bears so much on the operations of a heat engine it inhibits my ability to either (a) decipher it clearly or (b) care.

What I do think is cool, is that all of this math and technical language ("differential-something-something" and "work-heat-energy-blah-blah", I'm looking at you) describes something that, when removed from heat engines and extrapolated into other systems, we each experience daily and expect intuitively from the universe.


Phillip K. Dick talked about it using his concept of kipple.

In over-simple and likely flawed terms, entropy is the amount of energy lost (i.e., made unproductive) in a system. To explain my use of "unproductive", think of a Newton's cradle.

You lift one ball, let it hit the next one and watch as the energy of that initial impact moves back and forth through the balls, until the momentum runs down. The fact that it runs down - that perpetual motion machines cannot exist - owes to the loss of energy through friction and ball elasticity. Energy becomes unproductive when it is lost, redirected or dissipated in some way. It stops being able to accomplish its "purpose"* in the system under scrutiny.

In the above example, energy is rendered observable by the motion of the balls. In most examples one finds of entropy, unsurprisingly given its thermodynamic roots, temperature is the observable marker of the energy at work versus the energy being lost: e.g., an ice cube melting or a hot pan cooling.

Each of us has observed entropy so often that we mostly do not think concertedly about it as an experience, but rather naturalize it into one of the ways things just are: anything not actively heated or cooled becomes room temperature, buildings with no upkeep eventually crumble. This is just the way the universe works. And it is. It is also entropy.

In metaphorical terms, entropy is the tendency of disorder to follow order.

I have read several science writers display annoyance over the association of entropy with disorder. I appreciate the frustration attendant on non-professionals misunderstanding or negligently co-opting specific vocabulary and using it inaccurately. However, I also think metaphorical relationships constitute their own truths. If someone is mistaking entropy-as-disorder for the scientific thermodynamic use of entropy, that's a problem.

If someone, say me, is using a highly specific and technical term self-consciously in a loose and/or metaphorical way to discuss a small part of what it is like to live on our planet, then I think the science bloggers and protesting professors can chill out. Words are capable of containing more than one meaning. Sometimes "lay" people even understand this about language. It's really true.

As far as I can tell, in the development of scientific understandings of entropy, there exist historical reasons why it was ever mentioned in the same breath as disorder. These reasons have to do with statistical mechanics, possible molecular movement and the likelihood of molecular movement. But to be clear about my own interpretive take on this point: as I grasp it, entropy represents a system achieving equilibrium through energy loss (or conversion).

Disorder indeed sounds like the opposite of achieving equilibrium...except when you consider that the human idea of placing things "in order" implies that everywhere all the time, unless we actively work against it, our universe is disordered. I toy here with the suggestion that, perhaps, humans perceive equilibrium as it is achieved naturally in our universe as disorder. Conversely, we tend to see wild imbalances, especially in nature, as orderly (I'm thinking, for instance, about farming or urbanization). New studies of ecology and the dramatic climate changes observable all around us (whatever you attribute those changes to), may be starting to change this attitude. Still, ideas of a "natural order" notwithstanding, we humans continue to maintain a strong association between ordered things and man-made things, just as we have traditionally relegated the natural world to a wild, untamed (disordered?) place.

Viewed in this way, the vast majority of human activity on the planet has so far attempted to thwart a basic law of science. We try to memorialize ourselves with huge buildings, we create monocultures, build dams, pave things. And then we work vigilantly and persistently to maintain them despite the imbalances they introduce. We fight entropy constantly. Because our "order" looks a lot like nature's lack of equilibrium. I am not observing this to make a larger comment about our dysfunctional relationship with Earth...although I believe that's a valid observation. I would really like to begin considering the philosophical and creative implications of metaphorically seeing entropic equilibrium as disorder.

Fighting entropy is not the most elegant, efficient activity we could engage in. But after all of these millennia, most human societies do indeed build structures, assertively manage land, use non-renewable fuels for a variety of purposes, and concretely live in ways that cannot possibly be maintained in perpetuity; moreover, these behaviors leave few to zero traces over any geologically-significant time span.

Deep time and its habit of eradicating evidence of our existence tends to unsettle humankind. Small groups of folks periodically have developed philosophies that do not shudder at the reality of our collective utter impermanence (some atheists, Jains, scientists and certain pastoral nomads leap to mind).

I myself am not overly troubled in an existential sense by the tendency of things to fall apart. The eventual non-existence of myself, of the house or town I live in, of the city or civilization I live in, of humanity itself, does not seem particularly upsetting when I think about the civilizations, creatures and ecosystems that have already begun, flourished and died on our planet. Why would I enjoy imagining myself apart from all of that?

On a personal emotional level, however, we all have to deal with the ramifications of entropy and no amount of cultivated intellectual distance can keep us from feeling its effects. From the persistent, baffling accumulation of dust bunnies to the breakdown of cells, all of life is on the road to death and our very universe is winding down to eventual heat death. Moreover, reality - in the form of our fragile bodies, for instance - seems to point this out to us at every opportunity, like a twirpy kid repeating words you wish she'd forget.

Little wonder then that humans are uniformly eager to engage in small or large ways with the futile enterprise of out-creating this omnipresent destruction. I, for one, will certainly continue with my tiny attempts. It would sure be something, however, if we could target our grander creative efforts in ways that do not fight equilibrium so dramatically, but take it into account, respect its power. We might even hitch us a free, if temporary, ride on the energy of that ebb tide.

* I use "purpose" not to imply that naturally-occurring systems possess teleology, but because this word choice carries semantic content related to end results and work productivity.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bog People! Hangin' out...

In a recent post, I waxed long-winded about Iron Age Europe. When I began that essay, I had actually intended a shorter, sweeter, art-oriented post...and then got carried away. Well, try try again.

Not too long ago I read P.V. Glob's The Bog People, a decades old, highly accessible treatment of the naturally mummified bodies that folks have been pulling out of peat bogs in northern Europe for hundreds of years. Most of the bodies were placed there during the Iron Age and many of them appear to have been killed as part of a ritual sacrifice.

Tollund Man [below], a 4th-century B.C. ritual burial found in Denmark, has become the poster child for Iron Age bog people...perhaps because his face is still in one piece and it makes him easier to look at. That is not true of all of the bog bodies.
If you look closely, you can see the braided cord around his neck by which he was most likely hung. That cord motif is repeated in designs found on metal objects that have also been pulled out of the bogs.

One of the most astounding and famous of these objects is the Gundestrup Cauldron, also found in Denmark but dating to the 1st century B.C. or later. In several places on the cauldron [images left and below], you can see armlets or bracelets, necklaces and head bands that all, according to Glob, echo cords like the one that killed Tollund Man, which have been found around the neck of more than one bog burial. He tied the images on the cauldron to gods and goddesses and believed that the sacrifices had to do with a ritual tied to spring and regeneration after the hardships of winter.
As you can begin to see from these pictures, the cauldron is also decorated with animals and tiny people. Even Glob didn't know exactly what was going on here. But he assumed that these designs depict aspects of rituals and beliefs pertaining to both the bog sacrifices and the pagan religion in whose service they occurred. Interestingly, from my perspective, the origin of the cauldron is shadowy. Between its design elements and the silver out of which it is made, scholars give it alternately to Thracians or Gauls. So how did something made in what is today either France or Bulgaria end up in a bog in Denmark? And, moreover, why does it appear to express images related to a ritual carried out in Scandinavia and the British Isles during, but also centuries before, its creation?

Well, that has to do with my earlier post about the Iron Age as well as with my general interest in this topic. Namely, pre-Roman Europe was not the chaotic heathenish place the Romans (and thence modern Westerners) thought. Trade networks spanned the continent and cultures co-mingled in artistically and religiously productive ways. And the fact of Roman conquest did not automatically or completely destroy, replace or erase these native European cultures and their relationships.

One may wonder how I can claim pre-Roman Europe wasn't heathenish if human sacrifice was going on. Now that we understand the movement of the planets and the changing of the seasons, our worldviews do not generally support something like human sacrifice, which is probably a good thing. But to condemn ritual human sacrifice as simply barbaric when it occurs within the context of a religion and society who validates the usefulness of the practice, I think is to impose anachronisms of thought and behavior on people who came before us.

I suppose I should also offer that I am not in that camp of people who believes human life is inherently more sacred than any other kind of life or that the preservation of life should always be the final consideration that trumps all others. And so the very fact of a human life being extinguished can, at the safe distance of thousands of years, contain morally different values depending on the context.

With that said, imagine the weight of such an act, the incredible symbolic potency of giving one's life for the perpetuation of one's people. And, according to Glob, the bog people who appear to be sacrifices and not victims of violent murder or some accident were in good health, of relatively high status, and had been fed specific foods before meeting their end. In fact those are among the very characteristics of the the burials that point toward human sacrifice as opposed to murder or accident.

In any event, thinking about this form of human sacrifice*, I grew rather mesmerized by the power and terrible beauty of this act. I began wondering how the sacrifice would come to terms with his or her impending death. Did Tollund Man feel as though he himself were committing an act in offering his life, or as though an act were being worked upon him by his community...or by the gods? Was he frightened or resigned? How would the living think about or honor the dead, year after year?

As I do with so many existential questions, I decided to answer myself with a painting.

I depict Tollund Man, already quite mummified, and curled fetus-like in a patch of boggy ground while a young girl weaves a garland of spring blossoms for him. I populated the scene with flowers I saw in bloom during my first spring here in Massachusetts, because I would rather paint plants I have seen firsthand and I've never been to Denmark. I apparently feel less a stickler with regard to architecture, because I sure had no compunction about putting a longhouse in the scene. I included Gundestrup Cauldron details in the frame. The result is weirder than I intended, but I usually count that a fortuitous occurrence.

And if you don't get the Allen Toussaint reference in my post's title - which I could not help nonsensically thinking about the entire time I was reading Glob's book - then listen to this. Because you need to:

*The cultures who have performed human sacrifice did so in a variety of ways. Some have used it to cull undesirable members from their midst. Some sacrificed conquered peoples and low status individuals who, I would imagine, did not feel particularly grateful for the function they were about to perform. I do not intend to romanticize human sacrifice, but to speak very specifically about the form it appears to have taken in Iron Age northern Europe. Human sacrifice will always carry an inherent horror with it, but I think it does not have to be thought of as uniformly cruel or brutish.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Non-Celtic, Non-Germanic Empire That Didn't Define Europe or Fall Tragically

If you are the kind of person who would think about such a thing, perhaps you have noticed that history is often presented with gaping wide chronological and geographical holes in between "significant" historical events. Take American history for example.

If I remember my own elementary education accurately, I was taught appallingly little about pre-Colombian America but was told that Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492. Some hundred years pass and all of the sudden we are in Massachusetts, with the English pilgrims founding Plymouth. Another hundred fifty years pass and all of those British colonists have become American, are living as far south as Georgia, and want independence from the repressive British crown. And it's a revolution! I was taught something about Spanish colonization in the American southwest, but I lived in El Paso during elementary school. I don't feel confident extrapolating that fact out into the rest of the United States. However, tangentially, I am of the opinion that all Americans could do with more stories about the rapacious and comically ill-informed Spaniards whose cruelty and buffoonery did so much to shape our country. [Francisco Vázquez de Coronado above: Seeker After Mythical Cities a/k/a Explorer, Governor of Nueva Galicia, Asshole.]

I believe American K-12 curriculum may be expanding into some of the traditionally missing spaces along with scholastic interest in them, but gaps persist.

And history of all sorts is purveyed this way, at least in the West (I can't speak to other educational systems or historiographies). Creating a narrative - which humans tend to do when writing history - requires picking an arbitrary beginning and end, and picking various discrete points of significance along the way in order to string them together to tell the story you want to tell. I am very persuaded by Hayden White's argument that narrative history gets told according to one of four emplotments: romance, tragedy, comedy or satire. White himself acknowledges that there are other plots but asserts that these are the four archetypal plots that contain all the others. He's much better read than I, so I defer to his judgment on this point.

With regard to the themes of historical gaps and emplotments, the topic on my mind today is Iron Age Europe.

The European Iron Age is complicated to speak about for a number of reasons; most of which do not differentiate it in any way from the problematic nature of most periodizations. First, like most periodizations, it is based on highly specific consideration of select evidence; in this case, the dominant metal used by a given culture in making weaponry and other tools. Is what a group of people used to make their weapons the most important thing to know about them? Does the fact of widespread iron use point to other developments or conditions? The answer to both of these is yes and no. What materials and technologies people worked with is important. It can reference and influence other aspects of their culture. Is it the most important thing to know about a group? I'm not sure there is such a thing. But it is certainly characteristic as well as archaeologically identifiable. You get my meaning. To name a whole period and the cultures in it after a material they used is a reflection of the importance of the material on the culture and of the kinds of data the scholars who came up with the period work with.

Also like most periodizations, the Iron Age is a chronologically rough and relative category. Technology spread at varying speeds and got to different regions in Europe at different times. When modern-day Bulgaria was in the Iron Age, for instance, Denmark was still in the Bronze Age.  Use of iron spread across Europe from east to west and south to north, in general.  This age on that continent can, with picky caveats that don't overly concern me here, be said to encompass 1000 B.C. through 400 A.D. As a whole, over all continents in which the Iron Age is said to have occurred and using the most expansive estimates, it lasted from 1200 B.C. to 1000 A.D. Yowza. [A more conservative timeline is represented below.]

Another thing that complicates discussions of the Iron Age and characterizes it alone, particularly in Europe, is that it encompasses the prehistoric/historic boundary. That is, some Europeans in some places began writing and recording history during this long expanse of time. This adds special complexity to the issue in my mind, because as far as I can tell scholars consider the Iron Age to have ended in a transalpine European region whenever that region was either (a) conquered by Rome, or (b) converted to Christianity; two historic events frequently tied to a rise in literacy and writing wherever they occurred.

Now the first question this age-ending causality begs for me is: What determined the end of the Iron Age in cisalpine Europe (namely, Italy and Greece)? In the case of Greece, perhaps (a) and (b) still hold, but in the case of Italy (i.e., Rome)? I imagine this answer is out there somewhere, but it has evaded me.*

Another question relates to the fact that while sometimes (a) and (b) were concomitant, often they were not. Rome invaded parts of Gaul as early the 2nd century B.C., and it was ultimately conquered by Rome during the Battle of Alesia in 52 B.C. [Excavation of Roman Alesia pictured below.] But all the foregoing occurred when Rome itself still practiced a pagan religion. Presumably Gaul was not officially christianized until Rome was, in 380 A.D. So when did Gaul emerge from the Iron Age? In the 2nd century B.C., in 52 B.C. or in 380 A.D.? I have my guess - 2nd century B.C. - running with the whichever-came-first assumption. In the case of Scandinavia, I have read some assertions that the Iron Age lasted there throughout the Viking period (c.800-1100 A.D.)...hundreds of years after the disappearance of the West Roman Empire, which obviously was not conquering anybody at that point, but that period was when Scandinavia began to be christianized.

So what explicitly do Roman conquest and Christian proselytism have to do with the prehistoric-to-historic transition in Europe? Aside from the obvious answer that Rome and Christianity were both vectors for the spread of one specific language and its alphabet, I don't really know. It's still an itchy question for me. The term Iron Age refers to an aspect of material technology characteristic of a certain time and place. The conquest of parts of Europe by Rome and the conversion of those places to Christianity certainly involved some change in or new influence on the extant material cultures, but did it signify some other technological shift? Possibly the shift from orality to writing?

Historians do not assert the Iron Age in Europe ended with the introduction of writing to a given place; they tie it in explicit terms to Rome and Christianity. And I'm not necessarily asserting this either. But I am intrigued by the way three certain ideas hang together according to our modern urban biases against non-urban non-literate cultures and how those biases influence our conceptual breakdown of time periods, what we study in those time periods and how we study it. The three ideas: (1) Rome as "civilizing" force, where civilization essentially means centralization, urbanization and stone architecture; (2) Christianity as unifying force, where solid record keeping and strict administrative and behavioral enforcement significantly (if never wholly) unified the continent; and (3) writing as the technology that allowed for the administration and power-perpetuation of both forces.

Of course, it's to be remembered that Germanic people of northern Europe had runic writing before they were ever christianized or conquered by Rome...and Romans themselves developed writing from other Europeans: Greeks via Etruscans. So perhaps only the ur-civilized Latin alphabet could somehow wrench a place from an archaeological age and into an historic one? Or perhaps my hangup on writing and the end of the Iron Age is a red herring.

The resolution to this largely semantic problem I'm picking at is probably a function of disciplinary tendencies in archaeology on the one hand and history on the other. Because the Iron Age was so long and is a periodization based on archaeological evidence rather than written evidence, historians, whose meat is documentary leavings, have focused on other things. Due to the lack of chronological utility of the Iron Age periodization, they have found other ways to talk about the period. The two modes just don't jibe super well. In fact, I'd argue historians have obscured the continuities in one long archaeological period by fixating on the differences between shorter historical periods. Additionally, while a group of people's ability to make iron or not make iron is pretty specific and archaeologically provable, historic periodizations notoriously rely on a lot more manipulation of viewpoint and subjective weighing of value. Which is not to say that archaeology relies on none of this. But history depends even more so on picking your discrete points of evidence and demanding they make a story: on emplotment. Archaeology seems a little more comfortable with letting some unexplained tidbits hang out there, unwoven into the overarching story. But maybe this is a misperception.

Since, "Iron Age" has little use to historians who nevertheless study whole stretches of the Iron Age, what historical time periods do they prefer to use? In the dominant periodization of historic Iron Age Europe, as has already been referenced, the only game in town is Rome.** If you begin generally to talk about Europe after say about 200 B.C. as "Roman Europe", everything before becomes "pre-Roman". And those pre-Romans weren't writing too many documents. So traditionally historians have studied Greek and then Roman writing about the pre-Roman folks of Europe.

Within this paradigm, other vocabulary that has traditionally been used to describe them (e.g., "Celtic") becomes meaningful primarily in its contrast to Roman Europe. The Celts were just holdouts to an as-yet incomplete Romanization of Europe. And even a term that can be applied to whole stretches of Roman history - like "pagan" - becomes most strongly linked with pre-Roman (and later pre-Christian) Europe. This is largely because of Rome's subsequent and extremely strong association with Christianity. But it is still an anachronistic, retroactive association based on events that, for much of the Europe that was conquered by Rome between 200 B.C. and 400 A.D., had not yet occurred; namely the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and that religion's subsequent "official" adoption by the Roman Empire in 380 A.D.

And just to really belabor my point about the nonlinear, mind-tangling strangeness of comparing a historical time period with an archaeological one, consider the gladius: an iron sword made by Romans after 218 B.C. modeled on a weapon made by Celtoiberians (a/k/a Iron Age Europeans of Spain). [At left, the gladius wielded by a nerd after my own heart.] So were Romans still considered Iron Age in 218 B.C.? I don't know, but they made this sword and other iron weapons and tools well into the imperial period when they definitely were not considered Iron Age. So how did Rome become the harbinger of the end of the Iron Age using iron weapons modeled on Iron Age weapons?


Suffice to say this periodization stuff is almost arbitrary and, from certain angles, makes zero sense. That's the nature of periodization of any kind. It renders one technology, ruler or event the identifiable earmark of a whole period of time only by obscuring other technologies, rulers or events...or by valuing them differently.

And there's tthe thing that really bothers me about the Latin-centric vision of the late Iron Age in Europe: in it, Rome conceptually dominates the whole European story from 800 B.C. to 400 A.D. and not just the period of its ascendance and collapse from c.200 B.C. to 400 A.D. In fact, Rome literally dominated a hunk of Europe for only a few hundred years. While before, during, and after Roman dominance, there were other histories playing out, other cultures at work that Rome (and Christianity for that matter) affected but did little to actually erase or dislodge. For in its earlier years before it looked northward, when Rome was more concerned with Turkey and Phoenicia, the Celts and other people of Europe were busy doing other things and not just waiting to be the stage for the glorious rise and tragic fall of Rome.

And that is how the historic European Iron Age, when talked about in terms of the Roman period, is often emplotted: as tragedy which, in turn, has frequently given pop culture (and sometimes academic culture) license to render whole chunks of it into those pregnant chronological and geographical gaps I referenced above.

Hayden White has the following to say about tragic emplotment in history:
In Tragedy, there are no festive occasions, except false or illusory ones...[T]he fall of the protagonist and the shaking of the world he inhabits which occurs at the end of the Tragic play are not regarded as totally threatening to those who survive the agonic test. There has been a gain in consciousness for the spectators of the contest. And this gain is thought to consist in the epiphany of the law governing human existence which the protagonist's exertions against the world have brought to pass.
The reconciliations that occur at the end of Tragedy are much more somber; they are more in the nature of resignations of men to the conditions under which they must labor in the world. These conditions, in turn, are asserted to be inalterable and eternal, and the implication is that man cannot change them but must work within them. They set the limits on what may be aspired  to and what may be legitimately aimed at in the quest for security and sanity in the world.
White, Metahistory (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1973) p.9.

In sum, rather than treating Iron Age Europe as one long period which saw an amount of continuity and shared culture across many centuries, the pre-Roman/Roman version of things makes Rome, not Europe, the protagonist whose existence and subsequent decline ("fall" in emplotment terms) is both tragic and the most important event to be observed about this long stretch of history. Therefore, the moral of Rome's decline is also the most important moral to derive from this story.

In fact, where Rome (symbolizing civilization and order) appears to be the protagonist, pre- and post-Roman Europe (symbolizing chaos) is the clear antagonist. The "tragedy" of Rome's decline has been explored by generations of scholars; they usually come up with some soupy recipe of the same ingredient-answers to explain it: a pound of Catholic Church ascendance, a soupçon of disease and resource collapse, Germanic invasions for spice, a dash of imperial overreach.*** From which we can observe that in this particular tragedy the "conditions under which [men] must labor" involve man's own ego (hubris), the limits of biology and the environment (ecology), and the destructive bent of irrational powers unrestrained by some form of rational, centralized and secular state (religion).

I hope the ramifications of this emplotment are obvious. We've all been hearing this simplified version of things for years, even now when scholars very rarely subscribe to it. But to be explicit:

Our protagonist, Rome, brought literacy, advanced technology, and all things civilized to Iron Age Europe, which was in the middle of being ungodly, unruly and primitive at the time. The decline (or fall) of Roman civilization resulted in the "Dark Ages", when pagan superstition again ruled, flavored by Christian superstition. Technology, commerce and literacy declined along with strong secular centralization and, basically, Europe went to Hell in a hand basket until THANK GOD (or Petrarch?) people began studying Roman and Greek thought again and dragged themselves into the Renaissance 1,000 years later! Hallelujah! The angels would sing, except we got rid of that ornate non-scientific bullshit with the Middle Ages. [Francesco Petrarca, right, thinks humanism and his laurel crown are a-ok in this 15th-century depiction.]

I've written before about how the "Dark Ages" is a seriously baggage-laden misnomer for the Early Middle Ages. Depicting Rome as the only culturally significant thing to happen to Europe during the entire Iron Age is another pretty obnoxious misrepresentation. And I do, incidentally, believe they are related offenses that stem from the west's Renaissance-worship of the last 500 years which in turn, springs from Rome-worship. Or possibly the Rome-worship springs from the Renaissance-worship...worth considering. No disrespect to the Renaissance intended (especially the northern Renaissance, though a little disrespect to Rome fully intended), but decades of scholarship have demonstrated that while there was a resurgence of interest in classical arts and letters during the 14th century and it did change a lot about the way people were doing things, it does not follow that all previous centuries contributed nothing to this future, were in fact diametrically opposed to it and, while we're at it, smelled bad and had yucky teeth.

Ok, they might have smelled bad and had yucky teeth, but maybe not quite as bad as you imagine! It's also worth considering that nobody would have been studying anything scientifically in the 14th-century if a whole handful of 11th-13th century theologians had not started to cope meaningfully with pre-Christian and pagan authors. In other words, the Renaissance happened because of the Middle Ages, not despite it.

But I digress. My point here is that western culture has lionized all things Roman (and more broadly, classical) for centuries now. Moreover, it has equated those Roman "things", like centralization, literacy and stone architecture, with civilization and with some nebulous refinement or worthwhile-ness. Incidentally, it was Romans in Iron Age Europe and the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages who cranked out those documents upon which these biases were originally based. They have skewed the way we today popularly look at anything not considered classical in European history. This includes the Middle Ages and this sure includes the Iron Age. Far from being an object lesson in the tragedy of civilization's limits, the Iron Age in Europe (and the very early Middle Ages for that matter) represent fecund, far-reaching, vivid, surprisingly enduring material cultures with which Roman culture merely became enmeshed, or over which it was overlaid. Not that those Mediterranean guys and gals did not change some shit in Europe, but we should not overestimate the depth of their reach nor the flimsiness of non-Roman European cultures.

Before, during and after Rome's political and military dominance in Europe a number of cultures thrived north of the Alps, contemporaneous and successive to each other. They created intricate and advanced art [some La Tène examples at left and below]; followed a variety of ancestor- and earth-based religions later subsumed but not destroyed by Christianity; and maintained extensive lively trade connections with each other, with Rome, and some evidence implies with parts of Asia. They changed, grew and developed, and while their interaction with Rome (whether it occurred by trade, conquest, or both) ended some aspects of native material culture, changed certain values, introduced certain other technologies, and definitely began influencing language, Rome became only one more culture that went into the general European mix. It was not the scraper that made the rest of Europe some palimpsest onto which only Latin and Christian history was then written.

The Hallstatt (8th century B.C.) and subsequent La Tène (5th century B.C.) cultures represent extensive shared material culture that did not necessarily rely on a single shared language.**** It is hard to talk linguistics about a society who did not write, but especially the La Tène folks (who most know as Celts) lived all over Europe from Spain in the west to Romania in the east, and from France in the south to Poland in the north. It's a reasonable assumption that, if they did belong to one linguistic group, they did not all speak the same language. While Celtic culture on the continent became submerged during the Roman period, it persisted "ghostlike", and would reemerge periodically especially in the arts. Notably, Celtic motifs and artistic styles remained in use for many centuries on the British Isles, helping that region develop its own highly identifiable medieval style. [A carpet page from the famous 8th-century Lindisfarne Gospels below. I fancy the persistence and further development of intricate curvilinear designs is fairly clear.]

In north Germany and Denmark beginning in the 6th century, the Jastorf culture became dominant.  There is also evidence that at its geographical edges, it had some interaction with Hallstatt and even, in a few instances, La Tène culture.

There were many additional distinct peoples in early Iron Age Europe, defined today by specific archaeological sites. All of these groups were subject to the same migration and climate pressures that moved people around Europe at that time and helped destabilize Rome as it continued to expand. They all had some interaction with their non-Roman contemporaries. One of the largest of these groups were the Germanic tribes who occupied northern Scandinavia during the Bronze Age and moved south during the Iron Age. The Roman author Tacitus ostensibly wrote about the Germanic tribes in his Germania (c. 98 A.D.), but it is a late source in terms of Iron Age peoples, it was written by a highly biased outsider, and scholars now believe it probably describes some Celtic as well as Germanic peoples. And so, as with the other Iron Age transalpine European cultures, archaeological source material is the most reliable.

A compelling source of archaeological material for Iron Age Germanic peoples, particularly in northern Europe and the British Isles, comes from the peat bogs of that region. For centuries people have been pulling well preserved bodies, metal objects, cloth and wood out of the bogs. The sundry reasons for the burials remain mysterious, but seem to include anything from pure accident to pagan ritual. [The so-called Grauballe Man, below, a terrifying Iron Age corpse found in a peat bog in Jutland.]

P.V. Glob, in particular, wrote an immensely engaging book on this topic in 1965 called The Bog People, in which he argued that many of these burials represented ritual human sacrifices of a religion that endured for centuries. For any academic work of this age, it is unsurprising that some scholars have taken issue in the intervening years with several of Glob's interpretations. Nevertheless, his argument for a coherent pagan religion that spanned Iron Age northern Europe - and probably involved some Germanic and Celtic components, especially on the Isles - remains intact.

For me, the continuity of religion seems a lot like the continuity of language. Even though Latin took over Europe with Rome's conquest, it did so differently in each region, augmenting existing languages and leaving us with a diversity of European languages. The same must be true for Iron Age pagan religion and Christianity. Very fortunately for humankind, all of our most authoritarian and repressive forces throughout history - from the Catholic Church to colonialism - exert themselves imperfectly, with unequal pressure and outcome, and are only intermittently systematic. There is always room for idiosyncrasy on the individual and group level.

Human sacrifice itself did not persist for centuries in Scandinavia following its conversion to Christianity, which was in any event late. But I do wonder if Christ's self-sacrifice were not uniquely legible to a culture that once practiced human sacrifice; and whether the culture remained free enough, church standardization notwithstanding, to interpret that self-sacrifice according to values and thoughts it had already developed as well as in accordance with approved dogma.

When considering this topic I often think of Jean-Claude Schmitt's work, The Holy Greyhound. In it Schmitt chronicles the activities of the 13th-century inquisitor Stephen of Bourbon, who roamed France looking for heresies to stamp out. He happened upon one region whose people worshiped at a shrine to a saint of whom Stephen had never heard: St. Guinefort. Upon investigation, Stephen discovered that Guinefort was understood by the people who prayed at his shrine to be a dog who had once saved a child from a snake and been killed for his trouble. [Above, the astonishing painting by artist Chris Musina depicting Guinefort's death and beatification. Please go here and look at some of Musina's other unique and arresting work.]

Parents would bring their sick children to Guinefort's shrine and pray to him for healing. In some cases, a mother would expose her ill child as a changeling, hoping the "true" healthy child would be returned. Not exactly standard Catholic belief or practice. Stephen's realization of this heresy horrified him, the good inquisitor he was, and he ordered the shrine destroyed. However, Schmitt found evidence as late as the 1930s that some form of practice related to the former shrine of St. Guinefort remained in the region.

Two things about Schmitt's story really amuse me: (1) the old-ladyish shock and disapproval of Stephen of Bourbon, and (2) the utter inability of literate, standardized practice to destroy the oral and folk beliefs of people.

Literate cultures, including the medieval Catholic Church, Rome and our own, think very much of themselves. But while writing is superb for record keeping, it has been historically embattled by lived, everyday culture in terms of preserving practice and belief. The record keepers, standardizers and centralizers will always make inroads into oral and idiosyncratic cultural spaces. They have a certain concrete longevity on their side. Moreover, they will certainly get to write their versions of things first. But their ability to annul remains incomplete and often plain ineffectual where more fluid processes of orality convey cultural belief and practice.

This was true of Jewish and Muslim conversos in Spain and of west Africans brought to the Americas in bondage. The explicit attempt by standardizing powers to erase a group's identity and implant a new, power-approved one seems only from a shallow vantage point to succeed. Groups of people linked by blood, geography or religion tend to tell the same or similar stories generation after generation, cook the same foods - or different foods in the same way - as they were taught, and so forth. Obviously change occurs over time for a variety of reasons, which it is history's project to study. But to ignore the persistence of practiced - as opposed to described - culture is to create a gap or a tragedy, where we should instead try to see a presence or a triumph.

Scholars long ago figured out what a vibrant and persistent set of cultures occupied pre-Roman Europe and the extent to which they were conversant with each other and eventually influenced early medieval culture. But alas, scholars only ever write about their findings. I am only writing. We need to start telling these stories. Please someone make a bog people movie! So we can decenter Rome from quite such a large chunk of European history and put it back in its place as an important codifier, augmenter, and disseminator, but not as the sole progenitor of European culture. Maybe then we can also revisit our assumptions about what makes a culture "high" or civilized and, in doing so, offer ourselves new ways of evaluating our own civilization, its writing and attempts at standardizing, the gaps we are busy trying to create, the presences we are trying to ignore.

*I am also intensely curious about the ways the Iberian peninsula converges or diverges with the rest of Europe in this matter. That's a rabbit hole I don't have the proper time or inclination for here, but it's worth wondering about.

**Obviously Greek history is both European and Iron Age. However, Greek influence enters transalpine Europe primarily via the Romans. Greek culture was much more focused on lands south and east of itself, as indeed Rome was initially.

***Increasingly scholars have been looking at the continuities between Roman Europe and post-Roman Europe, but until that story is common and we begin redefining the period and decentering Rome, I will keep hollering about this.

****It is important to note that for every Iron Age European group that can be mentioned, there is a Bronze Age culture that predates it. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Yarn and Nostalgia

Not long ago I toured the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, the rustic Emerson family home in which a number of famed American writers worked and lived. It also stands hard by the North Bridge, where the first battle of the American Revolution was fought. (Nick's picture of the Old Manse below.)

Sitting on the second floor landing at the top of the stairs is a spinning wheel. While I was listening to our tour guide talk about transcendentalism, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing habits and Sarah Ripley’s self-education, I stared at the spinning wheel, its moving parts and components, and tried to deduce how it worked. It dawned on me that though I could identify a spinning wheel in a moment, I had never – not once – seen one used. This homely object seemed both comfortingly familiar and utterly alien.

 I considered stories like Rumpelstiltskin, where the miller’s daughter has to spin straw into gold, and Sleeping Beauty, where the princess pricks her hand on a spinning wheel’s spindle and goes to sleep for a hundred years. My impression of this rustic piece of machinery, I realized, had come straight from fairy tale land which, in chronological and geographical terms (if it was anywhere) was medieval Europe. But here I was finally seeing a spinning wheel in person; one that, if it shared provenance at all with the house in which it stood, was colonial and American. And, obviously, real. I felt reasonably certain Ralph Waldo Emerson had not been the spinner of the house. But who had been? His grandmother or his aunt? Sophia Hawthorne? A slave or an Irish maid?

Our tour continued and we left the landing, the spinning wheel unreferenced, unanalyzed and unelucidated. I thought about many other things and half forgot the spinning wheel until a month or so later when I picked up The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I did not pick up this book because of the spinning wheel I’d seen in Concord. Rather, I picked it up because Ulrich’s famous A Midwife’s Tale blew my undergrad mind when I read it in a historiography class, and because Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s The Mummies of Ürümchi had taught me that the history of textiles, written right, is intensely fascinating.

I learned promptly that spinning is a very difficult skill to master. I also learned that the wheel I had seen is known as a great, wool or walking wheel...because it's big, you spin wool with it and you have to stand up to do so.  (The image at left is not the Old Manse wheel, but very like it. This image comes from The Nazarene Way website, which has a fantastic and extensive page of information on old textile machines of many kinds.)

It is simpler-looking and larger than a flax wheel (right), which also has a variety of names depending on where you find it and how it is tricked out. A flax wheel is used to make linen thread, and while using it you can sit and spin.

No comment.

I also learned that most of the women who lived in the Old Manse up until the early 1800s - free, enslaved, old, young, proprietress or boarder (though probably not Sophia Hawthorne since she did not live in the house until the 1840s) - likely spun some thread as a part of their regular work. That’s how widespread women’s spinning was in late colonial and early republic America, regardless of a family’s ownership of a spinning wheel. Most non-native women at that time in America spent at least some of their labor hours spinning, and many Native American women would have too, depending on where and how they were raised.

Spinning was a symbolically, socially and economically important activity especially to early white American families. Cloth itself stood for Anglo ideas of “civilization”. And spinning in the home symbolized American independence from imported British goods. This association became maximized as weaving, the subsequent step in cloth manufacture, moved from being a male-dominated apprenticed craft, as it remained in England, to being performed in individual homes mostly by women, as it was in America.

Spinning’s social importance goes hand-in-hand with its economic importance. Not every household had a spinning wheel, so dividing the use of one wheel was a means for women to get together and share or trade the yield of their labor. If young and unmarried, these women were often also contributing to what would become their own trousseaus. Many communities held regular “frolics” where women would gather and spin as much yarn as they could in a day for the benefit of a community member deemed to be in need and worthy, often the local pastor. (Above, New Zealanders of Scottish heritage "frolic" in 1870 in an image from the Waipu Museum. Apparently, this venerable institution followed colonists from the United Kingdom all around the globe.)

Before weaving was performed in homes alongside spinning, one might wonder how all of this unwoven yarn was, in fact, particularly useful. But recall we are still talking largely about a trade economy where those pounds of yarn could be traded for other goods. Not every man’s wife or daughter was a paragon of Protestant domestic feminine industry…and even when they were, perhaps they had a better knack for needlework, raising chickens, canning or candlemaking than for spinning. Somebody somewhere would trade you for your spun wool or linen, especially if it were well made.

Spinning, like all forms of household manufacture and most kinds of agriculture, began to be industrialized in the early 19th century. As spinning and cloth production in general moved from the home to factories, for many mid-19th-century Americans all the old forms of domestic production grew to represent an idyllic, independent, industrious past that became known as the “Age of Homespun”. In other words, all of this women’s work, undertaken by necessity for a variety of secondary motives and with a diversity of independence or willingness, became flattened-out by nostalgia into a pastoral American identity claimed by (particularly white) men and women of all classes. (Isn't spinning for two hours, after I've done laundry, fed the animals, cooked two meals, weeded the garden and darned twelve pairs of socks, fun!)

The “Age of Homespun” as a story of Anglo-Americanness seems to me something like the narrative codification of the WASP work ethic. Although Ulrich herself tells more than just the story of white women’s production. She pays special attention to Native American practices of fiber weaving and how it followed its own transformation from economic and practical necessity to cultural symbol.

In pre- and early colonial times, women native to the region that would become known as New England used fibers of various kinds to weave baskets, mats and any number of other multi-use receptacles. As disease and colonization transformed their lives, native women retained this skill even while using it in different ways. (A modern example, left, of a traditional-style basket woven by a member of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts.) Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, American Indians in the New England area increasingly lived in Anglo-style housing, at least for part of the year, and increasingly used Anglo-style cloth and other objects. But they continued to create, in native styles, objects for trade such as wallets which were specifically marketable to white buyers.

Following King Philip’s War (1675-76) the lifestyles of New England’s Native American tribes had drastically transformed. To the Anglo colonists, notoriously unobservant and arrogant where matters of cultural difference existed, these transformations seemed less like the creative hybridization they actually represented and more like “simple” assimilation. The Anglo colonists deluded themselves that New England Indians had simply ceased to exist. As this obtuse narrative proliferated, Native American woven objects became precious among white folks, collected and saved for their supposed representation of the prelapsarian pastoral American Indian past as imagined by Anglo-Americans. Never mind that they were objects made during (not pre-) colonialism, sometimes even evidencing European stylistic influence, by tribes who still existed.

Early white Americans, in obviously problematic ways, came to view native artifacts and crafts as part of their own American identity, symbolically different but not less important than all of that homespun yarn. In the 20th century, Native Americans would themselves use Indian objects and stories from the colonial period to control and narrativize their own past and identity, and to mobilize cultural preservation movements.

Ulrich spends very little time on the domestic textile-related activities of African and African-American women in this period in America. Being unfamiliar with the preserved historical record, I can only guess that this pertains to a dearth of source material or a lack of expertise in the extant source material, rather than to a cultural difference that made cloth manufacture a less important or engaged-in activity among black women in colonial America. I imagine this story, like every history I have yet encountered concerning domestic, homely or “women’s” work, is engaging, enlightening and representative of myriad different individual lived experiences.

Whatever nitpicky criticisms I might have about exclusions or narrative flow in The Age of Homespun are diminutive and minor in contrast to what Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has achieved with this book. She demonstrates a special facility with drawing stories out of voiceless objects, especially objects that relate to activities historically dismissed as uninteresting because feminine or domestic. Obviously this narrow view of women’s history has been changing over many decades and Ulrich is one of the historians who has helped it change. But it is still lovely and exciting to see her at work.

And I found myself thinking back to that spinning wheel in the Old Manse. Our tour guide had encyclopedic knowledge and was really superb. However I now daydream about a tour that, instead of highlighting the intellectual lives of residents in the Old Manse, pays attention to the quotidian and the physically specific. I wish I knew how they cooked and kept warm during a New England winter, how many people slept to a bed, what kinds of tasks the women and men busied themselves with on a daily basis when they were not famous writers – especially when they were not famous writers, how the children helped and were taught. And I really wish I knew who used that spinning wheel and how finely she spun her yarn.

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Mouth of Hell

I always wanted to paint a hellmouth. This desire relates closely to my dream of painting an apocalypse. And now I have finally tried my hand at both.

The hellmouth is an old motif in western art, dating to the early medieval period (c.400-1066).* Historian Gary Schmidt specifically locates the image's development as we know it in the 10th century and relates it to the monastic reform that was occurring in England. Apparently the real heyday of the hellmouth began in the 12th century. The mouth's prominence as a depiction of hell enjoyed a special boost by its frequent use in religious stage dramas of the late medieval period. I get immense amounts of pleasure and satisfaction from imagining elaborate painted flats and other set pieces configured like gaping maws - always stage left, naturally - big enough for the actors to be swallowed up in during the course of a play.

Of course they also appear in many an illuminated manuscript. (Image below from the 15th-century Apocalypsis Johannis.)
And on more than a couple of church walls. (Image below from the 15th-century paintings that adorn the walls of St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Pickering.)

The metaphor is obvious and effective: hell is a ravenous beast eager to devour our souls. Two features of hellmouth imagery have always enthralled me: first, the personality of the mouth and second, the depiction of the damned.

Most hellmouth depictions might be more properly, if inanely, called hellfaces. Please take a moment to scan through the fairly exhaustive Monster Brains blog, where Aeron Alfrey has diligently collected images of hellmouths, Last Judgments and dooms from around the web. You'll quickly notice that in addition to wide opened mouths, the nose, eyes and sometimes even a head are often shown. At times the faces seem more reptilian or human, at others more canine or leonine. Each hellface is relatively unique; the trope is hell's opening as a mouth, not what kind of mouth or what kind of creature the mouth belongs to.

And so regarding personalities, you may also note that the expressions on all these hellfaces do not appear nearly as ravenous, rapacious or delighted as one might expect they would be, given that they are about to devour some tasty human soul-morsels. In fact, the lips are hardly curling into rabid sneers at all. The eyes tend to look bland and noncommittal. Some of the hellstares appear so hollow that I begin to fancy they actually rather regret all this gluttony. At the very least they are bored of it. In the really excellent version below, we see three hellmouths, two with those vacant stares, one with eyes closed apparently in shame, fear or pain.

On one hand, it puzzles me that the mouth of hell should be so dour. An eager eater of the damned might frighten more would-be sinners. But on the other hand, it seems appropriately haunting for the swallowing hellbeast to not actually be enjoying himself very much. I am not entirely clear why this possibility gives me an enjoyable shiver, but I suppose if I had demons, flames and tortured people cavorting in my mouth I would look pretty unexcited as well. When it came time to depicting my own hellface, one feature I decided on easily and early was a frankly dolorous expression for my beast. I even gave him a tear drop.

Regarding the second bit of hellmouth imagery to which I have paid probably too much attention, revisit the Monster Brains images and this time take a gander at the damned. They are almost invariably depicted as naked or near naked people being herded, quite docilely, into hell by a variety of menacing devils. In many depictions the damned crowd together in the hellmouth with vaguely sad expressions on their faces, but they do not seem truly beset or tortured.
In the more interesting cases they are being dragged, contorted, skewered, force fed frogs (?!) or burned, which strikes me as more appropriate for hell.

Until I recall that hell is supposed to be a place for souls, not bodies. But human imaginations being what they are, we have a hard time picturing let alone rendering extreme suffering without referencing our bodies. I would be intensely curious to learn whether characterizations of the damned in medieval art grew less symbolic (i.e., if they were increasingly depicted as enduring more physical torment and looking more bothered by it) as time wore on. Depictions of crucified Jesus became more "human" and focused on his suffering as the Middle Ages wore on, moving away from the staring-eyed Pantokrator, and I wonder if some similar (possibly related?) trend occurred here.

Perhaps it is my utter paganism and disbelief in hell as a spiritual place or sin as a useful concept. Probably it is just my affection for horror movies and Hieronymus Bosch, but I wanted to depict my damned as physical people with bodies that could be rent. And so I did.
I concocted hybrid monsters that frightened me and devised demented agonies to inflict on the damned.
I'm proud of it. It is one of my more ambitiously detailed paintings so far and I am eager to raise my own bar in this direction.

* I found a surprising dearth of good source material on hellmouth iconography. Gary Schmidt seems most broadly reliable and useful, although I believe his book is out of print. I only obtained a copy by calling in a favor from my partner and his access to a schmancy Ivy League library. Robert Lima was a critic and scholar, but not a historian so I feel less inclined to accept his ideas about the origin of the imagery, even while I value his analysis of its use. Gary D. Schmidt, The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell: Eight-Century Britain to the Fifteenth Century, (London: Associated University Presses) 1995. Robert Lima, "The Mouth of Hell: the Iconography of Damnation On the Stage of the Middle Ages", European Iconography East and West, 1993, 36-38.