Tag Archives: Popular Culture

The Consummate Fool

As the title of Beatrice K. Otto’s engaging book, Fools are Everywhere. The Court Jester Around the World, asserts, fools are a universal phenomenon in the pre-modern world. Still, maybe it’s just my Anglophilia, but it’s always seemed to me that fools were a particularly prominent feature of the court in early modern England, and one fool in particular:  Will Somers, who appears in both “official” portraits and more casual ones, both from his own time, and well after: I wonder why?

Family_of_Henry_VIII_c_1545

Tudor Family Portrait

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The Family of Henry VIII, with Will Somers under the right arch and his counterpart, “Jane the Foole” (sometimes alternatively referred to as “Mother Jak”, Prince Edward’s nurse), on the left, c. 1545, Hampton Court Palace; Tudor family portrait from the Duke of Buccleauch’s Collection at Boughton House, c. 1650-1680–supposedly based on an earlier painting–featuring King Henry VIII, Will Somers, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth; King Henry and Will in an illustration from Henry’s Psalter, c. 1530-45; British Library Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 63v.

The first reference to Will Somers is in 1525, as a man in his twenties, and he died about 1560. His presence at court is one of the few continuous aspects of the Tudor dynasty: he served, or entertained, King Henry VIII and all three of his children: Edward, Mary and Elizabeth for the opening years of her long reign. Clearly he and King Harry were close, literally in the pictures. This psalter image clearly has religious symbolism–Henry is a harp-playing King David, and Will the fool of Psalm 14 (the fool saith in his heart, there is no God)–but the Tudor family portraits point to a closer personal connection. Following the distinction first made by Robert Armin (an actor in Shakespeare’s company), in his Foole upon Foole (1605) and A Nest of Ninnies (1608), historians and literature scholars still seem most interested in assessing just what kind of fool Will was: “natural” or “licensed”/”artificial”: a natural fool was one with mental challenges or disabilities, an artificial fool was playing the part. There seems to be evidence for both types: in John Heywood’s Wit and Witless, Somers is among the latter while other sources refer to his wittiness. The discussion about the nature of Somers’ foolishness has lasted for centuries, and I think it makes him a rather more interesting character than his Elizabethan successors, Richard Tarlton and Will Kempe, who were obviously artificial, acting fools. Somers experiences a posthumous resurrection in the seventeenth century, which produced some charming portraits of his image and a lively biography entitled The Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers (1676): And how hee came first to be knowne at the court, and how he came up to London, and by what meanes hee got to be King Henry the eights jester. And over time, Will Somers seems to evolve into the both the wise fool and the full-fledged jester, keeping us guessing all the while.

STC 23434.5, D2v

Will Somers 1620

Will Somers 1798

Will Somers 1814

Title page of  William Sommers, engraved by R. Clamp, 1794; W.H. Ireland, Chalcographimania; or, the portrait-collector and printseller’s chronicle, with infatuations of every description. A humorous poem. In four books. With copious notes explanatory. By Satiricus Sculptor, Esq., 1814.


From Fast to Feast

Today, a national holiday of Wales based on its association with the Welsh patron Saint David (c. 500-c. 589), affords yet another opportunity to explore one of my favorite themes: the secularization of saints’ days. This is a touchstone in several of my courses and a subject I’ve returned to here again and again: on Halloween, St. Nicholas’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and even the feast day of the lesser-known St. Swithun. There’s no question in my mind that one of the most basic tasks, and most popular consequences, of the Reformation was the transformation of the Christian calendar. This transformation was dramatic: Saint David appears to have been one of the most ascetic of saints (a bold claim, perhaps too bold), forswearing beer and meat in favor of water and bread seasoned with a few grains of salt and herbs, yet today his day is celebrated with parades and cupcakes embellished with Welsh dragons and daffodils, and the leeks which became more particularly associated with him over time.

Saint David's Day

Saint David's Day cupcakes

British School, A Celebration of Saint David’s Day, c. 1750, National Museum Wales, Cardiff; Dotty Cupcakes, Cardiff, featured here.

The most revealing illustration of this process occurred during the Elizabethan era, when the Queen–or her advisers and followers and assorted hangers-on–rather deliberately emphasized the coincidence of dates shared by Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary: September 7 (Elizabeth’s birthday and the Eve of the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary) and March 24 (the day on which Elizabeth died in 1603, and the Eve of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary). Moreover, the “Queene’s Day”, November 17, the day of which Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, achieved the status of both a national holiday and a religious holiday over her reign. And thus the Virgin Queen and “the cult of Elizabeth” (a phrase first used by Sir Roy Strong) emerged. There’s no agreement that the feast displayed below represents an early celebration of the Queene’s Day, but I like to think that Joris Hoefnagel’s iconic painting Fete at Bermondsey (c. 1569-70)–one of my very favorites– does just that.

800px-Joris_Hoefnagel_Fete_at_Bermondsey_c_1569

Joris Hoefnagel, A Fete at Bermondsey. Copyright The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

Valentines from the Great War

Oddly enough, love and war often do go together and we all know that absence often makes the heart grow fonder, so it’s only natural that the burgeoning greetings card industry would flourish during World War I. In the west, domestic producers had to replace that large part of the market that was previously produced by Germany, and “WWI silks”, embroidered greetings produced in France and Belgium, constituted one of the most important cottage industries of the war. It can be a little jarring to see military themes on cards that were supposed to foster sentiment, but it was a competitive market, and I’m sure that manufacturers wanted to seem current, and relevant. And you really can’t beat the sentiment when you see my ammunition, you’ll surrender your position, which was evidently quite popular as it was issued with a variety of images. So in celebration of St. Valentine’s Day and commemoration of the Great War, here is a selection of valentines from 1914-1919: from Great Britain, the United States, France, and (the most intimate of all, handmade on the Front) Australia.

Valentine Ambulance Bod Lib

Valentine Ambulance Interior Bod Lib

Valentine Nurse Bodleian Lib

Valentine LOC 1918 Over There

WWW Valentine LOC 1919

WWW Valentine LOC 1919 2

Valentine 1918 LOC

PicMonkey Collage

Cupid_Arrow_Heart

Valentine slogan WWI

Picture1

Valentine 1917 French Hearts

Love Letter Australian War Memorial 1918

Sources: Nancy Rosin Collection; Bodleian Library, Oxford University; Library of Congress; Ebay; Etsy; The Old Print Shop; Australian War Memorial.


Masterpiece Memories

I was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston with my family yesterday, a precious place that I visit about once a year but to which none of them, oddly, have ever been. Wandering around the eclectic rooms of the first floor, my brother remarked to me: it’s as if all of these paintings were in the Masterpiece game that we played as children. Now he is a well-educated, worldly New Yorker, so this was hardly his first exposure to these genres, but he was right: as soon as he said it I was plunged back into the late 1970s as well. There was something about the placement of these paintings that reminded us of that old art auction board game!

Masterpiece V & A 1970

Masterpiece Game 1970 board

The 1970 Parker Brothers’ Masterpiece Game, Museum of Childhood, Victoria & Albert Museum Collection and for sale here (for a while; I might need to snatch it up).

The game contained 24 art cards which became emblazoned in our minds: I remember when I first saw one of the original paintings in real life it seemed…………BIG. My brother’s memories was jostled by a Degas-like painting by Louis Kornberg titled In the Dressing Room (1920) in the Yellow Room, while the facing Whistleresque Lady in Yellow (1888) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing looked vaguely familiar to me. I was absolutely certain that Carlo Crivelli’s St. George Slaying the Dragon (1470) upstairs in the Raphael room was a game card, as well as Rembrandt’s 1629 Self-Portrait, in the Dutch Room. But when I returned home to look up the game on various vintage board game sites, I quickly realized that our memories were false: all the paintings including in the Masterpiece game are apparently from the National Gallery in London. Mrs. Gardner’s ladies, saint, and Rembrandt were not our Masterpiece ladies, saint, and Rembrandt, but nevertheless it was good to see them (again).

Lady in Yellow Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Crivelli Saint George Slaying The Dragon 1470

Rembrandt Self Portrait 1629

All Images courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

 


Bearded Days

I listened to a great program on National Public Radio’s On Point show with Tom Ashbrook yesterday about the return of the beard which featured a historian and a style expert:  the perfect combination! Here is Mr. Ashbrook’s introduction to the broadcast: Maybe you saw it at your house over the holidays.  At your New Year’s Eve party.  Men’s facial hair all over the place.  Beards have been growing back into fashion for a while.  From the hip streets of Brooklyn to the Hollywood red carpet.  Now they’re everywhere.  And not just a little scruff.  Beards that have grown for a year.  “Yeards,” they’re called.  Beards worthy of a Civil War general or Paul Bunyan.  Of a lumberjack.  “Lumbersexual” is the funny, hot term of art.  This hour On Point:  What is it in the air, in the culture, in the minds of men, that’s brought back the beard? The topic resonated with me immediately:  I did look around my holiday table and see beards, including one that could be called a “yeard”! And I’ve definitely noticed more beards among my students over the past year or so. I must admit, however, that I had never heard the word “lumbersexual” before yesterday.

The historian on the program, Dr. Stephen Mihm from the University of Georgia, talked primarily about the rise and fall of beards over the past century or so, in reference to his recent New York Times article, “Why CEOs are growing Beards”. I’d like to go back a bit further with this topic, to the Renaissance, which is always the beginning/big break for me. I remember distinctly reading a journal article in graduate school about one of the lesser-known cultural consequences of the Discoveries:  European men, upon their realization that the newly-discovered Amerindians were decidedly less hairy than they, decided to emphasize their “superior” masculinity by letting their facial hair grow. The Reformation also celebrated the beard, even though its spiritual leader, Martin Luther, remained steadfastly clean-shaven. The lavish beard of the leader of the Reformation movement, John Calvin, is absolutely integral to his image. It’s actually quite shocking to examine the first century of oil portraits, say from 1450 to 155o, and view the shift from the clean-shaven Renaissance men, apparently eager to separate themselves from the shaggy Middle Ages and emulate their classical forebears, to the much more hirsute men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Bearded Age Memling 1471

Bearded Age Ghirlandaio

Bearded Reformers

Clean-shaven Renaissance Men and (mostly-) Bearded Reformers:  Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin, 1471-72, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp / © Lukas—Art in Flanders VZW; David Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1490; Detroit Institute of Arts/ Bridgeman Art Gallery; Luther in the Circle of Reformers, German School, c. 1625-50, Deutsches Historisches Museum.

I think that the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries must be golden ages for the beard, with the resolutely beardless eighteenth century in between: Dr. Mihm commented yesterday that he didn’t think there was a bearded signer of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly facial hair was the mark of success and power in the seventeenth century: it’s hard to find a notable man who was not so adorned, at least before 1650. In the second half of the century, the mustache and goatee are more common–it’s almost as if a beard would be too much competition for the long luxuriant locks of later-seventeenth-century cavaliers. And after that, very little facial hair is visible among the minority segment of western society who would or could sit for portraits until the second half of the nineteenth century. We are all familiar with images of bearded Civil War Generals and Robber Barons, but at the same time they became symbols of working-class radicalism, encouraging members of respectable society to pick up their (safety) razors–for a century or so.

PicMonkey Collage

Goya Sebastian Martinez y Perez 1792

Degas Collector of Prints 1866

PicMonkey Collage

Two kings of the very hairy seventeenth century: King Charles I, c. 1640 by Anthony van Dyck (Parliamentary Collection), and King Charles II, c. 1670 by Peter Lely (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). A representative of the clean-shaven eighteenth century: Sebastián Martínez y Pérez, painted by Goya in 1792 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Beards are back in the nineteenth century: A Collector of Prints by Edgar Degas, 1866 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the two iconic bearded robber barons, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, painted by society portraitist Theobald Chartran in 1895 and 1896, the last days of the beard (apparently until now!)


Superheroes in the Sixteenth Century

I love to play with history, inside the classroom and out, which is one of the reasons I started this blog. Any sort of mashup of past and present, especially if it is clever and creative, is instantly going to catch my attention–and hold it, for a least a little while. So when I saw just one of the images of French photographer Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” series, in which twentieth-century superheroes are reimagined in the guise and garb of Northern Renaissance portraits, I had to see them all. Below are my favorites, and you can see the rest here, along with more of Goldberger’s provocative work. His commentary on his photographs is interesting too: By the temporal disturbance they produce, these images allow us to discover, under the patina of time, an unexpected melancholy of those who are to be invincible. “Temporal disturbance”, that’s what interests me. And don’t these icons look a bit melancholy in their trunk hose and ruffs?

SuperHerosFlamands_Batman_RGB1998_011

superheroes-robin_3111213k

SuperHerosFlamands_Catwoman_RGB1998_014

superheroes-wonder_3111209k

superheroes-superm_3111212k

Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” Superheroes: more here (including lots of Star Wars characters in ruffs–and the Incredible Hulk!)

These images got me thinking: who were the superheroes of the sixteenth century? Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Superman might look like they’re hanging out in the sixteenth century in Golberger’s photographs but they don’t really reflect sixteenth-century values and ideals, as superheroes should. After looking at what seemed like hundreds of prints of his Twelve Labours, I decided that Hercules must be the perfect Renaissance superhero: he’s from the classical past, but convertible enough for that era (or any, really). People in the sixteenth century liked to mash-up history just as we do: that’s what the Renaissance is all about, and the Reformation popularized such representations. Picture in point: Martin Luther portrayed as “Hercules Germanicus” by Hans Holbein the Younger, slaying all the Catholic authorities in his midst, the perfect Protestant superhero.

Hercules Jost Amman BM 1590

Superhero Luther Hercules

Hercules in the company of a Roman warrior and a wild man, Jost Amman, c. 1590, British Museum; Luther as the “Hercules Germanicus”, Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century, Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

 

 


From Bewitched to Bewitching

In my constant yet intermittent pursuit to chart Salem’s course from global, glorious port to Witch City, I am now focused on the moment (which may be a decade or more) when the 1692 Witch Trials ceased being something to be ashamed of and began being a “trademark” of sorts, a calling card, something light and even fanciful rather than something that was dark, dark, dark. After this transitional moment, the path was clearly paved toward collective capitalization: Salem was released to embrace its past–and profit from it. There’s more research to do, but I now think that this moment came in the mid-nineteenth century, in the 1840s, to be somewhat more specific. You’ve got to capture such a transition in expressions of popular culture: Nathaniel Hawthorne and his burgeoning ancestral guilt just won’t do–so that’s why I have been looking in more ephemeral publications, and there are some very interesting little stories in the newspapers of that decade which clearly indicate the shift from shame to celebration. I particularly like a series of stories which represent an interchange between New Hampshire and Salem newspaper editors in which the former are poking at, and the latter embracing, Salem’s seventeenth-century past in a very “modern” way.

Bewitched 1843 Salem Register

Bewitched 1845 NH

The Salem Register, Oct. 9, 1843 & the New Hampshire Sentinel, July 30, 1845.

This first story represents an attitude that is a far cry from the previous remorseful century: mocking an isolated case of “witchcraft” in Hollis, New Hampshire, the editor of the Salem Gazette offers to “investigate” the matter thoroughly, and even hang the supposed “witch” on the same old hill where her predecessors suffered. So cavalier! Both stories convey a sense of bewitching as a captivating quality that is far more alluring than demonic. And from this time and place, we’re off to Witch City.

Bewitcher 1884

Thomas & Fancer, She’s a Bewitcher, 1884; Library of Congress.

 

 


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