Monthly Archives: September 2012

Eternal Elizabeth

Today is the birthday (in 1533) of Queen Elizabeth I, a fact that would have been well-known in her own time.  The coincidence of Elizabeth’s birthday with the eve of the nativity of the Virgin Mary was not lost on her subjects, and obviously enhanced her public reputation as the Virgin Queen. In a Protestant England shed of its saints, Elizabeth must have offered some consolation. There is so much to say about Elizabeth, but too much to say in a blog post and little that has not been said before. In addition to her rather remarkable lifetime, the thing that has always impressed me about Elizabeth is her durability; even though she was a mortal person who died in 1603 she never really seems to go away. Every generation has had its Elizabeth:  the seventeenth century brought her back as a stark orderly contrast to Civil War-strife, there were lots of comparisons between Elizabeth and the equally-long-reigning Victoria in the nineteenth century, and we have certainly had our share of Elizabeths–from Bette Davis to Cate Blanchett to Judy Dench and Helen Mirren–in the last century.

Images of Elizabeth:  her lifetime.  Except where noted, all portraits are from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The “Clopton Portrait”, 1560, one of my favorites:  a portrait of the young queen before she became the subject of sophisticated royal iconography. Private Collection.

The “Pelican Portrait”, c. 1575, often attributed to Nicholas Hilliard.  Here we have a highly stylized Elizabeth and all sort of symbolism.  This mask-like face will be the template for some time.  The pelican brooch on her bodice is a reference to self-sacrifice:  a long-held legend told of pelicans feeding their children with their own blood.  At around this time, it was clear that Elizabeth would not marry, therefore she had sacrificed her personal desires for the English people. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

One of several official Armada portraits, this painting by George Gower marks the wondrous victory over the “invincible” Spanish Armada in 1588.  Elizabeth is now well on her way to becoming larger than life.

Elizabeth does not age in her portraits in the 1590s, even though she is in her sixties.  Her waistline gets smaller and smaller, and she wears increasingly fantastical clothing.  Commissioned by Bess of Hardwick in 1592, this painting is still at Hardwick Hall.  It has been copied many times, and the amazing skirt has served as the inspiration for wallpaper and textiles in the twentieth century. The drawing, from the collection of the British Library, is dated 1775.

Elizabeth Ever After:

Line engraving by Crispijn de Passe the Elder, after Isaac Oliver, 1603.  A very influential image, disseminated widely in the seventeenth century, and influencing images of Elizabeth to the present.  As an example, look at Alix Stone’s costume design for Elizabeth in a production  of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, 1966.  Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In a 1868 lithograph, a Vision of Queen Elizabeth tries to rouse Queen Victoria from her prolonged mourning following Prince Albert’s death:  snap out of it!

Modern Elizabeths:  Bette Davis, one of my favorite Elizabeths, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and Cate Blanchett in the poster for Elizabeth (1998).  I love the poster (which is based on the “Coronation Portrait” of Elizabeth in the center–the original portrait, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, was destroyed by fire and this is an early seventeenth-century copy), and Cate Blanchett, but the movie is a historical hot mess!

Appendix:  the best book on representations of Elizabeth:  Sir Roy Strong’s Cult of Elizabeth.  Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry.

Books for Back to School

The Fall Semester starts today, and I get to impose reading on college students who are, make no mistake, reluctant readers. In my opinion, and experience, this particular generation is particularly reluctant:  they have so much else to do!  They have to keep track of their friends’ activities on Facebook, they have to check their phone messages, they have to text every waking thought and state of being, and as I teach at a large public university, they have to work.  In terms of daily priorities, I imagine that reading is very far down the list.  I do not despair, because once I get them to read (by forcing them to write papers) it is clear that the majority of my students can comprehend and analyze texts quite well, but I find myself putting more and more thought and time into choosing the books for my courses as I know that these books have a lot of competition:  they have to catch my students’ attention, and hold it.

I am teaching courses on Medieval Europe, Tudor-Stuart England, World History, and the Expansion of Europe this semester, and here are some of the texts that I’ve chosen for these courses, with a little bit of the rationale for my choices.  All of these courses (except for Expansion of Europe, which is a graduate seminar) have (boring) textbooks that the students read (I think/hope) for background, and several monographs which are the basis of their papers.  I will spare you the textbooks, which are a completely different teaching issue.  I’m almost to the point of ditching the textbooks altogether but not quite yet.

Another realization that has (much too slowly) dawned on me is that my students “learn” most of their history from movies, so when I get them in a class they have preconceived notions that I have to take on. Usually I get students who love Tudor England or medieval Europe, but actually know very little about these eras.  I used to reproach them, but now I’m more inclined to take advantage of their rather romantic interests.  For the Tudor-Stuart course, I’m actually assigning a biography of Anne Boleyn, for whom a veritable cult exists.  Anne Boleyn is now clearly more popular than even her superstar daughter Elizabeth I, so they’re going to read all about the tragic queen/master manipulator in context, from a reliable source:  Eric Ives’ updated biography is accessible yet scholarly, and I’m going to give them an essay prompt for the book that will force them to dig deeper.

Speaking of digging deeper, my medieval course is going to have a strong archeological theme this semester. Too often material sources (as opposed to literary ones) are not given serious consideration by historians, but students find archeology fascinating.  So I’ve chosen tw0 texts that I think should really illuminate (and de-romanticize) the Middle Ages for my students:  Barbarians to Angels.  The Dark Ages Reconsidered by Peter S. Wells, and Colin Platt’s King Death. The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late Medieval England.
I threw some architectural history in there too with Philip Ball’s Universe of Stone.  A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, which I also chose because it was written by a non-academic.  I like to contrast scholarly and trade publications in my courses, and my students (like the general reading public) inevitably favor the latter.

World History is a tough course, for both the students and myself:  it’s “big” history, hard to grasp.  We have a two-course core curriculum world history requirement at Salem State, and so our entire department (and a battalion of adjunct professors) teaches it.  I have to admit that I bring my decidedly Eurocentric perspective into my world history courses; I just can’t help myself.  The book that I chose for this semester’s course, Paul Freedman’s Out of the East:  Spices and the Medieval Imagination, reveals this bias, as it examines “the East” from a western focus. I’m hoping some of my students might point this out in their papers.  A somewhat similar book, perhaps more successfully global in its approach, is one of the eleven books I’ve assigned for my Expansion of Europe seminar, Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat.  The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Modern World.  I cannot recommend Brook’s book highly enough:  whether you know a little bit about the seventeenth century, or a lot, it accomplishes what the best history books do:  transportation to another world.  My students better like it.

Iron Animals

It seemed like everywhere I went this (past) summer there were animals made of iron or some other metal.  Large or small, inside or out, they were in shops, parks, and museums.  So I snapped away, and here are some of my favorites, in chronological order of sighting.

All Summer long: horse sculpture by Deborah Butterfield in the atrium at the Peabody Essex Museum; in the midst of what used to be a Salem street.

Early July:  a stag and yet another noble horse at Smith-Zukas Antiques @ Wells Union Antique Center, Route One, Wells, Maine.

Late July:  a climbing tree frog by North Shore artist Chris Williams in Ipswich. 

Late August:  Big cats by Wendy Klemperer face off each other in Lenox.

Late August, again:  a tortoise and a hare in Copley Square, Boston.

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