Tag Archives: Medieval History

Red Roofs

Patriots Day 2019 was not a very enjoyable day. It was certainly not as dreadful as Patriots Day 2013, but still a frightful day. I woke up to thunder, looked out at the dreary rain, made the decision not to drive to Lexington so I could walk the Battle Road as is my custom, did some errands, and then turned on the radio to hear the Marathon results and instead heard “Notre Dame is burning”.  And that was the story for the rest of the day: listening, watching (big mistake but I could not look away), and (towards the end of the day) drinking. I admire all historical architecture, but Gothic cathedrals are more than mere buildings: they symbolize the aspirations and abilities of an era and a civilization. Very early in my teaching career, I essentially turned my medieval survey into an “Age of Cathedrals” course, and I still teach through and around and with these monuments. At first reference that might sound like an approach that is simplistic and old-fashioned, but for me the cathedral has always been both a symbol and a conduit, connecting one to all the layers of medieval history, not just religious, but social, economic, political, cultural, and of course technological. Cathedrals can open up minds too: especially the minds of college students who are predisposed to think of the Middle Ages as merely “dark”,  and “backward”. It’s impossible to look at a cathedral and not be impressed by its creators, or maintain a presentist perspective.

aptopix-france-notre-dame-fire-20190415155934-12400800AP Photo by Thibault Camus

As the day wore on, I realized I was getting upset as much by the commentary and coverage as by the incessant fire. There was a lot of speculation, and little confirmation, and of course we could see the fire burning and burning and burning. So I turned everything off and went to bed. The next day, the fire had finally been stopped and Notre Dame was still standing: its roof and spire were gone but the bulk of its early Gothic expanse and vaulting, its bell towers, and even its trio of rose windows had been saved. I welcome the full report on the fire’s causes and damage because there is still a lot of contradictory information out there, but I learned a lot from a few select Twitter threads that found their way into my feed, mostly through architectural historians: about the protocol followed by the Parisian firefighters, put in place after the last time Notre Dame was ravaged during the French Revolution and sustained through two world wars, about the oak trees planted at Versailles after the last restoration of Notre Dame’s roof 160 years ago, and about the human chain created to rescue its treasures, with a fire-fighting chaplain serving as the essential link.  The combination of a still-standing Notre Dame, human heroism, and the resolute statement of President Macron reassured me quite a bit (French cathedrals have been owned by the state since 1905), but more than anything I am hopeful because of history: cathedrals were built over generations, in fits and starts, many sustained fire damage as well as human assaults but survived and were rebuilt. There are several precedents for the restoration of Notre Dame, but I think the most inspirational examples must be Reims Cathedral, which sustained devastating damage during World War I, and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes, which was bombed heavily during World War II and severely damaged by a fire in 1972.

Cathedral CollageThe Cathedrals of Reims and Nantes in their present glorious condition. Photographs by Nicolas Janberg for Structurae.

The restoration of Reims, the most royal of French cathedrals, was an epic achievement. It sustained intense shelling by German forces outside of the city in September of 1914, setting fire to the wood scaffolding that was in place, and then the cathedral’s oak roof, which caved into the nave below. Reims lay in a state of semi-ruin for the rest of the war, and was bombed again in 1917 and 1918, thus attaining its status as a “martyred cathedral”. I inherited a book from my great aunt by the American illustrator George Wharton Edwards titled Vanished Halls & Cathedrals of France which was published at the height of the war. Reims is on the cover and inside, looking beautiful in his pre-war paintings, but the text reads like a eulogy: the catastrophe is so unbelievable that one cannot realize it…….Reims can never be restored to what it was before the bombardment. Let it rest thus….a sacred ruin—the scarred, pierced heart of France. He goes on a bit later: Let it remain….the living, standing record of an infamous crime. Consumed by fire, soaked in blood, Reims, which crowned and sheltered a hundred kings, has passed. Deleta est Carthago.

Vanished Halls

Edwards Collage

Vanished Halls Reims_Cathedral_burning_during_World_War_I

Vanished Halls Reims PC

The burning of Reims Cathedral after the severe bombardment by the Germans, 17-24 September 1914Edwards’ book and paintings; two 1914 postcards; Charles W. Wyllie, The Burning of Reims Cathedral after the Severe Bombardment of the Germans, 17-24 September 1914. From The Sphere, 7 December 1914.

Edwards would not get his wish. Reims would be restored after the war (with a good deal of American money) and it served as the site of the signing of the peace treaty which ended the second World War in Europe in May of 1945. Only a year before, and more than 300 miles to the east, the city and cathedral of Nantes sustained significant damage from Allied bombing in June of 1944, but the more serious threat to the latter was the fire that broke out in January of 1972 related to ongoing restoration on the roof. Indeed, the post-war restoration was barely completed by that time according to most accounts, but the “resuscitation” following the fire was shorter, and detailed in a wonderful short video you can view here. President Macron’s five-year plan is perhaps ambitious, but not impossible: it’s been done before.

1211872-musee-des-sapeurs-pompiers-de-loire-atlantique-fonds-hervio

[The Angel of the Resurrection on the Roof of Notre-Dame, Paris]Nantes Cathedral in flames on the night of January 28, 1972, Museum of firefighters Loire-Atlantique. Hervio Fund; Charles Nègre, Angel of Resurrection at Notre Dame, 1853, Getty Museum.


Connecting my Courses

This is that time in the semester when I am inevitably behind in my course content, racing towards the end of classes in early December: in one course I’m only in thirteenth century when I should be in the fourteenth; in another I’m in the eighteenth and I should be in the nineteenth. It’s either poor organization or too many tangents, likely both, but I’ll manage to wrap everything up somehow. Just the other night, as is my custom, I was watching an old movie on TCM and I stumbled upon an odd connection between the two very different eras I am trying to get out of, forestalling my mental departure for a little while longer. The film was Anthony Adverse (1936), a rather disjointed story about an abandoned boy who navigates the challenges and opportunities of the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world, and the connection was a foundling wheel. 

anthony-adverse-1936

In a film that shifts (laboriously) its locales from Italy to Cuba to Africa to Paris and somehow manages to incorporate both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Napoleon, it was the foundling wheel that caught my attention. It is the mode of entry by which the cruel aristocratic husband of Anthony’s mother deposits him in a convent following her death in childbirth, just after he killed her lover (Anthony’s real father) in a duel. The convent is conveniently located in northern Italy, adjacent to the trading business of Anthony’s maternal grandfather and later foster father, but let’s not get bogged down in the narrative. It’s all about this nifty device, an invention of the thirteenth century resurrected in the eighteenth.

Connecting 2

Connecting 1

Connecting 3The evil Marquis Don Luis (Claude Rains) places little Anthony Adverse in the foundling wheel.

Two eras of dynamic demographic growth in Europe: in the former, Pope Innocent III, the very pinnacle of the very purposeful high medieval papacy, sought to discourage infanticide via exposure by offering parents an anonymous means by which to “donate” their unwanted children to the church, and the first “window of life” was installed in the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Rome in 1204. In Omne Bonumthe absolutely wonderful English illuminated encyclopedia of the next century (a time of dramatic demographic decline), the entry for expositus (abandoned child) shows an tightly-swaddled infant being deposited at a city gate and a cleric lecturing the supposed parents, indicating a collaborative policy of church and state. Foundling wheels reappeared in the eighteenth century, when the beginnings of an “illegitimacy explosion” (the number of illegitimate children born in Europe increased from 3% of births in 1750 to 20% by 1850) prompted the establishment of foundling hospitals in nearly every major European city. The revolving barrel in which Anthony Adverse was placed would more likely have been part of a secular institution than the convent of the film in the later eighteenth century, but of course it’s Hollywood history. It looks right!

Foundling Hospital Rome

Foundling Wheel

Foundling collage

Foundlings 1-innocenti-domenico-di-michelino2

Foundling Hospital London WellcomePiranesi print of the church and hospital of Santo Spirito, Rome from the ‘Varie vedute di Roma antica e moderna‘, Rome, 1741-8, British Museum; the Foundling Wheel at Santo Spirito, Expositus illuminations from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, British Library MS Royal MS 6 E VI/2; “Madonna of the Foundlings” (also very wound up!) by Domenico di Michelino c. 1446, Ospedale degli Innocenti di Firenze; The London Foundling Hospital in the 18th Century, Wellcome Collection.

Appendix:  Apparently there is a limited but controversial 21st-century revival of the foundling wheel, in the guise of the much less rolling barrel- or lazy susan-ish “baby hatch” or “baby box” in several European countries–as well as Asia.


Magna Carta Monday

As today marks the 800th anniversary of the reluctant concession to the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymeade, there clearly is no other topic on which to focus than this Charter, which has become far more momentous with history than in its own time. There is a seemingly-definitive exhibition at the British Library: “The Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy”, which is full of iconic documents, including Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, and interesting facts: apparently the British were contemplating luring the U.S. into World War II by offering us the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the Magna Carta! Neither of these inclusions surprise me, as Americans have always viewed the Great Charter through the prism of their own constitutional struggles, rather than its more precise historical context. Invariably if I ask a student in my Medieval class what it is, they will say: “the British Constitution”.  This horrifies my British friends, who maintain that they don’t need a constitution: the beauty of British history and government is the gradual, organic evolution of civil liberties and the universal understanding of just what these liberties should be, rather than their explicit expression on a piece of paper. But there have been many pieces of paper (or parchment) which have defined individual rights in relation to government, and the Magna Carta is a particularly prominent one. Its reissuing in 1216, 1217 and 1225, printing in 1534, and role as a touchstone in the constitutional struggles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and after) determined its greatness, over time and as precedent.

Magna Carta 1215 British Library

Magna Carta illustration-BM-19th C

Cropped image of one of four 1215 Magna Cartas and the big moment portrayed in a colored print based on a 1776 painting by John Hamilton Mortimer, British Museum, from the British Library exhibition The Magna Carta:  Law, Liberty, Legacy. It’s impossible to find an image of this historic signing before the early modern era, and they really proliferate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The legacy of the Magna Carta, below:

Magna Carta 1534

Magna Carta Cromwell BM

Magna Carta 18th BM

Magna Carta 1792 BM

Magna Carta handkerchief-depicting-signing-1879 V and A

magna_votes 1911

Magna Carta cartoon-magna-carta-mini-carta-tony-blair-2005

Magna Carta Stamp

First printing by Robert Redman, 1534; inclusion as one of the “Emblems of England” during the Cromwellian Regime, 1650s; Thomas Bewick’s engraving of the feudal knight passing Magna Carta to Britannia, with Lady Liberty overlooking (very important–the feudal knight passes the torch of “liberty” to the Enlightenment!), and the contrast between liberty in Britain and France in 1792, all from the British Museum; Ladies handkerchief portraying the signing of the Magna Carta, 19th century, Victoria & Albert Museum; “Votes for Women” reference, 1911 and editorial cartoon protesting the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Bill, ©The Times and the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent (“mini Carta”!!!); Royal Mail commemorative stamp, 2015.


Curtmantle

Though my primary field is Tudor-Stuart history, occasionally I teach a more general English history survey which spans from Roman era to the seventeenth century. My biggest challenge in this course, which I am teaching this semester, is to refrain from settling into mere storytelling about the characters and exploits of a succession of colorful kings and queens. The students in this course are generally not history majors, and their knowledge and interest in history tends to be quite History Channel-ish, meaning that they are more interested in personalities than structures. I try to balance it all out, and for the most part I think I’m successful, but periodically I must slow down and simply consider the character and reign of a monarch in rather narrative fashion. Such is the case with King Henry II, nicknamed Curtmantle for the shorter French/Angevin mantle he supposedly wore, who was born on this day in 1133. It doesn’t matter how much I dwell on King Henry–they want more, and I’m wondering why? Of course the broad strokes and details of his life are dramatic–the rise to power in the wake of Civil War, his conquest and contests with Queen Eleanor, his family fights, his multi-front wars, the murder of Archbishop Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and the penitential consequences–I still think that it’s the popular characterization of Henry rather than the historical one that has captivated my students. Even though they’re far too young to remember Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968), he is still their Henry.

Curtmantle O'Toole Becket

Curtmantle Lion in Winter

Peter O’ Toole in a publicity photograph for Becket (1964) and a still from The Lion in Winter (1968).

My students are so young they haven’t even seen or heard of O’Toole’s portrayal of Henry II, but when I ask them what they know about him, they describe O’Toole’s portrayal:  now that’s a powerful performance! Once again, we see that history is produced by film (sigh). But I think you have to go further back:  not (of course) to the actual era of Henry II, but to that which produced the characterization that inspired O’Toole’s performance. Henry became Henry because of his hand in martyring Becket, of course, but also because of his women: his wife Eleanor and his mistress Rosamund Clifford, the “fair Rosamund”. Henry’s struggles with the Church in general and Becket in particular appealed to 18th and 19th historians charting secular “liberation”, while their more romantic counterparts in the arts focused on the women: the Pre-Raphaelites in particular seem to have been obsessed with Eleanor and particularly Rosamund, featuring them both individually and together in mythical contest (based on an old fable alleging the Queen tried to poison the mistress). This is all very dramatic stuff, almost equaling the narrative of that dynasty of the (long) moment, the Tudors. I predict a Plantagenet comeback.

King Henry II

Henry II Thornycroft framed

Curtmantle chapbook

Queen_Eleanor__Fair_Rosamund1-619x744

Fair Rosamund 1916

Henry II as characterized by Alfred Crowquill’s Comic History of the Kings and Queens of England (Read & Co, c 1860) and Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens (1932). A chapbook of folk ballads with Henry II and the Fair Rosamund on the title page, c. 1815-30, British Museum; Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan, 1905, De Morgan Centre, London;The Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse, 1916, National Museum Wales.


The Drunken Saint

I am looking out on my garden this foggy morning thinking it is definitely going to rain–which would be momentous for it is Saint Swithun’s Day, and according to lore and legend: St Swithun’s Day if thou dost rain/for forty days it will remain/St. Swithun’s Day, if you be fair/for forty days ’twill raine nae mair. I wouldn’t mind a little rain every day for the next month and a half, typically a very dry time in our parts. Swithun was a ninth-century Bishop who became the Patron Saint of Winchester Cathedral in England after his remains were translated from outside the cathedral walls to a new shrine within it in 971–on this very day. He is sometimes fondly referred to as the “drunken saint” not for his propensity to imbibe but rather because of his stated preference for the exterior grave site, where his earthly remains would be exposed to the “drippings” of water–but he became too important to remain without. His Winchester shrine was smashed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (which I’m talking about in class today), but it has been (somewhat) reconstituted within the Cathedral–and there’s a very lovely rose named for him as well.

Swithun portrait

Swithun

Swithun Rose

Saint Swithun, Bishop of Winchester, c. 1930, Isabel Florrie Saul, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum; the reconstituted shrine at Winchester Cathedral; David Austin St Swithun climbing rose (I have one; but it doesn’t look like this now!)


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