Tag Archives: Reformation

Corona Courses: My Top Ten Sources of Digital Content

So I have just finished converting my lecture courses into online formats: difficult to do midstream. A well-designed online course is a beautiful thing, but if a course is based on a more personal form of delivery and has to become virtual overnight there are going to be challenges. Fortunately, I teach history, and not a discipline that requires a lab or a studio: I can’t imagine what those professors are going through! And I also feel very fortunate to be able to depend on a variety of institutions—libraries and museums—which have made so much of their collections accessible AND provided road maps and guides to these same texts and images in the form of interpretive essays, questions for consideration, and extra-special digital features. I’ve had digital content in my courses for the last decade or so, but again, a course based on all-digital content is another thing entirely. I could not have accomplished such a thing—in such a short time— a decade or so ago; I can now, thanks to the diligent and creative efforts of these institutions, which take the “education” and “engagement” directives in their missions seriously. So here’s my top 10 list, with one qualifier and one comment: 1) I teach medieval and early modern European history and world history, so this is not going to be a US-centric list; and; 2) these institutions are focused on general education, not just formal education: they have made their collections accessible to those who have more casual or independent interests as well as those working within a curricular framework. (oh, and this list is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive).

1. The Newberry Library, Chicago: For an American library, the Newberry has very rich European collections and it has created online exhibitions and curated primary source sets that I find invaluable for my courses: its librarians and fellows are very attuned to key curricular and historiographical trends. The Newberry is also a leader in American history and culture in general and local history in particular: it just won the top prize for “Oustanding Public History Project” at the National Council on Public History’s virtual conference for  “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots”. Digital Newberry offers about a million high-resolution texts and images: this is a small fraction of the library’s collection but still quite a lot to see.

De_Bry_Indi_Hispanis_plt_20 Theodor de Bry’s famous 1594 engraving showing Amerindians pouring molten gold into the mouths of Spaniards driven by insatiable lust for the stuff.

2. The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: is a timeline which pairs works of art from all eras and regions of the world with curatorial essays. You can search by region, by period, or by theme, and there are many thematic essays to explore: one leads to another and before you know it, hours have gone by. I teach with images, so this is the first place to I go to find perfect visuals for my presentations, but I also encourage my students to explore this resource themselves. And they do.

Dissolute HouseholdJan Steen, The Dissolute Household, 1663-64.

3. Speaking of timelines, check out the British Museum’s History Connected: A Museum of the World, in which objects can be explored across time and place while visualizing connections, the essential links of world history, and listening to curators share their expertise and perspectives. This is the result of a partnership between the Museum and Google: Google Arts and Culture can provide a engaging platform for a cultural institution to broaden their reach in more ways than one, but there needs to be some intent in terms of design and curation. Some institutions just share images of their objects and leave it at that (I’m looking at you, Peabody Essex Museum: 323 objects; 2 stories, but what BIG story is being told? And could we possibly have some more Salem objects?): this is parking, not driving engagement.

BM HST (2)It’s all about connections at the British Museum (above) and the Rijksmuseum (below).

4. Another exemplary Google partner is the Rijksmuseum: which offers up 164,511 objects, 11 stories, and 8 museum views, taking us right into the building. We can “walk” around the galleries, focus on particular paintings, examine them in “street” or catalog views, organize them in chronological order, discover connections to other works. The collection is so comprehensive (though again, only a fraction of the museum’s 8 million objects), and the connections go on and on, in all sorts of directions.

5. This semester I really need to get my students into the Vatican, as I’m teaching the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that particular place is a powerful connecting link between the two eras and movements: while a succession of Renaissance popes reveled in its creation and majesty, Martin Luther was repulsed by it. The Vatican Museums‘ website features 360-degree tours of many rooms and a more virtual experience with headsets, but just getting us into those spaces will be fine.

Virtual Vatican (3)

6. Anniversary Digital Exhibitions: Both private and university research libraries characteristically observe historical anniversaries by putting together digital exhibitions of images and texts. 2017 was the anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation, so there were many such exhibitions which are now archived: two of my favorites are Cambridge University Library’s Remembering the Reformation and the University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library’s After 500 Years: the Protestant Reformation. This year, digital exhibitions on the anniversary of Woman suffrage abound: see my previous round-up here.

7. Digital Bodleian: 914,832 images and counting at the digital portal of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, through which you can do your own curation and share “collections” with students (or friends!). A very diverse and visual database, including some great ephemera, which I also love to teach with: I’ve got to cover both the “old imperialism” and the New in my European and World History courses, and I think some educational ephemera will illustrate the transition.

Bodleian (3)

8. The British Library, of course, because it has everything. I like the smaller, more curated collections, the “Turning the Pages” feature for complete texts, and when I am teaching medieval history (not this semester), the digitized illuminated manuscripts collection is indispensable. This is my favorite image of Henry VIII: from another anniversary exhibition and his own personal psalter: in the bedroom!

Henry BL

9. Harvard Digital Collections, of course, because they have everything: 6 million objects assembled from all of Harvard’s libraries, which you can search through with purpose or browse through an array of diverse topic collections. Because Salem is so source-challenged, I’ve come to rely on the Colonial North America collection quite a bit for this blog, but I use several of the other collections regularly for teaching. Then I just jump in from time to time: another rabbit hole: tread with caution!

10. IDEA: Isabella D’Este Archive at the University of North Carolina: I wanted to include one specialized site which demonstrates the full potential of what digital learning can encompass, and this is it. IDEA is an open-access digital “environment” dedicated to the life and letters of Isabella D’Este, the marchesa of Mantua (1490-1539). Isabella was by no means a “representative” Renaissance woman, but she left a blazing multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary trail, which is explored here in creative ways, including a wonderful, truly virtual, replication of her personal studioloI love to go here/there, and I bet you will too.

Цифровая репродукция находится в иThe incomparable Isabella D’Este and a site worthy of her.


Luther, the Great Disruptor

Was it just me or was the word disruption used intensively in the closing months of 2016? It seems like every time I turned on the radio or picked up the newspaper I was confronted with that word. Now that the year has turned to 2017, my attention has definitely turned to the ultimate change agent, Martin Luther, who sparked a religious/political/social/cultural disruption that divided western Christendom with the “publication” of his Ninety-five Theses in October of 1517. I’m trying to work my way through a stack of recent Luther publications so that I can update the content of both the undergraduate and graduate courses on the Reformation that I’m teaching this semester, and taking breaks to check out (digitally, because I don’t think I’m going to make it in reality) the several American exhibitions that are ending this month: Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation at the Morgan Library & Museum, Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Law and Grace 2016Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach, and the Promise of Salvation at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta.These three concurrent exhibitions are connected through German sponsorship and the Here I Stand: Luther Exhibitions USA 2016 project website and catalogs, which will be useful resources for both myself and my students, though the former is oriented more towards the secondary-school level I think (and oddly fails to acknowledge or even reference Luther’s anti-semitism). There have already been some notable Luther exhibitions in German institutions as we are in the midst of a Luther anniversary decade, but everything shifts back to the homeland for this anniversary year under the aegis of the In the Beginning was the Word: Luther 2017 project.

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Luther on the cover of Time for his last big anniversary, in 1967, and this year’s anniversary logos.

I haven’t made it through all of these materials yet, but there seems to be a strong emphasis on the dissemination of Luther’s critique of church teachings and practice, through the means of both words, particularly printed words, and images.The connection between the new medium of printing and the success of the Reformation has long been acknowledged by historians, but the focus on Reformation art is a more recent development. I’m using two books in my courses that represent both approaches well: Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther and Steven Ozment’s Serpent and the Lamb, which explores the creative and mutually-beneficial relationship of Luther and Philip Cranach the Elder. The latter furthered the Reformation cause with both painted and printed images, while still, remarkably, maintaining his Catholic patrons! The Morgan exhibition features two beautiful contrasting Cranach paintings of the Virgin and Child/ Jesus and Mary: one very traditional the other strikingly humanistic in which we encounter Christ in a completely unmediated way, a reformed perspective that was also the product of the Renaissance.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child with St. John as a Boy, about 1514. Oil and tempera on panel. Federal Republic of Germany (on permanent loan to Veste Coburg Kunstsammlungen) & Christ and Mary, ca. 1516–1520. Oil on parchment on panel. Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha.

One review of the Morgan exhibit asked if Luther was history’s first “tweeter”, sending out cheap flugschriften (“flying pamphlets) to the masses. If we want to push the social media comparison farther, then Cranach ran the Lutheran Instagram account, by providing his friend with a steady supply of anti-papal illustrations for these pamphlets. When you gaze upon Cranach’s famous “papal-ass”, which went viral, you can appreciate the disruption that Luther made.

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Lutheran disruption via Cranach’s cartoons: the “papal-ass” and clerical wolves, devouring their prey (the sheep=Christian believers), Heimatmuseum Osterwieck, British Museum and Universitätsbibliothek Bern, Zentralbibliothek , Switzerland, Call No. ZB AD 357.


Keeping Christmas

Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.

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The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!

I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff.  But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.

“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings:  a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.

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keeping-christmas-wreath-1keeping-christmas-collage

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I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.

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keeping-christmas-interiors

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And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!


They were what they Wore

This past week we were examining some social trends in my Elizabethan course, and I used several watercolor illustrations by the Flemish refugee artist Lucas de Heere to “color” some of my presentations and our discussions. De Heere (1534-1584) was a Ghent-born painter and poet, the son of well-established artists, who converted to Protestantism upon his marriage and therefore was inclined to flee the war-torn Low Countries with the onset of the Dutch Revolt. He came to England in the later 1560s, worked steadily, and apparently became very rich. One of de Heere’s English works, The Family of Henry VIII: an Allegory of the Tudor Succession, is justly famous, but his first important commission (and connection) came from Edward Lord Clinton, the High Admiral of England, who desired a series of murals of “national costumes” to adorn the walls of his London house. The murals do not survive, but a couple of illustrated manuscripts in which de Heere engages in an anthropological/materialistic narrative of Europe in general and Britain in particular fortunately do: Théâtre de tous les peuples et nations de la terre avec leurs habits et ornemens divers, tant anciens que modernes, diligemment depeints au naturel par Luc Dheere peintre et sculpteur Gantois (available here) and Corte Beschryvinghe van Engheland, Schotland, ende Irland (British Library MS Additional 28330). This examination of national character through costume is nothing new in the sixteenth century, but de Heere includes some interesting comparative commentary in his manuscripts, and while the Description’s opening illustration is a rather conventional image of Queen Elizabeth, the Théâtre‘s most distinctive image is of a naked (almost–and also very hairy and/or dirty) Englishman, holding a shred of cloth and scissors, apparently wondering what to wear!

Add. 28330 f.4

Lucas de Heere

Quite a contrast of de Heere images: Queen Elizabeth from the Beschryvinghe, and the “naked Englishman” from the Théâtre.

Karel van Mander, a former student of de Heere’s apparently asked his mentor about this latter image a few years later, as he included the following passage in his collective biography of the most eminent Netherlandish and German artists, Het Schilderboeck (1604):

It once happened that when de Heere was in England he obtained a commission to paint in a gallery for the Admiral in London in which he had to paint all the costumes or clothing of the nations. When all but the Englishman were done, he painted him naked and set beside him all manner of cloth and silk materials, and next to them tailor’s scissors and chalk. When the Admiral saw this figure he asked Lucas what he meant by it. He answered that he had done that with the Englishman because he did not know what appearance or kind of clothing he should give him because they varied so much from day to day; for if he had done it one way today the next day it would have to be another–be it French or Italian, Spanish or Dutch– and I have therefore painted the material and tools to hand so that one can always make of it what one wishes.

This is so interesting, but to what can we ascribe the Englishman’s sartorial flexibility? In class, I went with the relative “openess” of the English elite and social mobility in the merchant and gentry orders of Tudor society. The peerage are depicted in their ceremonial robes by de Heere in the Beschryvinghe, but gentlemen, gentle ladies, and “bourgeois” ladies testify to shifting fashions: he also distinguishes between “a London merchant’s wife” and a rich London merchant’s wife” and between city and country dwellers. As is so often the case, it often takes an outsider view to see things clearly, or at least comparatively.

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Lucas de Heere Gentry

Heere Aldermen of London

Heere Women 1570s

1570LucasDeHeere

Lucas de Heere’s Englishmen and Women: peers, gentlemen and ladies, London aldermen, bourgeois and merchant’s wives, city women and country woman, Ghent University MS BHSL. HS. 2466 and British Library MS Additional 28330. See also de Heere’s interesting triple portrait here.

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A Daring Woman

I’ve been working on a longer project on Lady Deborah Moody (1586-1659?), another one of the transatlantic travelers of the seventeenth century who fascinate me perpetually. She was in Salem for only a few years but made her mark, characterized as a “dangerous woman” by John Endecott but looking decidedly more daring to me. Lady Deborah was born Deborah Dunch in 1586, to Walter Dunch of Avebury, Wiltshire (1552-1594) and Deborah Pilkington (1564-1594+), the daughter of James Pilkington, the Bishop of Durham and perhaps the most Puritan-leaning member of the Elizabethan episcopal hierarchy (who was himself exiled during the Marian regime). In 1606 Deborah married Henry Moody of Garsdon Manor, Wilthire, with whom she had two children and acquired her “Lady” status after her husband was granted a knighthood and a Baronet title by King James I. She remained in London for a decade after his death in 1629, and then left for the New World: acquiring a small house near that of Reverend Hugh Peters in Salem and then working farms in nearby Lynn and Swampscott. But her time in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was to be short-lived because of her avowed religious beliefs, particularly her public disavowal of infant baptism. Anabaptists were definitely not welcome in Puritan New England, and Lady Moody was fined, excommunicated from the First Church of Salem and eventually evicted from the colony altogether. Dutch New Netherland, famously tolerant in matters of religion, beckoned, and in 1645 she became the first female founder of a settlement in the Americas, receiving over 7000 acres encompassing present-day Gravesend in Brooklyn and Coney Island.

I haven’t been able to find an image of Lady Deborah, but here are several associated with her life:  I’m all about visual context! The first is one of the marble memorials to her parents, Walter and Deborah, in Little Wittenham Church near Dorchester (courtesy The Early Modern Whale); the second has nothing at all to do with her, but is a stunning (probably memorial as well) double portrait of near contemporaries, one of whom was possibly named Dunch (e): Anonymous English Artist, A Child and his Nurse (possible John Dunch), c. 1589, Private Collection (part of last year’s exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Elizabeth I and her People); Anti-Anabaptist (and-Presbyterian) Broadside back in old England, 1647; J & J Graphics notecard of the Lilac Garden in Swampscott, the present-day location of Lady Deborah’s “Swampscott” Farm, 1640-42; The Moody Coat of Arms, utilized by Lady Deborah’s son Henry, an American Baronet; Still-standing Gravesend house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road long-associated with Lady Moody, although it doesn’t appear that she ever lived there (courtesy Ephemeral New York and Brooklyn Historical Society; you can read more about the house here).

Dunche Memorial Little Wittenham

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Anti Anabaptist Propaganda 1647

Lilac Garden Swampscott J and J Graphics

Moody Coat of Arms Collage

ladymoodyhouse Gravesend

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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.

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

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?

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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.

 

 


Bloody Mary

Today marks the death day of Queen Mary I, the unfortunate and undisputed first Queen of England, and thus the beginning of the “golden” age of Elizabeth. When I teach the Reformation, as I am doing now, I have to reveal my Protestant bias to my students, but even I can admit that poor Mary Tudor’s reputation has suffered from a hatchet job: she has been “Bloody Mary” from almost her own time and has somehow been transformed into a paranoid, desperate dwarf in ours. She was certainly a pious and intolerant Catholic, but in her time toleration was not an attribute: while almost 300 Protestants were executed during her reign the Chambre Ardent (“Burning Chamber”) of the French King Henri II killed far more. I see her primarily as a victim of circumstances and a woman of her time: the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was in a position to make a glorious and early marriage, but fell from favor during her parents’ divorce and was declared illegitimate. She was reinstated in the order of succession to the throne in 1544, and succeeded her half-brother Edward VI in 1553, but her religion and the “Spanish Marriage” to the future Philip II contributed to her unpopularity, along with the economic depression and military losses that characterized her brief reign. Several false pregnancies seem to indicate the presence of severe tumors or possibly even cancer, and she died in pain and in misery on this day in 1558, aged 42.

NPG 428; Queen Mary I by Master John

NPG D18729; Queen Mary I when Princess Mary after Hans Holbein the Younger

Mary Tudor: as Princess Mary in 1544, by Master John; Engraving after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1700, both National Portrait Gallery, London.

A passionate circle of Protestants, generally called the “Marian Exiles”, left England during Mary’s reign and upon her death they returned, with a vengeance, as their movement had been strengthened by the martyrs who chose to stay behind. Even their new Queen Elizabeth, whom they had idealized as a perfect Protestant princess, would not be pure enough for them, but her sister was thoroughly demonized, most consequentially by John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, first published in 1563. This book (which is treated as more of an “event” than a mere book by historians) chartered the history of Christian persecution back to the days of Nero in five volumes, but its successive reprints (as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and abridgement increasingly focused on Mary, and transformed her into the Bloody Mary of the seventeenth century and after. It didn’t help Mary’s historical reputation that her successor sister’s reign was so golden by contrast, as exemplified by the triumphant victory of England over the “invincible” Spanish (Catholic) Armada in 1588.

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Title page of 1563 first edition and colored woodcut illustration from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments online at the University of Sheffield, which has all four Elizabethan editions.

It just gets worse for Mary as Britain’s triumphant Protestantism is associated with its imperial strength (and democratic government) in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. And the contemporary popular obsession with the Tudors seems to have contributed to the deification of Elizabeth and the demonization of Mary: the first Elizabeth film (1999) being a particularly blatant case in point. Despite some recent historical revisionism (there is a succinct review here), I’m not sure Mary I can ever be viewed in her proper historical context:  “Bloody Mary” seems to have taken on a life (several, really) of its own.

Bloody Mary

“Teaching” Mary: a flash card from the 1920s, NYPL Digital Gallery.


Assassins

I have been feeling a bit run down lately, which I attributed first to the typical murky New England spring weather and secondly to the end-of-semester rush, or some combination thereof. Then I realized it wasn’t just fatigue but also a certain sadness, brought on by the fact that I have been lecturing about assassinations all week. Teaching takes its toll! By coincidence, I was covering eras of extreme violence in two of my courses: a survey of the Renaissance and the Reformation and an introduction to European history. In the former, we’re in the midst of the religious wars of the second half of the sixteenth century, while in the latter we’re in the later nineteenth-century Belle Époque, which wasn’t all that belle if you ask me. So in just the last week, I’ve referenced the assassinations of  William I of Orange, leader of the Protestant opposition in the Dutch Revolt against Spain (1584), the French kings Henri III (1589) and Henri IV (1610), as well as (jumping forward three centuries) Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1881), U.S. President James Garfield (1881), President Carnot of France (1894), Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo of Spain (1897), Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1898), King Umberto I of Italy (1900) and President William McKinley of the United States (1901). And then I woke up this morning to realize that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on this day in 1865–the icing on the cake.

Assassination Lincoln 1865 LOC

A pretty somber week indeed, but also an opportunity to explore the comparative natures of early modern and modern assassinations. I know the earlier era so much better, so it is easier for me to comprehend the religious environment that created the motivations and rationales for violent acts. This was a civil holy war between Christianity, and both sides were absolutely certain of the rightness and urgency of their cause. Nevertheless, in an age of divine-right rule, these assassinations were still shocking, particularly that of William of Orange, the first leader to be killed by a handgun.

Assassination William the Silent

PicMonkey Collage

Assassination Henri IV German Broadside 1610 BM

An 18th century image of William of Silent’s assassination, and variant covers of Lisa Jardine’s 2005 book:  The Awful End of Prince William the Silent. The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun. German broadside illustration of the assassination of King Henri IV in 1610, British Museum.

As alarming as these murders were and are, it is the modern assassinations that I find even more chilling; even though they were targeting single individuals, they were seldom personal but rather acts of public relations–the propaganda of the deed.  Their frequency is equally chilling: in the last decade of the nineteenth century alone the leaders of nearly every western European nation were struck down, along with poor Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) of Austria, stabbed in the chest with a nail file while she was walking down a Geneva promenade accompanied only by her maid. Clearly no on was safe, and that was the central message that “organized” anarchism meant to convey.

Assassination Carnot 1894

Assassination Elizabeth

Aroused! Puck Magazine illustration with lady law and order preparing to slay the anarchist snake and President Carnot’s body lying in state, 1894; the front page of the San Francisco Call for September 11, 1898, reporting the assassination of Empress Elizabeth, both Library of Congress.


Saint Nicholas

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, (270-343) who evolved, through the centuries, into Santa Claus, because of his legendary roles as a protector of children and secret gift-giver. This was quite an evolution, in more ways than one! Nicholas is known alternatively as Nicholas of Myra, as he served as Bishop of that southern Turkish city (now called Demre) for much of his life, and Nicholas of Bari, as his relics were removed to southern Italy in the eleventh century. The Italians who confiscated the relics of the revered Saint claimed that were acting in the name of “security”, as Myra was increasingly vulnerable to Muslim attacks, but one could certainly ascertain that it was a case of simple theft. There are many stories associated with Nicholas’s holy works, so many that he is also referred to as Nicholas “the wonder-worker”, but the most popular relates a rather dark tale in which Nicholas visited an inn during a regional famine, and quickly discerned that the innkeeper had chopped up three boys and encased them in brine to sell them as pickled pork.  Nicholas brought the innocents back to life, and evolved into the savior of children who found themselves “in a pickle”.

Nicholas of Bari Stowe Breviary BL

Nicholas BM Dutch

Nicholas BM Flemish

British Library MS Stowe 12, “The Stowe Breviary”, 1322-25; Dutch woodcut print, 1480-1490, and hand-colored engraving from a Flemish prayer-book by the “Monogrammist M”, 1500-1525, both British Museum.

Images of Nicholas with the resuscitated boys (in their pickle barrel) can be found in all manner of religious texts from the medieval and early modern eras, as illustrated by those above, and were also the single focus of a succession of paintings and prints from the Renaissance and after. When Nicholas is not in the company of the boys, he is often pictured with the young women whom he saved from lives of prostitution by secretly gifting their father with gold for their dowries, another work of wonder that solidified his connection with the young (and vulnerable).

Nicholas Met Boys

Nicholas Met Dowry

Two altarpiece panels representing the holy deeds of Saint Nicholas by Bicci di Lorenzo, 1433-35:  Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths and Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The religious history of Saint Nicholas is pretty easy to reconstruct, but when hagiography meets folklore it gets a bit more confusing. One thing is certain: the transformation of the saint into the jolly dispenser of gifts is much more a phenomenon of western Christian culture than it is of the Orthodox Church, which still recognizes Saint Basil of Caesarea as the benevolent gift-giver (on his feast day of January 1).  The other factor that seems pretty clear is the role of the Reformation. The modern Santa Claus seems to be an amalgamation of the Dutch and Flemish Sinterklaas, the English “Father Christmas” and a secularized Saint Nicholas. While the Dutch Sinterklaas still arrives on the eve of St. Nicholas, wearing a Bishop’s hat and bearing a staff, the Protestant prohibition of his veneration gradually transformed him into a secular figure. Across the English Channel, a similarly-dressed (and aged), “Father Christmas” reemerges only after the Reformation and Revolution, when the Restoration ushers in a return to the “merry old England” of memory. And when these figures cross the Atlantic, the melting pot of American culture (and Coca Cola) gradually transforms them into our very own Santa Claus.

Nicholas Print 1604p

Nicholas Sinterklaas

Nicholas Father Christmas 1890 Vand Ap

Engraving of Saint Nicholas by Antonius Wierix, 1604, British Museum; Sinterklaas celebration in Amsterdam, 2011, and a Father Christmas card, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum.


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