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There is No War on Christmas

(not so) Happy Holidays!

There is hardly a Christmas in memory upon which there wasn’t a war waged—or, at least, so it seems if one is tuned into American right-wing media. According to Bill O’Reilly in 2004, as a part of a plot to banish religion from the public sphere and bring forth a ‘brave new progressive world’, liberals were banning religious floats from parades and calling Christmas trees ‘holiday’ trees instead. Similar (but fewer) complaints have been made in the U.K.—say, about the use of the phrase “Winterval” instead of Christmas.  But fear not, dear reader. The great and powerful Trump has singlehandedly won the war on Christmas by making it acceptable to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again—a phrase which, according to Trump,  was never uttered publicly during the Obama years.

In reality, however, the so called ‘War on Christmas’ doesn’t exist. It never has.

Now, don’t get me wrong—there has been (what historian Stephen Nussbaum called) a battle for Christmas for centuries: a fight over how Christmas is celebrated. As Earl Count points out, December celebrations originate from pagan festivals (like Zagmuk and Saturnalia) which date back at least two thousand years before Jesus would have been born. And during the 300s, Constantine tried to Christianize these celebrations by declaring 25th December (the sun god Sol’s birthday) to be Jesus’ birthday. But it never really worked; people forgot the pagan origins sure, but throughout the middle ages (what came to be known as) Christmas was celebrated in mainly pagan ways: with drinking, feasting, and sex. It was so debaucherous, in fact, that the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas all together.

Now, thanks to people like Clement Clarke More, Charles Dickens, and Queen Victoria, Christmas did make a comeback in the early 1800s—but when it did, it was again as secular drunken celebration. Thanks to capitalism, however, it was quickly domesticated into a holiday about giving gifts to your children (and, later, to nearly everyone you know). And once it was popular again, Christianity renewed its efforts to ‘Christianize’ it.[1] But despite what we now call it, ‘Christmas’ has never been celebrated, primarily, as a religious holiday. Christians lost that battle.

Once Christmas was popular again, however, it was very useful for vilifying one’s enemies. In the 1920s, for example, the anti-Semite Henry Ford claimed that Jews were waging a war on Christmas in his anti-Semitic tract, ‘The International Jew.’ In 1959 it was the communists that were targeted. The right-wing conspiratorial John Birch Society claimed that ‘One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas.’ And in 1999, it was right-wing pundit (and founder of the hate group VDare.com) Peter Brimelow complaining about liberals using phrases like ‘Happy Holidays’ and government Christmas parties being called ‘A Celebration of Holiday Traditions.’ Of course, the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ is just a short way to reference all the holidays celebrated in December and January. It dates back to at least 1863, and was popular (and uncontroversial) in the ‘30s and ‘40s—especially after the song ‘Happy Holiday(s)appeared in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. But today, it’s use is viewed as ‘political correctness gone mad.’

The idea that there is a liberal war on Christmas really took flight in 2005 with the publication of John Gibson’s book The War On Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought and with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly becoming obsessed with the idea that December—and (along with Fox News) remaining obsessed with it pretty much every December since. But, in reality, none of the events that they saw as ‘shots across the bow’ in this war actually occurred.  As I point out in the second chapter of my book The Myths that Stole Christmas, religious floats were not being systematically banned from parades. No school in Plano, Texas banned the colors red and green during Christmastime. [2] Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin didn’t change the lyrics to ‘Silent Night’ to eliminate all references to religion.[3]  And while it’s true that Democratic Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee didn’t call the tree in the Rhode Island Statehouse a ‘Christmas tree’ in 2011, neither did the Republican governor Donald Carcieri from 2003 to 2010…and yet Fox News never made a peep.

It’s true, of course, that Walmart once encouraged (but did not require) its greeters to say ‘Happy Holidays’ (instead of ‘Merry Christmas’) because not all their customers celebrate Christmas. And there have been a number of lawsuits in response to courthouses or other government entities (like schools) putting up lone nativity scenes or otherwise favoring Christian ways of celebrating. But such actions do not constitute a war on Christmas. They are simply efforts to be more inclusive, and (in the latter cases) to protect against violations of the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. But there has never, ever, been any effort to make the celebration of Christmas, or the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, illegal.

This, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to capitalize on the idea that there has. Rick Perry cited it as part of ‘Obama’s war on Religion’ in a 2010 campaign ad. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich did something similar during the 2012 Republican campaign. And, of course, Donald Trump cited the ‘War on Christmas’ numerous times during his 2016 campaign. Indeed, he (and his family) have been taking a victory lap ever since (2017, 2018, 2019) by declaring that he ended the war by allowing everyone to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. This is why, without any evidence at all, or any clarity about what he meant, Trump this year declared that liberals are now waging a war on Thanksgiving. Declaring that your political enemies are waging a war on things that are universally loved is just too useful for vilifying them.[4]

Before you fall for it, however, realize: in 2005, when he was raging about the liberal War on Christmas, Bill O’Reilly’s website was selling ‘holiday ornaments’ to hang on your ‘holiday tree’, and the Bush White House wished everyone a ‘Happy Holiday Season’ in their ‘holiday card.’ And today, despite all the rhetoric, Trump’s online store has a ‘holiday gift guide’, a ‘holiday collection’, and wishes people ‘Happy Holliday’s’ [sic], and avoids the term Christmas altogether. The same is true in Trump Tower, where the word ‘Christmas’ is nowhere to be found.

In reality, the only wars on Christmas that have ever been waged were waged by Christians, either to Christianize it (like Constantine) or shut it down (like the puritans). But just one look around this December will show that these wars were the most unsuccessful wars in all of history. [5] Not only is Christmas celebrated in mostly secular ways, but in our society (unlike in Trump Tower) Christmas is literally everywhere—taking over the calendar and our entire economy for over a month every year. If there was a war on Christmas…Christmas won.

David Kyle Johnson is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (PA) and author of the book ‘The Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked that Holiday. His latest book, Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections, is available now. You can find him on Twitter @kyle8425

[1] By, for example, falsely declaring Jesus to be the ‘reason for the season’.

[2] Other towns where this supposedly happened include Saginaw Township, Michigan and Orlando, Florida. None of the stories are true. All the schools in question proved as much by posting their guidelines online.

[3] In reality, a church choir director had changed the lyrics to make them easier for children to learn.

[4] Indeed, the stories that circulate about the war on Christmas are part of a larger, absolutely false, ‘Christian victimization narrative’ that tries to paint Christians as a persecuted minority.

[5] And the only causalities were these poor birds.

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A day as an anchorite

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In January 2017, an unusual job opening was reported in the international press: an Austrian town seeking a new occupant for its 350-year-old cliffside hermitage. With no modern amenities, no real job description, and no pay, the role was clearly not for everyone – although a candidate was found and has since moved in (along with his dog).

The news value of the story was its strangeness. Religiously motivated solitude is a difficult concept for many modern people to relate to, even the fairly relaxed version practiced in Saalfelden’s hermitage (the hermit only lives there for half the year, and schnapps and cake are always available for visitors).

Medieval reclusion is another level entirely. Can you imagine deciding to spend the rest of your life in a single, small room, every day strictly regulated by the same routine? I can’t – but recently I tried to experience a small part of it, by living a day as an anchorite. I researched, carried out in real time, and recorded my impressions of the prayer routine a thirteenth-century recluse would have used.

The reason I decided to try this ‘experiment’ was to bring my doctoral work to life through experience.

I study literature written for and about anchorites – recluses enclosed in a cell, often beside a church. A big part of the interest for me is the sheer difference of their mindset. Where we prize freedom, comfort, and a social life, medieval anchorites were committed to restriction, discipline, and solitude.

Trying to think myself back into this world is challenging, to say the least. So in my experiment, I focused on the most important part of the anchoritic day: their prayer life. I can’t easily recreate living in a medieval cell or wearing medieval clothes, but I do have an authentic medieval prayer routine for anchorites.

This comes from Ancrene Wisse, a spiritual and practical guidebook written around 1215 for anchoritic women and a central text in my research. I must have read it half a dozen times, but I wanted to know how the routine would work in practice. How much of the day would an anchorite spend praying? And what would that day be like as an experience?

My day began before the sun was up, at 3:30am, with a sequence of Latin prayers to be said as I got up and dressed. The day’s work was well under way before I ate breakfast, with the first Hour of the Daily Office of prayer beginning at sunrise.

The morning was particularly dense with devotional work. I recited various kinds of prayer: Latin and Middle English, verse and prose, well-known and obscure. It wasn’t just speaking, either: there are lots of recommendations for engaging the body, from kneeling repeatedly to crossing yourself to raising your hands. This all built up to mid-morning Mass (I watched a re-enacted version of the medieval rite on Youtube) and a long period of responsory prayer.

By the time I had eaten my midday meal I was tired out – this seems to be something the Ancrene Wisse author expects, as he notes that if his readers are going to have a nap, it should be at this point in the day. I happily followed this part of the routine! The quieter afternoon was punctuated by the remaining Hours, and the final sequence of prayers took place before bed, around 7pm.

By recording the timings of the routine, I established that just under five hours were spent in prayer (counting Mass, closer to six): about the length I expected.

The more striking aspect of practicing the routine in real time, however, was how prayer dominated the shape of the day. I was never more than 90 minutes or so without praying, and so, although I read and worked during the ‘free’ periods, the spiritual posture of prayer – placing myself before God, trying to shape myself to the prescribed words – was a much more continual part of my thinking than I’m used to.

Of course, this kind of re-enactment is limited in experiential terms: I’ll never know what it was like to practise this routine daily, over months and years. But even this small taste helped me appreciate how anchorites gave up the right to order their own time. No one can concentrate on spiritual things continuously, but anchoritism is designed to enable people to turn their lives over to God more completely than anyone else.

There are a few hermits and anchorites around today, but by and large this way of life has vanished. Just like monks and nuns, anchorites seem to have been turned out of their cells under Henry VIII. Their history after that is even more patchy and unwritten than it was before.

Ancrene Wisse, however, had become a popular religious text even for laypeople and was copied and translated multiple times. It played a large part in the developing study of medieval English literature in the twentieth century. A text originally written for just three specific women continues to intrigue and challenge modern readers almost a millenium on.

Experiencing a small part of this ancient lifestyle for myself – echoing the words of eight-hundred-year-old prayers – was a strange, but ultimately illuminating experience.

Alicia Smith is working towards a DPhil in English Literature at the Queen’s College, University of Oxford. She can be found on Twitter @thetimekeptcity and also blogs at the Thinking Faith Network.

Further Readings suggested by the author:

  • Bella Millett’s translation of Ancrene Wisse (2005) is very accessible, with an introduction and notes which provide a helpful guide to its context and ideas.
  • Ann K. Warren’s Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England (1985) is a classic and readable study of English anchoritic life.
  • For a less academic approach, Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress (2015) is a novel which draws extensively on the details and ideas of devotion found in Ancrene Wisse, and also manages to be enjoyable historical fiction.
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Empire and Reformation: Perspectives and Possibilities

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National histories have been and still remain influential. Yet historians increasingly explore the history of Britain in terms of the histories of the various parts of Britain’s former empire. How might we view Reformation as part of Britain’s imperial experience?

Throughout the past year, the University of Sheffield has hosted a range of activities connected to the theme of Reformation. In late April, I spoke about my core research at Sheffield Central Library. The talk covered art, power, and early British Indian empire, and was linked with the BBC Civilizations season. Afterwards, I began to ask myself about how “Reformation” might matter to me as a historian of British India.

European Reformation outside Europe

Reformation in Britain is usually understood within the framework of Britain’s relation with the rest of Europe. The ‘non-European’ world is largely absent from the discussions. Yet this ‘non-European’ world became the theatre of conflict between different European parties, and those parties were divided by Reformation. Beginning with Henry VIII’s declaration of English independence, the Reformation helped define what became a British national identity. This idea of the British nation was accompanied by a British understanding of the ‘other’ (as explained in Linda Colley’s work).

Struggles to uphold the Protestant character of Great Britain often coincided with key developments in her empire. Considering the histories of Britain and British empire together lets us highlight the importance of Protestantism. We then come to see Reformation as an important factor.

Protestant Christianity and national identity

The idea of Britain as a free, parliamentary state with a Protestant monarch on the throne became part of national pride. This national pride led to the discounting of others. This applied to ‘others’ within Europe and to ‘others’ within the empire. Both were viewed as tyrannical, backward, and even uncivilised. Ideas of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Otherness’ were as much cultural and social as they were political. So Protestantism defined the ‘Britishness’ of the British nation and supported a claim to British ‘uniqueness’. This created a contrast with the rest of Europe. It also served to justify the subordination of Britain’s colonies.

Reformations beyond Europe?

Scholars have studied the impact of Protestantism in British empire through the analysis of missionary activities. Yet such studies should be brought in dialogue with a broader understanding of what the Reformation is. This is only possible if the legacies of the Reformation are understood in terms of the worldview and actions of the British empire. Scholars of European Reformation ought to pay attention to developments in the non-European world, its religions and cultures. European countries may have determined the historical and political fate of the non-Europeans. Yet their own (European) histories cannot be understood in isolation.

I would like to see scholars engage with moments of religious, cultural, and political change outside of Europe. Combining the history of empire and the Reformation could challenge Eurocentrism. Widening the scope of history in this way would also improve how non-white researchers are represented at all levels of the academy.

 

Apurba Chatterjee is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield working on the visual representations of British imperial authority in India during the mid-eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Her research interests lie in the intersection of imperial history, art history and conceptual history.

Featured image: “View of the west end of St John’s Church, Calcutta, showing houses fronting onto the churchyard and the Rohilla monument,” watercolour, by Amelia Rebecca Prinsep. (Digital version: The British Library, http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/largeimage68452.html.)

Built and consecrated in the 1780s, the architecture of this church in colonial Calcutta is based on that of St. Martin-in-fields, London. The church used building material from the ruins of mosques and monuments from Gaur, the Islamic capital of Bengal in the medieval and early modern periods. The courtyard of the church housed several British memorials. There was a huge controversy surrounding the acquisition of land for the church. It was truly a statement of British power, and presented its spiritual basis.

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Top 10 Books on the Historical Jesus

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There is simply no end to the deluge of books written about Jesus. The author of the Gospel of John already opined, at the end of the first century, that the world could not contain them!

This list is one person’s choices. It represents fixed points to which I find myself returning, with profit. I’ve presented the titles not in chronological order,[1] but in a suggested order of approach. One can start anywhere—but whatever you do, steer clear of the conspiracy theorists, the paranoid style of American pop-Jesus-research that goes by the name ‘mythicism’, and operates with the same absurd historiographical sensibilities as holocaust deniers and Templar enthusiasts.

1. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide  (1998)
In the grand German tradition, this introduction does what it says on the tin: it offers a comprehensive guide to the sources, context, activities and message of Jesus. Those who seek an answer to the question, ‘Why would we seek for a historical Jesus behind the Gospels in the first place, and how might one go about doing that?’ will find a learned induction here.

2. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (2nd German edition 1913; English, 2001)[2]
This great polymath achieved the seemingly impossible in writing a sprawling history of Jesus research in the 18th and 19th centuries that ended up as one of the most fascinating books on Jesus ever written. Relentlessly pointing to the flaws in the work of his predecessors, Schweitzer presented his own vision of Jesus, relying heavily on Matthew’s Gospel, as a failed apocalyptic prophet who announced the coming of the kingdom of God but died in disappointment at its non-arrival.

3. Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (1964)
Writing in the 1890s, Kähler rejected the very possibility of doing historical Jesus work since the Gospels are entirely invested in presenting Jesus from the standpoint of Christian faith. Kähler’s project found important twentieth century heirs in scholars like Rudolf Bultmann and Luke Timothy Johnson

4. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism(1985) and The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993)
These two books – the former more scholarly, the latter less so – offer a vision of Jesus firmly grounded in the Judaism of his day. Sanders proposes that Jesus be seen as a proponent of ‘Jewish restoration eschatology’, and sees Jesus as attempting to achieve a restoration of Israel’s theological-political fortunes.

5. John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991)
This ambitious undertaking—five volumes and counting—is the most rigorous application of a criteria-based approach to authenticating the words and actions of Jesus in the gospels. He applies his criteria for historical verification—multiple attestation, embarrassment, discontinuity, coherence, and rejection & execution—with vast erudition and subtlety. Even those who disagree with Meier’s conclusions benefit from his learning and his engaging style.

6. Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (2012)
The search for authenticity and the role that authenticating criteria have played in historical Jesus research, come under critical consideration here. Particularly focused by the turn to memory in recent historiography, these scholars pose acute questions about the nature of human subjectivity as it bears on the task of historical reconstruction.

7.Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (2010)
Together with his brief volume of lectures The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, this book offers the mature synthesis of one of the leading scholars of the historical Jesus. Allison proposes a move toward considering ‘recurrence’ in the tradition as a sort of macro-criterion to help us grapple with the impact of Jesus in the memories of his earliest followers.

8. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony(2nd ed., 2017)
Bauckham re-investigates the role of named bearers (e.g., Matthew, John) of the memories of Jesus in the early church. He finds more reliability in some early patristic testimony than has often been allowed, and rejects a long tradition of viewing the gospels as the end-product of a long process of anonymous shaping of the tradition.

9. Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (2007-2012)
Not a conventional work of historical Jesus scholarship (some of my colleagues will roll their eyes in seeing this here), these three volumes offer a remarkable attempt to make a serious use of the results of historical scholarship for the church. On the historical front the results are mixed; yet, one should recognize that these books would have been an unthinkable a century ago.

10. Shawn Kelley, Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship(2002); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany(2010); Halvor Moxnes, Jesus and the Rise of Nationalism: A New Quest for the Nineteenth-Century Historical Jesus (2012)
Finally, this trio of works, each in its own way, considers how the study of the life of Jesus has served ideological programs. Together, they offer a salutary caution about the motivations for and uses of historical reconstruction.

Dave Lincicum is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Paul and the Early Jewish Encounter with Deuteronomy (Mohr Siebeck 2010; repr. Baker Academic, 2013). His research focuses on the reception of Scripture in early Christianity, the strange and unfriendly text known as the Epistle of Barnabas, and the history of biblical interpretation. 

Image: Christ Pantocrator in the apsis of the cathedral of Cefalù, c. 1130. Photograph by Andreas Wahra [via WikiCommons].

[1] Or in the order of the standard division of ‘quests’ for the historical Jesus, which I view as a flawed, German-centered historiographical periodisation

[2] Be sure to read the 2001 translation published by Fortress/SCM Press, which translates the second substantially expanded edition.

Our “Best Books” feature asks a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

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Top 10 Books on the History of Medieval Europe

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Medieval European history is a vast and ever-growing field, so coming up with a top ten book-list is no small task. To make the job manageable, what follows is a “top ten” of quite a particular kind of book.

To start off with, I’m not including textbooks or popular syntheses. There are of course shelf-loads of these, and many are absolutely brilliant (and have been very influential); but listing them would be an entirely different exercise. So these books are all research monographs, which make original arguments based on the author’s own engagement with the sources.

But they’re not typical academic monographs: they’re books I think A level students (and others) might enjoy as well as profit from, and that don’t require lots of background knowledge. I’m also only including books available in English, which again rules out a great many works.

Finally, this is a very personal list: they’re books that for different reasons, and at different times, have been important for how I think about medieval European history. Every medieval historian would certainly come up with a different set, but these are books that have changed my mind. Perhaps they might change yours…

1. Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: the world system, AD 1250-1350 (1991)
The book traces trade networks promoted by the Mongol empire stretching across Eurasia and which flourished up until the Black Death struck. It may not be the easiest read on this list – but this remarkably bold book was years ahead of its time in showing how global connections mattered, centuries before industrialisation.

2. Robert Bartlett, The Hanged Man. A story of miracle, memory and colonialism in the Middle Ages (2004)
A brilliant piece of detective work, based on accounts of the hanging of a Welsh man named William de Cragh around 1307. This fabulous and evocative piece of microhistory brings out the interconnections between politics, society and religion in medieval society, and does so in stylish prose.

3. Heinrich Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century. Mentalities and Social Orders (1991)
This is actually a translation of a book originally written in the Austrian author’s German in 1984. The translation lightened the apparatus, but preserved the freshness of the approach. The book is organised thematically, drawing on contemporary classifications and ways of thinking in medieval Europe’s perhaps most neglected century. It’s guaranteed to make you think differently not just about the tenth century, but about the Middle Ages in general.

4. John Hatcher, The Black Death: an intimate History (2008)
When the eminent economic and social historian John Hatcher retired, he set about writing a book about the Black Death that he’d long wanted to – one where he drew on imagination to fill out his own peerless knowledge of the documentary record for the impact of the Black Death on medieval England. It’s a superb book which combines empirical mastery of the sources with admirable historical sensitivity to fill out what it might have been like to live in a Suffolk village at a momentous, and terrifying, time.

5. Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free. Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (1977)
A classic and still unsurpassed study of the famous Peasants Revolt, inspired by the 1960s protests that affected many UK universities, including Hilton’s Birmingham. It’s no wonder that it was re-issued as recently as 2003. There have been plenty of studies on the topic since, but this general overview still definitely repays reading.

6. Maureen Miller, Clothing The Clergy. Virtue and power in Medieval Europe, 800-1200 (2014)
In a beautifully produced, richly illustrated and superbly original piece of scholarship, Miller draws on an unusual kind of evidence – the changing clothing of priests and clerics – to illuminate (and to analyse) enormous shifts in Western European culture, from the soberly dressed origins of Christianity through to the jewel-laden papal monarchy. It’s a medieval history book that I found hard to put down.

7. R.I. Moore, War on Heresy. Faith and Power in Medieval Europe  (2012)
With this book, Moore wanted to write something that might appear in airport bookshops, driving out the Dan Brown-esque nonsense that’s usually to be found there. It’s a book about the way in which a campaign to root out a perceived social problem ironically ended up generating it (a process whose modern parallels Moore does not shy away from). A future classic.

8. Eileen Power, Medieval People (1924)
A book published over 90 years ago in a list made in 2017? But Power’s Medieval People, giving potted biographies of six ordinary(ish) medieval individuals, is still fresh; and it’s no coincidence that it’s been translated into French just in the last few years. I recently set my students one of its chapters (on a Frankish peasant named Bodo), and in an end of year survey, they described it as one of the most memorable things they’d read at university. Find out for yourself (it’s so old, it’s out of copyright!).

9. Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and Dead in Medieval Society (1999)
Modern society is, generally speaking, uncomfortable with death. But in this wonderful book, originally published in French in 1994, Schmitt shows how people in medieval society thought about matters differently – and how ghosts were essentially a problem of people who refused to be forgotten. A modern must-read of cultural history.

10. Christopher Tyerman, How to Plan A Crusade. Reason and Religious War in the High Middle Ages (2015)
It’s tempting to see the Middle Ages as irrational – and there’s a long tradition of doing exactly that. But in this book, Tyerman shows how reason could often be harnessed towards ends that seem to us deeply unreasonable, in this case holy war. Behind all the ideology was, in fact, a great deal of very practical organisation: and tracking this down shows a very different side to the period.

Charles West lectures in early medieval history at the Department of History at Sheffield. You can follow him Twitter @Pseudo_Isidore.

Image: Medieval text written by Alexander Nequam, 1157-1217, abbot of Cirencester, given to Jesus College [via Flickr]

Our “Best Books” feature asks a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. We think these occasional posts will be of interest to a wide variety of readers, but perhaps especially useful to school teachers and A-level students who are looking for the logical place to start with a new topic. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

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Queering Christ’s Wounds and Gender Fluidity in Medieval Manuscripts

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As we mark the 50th anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on parts of queer history that have otherwise been erased or censored. One manner of approaching queer history is to examine the icons of the past through a queer lens. My particular interest is in how Christ’s gender was depicted in late medieval art. I focus on manuscript illuminations in prayer books where Christ’s wound appears to resemble the vulva/labia.

Interpreting these images using queer theory may encourage a more gender-fluid viewing of Christ, who has historically been understood to be hyper-masculine in artistic representation.

Many representations of Christ’s side wound can be found in art, mystical writing and literature in this period, but it is not apparent how a medieval audience would have understood these representations. If medieval viewers had a fluid and complex understanding of gender 1, then it is possible they might have interpreted creative representations of Christ’s body as something that challenges the dominant masculine ideal.

In commonly used medieval prayer-books called Books of Hours there are images of Christ’s wound that float, disembodied, like giant vulvas in the centre of the page. The wound appears vertically in a mandorla shape, undoubtedly signifying as a large vaginal symbol that takes up most of the page. Sometimes these images appear close to, or next to, the prayer for Matins that begins, ‘Domine, labia mea aperies’ (Lord, open my lips).

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Wound images would often appear with an encircling inscription stating that this was the ‘true measure’ of Christ’s wound, and that certain indulgences could be granted if it was touched, kissed or prayed to in the instructed way. Images of Christ’s side wound could be rolled up and tied to the body to prevent illness or sudden death. This has led scholars to believe that the veneration of wound images indicated a desire for the granting of indulgences or the promise of preventing pain.

Scholars such as Martha Easton have previously researched the possibility that there was an erotic significance to images of Christ’s wounds in late-medieval culture, acknowledging that the wound often resembles a vulva in these various depictions. There were not only linguistic associations in Latin between the ‘vulnus’ and the ‘vulva’, but symbolic antecedents in visual culture that the medieval viewer could draw upon to read the wound as a vulva.

These disembodied wound images were at times explicitly connected with the vagina. Not only did they resemble the vulva visually: they were used to prevent pains associated with the vagina. Birthing girdles often carried depictions of the side wound and were pressed against women in labour to help with the pain of childbirth. The images could also be pressed against women to help with period pain.

Other kinds of medieval objects indicate that the vulva was often depicted in public. Comparable images from around the 12th century can be seen in sheela-na-gig sculptures. These are figurative carvings of naked women displaying their vulva that are seen on the externals of churches and castles around Great Britain and Ireland.

Vulvae can also be seen on pilgrim badges, which have been found across the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. The production of pilgrim badges flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, and they form the largest corpus of medieval art objects to survive today. A small amount feature disembodied penises and vulvae going on pilgrimages or playing games. Like the Sheela-na-gig sculptures, scholars have often been baffled by their possible usage and meaning.

SheelaWiki

Scholars have argued that these images were nothing but a bawdy joke, or a warning not to engage in acts of sexual deviancy. However, explanations such as this display a modern bias and disgust at the open depiction of a woman’s genitals. What if, instead, these representations show that medieval viewers had a comfortable relationship with the body and wished to depict it across a wide spectrum of mediums?

Comparing these images to the shape of Christ’s isolated side wound in Books of Hours, it is arguable that these images destabilise Christ’s gender by drawing the focus on Christ’s body to a prominent bleeding vulva.

There are a variety of medieval accounts of people becoming aroused by images of Christ. Thinking about prayer books in particular, there is evidence that some of these vagina-like images were rubbed or kissed. Some scholars have argued that this kissing and rubbing of a vagina-like wound would have been erotic.

Medieval manuscripts were made of vellum (parchment made of calf skin), and so touching this image painted on skin might have been a very intimate act. 2 As those rubbing or touching these vulva-like images in manuscripts would have been people of all genders, there is a certain queer history to be uncovered in this erotic and sensual encounter with the skin.

Perhaps medieval image-makers and viewers were aware that Christ’s body, as an embodiment of the divine made into flesh, was supposed to represent people of all genders. If so, then the inclusion of vulva-like images embedded in Christ’s body becomes an innovative way of embracing gender-fluidity, where people would be rubbing, kissing and touching a wound/vulva hybrid image in both veneration and possible arousal.

Sophie Sexon is an AHRC funded PhD candidate in her second year at the University of Glasgow.  This year she has presented papers on the queering of Christ’s wound at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Michigan and the International Medieval Congress in Leeds.  She will be contributing a paper on this subject to a forthcoming volume entitled Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography in 2018. You find Sophie on Twitter @ladymede.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

Image: Christ’s Side Wound, Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, circa 1349 [via WikiCommons]

Image: “The Measure of the Side Wound and the Body of Christ, an Indulgence,” hand-colored woodcut, circa 1484 – 1492 [via WikiCommons]

Image: Kilpeck Sheela Na Gig sculpture [via WikiCommons]

Notes:

  1. Thomas Laqueur argued in his 1990 volume Making Sex: Body and the Gender from the Greeks to Freud that our two-sex binary model only came into practice from the 18th century onwards. Before this a ‘one-sex model’ prevailed in which the woman was considered an incomplete or malformed man. For more on this theory in application to medieval mystical writing, see Elizabeth Robertson, “Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich’s Showings,” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, eds. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993). There is also a belief that intersex individuals were recognised in the medieval period and could choose their gender so long as this did not result in sexual deviancy.
  2. Nancy Thebaut argues that this practice allowed the viewer to get closer to the body of Christ, noting that there were widespread analogies comparing Christ’s body to the vellum that made the manuscript.
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