‘Damnatio memoriae’ or the ghost in the historical record?

Nobody likes King John of England. Apart from a handful of English protestants and  some London scholars, everybody thinks he was, to quote one illustrious historian, ‘shit’. And yet, would this quasi-unanimous assessment justify that John should be excised from history? Nobody thinks that nowadays, when even detritus has value, if you’re in Pompei. But back in the fourteenth century, things may have been a bit different.

As far as I know, King John never generated enough anger as to raise the question of whether he should be banned from the historical record. He was part of a dark chapter of English history, but no  more than that. Yet, a fourteenth century commentator of Dante’s Commedia may offer a different perspective. Benvenuto da Imola, one of the best earlier commentators of the Commedia notes that King Henry III of England was King Richard’s son when we know of course that Henry was John’s son.

Vedete il re. Hic Sordellus nominat alium spiritum illustrem Henricum regem Angliae. Iste fuit filius Richardi valentissimi, qui mirabilia fecit strenue contra Saladinum; qui Henricus fuit vir bonus, et bonae fidei possessor, sed habuit heredem meliorem se per contrarium Petri et Caroli, scilicet Adoardum virum valentissimum. Dicit ergo: il re de la semplice vita, fuit simplex et purus, sed non strenuus, sicut pater et filius, scilicet, Arrigo d’Inghilterra seder là solo; ponit ipsum solum, quia solus fuit simplex in numero regum Angliae, qui fuerunt communiter astuti valde; vel quia solitarius non gaudebat conversatione hominum, vel quia anglicus: Anglia enim angulus terrae est reposita in Oceano occidentali. Unde Virgilius: Et penitus toto divisos orbe britannos. Questi, scilicet, rex Henricus, ha ne’ rami suoi, scilicet, Anglia, Scotia et aliis insulis, miglior uscita, idest, meliorem filium, scilicet Adoardum, qui tunc vivebat.

Benvenuto da Imola (1375-80), Purgatorio 7.130-132

So what are we to make of this? It seems to me that either Benvenuto’s source was faulty (and I am not aware of any textual tradition whereby Henry’s uncle becomes his daddy), or John was the victim of a conspiracy to cut him off from history.

Reviewing the review – “Benjamin Bergen, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves”

I’ve just read this review of Benjamin Bergen’s recent book “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves” in the New York Review of Books. An exciting read, but with some qualification.

The review is enough to convince me to buy the book. It is also a reminder that we cannot escape ideology, however positivistically we frame our language. Take this example from the latter part of the review.

I applaud his [Bergen’s] sentiment [to liberate dirty words from censorship]. But he should not have tried to make this controversy [about racial slurs] parallel to quarrels over obscenity. Calling someone a fuck face is not nice, but it is meant to insult only one person. By contrast, a white person calling a black person nigger, the word the slave owners used, is insulting 13 percent of the population of the United States and reinvoking, in a perversely casual tone—as if everything were okay now—the worst crime our country ever committed, one whose consequences we are still living with, every day. (By the end of his discussion of slurs, Bergen seems to agree. I think his editor may have asked him to tone it down.)

Liberation? I don’t think so. It is merely a reshuffling of taboos, a realignment with mainstream ideology. “Oh my fucking God” is value-neutral, the reviewer might say, but racial profanity is not. I disagree. Calling a black person nigger is certainly an insult to that person, but it is no more insulting to 13 percent of the US population than religious profanity is to people of faith. Our culture of offensibility is still at work amid heroic attempts to move away from it. It is what it is, but at least we shouldn’t delude ourselves about it, and about ourselves.

The NYRB article may be read here.

A website to rule them all (?): “Manuscripts Online: Written Culture 1000-1500”

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Wouldn’t it be great if there was a website where you could search all texts and textual objects produced in the medieval period for a given geographical area? Where you don’t need to know anything about the location of your targeted text? Where quality wouldn’t be sacrificed to comprehensiveness? To curb your reverie, that website hasn’t been created yet, but there are some that come close. Some more than others. One of them hosts the digital humanities project “Manuscripts Online: Written Culture 1000-1500”. This is a collaborative project between the universities of Sheffield, Leicester, Birmingham, York, Glasgow and Queen’s University Belfast – an ambitious endeavour at not only providing access to and easy, free search of the textual world of the Middle Ages in Britain (at least between 1000 and 1500), but also to stimulate interest and collaboration by allowing users to annotate the material with their thoughts and comments. The website is able to search through 21 online resources at once, texts, manuscripts, maps, images, etc, and to produce results that would otherwise require a lot of browsing and searching on multiple websites and databases.

According to the website, the current covered resources are:

The Auchinleck Manuscript
British History Online
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
British Literary Manuscripts Online, Medieval and Renaissance
Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York, 1300-1858
Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership
Europa Inventa
Geographies of Orthodoxy: Mapping Pseudo-Bonaventuran Lives of Christ, 1350-1550
Imagining History: Perspectives on late medieval vernacular historiography
Late Medieval English Scribes
Linguistic Geographies: The Gough Map of Great Britain
Manuscripts of the West Midlands
Middle English Dictionary
The Middle English Grammar Corpus (MEG-C)
Middle English Texts Series
The Norman Blake Editions of the Canterbury Tales
Parker on the Web
Production and Use of English Manuscripts: 1060-1220
The Taxatio
The Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse
The National Archives

An disappointing omission from this list is The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources which has become an essential toolof any scholar working on Latin texts from medieval Britain. Another is the online body of chancery and government documents as well as legal material (too large to list) without which the study of medieval Britain book written culture becomes impossible.

The Institute of Historical Research in London has published a useful review of this project, assessing its usability and usefulness, strengths and weaknesses. Having played with it a little myself, I can confirm the reviewer’s conclusions: the website is nice, but there are limitations that take away from that élan which develops at first sight.

Click here to be taken to the website

‘Pictures at an exhibition’: The book culture of the medieval Holy Land

Rarely can one see so many manuscripts grouped together outside an archive or a library reading room. Little did I know what I was going to witness at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art ‘Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven’ exhibition last week. Nearly a dozen rooms covering the material and cultural history of Jerusalem between the years 1000 and 1400 (roughly, of course) tell the story of a cultural cauldron capable of assimilating and transforming nearly all the cultures of Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and even sometimes the Far East. While the exhibition focuses on the medieval city of Jerusalem, more than two-thirds of the exhibits were manuscripts.

I am furious now that time was so limited and I couldn’t spend more than 2 hours among artifacts which would naturally claim at least 5, if not more. And that is because, since I was visiting New York for the first time, priority was given to the MET, and a follow-up was not possible. I thought 2 hours just before closure time would be enough to go through medieval Jerusalem. Silly me. Fortunately, however, just before they almost literally dragged me out of the showrooms, I managed to take some pictures of the dozens of manuscripts on display. However, as every silver lining has its corresponding, fiercer lead lining, I couldn’t even stop to write down what I was looking at. So most of these photos are doomed to untitled-ness (unless you guys help me title them). The gallery starts with gold coins, which is a fitting metaphor for the tons of manuscripts which follow, with their weight and value measured in gold. Enjoy.




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Martin Luther at the Morgan Library: words, images, books.

It may be said that Martin Luther was the ultimate book lover. Not only did he consider the Bible (as books-within-a-book transmitted to his time) as the ultimate source of pretty much everything, but he also understood the importance of books – especially printed -, pamphlets, words and everything else that a book may contain and generate around it. Perhaps no other figure in history managed to put the book at the centre of life, be it devotional, musical, cultural, etc. The best history of Luther’s reformation is told through the books that marked the evolution of his thought and personality and gave his legacy a firm foundation as well as the widest possible scope.

The Luther exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York (closing 22 January, so hurry) also understands the importance of books in the Luther galaxy and puts the man in orbit around the very works he produced or caused to be produced. The effect is a mind-boggling, tangible approach to one of the most important figures of European history. Better than any history book, this collection of printed books, pamphlets, paintings, drawings, etc, paints the most vivid picture of what was one of the birth pangs of our modernity.

Below are some photos I managed to take while I visited the exhibit last week. (captions to follow).




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Luther’s autograph notes for the trial at the Diet of Worms (17-18 April 1521)


Some thoughts on ‘the Man in the High Castle’

“The Man in the High Castle” is one of the most haunting and intriguing films I’ve ever seen. This original Amazon series (2 seasons out ‘so far’) presents a world where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won the Second World War and divided the world between themselves. Most of the film is set in a dystopian United States in the 1960s made up of three political units, Nazi America – roughly two-thirds of the former U.S. – under the rule of the Greater Nazi Reich, the Pacific States in the west under Japanese control and a ‘Neutral Zone’ acting as a buffer between the two powers. Various sub-plots all answer to the main thread focussing on the ‘Resistance’, a movement bringing together various committed and reluctant freedom fighters all intent on disseminating mysterious reel films released by an equally mysterious figure referred to as the “Man in the High Castle”. The films are the fulcrum of the whole story and, in my opinion, the genius underlying the production (based on Philip Dick’s 1962 novel). The reels contain actual footage from the historic Second World War and the Cold War, but it is not explained how they can exist in this counterfactual world.

Although the storyline is occasionally maladroit and the actors’ performance lacks lustre and complexity, the film raises so many questions that its depths are almost unfathomable. It hits at the heart of historiography and ferociously challenges our comfortable notions of freedom, evil, and political totalitarianism. Orwellian in style and Tacitean in philosophy, it successfully promotes the idea that even under the worst of dictatorships, (some) men can be great – but their greatness is guaranteed, in this instance, by the redeeming power of imagination and transcendence. Salvation comes from above (the elusive ‘man in the high castle’), and through the inexplicable – for how can a Hitler in his seventies can watch a film about Khrushchev?

When left to themselves, the characters struggle with the inability to rise above the ethical predicament that they can only intuit. In this, they are indebted to Orwell’s critique of the human condition. However, when confronted with the possibility of the alternative that the reel films unveil, they are energised and given a new lease of life. Goodness is not so much the cause of the revolt, as its consequence. The cause of it is the transformative power of the counter-narrative, which makes disciples, spreads the good news and brings the system down. The film is bold enough, at the end of its second season – a third hasn’t been announced – to claim that the system is never down. Perhaps it can never be down. But the incomprehensible ‘dare!’ has the power to put it out of joint.

Perhaps no review can fully do justice to this film. The feeling I was left with after devouring its twenty or so episodes was one of sinister optimism. The micro-details of übertotalitarianism are all there, crude and disturbing, sometimes even too much, but they do the job. There’s even a caput-mundi-type of Berlin based on Hitler’s blueprints. What would our world be like if history had been different? That is the starting point. But more importantly, where exactly are we? Is our (apparent?) diversity of narratives today a guarantee of that counter-narrative that freedom can and will never be chained? For some of us, that counter-story was laid bare long ago, and it’s proved to be the reel film that kept our world from becoming a permanent dystopia. But that is another story.