Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Category: Medievalism

The Met, Medieval Catholicism, and the Popular Imagination

The steps leading up to the front entrance of the Metropolitan Museum in New York are always busy, but are probably rarely so photographed as they are on the evening of the annual fund-raising gala in support of its Costume Institute. That was doubly true last month, when the Met Gala attracted extra column inches thanks to its theme, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Was it intriguing and inspirational, or trivialising and offensive?

The frisson of controversy ensured that social media lit up as the first red carpet photos appeared online—that and the elaborate celebrity outfits. Madonna appeared in a Gothic take on Sicilian widow’s weeds, Jared Leto channelled a louche version of Jesus Christ, Superstar which honestly wasn’t so far from his everyday dress sense, while Chadwick Boseman was attired as a particularly suave pope. Others came as angels, or Byzantine icons, or Sistine Chapel ceilings.

The looks attracted amusement, admiration, and criticism. Olivia Munn’s clumsy description of her gold mail dress (“…inspired by the Crusades. I love this dress”) was thought distasteful by some, while Piers Morgan claimed to be offended by the entire event. (Well, Piers would, wouldn’t he.) More interesting conversations, however, centred on the (art) historical references in the attendees’ attire, like Rihanna’s boldly irreverent spin on papal attire, or Zendaya’s silvery dress and severe pageboy hairstyle which echoed nineteenth-century takes on Joan of Arc.

In my little corner of the Twitterverse, many medieval historians were delighted to see the Middle Ages, high fashion, and pop culture juxtaposed in such a prominent way, and yet equally wondered why it was that so many attendees had interpreted the gala’s theme to mean something both medieval and western European? There were exceptions, of course. Some wore starker outfits that seemed to take their references from the clerics and religious sisters of the Counter-Reformation period and beyond—but this was a shift in chronological focus, not in geography. Where were the tributes to the exuberant colours of Latin American Catholicism, or to the vibrant church in Africa, or to the heavy influence that the faith has had on the art and culture of the Philippines? Hundreds of millions of modern Catholics and their faith traditions were largely ignored.

And given the focus on medieval Catholicism, why was there so little room for subversion or critique? After all, there’s a tradition, almost two centuries old, of adopting medieval clothing styles to further feminist critiques. Certainly Lynda Carter made a statement with a golden Star of David barette and a crown that proclaimed “Never forget” in Hebrew, as did Lena Waithe in her suit and cape in the colours of a racially-inclusive pride flag, but they were in the distinct minority. Frankly, I was surprised no one even tried for a cheeky spin on a Catholic schoolgirl outfit.

When I trotted up the steps of the Met Museum a few days ago, it was to a whole lot less fanfare than had greeted the Met Gala guests and without a $30,000 ticket clutched in my hand. (No, admission to a high-profile event thrown by Vogue editor Anna Wintour doesn’t come cheap.) I was curious to see how the exhibition proper had interpreted the theme—had the celebrity attendees’ choices presaged it, or had the curators made some very different choices?

The short answer is that the exhibit runs along very similar lines to the gala. To an extent, I’m sure, this is a function of the space within which the exhibition is housed (the permanent medieval galleries of the Met proper, and the museum’s branch at the Cloisters which is dedicated to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages), of a large number of the objects on display being direct loans from the Vatican’s historic collection of vestments, and of the fact that the couture designers most likely to draw on a Catholic aesthetic in their work are from white, western backgrounds.

An ensemble by Viktor & Rolf, from their Autumn/Winter 1999–2000 haute couture collection, currently on display in the Cloisters. I dubbed it Sparkly Vulcan Space Nun.

And clearly a lot of thought was given to the layout of the exhibit and the objects to be displayed. Hieratic statues of the Virgin and Child were placed either side of an austerely cut gown; an Alexander McQueen confection of gauze and faux armour was placed, recumbent, opposite the tomb effigy of a high medieval knight. The sleek, sweeping curves of three hats by Philip Treacy invited comparison with the late medieval reliquary busts of three virgin martyrs and their elaborately coiffed hair.

But while I thought that many of the individual garments were stunning (oh, to have the resources and the occasion needed to sport a black Alexander McQueen dress with full-length train over a pair of leather motorbike trousers), and some of the arrangements of objects thought-provoking, as a whole the exhibition left me asking the same questions as had the Met Gala: why was such a limited story being told?

The artistic impact of global Catholicism was absent, and there was little sign here that any artist has ever been moved to reject Catholicism or defy the Church. There was apparently no room in this exhibition for, say, a screen showing the video for Lady Gaga’s 2010 hit “Alejandro” (in which Gaga, dressed as a nun in a red latex habit, swallows a pair of rosary beads; maybe not one to watch with your nana) or a mannequin displaying one of the see-through outfits she’s been known to pair with a nun’s cornet while onstage (you probably don’t want to click on that link while at work).

This is not an exhibition particularly interested in ideas of conflict or resistance.

A nuntastic row of mannequins.

The exhibition is interested in the relationship between fashion, faith, and power, but it seemed to me mostly in some very particular ways: the ways in which dress can be used to assert allegiance, hierarchical status, and gender roles.

Perhaps this is why celebrities were so quick to equate “Catholic” with “medieval” in their clothing choices for the gala. After all, in popular culture the Middle Ages are associated with showy displays of power, with monolithic identity, with exclusion—and what’s better suited to modern celebrity than that?

The Lioness in Winter: Thinking About A Medieval Woman on Film

This month, many people trekked across a snowy campus to take in the first instalment of this semester’s Alan Lutkus International Film Series: the iconic The Lion in Winter (1968). Afterwards, I asked some of my students who were there what they’d made of it. One of them thought for a moment, and then said, “I was surprised it was funny. You never think of them as being funny.”

Pretty much every history teacher is aware of how helpful film can be in the classroom: how it can confront students with the humanity of others across great distances of space and time, how it can convey with immediacy the different ways in which people in the past spoke and lived and thought. We’ve likely all had conversations like the one I had with my students. But as I mulled over the movie on my way home, I thought that we forget sometimes that historical film can help us to think through our own emotional relationship to the research topics that we’re steeped in: in my case, the history of women in the High Middle Ages.

The Château de Chinon, setting for the action of The Lion in Winter, as it appears today following an extensive programme of restoration. [Link]

Let’s be clear: The Lion in Winter isn’t particularly interested in rigorous historical accuracy. Playwright James Goldman wanted to tell a story of a power struggle in a royal family, complete with melodramatic rivalries and biting dialogue, not to conjure up a photo-realistic recreation of the Middle Ages or to delve into historians’ competing takes on the Angevin Empire. Decades of dynastic disputes between Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children, are compressed into a single, imagined, heated meeting at Christmas in the castle of Chinon. In other words, it’s a bit of a soap opera. Goldman clearly did just enough research to help him set the scene, but Goldman presents many things as fact which are almost certainly post-medieval fictions—like Eleanor’s recounting of how she rode bare-breasted, dressed as an Amazon, while taking part in the Second Crusade. That’s even setting to one side the question of the anachronisms, Christmas trees and poison oak references being equally unlikely to crop up in twelfth-century northwestern Europe.

But what the movie does have is a powerhouse central performance in Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning turn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. (The Lion in Winter was remade in 2003 with Glenn Close as Eleanor, and has also inspired other works like the TV show Empire, with Taraji P. Henson as the Eleanor-equivalent, but Hepburn’s version is the definitive one for me.) Hepburn portrays her—this queen of England, duchess of Aquitaine, and erstwhile queen of France—as engaging, demanding, and mercurial in turn. In doing so, she creates yet another aspect of the myth of Eleanor which has grown up in the centuries after her death.

The famously independent-minded Hepburn once told journalist Barbara Walters that “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man.” Yet her Eleanor clearly enjoys being a woman. She doesn’t seem to think that her exercise of power is exceptional, and no one around her seems to think that either. (The way she wields it may of course be another matter as far as they’re concerned; James Goldman’s stage directions also make it clear that he does think of Eleanor as exceptional, somehow able to be both powerful and female.) This is, however inadvertently, very much of a piece with the work of historians of medieval women over the past thirty years or so, who have sought to recalculate the equation that in the Middle Ages, “any woman who exercised any sort of power or influence was considered in some way ‘extraordinary.'” There’s no attempt on Eleanor’s part to “overcome” her gender, for all that she is acutely aware of the ways that being a woman has constrained some of her options in life.

(Speaking to her sons by Henry about her first marriage to Louis VII of France, Eleanor says wryly, “If I had managed sons for him instead of all those little girls, I’d still be stuck with being queen of France, and we should not have known each other. Such, my angels, is the role of sex in history.”)

This is something worth lingering over, because from the Middle Ages onwards, Eleanor has been associated with a particularly female form of excess by various writers: according to medieval chroniclers, she had an affair with Saladin, she murdered her love rivals and paraded bare-breasted in public, and on, and on. All of this is, to the best of our knowledge, entirely slanderous. (At the time of Eleanor’s putative affair with Saladin, the future sultan of Egypt and Syria was just twelve years old.) Even in much otherwise excellent modern scholarship, which discounts these stories, Eleanor is defined by her relationship with men.

And it’s true that almost all of Eleanor’s interactions in The Lion in Winter are with men, and that some of those interactions are framed in ways which make for uncomfortable viewing for an early twenty-first century audience. (Her son Richard’s preference for sexual relationships with men is not very subtly linked to his close emotional relationship with her. Her estranged husband, who has kept her under a form of house arrest for years, refers to her as “the great bitch in the keep.”) But part of what still delights me about the movie, so long after first seeing it and now having had the benefit of reading thousands of pages of scholarship about medieval society, is that I can see that Eleanor is no more and no less defined by her relationship with her family than is Henry. (Powerful men in the Middle Ages, too, were shaped by their biological and emotional ties and had gendered behavioural scripts to follow.)

It delights me, and gives me pause, because of how much I want this version of Eleanor to be true: to be a real glimpse of an intelligent, politically astute, lively woman who left such a mark on the history of western Europe. Historians often run the risk of falling in love with their subjects—or, perhaps, with what those subjects could symbolise, with the inspirational story of long-ago women overcoming the odds of a patriarchal society.

One of my favourite things in the Louvre: this rock crystal vase, the only known surviving possession of Eleanor’s. [Louvre Museum]

For instance, I’ve undertaken quite a bit of research on a contemporary of Eleanor’s: Agnès, countess of Braine, a noblewoman who married a brother of Louis VII. What I’ve pieced together about her life suggests she might not have been so dissimilar to Eleanor. Agnès made two politically advantageous marriages, she was a mediator and negotiator, she was a great patron. More than once I’ve told colleagues how fond I am of Agnès—but of course I’m not, not really. I’m fond of the patchwork composite I’ve pieced together from references in letters and the charters that Agnès issued. I appreciate the kinds of things that her career tells me about broader historical themes that interest me. But while I know some things that Agnès did, and can guess at kind of person she might have been, I can never know her.

It’s a frustrating kind of impasse: the historian’s eternal curiosity about the deep past pitted against our inability to know much, if anything, about the people who capture our interest.

In The Lion in Winter’s last scene, Henry hands Eleanor onto her royal barge so that she can be ferried, in great splendour, back to her prison. “You know, I hope we never die!” he calls out to her across the increasing distance as she waves at him. “You think there’s any chance of it?” And there’s the exhilarating thing that keeps us going—in the hands of historians, screenwriters, and novelists, they never will.

The Medieval Turkey? Or, Why Vikings Didn’t Celebrate Thanksgiving

What do Renaissance Faires and Thanksgiving have in common? Well, both are occasions when you’re likely to see people chowing down on turkey legs. That makes sense in the latter case—turkeys are widespread in North America, they’re delicious when served with gravy and a healthy dollop of starch, and Benjamin Franklin even proposed, tongue-in-cheek, making them the national bird of the U.S. They make a good centrepiece for an American secular harvest festival—but why do they show up in recreations of pre-modern Europe?

Part of that is likely down to convenience: a fried turkey leg is a highly portable meal for someone strolling around a fairground. It mostly comes down to bang-for-the-buck, though. Turkey legs are relatively cheap bits of meat, especially in comparison to more authentic offerings. Medieval nobility indulged in birds like pheasants, peacocks, even swans—pretty difficult to get hold of nowadays, expensive, and a lot less palatable to modern sensibilities.

Gnawing away at a turkey leg is also a fun way of engaging with a particular kind of neo-medieval fantasy, and fulfilling modern ideas of the Middle Ages as one long bout of carnivorism, mead quaffing, and tankard throwing.

Charles Laughton, in character as Henry VIII, chows down on some fowl in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Yet no matter how much American fast-food chains like Arby’s try to get “in on the medieval-themed action” by selling smoked turkey legs, during the Middle Ages nobody in Europe was dining on turkey. In fact, they didn’t even know it existed. The bird is indigenous to the Americas, and was first sold in England in perhaps the 1520s, brought across the Atlantic by a Yorkshire trader. So it’s possible that Henry VIII may have eaten turkey, but it was hardly the most popular meat consumed in Tudor England.

For the most part, putting turkeys on the menu for a quasi-medieval feast is a fairly harmless kind of anachronism: vaguely irritating to medieval historians, sure, but no more so than most of the menu offered at dinner theatre venue, Medieval Times (which uses tomato soup, buttered sweet corn and coffee to bring eleventh-century Spain “to life before your eyes.” Authenticity isn’t exactly high on the owners’ agenda.)

But there is another way in which turkeys have been associated with the medieval past, and it’s a little more insidious than fast food chains selling dubiously historical food.

Schleswig Cathedral, ca. 1894. [Source]

In the late 1930s, when Nazi Germany was at the height of its powers, father and son art historians Ernst and Dietrich Fey, together with painter Lothar Malskat, arrived in the northern German town of Schleswig. They’d been tasked with restoring the renowned medieval artwork which adorned the walls of the town’s Romanesque cathedral cloister. Dating to around 1300, this fine series of paintings depicted biblical scenes, but they had been badly damaged by damp over the centuries.

An attempt had been made to restore the paintings once before, by artist August Olbers in 1888. His efforts were of a piece with how many ninteenth-century experts approached conservation—if something was very badly damaged, then imagine what might have originally been there and create that in order to give the viewer a sense of what the Middle Ages had been like. By the 1930s, Olbers’ approach was out of fashion, but when the Feys and Malskat attempted to remove his work, they inadvertently also scraped away most of the original, priceless medieval paintings. Aware that he was legally on the hook for this, the elder Fey got Malskat to secretly produce a new set of murals to replace those that were destroyed. Malskat proved to be skilled at imitating the artistic styles of the later Middle Ages, even though he drew on family members and movie stars to provide the faces of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.

When the “restored” wall paintings were unveiled, they immediately attracted the praise of the Nazi elite, who interpreted them as supporting their strain of racialised nationalism. Here were some fine Germanic works of art, which depicted figures conforming to “Aryan” stereotypes. In 1940, SS leader Heinrich Himmler even ordered that a book on the cathedral and its paintings be distributed to every school in Germany.

A detail of the 19th-century turkeys added to the existing medieval artwork on the walls of Schleswig Cathedral. [Source]

Now here’s the thing. While Malskat’s work might have been good enough on a technical level to fool those who weren’t experts in art history, you’d think that pretty much anyone who looked at these now very famous paintings would pick up on the fact that, trooping along the bottom of a depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents were no fewer than eight turkeys. Their presence in a medieval European painting could be most charitably described as “surprising”; “downright suspicious” might be a better term.

But such was the force of Nazi ideology that the turkeys were not seen as proof of artistic malfeasance, but rather that “Aryan” explorers had found the Americas long before Columbus and brought turkeys back to the Fatherland. (Far from the only time that Viking voyages to the Americas were used to justify white supremacist ideologies.) The elderly August Olbers emerged from retirement to explain that he had added the turkeys, not expecting that anyone would think them truly medieval. He’d just wanted to fill a small bit of empty wall space with a fox and turkey motif that would metaphorically echo the tale of the murderous King Herod shown above. Malskat, not exactly a skilled ornithologist, had thought they were truly medieval and expanded on Olbers’ out-of-place turkeys. Olbers’ explanation was greeted with cries of “Fake news!”, Nazis on the whole being less than keen on things like evidence.

It was only after the war—particularly once Dietrich Fey and Lothar Malskat were convicted of forgery following another fraudulent “restoration” job, this time on the Marienkirche at Lübeck—that people came to realise that the turkey paintings were not actually evidence that Vikings had ever sat down to a Ren-Faire-style feast.

They were just proof that, medieval or not, there’s more than one way to be a turkey.

If you say so, Sarasota Medieval Fair. [Source]

George Washington: A Descendant of Odin?

“This article was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see: http://publicdomainreview.org/legal/”

George Washington: first President of the United States, father of his country, crosser of the Delaware, and descendant of Odin. This, at least, was the claim put forward by the late nineteenth-century genealogist Albert Welles. In the floridly titled, four-hundred-page tome The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family Derived from Odin, the Founder of Scandinavia. B.C. 70, Involving a Period of Eighteen Centuries, and Including Fifty-Five Generations, Down to General George Washington, First President of the United States (1879), Welles created a family tree for Washington of truly mythical proportions, and one which shows just how useful nineteenth-century Americans found the Middle Ages to be when it came to shaping their understandings of their country’s origins.

Welles stopped short of claiming that Washington was of semi-divine ancestry — likely because of his own devout Christianity. He therefore took his cue from the thirteenth-century Icelandic author and fellow Christian, Snorri Sturluson, who had proposed that Odin and the other Norse gods of his ancestors should be understood merely as venerated, mythologized versions of particularly successful war leaders. This meant that Odin was not the god of healing and death and the foremost of the Æsir, or Norse pantheon. He was instead a flesh-and-blood man who had lived almost two thousand years ago, ruling over a Turkic people in central Asia called the Aesir. Over time, Odin’s conquests took him further and further west until he finally settled in Scandinavia and declared himself king of all its peoples in the early first century BCE. Welles sniffed that previous historians had not come to this very obvious conclusion because they — unlike him — were “unable to separate the real from the mythological history”.

Welles was not the first to trace a lineage back to Odin. This image from the 12th-century Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventu shows Odin crowned as ancestral king of the Anglo-Saxons. The text describes the royal lineages of the kingdoms of Kent, Mercia, Deira, Bernicia and Wessex respectively, each claiming descent (and so also the right to rule) from the mythical figure turned king. [Source]

Yet Welles was keen to engage in some myth-making of his own, stressing the similarities between the Odin he conjured up and George Washington. Though separated by eighteen centuries — and though no one knows what even a human Odin might have looked like — Welles writes that both men were of “wild, massive, manly” stock. If Odin, the first king of a united Scandinavia, were “the Mars as well as the Mohammed” of the region, then surely the first president of the United States had to hold a similarly elevated position.

From Odin, Welles traced thirty-two generations of descent down to about the year 1000 which encompassed figures both historical and legendary. In doing so, he gave George Washington further links — which even allowing for their fictional status were sometimes highly tenuous or collateral — to people like the Viking king Ragnar Lodbrok, or the brothers Hengist and Horsa who purportedly led the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the fifth century. Welles also claimed that Washington was related to the eleventh-century Icelandic explorers Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, who sailed across the Atlantic to Greenland and Vinland, the coastal region of eastern America which was briefly colonized by the Vikings. There, Thorfinn and Gudrid had a son, Snorri — the first known child of European parentage to be born in the Americas, long before Martín de Argüelles or Virginia Dare in the sixteenth century.

Ragnar, Hengist, Horsa, Thorfinn, Gudrid, Snorri: these are all tangential figures in Welles’ imagined Washington family tree. But by taking the time to include brief biographies of them, and by linking them to George Washington, Welles was in a sense extending Euro-American history back into the far past. Rather than a nation which could trace its origins back only a hundred years or so from the time of Welles’ writing, or a continent whose colonization could be traced back to the voyages of an Italian Catholic, Anglo-American Protestants were cast as heirs to a long northern European tradition of exploration, conquest, and colonization.

Puck cartoon from 1893 satirising the boastful claims made by the upper classes of America (left) and the nobility of Europe (right) as to from whom they were descended. Top right shows a “Viking” amongst the boasts of Europeans [Source]

Even America’s grand democratic experiment had a medieval Scandinavian ancestry, in Welles’ eyes. He conceded that the Washingtons of the fifteenth century may have taken opposite sides during the Wars of the Roses, but wrote that he attached “no credence to reports of the Cavalier sentiments of the Washington family”. In other words, it was impossible that any ancestor of George Washington could have harbored royalist as opposed to republican sympathies during the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, because no member of the extended Washington clan could ever display a love of “power without principle”. The Washingtons were, after all, almost entirely of Germanic descent — untainted by the continental European influences of Norman blood — and throughout the centuries, “Saxon opposition to the Norman rule in England took the form of liberalism”.

Albert Welles wrote in an America whose aesthetic and moral sensibilities were informed to a great extent by medievalism. The Gothic-revival churches which were springing up across America were thought to be representative of an authentic “Teutonic” style, modified by civilizing Protestant influence. Mass-market consumer products married nineteenth-century inventions with often wildly inauthentic “Gothic” flourishes. In 1876, Henry Brooks Adams — a grandson and great-grandson of American presidents — published the first academic history of medieval Europe to be produced in the United States. Architecture, home decor, textbooks, and lecture series: they all promoted the idea of the European Middle Ages as a time of white racial purity and valor.

George Washington himself seems not to have been unduly interested in the intricacies of his own lineage beyond his immediate family, writing in a letter that “this [his family tree] is a subject to which I confess I have paid very little attention”. It does not seem that he spent much time contemplating who his ancestors in the Middle Ages might have been. And yet he made copious use of a very medieval symbol: the Washington family coat of arms, which dates back to at least the fourteenth century. He emblazoned it on his personal seals, silverware, bookplates, the interior of his home at Mount Vernon — in 1790, Washington even had it added to the doors of his personal carriage.

The Washington coat of arms, as featured in Welles’ The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family Derived from Odin (1879) [Source].

Yet despite this evidence of pre-existing popular interest in such mythologizing, American-style medievalism, The Pedigree and History was overwhelmingly dismissed by Welles’ contemporaries, often in very forthright terms. In a letter to the editor published in a July 1889 issue of The Nation magazine, the genealogist W.H. Whitmore declared that “it is only fair to suppose that Mr. Welles was not in a sound state of mind” when he put pen to paper. The book was a “rank and stupid forgery”, “a mere rambling collection of useless notes.”

In fact, it took until the early twentieth century for Welles’ work to gain any traction at all — and then it was because it suited quite a different set of political needs. The short-lived Northern Review: A Cultural Magazine for the Northwest was published in Minneapolis during the First World War. Unsurprisingly, given the ethnic heritage of a large proportion of Minnesota’s population, the magazine took a distinctly pro-German stance about the conflict. In promotional material about the magazine, Germans and Scandinavians were called “Teutonic twin brothers” whose settlement in the Midwest had “made the desert to blossom”. A 1918 issue of the magazine reprinted a summary of The Pedigree and History under the title “Washington: A Scandinavian”. How could he be anything else, the anonymous epilogue to the summary concluded: George Washington’s ancestry was additional proof that his character was clearly that “of the ancient Vikings of the North”. He too believed in the values of independence, liberty, and patriotism and was possessed of a “powerful frame”. The thrust of the article was clear: the peoples of the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia shared a common ancestry and a set of values which should prevent them from going to war with one another.

Phrenology diagram indicating the strength inherent in the shape of George Washington’s head, featured in Fowler’s The Practical Phrenologist (1846). Note the accidental crown suggested by the labelling lines [Source].

A similar kind of article cropped up in an April 1925 issue of the Nordmanns-forbundet (Norsemen’s federation) magazine. The goal of this Oslo-published magazine was to encourage cultural and linguistic unity among the Norwegian diaspora, something which was felt to be increasingly necessary amid the heightened nativist environment of the United States in the post-war years. The article’s Norwegian-born American author, Simon Johnson, took Washington’s purported Scandinavian ancestry as fact. In doing so, Johnson was attempting to promote the idea of Scandinavians — and so Norwegian immigrants — as “true” Americans, something which wasn’t always accepted by other white Americans of nativist inclinations.

As for the originator of all of these claims, Albert Welles himself is a rather shadowy figure. He was born in Palmyra, New York in about 1818 to George Wells and Mary Babcock, both natives of Connecticut (the second E in his surname seems to have been a later affectation). In 1844, he married Catherine Beckwith; they swiftly had a daughter, Katharine (b. 1845) and moved to New York City. In his writings, Welles was keen to present himself as a man of letters and leisure, but census information shows that he had a far more prosaic occupation: insurance agent.

He was a man of some ambition: in 1860, he founded the American College of Heraldry and Genealogical Registry, housed in the New York Society Library. Speaking to the group’s members in 1879, Welles stated that “[t]his institution promises to become one of the most important and popular in the country. It is destined to become the great depository of Family Registers and Family History.” The ACH briefly published a genealogical magazine with the aim of nationwide circulation, The Chronotype: An American Memorial of Persons and Events (W.H. Whitmore’s verdict on this endeavor was “the mere ravings of a would-be genealogist, full of errors and contradictions.”) Life membership could be obtained for the sum of $50, and members’ family trees were to be entered into the “Domesday Book of New York”. Welles’ hopes for the institution were proved false — the ACH didn’t outlast his death in the early 1880s — but during its brief existence it boasted honorary members including such well-known figures as Senator Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State William Seward, and the romantic poet William Cullen Bryant.

Title page to an 1873 issue of The Chronotype. The motto reads “Esto perpetua” (Let it be perpetual) [Source]

As one might imagine, Albert Welles was also interested in his own family’s history. He published a History of the Welles Family in England and Normandy (1876), which was riddled with about as many errors as was The Pedigree and History, though he made no claim to quasi-divine heritage. Instead, Welles constructed a family tree — almost entirely inaccurately — that gave him connections to a grab-bag of medieval nobility, including Sir Lionel de Welles, a combatant in the War of the Roses and step-father of Lady Margaret Beaufort; the princely house of Orange; several bishops; and assorted signatories of Magna Carta. Welles could therefore take comfort in the fact that like his hero George Washington, like all proper Americans, he was descended from a medieval lineage full of manly valor and civic virtue.

Shortly after Albert Welles’ death in 1883, his books, papers, and correspondence were auctioned off, including “thousands of manuscript genealogies of American families, and quite a large number in book form, expensively gotten up, with portraits, coats of arms and crests” — perhaps even including the notes from which Welles had concocted George Washington’s family tree. (The Daily Picayune, 9 June 1883, 2.) A newspaper account of the auction noted that the true value of all of these goods could be estimated from a single example — a genealogy drawn up on behalf of one William Augustus Martin of New York, showing that he and all the other American Martins were descended from the seventh-century Pope Martin I. “Who would not be a Martin?” the reporter wrote wryly — just as surely, in the mind of Albert Welles, who could envision an America founded by anyone other than a descendant of Odin?

Papal Bull? “The Young Pope” and Teaching the Middle Ages

The HBO miniseries The Young Pope is a dreamy and often surreal look at the papacy of the fictional Pius XIII: previously Lenny Belardo, the youngest pope in generations is a New Yorker who references Daft Punk and Banksy but is also an arch-conservative who intends to use his papacy to push a reactionary and ostentatiously traditional agenda. (This traditionalism makes for one of the highlights of the series’ many visual treats, the excellent hats and elaborate clothing, much of which harks back to the Middle Ages.) His immediate predecessor is never named, but it seems clear that Lenny is reacting against the determinedly ascetic and media-friendly approach of the current pope. I’d bet good money that no one is Tweeting from @Pontifex in this particular reality.

I began to watch the show thinking that it would be a much more conventional endeavour: The West Wing and its brand of political intrigues transposed to the Vatican. The Young Pope is a much more bizarre and occasionally perplexing piece of television, right from the opening dream sequence when Lenny (played with aplomb by an impressive Jude Law) crawls out into St Peter’s Square from beneath an enormous pile of sleeping infants.

And that’s even before a lone kangaroo takes up residence in the gardens of the Vatican palace.

Pope Lenny often accessorises his full papal regalia with a pair of sunglasses.

The show’s ten episodes are by turn surreal, challenging, dazzling and occasionally frustrating. I also think they make excellent fodder for historians who are searching for ways to get students to think about the history of the papacy and Christianity during the European Middle Ages. After all, the medieval papacy can be a difficult institution for students to grapple with—particularly, as is the case of most of my students, when at least a substantial number of them aren’t from a Catholic background and they are raised in a society which at least aspires to the separation of church and state.

I’m not suggesting that much of The Young Pope would make useful viewing in the average college survey course. The idiosyncratic papacy of Pius XIII is very different to that of his historical predecessors. Moreover, for all that Lenny’s meticulously embroidered outfits are obviously chosen to conjure the splendours of papal monarchy, his evocation of the Middle Ages is no more accurate than many of the other attempts to co-opt the medieval past for contemporary political ends. This is a very modern papacy, even if Lenny spends a lot of time dodging photographers and refusing to allow the licensing of commemorative plates (€5 for plastic, €45 for the ceramic ones made by genuine craftsmen).

And this is all before the complex, layered visual symbolism of the show comes into play. I’m actually not sure how much of the show is going to be immediately comprehensible to people who weren’t raised Catholic. (And really, what are we supposed to make of the Vatican’s resident kangaroo amidst all this?)

Lenny is carried into the Sistine Chapel; shades of the famous 13th century fresco of Innocent III at Subiaco?

Yet I think the show is excellent at conveying the world view of a religious fundamentalist whose goals and methods are not those which make immediate sense to a modern, secular mindset. This pope is overtly homophobic, wanting to rid the church of all gay priests even while acknowledging that this might well see the dismissal of fully two-thirds of an already stretched clergy. He opposes reproductive rights and divorce. He has no desire to build bridges. He is overtly and unapologetically authoritarian. “I don’t care about loving my neighbour as myself. I will never love my neighbour as myself,” Lenny proclaims in one episode. For him, his elevation to the papacy is in itself proof of his righteousness and moral superiority.

In other ways, though, his thinking doesn’t fit into the usual modern tropes about religious extremism and how it tends to corrupt and make hypocrites of people. Despite a brief fake-out towards the end of the series, it doesn’t seem that Lenny’s ever been seriously tempted to break his vows of his celibacy. He disdains ecumenicism and wants all Catholics to become “fanatics for God”, but there is little evidence in the show of his endorsing the kinds of “culture wars” which have become so prominent since the middle of the last century. “I put no stock in consensus,” he says; “I have nothing to say to those who have even the slightest doubt about God,” he rails on another occasion. He wants faithful Catholics to turn inwards, not outwards. Lenny would rather a much smaller church made up of True Believers than a more expansive one that makes compromises.

Watching The Young Pope is an exercise in entering into what is for many people—even for many practising Catholics—a very different mindset. Students who are new to the medieval period in particular can struggle with encountering its priests and popes in ways that aren’t anachronistic. They tend to swing between the ideological poles of approving of a Christian Middle Ages as an ideal (if imaginary) time of cultural purity and chivalry that was enabled by the church, or excoriating the church as corrupt and hypocritical the first time they encounter its hierarchy engaged in anything like Realpolitik. A more nuanced and less moralizing reading of the sources is sometimes difficult for students to reach, though it’s one that’s enabled by the show.

For instance, Lenny is frequently hailed as a saint by those around him, with every sign of sincerity. Although this pope openly speaks of using humiliation as a tool to cow others, is casually self-absorbed and frequently cruel (in the very first episode, he makes an elderly nun cry), he may be capable of healing the sick and making the infertile conceive. This clashes with modern ideas of sanctity as comforting and loving. Yet the idea of a saint who punishes people severely for what seem nowadays like minor transgressions wouldn’t have been an odd one in the Middle Ages. (For instance, at least two women were reputed to have gone mad and died for daring to walk through a cemetery dedicated to the English saint Cuthbert.)

“God overwhelms,” Lenny says. “God frightens.”

Of course, the scene in which the pope dons his full regalia to the strains of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” might just make for excellent classroom viewing regardless. Not only do we get to see the various layers which make up a pope’s formal clothing and which are almost unchanged since the Middle Ages—cassock, lace-embellished cotton tunic, cincture, surplice, papal mantle, red shoes, triregnum and all—but we also get to see how clothing can be used to make a statement about power and authority. Just as a tonsure was an unmistakable sign that the medieval monk had set aside the cares and follies of the secular world, so these clothes turn the orphan Lenny Bellardo into the attention-arresting Pius XIII, bishop of Rome, servant of the servants of God, Christ’s representative on Earth.

And if nothing else, just like much the rest of The Young Pope, the scene makes for viewing that’s trippy, voyeuristic, and brilliantly weird: a trip inside the papal mind.

Building A Wall Against Gog and Magog

A wall cast a long shadow across the recent U.S. presidential election: the 1,954 mile-long wall which Donald Trump has promised will soon stretch the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Whether a foundation will ever actually be dug for this wall, or what that wall should look like, are matters of hot debate right now. Archaeologists and historians have pointed out that there is little historical precedence for the efficacy of these kinds of border walls. Still, its proponents are adamant that a wall is necessary to preserve the integrity of the United States: that fearsome and alien things lurk just on the other side of the border, that a wall can be a firm dividing line between “us” and “them”.

This understanding of a wall—one built as much out of rhetoric and identity as it is out of bricks and mortar—has a long history. Medieval Europeans’ sense of themselves was defined in part by what they were not. They believed that they were normal, while the far reaches of Africa and Asia were inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures barely recognisable as people. The blemmyes had no heads but rather faces that were embedded in their chest; the homodubii were a kind of centaur with the body of a donkey; the panotti had ears so large that they could wrap them around their bodies like blankets, protection against the cold of their homeland in the far north. The most ferocious of these quasi-humans were the peoples of Gog and Magog, cannibalistic invaders who were kept at bay only by the walls which had been built around them.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 24364, fol. 60v, leaves containing recension of Thomas de Kent, Roman de toute chevalerie; Gallica digitized image. ca. 1308-1312.

The cannibalistic inhabitants of Gog and Magog. From a recension of Thomas of Kent’s Roman de toute chevalerie, ca. 1308-12. Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 24364, f. 60v.

Gog and Magog loomed large in the medieval imagination. They appear in the Hebrew Bible (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 38-39), in the Christian New Testament (Revelation 20:7-8) and the Qur’an (Surah Al-Kahf, 83-101). While the exact details of who they were and what actions they were prophesied to carry out varied, all faith traditions agreed that the inhabitants of Gog and Magog were a wild and fearsome people who were held at bay for now, but who would one day help to bring about the end of the world. Though relatively obscure figures in religious scripture, they took on a life of their own in popular legends and stories, particularly in the series of interconnected and apocryphal tales known as the Alexander Romances.

According to many medieval tales—based in part on the stories of the first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus—Alexander the Great had come across wild and unclean peoples as he and his forces pushed eastwards across Asia. To keep these peoples from destroying humanity, Alexander drove them between two huge mountains, then prayed that God would push the mountains together and so imprison them. His wish was granted. This story was repeated and embellished on in later influential medieval texts, such as the seventh-century Syriac Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the Alexander Romance cycle, where the peoples imprisoned by Alexander became identified with Gog and Magog. In some of the stories, Alexander orders his army to build a set of gates across passes in the Caucasus mountains to keep back these apocalyptic forces. These gates—variously described as of iron or bronze—were coated with a fast-sticking kind of oil.


Alexander the Great’s army build a wall around the people of Gog and Magog. 15th c., France. BNF MS fr. 9342, f. 131v

As the Middle Ages progressed, western Europeans began to look beyond their home regions, to become aware of the scale of the globe in a way they had not in generations. They produced mappa mundi, maps of the world, of increasing complexity and sophistication. Gog and Magog appeared on many of these maps, though the location of their homeland and their affiliation shifted according to contemporary concerns and fears.

The Ebstorf mappa mundi (a detail of which appears in the header image of this post), shows a walled-off area labelled Gog and Magog where the monstrous inhabitants are in the act of devouring a disfigured victim. On the border of the same map, closer to Europe, there is also text which describes the “city and island of Taraconta which is inhabited by Turks of the race of Gog and Magog, a barbarous and wild people who eat the flesh of young people and aborted foetuses.”  Other maps identified Gog and Magog with the Lost Tribes of Israel, showing iudei inclusi (“enclosed Jews”) or “Red Jews” on maps of Asia and creating artwork depicting Gog and Magog that drew on overtly anti-Semitic imagery. Hostility towards Islam and Judaism clearly drove these identifications on the part of medieval Christians.

The people of Gog and Magog attacking a city. From a French/Anglo-Norman verse apocalypse, ca. 1220-1270. Toulouse, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 815, f. 49v.

A depiction of the people of Gog and Magog attacking a city, with distinct anti-Semitic undertones. From a French/Anglo-Norman verse apocalypse, ca. 1220-70. Toulouse, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 815, f. 49v.

When the Mongol empire was at its height in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many Europeans came to the conclusion that they—appearing suddenly out of the east and sweeping all before them in the creation of an empire of unprecedented size—were the peoples of Gog and Magog, or sometimes descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel who had abandoned Judaism. What else could they be but harbingers of the apocalypse? Not only were they conquerors but their way of life was alien from that of the vast majority of Europeans.

In an age of Google Maps and accurate cartography, it’s tempting to consign the land of Gog and Magog to the past, as simply yet another funny and ignorant quirk of the medieval European worldview. Yet to do so is to ignore that even at the highest political levels, many nowadays still believe that was was written in the book of Ezekiel will literally come to pass, even if they don’t imagine a lost, walled-off city somewhere in Eurasia. For instance, in 1971, Ronald Reagan—then governor of California—explicitly stated that the “communistic and atheistic” USSR was the fulfilment of the prophecy in Ezekiel. It’s been claimed that in a 2003 phone call to Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush cited end-time prophecies about Gog and Magog in an (ultimately futile) attempt to persuade the French to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

The inhabitants of Gog and Magog, shown in Turkish dress, attack a European city in this scene from the Lübeck Bible. British Library

The inhabitants of Gog and Magog, shown in Turkish dress, attack a European city in this scene from the sixteenth-century Lübeck Bible. British Library

It is also to overlook the ways in which modern people are still capable of making sharp divisions between “us” and “them” based on little if any evidence. Political rhetoric turns desperate refugees into an overwhelming horde; it conjures up a criminal threat poised just the other side of the border. Whether in medieval Europe or the modern West, people tend to define themselves by what they are not—but as was the case with Gog and Magog, these fears do not truly originate behind distant mountains in lands with unfamiliar names. Their origins lie far closer to home.

They’re from Medieval England, Iowa*

Above: General Hospital’s Tower, as seen from the steps of the Old Capitol

6a013486c64e2e970c01b8d0ba36dd970cFour times a day, the University of Iowa campus resounds to the blast of its power plant’s steam whistle. Though it’s so loud that it’s audible from pretty much every part of downtown Iowa City, the whistle largely blends into the pattern of daily life here. Once you’ve lived in the area long enough, you don’t really notice the sound consciously anymore—just as most people probably walk past the power plant building itself (pictured left) without paying it much attention.

It’s a rather utilitarian building which hunkers down next to the river on the Burlington Street bridge. But it’s also one of the few Medieval Revival buildings on a campus which otherwise tends towards the Neoclassical or the modern in its construction. Ignore the chimneys and the other bulky structures to the right of the picture—focus on the original structure, the red-brick building closest to the bridge. It may not be obvious at first, but if you know what to look for you can see how the architects who designed it in the late 1920s drew on the architectural language of the Romanesque cathedral. You can see it in the narrow, round-topped windows and in the slightly projecting bays which are decorated with Lombard bands.

6a013486c64e2e970c01b7c730d003970b The Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory (pictured right) stands on the opposite river bank facing the Power Plant. Built in 1919, it’s also got those arched, Romanesque-style windows, and the long, narrow building, bisected by a slightly taller central tower, recalls a medieval cathedral and its transept. The steel-frame structure, however, allows the separation between the floors to be seen through the windows, letting into the building the kind of light of which architects of the Romanesque period could only have dreamed.

Continuing west up Grand Avenue from the Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory brings you to the Boyd Law Building. This rounded, postmodern structure owes little the medieval period. However, there is something of the Middle Ages tucked in next to the building’s main entrance: Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, “Jean de Fiennes.”

6a013486c64e2e970c01bb07d494df970dThis bronze statue (pictured left) stands a little over life size. It’s one of six separately cast figures that form part of Rodin’s monumental work, “The Burghers of Calais”, which was completed in 1889. The artwork commemorates six citizens of the town, who volunteered to be executed in order to end the English siege of Calais during the Hundred Years’ War—Jean de Fiennes was the youngest of the six. Supposedly only the intercession of Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III of England, saved the men’s lives. Their willingness to sacrifice themselves is emblematic of the valorisation of civic duty which emerged in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, and makes this sculpture an understandable choice to associate with a law school.

A little to the northwest of the Law Building is the hospital complex, home to another medieval revival structure. The General Hospital’s Gothic tower, built in 1929, is the focal point of a building whose architecture was designed to recall the medieval monastic buildings which were the forerunners of modern hospitals. Archival photos show that the tower was designed to mimic the late fifteenth-century gate tower of Magdalen College, Oxford. While much of the lower part of the tower is now hidden from view, thanks to the accretion of later construction around its base, its sheer height, and its alignment with the Old Capitol, helps to make it an axial element of the university campus.

From the 1950s onwards, building design on campus took a decided turn for the contemporary, but even on this very modern campus, in the heart of the US Midwest, hints of the Middle Ages peep through.


Further reading:


* The title of this post is taken from that cinematic masterpiece, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén